REVIEW: “Alligator Point” by S.P. Miskowski

Review of S.P. Miskowski, “Alligator Point”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 231—237. Purchase Here. Originally published in Looming Low Volume 1, edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan (Dim Shores). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

A small slice of domestic psychological horror that is one of the milder tales in the volume, especially coming as it does after Brian Hodge’s West of Matamoros, North of Hell. Helen is fleeing a domestic situation with her twin girls, who think they are going on vacation. Keeping a low profile, they stop to camp at Alligator Point, where the only others present are an elderly couple in the next tent along, but it doesn’t provide the respite she had hoped.

Based on the references to Burton and Taylor, the story seems to be set in the early 1970s. It’s a brief, simple story that doesn’t hold any shocks or surprises, but presents a thoughtful and sad tale that reminds us that all relationships are difficult (see also Burton and Taylor) and (arguably) none of us really have a happy ending coming. I was also intrigued by the possibility that Helen is an unreliable narrator, as although the reader initially interprets her condition as a victim of abuse, some of the comments made, the way the daughters act and the ultimate denouement suggest that things may – or indeed may not – be a bit more complicated than that.

REVIEW: “West of Matamoros, North of Hell” by Brian Hodge

Review of Brian Hodge, “West of Matamoros, North of Hell”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 189—230. Purchase Here. Originally published in Dark Screams Volume Seven, edited by Brian James Freeman (Cemetery Dance/Hydra). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

Well, now. Where to start with this one? Brian Hodge has produced some excellent short fiction over the last few years in particular, and his contributions to The Best Horror of the Year Volume Nine (2017) were both the best two stories in the book, and the best two I’d read all year. West of Matamoros, North of Hell is of a similar quality, though it falls more on the side of terror (fascinated revulsion) than horror (thrilling dread); it is a fantastic story, though hard to read in places. Not for the faint hearted. Trigger warnings: knives, dismemberment, sledgehammers, scythes. More knives.

The story is narrated by Enrique, musician and creative lead in the Mexican band Los Hijos del Infierno. The band (Enrique, Sebastián and Sofia), accompanied by a small PR team (Olaf, Morgan and Crispin) have come to take some photos for their new album at a site of some spiritually-significant cartel atrocities; a stunt that Enrique thinks is a bad idea. Turns out he’s right! Things go awry, and we’re catapulted into cartel torture territory super quick – and Santa Muerte stands over all.

The story is an excellent blend of Mexican gangster and Mythos; yet the story is so much more than this, touching on the horror associated with tainted places, and how they can bleed through the centuries. I was relieved that the end, though gruesome, was more positive than I had feared.

REVIEW: “Endoskeletal” by Sarah Read

Review of Sarah Read, “Endoskeletal”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 173—187. Purchase Here. Originally published in Black Static #59. Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

I read Endoskeletal when it was first published in Black Static and thought it was excellent, so was pleased to see it included in this Best Horror of the Year anthology. The story centres on Ashley and her inadvertent discovery of Palaeolithic remains in a Swiss alpine cave; human bones broken in odd ways, skulls with strange canopic jars between their teeth. Ashley quickly becomes fascinated by these remains and the significance they might hold, particularly given the portrayal of a many-eyed shadow creature carved into the cave walls. As her obsession grows we begin to understand more about the creature, the remains and the nature of sacrifice.

It’s a great story with an adventurous feel to it, and the archaeological elements are extra seasoning for a fan of such tales (as I am). There are some interesting elements explored, including Ashley’s struggle against the power-holding males in charge of the site and access permissions. I was a bit unsure of Ashley’s background, as her reason for being at the cave initially is to study bears (I’m assuming palaeoecologically) so her knowledge of and enthusiasm for anthropology/palaeoanthropology seemed a bit of a jump. I was also slightly sceptical that the (male, Swiss) field assistant was unwilling to stop Ashley (a visiting and ultimately disempowered researcher) from essentially looting a pristine archaeological site, though perhaps in Swiss academia academic rank and authority are more hierarchical than in my experience! But minor questions aside, it’s an excellent and original story and a stand-out of the volume for me. More please.

REVIEW: “The Stories We Tell About Ghosts” by A.C. Wise

Review of A.C. Wise, “The Stories We Tell About Ghosts”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 155—172. Purchase Here. Originally published in Looming Low: Volume One, edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan (Dim Shores, 2017). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

I loved the idea behind this story. Our protagonist and his friends download an augmented reality app to hunt ‘ghosts’, sort of like a spooky version of Pokémon Go (so I’m led to believe, as I know SFA about all things Pokémon). He is resentful of his younger, sickly brother Gen, who always tags along with him and plays along with ‘Ghost Hunt!’ despite being more than a little afraid. The competition between the kids to find ghosts and ghost lore in their little town of Dieu-le-Sauveur heats up, but it quickly becomes apparent that the app is detecting more than it should, and that little Gen seems far too in-tune with the captured ‘ghosts’.

It’s a nice and highly original story, with a focus on the characters and their dynamics rather than twists in the plot — we are essentially told how it ends right at the start and the sense of dread that builds comes from knowing this. The idea of how and why we perpetuate the myths of ghosts, in various forms, is thought-provoking and I found myself reflecting on this story for some time after finishing it.

REVIEW: “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

Review of Kelly Robson, “A Human Stain”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 129—154. Purchase Here. Originally published at Tor.com on January 4th 2017. Read Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

A ‘family with a secret’ story that is well executed and unlike any I’ve come across before.

Helen is a penniless bohemian, brought to the Lambrecht family house at Meresee Lake in the Bavarian Alps by her friend Bärchen, with the intention that she can tutor Bärchen’s orphaned nephew Peter for the summer. Straight away it’s clear that things are amiss, with the servants uncommunicative and unhelpful, Peter vanishing every five minutes and the nursemaid Mimi, whom Helen immediately resolves to seduce, silent and frightened (and what the hell’s happened to her teeth?). The mystery builds to a chilling end through some very disturbing moments and lovely signposting.

Helen is an interesting, tough and level-headed protagonist so we’re rooting for her from the start. I also found it refreshing that Helen and Bärchen are both gay, so there’s no romantic element to their relationship, a simplicity that stands at odds with the mystery of the situation Helen finds herself in. All the half-truths and misdirection in the story work really well (especially on a re-read) and the ominous atmosphere created is excellent. I had quite a few questions at the end that I couldn’t satisfactorily resolve, and I really wanted to know more about the — without giving too much away — natural history of the family Helen has found herself among. Some readers will love the unknown and unknowable elements of the story but I found I wanted more, because there was such potential for mining the idea further. It’s a gripping read.

REVIEW: “Whatever Comes After Calcutta” by David Erik Nelson

Review of David Erik Nelson, “Whatever Comes After Calcutta”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 107—127. Purchase Here. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2017. Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

You know when you come home from work early and your wife’s in bed with a cop, and then said wife shoots you in the face with your own gun? Yeah, this is one of those stories. And it’s great. The three short opening paragraphs alone are a textbook example of how to start a short story to get maximum impact – we have action (sighting of a hanged woman, narrow escape from a car accident), location (somewhere in the sticks near Calcutta, Ohio), context (the protagonist — Lyle —isn’t thinking straight) and mystery (he doesn’t want to think about his ear, his wife, the detective or the gun he’s carrying, though we don’t yet know why). What I at first thought was going to be a simple revenge story (once we find out what happened with the detective and Lyle’s wife) then takes a sharp left into something else when he sees the ‘hanged’ woman, and all the parts roll together into a pleasingly twisted ending.

Nelson also plays with our expectations and perceptions. For example, the section with the hanging seems believable because of the community involved and the way they are characterised, yet they are validated in the end — making the story more horrific. I enjoyed the way the tale played with the idea of being hagridden, and who is doing the riding and why. My only slight disappointment was that I was rather hoping that the lack of emotion on Lyle’s part, whether through shock or a more profound mental imbalance, would allow him to change the ending, which felt a bit inevitable. But then, this is a horror story. And a thoroughly enjoyable one.

REVIEW: “Where’s the Harm?” by Rebecca Lloyd

Review of Rebecca Lloyd, “Where’s the Harm?”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 77—105. Purchase Here. Originally published in Seven Strange Stories (Tartarus Press, 2017). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

I’ve been a fan of Rebecca Lloyd since reading her story ‘Ragman’ in last year’s Best Horror of the Year (Volume Nine), so was pleased to see a repeat appearance this year. ‘Where’s the Harm?’ is a particularly fine contribution to the anthology. Two brothers are redecorating the parental home they have inherited, an effort that sparks some long-standing sibling rivalry. When the brothers decide to explore the nearby woods and come across a house that shouldn’t be there, yet which is home to an odd family of long-haired sisters, the gap that has always existed between them prevents the aversion of a tragedy that is slow and horrific in the making.

I loved this story, with its elements of siren mythology (particularly given the etymology of the term ‘siren’ being linked to rope and entanglement, the women’s preternaturally long hair, and the act of ‘winding’ that appears in the story), the air of mystery around the women, the frustration of a relationship broken since childhood, and the building of tension as the inevitable approaches – though one is never sure quite how it is going to end. Wonderful stuff.

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: “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.