December Park by Ronald Malfi, Narrated by Eric G. Dove

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.

The Troop by Nick Cutter, Narrated by Corey Brill

Scoutmaster Tim Riggs should have postponed the Troop 52 camping trip to Falstaff Island off the coast of Prince Edward Island when he heard that a storm might be heading their way. If only he’d done so, the tragic and horrifying events that followed could have been avoided. Of course, if that had been the case, what would Nick Cutter have written instead of The Troop?
The book begins with an emaciated, starving man, sick in appearance and erratic in behavior, venturing into a diner where he struggles to satisfy his intense and unrelenting hunger. Filled to bursting, he leaves and ultimately makes his way to the shore of Falstaff Island, where he takes the hideous and insidious life teeming within him on a collision course with Tim and the five boys of Troop 52. With no way to escape, a storm brewing on the horizon, and an unseen threat looming beneath the sick man’s skin, no amount of scout know-how can prepare the boys for the nightmare that is about to devour what should have been a fun and adventure-filled camping trip.
Intensely disquieting body horror meets man-vs-nature in an absolute masterpiece that combines Lord of the Flies with an almost Cronenberg-style narrative of infection and parasites. As Ephriam, Max, and Newt struggle to survive, they tap into resources they didn’t know they had and learn more about themselves and each other than they’d ever expected. It’s not only the microscopic peril brought to the island by its host but also the unbridled machismo of Kent and the serial killer-in-the-making of Shelley that pushes the boys past their limits.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are supplemental reports and investigative elements that fill in the blanks for the reader, adding to the discomfort as we learn more about what awaits the boys than they know for themselves.
There is harm done to animals throughout this book. That can be uncomfortable to read, but it serves the narrative well and never feels gratuitous. In particular, the experience with the turtle is poignant, and it reminds us that these are children we’re following on this harrowing and torturous odyssey.
Corey Brill’s narration of the audiobook is fantastic. He does an excellent job of providing each of the boys with their own distinctive voices and cadence, never forcing the listener to keep track of who they’re listening to at any given time. While I loathed the character, Brill’s performance of Shelley was the stand-out portrayal, instilling the skin-crawling sensation that boy would surely produce.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a nostalgia-packed excursion into the life of adolescent girls in the 1980s. We meet Abby and Gretchen when the girls are in fourth grade, as Abby attempts to celebrate her birthday party at a roller-skating rink. Alone with her family, Abby fears no one will show up, but the strange new girl from school appears. What begins as an awful experience for the birthday girl develops into the best friendship either of them could hope for.
We’re provided with snapshots of the friendship between these two girls throughout the narrative, the bulk of the story devoted to character development.
The meat of the story picks up when the girls are in their Sophomore year of high school at the prestigious Albemarle private school. They’re near the top of the class, and they have bright futures ahead of them. That’s when everything changes. Abby finds herself helpless as she watches Gretchen changing into someone she no longer recognizes, and everything becomes a dizzying nightmare of lies and manipulation that she struggles to navigate while learning that there’s more going on than she can easily comprehend.
As a story about friendship and coming-of-age, it’s pretty fantastic, really delving into what it means to be best friends from childhood. As a horror or thriller story, it falls well short of the mark. I have the same issue with this Hendrix novel as I had with The Final Girl Support Group, in that the story grows tedious before it truly begins to get to the point where anything is happening that propels the narrative forward. Much like that novel, when this story starts getting good, it gets great, but it takes an awfully long time getting there. There are points when it appears to be picking up speed, only to revert to a meandering, detail-filled exploration of Abby’s day-to-day life, and it was challenging to make it through those intervals.
The narration provided by Emily Woo Zeller brings this story of youth and friendship to life in a way that it desperately required. Her performance of the various girls, notably Abby and Gretchen, was terrific. The voice provided for Christian (The Exorcist) was amusing and captured the absurd, muscle-bound character in such a way as to make him almost feel real. The audiobook edition of this novel made an otherwise unsatisfactory experience a much better one, and that is due entirely to the quality of the narration provided.

The Redwoods Ripper by Joshua MacMillan

When Tony absconded with his father’s Remington 30-06 rifle and planned a venture into the redwood forest, he didn’t anticipate having his little brother, Timmy in tow. Hoping to make his father proud of him, he wanted nothing more than to show that he could behave like a man.
Wanting to spook his little brother, Tony tells Timmy about The Redwoods Ripper, a monster that preys on those who find themselves alone in the woods. Of course, a short while later Tony has to relieve himself.
Will the Ripper come for Tony or Timmy? Is it nothing more than a story Tony made up, or is it something more?
Joshua MacMillan shares a brief, but intensely heartbreaking story of childhood mistakes. The reader will see it coming before things go bad, and that makes it all the more awful to helplessly watch as the rest of the story unfolds.

This title is one of the two titles released for Day Five of the 31 Days of Godless event at Godless. You can get it for yourself by going to http://www.godless.com or by downloading the Godless app. The link is below:

The Redwoods Ripper by Joshua Macmillan

My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

After The Only Good Indians last year, Stephen Graham Jones set the bar higher than most authors could dream of achieving. I say that because The Only Good Indians was easily one of the best novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading, regardless of the genreā€¦ever. My Heart Is a Chainsaw isn’t likely to leave quite as profound of a lasting impact as that book, but it’s a different sort of beast altogether. And boy, is it a beast.
Jade Daniels is a walking, talking archive of all things slasher-related, or even slasher-adjacent. She’s a socially awkward outcast who speaks to others in slasher genre shorthand. To her, everything in life can be easily compared and contrasted with plot points of one or more of her favorite movies. Every occasion has an appropriate quote from the slasher genre. As a person, she’s equal parts aggravating and endearing to the reader–assuming the reader, like me, is a hardcore slasher fanatic.
Finally, her dead-end life in a dead-end Idaho town appears to be heading toward a fantasy come true. With the arrival of Lethe Mondragon, the final piece falls into place as Jade determines she’s located the archetypal “final girl” for the real-life slasher horror to play out.
Is Jade another Cassandra, doomed to warn everyone of the impending nightmare and tragedy, only to be dismissed as all youth are in the movies she so adores? Is she simply a troubled girl who has lost the capacity to differentiate between fantasy and reality, on the verge of returning to the institution from which she’d only recently been released? You’ll have to read the book to find out. If you’re familiar with Jones as an author, you should know you won’t be disappointed.
As you reach the halfway point of this novel, everything begins cascading out of control with a feverish pace and such a dizzying assortment of horrors that you’ll hardly see the next twist coming–and there are indeed twists.
The novel is so much more than a slasher story. I’d love to tell you more, but I’d be giving too much away. My Heart Is a Chainsaw is also a coming-of-age tale about an indigenous girl haunted by her past and fixated on the haunted history of the mountain town she calls home. This is a story of friendship, a dysfunctional family, and an even more dysfunctional community.
My Heart Is a Chainsaw should assure any readers that Stephen Graham Jones is–I say this without a doubt in my mind–perhaps the single greatest writer currently active in the horror genre.

Bobcats by Matthew Weber

Matthew Weber’s Bobcats succeeds as a coming-of-age horror tale not altogether unlike Ketchum’s Hide and Seek and King’s IT. In fact, if one were to mix those two books together with a dash of the King novella, The Body, and just a smidge of Deliverance for flavor–as well as a touch of Friday the 13th–one might have a good starting point for the story that Weber’s put together.
Joey and his four compatriots in the Bobcats–a small fraternal outdoors troop not altogether unlike BSA–plan to hike The Gauntlet, a trail that weaves through the wilderness of Black Oak Mountain. The adventure is the boys’ plan to honor the legacy of Joey’s father, the foundation of The Bobcats, who recently died of cancer. More than that, it’s a rite of passage into manhood for the five adolescent boys.
As a powerful thunderstorm rolls into the area, the expedition becomes true to its name, becoming more a gauntlet than it already might have been. Sadly, nature is only the beginning of the challenges the boys face.
Black Oak Mountain is home to more than the expected wildlife, and for the Bobcats, it’s one of the inhabitants of that dark forest that changes their lives forever. The Cleaver soon has the five boys in his sights, and no amount of preparation and survival training could have adequately qualified the Bobcats to deal with an inhuman monster who makes his living slaughtering people for money with his cruel, handcrafted blades.
Weber does not shy away from the harsh reality of precisely how an encounter like this would turn out. Bobcats is not a feel-good story with a tidy, cheerful ending replete with plot armor and reliance on suspension of disbelief. To learn how it ends–or whom it ends–you’ll have to read it for yourself.
Matthew Weber deserves additional points for hinting at a history of mysterious occurrences on and near Black Oak Mountain without delving into them and erasing the mystery. It seems like a sequel could be in order, as there’s plenty more to fear in the night than solely The Cleaver.