In 2013 CBAY Books (which, I was happy to discover, stands for Children’s Brains Are Yummy Books) held their first writing contest, and I was the first winner in the Middle Grade category. The manuscript I won with clocked in at 15,000 words, but my wonderful editor, Madeline Smoot, suggested it would be a much stronger novel at 30,000 words. Turns out she was right.
Fast forward to 2014, and Trapped In Lunch LadyLand was born. Did my life change? Was I able to quit my job and become a full time author? Nope. But having a published novel was way up there on the bucket list. I had a book signing event at my local Barnes & Noble (no indie bookstores in my neck of the woods, unfortunately), which was a blast.
The very best part of the whole publishing experience, though, was doing school visits. I did a bunch, reading to kids from kindergarten through fifth grade, taking questions, and generally being flabbergasted by just how smart and funny they were. Kindergartners wanted to know what kind of pets I have, and told me in great detail about theirs. By fifth grade they were asking how advances work.
So what’s Trapped In Lunch Lady Land about? Here’s the elevator pitch:
Josh and Patty Anne aren’t exactly the best of friends (ok, they detest each other), but after they both end up trapped somewhere beneath their school in a land made completely of school cafeteria food, they quickly learn they have to work together if they want to survive. With the help of some unusual friends they meet along the way, the two must brave countless dangers unlike anything in the normal world. If they can survive the skybeater, the canisaurs and the tater-tot throwing ladle monsters, Josh and Patty Anne might just make it home alive.
Interested? Know an eight to eleven year old boy or girl who might be interested? You can check it out on Amazon at:
I’ve designed a lot of tattoos over the years, including for all three of my kids. One of my daughter’s friends (Hi, Matt!) recently asked me to design him an oddly, yet delightfully, specific thing: a seated capybara with an orange balanced on its nose. He’s very happy with the result, and I gotta say, so am I.
This past fall I joined a talented group of writers as a contributing member of A Muse Bouche Review, a literary newsletter. It gives me a chance to write something new each month around a given theme, which I’m enjoying. The theme for January, 2023 is False Promises and my story is called The Coyote and the Hitchhiker: A Noir Fable. Here’s how it starts:
THE BOBCAT HAD BEEN hitchhiking for hours.
His last ride, a long haul trucker with a load of sheet metal, dropped him at the Ely turnoff. Not a single car had passed since then. Now the two-lane highway seemed to levitate from the waves of heat shimmering off the blacktop. The Nevada sun looked like a swollen blister ready to pop, an irritation in the cloudless western sky.
The bobcat’s paws left sweaty prints in the breakdown-lane gravel as he walked. He carried a scuffed nylon duffle bag that seemed to grow heavier with each step.
When a low hum infiltrated his consciousness, the bobcat glanced back. A plume of dust stained the sky. The hum became a throaty growl, the dust plume morphed into a low-slung red sports car chewing up asphalt. The bobcat held up one paw and tried his best to look friendly, non-threatening, and slightly pathetic all at once. The car thundered past, then the driver stood on the brakes, fishtailing onto the berm. He threw it into reverse, and after the tires found traction the car slid to a shuddering stop next to the bobcat.
The bobcat admired the car while the driver reached across the passenger seat to roll the window down. It was an absolutely cherry condition Plymouth Roadrunner, the engine shaking like it could barely be contained at idle. The bobcat leaned his head into the window, and the icy kiss of air from the interior made him swoon with pleasure.
“Where ya heading, friend?” The driver was a coyote, the silver hairs wreathing his snout betraying his age. He slouched in his seat like it was a chaise lounge, his left paw draped over the leather-wrapped steering wheel, Ray-Ban Wayfarers obscuring his eyes as he looked at the stranger.
To read the entire story, and all the other stories from this talented crew, check out the January A Muse Bouche Review, available here:
The first book I read and reviewed in 2022 was Born for Trouble, the Further Adventures of Hap and Leonard, by Joe R. Lansdale, and it looks like this may become an annual tradition for me. That is, truly, the kind of tradition I can get behind. Anyone who follows this blog knows that most days if you were to ask me who my favorite writer was, I might hem and haw a little, because that’s a damn hard question, but eight times out of ten, the answer would be Lansdale.
Why Lansdale? Glad you asked! As Bleeding Shadows makes abundantly clear, Lansdale is equally at home writing horror, science fiction, fantasy, crime fiction, you name it. And those just happen to be the genres I like the best. Lansdale is, first and foremost, a born storyteller, regardless of the genre he’s working in. My guess is, the man’s grocery shopping list would be of at least passing interest.
Bleeding Shadows is a big, meaty collection, 150,000 words comprised of short stories, novellas, and even some poetry. The work here spans a good chunk of Lansdale’s writing career, all of it compulsively readable, and few have appeared in book form before. There’s horror here of both the harrowing and eldritch variety, taut suspense, offbeat humor, affectionate nods to some of Lansdale’s favorite writers, and, as always, wonderful dialogue.
I hope by now I’ve made it clear that this is an entertaining, satisfying collection. Everything here is worthy of a read, but I want to call out one piece in particular. Dread Island is the WTF-iest in a book filled with WTF moments, a novella that somehow twists up Huckleberry Finn, H.P. Lovecraft, and the Uncle Remus stories, into a sprawling tale that defies categorization, and yet works wonderfully.
Also, if, like me, you’re a sucker for author story notes, Lansdale’s here are extensive and illuminating. Pick up Bleeding Shadows, and start your year off right.
So, it finally happened to me. After several years of the pandemic/general shit show that life has become, reading became a little less of a refuge than it has always been. In 2022 I found it harder to concentrate, harder to lose myself in a story and forget about—gestures wildly—all of that.
Luckily, some of my favorite authors wrote amazing books, as did some authors new to me. And when I count them up, I actually read about the same number of books as usual, so I guess it wasn’t actually as bad as it felt.
First things first, my year in reading by the numbers:
28: The number of books I read in 2022.
26: The number of those that I would classify as horror, science fiction, fantasy, or crime fiction. Hey, I like what I like.
2: The number of graphic novels I read. Once again, I’ll try to do better next year.
13: The number of books I read by new-to-me authors. I was surprised and happy to see this. Several were by talented indie authors I’ve gotten to know and work with over the past year or two.
And now, some of my favorite reads from the past year. These are in no particular order. As far as I’m concerned, all of them are must-reads. I’ll give a little snippet from my review with each book mentioned, but you can find the full reviews, and many more besides, here in the READING section of this blog.
White Cat, Black Dog, by Kelly Link From my review: With each new collection of short stories, including and especially this one, Link proves that she is one of the finest writers working today. Where does her work fall? It’s genre, sure, but is it new weird, slipstream, horror, fantasy, even magic realism? Yes to all of those, and maybe a few more besides that are unique to her. Link’s stories are genre-defying and genre-smashing, constantly keeping the reader deliriously off balance and questioning reality in the best way.
Fairy Tale, by Stephen King From my review: It should come as no surprise that Stephen King handles tropes as well as any author, well, ever. In Fairy Tale he deploys three of the biggest: Portal Fantasy, The Hero’s Journey, and the Golden Child, and they work together beautifully. This is a big, bold, exciting fantasy, epic in scope. This is King’s pandemic book, one he wrote after asking himself, “What could you write that would make you happy?”
Don’t Fear the Reaper, by Stephen Graham Jones From my review: Like My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Don’t Fear the Reaper is a knowing love letter to slashers. If there’s a royal court for final girls, Jade Daniels sits the throne. The body count here may be high, but so is Jones’ clear affection for Jade. The threads of this novel are many and tangled, but Jones always has a firm hold on his material, and never allows it to spin out of control. His writing style is a heady mix of breakneck action and inventive mayhem, but he never loses the beating heart of the story.
We Can Never Leave This Place, by Eric LaRocca From my review: If, through some infernal alchemy, the DNA of Franz Kafka, William Burroughs, and Clive Barker, were combined, and the resultant child was raised in a haunted house, on a steady diet of Hershel Gordon Lewis and David Cronenberg movies, EC and manga comics, Grimms’ fairytales, and powerful hallucinogens; and if that child grew up to be a writer, they might, just might, create something like We Can Never Leave This Place.
The Pallbearers Club, by Paul Tremblay From my review: In a very few short years, Paul Tremblay has become one of my favorite horror authors—actually, make that one of my favorite authors, period. In his novels, and particularly in his short story collection, Growing Pains, Tremblay combines truly frightening scenarios with deeply felt characters, bravura storytelling, and sometimes experimental techniques. The Pallbearers Club is a tour de force that easily ranks with Tremblay’s best work, and that’s saying something. Join the club.
Daphne, by Josh Malerman From my review: I have a confession to make…this is the first novel I’ve read by Josh Malerman. I blame all the wonderful writers out there writing all the wonderful books. After reading Daphne, Malerman’s brutal, terrifying new novel, I’ll be happily dipping into his back catalog, because this book rocks. It’s part serial killer novel, part slasher, part urban mythology, and part coming-of-age. Oh, and it’s scary as hell.
Seasonal Fears, by Seanan McGuire From my review: Seasonal Fears is a “sidequel” of sorts, set in the same alchemical universe as McGuire’s miraculous novel Middlegame, with several returning characters. I finished reading it literally fifteen minutes ago, so I haven’t had much time to ponder, but I think, for me, it’s at least as good as Middlegame, and maybe, just maybe, even better. Ask me again in a couple of weeks, after the overwhelming experience of reading this book has properly settled in.
The Devil Takes You Home, by Gabino Iglesias From my review: Iglesias writes with an unfettered, feverish intensity. At the point where other authors might pull back and fade too black, he puts the pedal to the metal with what I’m sure was accompanied by, as he wrote it, a primal scream. There are a couple of scenes in The Devil Takes You Home that made me set the book gently down and step away for a little while. He writes with what I can only describe as a reckless bravado. Even when he’s showing you something you don’t want to see, he does it with such sensory-drenched language, such a flair for description, that you can’t look away.
Razorblade Tears and Blacktop Wasteland, by S. A. Cosby From my review: I’m not in the habit of reading two novels in a row by the same author—so many books, so little time—but Blacktop Wasteland, the story of a former criminal pulled into one last job to give his family a better life, blew me away. The excellent news for lovers of crime fiction is that Razorblade Tears is even better.
Born for Trouble, the Further Adventures of Hap and Leonard, by Joe R. Lansdale From my review: Born for Trouble is a new collection of Hap and Leonard stories, which is always cause for celebration. Unlike the past couple of collections, which focused on the boy’s early years, the stories in Born for Trouble cover Hap and Leonard in their later, more mature years. Don’t panic, mature refers only to their age. They are still, for the most part, the same shit-talking, shit-kicking badasses you know and love. Hap may be coming to terms with married life and fatherhood, and he’s a little less quick to pull the trigger, but he’s still tough as nails. And Leonard is still Leonard, just as volatile, just as willing to fuck shit up.
That’s a good place to stop. Born for Trouble was the first book I read in 2022, by the always reliably brilliant Lansdale. And, as it turns out, my last read of the year, which will be the first book I review next year because there’s no way I’m going to finish it in the next 11 days, is Bleeding Shadows, a satifyingly chunky collection of Lansdale short stories, novellas, poems, and more. Starting and ending the year with Joe Lansdale. Huh. I guess 2022 wasn’t so bad after all.
Here’s the thing—every year I tell myself I’m going to read more graphic novels, and then I end up not doing that. It’s not that I don’t like graphic novels, I do, love them in fact. I blame it on the fact that my list of must-immediately-read authors grows larger every day, and between them and my insanely talented indie writer friends putting out books, my reading time for new authors is sadly limited.
Which means I’m missing a metric shit-ton of wonderful books.
Case in point: the wonderful Paper Planes. Coming from Maverick Graphic Novels in May of 2023, and available for pre-order now, It was written by Jennie Woods, with art by Dozerdraws, and lettering by Micah Myers.
Paper Planes tells the story of inseparable best friends Leighton Worthington and Dylan Render. They’ve been sent to a summer camp for troubled youth after a shocking incident, and they both have to navigate the rules, cliques, and relationships of that camp while also dealing with their own changing friendship, and questions of gender and sexuality.
Woods interweaves the present-day story at camp with scenes from the past that lead up to the incident that got them sent to camp. This is a complex, layered story told with honesty, humor, and compassion. Leighton and Dylan may be on this journey together, but they each have their own personal journeys to undertake as well, to discover who they are as people.
Dozerdraws’ artwork is beautifully expressive, and perfectly complements the story.
I can’t recommend Paper Planes highly enough, for anyone at all, but particularly for middle and high school aged kids, and their parents.
And next year I’m going to read more graphic novels. Promise.
So, here’s the publisher’s elevator pitch for White Cat, Black Dog, Kelly Link’s forthcoming collection of short stories: “Seven ingeniously reinvented fairy tales that play out with astonishing consequences in the modern world, from one of today’s finest short story writers.”
This is an absolutely accurate description as far as it goes, but the thing is, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. With each new collection of short stories, including and especially this one, Link proves that she is one of the finest writers working today. Where does her work fall? It’s genre, sure, but is it new weird, slipstream, horror, fantasy, even magic realism? Yes to all of those, and maybe a few more besides that are unique to her. Link’s stories are genre-defying and genre-smashing, constantly keeping the reader deliriously off balance and questioning reality in the best way.
There are seven pieces here, each a masterclass in tone, style, and bravura storytelling. Link is utterly original. I tried to think of other writers playing in a similar sandbox—Margo Lanagan comes to mind, and Paul Tremblay (his short stories, which I think are much more experimental than his novels), but really, Link is a truly unique talent.
Every story in White Cat, Black Dog is strong, but I want to call out one in particular, “Skinder’s Veil”, in which what starts as a simple house-sitting job becomes a journey that defies description. It’s one helluva ride.
White Cat, Black Dog will be released March 28, 2023, and is available for pre-order now. This is a must read.
My year in writing was, considering the apocalyptic shit storm 2022 has been, pretty good. No, I won’t be quitting my day job any time soon for my first national book tour, but that’s not the point for me. I write because it gives me enjoyment and a sense of satisfaction, because it’s another outlet for creativity besides drawing and I can use all of those I can get, and because, at least some days, I think I’m not bad at it.
Drumroll please, here are 2022’s highlights:
The big one for me was the release of my first novella for adults, The Wild Hunt, in August. Late last year Canadian author Renée Gendron presented me with an intriguing idea—that we would each take our linked stories from the Heads and Tales anthology and turn them into novellas. The result was The Wild Hunt, a 36,000 word novella that I’m truly proud of. It’s part of the Wild Hearts and Hunts duology that Renée and I wrote together. It’s a historical supernatural war story, the myth of the Wild Hunt—berserker warriors and their hounds from hell, heralds of war—transposed to the battle for Fort Detroit on the U.S./Canadian border during the War of 1812. The Wild Hunt leans hard into fantasy and horror, and if that kind of thing is your jam, you might like it.
This summer my short story Rat and Roach, which won the 2021 F(r)iction Magazine Spring Literacy Contest, appeared on their website. This might be my favorite short story I’ve written so far, and you can read it here: https://frictionlit.org/rat-and-roach/
Back in 2021 I connected with a bunch of like-minded writers on Twitter, and we released a couple of well-received anthologies of short stories. These are some of the kindest, most talented folks I’ve ever met, and I’m happy to say that not only have we stayed together as a group and planned more work together, we’ve decided to formalize our relationship. Coming in 2023, Roaring Tulips Press is a publishing collective we’ve put together to publish our own work, and eventually that of others. I’ve already written several new short stories for anthologies we have planned, and I’m hoping my chapter book, In Search of Ancient Underwear, will see the light of day. Here’s the current website, with updates to come: https://roaringtulips.com/
Finally, this fall I became a contributing member of A Muse Bouche Review, an online literary newsletter. It gives me a chance to write something new for each monthly theme, which is great. I feel lucky that I’ve found yet another group of talented, dedicated writers to work with. You can check it out here: https://ambreview.com/
I think that’s it for now. I have a lot planned for next year, including another duology written with Renée, and the aforementioned work with Roaring Tulips. Let’s hope that 2023 is somewhat less shit stormy than 2022.
I reviewed It Was All a Dream: An Anthology of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right a little while back. In that review I talked about how tropes, when used well, when used with originality and creativity, are the heart and soul of genre fiction.
It should come as no surprise that Stephen King handles tropes as well as any author, well, ever. In Fairy Tale he deploys three of the biggest: Portal Fantasy, The Hero’s Journey, and the Golden Child, and they work together beautifully. This is a big, bold, exciting fantasy, epic in scope. This is King’s pandemic book, one he wrote after asking himself, “What could you write that would make you happy?”
As it turns out, what made King happy to write made me ridiculously happy to read.
I said that Fairy Tale is, as I think the title makes clear, a fantasy, but it doesn’t start out that way. King starts out doing one of the things he does best, evoking small time life as he introduces his main character, Charlie Reade. He’s 17, and he’s already been through a lot—the death of his mom, his father’s descent into alcoholism, and his own flirtation with the dark side. As we meet Charlie, his father has been clean for a little while, and he himself has straightened up, pouring his energy into high school sports. Then a chance meeting with a curmudgeonly old man, Howard Bowditch, and his aging German shepherd, Radar. Charlie saves Howard’s life after a nasty fall, and takes it upon himself, at least partly to atone for past behavior, to nurse Howard back to health and take care of Radar.
Howard gives his trust grudgingly, and he has a lifetime of secrets held close to the vest. One of those is the mysterious, locked shed in the back yard. When circumstances finally lead Charlie to enter that shed, King unleashes all the considerably powers of his imagination, and Fairy Tale takes flight.
And…that’s all I’m going to say about the plot. One of the many considerable pleasures of this novel is discovering for yourself King’s richly satisfying tale. The tropes I mentioned above may give you a hint, but I promise you, King has a wealth of surprises in store. What I will say is that Charlie, and Howard, and Radar (because he is very much a character in his own right), and in fact all of the dozens of characters that populate this epic length novel, are deeply rendered and complex. Charlie in particular is a layered, multi-dimensional character, with plenty of flaws that make him all the more human.
King is working at the top of his game here. Fairy Tale is a must read.
So. 2022 has been a shitshow, which should not be news to anyone. I’m not just talking about the worldwide shitshow, or the national shitshow, but personally speaking as well. Both my parents and my wife’s parents went through some profound life changes that turned our own lives upside down and consumed a lot of time.
With my free time somewhat diminished, something had to give, and unfortunately that something turned out to be drawing, which this year took a backseat to writing. Still, I managed a few pieces.
Back I the spring I went to see Neil Gaiman on his speaking tour, and wanted to wear something special to commemorate it, so I designed and drew this art for a t-shirt:
In July my son and I went on a once-in-a-lifetime fishing trip that had been postponed for two years due to covid. That trip, up to Great Bear Lake above the arctic circle in the NWT of Canada, yielded two pieces of art. First, something that celebrated the lodge where we stayed, and second, a personal piece for a father/daughter duo we met there. They had a faded photograph of them from when she was young, and asked if I could do something with it. This is the result.
In August I released my first novella for adults, The Wild Hunt, and designed and drew the cover art.
Finally, my son recently commissioned me to do a portrait of his sister’s cats to give her as a Christmas present. Here it is—please don’t tell her.
I also added a couple of new pieces to my RedBubble shop, and had a fun day selling prints of my work at one art show, but that’s about it. Definitely a lean year art wise. Hopefully I’ll be a little more prolific in 2023. I’m planning right now to publish my first chapter book for kids in the coming year, and will create both a cover and chapter illustrations, so that should be fun.
Is there a more entertaining writer working today than Joe Lansdale?
The answer to that question, my friends, is a resounding no.
Anyone who follows this blog, or for that matter anyone who’s read even one Lansdale, already knew the answer to that question. But I offer, as further, unequivocal proof, the wildly entertaining The Events Concerning.
The Events Concerning is actually two linked novellas, The Events Concerning a Nude Fold-Out Found in a Harlequin Romance, and The Events Concerning Two Stabbed Clowns in a Bloody Bathtub. Lansdale wrote the first back in the mid-nineties, and it’s vintage Lansdale, a shaggy dog murder mystery filled with memorable characters, his trademark outrageous humor, and some equally trademark gory mayhem involving a serial killer, mistreated circus dogs, and scattered mannequin body parts.
The second novella is brand new and continues the story with an equally fun, equally shaggy tale that will introduce you to the world of clownie sex parties—like furries, but with clown makeup instead of animal costumes. As an aside, I’m assuming Lansdale made this particular kink up, but I so want it to be a real thing, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was.
But I digress.
Anyway. Our protagonists in both stories are a motley trio of folks who sort of accidentally fall into sleuthing—Plebin, a middle-aged schlub who’d rather read a book than hold down a job; Jasmine, his teenage daughter; and Martha, the grumpy, sarcastic bookstore owner who rents out the apartment Plebin lives in. In the first story, a trail of clues lead them to believe that a sadistic circus performer is a serial killer looking for his next victim. By the second story, our three heroes are running a detective agency together, and a simple case leads to somewhere unexpectedly darker, stranger, and bloodier.
Both novellas have satisfyingly convoluted plots, with plenty of time set aside for the deadpan, profane, often hilarious dialogue that’s another Lansdale trademark. Lansdale is the best dialogue writer this side of Elmore Leonard, so that is very much a good thing. And if he wants to make this a continuing series, it’s fine by me (as long as Hap and Leonard keep showing up regularly).
Pick up The Events Concerning. I promise you’ll be entertained.
Tropes make the world go ’round, or at least, they make genre fiction go ’round. Horror, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, even westerns, they all use tropes as a sort of sturdy scaffolding on which to build their stories.
In the wrong hands, tropes can be painfully obvious and derivative, used as lazy shorthand in place of original ideas. In the right hands, however, in the hands of talented writers like those collected in It Was All a Dream, tropes can be deployed like literary fire power. They can be spun, subverted, turned on their heads and inside out, used with surgical precision or with all the subtlety of a dime store rubber chicken. The point is, done right, tropes make genre fiction better.
The short stories in It Was All a Dream most definitely use tropes done right, as the subtitle promises. Editor Brandon Applegate clearly has a keen eye and great taste—there’s not a dud in the bunch. There are many authors here I wasn’t familiar with, but their work fits right in with that of the ones I’m familiar with. This is a strong collection.
Rather than run down all the stories here, I thought I’d call out some of my favorites:
Fuck This Shit Manor by Laurel Hightower—The haunted house trope, but now how you’re expecting.
A Maiden Will I Die by LC von Hessen—An elegant, brutal, and surprising take on my all-time favorite trope, the final girl. This might be my favorite story in the collection.
Jumbies! by Lyndon Nicholas—Zombies, from a non-western perspective. This story moves through time and place, packing a lot of uncomfortable truth into its few pages.
Searching for Uberwald by Alex Woodroe—A story steeped in Romanian folklore, lyrical and haunting.
Advent of the Clown King by Tom Coombe—Clowns…so many clowns. Bug-fuck crazy in the best way.
The Thickest Soup You’ve Got by Nikki R Leigh—A cabin in the woods and a time loop, two tropes twisted together in to something wholly original.
Hail, Mary, Full of Rage by J. V. Gachs—Really, you just need to read this one. Also in the running for my favorite story here.
Tattered Fairy, Hungry Fairy by Belicia Rhea—Creepy kids, yes, but with a spin you won’t see coming.
Gone In a Flash by Gabino Iglesias—The alien abduction trope, but since this is by the always fiercely original Iglesias, you’re in for a wild ride. The man never fails to fuck with you.
I Unlock the Cage by Erin Brown—The werewolf trope, stirred into a stew with dangerous co-dependency and toxic love.
Hollywood Werewolf Conspiracy by Hailey Piper—Okay, maybe this is my favorite story in the anthology. If you’ve read anything by Piper at all, you know to expect the unexpected. She’s quickly become one of the best horror writers working today.
Those are the stories that lingered for me, but make no mistake, every one here is worth reading, and your favorites may be completely different from mine. Really, you can’t go wrong with It Was All a Dream.
Shoutout to Evangeline Gallagher for the cover art, and Christopher Castillo Diaz for the interior illustrations. Both artists do a superlative job, nailing that pulp magazine/E.C. Comics sweet spot.
I have always thought of myself as an illustrator, not a fine artist, and I’m cool with that. With that, one of the cool things about illustrations is that they can often be repurposed.
Case in point—my main advertising client for a couple of decades has been SVP Worldwide, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of sewing machines, and that happens to include high-end embroidery machines. When the folks there found out that I was a prolific rubber stamp designer, they asked if we might be able to put together an embroidery collection based on those designs. As it turned out, my contract with the rubber stamp company stipulated that I was welcome to use my art for anything else not rubber stamp related. Like I said, illustrations can be repurposed.
And so, Pen, Ink, and Thread was born, an entire embroidery collection made up of my artwork. I even got my name big above the title. This was many years ago, but I recently on a whim checked and discovered to my surprise and delight that it’s still available. Here’s a link, if you happen to be a machine embroiderer:
Unfortunately for Jade, the slasher-obsessed final girl of Stephen Graham Jone’s My Heart Is a Chainsaw, her arrival back home after four years in prison thanks to the events of that horror masterpiece comes as a perfect storm is brewing in Proofrock, Idaho. A storm both literal, as a brutal blizzard descends on the small town, and figurative, as Dark Mill South, an escaped serial killer, also arrives looking for victims.
As I think about it, perfect storm may not be the right metaphor for Don’t Fear the Reaper. A kitchen appliance is more appropriate. Jones tosses the bent-but-not-broken Jade into a blender with the blizzard, Dark Mill South, a couple of potentially supernatural, murderous entities, a large handful of returning characters (those who survived the past novel, anyway), and a mysterious, revenge-driven killer of the home-grown variety, and sets that blender to puree. There’s also a troubling, traumatic high school scandal thrown into the mix. The result is a bloody, chaotic concoction sure to satisfy every horror fan.
I said chaotic up above, and I meant it. The threads of this novel are many and tangled, but Jones always has a firm hold on his material, and never allows it to spin out of control. His writing style is a heady mix of breakneck action and inventive mayhem, but he never loses the beating heart of the story.
Like My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Don’t Fear the Reaper is a knowing love letter to slashers. If there’s a royal court for final girls, Jade Daniels sits the throne. The body count here may be high, but so is Jones’ clear affection for Jade.
One final thing…I wish I had re-read My Heart Is a Chainsaw before tackling Don’t Fear the Reaper. First, because it rocks. But also, as I said, there are quite a few returning characters from the first novel, and a refresher on who is who and who did what would have been helpful. It’s not necessary, as Jones does a fine job of re-introducing everyone, but my memory isn’t what it used to me.
Okay, a final, final thing…even if you don’t normally read acknowledgment pages, please read them here. Jones elequently thanks the many folks who helped bring Jade to life, including several teachers. As the father of a high school English teacher, this made made happy.
Don’t Fear the Reaper, book 2 in the Indian Lake Trilogy, debuts February 7th, 2023. This one deserves an immediate pre-order. Do it for Jade.
I discovered Meg Elison this year at Chicago WorldCon. She was a guest on a couple of panels my son and I attended, and she was funny, smart, and incredibly entertaining. On one of those panels she read from Number One Fan, and my son and I looked at each other and said, “Okay, that’s one we need to get.”
Turns out we were right! Number One Fan is a nerve-shredding thriller, a gender-swapped twist on Misery that reads like a runaway freight train.
Eli Grey, the protagonist, is a best-selling fantasy writer who climbs into what she thinks is her Uber ride, only to be thrown into a brutal nightmare. Drugged, she wakes up chained in a basement. This begins a brutal contest of wills between her and her “number one fan,” a delusional wannabe writer who wants to make her life his own.
Eli, alternately drugged, starved, dehydrated, and brutalized, must battle not only her psychotic fan, but her own demons as well. Elison starts in third gear and never lets up. She know how to ratchet up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. And Eli is a winning character. She’s flawed and real, and her reserves of fuck you strength in the face of impossible circumstances is inspiring.
As an added bonus for fans of fantasy, conventions, cosplay, and fanfic, Elison includes a ton of inside baseball style knowledge. She clearly knows that world well, and it adds a fun element to the novel.
Number One Fan is tailor-made for fans of character-driven thrillers and horror. Give it a read. I promise you’ll be Elison’s number one fan (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
I read some novels because I want to be dragged down a gravel road behind runaway horses, dangled head first over a yawning precipice, have my heart torn from a gaping hole in my chest…you get the idea. I want to be fucked with.
I read other books because the act of reading them is like settling in under a wool comforter in front of a roaring fire while a storm rages just outside, lashing the windows. I think of those novels as comfort reads. Make no mistake, for me comfort reads don’t necessarily have to be quiet, contemplative books. Some really extreme horror stories function as comfort reads for me. It’s more a feeling, I guess, when stepping into the pages of the novel feels like going home, like you’re in safe, capable hands.
The first two books in the Gwendy trilogy, Gwendy’s Button Box (Stephen King and Richard Chizmar) and Gwendy’s Magic Feather (Richard Chizmar) were definitely comfort reads for me. It’s not that the books are all rainbows and unicorns, free from stress and tension. Far from it. Like I said, it’s a feeling.
Gwendy’s Final Task, like its predecessors, is a comfort read for me. Having said that, I found this one much more tense, the stakes much higher. That infernal button box is back, doing what it does, and this time Gwendy is truly feeling the horrifying effects of carrying the weight of the world on her now-middle aged shoulders. There’s trauma and heartbreak in the pages here.
I’m not going to tell you much more than that. Gwendy’s Final Task is set mostly aboard a spaceship, and it moves at a breathless pace. I found myself reading just as quickly, one-more-chaptering when I should have been sleeping. It’s an immensely satisfying tale, well told. King and Chizmar are, let’s face it, really good at this writing thing.
About the ending. It is, I suppose, the only way it could end. There’s an inevitability about it. But it is not, I repeat not, comforting at all.
My son and I attended our first Worldcon, over Labor Day Weekend in Chicago. I’m still trying to process it all, and come down from the high of spending several days with a few thousand folks who want to discuss books, particularly science fiction and fantasy, as much as I do. Here, in no particular order, my scribbled notes:
• The organizers of Chicon (80th World Science Fiction Convention) really had their shit together. The only thing I have to compare it to is the 2019 NY ComicCon, and I thought this was run even better, granted that it’s a smaller event.
• SF and F fans are snappy dressers. Sure, there were plenty of schlubs like me wearing cargo shorts and genre appropriate t-shirts, but there was also a phantasmagoria of folks in steampunk hats, ornate gowns, cloaks, and every iteration in between. So cool for people watching. And speaking of snappy dressers…
• There were a surprising number of men in kilts, and they looked sharp as hell. Not sure I could pull off a kilt myself, but you never know. I may be inspired.
• My son and I both got a bunch of books signed. I’m more of a reader than a collector, but the chance to share a couple of words and get books autographed by some of my favorite authors was too hard to resist. Especially happy to meet John Scalzi, Seanan McGuire, Peter S. Beagle (holy shit), and Joe Haldeman (holy shit again). We also got autographs from Arkady Martine, Mary Robinette Kowal, Wesley Chu, and Meg Elison. They were all friendly, kind, and giving of their time.
• Speaking of Haldeman, he first signed a book for me (my tattered paperback edition of Forever War) at a con at Kent State when I was a teenager in the late seventies. The late, great Harlan Ellison was also a guest, and because he was late to the signing, Joe inscribed the book to me, “For Dave, who is also wondering where the hell Harlan is.”
• When we weren’t standing in autograph lines, we were attending panels. They were, every one, fascinating, exhilarating, sometimes uproariously funny, and sometimes poignant. It should come as no surprise that science fiction and fantasy writers are, every single one, terrifyingly smart and fun to listen to. Panel standouts for us: Scalzi, Arkady Martine, Meg Elison, Tracy Townsend, Fran Wilde, Ada Palmer, Elizabeth Bear, Daniel Kraus, and as always, Seanan McGuire.
• Speaking of panels, we attended one with horror authors reading from their work, and—you heard it here first—there’s a writer from Iceland who’s going to be big. Her name is Holder Knutsdottir, and back home in Iceland she’s won a bunch of awards, but her first novel in English won’t be out until sometime in early 2024. She was funny and charming, and the excerpt she read (translated by Mary Robinette Kowal, no idea why she knows Icelandic) immediately grabbed out attention.
• Seanan McGuire’s talent knows no bounds. Not only is she an amazing, prolific writer (now with two well-deserved Hugos to prove it), but she’s a helluva singer! Her and her backing band (The Dead Sexy, I think) put on an hour long concert of filk, folk and sea chanteys that was absolutely wonderful.
• Finally, as a lifelong science fiction fan, the opportunity to vote for the Hugos, and to actually attend the Hugo Awards Ceremony, was worth the price of admission all by itself. A dream come true.
I rarely read two books by the same author back to back—so many books, so little time. The last time it happened it was S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears, an audacious one-two punch.
Well, it’s happening again. Just as I finished Eric LaRocca’s stunning masterpiece of grotesque horror, We Can Never Leave This Place, NetGalley gifted me with Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes, and I moved it right to the top of my TBR pile.
This new edition includes the notorious title novella, along with two new short stories. Taken together, this is a devastating, unnerving collection that burrows into the shiver center of your brain. When it comes to contemporary horror writers, I said it about Gabino Iglesias, and I’ll say it here: Eric LaRocca does not fuck around.
I mentioned above that the previously published “Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke” is notorious, and I meant it. Structured as an email and chat room conversation between two women, this story lurches quickly into a dark place, then digs so much deeper, and gets so much more disturbing. I found myself thinking, more than once, LaRocca is fearless. He is absolutely uncompromising in his vision, and has the writing chops to bring it to glorious, subversive life.
The other two stories are just as strong, and showcase the breath of LaRocca’s macabre imagination. There are echoes here of writers as varied as Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, Stephen Graham Jones, and Roald Dahl (a knowing nod to his classic short story “Man From the South”), but LaRocca has a fiercely original voice that’s all his own.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes will be available September 6th. If you’re a fan of unapologetic horror, do not miss this collection.
When Canadian author Renée Gendron presented me with an intriguing idea—that we would each take our linked stories from the Heads and Tales anthology and turn them into novellas—I found myself staring at my monitor, head in hands. The story I was working with was a historical supernatural war story, the myth of the Wild Hunt—berserker warriors and their hounds from hell, heralds of war—transposed to the battle for Fort Detroit on the U.S./Canadian border during the War of 1812.
The problem for me was that my story was relatively self contained and complete. I quickly came up with a prologue of sorts, set decades before when my main character was a young boy. As I wrote that new opening chapter, things presented themselves, symbolic elements that I thought might be useful later in the book. How? I wasn’t remotely sure. More monitor staring.
The trick for me, the thing that broke the story open and let it breathe, was realizing that I did not have to stick to my historical period. I decided to lean hard into fantasy and a healthy dollop of horror, to let my imagination run wild. I made sure that all the historical aspects of my story were historically accurate, relatively speaking, but for the rest of it I decided to have fun. Those symbolic elements became recurring motifs, and in one case a full-fledged character that was a joy to write.
This is Book 2 of the Wild Hearts and Hunts duology, in that it shares a place, time, and a couple of characters, but both books can be read completely independently.
The result of all this is The Wild Hunt, a 36,000 word novella that I’m truly proud of. It’s now available on Amazon in paperback or e-book, free with Kindle Unlimited. You can find it here:
If, through some infernal alchemy, the DNA of Franz Kafka, William Burroughs, and Clive Barker, were combined, and the resultant child was raised in a haunted house, on a steady diet of Hershel Gordon Lewis and David Cronenberg movies, EC and manga comics, Grimms’ fairytales, and powerful hallucinogens; and if that child grew up to be a writer, they might, just might, create something like We Can Never Leave This Place.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Eric LaRocca is a utterly original, uncompromising writer, and We Can Never Leave This Place is a masterpiece of grotesque horror.
Mara is a fifteen year old girl trapped in an apocalyptic nightmare. Her father has been killed in the stark violence that surrounds the crumbling, bombed out flat she shares with her cold, hateful mother. They are both consumed and overwhelmed by sorrow, devastation and loss. There is little food, and raw sewage pools on the floor.
Then a series of monstrous visitors arrive, and shit gets weirder than you can possibly imagine.
Eric LaRocco has been on my radar for awhile, but this is the first book of his I’ve read. I plan to quickly remedy that, as I haven’t read horror this fiercely imaginative in a long time. If his other books are anything like We Can Never Leave This Place, consider me a huge fan.
Okay, go with me here—you know how in The Exorcist movie, each time the camera pans up the staircase (the one in the living room where the spider walk happens, not the one outside that features in the end of the movie), stopping at the closed bedroom door Regan is ensconced behind? You know the overwhelming feeling of oppressive dread that accompanies that camera, not knowing what you’re about to see behind that bedroom door?
Yeah. Sarah Gailey absolutely nails that feeling with Just Like Home. This is an oppressive, claustrophobic, deeply unsettling gothic masterpiece that is unlike anything else I’ve read by Gailey, except of course in terms of writing excellence.
Vera’s mother is dying, and asks her to come home to the house she grew up in, the house her father built with his own two hands—the same hands he used to torture and murder men in the basement. Vera’s feelings about her father are deeply conflicted, as he may have been a notorious serial killer, but they shared a loving, close relationship. Her mother, on the other hand, was a cold, hard, unloving woman, and even now, near death, her heart has not thawed.
Vera has conflicted feelings about the house as well, a place where unspeakable atrocities happened. Her homecoming is haunted by the horrors that have seeped into the walls and foundation, by the hostile townspeople with long memories who still hate her for what her father did, and by the latest in a long line of artists living in the guesthouse, parasites looking for inspiration and leeching off the soul of the serial killer.
Gailey excels at putting us inside Vera’s troubled mind, a dark place, and forcefully keeping us there, never letting us look away. Vera’s childhood home is a prison of sorts to her, and her mind mirrors that, a malignant coffin box of memories and trauma. Just Like Home is unrelenting, sometimes punishing, but always mesmerizing.
I mentioned earlier that this is unlike anything else by Gailey, and that’s true. Their last novel, The Echo Wife, was a tour de force science fiction drama about cloning. Now, having read this, I hope they play in the gothic horror sandbox again. Just Like Home is absolutely brilliant.
While my son and I were at Plummer’s Great Bear Lake Arctic Lodge a few weeks ago, we became friends with a father/daughter duo, Greg and Madi. They shared with me an old photo of Greg taking Madi fishing when she was a toddler, and asked me if I could draw an illustration based on it. Here’s the result, which I’m very happy with. This was created on an iPad using Procreate with an Apple pencil.
My son Eric and I recently spent a week fishing at Plummer’s Great Bear Lake Lodge above the Arctic Circle. I promised Chuk, the lodge manager, that I would write a story for their newsletter, and do an accompanying illustration. Here’s what I came up with, an image of the lodge sign, along with Eric and I and our guide in our boat with a double hook-up, based on a photo a friend in another boat took. I did this on my iPad using Procreate, and I’m very happy with how it came out.
In a very few short years, Paul Tremblay has become one of my favorite horror authors—actually, make that one of my favorite authors, period. In his novels, and particularly in his short story collection, Growing Pains, Tremblay combines truly frightening scenarios with deeply felt characters, bravura storytelling, and sometimes experimental techniques.
The Pallbearers Club is all that and more. It’s structured as a memoir, starting with high school, of Art Barbara, a tall and painfully thin social outcast plagued with severe scoliosis, acne, and zero self esteem. In dire need of something, anything, to impress college admissions counselors, he starts the Pallbearers Club, a group tasked with attending the funerals of those without families or friends. The club is not an overwhelming success, but it brings Art one thing—a young woman named Mercy Brown who will be inextricably link to him for the rest of his life.
Mercy is mercurial, too cool for school, a force of nature with her ever-present Polaroid instant camera and love of early punk music. Her and Art have virtually nothing in common, but they become friends of a sort as she introduces him to the music he will become obsessed with.
What follows is Art’s life story as he stumbles through the decades, a life fueled by alcohol and painkillers, with more failures than successes. Mercy appears and disappears, sometimes for years at a time, but she’s always there.
If you’re wondering at this point if Tremblay has veered away from horror with The Pallbearers Club, there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned. Art becomes convinced at some point that Mercy is a centuries old psychic vampire, feeding off his life force, the primary reason his life is in shambles. A series of strange, possibly supernatural encounters between them only adds to his belief.
Is Mercy a monster? Art thinks so, but we also get another view—one from Mercy herself. As we read Art’s unpublished manuscript, we also get to read Mercy’s hand-written comments on it. She’s funny, snarky, always brutally opinionated, and frequently at odds with what Art has written. Tremblay is working without a net here—hell, he’s working without a high wire—and pulls every bit of it off. With Mercy functioning as a kind of Greek chorus, we get to see their often antagonistic, even toxic, but also genuine friendship from both sides. Can we as readers trust what either of them is saying? Great question, one that I’m not going to answer. You’ll need to find out for yourself.
One other thing. Much of Art’s early years mirror Tremblay’s own, which may partly account for how painful and true it feels.
The Pallbearers Club is a tour de force that easily ranks with Tremblay’s best work, and that’s saying something. Join the club.
I was an indifferent reader until I walked into my junior high school library the first week of seventh grade and found a bookshelf labeled science fiction. That day I took home I, Robot and The Martian Chronicles.
I’ve never looked back. I read other genres now, mostly fantasy, horror, and crime fiction, but science fiction has remained my sweet spot. I think I like it because it’s a literature of ideas, because it’s often a sharp, even devastating commentary of current events (hello The Handmaid’s Tail, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984), and especially because of the endlessly inventive world-building.
Speaking of endlessly inventive world-building…Mary Lynn Johnstone’s Spectacular Silver Earthling has some, I’ll say it, spectacular world-building. In her world, humans have spread throughout the universe, and robots are fully recognized as citizens. Hubcap, her main character, was formerly a rescue bot, saving humans lives. Now that he’s his own person, he has a new job—co-host of a tv show that reports on different jobs throughout the universe. Think reality TV like Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs.
Now they’re filming on a new, supposedly uninhabited planet where humans harvest jetpods, but the people there are being plagued by “space frenzy”, which sends victims into an emotional frenzy. When you add in dangerous flora and fauna, and the fact that the planet may not be uninhabited after all, and Hubcap has his hands full.
The thing is, Hubcap can handle it, and he’ll be the first one to tell you that. He’s a robot with an attitude, a snarky smart ass who can run rings around the squishy humans who surround him. A fact he’s happy to remind them. Hubcap is a wonderful character. He’s hilarious, with a huge heart (even if he doesn’t have one), and truthfully, he may be a spectacular silver earthling, but he’s also delightfully human. Just, you know, a little better.
Johnstone is writing classic, old school science fiction here. I don’t want to give much more away here, but the alien world where she’s set her adventure is complex, inventive, and well-thought out. Her narrative gallops along at breakneck pace with excellent action, and a ton of humor. As I read, I was reminded of The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, and Becky Chambers Wayfarers series, both for the humor and the hopeful, optimistic worldview. But Johnstone is very much doing her own thing here, and she’s written a winner.
Spectacular Silver Earthling left me hoping for a sequel, even a series. I can’t think of higher praise.
I have a confession to make…this is the first novel I’ve read by Josh Malerman. I blame all the wonderful writers out there writing all the wonderful books. After reading Daphne, Malerman’s brutal, terrifying new novel, I’ll be happily dipping into his back catalog, because this book rocks. It’s part serial killer novel, part slasher, part urban mythology, and part coming-of-age. Oh, and it’s scary as hell.
Daphne revolves around a high school girls basketball team who unwittingly awakens an evil—a hulking, unstoppable murderer named Daphne—that has stalked other basketball teams in the small town for decades. The story of Daphne is part urban myth, part scary story whispered at sleepovers, but that’s not quite right either, because the town seems to be suffering from a collective amnesia. Over the years, Daphne, who according to the stories was murdered by a group of townsfolk for various transgressions, has come back to slaughter young ballers; and then the locals, for the most part, forget it happened. Until it happens again.
Daphne works perfectly as straight-ahead horror—honestly, it might be a new classic—but it’s much more than that. Kit, the main protagonist, suffers from severe anxiety, and Malerman handles that with clear-headed sensitivity. Kit is a complex, winning character who I was rooting for from the beginning. In some ways, this is her coming-of-age story, and watching her dig deep, battle her anxiety, and find hidden reserves she didn’t know she had, is awe-inspiring. Malerman also excels at showing the easy interplay, the comaraderie, between the girls on the team.
Malerman talks about his love of basketball in the afterword (Yes, I read afterwords. In fact, I love them.), but I would have known that just from reading Daphne. His affection for the game is clear in the exciting game descriptions. The final, nerve-shredding showdown put me in mind of another one-on-one basketball game with similar high stakes—the one that caps Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians.
Put this one on your radar, and give it a pre-order. Daphne delivers.
Like many readers, I’m guessing, I discovered Catriona Ward with the one-two punch of The Last House On Needless Street and Sundial. Those two novels heralded a seismic shift in horror fiction. They were so sharply written, so self assured, so downright audacious, it was like someone had found long-lost novels by Shirley Jackson. Which makes sense, because as it turns out, those were not Ward’s first novels. In fact, Little Eve was her second novel, and won the Shirley Jackson award for best novel. This is an ARC review because it’s now being reissued on October 11, 2022. I can’t think of another novel more deserving of reissue.
Here’s the thing, though. Much like The Last House On Needless Street and Sundial, when it comes to reviewing, to say too much about Little Eve would be a literary crime. One of the chief pleasures of this book is discovering the gothic horrors awaiting you beyond each and every turn of the page.
The bare bones, and that’s all your getting: On the desolate Scottish Island of Altnaharra, a small cult-like found family with limited interaction with the outside world prepares for the end of the world. There are relationships that are twisted, corrupted at the core. There are secrets, mysterious ceremonies, and betrayals, all of it set in a crumbling castle on a windswept island beneath a threatening sky, surrounded by the unforgiving sea. Speaking of secrets, every character has them. More than that, they are bound up in them, like barbed wire that’s been pulled tight.
Ward excels at weaving the various threads of her story into a gothic tapestry. Her language is darkly evocative, and she keeps you guessing. Every time I thought I knew where the story was going, she spun me in circles until I was dizzy and disoriented, and I loved every minute of it. Little Eve is unnerving, sometimes overwhelmingly bleak, and always mesmerizing. I loved this novel.
As I mentioned above, Little Eve will be reissued October 11, 2022. Definitely worthy of a preorder. Do not miss this one.
The Tear Collector gives me Stephen King feels, and that’s a good thing. I’m thinking specifically of It and The Body (the story that the movie Stand By Me is based on), as The Tear Collector features a group of teenage boys banded together, supporting each other, and coming of age, against a formidable, deadly foe.
The setting in this case is the small Appalachian town of Harper Pass. When a young autistic girl disappears in a place where tragedy struck several years before, it sets off a chain of events that envelopes the town and entangles the boys in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. There’s a smart detective who’s way out of his depth, an overly aggressive young reporter, a disgraced, eccentric college professor, and a centuries-old evil bent on revenge. The friends are all well-developed characters with distinct, believable personalities.
Burgess has a flair for ratcheting up tension. The central mystery is well thought out, with a nice dive into the history that brought the reader to this point. This is a small-town thriller with a heavy dose of horror, and his big-bad is fun and inventive. Give this one a try!
An anthology of short stories inspired by ’80s horror? Yes, please!
For fans of the genre, the ’80s were ripe—make that festering—with horror, and the 22 authors included here enthusiastically embrace the decade. This book is a rich, bloody stew of pop culture references, not just horror of the time but literally all of popular culture. The authors clearly looked at the subject as a challenge, and they pull out all the stops. There’s an unbridled, anarchic joy in the way they attack and subvert various tropes, finding new ways to go for the jugular. Editor Eugene Johnson has a great eye—this is a unified, cohesive collection.
Some of these stories are chilling, some downright scary, and a few funny in an I can’t believe they went there way. Nearly all of them are over the top, in the best way.
Some of my favorites:
Snapshot by Joe R. Lansdale and Kasey Lansdale. Seeing Lansdale in any TOC is always cause for celebration, and working with his daughter here, they deliver.
Ten Miles of Bad Road by Stephen Graham Jones. Typical Jones, which means this story kicks ass.
Stranger Danger by Grady Hendrix. Hendrix is always fun and inventive, and I loved this one.
Your Picture Here by John Skipp. One question for Skipp—Are you okay? This story is all kinds of WTF.
Mother Knows Best by Stephanie M. Wytovich. I wasn’t familiar with Wytovich, but wow, this burrowed beneath my skin like rusty fishhooks.
Perspective: Journal of a 1980s Mad Man by Mort Castle. Possibly the most ’80s of all these ’80s inspired stories, and it’s a rollercoaster ride with half the track collapsed.
Those are my favorites, but every story (and a couple of poems) here hit their mark. I also want to mention that the introduction by author Mick Garris, himself no stranger to horror and popular culture, is an excellent overview of what’s to come.
Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for bringing me back to the ’80s in such a fun, if blood-drenched, way.
Another Twitter friend and member of the #WritingCommunity, another fantastic writer. Ark Horton is a writer I’ve shared a couple of anthology TOCs with, and I’m continually impressed with her skill and imagination. Heroes & Harbingers is the first novel I’ve read by her, and it won’t be my last.
Heroes & Harbingers checks a lot of the boxes—urban fantasy, dark academia, portals to alternative realities—that I look for in a book. On top of that it takes a deep dive into Greek mythology, another favorite of mine.
It’s set in and around Annie Lytle Magical Magnet High School, but unlike most novels set in the magic school sub-genre, the main characters are for the most part teachers instead of students. There’s a History of Magic teacher who’s also a bird woman and harbinger of death from Russian mythology, and an immortal Irish warrior serving out the last decade of a hundred year community service sentence as a public school teacher. Bree, a student to both of them, and her younger, sick sister, are recently orphaned, and life is about to throw them an entire novel’s worth of curveballs. They are ruled over by the Council of Pantheons, a powerful organizations of gods and demigods, who have named Bree as this century’s Chosen One. There are hidden agendas, secrets, and forces at play, and knowing who can be trusted is a dangerous game with potentially deadly consequences.
Horton sets all these pieces into motion and then steps back with what I’m sure was an evil grin. The plot gallops along at a breathless, often intense pace. The characters are well-developed, and I cared about what was happening to them. She writes with compassion and care. Horton’s magic systems and mythologies are all internally consistent and imaginative, with tantalizing glimpses into alternate realities that I hope will be explored more in the next books. Did I mention that this is the first in a trilogy?
One other thing I want to mention. Heroes and Harbingers is set in a magical, fanciful Jacksonville, Florida, a city Horton clearly knows well. It works well as an anchor to the fantasy. I’ve spent a little time in Jacksonville, and she nails the city’s vibe.
Heroes and Harbingers debuts on June 11, 2022, and is worthy of a pre-order now!
I didn’t discover Neil Gaiman the way it seems many folks did, through the Sandman comics. My first exposure was American Gods, at which point, mind blown, I dove in and read everything by him I could find (including, eventually, Sandman). He’s since then been firmly planted in my top 5 authors of all time.
Fast forward to last night, when his American tour brought him to my hometown of sunny Cleveland, Ohio. Did I fanboy a little? Yes. Did I create a custom t-shirt for the occasion? Also yes.
Anyway, and to keep this short and sweet, Gaiman put on a wonderful show. He read several stories and poems, making it clear why he’s the perfect person to read his own work. He answered a bunch of questions submitted by audience members, and his answers were charming and funny, truthful and sometimes touching. He mentioned visiting our local Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which was cool.
Gaiman talked for two hours. I would have gladly sat there for a couple more. I also grabbed up signed editions of American Gods and Good Omens, for the icing on the literary cake.