Alma Katsu wields research like a scalpel, deftly flaying open your tender parts with surgical precision, leaving your nerves quivering, exposed. I first discovered this talent of hers when I read The Hunger, which uses the meticulously researched story of the Donner party as scaffolding on which to build a supernatural horror novel that was equal parts terrifying and heartbreaking.
Now, with The Fervor, Katsu uses as her foundation one of the most shameful occurrences in U.S. history—the imprisonment of those of Japanese descent, the majority of them U.S. citizens, in internment camps during World War II. With painstaking detail she describes the very real horrors our government committed, interning men, women and children, entire families, stealing their property, destroying countless lives. Katsu starts with those raw materials, then weaves in supernatural horror steeped in Japanese folklore.
Katsu follows the lives of several characters—a young Japanese girl and her mother, a Japanese woman interned even though her husband is a white pilot off supporting the war effort, a white small town pastor, and equally small town reporter—as a mysterious, horrific sickness descends on an internment camp, causing the victims to become violent before succumbing to death. The sickness soon spreads beyond the confines of the camp. There’s a secret government plot, evil doctors, and breathless escapes and chases. All of it with a virulent, and sadly historically accurate, racism as a constant backdrop.
Katsu is a richly descriptive writer. She’ll make you squirm in the more horrifying supernatural passages, but you’ll also feel a righteous anger during the parts that are all too human, and no less horrifying.
If you don’t ordinarily read afterwords, please read this one. Katsu explains, with passion and fury, what led her to write this extraordinary novel.
The Fervor releases April 26, 2022. Don’t miss this one.
You know what I love as a reader? When I discover an author new to me, and on the basis of just one novel I’m hooked. It happened to me last year with Catriona Ward (to be fair, with her it was two novels, The Last House on Needless Street and Sundial). Now it’s happened again, with Kiersten White and her novel Hide. My friends and family members, and possibly total strangers, are going to get tired of me talking about this remarkable novel.
The premise of Hide is deceptively simple: A group of 14 people from all walks of life, all of them young, are invited to participate in a competition, a game of hide and seek set in an abandoned amusement park. The winner, the one who can spend a week without getting caught, wins $50,000. The amusement park is in ruins, overgrown with trees and vines, laid out in a maze meant to confuse and disorient.
Our main character, Mack, is a victim of violent trauma—her father slaughtered her mother and younger sister while she hid. Mack is broken. She blames herself for her sister’s death. She blames herself for pretty much everything.
The other competitors are a varied lot, and we get to know them all. White excels at creating memorable characters. There’s not a single cardboard cutout here. Still, it’s Mack that I fell in love with and found myself rooting for. She’s damaged, but has hidden reserves of strength and bravery even she doesn’t know she has. She reminded me, in little ways, of Jade, the main character in Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and that’s high praise coming from me.
There’s a little bit of a Hunger Games feel, a little reality TV competition vibe, as alliances are formed and betrayals executed. Then characters begin to disappear. I don’t really want to give too much more away. Hide is a nerve-shredding supernatural horror thriller, accent on the nerve-shredding. White ratchets up the tension right from the beginning and never lets up.
White also has a lot to say about how trauma affects us, and our ability to overcome that trauma. About the transformative power of found families, and the sometimes corrosive, corrupting power of family obligations. There are old, evil family secrets, and, go with me on this, a nod to the Minotaur myth. I read the final 50 pages of this in a mad rush, heart in my throat.
The release date for Hide is May 24, 2022. Please pre-order this. I can’t sing this novel’s praises enough.
I’m going to start this review with a short digression. Somewhere near the turn of this new century I walked into my local Half Price Books with a gift card burning a hole in my pocket. I had a plan—rather than choosing back catalog books from one or more of my go-to authors, I would expand my horizons with someone new to me.
I walked out of the store that day with four books. Strega and Blue Belle by Andrew Vachss, and Mucho Mojo and Bad Chili by Joe R. Lansdale. To say these books were revelations to me would not be overstating it. With Vachss’ Burke, I got hard-nosed noir as black as a moonless night, unflinching in their depiction of the horrors people are capable of, particularly against children. With Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard, I was introduced to pure, unfiltered mojo storytelling. From that day on I would seek out and read every book by them I could get my hands on. When I found out later that the two men were friends, I wasn’t surprised. Both men were uncompromising and unapologetic in their approach to writing and life. Sadly, Vachss passed away not long ago, which I found out in a post from Lansdale. The world of crime fiction has lost a giant.
Now back to our regularly scheduled 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.
As far as the stories go, this is a book of crime fiction, and there are few better than Lansdale. In several of them, Hap and Leonard are working as private investigators, with Hap’s wife Brett. His adult daughter Chance is along for the ride as well. They are often working with, and sparring with, their friend Marvin Hanson, the police chief of LaBorde, Texas. There are murders aplenty here, colorfully corrupt characters, and the sort of wall to wall mayhem and adventures Hap and Leonard always seem to fall into.
I had read several of these stories before as Kindle singles, and I didn’t mind rereading them a bit. Lansdale is a master storyteller. Settling down with this collection is like getting together with old, cherished friends—the kind of friends who you just know are going to get you in trouble, and you just don’t care.
Born for Trouble will be released March 21, 2022. This one’s a must-have.
John Scalzi isn’t just good, he’s deceptively good. Here’s what I mean. You pick up one of his novels and settle into your favorite reading chair, and maybe you mean to just read a chapter, but all of a sudden you look up, bleary-eyed, and three hours have gone by without you realizing it. He’s so damn readable that it’s easy to miss all the things he’s doing better than most folks writing science fiction today, from drum-tight plotting, to world-class world building, to believable characters, to solid, believable science. Scalzi pumps thrilling hard science fiction straight into your eyeballs, and makes it all look effortless.
Case in point: The Kaiju Preservation Society. Kaiju, the monolithic creatures (think Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, etc.) most often found stomping all over Tokyo, are real. They live on another Earth in an alternate dimension, and are sometimes able to cross over to ours when we explode nuclear bombs, which thin the barrier between worlds. I should probably mention that the kaiju have evolved to have internal, biological nuclear reactors. A small group of scientists, backed by our world’s governments, large corporations and billionaires, have established outposts on Kaiju Earth to study the beasts, to preserve them, and, perhaps most importantly, to keep them in their world and stop them from crossing into ours.
Scalzi takes this premise and has a rollicking good time. This is a thrilling, fast-paced adventure that had me flipping pages so fast I would have gotten paper cuts if I wasn’t reading on a Kindle. He’s worked out the flora and fauna of Kaiju Earth in exacting detail, so everything that happens, no matter how wild, feels utterly believable. Of course, when you mix giant creatures, their equally oversized and deadly parasites, snarky scientists, and nefarious billionaires, bad things are bound to happen, much to my delight. I can’t remember the last time I had this much pure fun reading a novel. Exactly what I needed to close out this dumpster fire of a year.
The Kaiju Preservation Society releases March 15, 2022. Preorder your copy today. If 2022 is anything like 2021, you’re going to need this.
Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, of which Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third following The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, is doing something unique and truly special. Chambers has created a huge, and hugely detailed, intergalactic tapestry comprised of humans, a variety of alien species, and complex AI entities, and spread them across the universe. That’s cool, in and of itself. What takes it to a whole other level, for me, is that with each book so far Chambers has introduced us to new and different characters, in new and different, far-flung corners of their universe. Taken together, the novels form a mosaic of sorts, a future history as grand as any in science fiction today, but built of smaller, more intimate stories rather than lightyear spanning space battles and multi-generational sagas.
Record of a Spaceborn Few concerns the Exodus Fleet, a gathering of spaceships that contain the last remnants of the humans who left a poisoned Earth generations ago. They’ve long been accepted by the myriad other citizens of the galactic community, but they keep one foot in space, living in their ramshackle, antiquated ships rather than settling planet-side. Because this is Chambers, we get to know the members of the Exodus Fleet through the lives of a half dozen or so denizens, intimately, not just how they live their lives day to day, but also their hopes and dreams, and the things that keep them up at night.
Through the first part of the novel the characters are mostly separate, telling alternating stories, but midway through a tragedy brings them together. Chambers handles that tragedy, and the resulting heartbreak, with compassion and understanding.
This is hard science fiction with heart, humor, and humanity (and I’m not just talking about humans, here). Chambers has lots to say about the nature of community, about diversity and inclusivity. Reading the Wayfarer novels gives me comfort is a way few books do. They are a joy.
Chambers won the Hugo Award for best series in 2019. The fourth novel in the series, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, was published in April of this year.
It’s weird—as overwhelming and depressing as 2021 has been in many ways, it yielded some amazing books. Here then, my year in reading, by the numbers:
33—The total number of books I read. I’m including my current read, the excellent Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, which I should finish by the end of the year. I usually read between 25 and 30 books a year, so this is about average for me. I would love to read more but this whole having to work for a living, and sleep, really cuts into the reading time.
15—The number of books that most folks would consider horror or adjacent. Hey, I like what I like.
10—Science fiction and fantasy. Nope, no way am I going to try to differentiate between the two, there’s way too much crossover for that. I like it, I read it, that’s good enough for me.
The other eight books are a mix of thrillers, crime novels, books that stomp all over the lines between different genres, and one western by Joe R. Lansdale his ownself. And speaking of Joe…
4—The most books I read by any one author. That would be Mr. Lansdale. Happily, he’s as prolific as he is masterful.
I really tried to mix it up this year, at least as far as reading different authors. For instance…
8—The number of books by authors I was reading for the first time. I’m happy to see that I tried some new writers, and I have to say, I’m getting good book recs, because none of them disappointed me. Several have been added to my ever-growing list of must-read authors.
0—The number of reads that would not be considered “genre” in some way. Like I said, I like what I like.
IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER— My six favorite reads of the year. If I was writing this yesterday, or tomorrow, this list might be different.
My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones—I only discovered Jones a couple of years ago, but he’s quickly become one of my favorite horror writers. Hell, one of my favorite writers, period. After Mongrels, The Only Good Indians, and now My Heart Is a Chainsaw, he has confirmed his position as one of the very best in the field. Jones writes with heart, passion, and a brutal lyricality of language and voice that is always distinct, and always just right for the story he’s telling.
The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig—With The Book of Accidents, Wendig takes his first stab at straight-up horror, and not surprisingly, he knocks it clean out of the park and into the parking lot. He’s playing with big themes here: Evil creates more evil, trauma creates more trauma, and it takes effort and heart and love to break that cycle. Love, particularly the familial kind, can be every bit as powerful as evil.
Sundial and The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward—Two for one, here. With these books, Ward is now one of my favorite writers, simple as that. Ward burrows her way beneath your skin, sets her barbed hooks deep, then drags those hooks out of your flesh slowly but inexorably. She conceals twists and shocks throughout her work. They explode like land mines, psychic shrapnel, constantly reshaping the novels, never letting you catch your breath.
Moon Lake by Joe R. Lansdale—Lansdale is a natural born storyteller. A couple pages into a Lansdale novel, and you’re sitting around a campfire on a dark summer night somewhere in East Texas, listening to magic being conjured from the smoke, or parked on a barstool in Nagadoches, throwing back a beer while a master spins a yarn. When I tell you that with Moon Lake he’s operating at the height of his considerable powers, that’s really saying something. This one is special.
The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey—Gailey has become one of my favorite authors over the past few years. On paper, at least, this is a science fiction novel. Here’s the funny part, though—the science fictional aspects of The Echo Wife, as enthralling as they are, are just a small part of what makes this such an exceptional novel. The novel’s plot, a piano wire-taut, expertly crafted thriller involving a particularly twisted extra marital affair, divorce, and multiple murders, rushes inexorably toward its conclusion with consummate skill.
Billy Summers by Stephen King—Much like with Joe Lansdale, here’s another old pro working at the top of his game. Billy Summers is a crime thriller, but it’s also a road novel, and a war novel, and finally a love story. King pulls off a bit of sleight of hand towards the end that’s ultimately satisfying. There’s soul searching, and hard-nosed decisions are made, and there is, at the end of it all, well-earned redemption.
FINALLY, A WORD ABOUT NETGALLEY— I signed up with Netgalley.com this year and am really enjoying it. The chance to read books I’m looking forward to, before they’re released to the general public…what’s not to like? And if a few folks read my review and decide to buy the book, that’s satisfying to me.
All in all, 2021 was a pretty good year for me, writing wise. Sure there were plenty of disappointments. I have several children’s books (a chapter book and three picture books to be precise) that haven’t found homes yet, and I think they’re pretty damn good. Early next year I’m planning on having the chapter book ripped apart by pro editor Chapel Orahamm, and then back out they all go. I collected a lovely bouquet of rejection letters from various magazines, but that’s actually a net positive, because that means I was submitting, which I think is about as much fun as dental surgery without anesthetic. I submitted a decent amount in 2021, and will force myself to keep it up in 2022.
As far as successes go, here they are, in no particular order…
TREETOWN, IN THE ANTHOLOGY OUTSIDERS: SHORT STORIES BY OHIO’S BEST WRITERS
THE WILD HUNT, IN THE ANTHOLOGY HEADS AND TALES: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY
This one started with an idea from writer/editor Chapel Orahamm—what if pairs of writers teamed up to reinvent classic myths and legends from opposite perspectives. A group of us from the Twitter writing community joined together under his leadership and paired up. Canadian author Renée Gendron transplanted the legend of the Wild Hunt to the U.S./Canadian border during the War of 1812. I had a great time with this; so much so, in fact, that I’ve agreed to work with her and expand our two story halves into a novella. Uncharted territory for me, but I love a challenge. I also created the cover art. Here’s a link to the anthology: https://www.amazon.com/Heads-Tales-Other-Side-Story/dp/1737400200/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=heads+and+tales&qid=1639446734&sr=8-1
A VISIT FROM THE SLAYMAN AND THE RIDGES, IN THE ANTHOLOGY WELCOME TO SIMMINS, DETECTIVE SPENCER
Orahamm, along with a bunch of the same writers and a few new ones, dove back into a new project. This one was a true collaboration amongst all of us. We invented Simmins, a small mountain mining town in North Carolina, created some shared characters, then all wrote stories of holiday horror set in the month of December, 1998. I have two stories in this one—A Visit From the Slayman, which attempts to give a slenderman-like character a new mythology; and The Ridges, which starts out as a Hallmark channel “meet cute” kind of story, and then ends not so cute at all. I also did the cover here. This one was just published. It’s available as an e-book now, and as a print edition any day now. Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/Welcome-Simmins-Detective-Spencer-Orahamm-ebook/dp/B09NB41516/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Welcome+to+Simmins%2C+Detective+Spencer&qid=1639071111&sr=8-1
RAT AND ROACH, WINNER OF THE F(R)ICTION SPRING LITERARY CONTEST IN THE FICTION CATEGORY
Okay, this one is special. Not only did I win the short story category in this contest, which I understand is a pretty big deal, but my category was judged by Stephen Graham Jones. Jones has quickly become one of my very favorite authors. His two most recent novels, My Heart Is a Chainsaw and The Only Good Indians, are modern horror classics. Rat and Roach is a story of addiction and horror set on the streets of Cleveland, my home town. It will be available to read sometime soon. I’m extremely proud of this one.
That’s it, my year in writing. My goal in 2022 is to keep writing, keep submitting, and hopefully, find homes for more of my word babies.
It was the best of times, it was the…okay, it was not a bad year drawing wise. I can boil it down to four categories.
MY REDBUBBLE.COM SHOP I started my Redbubble shop in October of 2020, but in 2021 I really spent time adding content. I’ve had a ton of fun drawing new art that, for the most part, works within my stated theme, which is artwork inspired by iconic books, authors, and movies. I define iconic as books, authors, and movies I like. Hey, it’s my shop.
Am I getting rich from Redbubble? Oh, hell no. The beauty of Redbubble is that they handle all printing and distribution, so I never have to worry about sourcing, say, slim-fit t-shirts, printing them, and shipping them to Paraguay. The downside is that Redbubble takes a huge slice of the pie. I sell more stickers than anything else, and I make, literally pennies on them. I’m not complaining, mind you. I don’t have the time or bandwidth to open an ETSY shop, so this works for me.
My favorite part of the whole thing? Seeing which countries my customers hail from. The fact that a water bottle featuring one of my designs is heading half way around the world is both fascinating and immensely gratifying. My best customer (Twitter friend Sheena and her fiancé Graham) lives in Norway. That is so cool.
AN IPAD, AN APPLE PENCIL, AND PROCREATE Speaking of Redbubble, nearly all the new art I’ve created for it (as opposed to older art that was already completed—some I did all the way back in high school) was done digitally, using an Apple Pencil and Procreate software on my iPad. I love the versatility, the fact that I can try different tools and different techniques and not worry about ruining a drawing, or having to start over. There are lots of other drawing programs out there, but for me at least, Procreate is easy to learn and intuitive. My goal is for you to not be able to tell which artwork of mine is hand drawn and which is digital. I think I’m getting close.
ART MARKETS In 2021 I starting selling my work at outdoor art markets and shows again, something I hadn’t done in decades. I blame my brother Jim. He makes gorgeous, imaginative fairy container gardens, which he’s been successfully selling at shows, and he asked me to share a booth space with him. We ended up doing a bunch of shows together. I rediscovered how much I love hanging out, talking to people about art, connecting with other creative folks. This will definitely continue in 2022. Oh, and I made a few bucks. Win-win.
ANTHOLOGY COVERS I’m a sometimes, somewhat active member of the Twitter writing community, and through that I was lucky enough to connect with a group of immensely talented writers and participate in two fiction anthologies: Heads and Tales: The Other Side of the Story, and the just published Welcome to Simmins, Detective Spencer. I have one story in the first, and two in the second. Our editor for both volumes, Chapel Grahamm, did a wonderful job—keeping a bunch of writers on task and on deadline can be like juggling cats—and I’m extremely proud of my stories in both books.
Dave, you may be asking yourself, what’s that got to do with drawing? Glad you asked! I was asked to create the cover art for both anthologies and happily agreed. Both jobs were fun as can be, and, I think, successful.
Curious? Here are links for both. Heads and Tales is available in both print and e-book editions, and Welcome to Simmins, Detective Spencer is available now as an e-book, with a print edition coming any day now:
Even if I wasn’t already a fan of Cassandra Khaw, which I absolutely am, I would have purchased this slim novel anyway based solely on the stunning cover art by Samuel Araya. All the adjectives that can be used to describe the cover—creepy, atmospheric, decadent, mysterious, monstrous—work doubly well for Nothing But Blackened Teeth.
Five college friends descend on an abandoned, thousand year old Japanese manor to celebrate the wedding of two of the group. But this isn’t just manor. Its walls, its very foundation, is filled with the bones of a bride who’s husband-to-be was killed, and the bodies of hundreds of other girls who were interred to keep her spirit company. This group of friends has been chasing the lure of haunted houses for years, and they’ve found the motherlode here. The manor was sealed up with everything inside it, from artwork to artifacts, and as fitting a building that’s a literal ossuary, everything has gone to rot and ruin, decomposition and decay.
What begins as a night of drinking and feasting soon degenerates into bickering and recriminations. These are friends in name only. It quickly becomes apparent that whatever relationships they once had have curdled, festered, and are now as deteriorated at the manor they find themselves in.
Then the ghost of the bride and her minions arrive.
Khaw has a gift for extravagant, unnerving language, and Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a tour de force. They meld toxic relationships, heartbreak and grief, Japanese folklore, brutal violence, and hallucinogenic horror into a black-hearted haunted house extravaganza. Khaw is a true original. They write like no one else working today, building dense, imagery-saturated scenes with delirious abandon.
Spooky season may be over, but don’t let that stop you from visiting this haunted manor. Just pray it lets you leave.
I get book recs from a variety of sources—Twitter, from both friends and authors I follow, reviews (io9 and Tor.com are both great resources), friends IRL, and, frequently, my son. Eric is a high school English teacher with a taste in books remarkably similar to mine. We do have some differences in likes, particularly his obsession with massive, multi-volume fantasy series, which I just don’t have enough time to fully appreciate. So many books, so little reading time. But, usually, when he suggests something, chances are I’ll like it.
Which brings us to The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. He’s been singing the Murderbot praises for a couple of years, and now that I’ve read All Systems Red, the first in the series, I’m upset with myself for waiting so long. My only excuse is, so many books, etc.
This book is so much fun it should be illegal. All Systems Red is a novella (as are, I believe, all the other volumes except for the most recent), and it’s a fast, breathless read. Murderbot, as it refers to itself, is a SecUnit, a security android of sorts, contracted out to protect teams of scientists as they explore distant planets. A couple important things to keep in mind here. First, Murderbot has hacked its own system, and is more self-aware than anyone knows. It may be a man-made creation that’s part machine and part organic, but it definitely has a mind of its own. And second, the future Wells has envisioned is very corporate and cutthroat, so things don’t always work like they should. Think lowest bidders and corporate espionage.
Wells’ world building is solid and inventive. She manages the difficult trick of throwing the reader headlong into her world, without a massive info dump, while giving enough context clues that I settled right in and never felt lost. In All Systems Red, we have rival corporate exploratory groups, mass murder, and a harrowing game of cat and mouse. All of it is well thought out and utterly believable. The science, and make no mistake, this is hard science fiction, feels right. The scientists Murderbot is assigned to protect are nicely differentiated. They are characters in their own right, and never read like chess pieces Wells is just moving around the board.
The genius here, though, the true genius, is in the character of Murderbot itself. It narrates in its own distinctive voice, and let me tell you, Murderbot has issues. It’s sarcastic, a little world-weary, and not all that fond of humans, to the point where it’s not so enthusiastic about protecting them. It would prefer some alone time so it can watch the hundreds of hours of entertainment (read futuristic soap operas) it has saved to its memory. Murderbot may step up and save the day when lives are on the line, but not without a lot of grumbling.
All Systems Red is also wildly funny, which I was not prepared for. I found myself genuinely laughing more than once. Wells has already won Hugos and Nebulas, and The Murderbot Diaries is Hugo nominated this year for best series. I say, give her all the awards. I’ll be adding the other Murderbot books into regular rotation in my TBR pile.
I first discovered Richard Chizmar with the Gwendy books (Gwendy’s Button Box, cowritten with Stephen King, and Gwendy’s Magic Feather). I thoroughly enjoyed both, and I’m looking forward to the third book in the series, Gwendy’s Final Task, coming February 15, 2022.
In the meantime, we have Chasing the Boogeyman, and let me say this as clearly as possible: Chizmar hits it out of the park. He does something truly unique here, using his own youth and young adult life in a small Maryland town as the bones of his story. Chizmar himself is the main character, just back in town after graduating college. His real life friends, family, fiancé, are all characters, the streets of his hometown the streets where his tale takes place. And then he introduces into this nostalgic, real life setting a fictional, terrifying serial killer who brutally murders four teenage girls. Chizmar, the character, becomes obsessed with trying to find the killer, soon dubbed the Boogeyman by local media. It’s an inventive, downright audacious piece of metafiction.
The murders as described are harrowing, in large part because Chizmar shows just how easily it can happen, and just how quickly a town can descend into fear and paranoia. Chizmar has a real gift for describing small town life, the ins and outs, the way neighbors support and rely on each other, and sometimes turn on each other.
Chizmar is an immensely readable writer, and Chasing the Boogeyman is a page-turner. I stayed up way too late reading on multiple nights. The ending, when it comes, is satisfying as hell. I’m happy to report that I never guessed the identity of the killer.
One other thing—I enjoyed the non-serial killer parts of the the story just as much as the central mystery. Chizmar is a natural storyteller. The world he shows us is evocative and lovingly described. And if the real life Chizmar is anything like his character in Chasing the Boogeyman, I’d like to meet him for a beer. My treat.
I read The Last House on Needless Street, Catriona Ward’s last novel, just a little while back, and was suitably gobsmacked. It’s equal parts, audacious, heartbreaking, and creepy, a tour de force that finds Ward juggling five or six different narrators (one of whom is a cat…seriously), each more unreliable than the last. It’s a thrilling, flawless high wire act.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but holy fuck, Sundial is even better. Ward burrows her way beneath your skin, sets her barbed hooks deep, then spends 272 pages dragging those hooks out of your flesh slowly but inexorably. Sundial is part psychological horror, part desert-set gothic, and part extremely dysfunctional family drama, with a little Island of Dr. Moreau thrown in for good measure.
Rob has a curdled marriage to a sometimes abusive husband, and two daughters. The oldest, Callie, has a darkness inside her that’s beginning to manifest in horrifying ways. Ways that remind Rob all too well of secrets buried in her own troubled past.
And…that’s all you’re getting. Much like she did with Last House on Needless Street, Ward has concealed twists and shocks throughout Sundial. They explode like land mines, psychic shrapnel, constantly reshaping the novel, never letting you catch your breath. To give away any more than I have would be criminal.
Sundial release March 1st, 2022, but is available for pre-order now. This is a must-read. In fact, anything Ward writes from now on will be a must-read for me.
Hey Dave, you may be asking yourself, you’re reviewing a book, why is this post in the writing section of your blog? What gives?
Glad you asked!
Author’s World Builder is a notebook for fiction writers, and it’s exactly what the title suggests—a well-thought-out, detailed, even exhaustive resource to help writers build their fictional worlds from the ground up. I’ve worked with Orahamm on a couple of projects and can attest to the fact that he’s a talented writer and editor, and that’s evident of every page of this meticulously designed notebook. It’s made to be interactive, with plenty of lined pages for you to take notes and build your world one brick at a time.
Orahamm starts with the big questions—what’s your title, your main idea, your themes, primary audience, and genre? Then, over the course of more than a hundred pages, he helps you flesh out your characters, setting, plot—everything down to the smallest detail. Does your world contain magic? What sort of magic system is in play? What are the politics, education, economics, geography, and so much more. All the questions are here for you to answer, and as you do, your fictional world emerges fully formed.
Orahamm has created an essential tool for writers of fantasy and science fiction, but I would argue that it’s equally valuable for writers of most genres, from mysteries and horror to historical fiction, even family dramas. It’s the perfect way to keep track of your characters, all the little details that give a book depth.
As a writer, I’ve always been a pantser—I usually start writing with only a general idea of where I’m going to end up. I never outline. This notebook may change how I work.
Author’s World Builder is available now on Amazon. As an added bonus, Orahamm has created several different covers, to help you differentiate between your various WIPs. If you’re a writer, this is a must-have.
If you’ve spent any time on this blog (and if you haven’t, go have a look around—I’ll be here when you get back) you know that Seanan McGuire is one of my favorite authors. She is amazingly prolific, with stand-alone novels and several on-going series, all of it of such high quality that it’s more than a little intimidating. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve read by her, but there’s a special place in my heart for her Wayward Children series, of which Where the Drowned Girls Go is the newest addition.
A novella like the others, Where the Drowned Girls Go is the seventh book in the series, and like the others, it is equal parts lyrical, whimsical, at times harrowing, emotionally devastating, and breathtakingly imaginative. The Wayward Children books are portal fantasies. They tell the collective stories of what happens to the children who find the doors they need—doors to other worlds where they have experiences that are fantastical or horrifying, where they become heroes or monsters—but then come back here, to their mundane lives and parents who don’t understand them.
The other books in the series take place either in other worlds or on the grounds of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. This one is a little different, in that we are introduced to The Whitethorn Institute, a school whose mission to close all those doors, keep the children here and away from them, whether they want to be or not. Eleanor reluctantly agrees to allow Cora to transfer to the Whitethorn Institute because the Drowned Gods are calling to her from beyond their door, trying to drag her back. She thinks it’s her only option, but things go south quickly. Now she’s trapped.
McGuire has always written movingly about inclusivity, and that is certainly the case here, with a special emphasis on body positivity. Like all her characters, Cora is complex and fully realized, with a determination and bravery that is hard won and inspiring. Where the Drowned Girls Go, particular in the opening chapters, has an air of melancholy that makes it clear wayward children must make difficult decisions and live with the consequences. Whichever side of the door they may be one, whichever door they walk through, the lives of children are much more complicated, and sometimes heart-rending, than adults know.
Where the Drowned Girls Go released January 4, 2022, and is available for pre-order now.
Some folks are natural born storytellers. Whether holding down the end of the bar in a hole-in-the-wall dive, or sitting around a campfire under a star-filled sky, when they start telling a story, every person within earshot hushes and strains forward, hanging on every word. The really good ones, the best ones, can weave castles in the sky, can coax a laugh from your belly and tears from your eyes, with just a few well-chosen words.
Natural born storytellers are rare. Even more rare is when one of them is also an excellent writer. This may sound counterintuitive. Dave, you may be thinking, aren’t all writers natural born storytellers? Thing is, I don’t think so. There are many wonderful writers, authors at the top of their craft, who I suspect would not be able to hold the attention of a bar full of drunks. They have learned to write, to tell a story, but they are not natural born storytellers.
Joe R. Lansdale, I suspect, would have those drunks hanging on every word.
Radiant Apples, his newest novel, is a masterclass in storytelling. Lansdale writes compelling crime novels, horror, fantasy, westerns, and probably shopping lists. Radiant Apples is a western, set in the very early 1900s. The main character and narrator, Nat Love, is now a fifty-something African American porter on a Pullman train, but he’s led an exciting, colorful life. Known as Deadwood Dick in his younger years, his past exploits as a buffalo soldier, bounty hunter, and Marshal for Hanging Judge Parker have been recounted in dime novels (somehow without mentioning that he was black).
Nat is settled in his current, uneventful life, until the train he’s working on is robbed by the Radiant Apple gang, a relatively inept but violent and just plain mean group of miscreants. Due in part to his former life, Nat gets hired to bring the gang in. He and his old running buddy, Choctaw, hit the road in pursuit. They’re both older, out of practice, and maybe a little slower on the draw. Lansdale orchestrates the climax of the novel, a gun battle on the streets of a corrupt Oklahoma town, like a true maestro.
Through Nat’s words, Lansdale brings all the gun play and danger in the wild and wooly west to vivid, breathtaking life. Nat may be a might cantankerous, but he’s also got more than his share of hard-won wisdom. Lansdale captures Nat’s voice perfectly, and Choctaw’s as well. They’re both funny, inappropriate as hell, and full of piss and vinegar. They may be rode hard and put away wet, but they’re honorable men, which doesn’t mean they’re not willing to kill men in need of killing.
Because this is Lansdale, you know he’ll have some things to say about race. Nat is black and Choctaw is biracial, black and American Indian, and Lansdale doesn’t shy away from the indignities they’ve suffered. As always, he’s clear-eyed and matter of fact.
Radiant Apples is Lansdale at his best, spinning a thrilling yarn that will keep you enthralled from first page to last. It releases November 30th, but do yourself a favor and pre-order this one. It’s special.
No windswept moors, no crumbling castles perched at the top of cliffs, just waiting for a distraught maiden to cast herself onto the jagged rocks below. As the subtitle suggests, and the stories themselves make clear, this is not your grandfather’s gothic horror. In the words of editor Alex Woodroe: “Twenty-five women and non-binary authors from the worlds of Horror Fiction and Illustration form an unholy union and drag the blackened heart of Classic Gothic Horror into modern daylight! In the process, they have sculpted an altogether sleeker, more feral beast.”
This is an apt description. In Somnio is crafted from 19 short stories and several wonderfully macabre illustrations, and what strikes me is the breathtaking variety of subject matter. Most have modern settings, some could easily be described as experimental in structure, yet they are all recognizably gothic horror. I mentioned distraught maidens above—the women characters here have power and agency. They are not helpless victims. And make no mistake, this is gothic horror with the accent on horror. There are some seriously creepy stories here, the kind that crawl under your skin and lodge themselves at the base of your brain.
As an editor, Woodroe has a keen eye and a deft hand. In Somnio is a uniformly strong collection. Each story, individually, belongs here, and they also work together as a whole, thematically. That, to me, is the sign of a good editor.
In a book filled with excellent stories, I’d like to mention a couple of standouts. These ones in particular sunk their claws into me a little extra deep: • The Blight of Black Creek by Mary Rajotte • Trespass by Aster S. Monroe • Wild Thing by S.E. Zeller • What We Sow by Taylor Jordan Pitts • Always An After by A.P. Howell • The Reaching Sea by Victoria Nations As I said, Woodroe has gathered together a great group of stories, and your favorites may be completely different than mine.
I believe this is Woodroe’s first collection as editor. If that’s the case, I look forward to seeing what she does next. In Somnio drops November 1st, and is available for pre-order now.
If I tell you that The Violence is a novel about domestic violence, about the effect of abuse on three generations—a mother, her two daughters, and their grandmother—do you picture a domestic drama? What if I tell you The Violence is also a pandemic novel? With Covid-19 still fresh and raw in Americans’ minds, with Trump reelected, a new virus called the Violence causes explosive, murderous rage at whomever is closest to the infected, often resulting in death. Finally, what if I tell you that a new version of professional wrestling plays a prominent role in the novel? What are you picturing now?
Whatever that is, whatever you have in your mind’s eye, The Violence is so much more.
The scenes of abuse are harrowing, even hard to read. There is harm and violence of every kind—physical, verbal, psychological, emotional—and Dawson never allows you to look away, or even to blink. It’s like she’s poking at an open wound. The intimacy of these scenes is extraordinary. The victims of that abuse—Chelsea Martin, her mother Patricia, her teenaged daughter Ella, and her young daughter Brooklyn—may be beaten down, but they are fighters, with hidden reserves of strength and resilience. Dawson puts these characters through the wringer. As The Violence progressed, I often found myself cheering for them, no matter how tense and hopeless the situations they found themselves in.
When it comes to describing the Violence pandemic, Dawson again excels. She’s sharply critical of the pandemic response, both the previous one and the current. After what we’ve all experienced with Covid-19, this new pandemic feels painfully real. The Violence, when it happens, is unnerving, even terrifying. Dawson is unflinching in describing it.
And the professional wrestling? Dawson has a great feel for that world, all the little details that make it seem just right. And that includes the idea that family isn’t just what you’re born into, but any group that takes you in and treats you with love and respect.
Dawson has written something truly special here. As I mentioned earlier, The Violence is often hard to read, but I think it’s also important, even essential. It releases February 1, 2022, but is available for preorder now.
I find myself, yet again, in the uncomfortable position of wanting to sing the praises of a novel without giving much of anything away. You should go into this one without knowing too much, so as not to diminish the considerable pleasures it’s sure to bring. But, I need to say something to entice you, so…
Abitha, a young widow in 1666 New England meets a demon, perhaps the devil himself. If you think you know where this is going from that brief description, think again. Slewfoot surprised me at every twist and turn. Brom has a true gift for immersing the reader in every aspect of seventeenth century Puritan life, in the culture centered around the church, in the day to day life of the colonists. He also immerses us in a much stranger, much wilder world—that of the ancient Pagan spirits that call the forest their home. Brom has an affinity for the natural world that is evident on every page.
That tension, between the ultra religious colonists and the earthy, primitive yet powerful wildfolk who roamed the land long before humans arrived, forms the backbone of Slewfoot. Brom digs down deep into the difference between good and evil, God and the devil, between slayer and protector. I found the conversation endlessly fascinating, but there’s so much more to this novel. This is no dry, boring religious exercise. Slewfoot is action packed, drenched in fire and blood. There’s mystery and magic, and in Abitha, and Slewfoot himself, Brom has created complex, layered characters I found myself rooting for. Abitha is not afraid to question the beliefs that shackle her fellow villagers. She’s tough and brave, and the transformation that caps her story arc is both surprising and, in some ways, inevitable. I also found Slewfoot’s journey of discovery, his quest to find his true nature, emotional and affecting.
It’s telling to me that, in a novel filled with godlike wild folk who have slaughtered without mercy for centuries, the biggest monsters in Slewfoot are the Puritan town fathers who use the Bible as a bludgeon, who use religion as a tool to fear-monger, to consolidate and keep power over the people they are meant to protect.
One important note: The published version of Slewfoot includes more than two dozen of Brom’s beautiful illustrations. I read this as a digital ARC which did not include the artwork. From what I’ve seen (including the front and back covers shown above), they are worth the price of admission all by themselves.
I posted several days ago about the comic strip Roland Napoli and I created back in the 80s, Lunapurd—he as artist and me as writer. I only had a few strips to show, but it turns out Roland has all of them, and was gracious enough to scan them and send them my way.
So, over the next couple of months I’m going to occasionally post some more strips. Even if the pop culture references are dated (the 80s, remember), I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished. As always, Roland’s artwork is perfect.
A professional hitman has one last job to do, and then he’s getting out, but it doesn’t quite go according to plan. You’ve heard this story before, right? For a lot of authors, that would be good enough. They’d write it as a high octane thriller with a formidable body count and leave it at that.
Luckily, Stephen King isn’t just any author, and Billy Summers is so much more than a cookie cutter hitman thriller. This is probably going to be my shortest review ever, because seeing what King does with this basic setup is such a pleasure, I don’t want to give, well, anything away really. Suffice to say that Billy Summers, the character, is a wholly original creation—an Iraq war veteran and decorated sniper with a moral code every bit as strong as his talent for killing. He also just might be a writer, and we get to read some of what turns out to be his own autobiography.
The other main protagonist, a young woman of extraordinary strength and resilience, is one of the most complex and fully realized female characters King has ever written. She’s joined by a rogue’s gallery of underworld bosses,underlings, and hangers-on. King has written a lot of crime fiction in recent years, and he seems at home in the shadowy world these characters move through. There’s an authenticity to all of this that feels just right.
If I’ve made it sound like Billy Summers isn’t a crime thriller, that’s on me. King ratchets up the tension, and there are plenty of bodies piled up. So yes, Billy Summers is a crime thriller, but it’s also a road novel, and a war novel, and finally a love story. King pulls off a bit of sleight of hand towards the end that’s ultimately satisfying. There’s soul searching, and hard-nosed decisions are made, and there is, at the end of it all, well-earned redemption.
I’ve tried to give you at least an idea of the novel—hopefully enough to whet your appetite. Listen, just read Billy Summers. I think this King fella is gonna be big.
I met my friend Roland Napoli in high school. He was then, and continues to be to this day, one of the best cartoonists and illustrators I have ever met.
Sometime in the 80s we decided to take a couple of characters he had been drawing for years and build a comic strip around them. The result was Lunapurd, the adventures of two cute aliens who crash land on earth, landing in the well of a mountain woman named Eunice. I wrote the strip and Roland drew it. We put together six weeks of strips, including Sunday strips and dailies.
It was a huge amount of fun. Unfortunately, we were young, inexperienced, and had no concept of how to actually pitch the strip to a syndicate, and the idea eventually died. I recently came across a few of the strips in my files. The pop culture references are out of date, as they’re more that 30 years old, but I remain extremely proud of what we came up with, particularly Roland’s artwork. Nice job, Roland!
This has been one helluva year for horror. Maybe there’s something in the air, something in the water. Maybe the flaming dumpster fire that is the past couple of years has somehow concentrated all that consuming rage out there and distilled it into pure, undiluted creative excellence. Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents, Joe Lansdales’s Moon Lake, Hailey Piper’s Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy—that’s just off the top of my head, the list goes on and on.
Which brings me to The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward. Ward has written a book so audacious, so original, so unnerving, that I want to shout about it to the world, or at least to the folks who read this blog. My problem is that due to the nature of the novel, I don’t really want to share anything about the plot at all. The Last House On Needless Street works best when you go in cold and let it worm its way under your skin and sink the claws in.
What am I willing to I tell you? This is a horror novel, make no mistake. Ward ratchets up the tension right from the beginning and plays your nerves like a virtuoso. The Last House On Needless Street begins with a young girl going missing, and it is stressful, particularly reading it as a parent.
I said it’s audacious a couple paragraphs back. Here’s what I meant. The novel has four, no five, main characters telling the story in alternating chapters, and every one of them is an unreliable narrator. That’s crazy, it should be impossible, and Ward pulls it off without breaking a sweat. Each character is distinct, with their own world view, their own language, their own (damaged) past. Oh, and one of them is a cat. This is a highwire act without a net, and every word of it works.
I said it’s a horror novel, and it is, but it’s more than that. Ward explores heartbreaking issues of abuse, mistreatment, family dynamics, and mental instability (I’m treading carefully here, to not give anything away), with compassion and understanding. All while never not keeping you on the edge of your seat.
The Last House On Needless Street drops on September 28th. This one is well worth a pre-order. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.
Yes, Twitter can be a dumpster fire. But I’ve found a supportive community there for my writing and artwork, I’ve made some fine friends from around the globe, and increasingly, I’ve discovered amazing authors new to me. Case in point, Hailey Piper. A little while back I noticed that writers I love, and members of the writing community whose opinions I trust, were all recommending her as a horror writer to watch. So I picked up The Worm and His Kings, and holy hell, they were so right. This was cosmic horror with both the cosmic and the horror on equal footing. More than that, it explored gender, love and loss with a sensitivity and compassion that never lessened the terror, but only deepened it. (You can read my review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2021/02/20/book-review-the-worm-and-his-kings-by-hailey-piper/).
If The Worm and His Kings convinced me that Piper was a real talent, then her short story collection Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy puts her on the same level as the very best horror writers working today. 18 stories, and not a weak one in the bunch. They are varied as can be, but they share some common themes—each one is a dark meditation on life, death, and all the spaces in between. Piper’s stated goal on her Twitter profile is to make horror gay as fuck. She does that in many of the stories here, exploring gender and sexuality with her trademark sympathetic yet hard-nosed approach.
There is a deep sadness, a current of melancholy, that runs through this collection. Piper doesn’t hold back. She is perfectly happy to drag your heart through the wringer and leave it shredded. She has a real knack for writing damaged characters, characters who don’t belong in their worlds, or even in their own skins. She also doesn’t hold back on the more horrific elements. These stories are unnerving, disquieting, and at times truly unsettling. I felt hints of writers like Kelly Link and (the short stories of) Paul Tremblay, but Piper is her own writer, a true original.
As I said, there’s not a weak story in the bunch, but a couple of standouts for me: “Candyland”, “Seven Signs He Doesn’t Love You”, “Crones In Their Larval State”, and “Jormungandr’s Dance”. Special mention must be made of “Recitation of the First Feeding”, the longer, final story in the collection. Quite simply, it’s a tour de force—somber, aching, beautifully told, and utterly devastating. The fitting end to such a superb collection.
If you haven’t yet discovered Hailey Piper, this might be a good place to start. I guarantee you’ll come back for more.
Why am I posting this in the writing category? Well, I don’t have a general category, so there’s that. But also, I’ve been a movie fan for as long as I remember, and the visual storytelling that is cinema’s stock in trade has no doubt informed my writing. Even so, I’m not writing about movies here, except tangentially; instead, here are three small stories about things that happened inside movie theaters, all from decades ago, that I have never forgotten.
June, 1975. I’m 15, seeing Jaws for the first time. The theater is packed of course, because it’s Jaws, the movie that invented the summer blockbuster. Like always, I’m sitting where I always sat before my body betrayed me and made it too uncomfortable, third row center. Next to me is a young kid, maybe 7 or 8—way too young to see Jaws, but Mapletown Theater, my decrepit local theater of choice in Maple Heights, Ohio will sell tickets to anyone with a pulse—and he’s by himself. He’s got a jumbo pop (it’s Ohio, that’s what we call it)) in one hand and a popcorn in the other, because Mapletown, like many movie theaters back then, does not have cup holders. The kid looks scared, but he’s holding his own. Until the scene. You know the scene. An empty rowboat, and then a head rolls out of a hole in the bottom. In a movie with few jump scares, it’s the biggest. The kid next to me screams and throws both hands up in the air, drenching several rows behind him in a tsunami of pop and popcorn. Not only did it break the tension in a way that Steven Spielberg would not approve of, it brought the house down.
November, 1976. I’m 16, seeing Carrie for the first time. I’m back at Mapletown, because to them an “R” rating is just a suggestion. It’s the very last scene of the movie. Sue is bending down to place flowers beneath the cross that read Carrie White Rots in Hell, and…and…the film breaks. The sound continues, so I can hear Sue screaming, but no visual. I had read that there was a shocker of an ending. Could this be it? I had to go back the next night and watch it again, just to see that hand thrust up out of the ground.
December, 1986. I’m 26, seeing Platoon for the first time with my then girlfriend, now wife Carrie. We’ve got tickets for a special early screening, which, as it turns out, is filled with Vietnam veterans. And for the next couple of hours, we watch the movie, absolutely, but we also watch the crowd. It’s both sobering and exhilarating. The vets, many in wheelchairs, are totally involved. They laugh knowingly, and sob uncontrollably, and I think to myself, I have never felt as much of a connection to a movie as they do, then or to this day. It put Oliver Stone’s storytelling on a whole different level for me.
Grady Hendrix had been on my radar for awhile—I loved his Paperbacks from Hell posts—but I hadn’t read any of his novels until my son brought home Horrorstor. That novel, an all-out horror romp set in an IKEA type store (and set about 20 minutes away from my house, which was also cool) impressed the hell out of me. The horror was suitably horrific, there were moments of real humor, and Hendrix’s attention to detail when it came to spoofing IKEA was nothing short of amazing. This was an author in complete control of his material.
I love discovering an author I like who has a robust back catalog, and Hendrix does. My next read by him, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, proves I was right about him—Hendrix is in complete control, and I’m just glad to be along for the ride.
Set in genteel Charleston, South Carolina, TSBCGTSV is centered around a group of middle-aged women, neighbors who are comfortable in their lives, even if a bit bored. Their husbands work too much, their kids are off doing kid things, they volunteer…same old, same old. Their only excitement, if you can call it that, is their book club, where they’ve begun to read true crime books—think In Cold Blood and The Stranger Beside Me. Then Patricia, one of the members, is violently attacked by her elderly neighbor, which brings that neighbor’s young nephew to town. James is exciting, and a little bit mysterious, and he quickly insinuates himself into their close-knit neighborhood.
Meanwhile, kids on the poor black side of town start to go missing. Patricia things James is not what he appears and may be responsible, but convincing her book club friends won’t be easy. At least until the evil comes to their part of town.
This novel was everything I was hoping for based on the title. Once again, Hendrix’s attention to detail is just right. He gets the rhythms of life in Charleston perfectly, both the affluent side with their big homes and cleaning women, and the poor side of town, which seems a world away. The book club women are all distinct characters with families that feel real and lived in. Mrs. Green, a black cleaning woman who teams up with Patricia to protect her family, is tough as nails and has a flinty dignity. Hendrix doesn’t shy away from exploring the differences between Charleston’s haves and have-nots, and it gives CGTSV a deeper, welcome subtext.
The horror, when it comes, is brutal and unnerving. Hendrix has a real knack for blood-drenched action set pieces. He makes you see the pain inflicted, and feel the tension. Watching these women, sometimes grudgingly, come together to battle an evil force that is faster, stronger, and far more experienced, is satisfying to the soul. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough as I cheered them on.
My TBR pile is in danger of falling over and crushing me, but I’ll definitely be adding more from Grady Hendrix to the mix. I’ve heard great things about his newest, The Final Girl Support Group. In the meantime, give The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires a read. Hendrix is the real deal.
Brian Eno famously said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
What’s that got to do with When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson? Glad you asked! Much like the Velvet Underground inspired a group of musicians who would go on to have lasting musical influence, Jackson has clearly influenced the very best horror, horror adjacent, and dark fiction authors working today.
Ellen Datlow has long been one of our finest editors, with impeccable taste, and this table of contents is shockingly good. Check out the list of authors featured in the anthology: Joyce Carol Oates, Josh Malerman, Carmen Maria Machado, Paul Tremblay, Richard Kadrey, Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Hand, Kelly Link, Cassandra Khaw, Karen Heuler, Benjamin Percy, John Langan, Laird Barron, Jeffrey Ford, M. Rickert, Seanan McGuire, Gemma Files, and Genevieve Valentine.
Many of them are personal favorites of mine, authors whose books I immediately read upon publication. All of them are working at the top of their game here. Some of the writers featured seem like natural fits—when I first read Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link and Growing Things by Paul Tremblay, Shirley Jackson came to mind in the best way possible. Kindred spirits. It’s not surprising to me that they turn in two of the standout stories in this collection, which is saying something considering the uniformly high quality. Joyce Carol Oates, Carmen Maria Machado and Seanan McGuire also seem like good fits on paper, and they are.
Then there are the surprises. The genius of Ellen Datlow is that she looked at amazing writers like Stephen Graham Jones, Richard Kadrey, and Cassandra Khaw, who I don’t think of as working in quite the same fictional space as Jackson, and thought, hell yes. They knock it out of the park. In fact, everyone does.
While none of the stories are direct homages to Jackson, they are all clearly inspired by her work. The stories are set in the suburbs, in small towns, in remote spaces. They are uniformly character driven, not plot driven. They are open ended, often without a concrete resolution, but always compelling. There’s no outright horror here. The stories are unsettling, disquieting, even disorienting. I found myself replaying stories in my head long after reading them.
This collection is special. Somewhere, Shirley Jackson is peering over those glasses of her, one eyebrow raised, a sly smile on her lips.
I don’t read enough graphic novels. There, I said it. I swore at the end of 2020 that I would add more graphic novels to my TBR pile, and here it is July and I’ve just now read my first of the year.
Luckily, it’s Sensor, by the amazing Junji Ito.
Sensor is horror on a cosmic scale. It may start in a small Japanese village, but it grows and expands to encompass the entire universe, a cold, chaotic place where entire planets are destroyed, and entire civilizations die in agony. That small village is nestled in the shadow of Mount Sengoku, a volcano that erupted 60 years ago, destroying the town. The volcano buried the town, leaving few survivors, and in doing so buried dark secrets.
When a young woman wanders into the village, she notices something strange—golden, hair-like volcanic glass fibers rain down on the streets, the buildings, the people of the city, and the people welcome it. They also welcome the girl, and say they’ve been expecting her.
Then things get really weird.
Sensor is a feast for the eyes and the mind, with a story that twists and turns as it pulls various characters into the orbit of the mysterious young woman. You may find yourself, as I did, flipping back through the pages, looking for connections, putting pieces of the puzzle together.
Ito is a master artist, carrying the story along on the strength of his exquisite pen work. He fills each panel with dense texture and detail. When the horror comes, and believe me it comes, it is truly horrific. Ito has an unflinching eye for nightmarish imagery, for transforming the human body into something squirming, pulsing, oozing, unrecognizable. He can also render scenes of astonishing beauty. He’s not a one trick pony by any means.
Sensor releases on August 17, 2021. Dive in, and let yourself be transported into other worlds by Ito’s golden hairs. You may not be the same when you return.
There are a lot of great writers out there. Writers who can stir your soul with the elegance of their descriptions, dazzle you with wordplay and imagination, quicken your pulse and heart in equal measure, blindside you with sudden laughter or even more sudden tears, make you shake your head in wonder at their perfect dialogue, write a fight or battle scene so vivid that you feel every punch and explosion, scare you so bad that you sleep with the lights on.
Joe Lansdale can and does do all those things. But he has something that rare even among the very best writers—he’s a natural born storyteller. A couple pages into a Lansdale novel, and you’re sitting around a campfire on a dark summer night somewhere in East Texas, listening to magic being conjured from the smoke, or parked on a barstool in Nagadoches, throwing back a beer while a master spins a yarn.
When I tell you the Moon Lake is Lansdale operating at the height of his considerable powers, that’s really saying something. This one is special.
Moon Lake has all the hallmarks of classic Lansdale. A small East Texas town lost, along with its secrets, beneath the dark surface of Moon Lake—at least until a drought once again brings those secrets to light. a stubborn man who comes back to that Lake looking for answers to a question that’s been plaguing him for years…why did his dad try to kill them both by driving into the lake when he was thirteen years old? There’s a hard-nosed, in-your-face meditation on class and race, on haves and have nots, on the corrupting, amoral influence of power. There’s small town politics and small town life, and Lansdale writes both with a knowing eye for detail.
Because this is Lansdale, the characters, both the good guys and the bad, are complex, thoughtful creations. They have back stories. There’s a real sense of history here, which makes sense, as Moon Lake spans years. Also because this is Lansdale, we’re treated to a breakneck plot, action that will indeed quicken your pulse, and scenes to veer hard towards straight-up horror.
Some of the dialogue and descriptive passages are laugh out loud funny. Lansdale has a gift for down-home, yet creative language that hums and gallops. He even throws a little forbidden love into the mix, and makes it sweet and tender.
The Hap and Leonard books will always be my favorite of Lansdale’s works, ever since I found a used copy of Mucho Mojo at Half Price Books. (On that same trip I discovered Shella, my first Andrew Vachss novel. That was a first-class shopping trip.) But Moon Lake is right up there for me, on the same shelf with The Bottoms, The Thicket, Edge of Dark Water, and Jane Goes North.
I’m happy to see that Moon Lake is getting a lot of much-deserved positive press. Joe Lansdale his ownself is a national treasure. If he ever makes his way to Cleveland, I owe him a whole keg of beer for the years of reading pleasure he’s given me.