Scott Kenemore’s The Grand Hotel takes us on a tour that leads us from one tragic tale of horror to another, each with its nuanced cast of characters and captivating narrative. As the sinister desk clerk guides the tour group through the halls of the hotel, he also nudges us from one long-term guest’s fantastic and unbelievable story to another. Reminiscent of Tales from the Crypt, if the Cryptkeeper were more somber and the crypt was a massive antiquated hotel, there’s a hidden truth embedded within each new story. When the tour group finds their way into the seemingly abandoned hotel, they’re shocked to be greeted by a peculiar and chilling night clerk welcoming them to The Grand Hotel. More shocking is the tour of the ancient building, the introduction to various residents and employees, and the stories he prompts them to share with the unwitting guests. Kenemore’s gradual revelation of the truth behind the hotel and its temperamental host is delivered smoothly, without coming across as forced or spoon-fed to the reader. Each of the individual tales incorporated into the overall narrative is distinctly voiced and unique from the others, making it feel all the more authentic. With the tour group, we get to experience tales of police detectives tormented by a haunted house, the tragic first manned mission to Mars, a naive dance student’s first experience with love and betrayal, and so much more. Christian Rummel’s narration perfectly suits the voice of our host while also conveying the necessary separation for the other characters in the book. Upon completion, I’m not sure I could imagine a different voice for Vic.
Travel By Bullet returns fans to John Scalzi’s The Dispatcher series following a pandemic that isn’t altogether too dissimilar to the one we’ve experienced in the real world. Unlike the real world, Tony Valdez and other dispatchers like him have had more work than they can handle, as grieving families insist on postponing the inevitable for loved ones hooked up to machines. Unfortunately, resetting only goes so far, and it won’t repair the damage done by the sickness itself. It’s a bleak and depressing scenario we find ourselves experiencing through Tony’s perspective. When a friend is rushed to the hospital, begging Tony to let him die, it triggers a series of events that brings Tony to the attention of wealthy and powerful figures with secrets they’ll do anything to keep under wraps. This installment continues Scalzi’s trend of combining the alternate reality science fiction of The Dispatcher series with an old-fashioned dose of noir that blends perfectly. The overarching mystery is satisfying and sufficiently convoluted, especially impressive considering the relatively short length of the story. I particularly liked the concept behind the title of this installment of the series. The premise of utilizing the reset in that way seems both obvious and strangely horrific. As with the previous two volumes, Zachary Quinto’s narration is superb, lending Tony a uniquely nuanced personality and bringing the other characters (many familiar faces from previous glimpses into the world of The Dispatcher) to life. I hope that Scalzi continues writing these tales and that Quinto continues narrating them because, like Scalzi’s seamless combination of genres, it’s a perfect blend.
Duncan Ralston’s Ghostland seamlessly blends elements of 13 Ghosts (or the more high-tech remake, Thirteen Ghosts), Jurassic Park, and The Matrix into a thrill ride of a story. Thankfully, it’s marginally less exciting than the Ghostland attraction itself. Otherwise, Ralston would be responsible for a lot of carnage. Something Ben Laramie catches a glimpse of when he witnesses his favorite author’s house inexplicably transported through town is enough to stop the young boy’s heart. It can’t possibly be Rex Garrote standing in the window and seemingly staring back at him because Rex Garrote has been dead longer than Ben’s been alive. But as the world will learn over the following years, death isn’t quite the conclusion most people believe. On the opening day of the Ghostland theme park, Ben manages to recruit his former best friend Lillian and her therapist to join him as he enters the park on a mission they know nothing of. Since his heart attack, Ben has set his sights on one objective, and it’s one he’s willing to sacrifice himself to accomplish. What starts as a coming-of-age reflection on mortality rapidly transforms into a harrowing and violent struggle for survival amid the exploration of the most haunted places in the world all in one place. Ralston paces everything perfectly, never wasting a beat as he drags us along with Ben and Lillian through a gauntlet that only the luckiest can hope to escape. As he leads us to a conclusion that is both satisfying and open-ended for the sequels, the author displays keen storytelling instincts that should impress anyone daring enough to enter Ghostland. Joe Hempel is always a thoroughly competent and capable narrator, and his performance for the Ghostland audiobook is no exception.
Candace Nola’s Breach drags us along with Laraya Jamison into a disorienting and terrifying battle for survival in a world alien from our own. The gradual revelation of a world that feels as fantastic and dreamlike as it is sinister and dangerous is a thrilling adventure for readers/listeners, even as beleaguered Laraya struggles to learn the rules of this new world and means to find her way home. A camping trip with her boyfriend and two closest friends descends into a violent and horrific disaster as a creature defying comprehension slaughters the others, forcing Laraya into an exhausting race for her life through a forest that transitions into something unfamiliar. Growing up in these woods, she knows she’s far from home, but Laraya has no idea how she arrived in this strange place or how to return to the world she knows. Laraya’s journey of discovery through this new world is equal parts fantasy and horror. The true journey is of self-discovery as she learns of her connection to this realm and the extraordinary allies in her battle against monstrous beings who seek to destroy her or follow her through the breach and back to our world. Jessica McEvoy’s narration brings Laraya to life, filling the character’s account of events with emotion that conveys the harrowing nature of her experiences.
Impact Winter is less of an audiobook than an homage to old-school radio dramas. Travis Beacham, along with a full cast of magnificent voice actors, a collection of sound technicians and foley artists, and a vast array of supporters (including the illustrious Robert Kirkman), brings to life a vampire tale that is both original and rooted in well-established mythology. When an asteroid impact devastates the world and plunges everything into darkness and storms, creatures that had hidden in the night are free to wreak havoc upon the human survivors. Hunted, and forced into hiding, sisters Darcy and Hope Dunraven find refuge with a band of refugees in an old military installation beneath a castle-turned-museum. As hopeless as humanity’s future might appear, a glimmer of salvation may be on the horizon. But what sacrifices will be required in pursuit of that new day? The story that unfolds through the twelve episodes of Impact Winter is a thrilling one populated by characters who defy generic templates and archetypes. It’s a shame that it has to end, though there’s more than enough left in the air for listeners to hope for a second season. The voice talent of performers like Holliday Grainger, Esme Creed-Miles, Himesh Patel, David Gyasi, Caroline Ford, Indira Varma, Bella Ramsey, and Liam Cunningham has a lot to do with the compelling and captivating nature of Impact Winter. An excellent script only goes so far, and it takes the talent of people like those involved with this project to elevate it to the next level.
Christopher Buehlman’s Between Two Fires transports readers to the region now known as France during the peak of the Black Death. The world was ending. Sickness had emptied whole villages, leaving nothing behind but decaying remnants and ghosts that haunted the vacant homes. The survivors, few and far between, were living through horrors no one had ever seen. Amid this nightmare of disease and human predation, a war unlike any witnessed on Earth was taking place. This tableau of terror, both human and spiritual, is the world Buehlman brings to life. When Thomas, a crude and disgraced knight, takes it upon himself to shelter and protect a young girl–who knows things she should not know and sees things others cannot see–he knows he’s set himself on a path that might end in tragedy. But nothing can prepare him for the madness and cruelty awaiting them on their journey to Avignon. The boundaries of reality are repeatedly blurred throughout the narrative, forcing the reader to question–as Thomas does–whether he’s awake or dreaming. The dead haunt the living, tormenting them with cruel assertions and distorted recollections of the past. Ghosts appear and disappear, leaving us to wonder which of these apparitions are truly beyond the veil, and which are drawn from the memories of Thomas and the weary priest who joins him on his quest. Will the trio arrive where they intend, or will the gates of Hell await them instead. Is there a difference? Steve West narrated this audiobook almost perfectly. The delivery of dialogue and narrative components were both handled with great attention to detail. The narration was almost as gripping as the story itself.
Judith Sonnet takes a hammer and chisel to our sensibilities and good taste with her collection, Something Akin To Revulsion: Six Extreme Short Stories. There is nothing safe, nothing sacrosanct, and nothing off-limits within these pages–and that’s how it should be. It was my pleasure to be one of the first to experience LOLCOW, the story that starts this particular collection. Judith’s rendition of this grotesque and graphic tale was the winning performance of the 2022 KillerCon Gross-Out Contest, and with good reason. Plumbing the depths of the internet for hilarious, perverse, and captivating content might provide more stimulation than one is prepared to experience. But like the narrator of LOLCOW, we can’t help ourselves as we return to the trough. Liquid Sick suitably tackles the TERF epidemic, showcasing for readers that those people spend too much time spewing excrement and too little time on empathy. Judith’s own trans experience influences and informs this narrative, and she does an excellent job of providing both amusement and poignant social commentary. Also, apropos of nothing…fecal emesis has always fascinated me. Sonnet’s next story, Rehearsal, provides a grim and unrelenting glimpse into the hours before a school shooting transpires. Kids who did nothing wrong find themselves prey to the whims of cruel and maladjusted classmates with pizza cutters to grind. Body-Crunch takes us to the dimly lit, poorly constructed ring of a backyard wrestling match that goes horrifically wrong. It’s not every day one almost feels bad for a pedophile, but it’s hard not to feel some faint stirring of sympathy as everything comes crashing down–and spilling out. In Coke-Nail, a group of bored, slacker teenagers decide they know where they might be able to score some cocaine. The deal doesn’t work out as planned, but one of them still manages to reach a state sort of like snowblindness. Finally, we have Something Akin To Revulsion, wherein some truly awful preadolescent girls decide they’re going to play a prank on the dumpy, less popular girl in their class. The conclusion might have you in stitches, though, so it’s worth sitting through the horror. Sonnet’s collection is as gripping as it is bleak and nihilistic, and it’s got those traits in spades. Her story notes clarify the inspiration and motivation behind each of the inclusions, and it’s always a pleasure to spend a little time getting to know the author after finishing something that’s hollowed you out like this collection is sure to do.
In a career punctuated by numerous surreal horror stories, The Town might be Bentley Little’s most surreal book of them all–and that says something. Steeped in the Russian spiritualism and mysticism of the Molokan immigrants to the United States and Mexico, Little introduces readers to a religious sect about which most people know little to nothing. I’m well-versed in world spirituality, and even I had little understanding of Molokan philosophy and culture. When Gregory Tomasov won the California lottery, he didn’t necessarily strike it rich. He did earn enough to move his family back to his hometown in rural Arizona, where he believes his children are safer than in Los Angeles. At first, the homecoming seems to work out nicely, though strange occurrences are popping up. It isn’t long before the whole world around them appears to be going mad. It all has something to do with Jedushka di Mudvedushka, the Owner of the House–a Russian superstition–and the banya (bathhouse) on the property where the Tomasovs moved. Little manages to keep the reader guessing what might come next as he ratchets up the tension and defies expectations at every opportunity. Nothing can be taken for granted as the narrative propels us toward a ghastly and horrific conclusion from which only some will walk away. David Stifel’s narration suitably captures the accents of various characters, and he provides listeners with a thrilling experience while at the same time delivering the narrative with an unusual drawl and cadence that is occasionally off-putting. It works for the story in question, but I’m not sure how much of that was intentionally applied for this audiobook and how much was just the narrator’s manner of speaking.
It’s a tradition for horror authors to write at least one coming-of-age tale that takes place during the golden years of the author’s youth. December Park is Ronald Malfi’s thrilling and heartbreaking contribution to the trend. It should come as no surprise that Malfi would manage to produce something that doesn’t feel derivative or even comparable to the work of other writers within the genre. When children begin disappearing from the coastal community of Harting Farms, rumors spread that the missing children are victims of a singular, sinister figure, the Piper. After one girl is found dead, Angelo Mazzone and his friends take it upon themselves to investigate the disappearances, believing that they are uniquely suited to unravel the mystery and locate the monster stalking the streets of their small town. The author authentically captures the period of the early-to-mid 1990s, and the young men populating his narrative feel like boys we might have known and befriended during those years. Each boy’s personality is distinct and fleshed-out, clearly setting them apart from one another while avoiding generic archetypes. As much a story of self-discovery and friendship as it is about the hunt for a murderer and the discovery of his identity, it’s likely the author utilized Angie’s character as a stand-in for himself. A gifted writer and avid reader who shyly worries that his friends will think less of him if he embraces his talent and takes the necessary steps to fulfill his potential, Angie underestimates the bonds between himself and his closest friends. The teenage years are a minefield of uncertainty and insecurity, and Malfi hasn’t forgotten what that felt like as he crafted the tale he tells in December Park. The heartbreaking conclusion is one that he successfully avoids telegraphing while navigating with attention to detail that keeps it from feeling contrived. Upon reaching the end, so much of the story up to that point is cast under a wholly different sort of bleak and somber darkness. He invites us all to join him at the corner of Point and Counterpoint, where we can watch the story unfold, not knowing what’s coming but filled with dread and tension the whole time. Eric G. Dove provides excellent narration, carefully providing each character with a voice all their own and drawing us into the world of Harting Farms.
Stephen Graham Jones has a knack for forcing his readers to look at the world–and aspects of it–in wholly different ways. The Backbone of the World will have you looking at prairie dogs (of all things) and our perceptions of time differently. If this installment of the Tresspass Collection is indicative of what the rest of the stories have in store for me, it’ll be one hell of a trip. Millie Two Bears is a lonely, socially isolated living on property that she’s about to lose with her husband in prison and his family breathing down her neck to parcel up the land. When she invites a peculiar stranger to rent the camper on the property, she has no idea what sort of repercussions it’ll have and how it ties in with the peculiar prairie dogs plaguing the distant edge of her land…and something growing deep in the earth below. Jones’s knack for taking the seemingly prosaic and transforming it into the mysterious and sinister is on full display. The simple reservation life of a woman with all-too-familiar troubles gets upended as her everyday environment becomes increasingly unsettling. Charlotte Flyte’s narration of Millie’s story is superb, and she makes the listener feel as if they’re hearing the story from the woman living it.