The Beasts of Vissaria County is not what you expect. It doesn’t matter what your expectations might be as you approach this narrative; I can guarantee that you’ll probably find yourself shocked and surprised. The nature of Douglas Ford’s book is as ephemeral and challenging to nail down as the narrative itself, but you’ll find yourself propelled along as if you were in a dream, with Ford as the feverish and abstract architect. Maggie McKenzie escapes the nightmare of her marriage and, along with her son, seeks a transient sort of safety and solace with her disagreeable father in the backwoods of Florida. She’s a damaged woman–bitter and unhappy–but stronger than she knows. Cursed with an unquenchable curiosity, she’ll soon find herself at the heart of a mystery that becomes more convoluted the deeper she digs. Any sense of normalcy gets disrupted when she encounters her elusive and peculiar neighbor, WD. The lines that separate reality from fiction, dreams from waking, and myth from fact become increasingly blurred as the story continues from there. While I wasn’t a big fan of Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think, I can’t help but feel that Ford has crafted a sort of spiritual successor to that 1940s novel. The Beasts of Vissaria County takes that same dreamlike, blurry quality and improves upon it in almost every way. In its strange and surreal storytelling, we capture hints and fleeting glimpses of beasts that may or may not be there–or may not be fully there. The narration provided by Jenn Lee fully brought Maggie to life, embodying her indomitable spirit and the blend of skepticism and curiosity that drives her along the meandering paths she follows.
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In Evil Whispers, Owl Goingback takes us to the backwoods swamps of Florida, where the Patterson family plans to enjoy a quiet vacation before they brave the commercial insanity of Walt Disney World for their daughter, Krissy. Unfortunately, that particular swath of swamp and woodland has a horrifying and blasphemous history that doesn’t appear in the tourism materials. Innocent, relaxing days of fishing and venturing onto the river in kayaks begin transforming into a disorienting nightmare as Krissy makes a new friend. It isn’t long before this friend has the young girl performing seemingly random tasks, and soon there may not be anything left of Krissy. As the terrifying past emerges from the swamp, the haunted history of the location comes to life, and it’ll take everything the Pattersons have–along with the help of a reclusive Seminole named Jimmy–to have any chance of saving Krissy from a fate worse than death. The pacing is fantastic, as Goingback weaves a tale that incorporates elements of indigenous spirituality, Haitian magic, and the love of family into a vibrant tapestry that is impossible to put down. Cathi Colas provides excellent narration, fully separating the characters and providing each with their own distinct personalities.
Christopher Golden has crafted a haunting tale about a treacherous stretch of Siberian roadway haunted by a gruesome and tragic past and perhaps haunted by altogether too present entities as well. It’s precisely this history of cruelty and careless disregard for human life, and the potential for something more, that inspired documentary filmmaker, Felix Teigland to drag his reluctant cameraman, John Prentiss, to this desolate arctic wasteland in the middle of winter. Ostensibly hoping to tell the story of the people who live along the titular Road of Bones, Teig and Prentiss intend to follow the Kolyma Highway to its frigid terminus with the assistance of a local guide. Myth and superstition soon become more than passing curiosities, as the group’s survival depends on understanding the strange and terrifying forces that stalk them through the dark Siberian night. With temperatures that would kill them in mere minutes, a treacherous road of unforgiving ice and snow, and inconceivable shadowy beasts hunting them, the odds are high that none of them will make it through this journey alive. Road of Bones is a chilling title that creeps into the bones of the reader/listener as effectively as the cold Siberian night. Golden challenges the reader to further investigate the Kolyma Highway. He dares the reader to delve into the horrific history of its manufacture with the tantalizing glimpses provided through the proxy of Teig and the other characters. The true story only serves to reinforce the unsettling sense of wrongness already building in the back of the reader’s mind. Robert Fass provides spectacular narration that fully captures the accents and attitudes of the characters he brings to life within the narrative.
Ronald Malfi’s Bone White is as devastating as it seemed like it might be. When we learn that Paul Gallo’s brother, Danny, had disappeared near Dread’s Hand, Alaska, only a year before a serial murderer wandered into town and turned himself in, we hope for closure as the best-case scenario. The author teases us with the potential for a happy-ish ending, only to string us along through a tale that crosses back-and-forth over the lines between supernatural and superstitious, thriller and horror. Embedded within the larger story of Bone White, Malfi introduces us to multiple, smaller tales that would make for fascinating stories in their own right. This attention to detail and world-building for the remote Alaskan wilderness setting makes the story all the more engaging and impossible to set aside. As we’re dragged through the cold and snow near central Alaska, it’s something you begin to feel in your bones. It’s not just the chill of the environment that gets under your skin, but the chill emanating from the locals who live insular lives with no interest in the outside world or having intruders from the outside digging through their secrets and the fears that underpin them. Paul’s tension and frustration are palpable, and anyone would likely feel the same if they knew their search for the truth about their missing sibling was being stymied by the superstitions and mistrust of the only people who might have the answers. The narration provided by Charles Constant is terrific, his voice weaving the fantastic writing into a thoroughly captivating experience.