The Dark Country collects sixteen short stories from Dennis Etchison’s career, some particularly short, and all of them brimming with imagination. Unfortunately, many of the stories in this collection end without any conclusion, needlessly terminating in cliff-hangers that left me less than satisfied. The style of writing and the quality of the storytelling were both great. It was the lack of any real ending to many of the stories that limited my enjoyment at times. In most cases, I take the time to provide some manner of synopsis for each story included in a collection like this, but I will instead focus on a few of the stories that stood out to me as being the best of those included. In all honesty, some of the more surreal and peculiar tales would be impossible to review without giving everything away. It Only Comes Out At Night is an excellent way to kick off the collection, as we join a husband and wife on a road trip through the desert. A lonely rest area is transformed into a sinister and horrific place where unknown threats lurk and unwary travelers might never leave. Etchison captures the eeriness and isolation of late-night travel on empty stretches of highway, as well as the almost sinister ambiance of those out-of-the-way oases we find ourselves stopping at against our better judgment. Whether it’s because we’re exhausted, we require fuel, or we’re desperately in need of a restroom, long-distance travel has forced all of us to stop at one of those rest areas or convenience stores arising seemingly from nothing as they appear in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately for the couple at the center of Etchison’s tale, this rest area might live up to those nightmare scenarios we imagine. The cruel and monstrous twist awaiting readers at the end of The Pitch is both darkly comedic and altogether too plausible. A random gentleman offers to perform the sales pitch for a variety of kitchen gadgets in a shopping center, displaying the ease with which any slicing and dicing needs might be completed, with a special focus on the safety mechanisms. Buyer beware. Always check your purchases before use. The Late Shift builds an atmosphere of mystery and confusion as two young men stop at an all-night convenience store where they swear they recognize the attendant behind the counter. Something isn’t right, and their attempts to uncover the truth might just provide an unsettling first-hand understanding of why overnight workers seem a little unusual. Finally, the collection closes with The Dark Country, a story of a Mexican vacation and horrible mistakes made in response to a series of thefts. This final story showcases both the inherent bigotry of the Americans and the in-group vs. out-group thinking that emerges within the collected tourists as they begin perceiving the locals as predatory outsiders. The various narrators brought different qualities to light within the stories they performed. It seems as if some thought went into the distribution of stories, to pair each tale with the voice best suited for the narrative in question.
Beyond the Creek tells us the story of Alex Foster, a young woman who finally discovered the strength to escape from an abusive relationship when she learned she was pregnant. Starting over with nothing in a small forested town, Alex is desperate to provide a better life for her unborn child. She takes a job as a caregiver for Peter Nox, a recent stroke victim undergoing physical and speech therapy, and it seems like she might be on track to make a go of life away from her abusive ex. Shrouded in mystery and the subject of rumors and superstitious whispers around town, the Nox family and their sprawling estate might be something more than Alex signed up for. Is it possible that she escaped from one monster in her life only to fall into the web of something far more terrifying? The answer to that question–and many others–may only be discovered beyond the creek on the property. Or are there answers to be found in the secret room beneath the Nox house? Nico Bell spins a dizzying tale of survival, family, and motherhood that keeps the reader breathless as they follow Alex on her journey into the darkness. Drawing from Greek mythology, Bell provides us with something captivating and unpredictable as she guides us along with Alex to unravel the threads that threaten to bind her to a fate worse than anything we imagined as the story began.
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The Foreword provided by Patrick C. Harrison III accurately captures the most impactful component of Chris Miller’s stories collected in Shattered Skies, suspense. There is an underlying sense of suspense to these tales, sometimes bordering on dread and other times sweeping the reader away with excitement, but ever-present just the same. Combining that anticipation and tension with masterful storytelling, Miller has assembled an amazing cross-section of what he’s capable of as a writer. Instead of delving into each of the stories, as I often do, I’m choosing to focus on the handful that left the most lasting impression on me. This is not to say that anything is lacking in the others, just that I’m going to be spoiling things in small ways, and I’d prefer to avoid doing so with everything in this collection. Kicking everything off with 10-35 At First United Bank, Miller thrusts readers into an all-too-plausible sort of horror as an elderly bank security guard finds himself caught up in circumstances he can’t control as he desperately tries to save the lives of those he loves. The bank heist trope receives a refreshingly sincere treatment that’s sure to be heartbreaking for readers. Behind Blue Eyes was a story I’d already thoroughly enjoyed when I read And Hell Followed, an anthology of the end times. Miller’s portrait of a world going progressively more mad with each pressure wave of the horns blasting to signify the end is something that propels us toward a conclusion that feels simultaneously unfair and fitting. This one is a story of guilt and remorse over the way little things can have a profound and lasting impact on our lives, amplified in the recollection. An attempt to relax with a house full of family transforms into a confrontation with a looming and mysterious terror enveloping the protagonist’s world in Horror On Lonesome Lane. Discovering what awaits on the other side has rarely seemed this awful and sinister. Road Kill Gods provides us with a glimpse into what might be required of us to hold nature at bay as we carelessly and callously slaughter our way through our lives. Unwilling to accept the price to be paid, will our protagonist release a wave of horror upon the whole world? As a child, there was no one in my family with whom I spent more of my time than my grandfather. In my case, it was my maternal grandfather rather than my paternal, but that doesn’t change the way Miller devastated me when I was reading Farewell. I was lucky enough to be in my 20s before my maternal grandfather passed away, and I can only imagine how much worse it would’ve been if he’d gone when I was much younger. Farewell is a touching and heartbreaking story, but it’s also a story of how tragedy can sometimes bring families closer and establish new roles for us as we seek to fill the void left in someone’s absence. A Magnificent View brings us back to the same event from Behind Blue Eyes, or a similar enough event that we can assume they might be the same. Forced to witness the world collapsing into chaos from miles above the surface, a lone astronaut measures his life by oxygen percentage, knowing that he might still be the last survivor of the human race when all is said and done. Wrapping up this collection with the M. Ennenbach co-authored Neon Sky was an excellent choice. We experience another story that, at its core, is about family and the risks we’ll take to save them. We’re gifted with another tale of a heist gone wrong, this one in a near-future cyberpunk dystopia. Fast-paced and endlessly exciting, Neon Sky is a fascinating juxtaposition from the somber tone of 10-35 At First United Bank. Miller and Ennenbach deliver a thrill ride populated by police drones, horrifying machines that keep the city functioning, an army of mafia killers, hackers, and confusing firearms.
Shattered Skies is a finalist on the ballot for the 2022 Splatterpunk Awards to take place at KillerCon Austin in August of 2022.
Daniel is a real estate agent leading a couple through a cabin when the husband suggests, “It’s like a Frank house.” From there, everything changes in Daniel’s life. When Daniel was a child, his family had purchased land in Randall, AZ from a man named Frank Watkins, and they’d hired Frank to assemble the prefabricated A-frame they’d be using as a vacation home. He knew, first-hand, what it meant to live in a Frank House, but he’d still only glimpsed a fragment of what that meant. As the memories of his surreal childhood experiences with Frank come rushing back to him, along with the tragedies that followed, Daniel finds himself driven by a compulsion to find the strange and sinister man who ruined his life. As he’ll soon discover, Daniel’s was not the only life ruined by living in a Frank House, and it’s more than shoddy workmanship and incompetence involved. It seems like there might be some cruel design behind it all. The reader is treated to unsettling glimpses into the world Frank is crafting with his seemingly alien compulsions, whetting the appetite and setting the mind awhirl as we approach the dizzying and horrific conclusion in the missing town of Plutarch, TX. A ghost story with a hint of cosmic horror resides at the center of the mystery Bentley Little lays out for us with The Handyman. There’s a hint of Danielewski’s House of Leaves in these pages and a little bit of the Winchester Mystery House thrown in for flavor, but it’s distinctly Little in craftsmanship. The narration provided by Chris Andrew Ciulla is fantastic, especially on those rare occasions when we get to hear Frank brought to life with his peculiar speech pattern and unusual cadence.
There is no question why S. A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears made it to many national publications’ best of 2021 lists. This novel rests near the top of my list of best titles published in 2021 as well, especially when I focus on non-horror titles. 2021 was a good year for crime and suspense literature. Stephen King released Billy Summers, Kristopher Triana released And the Devil Cried, and S. A. Cosby released the absolute masterpiece Razorblade Tears. Neither Ike nor Buddy Lee were great fathers when their sons were alive. Between recurring stints in prison and their prejudices about the fact that the boys were gay, in large part informed by antiquated perspectives on what it meant to be a man, the two men had driven substantial wedges between themselves and the sons they loved with reservations. It was only after the two young men were murdered that either father allowed themselves to embrace the sons they’d shown far too little affection when they were alive. Isiah and Derek, the interracial married sons, are like ghosts at the periphery of the tale Cosby weaves for us. They haunt the two men we come to admire, despite all of their faults, at the core of this novel. Had Ike and Buddy Lee been able to overcome their ingrained bigotry while the boys had been alive, the two would have met years before the funeral, but that was not who the two men were. It turns out that the meeting of these two vastly different–yet strangely similar–men would be a fateful occasion that would lead to more bloodshed than either of the men could anticipate. As the police investigation into Isiah and Derek’s deaths stalls out, Buddy Lee approaches Ike with a proposition that the two of them might have better luck taking matters into their own hands. Unraveling the mystery behind the brutal murder of the boys will force the two ex-cons to confront their pasts, their preconceived notions, and their concepts of love as the trail leads them through Hell and back before bringing them closer to home than they could’ve imagined. The regret and retribution at the core of this book are at turns heartbreaking and viscerally satisfying. Most important, Cosby doesn’t shoehorn in any ersatz redemption for Ike and Buddy Lee because both men are so damaged and broken that redemption, in the sense that many writers would define it, simply wouldn’t make sense. That is not to say there’s no redemption here; there is redemption in these pages, but it’s the hollow sort that arises from the transformations coming far too late for it to make any difference. Witty dialogue, well-crafted characters, and realistic portrayals of race relations, homophobia, and the difficulty associated with escaping a criminal past fill this novel with so much depth and honesty that it would be impossible to convey in a review. All I can say is that anyone delving into this book will come out the other end with an understanding that they didn’t have when going in. Adam Lazarre-White’s narration for the audiobook is phenomenal. The additional character he brings to both Ike and Buddy Lee with his delivery of their dialogue is something that weighs heavily in favor of the audiobook edition of this novel because there’s such life and depth added to the characters with that extra texture.
Joshua MacMillan knows how to craft a suspenseful and heartbreaking narrative. The Best Of Intentions exemplifies those skills carried over from short fiction to a larger work without any apparent difficulty on the part of the author. Corey Loflin is a combat veteran still struggling to adjust to civilian life after years away from the military. He and his wife had hoped he was past the night terrors and emotional struggles associated with PTSD and survivor’s guilt, but when the nightmares return, focused on his wife and young son rather than his experience during the final deployment, Corey seems ill-suited to handle things on his own. When seemingly sinister and threatening messages begin to appear, Corey’s insomnia and alcoholism combine with his insecurity in seeking help from those around him, leading him down a path of paranoia and latent violence. As we helplessly watch events unfold, it becomes increasingly clear that Corey is on a dangerous trajectory that can lead nowhere good. Missed opportunities, poor communication, and untreated mental health issues snowball out of control until we’re standing beside Corey as an avalanche bears down on us as he looks in the other direction. As readers, we’re stuck asking questions for which we suspect we know the answers. Is someone threatening Corey and his family, or is he reading more into innocuous events than a more level head might interpret? Who is coming for him, and what do they have planned? Will Corey piece together the clues in time to avoid a catastrophic conclusion? MacMillan leaves you wondering how everything will play out as the climax approaches, and he forces you to hope that things are not as they seem because if you’re right, you may not want to subject yourself to what those final pages contain. You know you won’t be able to turn away, though, regardless of how it all might end.
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I’d been seeing a whole lot of hype about the Korean mini-series Squid Game on Netflix for a while before I took the time to watch it for myself. I hadn’t been dedicating much if any, time to watching movies or television shows for what turned out to be quite an extended interval. I have to say that Squid Game was a damn fine way to return to watching a series. While the overall narrative isn’t entirely original, its various components are assembled in such a way as to create a rather unique and exciting experience. Hugely reminiscent of Battle Royale, Squid Game incorporates elements familiar to fans of The Running Man, Tzameti, Series 7: The Contenders, and the old BBC series The Prisoner. While mingling all of these diverse elements–as well as other sources of inspiration–it transforms itself into a captivating and largely unpredictable story that retained this particular viewer’s attention throughout. Primarily following Lee Jung-jae’s Seong Gi-hun, we’re introduced to a man living a life of regret and poor decisions but who is, at heart, a genuinely decent guy. It would be easy to suggest he’s a degenerate gambler and a deadbeat father, but there’s a whole lot more to him than that, and it’s quite clear that there’s a stubborn streak of optimism and desire to do right that motivates him along the way. When presented with a mysterious opportunity to potentially change the course of his life and keep his daughter nearby, Seong Gi-hun accepts a fateful invitation that will certainly change his life forever, assuming he manages to survive. Along with 455 other people, including his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo (played by Park Hae-soo) and a pickpocket he only briefly encountered, Kang Sae-byeok (played by Jung Hoyeon), the numbered contestants wake up in a large auditorium, wearing jumpsuits. The collection of mostly strangers are greeted by armed and masked workers who carry out the commands of the even more mysterious Frontman. Led to the first game of the challenge, the sinister reality of their situation becomes terrifyingly real and the remaining contestants must determine whether the potential reward outweighs the all-too-real risks associated with the games they’re expected to play. It’s all but impossible to write anything more than this without giving away spoilers. I don’t know if I should even worry about that, knowing how popular the series happens to be, but I’m sure there are plenty of people still sitting on the fence and uncertain whether they should watch the series, and I can’t help but say that they’d be making a mistake by not settling in for the series. When the sixth episode concludes, only the most inhuman of us would be left unmoved and devastated. Consider that a fair warning, that you’re going to hurt while you’re watching the events unfold, helpless to do or say anything to change what we’re witnessing. The only thing I found disappointing in the whole nine-episode series was the final moments of that concluding episode, and that wasn’t enough of a disappointment to sour how I feel about the show as a whole. As a commentary on the predatory and toxic aspects of capitalist systems, Squid Game succeeds where plenty of other movies and series have failed to elevate the conversation. The mysterious Frontman says it best when he suggests that the goal is to give the 456 contenders an equal chance, where the outside world made equality a virtual impossibility.
I don’t know when–or even if–I’ll have a chance to play Aliens: Fireteam, but listening to the audiobook for Weston Ochse’s Aliens: Infiltrator certainly sets the stage for a fascinating and original action/horror gaming experience. If I never get around to playing the game, it won’t be for lack of interest, and it certainly won’t be due to this book disappointing me. The protagonist, Dr. Hoenikker, serves as a cipher of sorts, the lens through which we experience the introduction to the Weyland-Yutani scientific facility. While there’s ample character development across the board, Hoenikker being the newest member of the scientific team provides us with a great opportunity to experience everything through a fresh set of eyes. With his military experience, Ochse does a fantastic job bringing the supporting cast of characters to life, particularly the former Colonial Marines on staff at Pala Station. With Murphy’s Law in full effect, Dr. Hoenikker joins the crew of Pala Station just as an infiltrator begins a campaign of corporate espionage. As with the real world, this relatively small trouble of spying and theft escalates in a cascade effect that explodes into an utter nightmare by the conclusion. Laboratory experiments go horribly wrong, communication breaks down, and everything falls apart. Experimenting with what we’ve come to think of as the black goo from the Alien prequel films from Ridley Scott, we encounter some interesting and dangerous creatures produced from the local fauna, potentially more deadly than the Xenomorphs we’ve all come to know and love. This being an Alien novel, of course, there are Xenomorphs in the mix, and we get further exposure to how the black goo can modify the outcome of the genesis taking place. Bronson Pinchot’s narration is sufficiently skilled that the characters almost always sound distinctly separate and discernable as individual actors in the narrative playing out. I especially enjoyed the performance for Rawlings, who I couldn’t help but picture as an African American Matthew McConaughey. The only instances where Pinchot’s narration failed was concerning female characters, but I’ve heard worse over time.
James Lovegrove writes himself into the narrative with The Cthulhu Casebooks, in a fictionalized account of his own life in the preface to this tale. As a distant relation to the former H.P. Lovecraft, a parcel finds its way to him upon the passing of another member of the Lovecraft family. Contained within is a trilogy of manuscripts penned by Dr. John Watson, confidant and partner of Sherlock Holmes. In the tale that unfolds, we learn that the meeting of Watson and Holmes did not transpire as we’ve come to believe. Additionally, further elements of Watson’s previously available documentation of the cases he and Holmes investigated have been fictionalized to protect the world from forbidden knowledge of things best left unknown. From the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan to long-forgotten catacombs beneath London, a global tale of unspeakable horror emerges. Upon meeting one another, Holmes and Watson find themselves in pursuit of answers to a rash of ritualistic deaths occurring during the new moon. What they discover will leave the pair, as well as other familiar characters from the Holmes’ archives, changed in ways never hinted at within the released accounts from Watson. All-in-all, this was a worthwhile mixture of the Lovecraftian mythos and the characters developed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The writing style emulates Doyle’s prose surprisingly well, and the insertion of creatures like Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu into the narrative was performed seamlessly. The story itself didn’t impress me quite as much as I’d hoped, but it was decent enough to nudge me toward checking out the additional two volumes in this series. Dennis Kleinman’s narration of Watson was quite fantastic, as was his performance of Holmes’ dialogue. Sadly, the other characters felt perhaps a bit less set apart from the background. This is not to say that they weren’t distinct enough to tell them apart, because he managed that quite well, just that they weren’t brought to life in quite the same way the two protagonists were.
Poisoning the Well begins with a short, shocking tale of Trevor Wolf defying authorities and braving a life-threatening storm to get home to his wife, only to receive a startling homecoming the reader shouldn’t see coming. With this auspicious start, Todd Love invites us on a journey through thirteen brief tales that will leave you wishing he’d given you more. Spiders deposit clutches of eggs in horrible places. Irish myths and legends are examined. The reader will experience equal parts nostalgia, amusement, and horror as Halloween of 1988 is brought to life in a way any child of the 80s will appreciate. And that is only a small sample of the stories you’ll have to look forward to. You will be satisfied. You will be entertained.
This title was released as part of the http://www.godless.com 31 Days of Godless event to celebrate October of 2021. You can snag it for yourself by going to the website or by downloading the app on your mobile device. The link is below: