ARC REVIEW: THINGS GET UGLY: THE BEST CRIME STORIES OF JOE R. LANSDALE

Reading

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.

BOOK REVIEW: IN THE LIVES OF PUPPETS BY TJ KLUNE

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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.

ARC REVIEW: SPIN A BLACK YARN BY JOSH MALERMAN

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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.

ARC REVIEW: WHISPERWOOD BY ALEX WOODROE

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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.

APRIL A MUSE BOUCHE REVIEW: EXPECTATION

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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

______________________________________________________________________________

To read the entire lyric, and all the other stories from this talented crew, check out the April A Muse Bouche Review, available here:

https://mailchi.mp/fe420a309867/a-muse-bouche-review-plots-parties-17038067?e=46f6fd2a9e

ARC REVIEW: MISTER MAGIC BY KIERSTEN WHITE

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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.

BOOK REVIEW: THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS—A RETURN TO LOVECRAFT COUNTRY BY MATT RUFF

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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.

ARC REVIEW: THE BEAST YOU ARE BY PAUL TREMBLAY

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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!

ARC REVIEW: THE TREES GREW BECAUSE I BLED THERE BY ERIC LAROCCA

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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.

BOOK REVIEW: LOST IN THE MOMENT AND FOUND BY SEANAN MCGUIRE

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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.

BOOK REVIEW: WAYWARD BY CHUCK WENDIG

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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.

ARC REVIEW: THE DONUT LEGION BY JOE R. LANSDALE

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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.

BOOK REVIEW: BLEEDING SHADOWS BY JOE R. LANSDALE

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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.

2022: MY YEAR IN READING

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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 ChainsawDon’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.

ARC REVIEW: PAPER PLANES GRAPHIC NOVEL BY JENNIE WOOD, DOZERDRAWS, AND MICAH MYERS

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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.

ARC REVIEW: WHITE CAT, BLACK DOG BY KELLY LINK

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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.

BOOK REVIEW: FAIRY TALE BY STEPHEN KING

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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.

BOOK REVIEW: THE EVENTS CONCERNING BY JOE R. LANSDALE

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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.

BOOK REVIEW: IT WAS ALL A DREAM: AN ANTHOLOGY OF BAD HORROR TROPES DONE RIGHT, EDITED BY BRANDON APPLEGATE

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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.

ARC REVIEW: DON’T FEAR THE REAPER BY STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES

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Jade Daniels is back!

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.

BOOK REVIEW: NUMBER ONE FAN BY MEG ELISON

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I discovered Meg Elison this year at Chicago WorldCon. She was a guest on a couple of panels my son and I attended, and she was funny, smart, and incredibly entertaining. On one of those panels she read from Number One Fan, and my son and I looked at each other and said, “Okay, that’s one we need to get.”

Turns out we were right! Number One Fan is a nerve-shredding thriller, a gender-swapped twist on Misery that reads like a runaway freight train.

Eli Grey, the protagonist, is a best-selling fantasy writer who climbs into what she thinks is her Uber ride, only to be thrown into a brutal nightmare. Drugged, she wakes up chained in a basement. This begins a brutal contest of wills between her and her “number one fan,” a delusional wannabe writer who wants to make her life his own.

Eli, alternately drugged, starved, dehydrated, and brutalized, must battle not only her psychotic fan, but her own demons as well. Elison starts in third gear and never lets up. She know how to ratchet up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. And Eli is a winning character. She’s flawed and real, and her reserves of fuck you strength in the face of impossible circumstances is inspiring.

As an added bonus for fans of fantasy, conventions, cosplay, and fanfic, Elison includes a ton of inside baseball style knowledge. She clearly knows that world well, and it adds a fun element to the novel.

Number One Fan is tailor-made for fans of character-driven thrillers and horror. Give it a read. I promise you’ll be Elison’s number one fan (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

BOOK REVIEW: GWENDY’S FINAL TASK BY STEPHEN KING AND RICHARD CHIZMAR

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I read some novels because I want to be dragged down a gravel road behind runaway horses, dangled head first over a yawning precipice, have my heart torn from a gaping hole in my chest…you get the idea. I want to be fucked with.

I read other books because the act of reading them is like settling in under a wool comforter in front of a roaring fire while a storm rages just outside, lashing the windows. I think of those novels as comfort reads. Make no mistake, for me comfort reads don’t necessarily have to be quiet, contemplative books. Some really extreme horror stories function as comfort reads for me. It’s more a feeling, I guess, when stepping into the pages of the novel feels like going home, like you’re in safe, capable hands.

The first two books in the Gwendy trilogy, Gwendy’s Button Box (Stephen King and Richard Chizmar) and Gwendy’s Magic Feather (Richard Chizmar) were definitely comfort reads for me. It’s not that the books are all rainbows and unicorns, free from stress and tension. Far from it. Like I said, it’s a feeling.

Gwendy’s Final Task, like its predecessors, is a comfort read for me. Having said that, I found this one much more tense, the stakes much higher. That infernal button box is back, doing what it does, and this time Gwendy is truly feeling the horrifying effects of carrying the weight of the world on her now-middle aged shoulders. There’s trauma and heartbreak in the pages here.

I’m not going to tell you much more than that. Gwendy’s Final Task is set mostly aboard a spaceship, and it moves at a breathless pace. I found myself reading just as quickly, one-more-chaptering when I should have been sleeping. It’s an immensely satisfying tale, well told. King and Chizmar are, let’s face it, really good at this writing thing.

About the ending. It is, I suppose, the only way it could end. There’s an inevitability about it. But it is not, I repeat not, comforting at all.

SCRIBBLES FROM MY NOTEBOOK: THOUGHTS ON ATTENDING MY FIRST WORLDCON

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My son and I attended our first Worldcon, over Labor Day Weekend in Chicago. I’m still trying to process it all, and come down from the high of spending several days with a few thousand folks who want to discuss books, particularly science fiction and fantasy, as much as I do. Here, in no particular order, my scribbled notes:

• The organizers of Chicon (80th World Science Fiction Convention) really had their shit together. The only thing I have to compare it to is the 2019 NY ComicCon, and I thought this was run even better, granted that it’s a smaller event.

• SF and F fans are snappy dressers. Sure, there were plenty of schlubs like me wearing cargo shorts and genre appropriate t-shirts, but there was also a phantasmagoria of folks in steampunk hats, ornate gowns, cloaks, and every iteration in between. So cool for people watching. And speaking of snappy dressers…

• There were a surprising number of men in kilts, and they looked sharp as hell. Not sure I could pull off a kilt myself, but you never know. I may be inspired.

• My son and I both got a bunch of books signed. I’m more of a reader than a collector, but the chance to share a couple of words and get books autographed by some of my favorite authors was too hard to resist. Especially happy to meet John Scalzi, Seanan McGuire, Peter S. Beagle (holy shit), and Joe Haldeman (holy shit again). We also got autographs from Arkady Martine, Mary Robinette Kowal, Wesley Chu, and Meg Elison. They were all friendly, kind, and giving of their time.

• Speaking of Haldeman, he first signed a book for me (my tattered paperback edition of Forever War) at a con at Kent State when I was a teenager in the late seventies. The late, great Harlan Ellison was also a guest, and because he was late to the signing, Joe inscribed the book to me, “For Dave, who is also wondering where the hell Harlan is.”

• When we weren’t standing in autograph lines, we were attending panels. They were, every one, fascinating, exhilarating, sometimes uproariously funny, and sometimes poignant. It should come as no surprise that science fiction and fantasy writers are, every single one, terrifyingly smart and fun to listen to. Panel standouts for us: Scalzi, Arkady Martine, Meg Elison, Tracy Townsend, Fran Wilde, Ada Palmer, Elizabeth Bear, Daniel Kraus, and as always, Seanan McGuire.

• Speaking of panels, we attended one with horror authors reading from their work, and—you heard it here first—there’s a writer from Iceland who’s going to be big. Her name is Holder Knutsdottir, and back home in Iceland she’s won a bunch of awards, but her first novel in English won’t be out until sometime in early 2024. She was funny and charming, and the excerpt she read (translated by Mary Robinette Kowal, no idea why she knows Icelandic) immediately grabbed out attention.

• Seanan McGuire’s talent knows no bounds. Not only is she an amazing, prolific writer (now with two well-deserved Hugos to prove it), but she’s a helluva singer! Her and her backing band (The Dead Sexy, I think) put on an hour long concert of filk, folk and sea chanteys that was absolutely wonderful.

• Finally, as a lifelong science fiction fan, the opportunity to vote for the Hugos, and to actually attend the Hugo Awards Ceremony, was worth the price of admission all by itself. A dream come true.

ARC REVIEW: THINGS HAVE GOTTEN WORSE SINCE WE LAST SPOKE AND OTHER MISFORTUNES BY ERIC LAROCCA

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I rarely read two books by the same author back to back—so many books, so little time. The last time it happened it was S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears, an audacious one-two punch.

Well, it’s happening again. Just as I finished Eric LaRocca’s stunning masterpiece of grotesque horror, We Can Never Leave This Place, NetGalley gifted me with Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes, and I moved it right to the top of my TBR pile.

This new edition includes the notorious title novella, along with two new short stories. Taken together, this is a devastating, unnerving collection that burrows into the shiver center of your brain. When it comes to contemporary horror writers, I said it about Gabino Iglesias, and I’ll say it here: Eric LaRocca does not fuck around.

I mentioned above that the previously published “Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke” is notorious, and I meant it. Structured as an email and chat room conversation between two women, this story lurches quickly into a dark place, then digs so much deeper, and gets so much more disturbing. I found myself thinking, more than once, LaRocca is fearless. He is absolutely uncompromising in his vision, and has the writing chops to bring it to glorious, subversive life.

The other two stories are just as strong, and showcase the breath of LaRocca’s macabre imagination. There are echoes here of writers as varied as Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, Stephen Graham Jones, and Roald Dahl (a knowing nod to his classic short story “Man From the South”), but LaRocca has a fiercely original voice that’s all his own.

Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes will be available September 6th. If you’re a fan of unapologetic horror, do not miss this collection.

BOOK REVIEW: WE CAN NEVER LEAVE THIS PLACE BY ERIC LAROCCA

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If, through some infernal alchemy, the DNA of Franz Kafka, William Burroughs, and Clive Barker, were combined, and the resultant child was raised in a haunted house, on a steady diet of Hershel Gordon Lewis and David Cronenberg movies, EC and manga comics, Grimms’ fairytales, and powerful hallucinogens; and if that child grew up to be a writer, they might, just might, create something like We Can Never Leave This Place.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Eric LaRocca is a utterly original, uncompromising writer, and We Can Never Leave This Place is a masterpiece of grotesque horror.

Mara is a fifteen year old girl trapped in an apocalyptic nightmare. Her father has been killed in the stark violence that surrounds the crumbling, bombed out flat she shares with her cold, hateful mother. They are both consumed and overwhelmed by sorrow, devastation and loss. There is little food, and raw sewage pools on the floor.

Then a series of monstrous visitors arrive, and shit gets weirder than you can possibly imagine.

Eric LaRocco has been on my radar for awhile, but this is the first book of his I’ve read. I plan to quickly remedy that, as I haven’t read horror this fiercely imaginative in a long time. If his other books are anything like We Can Never Leave This Place, consider me a huge fan.

BOOK REVIEW: JUST LIKE HOME BY SARAH GAILEY

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Okay, go with me here—you know how in The Exorcist movie, each time the camera pans up the staircase (the one in the living room where the spider walk happens, not the one outside that features in the end of the movie), stopping at the closed bedroom door Regan is ensconced behind? You know the overwhelming feeling of oppressive dread that accompanies that camera, not knowing what you’re about to see behind that bedroom door?

Yeah. Sarah Gailey absolutely nails that feeling with Just Like Home. This is an oppressive, claustrophobic, deeply unsettling gothic masterpiece that is unlike anything else I’ve read by Gailey, except of course in terms of writing excellence.

Vera’s mother is dying, and asks her to come home to the house she grew up in, the house her father built with his own two hands—the same hands he used to torture and murder men in the basement. Vera’s feelings about her father are deeply conflicted, as he may have been a notorious serial killer, but they shared a loving, close relationship. Her mother, on the other hand, was a cold, hard, unloving woman, and even now, near death, her heart has not thawed.

Vera has conflicted feelings about the house as well, a place where unspeakable atrocities happened. Her homecoming is haunted by the horrors that have seeped into the walls and foundation, by the hostile townspeople with long memories who still hate her for what her father did, and by the latest in a long line of artists living in the guesthouse, parasites looking for inspiration and leeching off the soul of the serial killer.

Gailey excels at putting us inside Vera’s troubled mind, a dark place, and forcefully keeping us there, never letting us look away. Vera’s childhood home is a prison of sorts to her, and her mind mirrors that, a malignant coffin box of memories and trauma. Just Like Home is unrelenting, sometimes punishing, but always mesmerizing.

I mentioned earlier that this is unlike anything else by Gailey, and that’s true. Their last novel, The Echo Wife, was a tour de force science fiction drama about cloning. Now, having read this, I hope they play in the gothic horror sandbox again. Just Like Home is absolutely brilliant.

BOOK REVIEW: THE PALLBEARERS CLUB BY PAUL TREMBLAY

Reading

In a very few short years, Paul Tremblay has become one of my favorite horror authors—actually, make that one of my favorite authors, period. In his novels, and particularly in his short story collection, Growing Pains, Tremblay combines truly frightening scenarios with deeply felt characters, bravura storytelling, and sometimes experimental techniques.

The Pallbearers Club is all that and more. It’s structured as a memoir, starting with high school, of Art Barbara, a tall and painfully thin social outcast plagued with severe scoliosis, acne, and zero self esteem. In dire need of something, anything, to impress college admissions counselors, he starts the Pallbearers Club, a group tasked with attending the funerals of those without families or friends. The club is not an overwhelming success, but it brings Art one thing—a young woman named Mercy Brown who will be inextricably link to him for the rest of his life.

Mercy is mercurial, too cool for school, a force of nature with her ever-present Polaroid instant camera and love of early punk music. Her and Art have virtually nothing in common, but they become friends of a sort as she introduces him to the music he will become obsessed with.

What follows is Art’s life story as he stumbles through the decades, a life fueled by alcohol and painkillers, with more failures than successes. Mercy appears and disappears, sometimes for years at a time, but she’s always there.

If you’re wondering at this point if Tremblay has veered away from horror with The Pallbearers Club, there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned. Art becomes convinced at some point that Mercy is a centuries old psychic vampire, feeding off his life force, the primary reason his life is in shambles. A series of strange, possibly supernatural encounters between them only adds to his belief.

Is Mercy a monster? Art thinks so, but we also get another view—one from Mercy herself. As we read Art’s unpublished manuscript, we also get to read Mercy’s hand-written comments on it. She’s funny, snarky, always brutally opinionated, and frequently at odds with what Art has written. Tremblay is working without a net here—hell, he’s working without a high wire—and pulls every bit of it off. With Mercy functioning as a kind of Greek chorus, we get to see their often antagonistic, even toxic, but also genuine friendship from both sides. Can we as readers trust what either of them is saying? Great question, one that I’m not going to answer. You’ll need to find out for yourself.

One other thing. Much of Art’s early years mirror Tremblay’s own, which may partly account for how painful and true it feels.

The Pallbearers Club is a tour de force that easily ranks with Tremblay’s best work, and that’s saying something. Join the club.

BOOK REVIEW: SPECTACULAR SILVER EARTHLING BY MARA LYNN JOHNSTONE

Reading

I was an indifferent reader until I walked into my junior high school library the first week of seventh grade and found a bookshelf labeled science fiction. That day I took home I, Robot and The Martian Chronicles.

I’ve never looked back. I read other genres now, mostly fantasy, horror, and crime fiction, but science fiction has remained my sweet spot. I think I like it because it’s a literature of ideas, because it’s often a sharp, even devastating commentary of current events (hello The Handmaid’s Tail, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984), and especially because of the endlessly inventive world-building.

Speaking of endlessly inventive world-building…Mary Lynn Johnstone’s Spectacular Silver Earthling has some, I’ll say it, spectacular world-building. In her world, humans have spread throughout the universe, and robots are fully recognized as citizens. Hubcap, her main character, was formerly a rescue bot, saving humans lives. Now that he’s his own person, he has a new job—co-host of a tv show that reports on different jobs throughout the universe. Think reality TV like Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs.

Now they’re filming on a new, supposedly uninhabited planet where humans harvest jetpods, but the people there are being plagued by “space frenzy”, which sends victims into an emotional frenzy. When you add in dangerous flora and fauna, and the fact that the planet may not be uninhabited after all, and Hubcap has his hands full.

The thing is, Hubcap can handle it, and he’ll be the first one to tell you that. He’s a robot with an attitude, a snarky smart ass who can run rings around the squishy humans who surround him. A fact he’s happy to remind them. Hubcap is a wonderful character. He’s hilarious, with a huge heart (even if he doesn’t have one), and truthfully, he may be a spectacular silver earthling, but he’s also delightfully human. Just, you know, a little better.

Johnstone is writing classic, old school science fiction here. I don’t want to give much more away here, but the alien world where she’s set her adventure is complex, inventive, and well-thought out. Her narrative gallops along at breakneck pace with excellent action, and a ton of humor. As I read, I was reminded of The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, and Becky Chambers Wayfarers series, both for the humor and the hopeful, optimistic worldview. But Johnstone is very much doing her own thing here, and she’s written a winner.

Spectacular Silver Earthling left me hoping for a sequel, even a series. I can’t think of higher praise.

ARC REVIEW: DAPHNE BY JOSH MALERMAN

Reading

I have a confession to make…this is the first novel I’ve read by Josh Malerman. I blame all the wonderful writers out there writing all the wonderful books. After reading Daphne, Malerman’s brutal, terrifying new novel, I’ll be happily dipping into his back catalog, because this book rocks. It’s part serial killer novel, part slasher, part urban mythology, and part coming-of-age. Oh, and it’s scary as hell.

Daphne revolves around a high school girls basketball team who unwittingly awakens an evil—a hulking, unstoppable murderer named Daphne—that has stalked other basketball teams in the small town for decades. The story of Daphne is part urban myth, part scary story whispered at sleepovers, but that’s not quite right either, because the town seems to be suffering from a collective amnesia. Over the years, Daphne, who according to the stories was murdered by a group of townsfolk for various transgressions, has come back to slaughter young ballers; and then the locals, for the most part, forget it happened. Until it happens again.

Daphne works perfectly as straight-ahead horror—honestly, it might be a new classic—but it’s much more than that. Kit, the main protagonist, suffers from severe anxiety, and Malerman handles that with clear-headed sensitivity. Kit is a complex, winning character who I was rooting for from the beginning. In some ways, this is her coming-of-age story, and watching her dig deep, battle her anxiety, and find hidden reserves she didn’t know she had, is awe-inspiring. Malerman also excels at showing the easy interplay, the comaraderie, between the girls on the team.

Malerman talks about his love of basketball in the afterword (Yes, I read afterwords. In fact, I love them.), but I would have known that just from reading Daphne. His affection for the game is clear in the exciting game descriptions. The final, nerve-shredding showdown put me in mind of another one-on-one basketball game with similar high stakes—the one that caps Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians.

Put this one on your radar, and give it a pre-order. Daphne delivers.

ARC REVIEW: LITTLE EVE BY CATRIONA WARD

Reading

Like many readers, I’m guessing, I discovered Catriona Ward with the one-two punch of The Last House On Needless Street and Sundial. Those two novels heralded a seismic shift in horror fiction. They were so sharply written, so self assured, so downright audacious, it was like someone had found long-lost novels by Shirley Jackson. Which makes sense, because as it turns out, those were not Ward’s first novels. In fact, Little Eve was her second novel, and won the Shirley Jackson award for best novel. This is an ARC review because it’s now being reissued on October 11, 2022. I can’t think of another novel more deserving of reissue.

Here’s the thing, though. Much like The Last House On Needless Street and Sundial, when it comes to reviewing, to say too much about Little Eve would be a literary crime. One of the chief pleasures of this book is discovering the gothic horrors awaiting you beyond each and every turn of the page.

The bare bones, and that’s all your getting: On the desolate Scottish Island of Altnaharra, a small cult-like found family with limited interaction with the outside world prepares for the end of the world. There are relationships that are twisted, corrupted at the core. There are secrets, mysterious ceremonies, and betrayals, all of it set in a crumbling castle on a windswept island beneath a threatening sky, surrounded by the unforgiving sea. Speaking of secrets, every character has them. More than that, they are bound up in them, like barbed wire that’s been pulled tight.

Ward excels at weaving the various threads of her story into a gothic tapestry. Her language is darkly evocative, and she keeps you guessing. Every time I thought I knew where the story was going, she spun me in circles until I was dizzy and disoriented, and I loved every minute of it. Little Eve is unnerving, sometimes overwhelmingly bleak, and always mesmerizing. I loved this novel.

As I mentioned above, Little Eve will be reissued October 11, 2022. Definitely worthy of a preorder. Do not miss this one.