Reviews

Mostly Dead Things

A debut novel of taxidermy and finding oneself by Kristen Arnett

5/5 Star Review

It’s the beginning of September, the start of a month-long anniversary celebration for The Ladies of Horror Fiction. This lovely team is celebrating their first full year of spotlighting the amazing ladies of horror! If you would like to join in the festivities, there is a read-a-thon taking place for the entire month and it features five different reading challenges – check out this link for more details!

Why am I mentioning the read-a-thon on this review? One of the five challenges is to read a book by an LGBTQIA+ Author. While Mostly Dead Things is not horror, it does contain graphic details of a suicide and animal gore – things some might consider horror adjacent, a little macabre. This is not a title for those sensitive to, let’s say, the process of creating taxidermy.

Having said that – you absolutely need to read this book! It is an unputdownable story about a family finally beginning to understand each other a year after the suicide of the family patriarch. Jessa Morton has been groomed to take over the family’s taxidermy business since she was a young girl. A year after her father’s death, she is now a young woman trying to keep the business afloat and her family together. Her brother, Milo, has never recovered from the heartbreak of his wife running away with another man – nor has Jessa. Milo’s former wife was the only true love of Jessa’s life and she abandoned them both without so much as a note. Jessa’s mother is dealing with her grief in a way that no one understands – making sexually explicit dioramas out of the taxidermy in the shop’s display window. Told through flashbacks and current happenings, Arnett brings these characters to life and makes them relatable and so human – if you are not one of these characters, then you know someone just like them.

The other character in this book, the one that Arnett truly brought to life for me was Florida. Everything about this town was so real. There are a lot of authors who write novels set in Florida, but it’s a contrived reality – it’s theme parks, it’s beaches, or it’s full of over-the-top Florida Man-esque characters. As a central Florida native, I saw my home in this novel. I saw the small town people trying to get by, I saw the lakes and alligators, I saw the remnants of the Florida Cracker life that still exists. If you want a novel that’s real Florida – this is it.

Highly recommended! I absolutely can’t wait to order her short story collection, Felt in the Jaw!

Bunny

A novel of splendidly weird fiction by Mona Awad

5/5 Star Review

I have seen a lot of rave reviews for Bunny and the description sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a read — and I am so glad that I did! That being said, there is so much to unpack in this book that I honestly am not even sure where to start.

Samantha Heather Mackey is an outsider at Warren University, an exclusive New England school where she is working on her MFA in the Narrative Arts department. The book begins with the start of her final year, her last semester of Workshop, which she attends with four nearly interchangeable girls who all call each other Bunny. They are rarely apart; they eat miniature food and sweet treats; they praise each other’s work; they move and speak as one; they are a hive mind. Samantha is equally disgusted by them and jealous of their closeness. One day, she receives an invitation from the Bunnies – an invitation that leads her on the path to joining them in a very experimental off-campus Workshop, a way of expressing themselves beyond the written narrative.

At its heart, it’s a Mean Girls story – it’s a Heathers story, delivered allegorically, metaphorically, and at times, quite literally. Somehow Awad seamlessly blends these devices into an extremely relatable story. It’s hard to define the genre for this title any more specifically than weird fiction. Awad has masterfully blended the genres as perfectly as she has the literary devices.

I honestly think this is a book that you need to go into a little blind. To reveal much more of the plot would be to rob you of the full experience of this novel – and experience it you should! This is absolutely not a book to miss! Highly recommended!

Stirring the Sheets

A novella of grief and loss by Chad Lutzke

4/5 Star Review

For those of you who’ve read some of my reviews, you will have likely noticed that I am brief – both with the description of the book and my thoughts on it. I prefer writing in this format as these are the types of reviews that I like to read. I enjoy going into books relatively blind, without the opinions of others clouding my perspectives on the story. With that being said, it is difficult for me to review Stirring the Sheets without going into the plot to tell you why this wasn’t a full 5 Star read for me. If you’ve not yet read this novella, proceed at your own risk – thar be spoilers ahead!

Emmett, an elderly mortician, has unexpectedly lost his wife of 49 years in a terrible car accident. It’s been a year, and to his neighbors and co-workers, Emmett seems to be doing well. Except he really isn’t. He hasn’t slept in his bed since his wife died so as not to disturb the impression her body left in the sheets. He sleeps on the couch, surrounded by her photos; he will not eat food offered to him by the kind widow on his street because he thinks of it as cheating; in short, Emmett is a man still wrought with grief. One day, Emmett is sent to pick up a body that looks so much like his wife when she was younger, that he decides to bring her home.

Lutzke understands emotions – he is exceptionally skilled at conveying them in a way that really packs a punch. You feel every bit of Emmett’s grief in this story. It broke my heart to see him lean over the side of their bed where his wife slept to look at the impression left in the sheets and to smell her pillow. I have known loss and Lutzke gets it.

The story loses me when Emmett decides to bring the body of the woman home. He has been established as a man who respects the dead and the grieving, he considers this skill a service to his community. He takes meticulous care for the dead and the grounds of the funeral home. The mere fact that he would embalm a body without the permission of the family, steal it, take it home, and then cremate it earlier than he normally would have to cover it up – it is so mind-boggling wrong that I can’t get behind it. Everything we know about Emmett does not support this.

It should be said that there is nothing overtly sexual about the night Emmett spends with the dead woman. He wants the last night with his wife that he never got to have. This act is his catharsis. In the morning he is ashamed of what he has done and is finally able to begin the process of healing and moving on with his life.

This was a polarizing read for me. The story ran the gamut from 2 to 5 stars. I ultimately decided on the 4/5 Star rating due to how much this novella made me think about the story, human behavior, grief, and how I would handle losing a spouse of 49 years. I read this book weeks ago, but haven’t really been able to articulate my thoughts and feelings until now.

If you have read this, please comment! I would love to hear other perspectives on this book – whether you agree with me or not. This was a complicated read for me and I would love to have a discussion about it.

Splatter Spotlight: Kristopher Triana

Full Brutal, Body Art, & The Detained

UPDATE – Full Brutal won the Splatterpunk Award for Best Novel!

It’s Saturday, August 17th 2019 which means it’s KillerCon time in Austin, Texas. It also means that the 2nd Annual Splatterpunk Awards will be taking place tonight, honoring the best splatterpunk and extreme horror works of 2018. What better time to highlight one of the top up-and-coming novelists of our new generation of horror?

Full Brutal has been nominated for a Splatterpunk Award in the Best Novel categoy. Published in June 2018 from Grindhouse Press, Full Brutal tells the story of Kim White, all-American cheerleader and all-around It girl. She is pretty, she is popular, she is wealthy with a barely-present father – she is truly living the high school dream. At least that is what everyone thinks. In reality, Kim has had enough – she is sick to death of it all. After a conversation with her friend, Amy, she reluctantly decides to lose her virginity. Amy tells her it is a life-changing event, that she will gain a whole new perspective on life… And boy, does she ever! Kim quickly decides that a high school boy will never do and aims to seduce her sex education teacher, Mr. Blakley. What starts off as a little bit “Heathers” with a heaping side of “The Crush,” Full Brutal descends into an insane tale of lust, cannibalism, bullying, rape, and necrophilia.

Full Brutal was a 5/5 Star read for me. It is an absolute nonstop whirlwind of chaos and brutality. I couldn’t put it down and I couldn’t look away because I had to know what Kim was going to do next. If you are looking for an all-out gore fest – this is the book for you!

Next up – The Detained, published in March 2018 from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, a novella of supernatural and extreme horror.

What happens when you take a former jock hoping to reclaim some of his faded stardom; a former cheerleader attempting to relive her glory days; a former bad boy looking to shirk his old reputation; a good girl – still a good girl – trying to assuage her guilt; and a former gym coach hoping to get his due from a school that has, in his mind, slighted him for decades? You get “The Breakfast Club” – blended with a substantial dose of supernatural revenge.

I feel like any more of a description would start to give away the plot – so I will stop there. The Detained was a 4/5 Star read filled with a solid cast of characters and a healthy measure of violence. The tale evolves quickly, without feeling rushed, and organically weaves enough backstory in to bring the reader up to speed and without pulling away from the main plot. In this era of commonplace school violence and bullying, it is a very timely read.

The last novel that I am going to feature in this post is Body Art, published in December 2016 by Blood Bound Books. I happen to have a signed copy of this book, and as the inscription says, “… now grab some lube and a barf bag, It’s time to film!” You may want to go ahead and lay down some plastic sheeting and don a poncho as well for this one. With Body Art, Triana has successfully written one of the most depraved novels that I have read to date. I mean this in the most complimentary way, of course! I am proud to say that it takes a lot to get under my skin and there were a few scenes in this book that got there.

Kandi Hart is an aging porn star who doesn’t want to disappear into the annals of AVN history. Rutger Malone is a director who wants to make artistic films again. Harold is a mortician who takes a special sort of pride in his work. Toby is a high school football star who’s looking for love in the wild and crazy Jessica, who just wants Toby to treat her like a porn star and take her to Nashville with him when he leaves for school. All of these characters are brought together by a sequence of events coated in a supernatural dust that ups the ante at every turn.

If you like extreme horror, and I am talking really extreme, horrifically gore-filled, then Body Art is definitely for you. Whatever depraved sexual act that you can imagine, I guarantee that Triana tops it in his novel. If you have a strong will and a strong stomach – I can’t recommend this book enough! 5/5 Star read!

For those fans of Body Art, or extreme horror in general, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not mention Body Art: The Coloring Book published in March 2019 by Blood Bound Books.

The 35 coloring pages were drawn by horror pulp artist, CorlenScope and inspired by scenes from the novel.

If you have ever wanted to take adult coloring books to a new level – now is your chance!

It is worth mentioning that I will feature Kristopher Triana on another upcoming spotlight post. If extreme horror is not your cup of tea, Triana writes tamer fare. His short story collection, Growing Dark, is a brilliant collection of modern horror. His novel, The Ruin Season, is a Southern noir akin to the works of Daniel Woodrell. His most recent, Shepherd of the Black Sheep, I have yet to read but you can bet a review will come once I have!

Sour Candy

A cosmic horror novella by Kealan Patrick Burke

5/5 Star Review

This year has been full of new-to-me authors discovered through Twitter and BookTube. Sour Candy by Kealan Patrick Burke is another one of those finds. Many of his books are spoken of highly, including Sour Candy, but I chose this one solely based on its cover – it’s gorgeous!

One of the first things that I love to do when I buy a new book is to read the first sentence – it often will determine where the book ends up on my TBR pile. Sour Candy made it to the top of the heap: “Four months to the day he first encountered the boy at Walmart, the last of Phil Pendleton’s teeth fell out.” Tell me that doesn’t drag you right in?!

I don’t really want to say too much about the plot, as this is only a novella, but the story is essentially this: Phil Pendleton is a childless divorcé whose life is forever changed after accepting a piece of sour candy from a child at Walmart.

I went in expecting this to be solely creepy kid horror, but was absolutely delighted to discover the strong cosmic horror elements contained within. Although, don’t get me wrong – there is definitely enough of the creepy kid element to go around! Burke manages to craft a complete, spooky story with a well-developed plot and characters in only 75 pages – quite a feat! This is the type of novella that keeps bringing me back to the medium. Highly recommended!!

Of Foster Homes and Flies

A coming-of-age novella by Chad Lutzke

5/5 Star Review

Of Foster Homes and Flies is the first title that I have read from Chad Lutzke and it will certainly become the first of many. I have been collecting Mr. Lutzke’s titles here and there after seeing so many positive reviews of his work from BookTubers and on Twitter. I bought this title as an ebook, but finally took the leap into Lutzke Land this past week when I won a giveaway for the audio version.

This novella is a Southern Gothic coming-of-age tale set in the sweltering heat of an early New Orleans summer. Denny is a 12-year-old boy preparing for his end of the school year spelling bee. He lives alone with his abusive, alcoholic mother and wakes one morning to discover that she’s died during the night. Denny decides not to report her death until after the spelling bee and this is the story of the days leading up to it.

I know this sounds dark, and it is – but it is also filled with so much hope. Denny, for all his understanding of his mother, her abuse, and her addiction, still has an endearing naivety that he holds on to. Of Foster Homes and Flies is extremely well-written and the story and characters are so very well-developed for a novella. I found Lutzke’s writing akin to Daniel Woodrell’s, but far more optimistic.

I highly recommend this title for any fan of coming-of-age horror, Southern Gothics, or horror with heart.

A Weirdish Wild Space

A collection of essays from Mary SanGiovanni

5/5 Star Review

Night Moves was the first body of work that I read from Professor Mary SanGiovanni – and I was not disappointed! I initially became familiar with her from listening to her cosmic horror podcast, Cosmic Shenanigans and as a co-host on The Horror Show with Brian Keene. Both podcasts are available for free from the Project Entertainment Network. If you are a fan of the genre and not listening to these podcasts, you are sorely missing out. Not long ago, I was listening to an older episode of one of these two shows and Mary’s essay collection, A Weirdish Wild Space, was mentioned. I was thrilled to hear that she had a non-fiction collection and I ordered it straight away.

This collection of essays spans from 2004 to 2016 and absolutely runs the gamut as far as content is concerned. In these essays you will find Mary’s thoughts on writing; on being a mother, sister, lover, and woman; her perspectives on the infamous Dorchester/Leisure fiasco, remembrances, the anatomy of the Silent Hill franchise, and so so so much more!

For me, personally, my favorite takeaway was not a particular essay or thought, but the overall feeling of the collection. Many of the essays hit home pretty hard, especially those related to relationships and depression. On a logical level, you know that you are not alone and certainly not the first to feel this way – but it is so comforting to read someone else’s words and know, in your heart, that there is someone else who has felt the same way that you have or who has had a similar experience.

I highly recommend this collection – it is a fantastic snapshot of the last 15 years told through the voice of one of horror fiction’s foremost leading ladies.