Most of my exposure to Alastair Reynolds has been in the form of grand, far-future space operas. Reynolds’s work appeals to me, in large part, because it’s typically heavy on the darker aspects of human nature–as well as the incomprehensible or frequently sinister nature of other intelligences humanity encounters amongst the stars. Of course, there’s also the necessary focus on the uncaring and hazardous nature of the universe itself. While Permafrost takes place on Earth, in our not-too-distant future, it’s imbued with that theme of humanity struggling against forces of a universe that is indifferent to our survival. Only a couple of decades from where we find ourselves today, an unexpected global catastrophe begins. As insect, plant, and other animal life dies off, we find the remaining human population facing imminent starvation and dwindling numbers. The only solution is to find a way to make small changes in the past that will allow the humans of 2080 to implement their only chance of saving the human life that remains. Unfortunately, we can’t send anything like a human being into the past. However, scientists have discovered a way to tether two consciousnesses separated by half a century or more via a neural interface grown from nanoscale machines transported back in time. By sending pilots–individuals who will assume control of an unwilling and presumably unwitting subject–downstream and into these hosts, the Permafrost project hopes to salvage the only thing that can save the future. The unlikely protagonist of Valentina was a surprising choice, an elderly woman and mathematician, the daughter of a mathematician who specialized in paradox and the potential for time travel. Chosen as the first pilot sent back, Valentina soon discovers unanticipated consequences of assuming control of a host. More than that, Valentina learns the chilling truth that there might be forces further upstream, unexpected foes who might not want them to succeed in their mission. The final scene of this novella is positively heartbreaking but totally in line with the sort of ending one might expect from Reynolds. Natasha Soudek’s narration is perfect for both Valentina and Tatiana, capturing the differences between the two characters with effective nuance. She successfully managed to tackle the other characters no less effectively.
With Life Signs, James Lovegrove addresses one of the well-known–though never overtly stated–elements of the Firefly narrative. Had the show been allowed to flourish–beyond the abbreviated single season–it would have become a plot point that Inara was dying before she’d ever joined the crew of Serenity. There were hints and allusions in the existing episodes, setting the stage for that revelation, but Firefly didn’t have sufficient time to delve into the assorted elements it was establishing. When it came time to create Serenity as a follow-up to the series, the fat had to be trimmed, to make a story that would appeal to both the disaffected fans of the original series as well as a new audience not already immersed in what had come before. There was no time to dig into the more obscure details that only the most die-hard fans were aching to see as the filmmakers’ focus. Thus, a whole narrative thread was snipped and allowed to drift away like a leaf on the wind. Thanks to a team of writers who never stopped fleshing out the world of The Verse, there have been graphic novels as well as these supplemental novels providing us with answers to questions we had as well as some we’d never thought to ask. This book, more than the other four, satisfies the Firefly fan by addressing Inara’s sickness. It also provides a much-desired glimpse into the story that was taking place between the conclusion of Firefly and the opening scenes of Serenity. Because this story relies on the reader having been previously introduced to characters who weren’t set up during the television series, it makes sense that Life Signs is the fifth of these releases. Learning of Inara’s terminal cancer, Mal is desperate to find some way to restore the woman he loves to good health. The knowledge that there is a scientist who might have developed a cure sends Mal and the crew of Serenity on a trajectory that leads to a distant, frozen prison planet where The Alliance deposits only those they most want out of sight and out of mind. In the frigid wastes of Atata, the crew faces impossible odds as Mal’s desperation to save Inara endangers everyone. Alliance forces, dangerous inmates, mutated predators brought about by failed terraforming, and an environment unsuitable for human life might be less hazardous than the quixotic pursuit Mal leads Zoe, Jane, and Simon on as he drives them toward unknown dangers. As with all of the previous installments in this series, James Anderson Foster does a superb job of bringing the characters to life with his expert narration.
Insatiable is, at least for those who listen to the audio narration, a match made in Hell. Rayne Havok’s tale of uncontrollable lust giving way to hunger that bleeds into gluttony is, on its own, a spectacularly visceral story. When one includes the eloquent and superbly articulate narration provided by The Professor into the mix, it serves to take the story to an entirely different level. His voice lulls the listener into a receptive state with an almost soporific cadence that belies the sinister undertones hinting at what’s to come. Even as we arrive at the tale’s vile and blood-drenched conclusion, we’re still held captive by the strangely soothing, borderline palliative quality of The Professor’s voice. Havok captures the all-consuming nature of obsession with Insatiable, portraying in literal terms the insatiable need of our narrator as well as the object of that attention. Insatiable feels like the result of what we’d discover if one were to eavesdrop on a sexting exchange between the smuttiest members of the extreme horror community; this story could be the adaptation of that cruel, visceral, and uniquely erotic conversation. With The Professor’s narration in the mix, the listener might be forgiven for suspecting that they’d dialed into the phone sex line of the damned. For those old enough to remember the late-night advertisements promising forbidden pleasures with real live participants only a phone call away–and some ungodly per-minute price. Ungodly is certainly an appropriate term in the context of this story, but the price is far more palatable.
Is Audrey Tipton plagued by night terrors, those nightmare visions and impressions that remain after she’s opened her eyes? Or are the pale, sinister beings she sees peering in at her and walking the halls of her house at night really there? If it’s not Audrey’s imagination getting the best of her, what could these creatures want with her parents or with her? Terry Miller crafts a surprisingly atmospheric tale for how brief the narrative is. It’s a chilling plunge into the deepest shadows of the night that transform our otherwise familiar homes into strange places populated by stranger creatures. Just as horrific, Miller explores what it means when familiar faces feel like hiding places for foreign entities. We’re left to question every minor inconsistency or out-of-character behavior as potential revelations of sinister life venturing from darkness into the light.
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It can be difficult living in the shadow of one’s father, especially if that father is particularly successful and celebrated in certain circles…or maybe pentagrams. Time is a quick and brutal story of a son determined to show his father that he’s not only ready to take over the family operation but that he can be both inventive and innovative in doing so. By the time the story reaches its satisfyingly grotesque conclusion, it feels like we’ve been there for a while, but that’s the nature of forever, I suppose. Time loses all meaning when there’s no end to it. Choosing a pedophile as a victim is an excellent choice, as it makes it impossible for the reader to sympathize with his plight. It guarantees that we’ll be in it for the long haul, regardless of how vile and cruel the punishment becomes. We’ll be cheering at the sidelines, hoping to see more suffering. By the time all is said and done, I’d certainly say this son has met or exceeded his father’s lofty expectations. It’s not every day a father and son celebrate by spit roasting a pedophile on their cocks, but in a Todd Love story, one really shouldn’t be surprised.
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At its heart, The Night Parade is a story about a father’s love for his daughter and the risks a parent will take to keep their child safe from what they perceive as harmful. It’s also a story about mortality; it’s about coming to terms with it and recognizing that we won’t always be there for those we love. All of this heavy emotional content Malfi explores within the story is played out against the backdrop of a society in the process of collapsing, as madness consumes both those infected by “Wanderer’s Folly” and those forced to react to something so devastating. Given no time to mourn the loss of his wife, David has no choice but to pack up their eight-year-old daughter, Ellie, and hopefully keep her away from the doctors and scientists he blames for his wife’s death. Immune to the disease ravaging the world, both Ellie and her mother were of great interest to the authorities who hoped to find a cure in their blood. But Ellie is special in a way her mother was not; she has a gift that might make her even more valuable to those who seek to exploit her. Unfortunately, David is not immune. As he races across the steadily decaying husk of the United States in search of somewhere he can shelter Ellie, he’s also racing against time as his mental state declines. The reader’s forced to wonder how much of what he’s experiencing is real. How much is the result of hallucinatory nightmares that will ultimately consume what’s left of his mind? The Night Parade is a horror story, but it’s also a tragically poignant tale. Malfi digs into the reader’s heart and begins systematically tearing away at it piece by piece as the narrative continues. Tom Taylorson’s narration is largely excellent, though his performance of Ellie’s voice falls a bit flat. As a whole, where female voices are concerned, there’s a little left to be desired, but that’s a problem that plagues many male narrators. I certainly couldn’t have done any better.
Janine Pipe delivers a diverse assortment of stories with Twisted: Tainted Tales, the only theme being that the bulk of the action takes place in the 1980s. This collection, framed as being stories from a missing author, as discovered by a woman tasked with sifting through the missing person’s household for anything of value, is packed full of nostalgia for those of us who recall the era. Unlike some nostalgia-heavy writing I’ve read recently, Pipe doesn’t lean on the nostalgia to do the heavy lifting and instead keeps the focus on her largely spectacular storytelling and captivating set pieces. Each of the stories contained within Twisted: Tainted Tales has been titled (or retitled) with that of a song from the music released in the 1980s. This is done with the explanation that there’s a mixtape accompanying the discovered manuscripts. The collection starts strong with Footsteps, a story of three women venturing into a section of wilderness where something sinister and bloodthirsty might be waiting for anyone unfortunate enough to stumble upon its hunting grounds. When Doves Cry is a period piece about a woman accepting the kindness of a stranger on a cold night from a man seeking the right woman to fulfill his peculiar needs. The third inclusion, I Want To Break Free, subverts our expectations as we experience the same event from a captured victim and her captor. But which one is the monster? Maneater introduces us to two detectives investigating a series of exsanguinated victims. The nature of the crimes themselves is perhaps less startling than the perpetrator when one of the detectives discovers the monster behind the killings. A night at the club turns into a bloody, violent act of intimacy in Addicted To Love. Sweet Child Of Mine delves into the topic of imaginary friends and the potential consequences if those friends aren’t as fanciful as we suppose. Tainted Love recounts a narrative of obsession, as an infatuation transforms into something far more unsettling, culminating in brutal violence and skilled craftsmanship. With Lost In the Shadows, we’re introduced to a town plagued by a rash of missing children, and a sinister discovery at the local drive-in theater. It’s a Sin is a ghost story about friendship, child abuse, and overprotective parents that ends unhappily. The post-apocalyptic tale, Love Is a Battlefield, acquaints us with a society where the rich and powerful have been stripped of their privilege. We follow one of the former upper crust as she believes she’ll be forced to face death as entertainment for those now in control. Running With the Devil is a story of urban legends and ghost stories, and the profoundly negative impact those things might have if we discover them to be true. Boys being gross, led by adolescent hormones, and burgeoning sexual discovery is the topic of Paradise City. Of course, things take an awful turn that is sure to make every man cringe. School’s Out Forever resonated well with me as someone who routinely ventured into condemned and abandoned buildings. A couple of friends decide to trespass in a haunted school where atrocities once took place, hoping to find the place haunted but ultimately terrified by what they discover. Two brothers on a camping trip with their father discover that a mother’s love transcends death, in Living On a Prayer, especially when there’s an ancient burial ground nearby and revenge to be taken. The fifteenth track, Thriller, delves into the fact that the topic of urban legends and ghost stories again, exploring the haunted houses we’re all sure exist within our hometowns as we’re growing up. Nobody’s Fool explores the possibility that one young boy’s night terrors might be rooted in something other than an overactive imagination and that there might be an important message embedded in the unconscious horror that he experiences. Stephen King’s not the only one who can tell a tale about the convergence of coming of age and sewer drains. Janine Pipe concludes her collection by introducing us to a different sort of monster that might be lurking in the storm drains the most daring children explore when there’s pride and a kiss on the line. The closest thing I have to a complaint is that I’d have preferred the author’s notes compiled at the end of the book rather than at the end of each story. It was more jarring, having those notes breaking up the framing story of discovered manuscripts rather than placing them at the end of the collection. I’m a fan of the author’s notes being included, so I’m pleased that Pipe included them, but I feel like they could’ve been in a better location.
Scud Lake is not the sort of town you want to find yourself stumbling upon in your ventures, and Welcome To Scud Lake provides readers with ample evidence supporting that. When a cross-country bicyclist goes missing, the GPS from her bike leads her significant other, Eric, to the front door of the Lurcher brothers’ home. Interrupting their dinner turns out to be a grievous error on his part, though I suspect it wouldn’t have turned out any better for him if he’d arrived at any other time of day. The Lurchers seem like the type who would take exception to the intrusion no matter when it happened. Imagine The Texas Chainsaw Massacre if Leatherface had a twin brother, and you’ll have an idea of Huel and Jed’s dispositions. They’re just a whole lot more chatty than the aforementioned chainsaw-wielding maniac. Go a step further and imagine that Leatherface was the runt of the family because Huel and Jed have a younger brother, Trapp, who makes them both look like children. This is the environment where Eric finds himself, and there’s little chance he’ll find his way out of the trouble he’s gotten himself into. At least he’ll see his fiance again. Clarke’s story is a fantastic introduction to the world of Scud Lake, a place of horror and depravity, where none of the residents are likely to be what one might consider decent folks. Though we only catch a brief glimpse of what life is like in this backwoods horrorshow of a town, it’s a tantalizing glimpse that makes the reader want to experience a return visit. It’s certainly better to visit on the page than it would be in person.
A second Scud Lake story can be found in Best of Indie Horror: Extreme Edition from KJK publishing.
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After the unexpected loss of her mother, Jamie gets a fresh start in a different home and a new job. Things are going well for her. She’s studied and worked hard, moving up and working in an elderly care facility where she’s hoping to build a career for herself in nursing, daydreaming of leaving town someday. Until then, things seem good. She’s made new friends with a couple of her coworkers, and Jamie built a rapport with some of the people she provides care for at the facility. One patient, in particular, means a lot to her, and it’s a sad reality of her occupation when Elizabeth passes away. It’s a gift her patient leaves behind for Jamie that could be the cause of the misfortune about to befall her and her two girlfriends, but that same gift might be her salvation as well. Jagge’s writing draws the reader in as she first spins the tale of Jamie’s childhood and her life before the loss of the final member of her family before introducing us to the new life she’s found in the nursing field. A protagonist who seems like a genuinely sweet and kind young woman, it’s almost heartbreaking to know that this story will take a dark turn at any moment. In that, Jagge does not disappoint. Jamie’s almost tranquil life takes a sudden turn as one night as she’s leaving work, she’s swept up in a nightmare of drugs, greed, brutality, and murder. Only by coming to terms with a different sort of nightmare will Jamie make it through the night, and she has the tools available to her in the strangest form one might imagine.
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Daniel is a real estate agent leading a couple through a cabin when the husband suggests, “It’s like a Frank house.” From there, everything changes in Daniel’s life. When Daniel was a child, his family had purchased land in Randall, AZ from a man named Frank Watkins, and they’d hired Frank to assemble the prefabricated A-frame they’d be using as a vacation home. He knew, first-hand, what it meant to live in a Frank House, but he’d still only glimpsed a fragment of what that meant. As the memories of his surreal childhood experiences with Frank come rushing back to him, along with the tragedies that followed, Daniel finds himself driven by a compulsion to find the strange and sinister man who ruined his life. As he’ll soon discover, Daniel’s was not the only life ruined by living in a Frank House, and it’s more than shoddy workmanship and incompetence involved. It seems like there might be some cruel design behind it all. The reader is treated to unsettling glimpses into the world Frank is crafting with his seemingly alien compulsions, whetting the appetite and setting the mind awhirl as we approach the dizzying and horrific conclusion in the missing town of Plutarch, TX. A ghost story with a hint of cosmic horror resides at the center of the mystery Bentley Little lays out for us with The Handyman. There’s a hint of Danielewski’s House of Leaves in these pages and a little bit of the Winchester Mystery House thrown in for flavor, but it’s distinctly Little in craftsmanship. The narration provided by Chris Andrew Ciulla is fantastic, especially on those rare occasions when we get to hear Frank brought to life with his peculiar speech pattern and unusual cadence.