Between Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman, Narrated by Steve West

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.

The Silence by Tim Lebbon, Narrated by Marisa Calin and Ralph Lister

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.

Ghost Summer: Stories by Tananarive Due, Narrated by Tananarive Due, Robin Miles, and Janina Edwards

The fifteen stories collected in Ghost Summer are some of the most engaging short stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading. That pleasure was in no small part because these stories often provide a vastly different perspective from much of the horror and speculative fiction on the market, informed by the author’s experiences as a black woman, both socially conscious and attuned to history. It’s a perspective and worldview that readers should actively seek out because Tananarive Due successfully displays both the ways we are all the same and the stark differences that haunt many people to this day.
There’s nothing not to love in this collection, but it’s the Gracetown stories kicking everything off that stuck with me the most. This strange, haunted place in northern Florida arrests the reader just as it seems to capture residents and visitors, sometimes in horrifying ways. Gracetown is a place of transformation and possession. It’s a town where the ghosts of a torturous, hateful past reveal uncomfortable truths.
Due provides us with glimpses of the past, of places where myth and legend overlap with the real world, where cultures collide with sometimes beautiful but often horrific results. We experience sadness and loss, sickness, and terror as the author paints all-too-real portraits of people, from those struggling to escape their circumstances to those hoping to find the peaceful embrace of death.
It isn’t all about the past or present, as she also takes us to the end of the world, displaying a keen understanding of human nature that proved almost prescient when compared to the pandemic conditions that ushered us into the current decade.
Narration provided by Tananarive Due herself, as well as Robin Miles and Janina Edwards makes for a different experience from story to story, each individual breathing life into the narratives in slightly different ways, but never in an unsatisfactory manner.

Shattered Skies by Chris Miller

The Foreword provided by Patrick C. Harrison III accurately captures the most impactful component of Chris Miller’s stories collected in Shattered Skies, suspense. There is an underlying sense of suspense to these tales, sometimes bordering on dread and other times sweeping the reader away with excitement, but ever-present just the same. Combining that anticipation and tension with masterful storytelling, Miller has assembled an amazing cross-section of what he’s capable of as a writer.
Instead of delving into each of the stories, as I often do, I’m choosing to focus on the handful that left the most lasting impression on me. This is not to say that anything is lacking in the others, just that I’m going to be spoiling things in small ways, and I’d prefer to avoid doing so with everything in this collection.
Kicking everything off with 10-35 At First United Bank, Miller thrusts readers into an all-too-plausible sort of horror as an elderly bank security guard finds himself caught up in circumstances he can’t control as he desperately tries to save the lives of those he loves. The bank heist trope receives a refreshingly sincere treatment that’s sure to be heartbreaking for readers.
Behind Blue Eyes was a story I’d already thoroughly enjoyed when I read And Hell Followed, an anthology of the end times. Miller’s portrait of a world going progressively more mad with each pressure wave of the horns blasting to signify the end is something that propels us toward a conclusion that feels simultaneously unfair and fitting. This one is a story of guilt and remorse over the way little things can have a profound and lasting impact on our lives, amplified in the recollection.
An attempt to relax with a house full of family transforms into a confrontation with a looming and mysterious terror enveloping the protagonist’s world in Horror On Lonesome Lane. Discovering what awaits on the other side has rarely seemed this awful and sinister.
Road Kill Gods provides us with a glimpse into what might be required of us to hold nature at bay as we carelessly and callously slaughter our way through our lives. Unwilling to accept the price to be paid, will our protagonist release a wave of horror upon the whole world?
As a child, there was no one in my family with whom I spent more of my time than my grandfather. In my case, it was my maternal grandfather rather than my paternal, but that doesn’t change the way Miller devastated me when I was reading Farewell. I was lucky enough to be in my 20s before my maternal grandfather passed away, and I can only imagine how much worse it would’ve been if he’d gone when I was much younger. Farewell is a touching and heartbreaking story, but it’s also a story of how tragedy can sometimes bring families closer and establish new roles for us as we seek to fill the void left in someone’s absence.
A Magnificent View brings us back to the same event from Behind Blue Eyes, or a similar enough event that we can assume they might be the same. Forced to witness the world collapsing into chaos from miles above the surface, a lone astronaut measures his life by oxygen percentage, knowing that he might still be the last survivor of the human race when all is said and done.
Wrapping up this collection with the M. Ennenbach co-authored Neon Sky was an excellent choice. We experience another story that, at its core, is about family and the risks we’ll take to save them. We’re gifted with another tale of a heist gone wrong, this one in a near-future cyberpunk dystopia. Fast-paced and endlessly exciting, Neon Sky is a fascinating juxtaposition from the somber tone of 10-35 At First United Bank. Miller and Ennenbach deliver a thrill ride populated by police drones, horrifying machines that keep the city functioning, an army of mafia killers, hackers, and confusing firearms.

Shattered Skies is a finalist on the ballot for the 2022 Splatterpunk Awards to take place at KillerCon Austin in August of 2022.

Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds, Narrated by Natasha Soudek

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.

The Night Parade by Ronald Malfi, Narrated By Tom Taylorson

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.

Black Friday by Todd Keisling

Retail is a thankless job, but working retail on Black Friday would be an absolute nightmare. For Doug, it’s not so bad. He knows it’s a job he wouldn’t want to make a career out of, but it pays the bills, and he gets to work with his girlfriend, Jenna.
As challenging as he expects the day to be, Doug never anticipates just how bad it can get. Black Friday is rough, but when it might just be the end of the world, things are about to get worse.
In the tradition of George A. Romero, Todd Keisling provides us with a funhouse mirror distortion of the American obsession with consumerism. Providing commentary on the mindless or single-minded hunger that grips wide swaths of the population on the biggest shopping day of the year, Keisling forces us to wonder how much difference there is between one shambling horde and another.
Even in a genre run into the ground, Keisling manages to create something fresh and entertaining with well-developed characters, fantastic writing, and plenty of wit added into the mix.

Black Friday was released on Halloween of 2021 as part of the 31 Days of Godless event. You can pick it up for yourself by going to http://www.godless.com or by downloading the app on your mobile device. The link follows:

The Ghoul Archipelago by Stephen Kozeniewski, narrated by Jennifer Fournier

The Ghoul Archipelago takes us on quite the adventure. On the high seas, to the islands of Southeast Asia, we experience a region of the world unfamiliar to many of us. Kozeniewski populates his near-future vision of the exotic environment with smugglers, pirates, island tribes, missionary religious fanatics, a smug computer programmer and inventor, and, of course, zombies. We’ve witnessed zombies all over American and Europe, the cities of Asia, and the islands of the Caribbean. Stephen Kozeniewski takes us to a novel location where we can witness the collapse of civilization and the rise of the undead, somewhere it’s less apparent that the rest of the world is gone.
At the core of this story, we see the same sad commentary on human nature fans of the subgenre should be familiar with. No matter where we are in the world, it would appear that we’re always too preoccupied with petty squabbles and power plays to focus on the survival that should be the unifying goal under such dire circumstances. As depressing as it might be, the author probably isn’t far off from the truth of it all.
Skirting through a gauntlet of pirates on the payroll of a billionaire still fixated on profit, adherents of a Christian death cult, and a megalomaniacal naval commander are Henk Martigan and his crew of smugglers. Will anyone make it through Kozeniewski’s tale alive, or will monsters, both living and undead, grind all of the survivors into a meaty pulp of blood and viscera until only maggots thrive?
It’s not easy to create an original story of the zombie apocalypse, but The Ghoul Archipelago is precisely that. Reliant on three-dimensional, believable, and even sympathetic characters, Kozeniewski propels the reader through scattered viewpoints as the adventure becomes far more than just a zombie story.
Jennifer Fournier’s audiobook narration is excellent, especially when capturing shifts in cadence and accent from one character to another.

Extinction Peak by Lucas Mangum

Lucas Mangum’s Extinction Peak borrows heavily from themes familiar to fans of Jurassic Park/World franchise, Dino Crisis, and Land Of The Lost while painting a dizzying portrait of an apocalypse no one could have seen coming (except for those who made it happen, but that’s a bit of a spoiler, so I’ll leave it at that).
We’re first introduced to Deandra and her brother, Johnny, as they plan to leave the basement they’ve been sheltering in as the world outside descends into a carnage-filled nightmare Michael Crichton wouldn’t have dared explore, even in writing. Children of a deceased drug lord, neither Deandra nor Johnny are well adjusted or particularly sympathetic characters, particularly Johnny. I found myself wanting both of them to be devoured by dinosaurs almost immediately but knowing there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell if that were how it played out.
As we follow those two (and other characters we encounter along the way, many of them equally flawed and broken), we see far more detail of just how terrible and dangerous the world has become as these beasts emerged, seemingly from Hell, through the sinkholes around the world. As with most monster-themed horror, we soon find that the worst monsters aren’t the obvious ones, that it’s other people we really need to worry about. Fueled by greed, contempt derived from old world biases, and sadistic impulses that shouldn’t surprise any of us (but somehow always do), the story continues its fast-paced and character-driven journey through an increasingly unreal end to the world as we know it.
In all honesty, I would love to see Mangum explore this particular apocalypse in greater depth and detail, through the struggles of other people in other places, but this book is so detailed as to make it simple to close our eyes and imagine precisely what it might be like for others, even ourselves when the holes in the Earth begin opening up.
This book is filled with graphic violence, gruesome deaths, and subject matter that absolutely nudges it into splatterpunk territory…be warned that this is not a book for your dinosaur-loving children…unless you parent the way I would…and did.

Work In Progress #2 [Attempting To Hide, Draft 1] (Yes, I know that I shift the tense throughout, I haven’t figured out which I want to use for the novel or even written this whole chapter)

Moving silently was made substantially easier for Miles with the downpour and frequent thunder masking any noises that he made; but he was painfully aware that the same muffling was working against him being aware of any potential threats that he would want to hear coming.

He needed to just find somewhere to duck away from the storm and his pursuers long enough to get his bearings and establish some sort of plan of action. He hoped that everyone else was having better luck than he currently was, finding some sort of safe haven. Hopefully they were all still together. Maybe Gale had gotten them all back to his house and they were securely holed up and waiting for him right now. He damn well needed to do the same thing for himself or he was going to wind up just as dead as Kateb.

The rain was colder than he would have liked and his clothing was sticking uncomfortably to his skin. He wanted nothing more at the moment than to get out of this fucking torrent; he wanted the fuck out of this god-awful town and to be as far away as possible from the crazy assholes that lived here, but first he wanted out of the rain.

He had seen a lot of terrible shit when he was overseas, a lot of things that made very little sense, but none of what he had seen even in Afghanistan or Northern Africa compared to the sheer, unreal insanity of what he had been seeing in this small Idaho town.

Hidden behind a sturdy privacy fence, he saw what might actually be the first lucky break of the night. The lights were out in the house and there was no apparent movement anywhere around him, but he was damned if the door to the backyard wasn’t wide open and swaying slightly with the breeze.

He made his way to the gate facing the alley and tested the latch, relieved to find that it opened without any difficulty. The door to the house is indeed open, he was hoping that it hadn’t been an illusion played by shadows as he made his way down the dark alley.

It takes every trace of willpower that Miles has to keep from going right for the door, but he can’t just ignore the situation that he was in. He makes his way from window to window, peering in through the lower corners, long enough to see that nothing is moving inside and that there is an unoccupied laundry room on the other side of the open door. There appeared to be another door at the far end of the room, which was a good thing, it gave him a buffer between himself and whoever might be lurking in the darkness of the structure.

He stood in the almost absolute darkness, listening for any sound, no matter how slight, that might not be caused by the storm going on outside. His ear pressed against the door leading to the interior of the house, he could hear nothing that indicated that anyone was home, so he built up the nerve to test the handle, as slowly as he could turn it.

An empty kitchen waits for him on the other side, only marginal light coming in through the blinds from the distant light down the alley. There appears to be a living room through the arch ahead of him and to the left. He doesn’t want to go any further into the house. He wants nothing more than to just stand there dripping onto the linoleum floor until there isn’t a trace of moisture left on his clothing, but he needs to check things out and make sure that he’s as safe here as he wants to believe he is.

Miles crosses the dark kitchen, his movements slow and deliberate. The house appeared empty as he crossed the backyard and peered through the first floor windows that faced the ally, but that was no guarantee that the occupants weren’t present. The door into the kitchen from the laundry room had been unlocked at least and kept him from having to force his way through, and he had let himself in with all of the stealth that he could manage.

He stood silently in the entryway between the kitchen and living space for close to five minutes, listening to the silence of the place, attuned to the slightest whisper of his breathing until the sound of his own pulse in his ears echoed like a drum. He didn’t make the slightest motion until he assured himself that nothing moved in the almost pitch black interior of the residence.

His foot descends softly and the faintest creak of the floorboard beneath causes him to immediately shift his full weight back to the other. His breath halts mid-exhale and his eyes widen as he scans his surroundings with sweeping movements of his eyes; his head stationary, like the rest of his body, as still as a living statue, each muscle tensed to react at the slightest impetus.

Even within the structure he is aware that the noise couldn’t have been a fraction of the volume that it was to him, but he was unwilling to risk the possibility of being discovered by anyone that might be there. There was no chance of the sound carrying beyond the walls, but still Miles worries that his misstep could draw the attention of either of the threats currently roaming the town.

In the den he discovers something that makes him want to cry tears of gratitude, above the mantle is an older pump action shotgun. He moved as quickly as stealth would allow and slid the gun from the hooks that held it in place like he was receiving communion.

 

(Gap in narrative, still unwritten)

 

In the darkness something latches onto him with hands like a hungry animal, clawing at him and struggling to pull him towards it, or it towards him. Either way it amounts to the same thing.

The shotgun in Miles’ hands erupts with an almost deafening explosion and the hands are no longer there holding onto him. Something wet and visceral hits the ground a few feet from where he stands. Almost immediately he begins walking backward slowly towards the open doorway that he knows is there, and he can hear the hungry thing in the darkness shifting itself around, breath gurgling in its throat.

It drags itself across the floor, the gender that it might have been before disguised by the severity of its wounds. Still it moves inexorably forward, desperate to reach its prey even as the final traces of life begin to dissipate within it. There is no question though, that it should be dead already, that its momentum should have ceased some time before; but somehow it just keeps dragging itself along, leaving a trail of blood punctuated by viscera at irregular intervals.

Miles had seen some terrible things in combat, been party himself to some of the most monstrous actions that one human being can perform against another, but in the minute or so that he had spent watching this creature crawl its way towards him in the half light, he felt bile surging against his esophagus.

Worse than the appearance; the hoarse, guttural groan that issues from its ravaged throat forces Miles’ teeth to clench.

Finally he raises the table leg that he wields like a sledgehammer and he brings it crashing down onto its skull, again and again until he can no longer distinguish between the sounds of splintering wood and bone. So much more silent than the shotgun that had initially shredded its body had been. He finally takes a moment to mutter a prayer to any gods that might be listening that the sound of gunfire hadn’t seemed to attract the attention of others like the thing he has just dispatched, perhaps within the same house.

“This simply cannot be happening,” Miles whispers to himself as he begins to analyze what he can remember of the town’s layout, working out the best route available to him back to Gale’s home and the SUV that he left parked there.

Everyone would be making their way there as well, if they weren’t already there, anyone still alive at least. But the rest of them didn’t know about the firearms and ammunition that Miles carried in a false compartment in the back, so he muses hopefully that Gale is armed, or he makes it back there quickly enough to make a difference. It seems that his obsessive preparations for terrible scenarios finally proves itself to be worthwhile.