I’ve read a number of Gary Fry’s works and I think this is one of the best, if not the best, narratives he’s written. A number of reviewers draw comparisons to Lovecraft. I can’t comment on the accuracy of this. I’ve read only one Lovecraft tale and didn’t like it at all. Siren of Depravity, though, is one mind-blowing read and I was hooked from the beginning. The tale is a slow burn, no doubt about it. But, this slow burn is insidious. There’s an icy chill just below the surface, and I found myself being propelled forward with the occasional nuggets of sheer creepiness that would appear in the story. Clues about the past of the characters are disclosed in a well-paced manner and the story-arc is unsettling and gruesome. The finale is pulse-pounding with a couple of jolts that I didn’t see coming. The characters are fully realized, even the secondary ones, which really enhances this well-told tale. A solid horror novel.
This is a chilling coming of age story that works primarily because of the believable characters. The main protagonist is a teenage boy struggling with raising his little sister with no help from their drug addicted mother. Will is a gifted baseball player who happens to be from a poor and broken family. He is best friends with kids from a much higher SES than his, and madly in love with a girl just out of his reach. This teenage drama within the context of a rich vs. poor small town world is well drawn. Janz is a horror writer, though, and two parallel stories involving hideous creatures in the woods and a serial killer who eats his child victims are soon introduced. The author ramps up the scares and the excitement involving his adolescent characters, and the reader is caught in the onslaught. The last 20-25% of the book is non-stop action and the story falters a little as the mayhem becomes redundant. A heavy editing hand might’ve helped here. Still, Children of the Dark is a blast and I loved it.
romehow I’ve never managed to read any work by Adam Nevill. So, when he offered a free trilogy of short novellas on Kindle, self-published under the title of Before You Sleep, I jumped at the chance. All three were fantastic, although I have my personal ranking of the stories. Overall, each was riveting and eerie with predominantly subtle passages of horror. The first, “Where Angels Come In”, was my favorite. A boy recounts his experience while recovering from traumatic injuries obtained while he and a friend explored an off-limits haunted house (the big, white house in the woods). The friend didn’t make it out, while the nature of narrator’s injuries are beyond imagining. I mentioned that the horror was subtle across the three stories (and for the most part it is), but the escape attempt from the haunted house doesn’t exactly qualify as “subtle” – and is gripping.
The second piece, “The Ancestors”, involves a little Japanese girl who has moved to a new house with her parents. She’s lonely at first, but then befriends the ghost of another little girl and the toys left behind when other children have “left” the house. This one was my least favorite, although it was by no means a dud. The narration is creepy and unnerving, and you never quite get a sense of what the heck is going on.
The last story is “Florrie” and it recounts the behavior of a young man who recently purchased a townhouse from an elderly woman – whose furniture and belongings remain mysteriously within the house. I found this story surprising in both the tone and the plot line and was sucked into the story.
Overall, these are not gore fests and the endings are rather ambiguous, so those of you who need closure might be disappointed. However, I found the prevailing sense on uncertainty quite satisfying.
Cold as Hell by David Searls is a relatively short novella that contains an emotionally chilling wallop. Peter Craig is Christmas shopping with his wife, elderly uncle and two kids at one of those “lifestyle” malls – which means it is outdoors. The weather is brutally cold, but he kids still want to ride an electric kiddie train that runs around the mall. The parents relent and allow the kids to go, despite the uncle’s warnings that things don’t seem quite right. The mom takes the opportunity to complete some last minute shopping while Peter and the uncle hang out for the train to return. After Peter ducks into a bar to warm up, he returns to find the uncle missing and no sign of the kids or the kiddie train.
The nightmare begins.
The rest of the story involves Peter frantically trying to find the kids. No one has ever heard of (or seen) the kiddie train. The subsequent events become increasingly bizarre and terrifying. For a short piece like this, the characters are nicely drawn. Peter’s frenzied inner dialogue is spot-on, and anyone who has ever misplaced a child for a brief period of time will recognize the distraught sensations of the character. I was able to gulp down this story in one sitting, not only because of its short length, but also because of the intense nature of the plot. Unnerving and scary, Cold as Hell has a distinct Twilight Zone feel to it.
I just reread a novel I last read over 40 years ago. The Queen of America by Russell H. Greenan was published in 1972 and was marketed as a horror story at the time. When I read it back then, I enjoyed the novel for its edgy plot and memorable characters. The fact that I recalled it fondly says a lot about the story line and characters within. The protagonist is fourteen-year-old Ignacio (Ig) Never who lives with his father in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dad is a famous Spanish historian who is becoming increasingly anxious and paranoid—which has prompted him to seclude himself in his bedroom. He only communicates to his son by intercom and hand-written notes. Which no adult supervision, Ig roams Harvard Square and surrounding coffee shops and student hangouts with his dog Ripper. He befriends an assorted mix of adolescents and young adults (a 15-year-old mathematics genius attending MIT, an 18-year-old movie porn director, a 19-year-old drug dealer, and a 19-year-old furniture maker). Into this mix appears 16-year-old Betsy, who walks into the coffee house frequented by the characters after riding through a snowstorm on a motorcycle. She’s beautiful with blonde hair and a delightful personality. She’s also a serial killer who loves slashing to death anyone who insults her, regardless of how minor the insult was.
I won’t go any further in my discussion of the plot. By any stretch of the imagination, The Queen of America would not cut it as a horror story in today’s market. There’s no unique twist to the murders or to the killer. Nonetheless, the story was as enjoyable as I remembered it. The characters are great and pretty unique. I cared about them and wondered what the heck was going to happen to them (and the outcomes for many of them are unexpected). Boston circa 1970 is described in a way that is now almost nostalgic—and which probably wasn’t intentional at the time. The technology and dialog are almost quaint which add to the book’s charm. The scenes of horror, while few and far between, are jolting and gory and were probably brutal at the time of publication. They still had the effect for me, most likely due to the rich cast of characters for whom I cared a great deal.
This novella contained a main protagonist whom I have never seen (or thought about) before. Nikki is an aging, worn-out porn star and she is looking for a means out of the business and clean up your life. She is a difficult character with whom to empathize despite a tragedy in the early pages—mostly because of the poor decision-making she undertakes to cope with her pain. When the opportunity comes to completely and successfully turn her life around, she jumps at the chance. The opportunity, though, involves partaking in a secret occult ritual in a gothic looking castle on a remote island.
So far, so good.
Nikki is drawn well, despite being a less than sympathetic character. Her trip on a boat to the island drew me in and the introduction to the castle is nicely handled. The place is genuinely creepy and the stage is set. The rest of the story did not quite live up to the introduction, however. The plot is pretty creative, but handled in a fairly predictable way. There’s a lot of action and gore but no huge shocks. So, The Midnight Order is a decent read overall but probably won’t knock you off your feet.
You’ve got to give Keith Deininger credit. He doesn’t rehash old similar themes in his work. Instead, he experiments and takes chances with narratives. I just finished one of his more recent novels called Within. At face value, this is a story about a haunted mansion, which we’ve all seen often enough. Someone new comes into town and purchases the crumbling mansion in a seedier part of town. Soon, those who are invited to visit one of the many parties thrown by the owner become possessed by the inner workings of the house’s evil presence. Indeed, the entire town falls under his spell. The malevolent antics of Mr. Klimt and his eerie mansion result in numerous character disappearances, terrifying hallucinations and dreams of our protagonists, and increased aggression and debauchery of townsfolk. I was reminded of two haunted mansion novels: the classic Ghost Story by Peter Straub (especially the impact on the town), and the most recent Slade House by David Mitchell. I felt Deininger’s Within ranked right up there with these two. However, that wasn’t the biggest unique surprise. The portrayal of Mr. Klimt, the owner of the mansion and the perpetrator of evil who throws lavish parties to entice the unwitting into his snare, is remarkably similar to Jay Gatsby. Many of the party scenes paralleled the festivities on West Egg. This was the first time I’ve ever seen the setting and characters of The Great Gatsby influence the plot of a horror novel. Keith Deininger has guts to try – and he pulled it off.
Odd Adventures with Your Other Father is a Kindle Scout winner written by Norman Prentiss. After reading just a few pages I began to see why the book was accepted for publication by Kindle Press. This is a genre-bending, no holds barred novel combining horror, comedy, love, and coming of age drama. The heart of the narrative is Shawn’s recounting his, well, odd adventures with his partner, Jack, to his teenage daughter. Jack died when Celia was four and Shawn thinks it time to share the year-long adventures the two young men had right after they graduated from college. Jack had a way of involving them in a series of thrilling and frequently terrifying exploits involving supernatural events, much to Shawn’s chagrin. The tales told by Shawn are uniquely different and quite terrifying (they’d make unnerving short stories in and of themselves). Prentiss’ literary skill makes these hauntings come alive and he manages to weave threads of humor that often had me smiling while gripping my Kindle. As the novel progresses, Prentiss is able to explore the complexity of human love and interconnected relationships among family. While Odd Adventures with Your Other Father can probably be categorized as horror, readers are treated to a journey of human emotion in a range often not explored in the genre. A fantastic read.
The Lonely by Andrew Michael Hurley is certainly not what I expected. Promoted as a gothic horror novel, complete with an ecstatic blurb by Stephen King, The Lonely surprises because it really isn’t a horror tale. At least a horror tale that readers of the genre would expect. Reading the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads will clearly support this observation. While I am one of those horror fans, I must say that I was not disappointed in the novel. In fact, I found it suspenseful, original, and more than a little unnerving.
By now you know the plot. A family, accompanied by their Catholic priest, family friends, and other parishioners, travel to a desolate part of the UK for a retreat. The purpose of the retreat is to once and for all complete a ritual which will cure one of the family’s teenage sons who is stricken with autism (although I cannot recall if this diagnosis is ever revealed as such). The narrator is the young man’s younger brother who recounts the tale as it occurred nearly forty years ago.
The geographical depictions are a central part of the story. The atmosphere, complete with fog, rain, and constant overcast skies, is a character in itself. The damp and gloomy houses haunt the reader on every page. The dank chill is always evident. There is even an old mansion that is off the coast and only accessible during low tide. The gothic nature of the tale oozes constantly.
The natives resent the presence of the pilgrims. And, there is something not quite right about these people. There’s a hint of witchcraft and pagan rituals, and there are veiled threats towards the visitors. The author keeps explanations for the strange events just beyond our grasp, and the depiction of the climax is ambiguous enough that it may not be to everyone’s taste. All of the action is reported through the first person account of a fifteen year old boy, and his experientially-limited frame of reference adds to the mystery. Oh, and the visiting retreatants are conservative Catholics (this being the 1970’s). The depiction of their beliefs and rituals is so well done that the reader can’t help but observe that these also have a bizarre/pagan feel to them (and I’m a Catholic, so my reaction wasn’t due to unfamiliarity).
Anyhow, I really liked this book. But, be aware, it is not a traditional horror story. Those who disliked it often referred to it as boring. These folks were clearly expecting standard horror fare. It’s not. But it is eerie, strange, and atmospheric. If you’re in the mood, give it a shot.
William Meikle has the uncanny ability to turn out high quality horror and speculative fiction on a pretty rapid schedule. I realize that sounds like a back-handed compliment but I don’t mean it to be. He’s very prolific and manages to produce original stories every time without rehashing old plot lines. I wish I could do that.
My latest Meilke read was The Dunfield Terror, which concerns a deadly fog that mysteriously descends on a remote coastline of Newfoundland. This fog is unlike any other, causing massive death and mayhem to whatever it touches. The body count is high (and characters are dispatched in gruesome fashion) and there are especially menacing creatures to further contribute to the pandemonium.
Mr. Meilke uses two alternating narratives, present day and the 1950’s, to tell the story. The present-day action involves a return of the fog during a brutal blizzard, while the flashbacks recount the origins of the fog. Both stories are captivating and instill constant peril and suspense, but I liked the present day account better. I felt the characters in the flashback were not quite drawn as well. However, I’m only talking a small degree of difference. For some reason, a third narrative (and another series of flashbacks) is incorporated towards the end. These seemed unnecessary to me in terms of plot development. Ironically, though, I enjoyed that sequence better than the 50’s storyline. Go figure.
Overall, a strong hair-raising tale and a solid 4.5 read – rounded up to 5.
Anthony Hains is a horror & speculative fiction writer.