It’s a depressing reality that we’ve all known people like @wellnesswarrior497. Whether in real life or online, at the workplace, in the classroom, or even in the checkout line at the grocery store, we have all surely run into the people proclaiming their high-vibration energy and how blessed they are. The same people telling us about fad diets, new types of massage, and how this or that crystal will help us manifest our best selves. Get Me Out of This Shimmering Oasis is a story of that sort of person, shared with us as snapshots to her Instagram account. She gleefully tells us of her arrival at a new wellness facility, regaling us with the litany of ailments she’s overcome through various dubious methods. Within hours, it becomes clear that this facility might not be what she–and the other guests–expected. Sadly, it dawns on us quite a bit faster than it dawns on @wellnesswarrior497. If you, like me, have little more than contempt for social media “influencers” and their pyramid scheming counterparts in our everyday lives, you are absolutely going to love this story. It’s hard not to feel a little bad for the vapid protagonist along the way, in the same way one might feel bad for a child who doesn’t understand what’s happening around them. It’s ok, though, that sympathy is easily overridden by a desire to never listen to the insipid ramblings of the two-dimensional loser any longer. Leitner does not disappoint as she scratches away the veneer of sanity and health of people like the protagonist.
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Filth and purity. These words will mean something to you as you follow along with Courtney’s awful narrative. They’re appropriate words to have in mind as you read Mangum’s Saint Sadist. In a strange sense, there’s an overarching theme of filth and purity, the duality of those two things, and the way they reflect one another throughout the whole story. Courtney’s father was a violent and abusive man, until she discovered she could use her burgeoning sexuality as a shield to protect herself from those bouts of cruelty and violence. Becoming a victim of a wholly different sort of abuse, teenage Courtney believes she’s taken control of the situation, both protecting herself and preying upon her father’s weakness. Then she gets pregnant. Reading this, you might think this is the end…but it’s only the beginning. Courtney escapes from her home, hoping to provide a better life for her incestuous offspring by living the life of a harlot. Few authors would look at what they’d created thus far and decide they haven’t gone far enough. Lucas Mangum is one of those few. The story grows increasingly vile and violent. The voice in Courtney’s head and the visions she experiences force us to wonder how much is real and how much is the result of severe psychological damage and depravity visited upon a young girl. This is an unpleasant, raw, and disgusting masterpiece. Melody Muzljakovich breathes life into both Courtney’s Texas drawl and the hissing whispers and chanting of her inner voice with equal skill. Other characters are similarly well-narrated.
Three teenage boys wanted nothing more than to watch a downloaded video of a porn star, but what they received was a lifetime of torture and loss when the video they obtained was of a politician’s public suicide. An urban legend becomes manifest as these boys and other kids from school attempt to achieve some manner of understanding, some way to grasp what they’ve seen and what they’re continuing to see. Scanlines is a desolate horror story, grim and dark in a way a lot of narratives only barely approach. There’s nostalgia embedded in the chilly tale, there’s a lot of heart in there as well, but–more than any of that–there’s a whole lot of pain and terror. This is not an easy book to read, but it is easily one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. Imagine Traces of Death mingled with The Ring, and you’ll have a rough idea of what you’ll be getting yourself into when you dive into this all too real story. Is it a supernatural adversary operating behind the awful, horrifying events of Scanlines? Is this a story of shared or mass psychosis? Are we reading a book about a ghost haunting the fateful final moments of a desperate man caught on tape, or is this a commentary on suicide contagion? I guess that’s really up to you. I like to think it’s a little bit of everything, those possible driving factors not being mutually exclusive. I’m a little bit older than the boys from Scanlines, but I can relate to them altogether too well. It was the late 1980s and early 1990s. I was around ten or 11 years old when I snagged the first three Faces of Death movies from a local video store during one of the weekends I spent with my father. That was part of our routine on Friday evenings after he picked me up. We would head almost immediately to the video store and I would select around five VHS tapes from the Horror section (or the Action or Sci-Fi/Fantasy sections…but Horror was my favorite), sometimes I’d go with personal favorites, but most of the time I was just picking things I hadn’t seen yet. My goal, if there was one, was to gradually make my way through every horror flick on those shelves. I was a kid and I didn’t know any better–there wasn’t internet available for research or any of that–so I was naive enough to believe the things in Faces of Death were real. It wasn’t until a little bit later, when I rented Traces of Death, that I saw the difference. I’m plenty familiar with the public suicide that inspired the basis behind Scanlines, it was included in the first Traces of Death VHS. It played on a screen behind Neurosis as they performed during one of the concerts I’d attended as a teenager. It was on all of the websites dedicated to the dark and macabre when I first started venturing into those spaces in the mid-to-late 90s. Reading Keisling’s novella and the introduction provided by the publisher, Max Booth III, I know I’ve found some kindred spirits in a sense. None of us appear to have been traumatized in the way Robby, Danny, Jordan, and the others were…but I suspect, in some sense, we’ve all been haunted by the things we insisted we had to see. I can’t recommend this book for everyone, because it’s absolutely not a book everyone will be able to read and enjoy. If an unambiguous and unfiltered discussion of suicide is something that might be a trigger for you, you might want to stay away. If you think you can handle it, you have to read this book! I applaud Todd Keisling for baring his soul and purging himself on the page the way he clearly did with this book. He deserves every bit of love and appreciation this book has garnered within the horror community.
Josh Malerman’s Goblin is a fascinating glimpse into a truly peculiar town, not altogether dissimilar from some of the fictional Maine locales made popular by Stephen King. Also, like King, the tales Malerman weaves of the rainy town of Goblin are unevenly paced and of vastly different content and quality. This does not, as one might suspect, take anything away from the amazing quality of this collection of interconnected novellas. It works out perhaps better than Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country did, where that collection wove together connected tales of a single family and this one immerses us in the haunted title town. Goblin is a place of near-constant rainfall, a place haunted and evil before man ever made the mistake of settling there in a town built on a history of bloody violence and betrayal. It is a town where the impenetrable North Woods are home to giant predatory owls and a witch who breaks the hearts of those she tells her stories to, where inhuman police produce shivers in even the most courageous residents, and where the key to the city has been missing for years. The Prologue & Epilogue (Welcome & Make Yourself At Home) provide an almost perfect bookend to the stories contained within this book…especially since the tales reach their respective crescendos at approximately the same time on the same night of nightmares and downpours…as a reckoning of sorts falls upon the town and its residents. A Man In Slices tells us a story of twisted friendship and the sacrifices such a friendship might require. Kamp delves into the paranoid, fearful mental landscape of a man who fears–well, to borrow from FDR–fear itself. Sure, he’s terrified of encountering a ghost, but it’s the resulting fear upon experiencing that encounter that he’s truly terrified of. Happy Birthday, Hunter! brings us face-to-face with the manic, self-absorbed, single-minded dedication of a big game hunter and his overwhelming need to pursue the greatest game of his life…and a wife with an unwelcome surprise present. Presto introduces us to a world of magic and illusion that might just be more real than it seems. A Mix-Up At the Zoo is a sad story about a simple, friendly giant of a man who spends too much time burning the candle at both ends and gets confused about where he is and what he’s doing. The ending of this particular story, as predictable as it might have been, was all the more heartbreaking for playing out exactly as a reader anticipates it will. The Hedges splits its narrative time between telling us a fantastic, beautiful love story and exploring the mysteries we’ve already been exposed to as we reached this point in the collection. This is the story where we finally begin to glimpse precisely why the residents of Goblin are so terrified of the police, and rightfully so. Yes, this collection is uneven…but it’s telling us the story of a town through the interrelated snapshots of the residents…and that unevenness makes it feel all the more real. No real city is uniformly interesting or captivating to all comers when we’re diving into the lives of those who reside within. In the end, Malerman does what he set out to do–I suspect–by crafting a place that becomes more real to the readers than many real-world places ever might be. This is doubly impressive when one considers just how unreal Goblin is.
Ari Aster’s Midsommar doesn’t receive the credit it deserves within a lot of the horror communities I interact with. The same goes for his previous film, Hereditary. To some extent, I think it’s simply a matter of taste…some people seem to have little patience for more atmospheric horror, and Midsommar relies heavily on atmosphere much as movies like It Follows and Session 9 previously did. Similarly, there are psychological and symbolic elements scattered throughout the narrative, both subtle and overt. This is very much a movie for those who enjoyed Hereditary’s relatively slow burn horror and drip-fed revelations. In both movies, the overall focus is that of cult activity, albeit framed quite differently from Hereditary to Midsommar. In this one, the communal religious sect from Sweden is quite upfront about their existence and adherence to old rituals and practices. Speaking of those rituals and practices, Aster did a fair bit of research into mythical traditions as well as actual practices within the prehistoric Nordic cultures to cultivate a plausible framework for the cult’s beliefs and activities. Mingling that blend of fact and fiction with the supernatural allowed him to craft an unsettling, tense, and phantasmagorical experience with this movie. Florence Pugh puts forth an excellent performance as the emotionally and psychologically fragile, Dani. Her breadth of expression and emotive display is stretched about as far as a single performance could manage. On the opposite side of the central relationship, we have Jack Reynor’s performance as Christian which, while no less impressive, leans more toward emotionally distant and confused throughout the tale. Watching the relationship deteriorate from the already well-eroded substrate at the beginning is both heartbreaking–as we feel sympathy for Dani–and satisfying–as we feel increasing contempt for Christian. The rest of the cast is no less impressive in their respective roles, but they all take a backseat to the dominant spotlights of the movie…the crumbling relationship between Dani and Christian, and the increasingly disturbing unveiling of the nightmare the outsiders have wandered into as guests/sacrifices. Comparisons with The Wicker Man (1973) are certainly appropriate. The same element of outsiders being manipulated into playing preordained parts in a larger, primitive ritual is present in both movies. The same sort of disquieting undercurrent runs beneath the surface in both movies, though it certainly seems to breach the surface far more frequently and earlier in the film in this case. In fact, if you took The Wicker Man and blended it with a splash of Believers (2007), a dash of Shrooms (2007), and just a touch of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), you would have something quite similar to Midsommar. It’s best to sit down and just experience this movie as it all plays out before you. There’s certainly gore (though the movie doesn’t rely on it as the backbone of the story), nudity, and psychological aspects that might be disturbing for some viewers…but there’s also a compelling story taking place.