Todd Love finds a new way to surprise his readers, both in the pure dialogue construction of this narrative and in the shockingly sad twist revealed at the conclusion. But this isn’t one of those twists shoehorned in for the sake of taking the reader by surprise, the hints are there throughout the story, if only we knew to pay attention. A conversation takes place between two old friends as a former detective, Lloyd Andrews, evaluates his life and the mistakes he’s made. Reflecting on the events that transpired when he successfully ended the killing spree of The Barrhaven Cannibal, he needs to unburden himself to the only person he knows will understand. If you’re looking for something different, I can assure you that Last Day should make your list. I can imagine this performed on a stage, a contrast between stark shadows and light, and I’d love to see that happen. Imagine it for yourself when you check out Last Day.
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Duncan Ralston’s Woom is a masterpiece of an anthology tale with the most seamlessly incorporated framing story I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It’s like Campfire Tales if that movie had been X-rated and situated in a run-down, no-tell motel room. While Woom works as a single, longer-form piece of literature, it’s also a series of vignettes that flows together surprisingly well. As Angel and Shyla share their respective stories, the content becomes progressively more unsettling and vile. That shouldn’t bother you, though. It’s what you checked in for, after all. When Angel checked in to Room 6 at The Lonely Motel and requested a big girl from the escort service, he expected disappointment. It’s what he’d experienced previously, both in life and in his previous attempts to find the right woman for the objective he has in mind. When Shyla arrives at the door, it seems like Angel might have found just the woman he’s been looking for. As the night progresses, and he opens up to her as she opens up for him, it becomes increasingly likely that Shyla will be uniquely suited to provide Angel with what he needs. Mental illness, childhood and adult trauma, sexual fetishes, graphic violence, and a desperate need for redemption and rebirth swirl together into a perversely entertaining book. Woom is a story that dares the reader to continue reading, the whole time knowing that things are only going to get worse but that the way out is through. What follows might be a spoiler, but I’m not sure I’d consider it one. While it’s obvious from the outset that Angel was telling stories from his own life, I don’t think that was meant to be a surprise to the reader, so I feel comfortable commenting on that without worrying that it’s too much of a spoiler. I suspect Shayla might have been the only person taken aback by that revelation. She wasn’t the brightest character, after all.
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.
Jeff Oliver’s Drops of Insanity is a solid collection of poetry consisting primarily of short poems dealing with a variety of topics. Though largely focused on musings associated with identity and mental illness while navigating society and relationships with those factors involved, there are a great many poems that deviate into assorted horror-themed allegories and expressions of pain and suffering. It’s worth taking one’s time, reflecting on the word choice and symbolism implicit in many of the verses, especially since the vast majority are no more than ten lines in length. It’s when we reach the longer form poem of “Her Soul To Keep” that the collection stands out at its strongest. A narrative expressed through the verse; this particular inclusion is a fascinating transition from the previous material collected in Drops of Insanity. At the core, it’s a breakdown of family, disappointment, revenge, and choices with consequences we’d not anticipated. It’s also a poem about demonic possession, murder, and the dissolution of the soul in the searing flames of Hell. What could be wrong with that? While it may feel like this collection suffers from some repetition where content is concerned, I’m inclined to believe this was an intentional flourish from Oliver. Occasionally this repetition appears in the form of epimone, but more often it appears to be a method of creating a sort of cyclic flow to the material contained within Drops of Insanity. Hell is repetition, as we learned from the Stephen King screenplay, Storm of the Century, and mental illness is an exceptionally personal sort of Hell. Looking at it that way, it becomes difficult to imagine Oliver wasn’t attempting to immerse the reader in the overarching theme of this collection of poetry.
Geick’s Cynophobia begins with a drabble. In this case, it’s a heartbreaking drabble that certainly sets the stage and tests the waters for the reader, in advance of the main story. It’s suitable for that purpose, in that it’s perhaps harder to read than what Geick offers up to us in this new tale of mental illness, irrational fear, and failing relationships. None of this is easy to read for an animal lover, and especially a dog lover. I am an animal lover. While I was growing up, I had several birds (my great aunt raised them for sale and had a room that consisted of virtually nothing but walls of bird cages. I’ve owned snakes and tarantulas. I have a daughter who didn’t take particularly good care of three guinea pigs she’d received as pets quite a few years ago–but she was only eight or nine at the time, so I shouldn’t have expected too much. They were adorable little things, though. They were, all three, sweet as can be, but they also produced a whole lot of waste that wasn’t properly cleaned up. I’ve owned a total of five ferrets over the years, and it’s challenging to keep up with the rancid mess they make, no matter how well-trained you believe them to be. We have a cat in our home, and we had a terrific rabbit until recently, and I’m allergic to both. I’ve had, at this point in my life, a total of 11 dogs, I currently own three of them, all under the age of five and two of them under the age of two. In October of 2019, the best dog I’ve ever owned died in my arms when a cruel sort of blood cancer stole her from me when she was only seven. It was worth mentioning all of that because I can sympathize with the protagonist of Cynophobia in a handful of ways while simultaneously considering him almost alien in others. No more pets was not the insoluble rule he expected it to be, he learns, as his wife progressively turns their home into a menagerie. The relentless hoarding drives the couple further apart and our protagonist distances himself from both his wife and his daughters. As the situation at home spirals out of control, Geick propels us toward a breaking point at which nothing will be the same. It’s a train wreck in relatively slow motion that the reader can’t turn away from. Cynophobia presents us with two possible endings, the original (S.A.D.) ending and the new ending Geick’s written for this version of the story. In one available ending, the sickness and mental illness appear to spread from one parent to the other, manifesting in an awful climax that will make many readers cringe. In the alternate conclusion, we witness the–hopefully–more natural end of the relationship and the outcome of the clear mental illness left unrestrained at the core of this tale. You’ll have to read them both, to discover which one you prefer. The splattery side of my nature prefers one, while the animal lover in me prefers the other. Neither of them is pleasant, and as the story says, there are no happy endings.
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