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.
When I first heard about Beyond Reform, and the authors involved in the book, I knew it was something I had to read. This need became more pronounced when Brian Keene announced the nominees for the Splatterpunk Awards at KillerCon Austin 2022. As a nominee myself, in the same category, I felt a compulsion to dive into the nominated works from my competitors/colleagues/friends. They’re not mutually exclusive categorizations. Upon reading Beyond Reform, I felt confident that it would be the title that blew the rest of us out of the water. As it turns out, I was correct, and I was waiting to post this review until after I’d confirmed my assessment. Beauregard, Athan, and Bark capture the theme of Beyond Reform in essentially every conceivable sense. The stories are grim, fatalistic, captivating, sometimes amusing, and often horrifying in their portrayal of the worst aspects of human nature. Aron Beauregard kicks it all off with the title story, Beyond Reform. Hoping to score some quick cash and have some fun along the way, Marcus finds himself the focus of a couple’s revenge. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, Marcus has made enemies of more than just the two of them, and even the best-laid plans fall apart sometimes. Beauregard pulls no punches and dares the reader to flinch as he ups the ante with each new roll of the dice. Midnight Glory by Jasper Bark introduces us to a dysfunctional couple with a seemingly unlimited capacity to hurt one another and a similar capacity to sustain the damage. The source of this seemingly supernatural horror is rooted in a gift that turned out to be a bit more than bargained for and a punishment a long time coming. Bark’s grotesque and graphic sexual imagery was almost gag-inducing, and that’s something to be proud of. Jon Athan hits us next with Tortured Until Proven Innocent, a tale of a vile sexual predator who appears to be getting his comeuppance at the hands of distraught parents. In Athan’s work, as in real life, the stories don’t always have a happy ending, and he doesn’t shy away from hammering that point home with painful clarity. The Martini Club is Beauregard’s second addition to the collection, and its focus on desperate, lonely women obsessed with rehabilitation and sexual fantasies oriented around a convicted serial killer is a thriller, for sure. As it turns out, not all of the women in The Martini Club have the same sort of fantasies in mind when they finally have the object of their obsessions at hand. Athan’s Dead But Alive introduces us to a funeral director with a dark and perverse secret that knows no limits, just as the man knows no shame. The disgusting, depraved, and uncompromising delivery from Athan only makes the conclusion to the tale all the more satisfying. And finally, Jasper Bark concludes the volume with A Most Chemical Wedding, the most unique of the tales included in Beyond Reform. While it is indeed a tale of revenge like much of what came before it, it’s one with numerous twists and wry humor in the mix. Spirituality, alchemy, and a voice that breaks the fourth wall with obvious pleasure make Bark’s second inclusion a fun and fascinating way to wrap everything up. As you can probably tell, I’m quite a fan of this title. I’ve heard it said there’s no shame in losing to the best, and the three authors involved in this project showcased why they are some of the best at what they do.
Kristopher Triana conceives of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he takes it to an extreme most of us would never imagine possible. A Fine Evening In Hell is a tense, character-driven thriller that explores the lengths we’ll go to survive when life has taken a detour down a dark road into real-life terror. Heather and Evan couldn’t have dreamt just how awful their night would be when they snuck away to the parking lot of an abandoned warehouse for sex. Not only was the sex itself disappointing, but they soon find themselves caught in the middle of a dispute between criminals and the dirty cops hunting them down. Their attempt to find a secluded place for intimacy will lead them down a path with disastrous and deadly consequences. Triana does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life, fleshing each out, and making them feel as human as anyone. There are no two-dimensional throwaway characters and no bland ciphers onto whom the reader can project themselves. We’re meant to know these people, to love and hate them as the story dictates, and to feel an empathetic connection with them–even when we may not want to. Kristopher Triana displays a versatility of style that is astounding, bringing his understanding of horror and visceral human terror to the all-too-real conditions of this story, and forcing us to feel the chill of that Northeastern climate as we’re transported along with Heather.
The Beasts of Vissaria County is not what you expect. It doesn’t matter what your expectations might be as you approach this narrative; I can guarantee that you’ll probably find yourself shocked and surprised. The nature of Douglas Ford’s book is as ephemeral and challenging to nail down as the narrative itself, but you’ll find yourself propelled along as if you were in a dream, with Ford as the feverish and abstract architect. Maggie McKenzie escapes the nightmare of her marriage and, along with her son, seeks a transient sort of safety and solace with her disagreeable father in the backwoods of Florida. She’s a damaged woman–bitter and unhappy–but stronger than she knows. Cursed with an unquenchable curiosity, she’ll soon find herself at the heart of a mystery that becomes more convoluted the deeper she digs. Any sense of normalcy gets disrupted when she encounters her elusive and peculiar neighbor, WD. The lines that separate reality from fiction, dreams from waking, and myth from fact become increasingly blurred as the story continues from there. While I wasn’t a big fan of Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think, I can’t help but feel that Ford has crafted a sort of spiritual successor to that 1940s novel. The Beasts of Vissaria County takes that same dreamlike, blurry quality and improves upon it in almost every way. In its strange and surreal storytelling, we capture hints and fleeting glimpses of beasts that may or may not be there–or may not be fully there. The narration provided by Jenn Lee fully brought Maggie to life, embodying her indomitable spirit and the blend of skepticism and curiosity that drives her along the meandering paths she follows.
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Ferocious is a perfect blend of witty dialogue, quirky characters, and nightmarish horror. But what else could we expect from Jeff Strand? When Mia’s parents die in an accident, it’s up to her reclusive, misanthropic uncle Rusty to step up and care for his baby niece. He’s in no way equipped to take on the role of parent, and it’s nothing he ever expected of his life, but he’s determined to do the best job he can. Surprisingly enough, he manages to do a fine job, home-schooling Mia and teaching her his woodworking trade as they live a life of quiet solitude in the forest. He may not have believed it possible at first, but Rusty managed to raise her almost to adulthood, and he’s proud of how she’s grown up. Just as Rusty begins to question whether he’s shortchanged Mia by raising her in such isolation, their world is shattered by wildlife gone mad. Squirrels, birds, deer, wolves, bears, and other creatures have become aggressive and determined to kill Rusty and Mia–but the aggression isn’t the hardest part to comprehend, it’s the fact that they’re all dead. Strand drags us at breakneck speed through a sequence of events that would be horrible under the best of circumstances; but miles into the woods without any hope of salvation nearby, these are far from optimal conditions. Scott Thomas’s narration captures the wry wit of the two protagonists even as they grow increasingly exhausted and violated as the narrative progresses. The quality of the narration never took away from this being a Jeff Strand story, and that’s something to be proud of.
In Evil Whispers, Owl Goingback takes us to the backwoods swamps of Florida, where the Patterson family plans to enjoy a quiet vacation before they brave the commercial insanity of Walt Disney World for their daughter, Krissy. Unfortunately, that particular swath of swamp and woodland has a horrifying and blasphemous history that doesn’t appear in the tourism materials. Innocent, relaxing days of fishing and venturing onto the river in kayaks begin transforming into a disorienting nightmare as Krissy makes a new friend. It isn’t long before this friend has the young girl performing seemingly random tasks, and soon there may not be anything left of Krissy. As the terrifying past emerges from the swamp, the haunted history of the location comes to life, and it’ll take everything the Pattersons have–along with the help of a reclusive Seminole named Jimmy–to have any chance of saving Krissy from a fate worse than death. The pacing is fantastic, as Goingback weaves a tale that incorporates elements of indigenous spirituality, Haitian magic, and the love of family into a vibrant tapestry that is impossible to put down. Cathi Colas provides excellent narration, fully separating the characters and providing each with their own distinct personalities.