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.
In Cerberus Exploitation: A Grindhouse Triple Feature, Patrick C. Harrison III, Mike Ennenbach, and Chris Miller nail the storytelling aesthetic of grindhouse exploitation cinema with a Troma flair. It’s particularly appropriate that I mention Troma since this book begins with an introduction provided by none other than Lloyd Kaufman. Like proper triple-feature experiences, the book contains trailers, film credits (with dream casting choices from the authors), and everything a fan could hope for…aside from the popcorn. Electro-Satan Comes To Wolfe City introduces us to a group of kids hoping to enjoy a summer camping trip, only to have everything disrupted by mutant hillbillies. Ennenbach’s contribution to this collection gets the reader/listener’s attention almost immediately with a musical performance that should have anyone in stitches. From there, it’s a barrage of violence, humor, and all the splattery goodness fans of the genre adore. Patrick C Harrison III then hits us with his twisted take on the women in prison genre with Vampire Nuns Behind Bars. Replete with lesbianism, sadism/torture, scientific experimentation, rebel uprisings/prison riots, and–of course–vampires. Terrible things are taking place at this women’s prison, where political dissidents and troublemakers–and a handful of nuns–are swept under the rug and channeled into one of two secret chambers where horrors await. When a prison break’s attempted, the balancing act that kept the facility functional gets disrupted hugely, and the halls and cell blocks become a slaughterhouse. And finally, we arrive at Chris Miller’s Sons of Thunder, focused on a military recovery mission in the dystopian Hellscape outside of the “safely” bubbled cities owned and operated by corporations. Escape From New York and Assault on Precinct 13 come together, producing a malformed and grim, action-packed adventure. Mutants, terrorists, and doomsday cultists stand in the way of an elite team and one man bent on revenge at any cost. There’s no point in trying to describe the escapades these authors have assembled. It’s something one just has to experience for themself…and I recommend doing so as soon as possible. Daniel Caravetta’s narration is spot-on, capturing the lunacy and low-budget mayhem of grindhouse cinema in a way only a fan of the films could manage.
A couple of years before the release of A Quiet Place, Tim Lebbon gifted the horror community with his novel, The Silence. Exploration of a previously isolated cave ecosystem in Eastern Europe culminates in the emergence of a predatory species that spreads across the continent like a plague. Blind from evolving in a lightless environment, the creatures–dubbed vesps–attack anything that produces sound. In a noisy world dotted with population centers, humanity doesn’t have long to prepare for the nightmare speeding across the skies. The focus on Ally, a teenager who has been deaf since an accident that took the lives of her paternal grandparents in early childhood, is a nice touch. Lebbon tackles the challenges associated with hearing loss with excellent detail, providing both Ally and her family with backgrounds and relationships that feel more than two-dimensional. Even with their well-established history of communicating in silence, their struggles as the family attempts to reach a secluded–and hopefully safe–location in the Northern UK are dramatic commentaries on how difficult silence is for human beings. Lebbon spins a tense and harrowing tale that explores the highs and lows of human nature and our capacity to adapt to conditions beyond our control. The only problem I have with The Silence is that it ends, and there doesn’t appear to be a sequel forthcoming. Be sure not to gasp as you’re reading this one. Whatever you do, remain silent. I was satisfied with the narration provided by Marisa Calin and Ralph Lister, though I felt like Marisa’s performance stood out as being a bit more authentic across the board, while Ralph’s narration was most exceptional with the dialogue from Hugh but lacking where the female characters were concerned. Overall, it was still a top-tier audiobook narration.
In The Babysitter Lives, Stephen Graham Jones tackles the haunted house theme with the same unique style and flair readers have come to expect. When Charlotte arrives at the Wilbanks’ house to babysit their twin six-year-olds, she has no idea she’s walking into a place more dangerous and horrifying than anywhere else she’s been. In what could be described as House of Leaves meets Stranger Things, Jones weaves a disorienting tale that leaves the reader questioning what’s real just as much as the narrative forces the same confusion on Charlotte. Charlotte, Ron, and Desi are not alone in the house, and there’s a depth to the shadows and dark corners that threatens to swallow anyone who ventures into the dark spaces without caution. Ultimately, the story succeeds in being a unique and tense haunted house story, capturing the highest stakes on a small scale. The natures of reality and identity are questioned in a big way, but Jones isn’t satisfied simply leaving us with questions. He wants to delve into the how and why of it all. Jones forces us to think about everything happening through the lens of Charlotte’s analysis and the horrors of the past she’s forced to witness. This might be my second favorite story from the author, following the masterpiece that was The Only Good Indians, and with good reason. The narration provided by Isabella Star LaBlanc combines with Jones’s writing to make Charlotte feel like a real girl. She’s smart, funny, and thoroughly out of her depths but too stubborn to give up. The supplemental material from Jones himself adds a nice touch, touching on his inspirations and what he hoped to accomplish with The Babysitter Lives. I’d say he was more than successful.
Candace Nola’s Bishop takes us to the wilderness of Alaska, on and off the beaten path in Tongass National Forest, where Troy Spencer is about to begin a desperate search for his sister and niece. Erin and Casey have been missing for a couple of days, and they’ve been alone in the wilds for nearly a week by the time Troy arrives in Ketchikan to begin the search. Venturing deep into the mountainous wilderness, racing against the clock, he’ll settle for nothing less than the best guide he can find. Unfortunately, the most knowledgable guide for those parts of Alaska is a gruff, solitary indigenous man who goes by the name of Bishop, and Bishop is a man of few words and many secrets. Troy knows he’s running out of time, but he has no idea how much danger his family is in, as an ancient and terrible presence exists in the forest, stalking and terrorizing Erin and Casey. Bishop knows it’s there, but Troy’s proximity limits his ability to do anything about it, and nothing will stop the evil from taking what it wants unless Bishop can free the beast inside of himself. Candace Nola brings the cold Alaskan wilderness to life, immersing us in the damp, chilly environment from which there might be no escape. Bringing her fascination with survivalism and the tools necessary for survival to bear, Nola brings Casey, Troy, and Bishop to life in vivid detail and three-dimensional depth, forcing us to experience the same tense, disquieting struggle as her characters. Jamison Walker does a decent job of providing the characters with voices of their own, distinctly separating them.