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 belong, as a contributing member, to a talented group of writers who are responsible for 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 June, 2023 is Running Away and my contribution this month is a song lyric titled Follow. Here’s how it starts:
My pick-up truck gave up the ghost just outside Junction City Left it there, no burial, I guess death is never pretty Walked twenty miles through corn and wheat as far as the horizon I know that it’s good exercise, but I wish I was still drivin’ Sad and sleepless in a Motel 6, waiting for the break of day Out of luck, and that damn girl is still half a state away
She said, Call me a dreamer, call me a fool Prove that you love me as much as I love you Come climb a mountain and lay down beside me Follow my trail to the love that’s inside me Leave that life behind and start everything new
My friends, mark down August 16, 2023, on your calendar, app, post-it note, written it in lipstick on your medicine cabinet mirror, or however you keep track of such things—that’s when Things Get Ugly: The Best Crime Stories of Joe R. Lansdale releases. You’ll want to take the day off, settle into a comfortable chair (or onto a barstool, you do you) with a tumbler of good scotch within reach, and prepare yourself to get lost in one of the best collections of crime fiction I’ve ever read.
There are 19 stories here, each one a poisonous gem, and before I call out a few individual stories, some general thoughts: • Because Lansdale is so versatile, and so prolific, it’s easy to forget just how good he is in the various genres he calls home. He is, without a doubt, a master of crime fiction. • The title Things Get Ugly is extremely apt—These are dark, dark stories that explore the ugly side of life, the sordid alleys of human existence. Believe me when I tell you that these are harrowing tales teeming with revenge, murder, and all manner of appalling behavior. There aren’t really any heroes here, just criminals of different shades and degrees. • Having said that, the profane, laugh-out-loud humor Lansdale is famous for is very much in evidence. Gallows humor, but still humor. • Because I’ve read my fair share of Lansdale, I was afraid I’d find that I had read many of the included stories. Happily, that was not the case. These stories are drawn from throughout Lansdale’s long career, and most were new to me. And the ones I had read before, I still found myself diving right in, like visiting old, much-loved but ne’er-do-well friends. • Although the Hap and Leonard novels and stories certainly fall into the category of crime fiction, those two gentlemen do not make an appearance here. They have their own much-deserved story collections (Hap and Leonard, Born for Trouble, Blood and Lemonade, Of Mice and Minestrone). If you haven’t read them, why the hell not? Get on that.
On to some of the stories. I’m not going to mention all of them (every one hits hard and strong), but here are a few of my favorites:
Driving to Geronimo’s Grave Yes, this one involves a rotting corpse, but it’s one of the lighter stories in the collection, and it’s damn funny while still keeping the tension ratcheted up.
Mr. Bear I can’t even begin to describe Mr. Bear. No, seriously. There’s an anthropomorphized bear with some terrible habits. Bad, bad things happen.
The Shadows, Kith and Kin This one drags you kicking and screaming into the mind of a killer. Left me feeling very unsettled.
I Tell You It’s Love Lansdale plays with pulp fiction tropes throughout this collection, and I Tell You It’s Love is one of the pulpiest. Short, sordid, and brutal.
Boys Will Be Boys A portrait in acid of two teenage boys on the road to hell. Deeply disquieting, it feels like something Andrew Vachss would have appreciated.
Drive-In Date Possibly the most disturbing story in the collection, and that’s saying something. You’ve been warned.
Incident On and Off a Mountain Road I’ve saved my favorite for last. This is a stone cold classic, literally one of the best pieces of crime fiction ever written, with a twist you won’t see coming. Worth the price of the book all by itself.
Like I said, these are some of my favorites, but they’re all excellent, and your list of favorites may be completely different. As an added bonus, there’s an introduction by S.A. Cosby, one of today’s best crime writers.
Things Get Ugly: The Best Crime Stories of Joe R. Lansdale is available for pre-order now. Don’t miss out on this one.
In The Lives of Puppets is the first book I’ve read by TJ Klune, which is probably a little shocking considering the buzz generated by his previous books, particularly The House On the Cerulean Sea and Under the Whispering Door. I’m going to remedy that going forward, as I absolutely loved this novel.
What exactly is In The Lives of Puppets about? Glad you asked! In broad strokes, it’s about a human boy, Vic, who lives in a remote forest in a collection of eccentric treehouses with three robots—a nurse machine whose words are sharper than the drill she’s aching to use; a vacuum machine who is seeking love and acceptance with alarming enthusiasm; and an inventor android who is a father figure for Vic. This group spends their time living, inventing, and scavenging useful things, including another robot, from a massive, mysterious salvage yard. Then the robot overlords who rule the land discover their secret existence, sending them on a perilous journey of survival and discovery.
Did I mention In The Lives of Puppets is an imaginative, heartfelt reimagining of Pinocchio, with a little bit of Wall-E thrown in for good measure?
If that’s all the story was, it would be an excellent read. However, it’s in the small strokes, the fine details, that In The Lives of Puppets truly sings. It’s about the importance of found family, and the power of loyalty and love. It’s a tender, sensitive exploration of Ace and LGBTQ representation. Perhaps most surprisingly to me, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The robots, particularly the nurse machine, are hilariously sarcastic.
Klune is a wonderful writer—evocative and playful, yet with a surprising edge. In The Lives of Puppets tugged at my heartstrings and pulled me forward on waves of emotion and excitement. I was happy to be along for the ride every step of the way.
I’ve 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 May, 2023 is Regret and my story is called Bagged. Here’s how it starts:
PAUL HAD PLENTY TO REGRET, but it was at least partly the witch’s fault.
There were other contributing factors. Paul’s friends had convinced him that a new club in the Industrial Flats was the place to be for a steamy summer night costume party. Regret number one. They had goaded him into wearing the wool Sherlock Holmes costume that was now causing him to sweat and itch uncontrollably. Regret number two. And alcohol had been involved; definitely regret number three.
It was the sight of the witch across a dance floor crowded with trendy, costumed partiers, however, that had caused his present, and absolutely regretful, predicament. He had caught just a glimpse of her; alabaster skin, raven black hair that refracted the spinning lights like a prism, the flash of a slim yet curvy body between the folds of her black satin cape. Beneath the cape a Moebius strip of leather, lace and chrome that revealed more than it concealed. Her boots were leather, intricately laced; wickedly high heels that pulled the sleek muscles in her calves taut. She held a mysteriously oversized black leather purse protectively against her body.
The witch was dancing by herself, spinning in slow, looping circles. Her body seemed to catch and hold the music, like each note was her own private lover.
I came late to the Josh Malerman party, when I read Daphne last year. Here’s how I opened my review of that novel, which I now believe is a new horror classic:
“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.”
Spin a Black Yarn, his newest book, is a collection of five novellas, and I’m happy to report that Malerman is working at the top of his game here—every novella here is a masterpiece of story, mood, and characters in perfect synchronization. Malerman isn’t a one trick pony. There’s horror here, absolutely, but there’s also science fiction and fantasy. What all five stories share is a sense of unease and disquiet that seeps off the pages, through your eyeballs, and right into your brain meat. Malerman isn’t afraid to shred your nerves and tickle your gag reflex at the same time. He makes your feel things.
Without giving away too much, here’s a quick overview of the stories. By they way, they’re not connected, but each is set in the small Michigan town of Samhattan, throughout a variety of time periods.
Half the House is Haunted A dialogue of sorts, with alternating POVs, between two sisters, from when they are very small until end of life. They’re the main characters, but the house of the title is just as much of a character, and you’ll find yourself questioning just where the palpable sense of evil the permeates the story is emanating from. This one will burrow its way under your skin.
Doug and Judy Buy the House Washer™ One of the two science fiction stories here, with a fascinating and very much science fictional central concept, but it reads more like the savage dissection of a toxic marriage between two toxic people who are clearly meant for each other. Claustrophobic and uncomfortable, as if we’re eavesdropping on something profoundly intimate.
The Jupiter Drop Science fiction, until it becomes something else altogether, a hallucinogenic journey into fantasy that will have you questioning what’s real and what’s not.
These next two are my favorites in the book, and I think they will join Daphne as stone cold horror classics.
Argyle The confessions of a dying man to his family. That’s all you’re getting from me. Read it, and good luck trying to get it out of your head. you may find yourself looking into the face of every stranger you pass, and wondering just what horrors reside within them.
Egorov This is the longest novella here, and it’s a masterpiece. The story of the death of one adult triplet and the lengths his two remaining brothers will go to in the name of vengeance, Egorov reads like an unholy amalgamation of Kafka, Tolstoy, and Dickens, with a healthy dose of Poe’s The Telltale Heart.
Spin a Black Yarn debuts August 15th, 2023, and is available for preorder now. For fans of dark fiction, this is a must-have.
Prior to reading Whisperwood, I knew Alex Woodroe as an excellent editor and a tireless supporter of indie authors. I had read one short story by her, “Searching for Uberwald” in the excellent collection, It Was All a Dream—in my review I called it a story steeped in Romanian folklore, lyrical and haunting.
Whisperwood is all that and so much more, a tale awash in mystery and magic, with a cast of characters who are achingly real whether they’re human or not. The novel is timeless, set sometime in a rural, Eastern European distant past, although clues make it clear there are larger towns in existence.
Anna is a young woman fleeing a toxic relationship from a man who nearly killed her and then poisoned her entire world against her, convincing them she’s a witch. She’s trying to get lost, to both save herself and maybe find a purpose. The place she finds is the small, mysterious village of Whisperwood, a place so isolated, so insular, that it’s hard to find and even harder to enter.
She discovers a village in turmoil, a liminal place where deep folk magic coexists tensely with another world, an uneasy balance that can’t hold. Before long she’s embroiled in events spinning wildly out of control.
Woodroe’s language is evocative—she draws you into her world and keeps you hanging on every word. Her characters, particularly Anna, are fully realized. In fact, I fell a little in love with Anna. She’s flawed and unsure of herself, but also brave as can be, with a hidden reserve of strength that she shares with everyone around her. Woodroe’s setting, absolutely saturated with magic, is well-thought out and intriguing. This may be a first novel, but it doesn’t read like it.
Whisperwood release July 13, 2023, and is available for pre-order now. Meanwhile, I’m already looking forward to her next novel.
I’ve 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 April, 2023 is Expectation and my contribution this month is a song lyric called Heaven (Better Be Something Special). Here’s how it starts:
We haven’t spent a night apart Since I first took your hand in mine Our lives forever joined together Like grape vines intertwined We’ve driven down some bumpy roads Without a light, without a map The two of us we always knew We’d somehow make it back
I don’t need a choir singing I don’t need angels winging I don’t need a cloud with a view Heaven better be something special To be half as good as life on earth with you I don’t need those golden gates I’m in no hurry, I can wait I don’t need a sign to know it’s true Heaven better be something special To be half as good as life on earth with you
I discovered Kiersten White last year when I read her excellent novel, Hide (my review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2022/01/17/arc-review-hide-by-kiersten-white/). Hide was a delight from beginning to end, a high-tension thriller with a supernatural twist that still managed to have important things to say about trauma and families, both the ones we’re born into and the ones we find.
The good news is, I think Mister Magic might be even better. The novel starts with one of the best first chapters I’ve read in a long time, a mysterious, evocative opening that establishes the tone for the rest of the story. The best way I can think of to describe it is a feeling of malevolent nostalgia, but that only scratches the surface. This is one helluva book.
What is Mister Magic about? I’m only going to give you the bare bones, because what’s important here, at least to me, are the characters, their relationships, and the darkly magical mood White creates and sustains for 304 pages. It’s not that White doesn’t tell a compelling story with a tightly wound plot that pulls you forward. She does, indeed. It’s just that Mister Magic is much more than that.
So, the bare bones: thirty years ago a classic children’s television show came to an abrupt end when tragedy struck. The funny thing is, while the show is fondly remembered by a generation of kids who grew up with it, those memories are shaky, hazy at best, and contradictory. Even stranger, in these days when just about every piece of popular culture in existence is available with the stroke of a few keys, the Mister Magic show has vanished without a trace. Now the five cast members—children then, adults now—have been reunited under mysterious circumstances.
And that’s all you’re going to get.
Those cast members, each and every one of them damaged in one way or another, unite to face a seductive, evil force that stole their childhoods away, sunk hooks into their psyches that are still there to this day. I mentioned that Hide dealt with trauma and families. Mister Magic does, too, in a way, but here it’s layered with guilt, regret, and ultimately with hidden reserves of strength and bravery despite the odds. Like I said, this is one helluva book.
One last thing—even if you don’t usually, be sure to read White’s afterward. It adds even more depth and nuance to an already beautifully written story.
Mister Magic releases August 8, 2023, and is very much worthy of a pre-order.
I’m going to sound old fashioned here, but so be it—Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country was a humdinger of a novel. Ruff somehow combined the very real dangers a family faces in Jim Crow America with H.P. Lovecraft’s patented cosmic horror, and a secret cabal of powerful magicians, and crafted a novel that hurtled like a runaway freight train from beginning to end without ever careening off the track. The fact that Ruff did all that while also acknowledging, and slyly tweaking, the well-known fact the Lovecraft was an unrepentant racist just makes it that much more fun.
With The Destroyer of Worlds—a Return to Lovecraft Country, Ruff dives head first back into the singular world he’s created, and it’s even more gonzo, more chaotic, and if anything even faster moving. Atticus, Montrose, George, Horace, Hippolyta, Letitia, and Ruby are back, criss crossing the country from the swamps of North Carolina to the desert of Nevada, and other worlds as well, in a whirlwind of action. The danger they are all in is, if anything, even greater, as Caleb Braithwhite is back, thirsting for revenge.
As with Lovecraft Country, the dangers come from all corners—wicked magicians, otherworldly creatures, ghosts, and sadly, the altogether true perils of Jim Crow era racism. Evil is evil, no matter what reality it comes from.
The Destroyer of Worlds—a Return to Lovecraft Country is more fun than a barrel of old-world tentacled gods, but make no mistake—Ruff drops the reader into the deep end without a life preserver. If you haven’t read Lovecraft Country, please read that first before tackling the new novel. Otherwise, you may find yourself occasionally confused.
The Destroyer of Worlds—a Return to Lovecraft Country is an audacious, thrilling, and pulpy (in the best way) novel that manages to attack and dissect many uncomfortable truths from our not-so-long-ago past. Give it a read. Not only will you love it, but doing so would piss old Herbert Phillips off.
I’ve 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 March, 2023 is Anticipation and my story is called Delphine’s Pillow. Here’s how it starts:
THE SWAMP WAS DIFFERENT in Ohio, different from what they’d crawled through in Louisiana.
Down there they were wet more often than they were dry. They’d be waist deep in the muddy water, weaving between cypress trees draped with Spanish moss. Snakes big around as a man’s arm hung from the trees, and the hot, thick air hummed with mosquitoes.
Third night on the run a gator took Leon. Leon was six. One minute he was stepping down off one of the rare dry, grassy hillocks where they had stopped to rest, trying not to lose his footing on the slick cypress roots and go under. Then an alligator had its jaws clean around his narrow chest and started to roll, tail thrashing, roiling the water, red blood mixing with the brown.
Judah planned their escape for months, starting right after his wife Mina died of an infection that went bad. The overseer had begun to take an interest in his daughter Delphine, not yet thirteen. Judah would not abide that. He gathered what food he could—they would have to make it through the swamp and all the way to the station in Jackson. An old woman named Maria had helped keep an eye on Delphine after Mina died, and Judah promised to take her and her grandson Leon along.
The four of them slipped away quietly the night of a party at the big house, losing themselves in the festive chaos. Judah had the food and the clothes on his back, Maria a small bible. Delphine carried a burlap sack that held her mother’s pillow.
When I reviewed Growing Things and Other Stories, Paul Tremblay’s first collection of short fiction, I had this to say:
“Just as harrowing as his novels, yet far more experimental, the stories here keep you off balance. Unsettling in the best way.”
I stand by that description with his newest collection, The Beast You Are. If anything, this collection is more—more harrowing, more experimental, more unsettling. If you’re a fan of Tremblay (and at this point, anyone with even a passing interest in horror fiction should be), then you know his novels delve deeply into horror, of both the visceral and psychological kind. The amazing thing here is that few if any of these stories are straight-up horror. They occupy a sort of liminal space where the disturbing, the disquieting, the disruptive, and yes, the frightening, coexist with bravura, innovative, and unconventional storytelling. The result is an anthology of short fiction that sucks you in while keeping you off balance. No matter how far off the beaten path Tremblay travels, he never loses his way. This is a high wire act that he nails.
Honestly, that’s all I want to say about The Beast You Are as a whole. It’s one of the best, most satisfying collections I’ve read in a long time. In fact, between this and the last book I read, Eric LaRocca’s brilliant short story collection The Trees Grew Because I Bled There, I feel like I’m on an exemplary short fiction roll. Yay, horror!
What I do want to do is call out a few of my favorite stories. These are the ones that I keep coming back to, that have stayed with me since I finished the book.
Ice Cold Lemonade 25¢ Haunted House Tour: 1 Per Person—Starts the collection off on an extraordinarily high note with a creepy, yet weirdly nostalgic tale in which Tremblay himself is the main character.
The Postal Zone: The Possession Edition and Red Eyes—Two stories that call back to, and include characters from, Head Full of Ghosts, the first novel by Tremblay I ever read, and still one of the most terrifying. The Postal Zone in particular is worth the price of admission all by itself.
House of Windows—A strange, hypnotic story with almost a Twilight Zone feel, if Rod Serling was feeling particularly absurdist.
The Last Conversation—I read this one, then went back to the beginning and read it again. Written in intimate, oppressive second person. Profoundly unsettling.
The Large Man—Feels like a long-lost classic from Kafka.
The Beast You Are—Of the many excellent stories here, I think this is the one people are going to be talking about. A novella written in free verse, The Beast You Are is almost impossible to describe, but I’ll give it a try. It’s as if Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Aesop’s Fables, Animal Farm, and The Lorax were put into a blender, then poured out onto page after page of stunning, transcendent language.
Finally, Tremblay ends the collection with the kind of detailed story notes I’m a total sucker for. Don’t miss them.
The Beast You Are debuts July 11, 2023. Pre-order it now, so you don’t miss it!
I discovered Eric LaRocca just last year, with the one-two punch of Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes, and We Can Never Leave This Place. I had this to say about that second amazing book:
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.
After devouring LaRocca’s newest collection of eight short stories, The Trees Grew Because I Bled There, I’d like to add the DNA of two more authors—Poppy Z. Brite and Roald Dahl. Like Brite, LaRocca is both uncompromising and unflinching in his descriptions of the horrors humans are capable of inflicting on each other. In fact, the last time I read a book that gave me this level of—let’s call it exhilarating discomfort—was while reading Exquisite Corpse. And like Dahl, LaRocca’s characters are acid tongued and black hearted.
The stories themselves are, each and every one, disquieting and unnerving. Despite the varied settings, they are weirdly intimate in nature, rooted in despair and trauma. Happiness is in short supply here. Like I said, exhilarating discomfort. They are also clearly and unapologetically queer. There is gut-wrenching body horror, and LaRocca never allows you to look away.
The stories are uniformly strong, but I do want to call out a couple that truly got me. Bodies Are for Burning is near the beginning of the book, and it lets you know just what you’re in for. It will fuck you up. The Strange Thing We Became is a devastating, desperate portrait of disease and loss. And Where Flames Burned Emerald as Grass is a fever dream as horrible as it is inevitable.
The Trees Grew Because I Bled There releases March 7, 2023, and is available now for pre-order. For fans of uncompromising horror, this is a must.
My son and I were lucky enough to be in the audience this past fall at WorldCon in Chicago when Seanan McGuire was awarded the Hugo for best series, for Wayward Children. I was thrilled to be there to witness the bestowing of such a well-deserved award. Since I first read Every Heart a Doorway, I’ve looked forward to the beginning of each year as it comes, not just because I hope it will be better than the last dumpster fire of a year, but because I know there will be a new Wayward Children book on the way.
The books of the Wayward Children series, of which Lost In the Moment and Found is number eight, fall roughly into two categories—group stories, in which we follow one or more characters we’ve met before, and stand-along, bottle stories. Lost In the Moment and Found is one of the stand-alones, and it’s an absolutely stunning addition to the series.
Antsy is a seven year old girl who chooses to run away from home, away from the mother she loves, because she senses that her new stepfather is going to hurt her if she stays, and her mother won’t believe her, won’t stop him. Like all the other wayward children, Antsy needs a Door, and so a Door finds her. It leads to a world unlike any we’ve seen before, the Shop Where Lost Things Go, a nexus of sorts where Doors to all manner of other worlds open every day.
Antsy is welcomed at first, accepted, protected. She feels safe for the first time in years. But safety comes at a price.
This is a story about innocence lost, and innocence taken. It’s a painful, somber meditation on childhood trauma, but it also celebrates the resilience and bravery of children who have faced things they should never be forced to face. McGuire is at her best here, writing a story that feels intensely personal to her. And McGuire at her best is one of the finest writers working today.
One note: McGuire includes a trigger warning at the beginning of this one, and for readers who have been touched by abuse, it’s warranted.
Lost In the Moment and Found is easily one of my favorite in the series. Don’t miss this one.
Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, published in 2019, was a huge, satisfying, justly-acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel that immediately vaulted to the top of the post-apocalyptic pile. The word epic quickly comes to mind. It easily earned a spot on the same book shelf as Stephen King’s The Stand and Roberts McCammon’s Swan Song. In a bit of sweet serendipity, it was a pandemic novel released as an actual pandemic ravaged the world. It followed a large and diverse group of achingly real characters as they navigated the harrowing beginning of the pandemic, with Wendig’s trademark storytelling skill in full bloom.
The good news is that Wayward, the sequel to Wanderers, just may be better. While Wanderers chronicled the start of the pandemic, Wayward is set five years later, in a world decimated by what has happened. Many of your favorite characters—Benji, Shana, Marcy—are back, still fighting the good fight, still surviving against nearly insurmountable odds.
Unfortunately, forces of evil have also survived to wreak havoc on what is stubbornly left of civilization, from nazis and white supremacists to Ed Creel, the self-proclaimed president of a shattered country. Also along for the ride—Black Swan, the A.I. intimately involved with the apocalypse.
Wayward is just as epic, just as satisfying as Wanderers. Wendig excels at…well, he excels at many things. He creates fully realized, flesh and blood characters, and then puts both them, and you as the reader, through a harrowing, emotional ringer. He takes the time and pages needed to give a true snapshot of what the pandemic has done to various parts of the U.S., with both the main characters and in small vignettes that only add resonance to his story. Finally, in a novel filled with complex scientific concepts, he makes it easily understandable without dumbing anything down.
Wayward is a novel both grand and intimate in scope, not as easy thing to do, and Wendig accomplishes it with a mastery that’s more than a little awe inspiring. It easily belongs on that same bookshelf I mentioned in the beginning. Don’t miss this one.
I’ve 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 February, 2023 is Circularity and my story is called TwelfthTime’s the Charm. Here’s how it starts:
DYING HURTS. DON’T LET anyone tell you different. The thing is, it doesn’t matter how you die—drifting off to sleep in your comfy bed after an excellent meal and a snort of brandy to warm your belly, or being torn apart by a pack of rabid honey badgers—it still hurts like the dickens. That’s because when you die, your soul, or whatever it is you call the invisible thing that makes you you—don’t go there, I’m not about to have that argument—it separates from your body. No, separates isn’t a strong enough word. It’s ripped from your corporal body, it’s cleaved away, it’s torn out at the roots. And take it from me, my friend, that fucking hurts.
I see that look on your face, you’re wondering how I could possibly know that. Tell ya what, buy me a fishbowl of Genny and a pickled egg from that jar behind the bar, and I’ll tell you my story. It’ll be well worth the six bits, that’s a promise.
I’m going to put this right at the top where you can’t miss it—pre-order The Donut Legion now! The novel releases March 21st, 2023, but believe me when I tell you, this is one you want in your hands the second it’s available. For fans of Lansdale, for fans of top-notch crime fiction, for fans of addictive page-turners in general, The Donut Legion is more fun than a murderous chimpanzee in cowboy hat and boots with a penchant for tearing the arms and legs clean off folks.
Did I mention the novel features a murderous chimpanzee in a cowboy hat and boots with a penchant for tearing the arms and legs clean off folks? There’s also a possible ghostly visitation, a flying saucer cult waiting to be raptured by aliens, a warehouse allegedly stockpiled with weapons, assorted donuts, assorted psychotic bad guys, and a gorgeous redheaded journalist named Scrappy.
Charlie has an ex-wife named Meg he still has feelings for, so when she goes missing he gets a bad feeling. A retired private detective turned writer, Charlie enlists the help of his brother Felix (who took over the detective biz from him) and the aforementioned Scrappy to find Meg. The three are soon embroiled in a deadly game of cat and mouse with those saucer people and psychos. As the bodies pile up, Lansdale does what he does best, ratcheting up the tension in a tightly wound plot that grabs you by the neck and never lets go. The cool thing with Lansdale is, even as the story propels you forward, he never forgets to season it with large dollops of his trademark, often profane humor, much of it in the form of dialogue. The Donut Legion is a novel begging to be read out loud, preferably in an East Texas twang, just to hear those words sing.
Charlie, Meg, and Felix are my favorite Lansdale creations since Hap and Leonard. And, as usual, he surround them with a rogues gallery of characters as colorful as they are dangerous. The Donut Legion is a fast, fun, immensely satisfying read. Like I said, pre-order it now, and maybe take March 21st off of work for some you-time. You’ll be glad you did.
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.