Janine Pipe delivers a diverse assortment of stories with Twisted: Tainted Tales, the only theme being that the bulk of the action takes place in the 1980s. This collection, framed as being stories from a missing author, as discovered by a woman tasked with sifting through the missing person’s household for anything of value, is packed full of nostalgia for those of us who recall the era. Unlike some nostalgia-heavy writing I’ve read recently, Pipe doesn’t lean on the nostalgia to do the heavy lifting and instead keeps the focus on her largely spectacular storytelling and captivating set pieces. Each of the stories contained within Twisted: Tainted Tales has been titled (or retitled) with that of a song from the music released in the 1980s. This is done with the explanation that there’s a mixtape accompanying the discovered manuscripts. The collection starts strong with Footsteps, a story of three women venturing into a section of wilderness where something sinister and bloodthirsty might be waiting for anyone unfortunate enough to stumble upon its hunting grounds. When Doves Cry is a period piece about a woman accepting the kindness of a stranger on a cold night from a man seeking the right woman to fulfill his peculiar needs. The third inclusion, I Want To Break Free, subverts our expectations as we experience the same event from a captured victim and her captor. But which one is the monster? Maneater introduces us to two detectives investigating a series of exsanguinated victims. The nature of the crimes themselves is perhaps less startling than the perpetrator when one of the detectives discovers the monster behind the killings. A night at the club turns into a bloody, violent act of intimacy in Addicted To Love. Sweet Child Of Mine delves into the topic of imaginary friends and the potential consequences if those friends aren’t as fanciful as we suppose. Tainted Love recounts a narrative of obsession, as an infatuation transforms into something far more unsettling, culminating in brutal violence and skilled craftsmanship. With Lost In the Shadows, we’re introduced to a town plagued by a rash of missing children, and a sinister discovery at the local drive-in theater. It’s a Sin is a ghost story about friendship, child abuse, and overprotective parents that ends unhappily. The post-apocalyptic tale, Love Is a Battlefield, acquaints us with a society where the rich and powerful have been stripped of their privilege. We follow one of the former upper crust as she believes she’ll be forced to face death as entertainment for those now in control. Running With the Devil is a story of urban legends and ghost stories, and the profoundly negative impact those things might have if we discover them to be true. Boys being gross, led by adolescent hormones, and burgeoning sexual discovery is the topic of Paradise City. Of course, things take an awful turn that is sure to make every man cringe. School’s Out Forever resonated well with me as someone who routinely ventured into condemned and abandoned buildings. A couple of friends decide to trespass in a haunted school where atrocities once took place, hoping to find the place haunted but ultimately terrified by what they discover. Two brothers on a camping trip with their father discover that a mother’s love transcends death, in Living On a Prayer, especially when there’s an ancient burial ground nearby and revenge to be taken. The fifteenth track, Thriller, delves into the fact that the topic of urban legends and ghost stories again, exploring the haunted houses we’re all sure exist within our hometowns as we’re growing up. Nobody’s Fool explores the possibility that one young boy’s night terrors might be rooted in something other than an overactive imagination and that there might be an important message embedded in the unconscious horror that he experiences. Stephen King’s not the only one who can tell a tale about the convergence of coming of age and sewer drains. Janine Pipe concludes her collection by introducing us to a different sort of monster that might be lurking in the storm drains the most daring children explore when there’s pride and a kiss on the line. The closest thing I have to a complaint is that I’d have preferred the author’s notes compiled at the end of the book rather than at the end of each story. It was more jarring, having those notes breaking up the framing story of discovered manuscripts rather than placing them at the end of the collection. I’m a fan of the author’s notes being included, so I’m pleased that Pipe included them, but I feel like they could’ve been in a better location.
Donna Latham’s You Should Have Let Me In is a short flash fiction piece, so I’ll keep my review short as well. It starts with a knocking at the door and a sinister presence demanding entry, but it’s not the front door the stranger is seeking to access. Taking a page from I Know What You Did Last Summer, Latham provides her cruel, gruesome take on when an accident becomes something worse.
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Jason Hawks puts his career as a professional comedian on hold to return home to Cincinnati after learning his high school sweetheart, Andrea, stripping under the name Porcelain, publicly murdered multiple patrons before shooting herself. Reconnecting with old friends he similarly hadn’t spoken with in 12 years, Jason struggles to discover an explanation for the horrific act Andrea committed. Haunted by disjointed memories and terrifying hallucinations, Jason forces himself and two of his old friends to relive the events of the final night they’d all been together more than a decade before. Piecing together the pieces of what happened when six freshly graduated young adults had lost control and experienced something both carnal and terrifying, a mystery begins to unravel that threatens both sanity and the world as they know it. Nate Southard shares a compelling and disquieting tale with this title. Friendships are rekindled and snuffed out on the page as the author drags us through a tangled mess of erotica and supernatural horror that tiptoes the line separating us from unstoppable, madness-inducing cosmic horror. Fans of Stephen King’s IT will feel a certain sense of familiarity with this narrative of adults coming together and unhappily reliving a hardly self-aware sexual awakening they experienced at a much younger age. Unlike the uncomfortable scene described in King’s novel, in Porcelain, at least these characters were adults–though barely–when they intimately came together in a dark, terrifying place. More terrifying than anything else for me, the core horror of this story is derived from the loss of control. Propelled by an insatiable desire for gratification, characters fight to restrain themselves and to fend off the debasement as increasingly louder voices within are urging them to give in. The almost vampiric presence at the heart of the horror is unsettling in its ability to overwhelm the individual’s better judgment and will to fight. The corrupting nature of the evil as its influence appears to spread from the original location in the abandoned factory makes for a truly disturbing concept, executed superbly by Southard.
Nikki Noir has an exceptional talent for blending supernatural elements with splatterpunk sensibilities. If you haven’t read the Black Planet installments–or the collection of the first four–you are seriously missing out on a writer who is easily one of the best emerging voices of indie horror. If, however, you want to avoid diving into a series, you’re in luck. Nikki has several stand-alone short stories like this fantastic tale. Jen is still an outsider at school, even after spending a year in the new town where her family moved. One of her only friends is a young boy named Dale, a special boy from an unhappy home. Jen met Dale hanging out near the river, and she began telling him stories. One of those stories Jen shared concerns the Japanese myth of the Kappa. Dale internalized that particular myth and began playacting as a Kappa near the water. But Dale has been missing for a couple of weeks. Heading home after a party where she’d gotten into an unpleasant verbal exchange with one of the popular girls, Jen is startled and pleased to discover Dale hanging out on one of the rocks near the river. She attempts to take him home, but he resists, insistent on playing a Kappa. Leaving him with the cucumber she’d carried with her–the favorite treat of one of those supernatural creatures–Jen races off to bring attention to Dale’s presence near the river. From there, Cucumbers & Comforters becomes a barrage of sex, sexual violence, unraveling mysteries, sinister family drama, and myths seemingly come to life. There may be no amount of childlike security found in carrying cucumbers or hiding beneath comforters that will save Jen from the awful repercussions of the events set in motion the night of the party…but you’ll have to read the story to find out for yourself. If you’re in the mood to read about glowing orbs brutally extracted from human anuses, taboo sexual trysts, and murder, you are in the right place. This is a voyage Nikki Noir is the perfect host to guide you on.
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The Book of Accidents may superficially appear to be less epic than Wendig’s previous novel, Wanderers, but there’s so much more beneath the surface. When we first meet Oliver and his family, the story seems to be focused on a family under strain, moving into what could potentially be a haunted house. It doesn’t take Wendig long to dispel those assumptions as he takes the reader on a multiverse-spanning adventure of magic and terror. While the story is filled with interesting characters, Oliver is at the core of it all, in more ways than one. He’s a special boy, empathetic and sensitive, but there’s so much more to him than that. Oliver can see the pain in others in a literal, visceral sense, and the world we’re living in today gives him more than enough pain to witness. Hoping to find some peace for their son, Nate and Maddie move into Nate’s childhood home in rural Pennsylvania after his abusive father passes away. Nate transitions from his life as a Philadelphia police officer to a Pennsylvania Fish & Game warden, and Maddie decides she wants to try a different sort of sculpture from what she’d been creating in the city. Oliver successfully makes new friends on his first day at the new school. Unfortunately, he makes a couple of new enemies as well. If only things could level out at that point, it would be a typical family drama, and the story would be over. Thankfully, for the reader–though not for the family–Wendig is at the helm. The very enemies Oliver makes at school are instrumental in putting him in Jake’s path, and everything begins to fall apart from there. Wherever Jake goes, the collapse is soon to follow. You’ll need to be prepared for anything to happen because there’s no way to go into this one predicting the outcome. It’s masterful the way Wendig brings the disparate threads of narrative together. It astounded me when I was reading Wanderers, and it’s no less astonishing when reading The Book of Accidents.
If Italian director Lucio Fulci were alive today, creating movies at 94-years-old like those he’d filmed four decades ago, this novella could be the novelization of his newest masterpiece. Southard and Mangum display a sincere and passionate love for the atmosphere, over-the-top gore, and idiosyncratically disjointed flow of Fulci’s oeuvre. That deep and abiding adoration is necessary to so accurately capture the feel of a Fulci movie with The Final Gate. The more dedicated fans will perhaps experience a sort of wavering, rippling effect in their imaginations, seeing the face of Bob from House By the Cemetery transitioning into the much older face of Robert, the caretaker of St. Luke’s Orphanage. As pleased as we are to make his acquaintance again–and to see that he’s grown into a man who found a way to help children who were orphaned just as he was–it would seem that Bob’s encounters with supernatural horrors aren’t over. After racing into the orphanage in response to a young boy’s desperate cries for help, Robert’s story comes to an end when he enters Bryce’s darkened bedroom. The rest of the book follows Brandon, Bryce’s older brother, and various other characters as Brandon desperately tries to make up for the mistakes of his earlier years. He hopes that by locating his younger brother and rescuing him from an orphanage that seems increasingly sinister, the deeper he digs into it, he’ll find a sense of fulfillment and redemption. With the assistance of Jillian, his girlfriend, and Jillian’s ex-boyfriend, Dan, Brandon faces something far more mysterious and awful than he could have anticipated. In true homage to Fulci, the authors leave you wondering who–if anyone–will survive and whether there’s any chance of a happy ending when the gates of hell are involved. Any fans of Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Mario and Lamberto Bava, Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi, Bruno Mattei, and the other Italian greats should immediately pick up a copy of this book in August when it releases. No other book I’ve read has so perfectly demonstrated the Italian exploitation cinema tone the way this one has.
The Grind House continues the descent into madness that is Pike’s Diablo Snuff series of books. If you’ve read A Foreign Evil and Passion & Pain, you’ll have some idea what to expect while still finding yourself surprised around every twist and turn captured by the author’s impressive imagination. While the previous two installments focused heavily on monstrous cruelty and torture inflicted by agents of the malevolent organization known as Diablo Snuff, this book leans heavily on things that can’t be perceived as anything other than the supernatural. The visions of demonic entities–post-climax–in A Foreign Evil could easily be dismissed as little more than the feverish hallucinations of a man who went through hell. It’s far more challenging to similarly write off shared visions of inhuman horrors and other aspects of the tale unfolding within The Grind House. Of course, we all knew these things were real–in the context of the story–but it hits home much harder in this book than the previous immersions into the world of Diablo Snuff. Fans of the previous two stories in the Diablo Snuff series will be happy to encounter some familiar characters at different points in this novel. I know I certainly was. In this book, as in the previous two, Pike’s history as a writer of dark romance and erotica comes to the forefront in a big way, weaving together heavily eroticized encounters with sheer, unrelenting lunacy. It takes a certain undefined skill to seamlessly blend graphic, sensual intimacy with a bewildering, undercurrent of horror, but it’s a skill Pike has in spades. It’s The Shining on MDMA. If Shirley Jackson had channeled Marquis de Sade when writing The Haunting, we might be coming close to what you’ll find within these pages. This isn’t necessarily to suggest The Grind House is a haunted house tale, but in a sense, it most certainly is. If a place can absorb the evil of those within its walls–or beneath its foundations, The Grand Georgina most certainly has. Tobias (T.K. Tantrum) is in for far more than he or his assistant anticipated when he was signed up to attend the writers retreat at The Grand Georgina. He hoped to write the masterpiece that had eluded him so far in his modestly successful career, but he finds himself drawn into real-life peril that rivals anything he could have written. As the abominations of both past and present are revealed, the insidious trap Tobias finds himself within may be something from which even madness provides no escape. As prurience gives way to panic, it may already be too late for any to escape the clutches of Diablo Snuff.
This one is a fast-paced and frenetic descent into horrors that lurk just below the surface of our reality, much as the dark web lurks just below the surface of the conventional, everyday internet of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and such. There are some fascinating parallels to be discovered in this story because of that mirroring aspect. Most of the novella focuses on true-crime novelist Niles Highsmith and his search for a missing younger brother, Leon. Through Leon’s friends, Niles soon learns that his brother had recently been searching the dark web in hopes of obtaining a firearm for protection–only to be diverted along the way–witnessing perversions and unsettling horrors instead, just before he disappeared. With no other avenues of inquiry available to him, Niles dives into the dark web as well, unaware of the attention he’s drawing to himself. Fans of the author will be pleased to find references to other works within the story as Niles explores the dark web for himself. The story, while captivating, takes a backseat to the intense, graphic visuals that Mangum conjures in his writing. If one were to toss the paintings of Zdzislaw Beksinski, Salvador Dali, and H.R. Giger into a blender, they might come up with something approximating what Mangum describes in parts of this narrative.
Nikki Noir’s Black Planet: Books 1-4 collects together in one volume a sequence of novellas and short stories introducing us to a handful of residents of a Northern Arizona town and the sinister events corrupting and controlling those people, brought about by a mysterious, otherworldly object and the black goo that seems to be spreading through the North Woods. Alternating between perverse sexual depravity, brooding cosmic horror, occult fanaticism, murder, and family drama, Noir manages to avoid missing a beat as she weaves a tale that keeps the reader begging for more…and then the final page arrives, and you can only hope for more to come. She paints a portrait with the delicacy of a scalpel while utilizing a pallet produced by a hammer blow to the head and the arterial flow of a severed penis as she draws you into this world she’s created. If that description doesn’t make you want to read this book, I really don’t know what else I can say. Spoiling this particular story would be virtually impossible without dragging you, kicking and screaming all the way through the narrative itself, it’s such a feverish and surreal experience. Keep in mind, as you read…the owls are not what they seem, a statement somehow more true in this novel than in Twin Peaks.
Mania [Revised Edition] by Lucas Mangum feels altogether too short by the time you reach the end. The story of a cursed screenplay and the absolute nightmare that accompanies that curse is told in a way that can only be described as cinematic. It’s smutty, gory, and depraved…and not in turns, but all at once. I really don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a scene before the halfway point where a character witnesses a dead and disemboweled woman masturbating with a length of her own intestine. Keep in mind, that isn’t even halfway into the story. I recommend this one for my more depraved and horror-obsessed friends…but I have to admit that some aspects of this particular book might go too far for different people. Read it at your own risk, of course…but read it either way.