Junji Ito: Master of Horror Manga, Part II

Uzumaki & Venus in the Blind Spot

It’s unbelievable that it was a year and a half ago that I first read manga by Junji Ito. Seriously, it feels like it was six months ago – what can I say? 2020 has been a really weird year. I started my journey with Gyo and Shiver (click here for my reviews), and I am continuing down this twisted rabbit hole with Uzumaki and Venus in the Blind Spot.

Uzumaki is a 3-volume series that has been published in a nice 3-in-1 bind-up by Viz Media. It is probably considered the title most synonymous with Junji Ito, at least in the U.S. I was a little hesitant diving in because of all the hype surrounding this book. Everyone loves it. My expectations were extraordinarily high and you know what? I get it. I get why everyone loves this book!

Uzumaki was a 5/5 Star Read for me. It was rife with with body horror and a healthy dose of cosmic horror as well. Kurouzu-cho is a small town on the coast of Japan and it is cursed by the shape of the spiral. The story of the town is mostly viewed through the eyes of teenager, Kirie Goshima, and her boyfriend, Shuichi Saito. When we first meet our main characters, Shuichi is trying to convince Kirie to run away with him because he is beginning to understand that something is not quite right with their hometown. Kirie, of course, refuses and thus begins our descent into the spiral. Highly recommended reading!!

I also read Venus in the Blindspot which was another 5/5 Star Read. This book is a collection of short stories, including a republished version of The Enigma of Amigara Fault with some beautifully colored pages. While all of the stories included in this collection were excellent, the below stood out for me the most:

The Human Chair* – Yoshiko Togawa, wife of a politician and an accomplished writer receives a manuscript in the mail. It is a story about a furniture maker who builds a special chair in which he can hide himself inside to fulfill his perversions. In the story, the chair makes it into the home of a politician and the man inside finds himself falling in love with the politician’s wife. The author states this is fiction – but Yoshiko starts to become afraid of her favorite writing chair. Is it truly fiction? Or something more?

An Unearthly Love* – Kyoko has married into the Kadono family. She has heard rumors that her husband-to-be is moody and does not like women. Kyoko is surprised to find him a gentle, loving, and caring man. All is going well until Kyoko discovers that he sneaks away during the night and up into the attic in their storage building to meet his unusual lover.

Keepsake – Young Lord Toyoji is surprised to find that his dead wife has given birth to their child in her coffin. He has recently been remarried to his former mistress, who has just given birth to a child as well. Secrets are revealed as the Toyoji’s two sons grow up.

*The Human Chair and An Unearthly Love were both illustrated by Junji Ito, but were based on original stories by Edogawa Ranpo (1894-1965). Ranpo was a pen name for Taro Hirai who took it from American author, Edgar Allen Poe. He is recognized as playing a major role in the development of the mystery story in Japan. I had not heard of this author prior to reading these adaptations and I am looking forward to searching for what I can find translated to English. If you have read Edogawa Ranpo and have a recommendation, please let me know!

Underworld Dreams

An anthology of weird fiction by Daniel Braum

4.5/5 Stars

Right, then. You received gift cards this holiday season and are looking for books to spend them on. Let me direct you toward Underworld Dreams. If you enjoy weird, ambiguous fiction then this is a must-read!

Released this past September, Dreams takes us on a journey from shapeshifting sharks in New York to to hunting for seahorses in 1980s Belize. While all of the stories in this collection were enjoyable, the following were absolute standouts for me:

The Monkey Coat – June finds an old coat made of real monkey fur in her grandmother’s old trunk. She is drawn to it and wears it out about town. The thing is – she can’t remember what all she does at night when she wears it.

How to Stay Afloat When Drowning – In Montauk, New York, sharks are coming ashore to take back the oceans.

Palankar – Jacob and Steven are brothers who have returned to Palankar Reef in Mexico to relive a dive trip they took with their father thirty years ago. Jacob is trying to convince his brother to return to his wife and kids, but plans go a bit off-kilter when he sees Steven’s doppelganger on the dive down.

Rum Punch is Going Down – A man acquires the nickname of Rum Punch in Belize where he has gone to escape his life and search for seahorses. On his quest, he may or may have not found supernatural goings on in a small, seaside community.

Something else about this book that I really enjoyed were the author’s story notes added at the end. It’s a rare thing, at least in the books that I have read, to find notes on the inspirations and explanations for stories in weird fiction collections. More often than not, endings tend to be ambiguous and left to the reader’s conclusion. Don’t get me wrong, these stories still are – but it is interesting to understand where the author was coming from when he wrote them.

Bottom line? If you enjoy modern weird fiction, you are seriously missing out if you miss this collection.

Don’t Turn Out the Lights


A Tribute to Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark edited by Jonathan Maberry

2.5/5 Star Review

I can’t tell you how much it kills me, absolutely kills me, to rate this book as just “ok.” Everything about it should have been 5 stars – A great author as editor? Check. Tribute to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? Check. A fantastic stable of writers? Check. And yet… This anthology really missed the mark for me.

Admittedly, Schwartz’s trilogy of Scary Stories is my gold standard. I was one of those kids who always started a new hold for them at the library as soon as I returned them. They were my doorway in to horror and it’s hard to hold a candle to them. I have gone back and read them many times as an adult and they still hold up.

I read Don’t Turn Out the Lights with that in mind. I tried not to compare the two books too closely because it’s not a fair expectation. I read this anthology for what it is, a tribute and a new generation of writers telling their scary stories.

My issues mostly lay with the unevenness of the collection. The book is marketed as YA horror and some of the stories are, but some are written to a very young middle-grade market. Like its predecessor, the stories in Lights can be read to yourself or aloud to others, but so many are missing that – Boo! ending. You know the one I’m talk about – the one that makes you look behind you, over your shoulder to see what’s waiting in the darkness. Many of these tales just… end. They leave you feeling incomplete and wondering what the heck happened. I feel one of the greatest faults lies with adult horror authors not knowing how to write to a YA audience. It is my opinion that they feel they need to write down to teens and they don’t give them the credit they deserve as readers. One of the most glaring examples of this was in The Cries of the Cat by Josh Malerman. I adore Malerman and the premise he had was a creepy one, but it felt so watered down that it lost its way.

Having said all that, there are some standout stories in this collection:

The Neighbor by Amy Lukavics – Dennis makes a new, unwanted friend with the little boy he sees across the street.

Tag, You’re It by N.R. Lambert – Nick keeps getting tagged in photos by someone who seems to be physically getting closer and closer.

Lint Trap by Jonathan Auxier – Jasper’s family moves into a new house and he starts talking to the children who live in the dryer in the basement.

Brain Spiders by Luis Alberto Urrea & Rosario Urrea – What happens when the kids in class start bullying the new girl from another country?

Mud by Linda D. Addison – Maurice fights his mother about taking baths and she sends him off to his grandmother’s house for an unforgettable sleepover.

The Tall Ones by Madeleine Roux – Estrella tries to convince the new boy in town that the town’s customs and traditions must be honored or else something may happen to him and his family.

I think there are enough stories in here that make checking out this collection worthwhile. It would be a good pick for a library check-out for sure.

If you’re an adult trying to recapture a little bit of that Scary Stories magic, I actually recommend picking up Corpse Cold by John Brhel & Joe Sullivan and illustrated by Chad Wehrle. I reviewed it here last year. To date, it is the next best thing to them that I have read.

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for making this digital ARC available for me to review. Don’t Turn Out the Lights releases on September 1st 2020.

Crossroads

A novella of grief and demons by Laurel Hightower

5/5 Star Review

“The first time Chris buried a part of herself by her son’s roadside cross, it was an accident.”

Crossroads asks the question, How far would you go to bring back someone you love? Chris is a mother still grieving the untimely death of her twenty-two year old son two years prior. He was killed in a car crash and the place she feels closest to him is not his grave, but his roadside cross placed near the spot where he died.

As this is a novella, I hesitate to say anything more about the story. I went into the book mostly blind and I think it is the way that it should be experienced. At its heart, Crossroads is a ghost story tackling demons that are both real and imagined. It is an exploration of a mother’s love and loss. It is heart-breaking.

Not since Westlake Soul has a book left me so utterly and completely gutted. I am not a mother and cannot imagine what the loss of a child must feel like. I am, however, a human who has experienced the loss of loved ones and friends and know the ache that grief leaves in your gut – that feeling of emptiness and wanting to do anything to fill it with the light of the one who is gone. It’s not the same, but if you’ve experienced a loss, you will be able to relate and understand the horror imbued in this story.

This novella will break you, but that’s okay. It’s absolutely worth it in order to experience this tale. Hightower’s writing is poignant and powerful. She is an extraordinary talent and I can’t wait to read more from her!

Crossroads will release from Off Limits Press on August 10, 2020. Click here to pre-order the paperback directly from Off Limits or click the cover image above to pre-order the ebook version from Amazon.

It’s worth a mention that Crossroads is the title launching the debut of Off Limits Press. Off Limits is a female-owned independent publisher focused on horror fiction. Support women in horror by pre-ordering this title straight from their site!

Bad Parts (Dark Parts #1)

A supernatural novel of heavy metal and small town secrets by Brandon McNulty

4/5 Star Review

What’s a guitarist to do when her hand gets crushed mere days before the show that could make her career? Why, head back to her home town and swap it out for a new one, of course!

Ash Hudson, guitarist for the heavy metal band, Bad Parts, finds herself in a horrific situation after an attack in a parking lot leaves her with a crushed hand. While this turn of events could be career-ending for most people, Ash knows a secret about her home town that could save her. Hiding her injury from her band mates, Ash returns to her childhood home to meet with Snare, a demon that lives in the local creek who can swap broken body parts for working ones. There are two catches:

1. Once you trade, you can never leave town.

2. You can’t trade for a part that’s already in use by someone else, until they die.

Bad Parts was a fun read – it’s fast-paced and has a pretty unique concept that fits great into the small town secrets/small town horror trope. I don’t want to say much more about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away. However, I will add if you are a reader who needs to be able to relate to a character, or have likable characters in order to enjoy the story – this may not be the book for you. This novel has a cast of prominent characters and a bevy of ancillary characters and all but two were completely unlikable. They are selfish, detestable, and utterly human.

I did have one small issue with the story – and that was the timeline. Without revealing any spoilers, the plot involves a tight time frame in which so much happens in such a very finite amount of time that it seems unrealistic. I had to forget the timeline to make it work in my head. Once I let that go, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If you are looking for a fun, horror beach read – Bad Parts is a winner!

I received a copy of this book from the author for review consideration.

Worst Laid Plans

An anthology of vacation horror edited by Samantha Kolesnik

5/5 Star Review

I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a dumpster fire of epic proportions. It’s almost the middle of summer and instead of traveling and lounging at the beach, we are staying close to home and masking up whenever venturing out is necessary. Does it stink? Absolutely! Want to feel a little better about it? Read this book.

Worst Laid Plans is a collection of 14 tales of vacations gone horribly awry. While not every story is specifically a summer trip – all of them have a distinct summery vibe. This anthology runs the gamut from aliens to monsters; from body horror to the supernatural; from grief to human nature at its worst. There is something in this collection for nearly everyone. It’s also worth a mention that Sadie Hartmann, Mother Horror herself, wrote a fantastic forward for this anthology!

If you have read my reviews before, multi-author anthologies are rarely a complete win for me. This was absolutely not the case with Worst Laid Plans. While there were a few tales missed the mark for me, there wasn’t one in here that I would rate less than 3 stars. My top picks were just so fantastic that I still feel good about giving this collection a full 5 star rating. Without further ado – let me share my top 5 from this collection:

Unkindly Girls by Hailey Piper – This was my absolute favorite story from this collection. Morgan is a teenage girl on vacation with her over-protective father. Every summer they go on vacation to a different beach, never the same one twice. This year is different because Morgan has found out a truth about her father. Without giving anything away, there is a scene in which Morgan is swimming in the ocean with two girls she’s just met and the imagery of it absolutely blew me away.

Taylor Family Vacation ’93 by Jeremy Herbert – Daniel Taylor, CPA, has taken his wife and young son on an Orlando vacation to visit the theme parks. Every morning he wakes up to see that his camcorder has recorded seconds of extra footage – a little more each time and it appears that someone is watching them with their own camera. As a side note, I’m a central Florida girl and Herbert completely nailed the Kissimmee and Orlando area, right down to the tourist traps and old motels.

In the Water by Mark Wheaton – Two American girls, Candice and Jenn are currently vacationing at a resort in Thailand. A major storm moves in and the resort goes into lock-down. Not wanting to disappoint their guests, the hotel opens the bar and turns the downstairs area into a hurricane party. It is here that Jenn and Candice meet up with a brother and sister they met in Goa and the night takes a turn for the worse. I really enjoyed the format of this story – some was told in real time from the girls’perspectives and some was told from the detectives investigating the aftermath.

Peelings by Kenzie Jennings – Beth, her twin daughters, and her abusive husband, Marc, take a family vacation to the Disney parks in Orlando. Beth is unhappy, she gets a terrible sunburn on the first day and Marc berates her for not being careful. Her daughters take the cues from their father and are horrible to Beth as well. As her burn begins to peel, she finds parts of herself transforming and discovers that Disney truly is the happiest place on earth.

The Penanggalan by Scott Cole – An unnamed protagonist and his partner, Maddie, change their vacation plans last minute when Maddie finds unbelievably cheap airline tickets to Panang. During the plane ride, our main character finds a little booklet in the seat pocket in front of him called, “A Field Guide to Supernatural Entities in Southeast Asia.” He becomes inexplicably drawn to a vampiric creature called a Penanggalan. This tale had some serious Junji Ito vibes and I was there for it!

It was so hard to narrow these stories down to select the top 5. I have two honorable mentions that I would also like to mention here: The Cucuy of Cancun by V. Castro and Deep in the Heart by Waylon Jordan. Castro brings a new twist on El Cucuy while Jordan tells a coming-of-age tale replete with cave monsters.

It’s been some time since I have stumbled onto a multi-author anthology collection that left me so thrilled. I honestly can’t recommend this one enough and it is so perfect for summer! Definitely one to check out.

I received a copy of this title for review consideration.

Burnt Fur

An anthology of deviant sex and extreme horror edited by Ken MacGregor

3.5/5 Stars

I believe this is my first review that starts off with a warning! Here we go – This anthology is not for everyone. It contains graphic scenes of anthropomorphic animals having graphic sex, bestiality, and scenes of extreme horror. This is not to say that every story contains these elements, but the bulk of them do. If you think this will bother you, this is not an anthology you want to pick up.

If you are still with me after that warning, let’s continue on with the book. Burnt Fur is an anthology built around the theme of anthropomorphic animals and horror. There are furries, were-animals, talking animals, human-animal hybrids, and everything in between. While not every story contains sexual antics, a lot of them do.

Like most multi-author anthologies, Burnt Fur has some really great stories and some really just okay stories. There were even one or two where I honestly have no idea what was going on. The standout stories for me were:

The Moon in Her Eyes by Sarah Hans – The opening story of the anthology about an old wolf who rescues a young pup

The Hamford Pigs by N. Rose – A young man follows in his father’s footsteps as he becomes a police officer and joins the secret fraternity of the Hamford Pigs.

The Others by C.M. Saunders – You’re on your first date with a beautiful woman that you met on an online dating site. How do you respond when she tells you she can see animals that no one else can see?

Ware the Deep by Stephanie Park – A werewolf unexpectedly meets his match in a strange young woman that he stumbles across at a bar.

The Victims by James L. Steele – A marked wolf gives birth to a litter of pups – one of which shares her same mark. She tell the story of what this means for her newborn pup and the horror that they bear so that others may live in peace.

Honorable mentions to Oh Piggy, My Piggy by Mike Scott and 6 Dicks by Rachel Lee Weist. I found both of these stories to be disturbing and laugh-out-loud funny.

Bottom line – if the subject matter doesn’t put you off, there are enough enjoyable stories in this collection to make it worth a read.

As an aside, I received a digital copy of this title in exchange for an honest review.

Halloween Fiend

A spooky little Halloween novella by C.V. Hunt

3.5/5 Star Review

I’m wrapping up reviews for books read in the last week of April and you know what that means – we are less than halfway to Halloween! Over on the Spine Breakers YouTube channel, Sue and Megan have been hosting Halfaweenathon 2020. You can find the the original video and the reading challenges here.

I read Halloween Fiend for challenges #1 – Read a book with black or orange on the cover and #4 – Read a book with a spooky word in the title. I was running out of time so I had to combine challenges for this book!

Halloween Fiend is a quick and spooky little read. The novella follows the story of Barry as All Hallow’s Eve looms closer and closer in the town of Strang. It’s a town with a long-held secret – it plays victim to a dark creature that the townsfolk have come to simply call Halloween. Every night, small sacrifices, treats, must be left out for Halloween so that it can be kept at bay. Barry is tired of it all and wants out, but it is not quite so simple as that…

Hunt has created an eerie mythos surrounding Halloween and the town of Strang. It’s a little similar to Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ but a with a more cult-like attitude toward it all. Halloween Fiend is a very atmospheric read; You can smell fall in the crisp air as you pass through the town square and likewise taste the stale smoke on the back of your tongue that comes from decades of smoking inside a closed house.

I had two minor complaints about Halloween Fiend – neither major enough to keep me from recommending this title, but worth a mention. The first is that the main character, Barry, is too generic. I often forgot that I was supposed to be reading from the perspective of a middle-aged man. It’s not necessarily pivotal to the plot, so it is easy to overlook. My second is that I found some of the plot points to be a little too vague. I am all about ambiguity in horror – I quite love it, actually. There were just one or two explanations that I would have liked to have been more forthcoming in the story.

Overall, this was a fun read! If you are looking for a quick little tale to get you in the spirit of Halloween then this is definitely one to pick up.

In A Dark Place

The “true” story behind The Haunting in Connecticut by Ray Garton

4/5 Star Review

I’m wrapping up reviews for books read in the last week of April and you know what that means – we are halfway to Halloween! Over on the Spine Breakers YouTube channel, Sue and Megan have been hosting Halfaweenathon 2020. You can find the the original video and the reading challenges here.

I read In A Dark Place for challenge #3 – Read a book that involves something supernatural.

I am endlessly fascinated with the supernatural and the paranormal. It’s something that I would like to believe in, but thus far have not experienced anything that could not be rationally explained. I love reading “true” tales of hauntings, but they are all read with a grain of salt. In A Dark Place was no exception to this. More on this in a bit.

In the 1980s, The Snedekers oldest son was undergoing daily cancer treatments and the family needed to move closer to the city in order to better care for him. With limited income, there was only one home that they found and could afford that satisfied both the needed location and space for their family of six – a former funeral home. The parents opted not to share that fact with the kids and spent their next year or so in utter denial of all of the weird goings-on around the home. Their eldest son was the most affected and often blamed for the spooky occurrences. The situation reached its boiling point once their son was no longer in the home and the Snedekers could no longer lie to themselves about the presence of evil. Enter the Warrens and eventual exorcism of the home.

This book has it all – strange sounds, disembodied voices, shadow figures, weird lights, footsteps, phantom touches, disappearing items, vibrating beds, the evil spirits of necrophiliacs, and demonic anal rape. Oh, yes – what kind of possessed house would this be if you weren’t being anally raped by a demonic presence?!

This book is an absolute blast – when you read it as fiction. It stands on its own as a pretty great haunted house novel. Ray Garton is a fantastic writer and his story shines. If you read it as a true story, well, there are many plot holes and inconsistencies to be found. Garton himself found them and questioned the Snedekers who never seemed to be able to keep their stories straight. He approached the Warrens about the questionable events and was told by Ed to, “…make it up and make it scary. That’s why we hired you.” I highly recommend reading the interview that Ray Garton did with Damned Connecticut about his experience writing this book. You can find it here.

Whether or not you believe the validity of this story or in the Warrens ability to assist in these cases – it is a fun ride. Garton wrote a wicked fun haunted house story that can be enjoyed whether it is true or not. Recommended read!

Ghoul

A coming-of-age horror novel by Brian Keene

5/5 Star Review

It’s the last week of April and you know what that means – we are halfway to Halloween! Over on the Spine Breakers YouTube channel, Sue and Megan have been hosting Halfaweenathon 2020. You can find the the original video and the reading challenges here.

I read Ghoul for challenge #2 – Read a spooky book and then watch the movie (or TV) adaptation.

Ghoul is a perfect example of quintessential coming-of-age horror. The novel takes place over the summer of 1984. Three boys, twelve years old and best friends, are going through their own separate hells at home, fighting a supernatural monster, and becoming more grown-up than they should ever have to be over the course of just one season.

Timmy, Doug, and Barry live in small-town PA and their primary playground is the cemetery that sprawls next to Timmy and Barry’s homes. They notice that something seems to be going on when Barry’s dad, the cemetery caretaker, warns them away from playing there anymore and tells them to never come near it again at night. Days later, they notice some of the gravestones seem to be sinking into the earth. As more holes seem to be opening up and people start to go missing, the boys make plans to try and explore what they believe to be an underground cave system underneath the cemetery. Amidst their outdoor adventures, each of the boys is dealing with their own issues at home. Barry lives with a verbally and physically abusive father; Doug lives with a mother who is far too physical with her affections; and Timmy is dealing with the death of a family member and a father who demands he grows up too quickly.

Ghoul reminds us that there are things in this world that we perceive to be monsters, but that they are only doing what it is in their nature to do. It reminds us that humans can be monsters, and they they can be the most monstrous of all. Highly, highly recommended read!

I read my old Leisure copy of Ghoul that is no longer in print. You can find the current version linked here that is in print through Deadite Press. If you want to go all out – I highly suggest ordering the June 2020 Night Worms package, “Boys of Summer.” One of the books included will be an exclusive version of Ghoul published by Poltergeist Press with new cover art and a new introduction written by Brian Keene – read more about it here.

I’m only going to say a few words about the movie. It was released in 2012 and made for Chiller TV. I rented it through Amazon Prime and watched it a few nights ago. It was incredibly disappointing. It was missing all of the heart from the book and the filmmakers made some serious changes to the plot, particularly in regards to the ghoul itself. The changes could have worked, or at least not have been as glaringly out of place, if they hadn’t tried to use so many direct lines from the novel. Delivering the lines without context, or completely different context, just made for a muddy mess. I highly recommend skipping over the movie and just reading the book.