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.
The Damned Ones picks up the threads left behind by The Damned Place 26 years after the horrific conclusion in the forest outside of Winnsboro, TX. The four children have grown up and gone their separate ways, largely relegating the memories of that fateful–and fatal–day to their nightmares. And while they’ve mostly forced themselves to forget what happened, believing it to be a thing of the past, The Glutton has not forgotten, and neither has Jake Reese, still trapped in the dying world where Jim Dalton had left him. When a woman disappears, and her distraught mother calls the police, it’s Chief Jim Dalton who answers the call. Signs of violence point toward something awful happening in the woman’s apartment, and it’s only the first of many terrible disappearances to plague Winnsboro, all having something to do with Norman Reese, Jake’s younger brother. No less mad, and driven by religious fervor and the pressure of a tumor in his brain, Norman might be precisely what The Glutton needs to force his way into our world. Jim, Honey, Ryan, and Freddie must come together again to face the monster they hoped they’d left in another world before our world becomes a desolate and dying place as well. Chris Miller raises the stakes and ramps up the violence for his follow-up to The Damned Place, pulling no punches as he lays out the welcome mat for The Glutton to join us in rural Texas. Mysterious disappearances and secrets from the past have managed to fester long enough that the abscess on the edge of our universe has no choice but to burst and fill our world with its infected burden. Daniel Caravetta again provides excellent narration for the audiobook, following the children seamlessly into adulthood and bringing their deeply embedded trauma to life. Norman’s harsh and nasal shrieking dialogue was exceptional, and stood out as a high point in the narration.
Before Deadman’s Road, I’d only been acquainted with Reverend Jebidiah Mercer via one of the short stories contained within this volume, but the character stuck out as one with a great deal of potential for additional adventures. I’m pleased to discover that I was not wrong. Joe R. Lansdale populates his fictional version of the American Wild West with monsters, both human and inhuman, familiar and strange. All of this is filtered through the sardonic and rueful Reverend Mercer as he struggles to fulfill God’s will, a capricious and cruel thing. As he faces off against zombies, werewolves, goblins, and other monstrous entities, Mercer is joined by assorted men and women who frequently don’t survive the encounters with the same sort of adroitness the Reverend displays. Short-lived as his companions may be, they provide ample fodder for Mercer’s wit and derision in some of the most entertaining dialogue Lansdale’s written outside of the Hap and Leonard novels. The narration of the audiobook provided by Stefan Rudnicki perfectly suited the gruff and acerbic Reverend, as well as the other characters filling these tales. This was only my second encounter with Rudnicki as a narrator, and he was no less impressive this time around.
The Fires of Heaven picks up where The Shadow Rising left off, largely leaving behind the events in the Two Rivers where Perrin has become the de facto ruler of a small kingdom. There are references to what’s going on there, but that’s not the focus of this book. Rand’s expansion into the world beyond the Aiel Wastes is the primary focus of this novel, as he walks a delicate balance between the diverse and often dissenting factions he’s ruling over as both The Dragon Reborn and Car’a’carn. Wanting nothing to do with the trappings of fate, Mat attempts to escape on multiple occasions, only to find himself more firmly entrenched in the wheel’s design and–much like Rand–dizzied by memories not his own. At the same time, Nynaeve and Elayne are on a collision course with the remnants of the White Tower in hiding, where Siuan, Leane, and Min are also heading. Little do Nynaeve, Elayne, Thom, and Juilin realize that they’ll soon be sharing their journey with an unexpected face from the past. Robert Jordan spends a large portion of this book familiarizing readers with the politics of the various kingdoms, as well as the machinations between individual Forsaken. We also learn more about the world of dreams and the dangers associated with that realm, and we discover some of the previously unknown danger of magic when Rand uses Balefire. This installment in the series provides readers with a lot of action and warfare, both close-up and distant, which keeps the story flowing. Additionally, it showcases the stakes, and reveals that even those we consider pivotal to the narrative are not shielded by plot armor, at least not permanently. As with the previous four volumes in the series, the narration provided by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer is fantastic, fully bringing the narrative to life and fleshing out the characters in the way the best audiobooks do.
Skipp and Spector captured the zeitgeist of the late 1980s in an unflinchingly visceral and gritty tale of worlds colliding in a catastrophic and terrifying nightmare brought to life. Heavy metal, Christian fundamentalism, and the horrors of a war most people wanted to forget–though it was less than two decades in the rearview–combine to create a tense and dizzying descent into the depths of Hell. But Hell isn’t content to remain in the depths. The Scream is the fictional band the Christian right believed all heavy metal acts to be, sinister occultists using the devotion of their fans to bring Hell on Earth. Fronted by the beautiful and mysterious Tara, the band pushes the limits of technology, performance art, and irreligious symbolism. But there’s more going on than performative evil, and it all has something to do with a presence at work during the Vietnam war. Jake Hamer, Vietnam veteran and frontman of the Jacob Hamer Band, is no stranger to pushing limits and pushing buttons. He’s developed an extreme dislike for the brand of Christian fundamentalism promoted by the likes of Pastor Daniel Furniss, and that sentiment goes both ways. As conservative voices in the political world seek to stifle and curtail the free expression of artists like Jake Hamer, these two men find themselves on opposite sides of a battle neither of them knows is coming, with stakes that they couldn’t imagine. Skipp and Spector’s novel hits the ground running with a barrage of violence and insanity that sets the stage for the nightmares still to come. Packed with as much social commentary as violence, the authors force readers to confront some unpleasant truths, the most striking of those being the light shone on the performative nature of evangelical Christianity being not so different from the performative Satanism of heavy metal artists of the time.