Junji Ito: Master of Horror Manga, Part III

Here we are again, revisiting my favorite horror manga creator, Junji Ito. Click here for Part I and Part II. This time around we’re taking a look at four volumes – Deserter, Remina, Sensor, and The Liminal Zone.

Let’s start first with my favorite of the bunch, The Liminal Zone. This volume is made up of four stories – Weeping Woman Way, Madonna, The Spirit Flow of Aokigahara, and Slumber. Weeping Woman Way is the story of a young couple who stop in a small country town and encounter a weeping woman, a hired woman who cries and mourns the dead at funerals. The young girl is so saddened that she is unable to stop crying, even after they leave the town. They decide to return and uncover the truth of these weeping women. Madonna tells the story of a corrupt priest who falls in love with beautiful, young women and convinces them that they are the blessed virgin herself. A plan that works for him until he can no longer keep his affairs a secret from his jealous wife and she goes on a rampage. The Spirit Flow of Aokigahara follows a young couple into the suicide forest. Norio has been stricken with a fatal disease and his girlfriend, Mika, decides to join him in death. Their first night, they see a faint glow and decide to follow it the next day. They discover the mystical spirit flow of the forest and Norio becomes obsessed with riding it every night. The final story, Slumber, is about a man who falls asleep at night and wakes up each morning convinced he’s killed the night before. This was a 5/5 Star read for me. Ito excels in short story form and these are some of his best.

Deserter was another 5/5 Star collection. This bind-up contains twelve short stories – standouts for me included: Deserter, about a WWII soldier who went AWOL and hid away at a friend’s farmhouse; Where the Sandman Lives, a story about a man who can’t fall asleep for fear of his dream self coming out and taking over his daytime body; A Father’s Love, a story about a father who can possess his entire family; and The Long Hair in the Attic, a cautionary tale about being a playboy.

Sensor is the story of Kyoko Byakuya who is drawn into the mysterious village of Kiyokami, a town covered in volcanic hair. The shining golden fibers form a protective shell around her when a nearby volcano erupts. When she emerges, all of her hair has been replaced by the beautiful golden hair. What follows is a strange tale of cults and cosmic horror. Another 5/5 Star read.

The final volume was my least favorite of the lot, but it’s still worth a read at 4/5 Stars. Remina tells the story of a scientist and his daughter. Dr. Oguro discovers a new planet that’s emerged from a wormhole. He names the planet Remina, after his only daughter. His discovery is met with great fanfare and his daughter rises to popularity because of it. Everything is going great until they discover the planet is approaching earth and devouring everything in its wake. The population begins to fear Dr. Oguro and his daughter and become obsessed with the idea that by destroying them, they can save their planet.

If you haven’t caught on by now, you should absolutely be reading Junji Ito if you like horror.

The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories Volumes 1 and 2

Edited by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle

5/5 Star Review

I recently had the displeasure of suffering through a horrid cold and sinus infection. The one positive from the whole ordeal is that I had a few days of nearly uninterrupted reading time. During this time, I blew through both volumes of The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories.

The good folks at Valancourt Books recognize the lack of translated horror fiction in the U.S. market and are seeking to bring more to light. Nearly every story in both volumes is appearing for the first time in English. The stories range from over five continents and a multitude of languages, including the endanged Romansh in volume two.

Volume One features twenty-one contemporary horror stories published in thirteen different languages. Favorite stories in this collection for me were Uironda, from Italy, about an exit off the highway that sometimes appears to truckers; The Angle of Horror, from Spain, about seeing people from a new angle – fans of Junji Ito will see this as a stand-out story; Señor Ligotti, from Mexico, about a real estate deal that is just too good to be true; Pale Toes, from Finland, folk horror about cave dwelling creatures; and The House of Leuk Dawour, from Senegal, about the evil spirit, or rab, Leuk Dawour. Other standout stories were The Time Remaining, from Hungary; Menopause, from the Ivory Coast; The Bones in her Eyes, from the Netherlands; and Backstairs, from Sweden.

Volume Two features twenty contemporary stories published in sixteen different languages. Valancourt tried not to repeat stories from any of the countries previously published in Volume One and succeeded with the exception of Denmark. While I thoroughly enjoyed Volume One in this new series, Volume Two was my favorite. I felt Valancourt extended their reach a bit further and pulled in some extremely varied and different stories. Where the stories in Volume One felt safe and relatable for foreign readers, Volume Two felt edgier and not afraid to take risks.

It’s incredibly difficult to narrow down my favorites from Volume Two, as I flagged nearly every story for one reason or another. However, a few standouts for me were Whitebone Harp, from China, about a woman who gives herself entirely to her husband; The War, from Poland, about the truth of never-ending war; The Old Wound and the Sun, from Japan, about an interesting portal; The Bell, from Iceland, about a plague in a small town; The Grain Dryer of Tammõküla, from Estonia, about a ghost and family secrets; and Firstborn, from Greece, about the truth behind a family’s wealth.

If you’re a fan of short stories and a wide variety of horror, these are two collections that you don’t want to miss!

And the Devil Cried

A blend of crime noir and extreme violence by Kristopher Triana

Readers of this blog will know that I am a huge Kristopher Triana fan. It doesn’t matter what genre he writes in, he always knocks it out of the park and leaves his own unique flavor behind. And the Devil Cried is no exception to that remark. This novel is as dark and gritty as crime fiction gets. It’s written in first person and our protagonist, Jackie, is the most detestable human being imaginable.

The story begins as Jackie is being let out of prison and set up for the illusion of a straight life by crime boss, Pino. He has an apartment, a job in a deli, and begins working small jobs for Pino on the side. It’s not long before Pino needs Jackie for a job that’s right in his wheelhouse because Jackie is known for doing the jobs that no one else will – jobs that involve women and children.

Jackie is one of the most detestable, unlikable, and vile characters you are going to come across in any genre. He is a complete sociopath. His actions are reprehensible and dare I say, triggering.

I’m not a proponent of trigger warnings in general. Simply put, what triggers me may not trigger you and in this genre it’s difficult to pinpoint all of the triggering subject matter. I know this is an unpopular opinion, but that’s how I feel about it. That being said, if you have a problem with extreme violence and/or abuse, this may not be the book for you and I would be happy to recommend another Triana book to start with.

While I loved the novel, I personally struggled with the abuse of Natalie. She is the counter girl at the deli where Jackie works. He chooses her to be his, for lack of a better word, beard. She represents the normal, straight life he maintains on the surface while still living a dirty, sleazy life just underneath. The mental, physical, and emotional abuse was borderline too much for me. As a victim of emotionally and mental abuse, I wanted a redemption for Natalie that never really happened.

And the Devil Cried is the first release from new publisher, Stygian Sky Media. SSM is the child of Death’s Head Press head-honcho, Jarod Barbee, and acclaimed author, Jeremy Wagner.

If you ask me, this was a great pick to launch the new press and I will be looking forward to future releases from both SSM and Kristopher Triana.

The Book of the Most Precious Substance

An erotic literary thriller by Sara Gran

The Book of the Most Precious Substance is the latest release from Sara Gran. For those in the horror community, she is arguably best know for her possession novel, Come Closer. It deserves its own post, but for now let me assure you that it is one of the best modern novels of possession.

Her new novel, while completely different from her take on the demonic, still has its roots in the occult. Former novelist Lily Albrecht has become a rare book dealer out of necessity. It’s not what she wanted to do with her life, but she found she’s quite good at it and is able to support her husband, Abel, and his caregiver with her sales. One day at a book sale in New York, another dealer approaches her with an opportunity to make six figures if they can find a book for a buyer. He reveals the name, The Precious Substance, they make a deal, and he’s found dead the next day.

Lily needs the money and enlists the help of another dealer, Lucas, in order to find out about the book, how to find the buyer, and how to get their hands on it. Together they discover the book is considered the oldest and most powerful occult book on sex magic to ever exist. Only five, hand-written copies exist in the world. The quest and obsession with the book takes Lily and Lucas across the country and across Europe as they attempt to put their hands on a copy.

This book ticked a lot of boxes for me and I found it to be absolutely unputdownable. The underworld of rare book buying? Yes, please. The obsession to find a book that can grant you what you desire most in the world, if you’re only willing to perform the book’s five acts? More, please. The sordid, passionate lives of book people? Absolutely!

If you’re looking for a fast-paced, sex-filled, literary thriller – look no further and pick up this book right now. Highly recommended!

5/5 Stars.

The Pike Cast & Die Softly

Chatting about the new podcast and a vintage YA book review

3.5/5 Star Review

Christopher Pike and L.J. Smith were my two absolute favorite YA horror writers in the mid-90’s. I couldn’t get enough of them and I waited impatiently for each new book to come out. They are the two authors whose work I have held on to since my middle school days. While I have reread a few of L.J. Smith’s series, I have been wanting to revisit my Pike collection for a long time and kept putting it on the back-burner – until now. Enter The Pike Cast!

The Pike Cast is a brand-new podcast put together by Cooper S. Beckett author of the Prudence Osgood series, Cassie Daley artist and reviewer for Dead Head Reviews and Ladies of Horror Fiction, and Becca reviewer for As Told by Bex and Dead Head Reviews. The Pike Cast premiered on October 1, 2020 with a discussion of Die Softly. Every two weeks the gang will be back to discuss another Pike title! What better time to start rereading my Pike books?! The second episode will feature Whisper of Death.

Bear with me for one more bit of nostalgia before I get into the actual review of Die Softly… Once upon a time, in the early days of dial-up internet, there used to be an online Pike community called The Midnight Club. There was a website, but most of the communication was on ICQ and a listserv. It was so exciting to communicate with Pike fans from all over! Long before Facebook and Pike himself posting occasional updates there, he communicated with Scott and Shannon from The Midnight Club and we were able to get exclusive bits of news! (Fun fact – Pike’s long-awaited Execution of Innocence was dedicated to them!) You may be asking why I am bringing this up, aside from a trip down Pike memory lane. Simple – The Pike Cast has a Patreon and when you support the show for as little as $3/month, you get access to their private community on Discord. The community feels exactly like The Midnight Club used to feel – a warm, welcoming place for like-minded folks to discuss Christopher Pike. There are different channels for different chats and it is just a fun place to spend a little time every day. If you’re a fan, I highly recommend joining the group!

Ok! On to the review of the actual book – Die Softly by Christopher Pike. This will contain mild spoilers.

“Why did you two bake those cookies?” Herb asked.

“For money for drugs. I thought that was obvious?”

“I suppose. Did they have cocaine in them?”

“Just a tiny bit. Gave them a special flavor….”

The thing about Christopher Pike books was that they were always more mature than the other YA books out around that time. Reading them always felt like you were getting away with something. His teenagers drank, did drugs, had sex – they did things real teenagers did. That’s what I remember thinking at the time when I first started reading them.

I’m revisiting Die Softly about 25 years after reading it for the first time. Holy hell, friends! The amount of cocaine consumption in this book is insane! I’m sure that I understood it was an illegal drug when I first read this book, but reading it as an adult? Whoo boy! These cheerleaders have a serious habit! Fueled by the money from illicit school bake sales and a little B&E, Alexa and Lisa live a high-risk lifestyle. They bend boys to their will and make them into their personal slaves by addicting them to cocaine and sex. They are just trying to pass the time until they graduate high school and move out to L.A. where they dream of being famous. The All-American Dream, amiright?

Enter Herb, the self-proclaimed nerdy guy who will never get the girl. His passion is for photography and he just wants to get a few snapshots of the cheerleading squad naked in the showers after practice. After Lisa ends up dead and Herb develops the photos, he realizes he caught more on film than he ever bargained for!

The whole of Die Softy takes place over a couple of days and it is absolutely bonkers. It’s a whodunit fueled with cocaine, no sleep, drinking and driving, drinking and shooting, illegal weapons, and lots of teenagers getting murdered. Who even are these teenagers?! While Die Softly is certainly not one of Pike’s better books, it is so over-the-top that you can’t help but to appreciate it for what it is and chuckle at the absurdity of it.

There are some descriptions in here that are certainly signs of the times. Die Softy was first published in 1991 and it shows. We have an all white cast with the pretty popular girls holding all the power. Sammie, one of Herb’s best friends is an overweight girl who, “… didn’t have a body, her body had her. Somewhere inside, hidden beneath the rolls of fat, was the real Sammie.” Yikes. This description coming from the POV of her best friend – double yikes. Unfortunately though, that was typical in YA from this time period.

Overall, this is not one of Pike’s better books. It is notable, again, because it is so over-the-top, but it is also one of his few books with no supernatural element. It’s worth a read, but if you have never read Pike before I would not recommend this one as a jumping off point.

Next up – Whisper of Death! (A title that is a great jumping off point!)

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:

Click the cover art to purchase from bookshop.org.

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.

Behemoth

A novel of giant biblical monsters by HP Newquist

4/5 Star Review

Are you in the market for small-town secrets? How about an old testament cult? A whirlwind novel of mystery, murder, and disappearances? Well, friends, look no further – Behemoth is here to scratch that itch!

Click on the cover art to purchase from bookshop.org.

Robert Garrahan, a journalist by trade, has been making weekend trips between New York City and his small cabin in upstate New York to work on his book of New York architecture. One weekend, he detours into the small town of Morris for gas and is struck by the odd little town. It seems as though folks are coming out of their homes to watch him. The gas station owner and his daughter are friendly enough, they chat about the big city and how exotic it sounds. The next weekend, Robert stops again at the little gas station only to find the family gone and a new owner in place. He starts to dig into the town and finds that there have been a recent slew of disappearances in and around Morris and the book takes off from there.

I was a bit concerned about the Christian undertone to this book going in. I am not a religious person, and aside from the odd possession story here and there, I really prefer my horror not to be riddled with passages from the bible. Newquist handles the old testament themes and religious fanaticism with deft hands. I felt it was worth a mention here just in case anyone feels the same way as I do about these things. Rest assured – this is not what you think it is going to be.

While Newquist has several works of non-fiction under his belt, Behemoth is his first novel and hopefully will not be his last. I recommend checking this one out for sure!

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

My Sister, The Serial Killer

A novel by Oyinkan Braithwaite

5/5 Star Review

My final read for February, and for Women in Horror Month, was the darkly humorous and enjoyable My Sister, The Serial Killer.

Oyinkan Braithwaite is an author from Nigeria and this is her first novel published in the United States. She is yet another international author that I hope to read more from in the future.

My Sister, The Serial Killer follows older sister, Korede, and her younger sister, Ayoola. Korede is a respected nurse in a local hospital and her sister designs clothing and has a habit of killing her boyfriends in “self-defense.” Korede always gets the call and helps Ayoola clean up. Korede begins to question her loyalty to her sister when Ayoola starts to date the handsome, young doctor that Korede is secretly in love with. What’s a girl to do when your serial killer sister is moving in on the man you love?

Korede and Ayoola both share different naivetes when it comes to men and social graces. Ayoola understands what men want – even seemingly good-hearted men and tries to make Korede understand. Korede tries to make Ayoola understand that it’s poor form to SnapChat days after your boyfriend has gone missing.

Braithwaite’s use of political and culture satire is masterful and makes this novel work in a way that makes you sympathetic to these otherwise unlikable characters.

Highly recommend this quick read to horror and thriller fans – especially for those who enjoyed the early Dexter books.