COME WITH ME, by Ronald Malfi

Having discovered Ronald Malfi’s works through the very engrossing novel that was Black Mouth, I was eager to further explore this author’s production and choose this book which is quite different in tone and storytelling but is equally riveting.

Aaron Decker lives a very normal, very contented life with his wife Allison: he works as a translator of Japanese books, she is a journalist in the local paper, and for the last five years they have enjoyed each other’s company and mutual complicity, but as the story starts Aaron’s world crumbles into pieces as Allison is killed in one of the many freak shootings that happen in shopping malls. Stricken by grief and unable to make sense of what happened, Aaron stumbles on a motel’s receipt showing that Allison stopped there during one of her husband’s absences from home, and suspecting his wife of having been involved in a secret relationship he tries to retrace her steps in the months prior to her demise.

What Aaron finds, however, is quite different: for years – even before their meeting – Allison had been on the hunt for a serial killer, a man who certainly murdered Allison’s own sister and probably a number of other girls across the country.  As he tries to unravel the string of clues Allison was following, Aaron discovers a side of his wife, and a part of her past, that was unknown to him and he decides to follow in her path, to bring the man to justice and accomplish what Allison was unable to do.

What Come With Me boils down to is an all-encompassing obsession, one transmitted from Allison to Aaron, both of them trying to come to terms with the grief of an unbearable loss and finding in the single-minded focus of the hunt a reason to live and – maybe – learn to process the death of a loved one.  There is also a supernatural thread running throughout the novel, mostly centered on Aaron’s perception of a presence in the house, something he wants to believe is a remnant of Allison: lights blink on and off in the bedroom closet, the house’s virtual speakers come on playing Allison’s favorite songs, a shadow seems to linger in their shared study.  But it’s unclear if these manifestations – if they are indeed messages from the Great Beyond – are real or if they are the product of Aaron’s grief and his desire to connect with Allison in some way.

Aaron could somehow be classified as an unreliable narrator: much of the clues he pieces together don’t seem to fit, and it’s easy to suspect that he might not be as objective as his search would require, and his relentless pursuit of the killer takes on the color of obsession more than anything else, as if Allison’s own obsession had taken hold of his mind. It’s also intriguing to observe that the narrative is almost a long letter to departed Allison, to whom Aaron addresses his feelings and the progression of his quest.

Come With Me is a very atmospheric story imbued with a strong sense of impending doom, and at the same time it’s the exploration of two characters whose surface appearance at the start of the novel changes drastically as the narrative unfolds: on one side we have Aaron, a guy who looks level-headed and pragmatic and who sets himself on the hunt for a killer by taking risks and almost courting danger with what looks like reckless abandon, almost as if his loss had engendered a death wish; on the other we have Allison, a woman capable of leading a double life, keeping her darker pursuits from her husband – one of the most poignant facets of the story comes indeed from Aaron’s discovery of a side of his wife he was never able to perceive before.

I must confess that at some point in the novel I believed that it had become mired in Aaron’s grief-fueled search, as if his actions were leading him (and therefore the reader) in aimlessly repeating circles, and it also looked as if the mix of disparate clues, paranormal manifestations and weird findings (like the eerie collection of dolls he finds inside an abandoned factory) were taking me nowhere: I was ready to throw in the proverbial towel, moving forward only through sheer curiosity to see where this apparently ungainly mess was headed.   Luckily for me, that curiosity made me persevere and arrive at the final resolution where all the little pieces of information the author had scattered throughout the book came to fruition, not only where the identity of the serial killer was concerned, but more importantly where the haunting phenomena Aaron experiences finally paid off. And they did so in the most shockingly unforeseeable way.  I am not going to say any more because of spoilers, but I was pleasantly stunned by the way some sentences or some seemingly unrelated occurrences contributed to such an unexpected ending.

There is still a final consideration I need to share: the inciting incident for this novel comes from a very real and very personal event concerning the author, described in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. If you tend to skip these tidbits of information, don’t do it here, because these words will offer a further shade of meaning to the overall story.  One that confirms Ronal Malfi as one of the writers I must keep on my radar…

My Rating:


FAIRY TALE, by Stephen King

Dear Mr. King,

I used to be one of your constant readers until several years ago, when a couple of disappointing books turned me away from your works, although I returned recently – mostly thanks to some reviews of your latest stories from my fellow bloggers – having discovered that you seemed to be back once again in the splendid form I enjoyed in the past.   So when your latest novel came out I did not think twice about adding it to my TBR, only to suffer an unwelcome return of that old deep disappointment.

Fairy Tale starts in a very promising manner, mostly because you choose to focus on one of the themes in which you excel, the friendship between a young boy and his crusty old neighbor: the juxtaposition between the naïveté of youth and the prickly wisdom of old age, here personified by 17-year old Charlie Reade and the elderly Mr. Bowditch, is portrayed in your usual wonderful, humorous way, and here the bond between them is also represented by Bowditch’s dog Radar, well-loved by both characters and a lovely addition to the story’s cast.  Charlie takes on the care of Mr. Bowditch after the latter’s hospitalization following a bad fall, a task the young man chooses to shoulder because of an earnest promise made in the past (and also as a form of atonement for some childish pranks he was responsible for). Fairly soon, however,  he notices that there is something weird going on in the closed shed located at the back of the garden, and after Mr. Bowditch’s demise, and the discovery that the old man willed his earthly possession to Charlie, the youth starts on a fantastical journey to another world accessed through a hole in the shed: Charlie and an ailing Radar travel to Empis in search of a magical sundial that’s able to turn back time and rejuvenate the old dog, but at the same time Charlie finds out that Empis is an imperiled world suffering under the rule of evil, and the boy is thrown into the role of Chosen One and savior of the realm…

You see, Mr. King, the first 150 pages of so of the novel were delightfully typical of your writing: I enjoyed Charlie’s back story, his need to grow up faster because of his mother’s early death and his father turning to drink to drown his despair, as I enjoyed the growing rapport between Charlie and Bowditch, the love for adorable Radar, the generational clash of two very different people who nonetheless manage to find a common ground and a basis for affection. I could have gone on reading about them for the whole length of the book, even though the weird noises coming from that shed did pique my curiosity and I looked forward to learning what kind of mystery – or horror – hid behind those doors.   And the first part of Charlie’s journey through that strange world still held my attention, mostly because I wanted him to succeed, to reach the magical sundial in time and save dear Radar.  But once that part of the quest was accomplished, things went rapidly downhill, and I felt as if I was reading a different book, written by a different author, not by you.

I’m very aware, Mr. King, that your novels tend to be lengthy, that you take your time in creating the scenery before letting us readers sink our proverbial teeth into the story proper, but the length of time and pages dedicated to Charlie’s unfortunate detention in Empis’ dungeons, waiting to be employed in some sort of perverted gladiatorial games, was frankly too much. Far too much.  And what about the emphasis about the dirtiness and squalor of the prison, or the guards’ cruelty?  We all know that dungeons are filthy, dark and horrible places, but was it really necessary to dwell so much on the… ahem… scarcity of sanitary implements in the cells, and the details of how the prisoners had to cope with what little was provided?  We all know that prison guards, particularly those in the employ of your usual Evil Lord, are quite unsavory characters, but was it really necessary to have them bask in their peculiar brand of jolly cruelty that only lacked a mustache to be twirled to complete such trite picture?  And what about some of the evil characters roaming in the doomed city? I found that your perseverance in the description of their bodily fluids or the obnoxious noises produced by any and all orifices went beyond grossness: if it wanted to be a means to stress the horror of the situation… well, what it did for me was to make me forget the horror and see only the base crudeness of it all.  Did you maybe want to make fun of those tropes Mr. King? Sorry, but to have a chance to work for me, irony should be light and pointed, and this was NOT the case…

And what about Charlie himself? Was it that same misplaced wish to parody some Fantasy themes that made you turn Charlie (who was already a bit too perfect to ring true) into a cut and dried Gary Stu? So much the fairytale hero that even his hair changed color and turned blonde to better fit the stereotype of the Savior Prince? Seriously?

And last but not least, there is one detail that truly bothered me: when Charlie reaches the realm of Empis, he finds out that he must be speaking another language, one more suited to a fantasy environment and therefore devoid of some terms and expressions typical of our day and age. All well and good, we SFF readers can accept something like that without batting an eyelash, since we’re used to suspend our disbelief: so why did you feel such a compelling need, Mr. King, to remind us so many times that Charlie uttered one specific word only to have it magically translated into Empis-speak?  Two or three examples would have been more than enough, because your readers are bright, imaginative people and know how to connect the dots: having them connected for them throughout the whole book is not simply annoying, it’s an insult to our intelligence.

I have to confess that when I reached past the middle of the book I started skipping ahead because I wanted to see how the story ended, but did not want to endure the whole journey, and when that still proved not to be enough, I skipped over the last 100-odd pages straight to the Epilogue, relieved to be literally out of the woods.  I’m sorry, Mr. King, because I wanted to like this book, I did indeed like it at the beginning, but once it turned into a crazy mess I could not take it anymore.  This does not mean that I will not read your next one, of course, only that I will try to be more careful with my expectations, in the hope that this is only a small bump in the road.

My Rating:



I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Every new book from Craig DiLouie is a surprise because – as far as my experience with his works goes – he never treads twice on the same ground, never sticks to any given theme or genre. With Episode Thirteen he chose to explore the world of professional ghost hunters, and while this is a ghost story, it does not develop in any predictable way, which adds to its appeal – and to its mystery.

Fade to Black is a moderately successful ghost hunting show which follows the scheme of similar reality programs by investigating allegedly haunted houses and seeking confirmation (or debunking) through the application of various scientific tools; lead investigators, and married couple, Matt and Claire Kirklin represent the two sides of the research: he’s the believer in the existence of paranormal phenomena, mostly because of his childhood experience with an imaginary friend who turned out to be anything but, while his wife is the skeptic, looking for scientific explanation of the weird occurrences encountered in their line of work.  The team also includes Kevin Linscott, tech manager and former police officer, who’s convinced to have been in the presence of a ghost in the course of one tour of duty; Jessica Valenza, an actress looking for visibility and affirmation while trying to raise a son on her own; and Jake Wolfson, the cameraman who is more focused on filming good takes rather than catching glimpses of ghosts.

After a great start, Fade to Black is experiencing some downturn in ratings that place a second season of the show on the line, so that Matt wants to craft a spectacular Episode 13 (the one before the series’ final segment) to insure that they will be able to go on.  The location for this episode is Foundation House, a crumbling manor where outlandish pseudo-scientific experiments were conducted in the ‘70s, involving the use of psychotropic drugs among other bizarre techniques: the mystery surrounding Foundation House, whose staff disappeared without a trace, is enough to insure some spectacular footage. The team approaches the location with a mixture of anticipation and dread for the future of the show, a feeling that is slowly intruding in their interpersonal and working relationships.  What they will find goes way beyond their wildest expectations and adds more mysteries to those already plaguing the spooky house…

Episode Thirteen is written with a style resembling that of found-footage movies, chronicling the fateful exploration of Foundation House through videos and transcripts, interviews, personal diaries and e-mails, building a picture of the characters with cinematic quality, revealing their inner workings without need for info-dumps: while the story starts with a deceptively leisurely pace, it slowly grows into an ominous tale and a compelling, compulsive read in which we get to know the characters just as the momentous events unfold.  If it’s easy to indulgently scoff at actual tv shows like Fade to Black, here the feeling of being faced with something which is as real as it is elusive is quite strong, and the suspension of disbelief does not require any effort at all.

What’s interesting about the characters is that they are not exactly likable, and yet they remain deeply intriguing from beginning to end, and it’s easy to identify with them as they witness the eerie, scary phenomena that plague the old manor and they deal with reactions that go from the classic “fight or flight” to the difficult battle between scientific curiosity and self-preservation.  As the story progresses and the team faces a true descent into Hell (both in the figurative and in the actual sense), their core personalities are revealed in stark relief, all the trappings people use to cover their true self coming undone in a very dramatic way.

It would be impossible for me to write more about the story without falling into spoiler territory, and this is a novel that must be approached with no prior knowledge whatsoever, so that it can deliver all its powerful impact in the most effective way: there is no body horror here, no splattered blood or any other physical manifestation typical of the genre, the dread is more psychological than anything else, mixed as it is with our innate fear of the unknown.

One warning only: once you pick up Episode Thirteen set aside some “quality time” to read it, and be aware that once you start the book it will be next to impossible to put it down for more than the few moments you will need to catch your breath – because you will need to remember to breathe, trust me…

My Rating:


A DOWRY OF BLOOD (A Dowry of Blood #1), by S. T. Gibson

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Vampire lore states that these creatures can mesmerize their victims, leaving them powerless to resist the lure of their captor: well, like a vampire, this book managed to mesmerize me from start to finish, making it almost impossible for me to put it down – I lost count of the number of times I told myself “just one more chapter, then I’ll stop”, only to keep reading on…

The vampire myth is one of my favorite themes in horror, so once I learned that A Dowry of Blood focused on a retelling of the story of Dracula and his brides it was a given that I would read it, but what I found was a very unexpected tale told in an equally unexpected narrative style, which added to my enjoyment of the book.  The narrator is Constanta, one of the famous vampire’s brides as she relates her story in an impassioned letter to her sire who, as we learn from the very first sentence in the book, she killed in an act that she describes as possessing “its own sort of inevitability”.

Constanta’s first encounter with the creature who will change her existence happens outside a Romanian village devastated by a brutal attack: she lies dying on the ground, images of her family’s massacre mixing with the awareness of her imminent demise, when this fascinating stranger makes her an offer that seems like salvation but which will lead her on a very unpredictable path. Her beginnings as the vampire’s bride flow in a mix of fascination and discovery that appear all the more extraordinary given Constanta’s origin as a poor peasant girl, but as time elapses it becomes increasingly clear that her husband/master’s outer veneer of charm hides a volatile, domineering disposition that becomes even more marked when their “family” comes to include the presence of Magdalena, a beautiful Spanish heiress, and later on of young Alexi, a penniless Russian actor.

More than being another story about vampires, A Dowry of Blood represents the deconstruction of their myth as it shows the other side of the coin represented by the fascinating lure of an immortal predator: here Dracula (even though his name is never actually mentioned) comes across as an abusive despot, a creature of fickle disposition, easily angered and possessed of a mean streak.   At first Constanta accepts it all as part and parcel of her new life, never having had the opportunity for a comparison – either in her previous life or in her new, immortal one – and living as she does in almost total isolation with her sire.  Things however change when Magdalena joins their “family”: the transition from jealousy to attraction to complicity allows Constanta to put her existence into perspective and to observe their lord’s treatment of his brides from an equidistant position, therefore bringing to light his manipulative and control-oriented tactics.  The situation worsens when starving actor Alexi is brought into their midsts, his lust for life and human companionship undiminished by the changes in his body: the younger man’s desire to keep a foot in both worlds – the living and the undead – takes the vampire lord’s stranglehold on his “family” to new heights, ultimately laying the foundations for his (untimely?) end.

Even though I’m usually not very comfortable with allegories, I can view this novel as one about toxic relationships –  and who better than a blood-sucking vampire to epitomize the draining of agency, self-worth and freedom caused by an abusive spouse?   Constanta is the classic example of the naive woman who finds herself married to a control freak who does everything in his power to establish his authority on her, either cutting off any chance of outside contact, or constantly belittling her, or both, in what she labels as “the cycle of brutality and tenderness” than informs their relationship.  She is only an extension of himself, something he created for his own ends, not for her benefit:

[…] I don’t think you ever truly saw me as a whole woman. I was always a student. A project. An accessory in the legal and decorative sense.

In the end, the mistake of the vampire lord comes from the choice to increase his entourage, because instead of adding more “accessories” to his dominion he unwittingly lays the basis for a found family: the strength of the bonds that unite Constanta, Magdalena and Alexi is what ultimately allows them to see their sire for what he truly is, and to find the courage to sever the ties linking them to him and to regain their freedom.  What finally struck me, once I finished the book, was the realization that in never using her husband’s name in the story (only hinting at his true identity in an oblique reference to the “troublesome Harkers”) Constanta took back the agency she was robbed of for so many centuries: in denying him his identity, his name, she exacted the perfect kind of vengeance against the constant theft of power and self-determination he visited on his brides.

I described A Dowry of Blood as a mesmerizing book, and the greatest part of such effect comes from the narrative style and the almost lyrical prose that took hold of my imagination and created a rich, three-dimensional picture of these characters and their surroundings: there is a gothic flavor to this story that nevertheless does not lapse into purple prose, blending the quaint and the modern into a seamless whole. If, like it seems, this is only the first volume in a saga, I more than look forward to what the author has in store for us in the next books…

My Rating:


BLACK MOUTH, by Ronald Malfi

Black Mouth turned up to be one of my most intense reading experiences for this year, one I once again owe to my fellow bloggers who showcased a book I might otherwise have missed out on.  The story is something of a familiar one (I will get back to that in a moment) but it’s portrayed through such a depth of exploration of the human mind and soul that it defies any attempt at comparison.

Jamie Warren – and his mentally impaired brother Dennis – Mia Tomasina and Clay Willis, marginalized children in a small West Virginia town, were the victims of traumatic events which shaped their adult lives. As the story starts Jamie, who turned into an alcoholic incapable of holding a job for long, is called back to his home town after the death of his mother, to take responsibility for his brother Dennis whose disability makes him incapable of being on his own. Different reasons have compelled both Mia – who is now an indie film director – and Clay – a dedicated social worker – to go back as well, and as the three reunite we get to know, through a series of flashbacks, about their childhood lives and of the terrible events that marked them forever after the encounter with the mysterious and creepy Magician.

While the premise might lead us to compare this novel with Stephen King’s IT (and it is indeed marketed this way, in what I believe is an involuntary disservice to Ronald Malfi’s work) Black Mouth easily holds its narrative own: for starters, it’s far more streamlined, lacking the kind of buildup that often makes King’s books feel somewhat bloated, and it plunges its readers directly into the heart of the matter, turning this immediacy into one of its main strengths.  And then there is the skillful handling of difficult topics like cognitive impairment, childhood abuse, substance addiction: none of these delicate themes is used as a “shock factor” but rather as a way of building the characters’ psychological profile in a compelling, sympathy-inspiring way.

The horror elements are dealt with in the same light-handed fashion, creating an atmosphere that is more disturbing than truly terrifying, starting with the titular Black Mouth which is an area on the outskirts of town where a coal mine collapse created both a local tragedy and a legend of eerie happenings that turned the site into one to be avoided at all costs. The true horror, however, comes from the very mundane suffering of the characters, whose childhood was scarred in equal parts by injury and neglect, and by their peers’ cruelty, turning them into the perfect victims for the Magician’s lure and his dark goals.  Mia was an orphan, taken in by a distracted and disinterested uncle, the loss of her parents turning into a sort of obsession for death she later channeled into her movies; Clay’s life as black boy in a Southern small town was made even more difficult by the vitiligo which bleached his face and hands, turning him into a target for local bullies. And Jamie suffered the constant abuse of a violent, drunken father who here represents the kind of evil that needs no supernatural elements to turn vicious and even deadly.

Jamie is indeed the main narrative voice (the author lets him tell the story in first person, while the other POVs are told in third person) and a very complex personality whose trauma and psychological wounds are revealed in small increments: I have to admit I was quite leery of him at first because he wrongly came across as the kind of whiny, weak individual who never takes responsibility for his actions, but once a window opened on his past and the kind of ordeals he had to endure, I understood where the drunkenness and wasted life-style came from, and my initial scorn turned into pity – and sympathy.  Moreover, from the very beginning Jamie’s one redeeming quality is the way he cares for his brother Dennis, with deep affection and a strong sense of protection that not even the years of separation have been able to weaken, and that strenghtend my emotional ties with his character.

Dennis literally stole my heart, and I have to praise Ronald Malfi for the tactful, respectful way he portrayed him, without ever sliding into saccharine-laden affectation: there is a kind of otherworldly wisdom in Dennis that proves quite fascinating and becomes, as the story progresses, one of its pivotal elements.  Mia and Clay don’t enjoy such a detailed portrayal as the two brothers, but still their personalities come across quite vividly, particularly in the way they choose to battle the inner demons from their past: Mia by turning the darkness into inspiration for her movies, and Clay by dedicating his life to troubled youths, as a way of exorcising his own demons.

And here lies the counterpoint with the evil that marked their lives, embodied by the character of Wayne Stull whose early life had been equally marred by cruelty and pain: whatever pity I might have harbored for him, however, as I witnessed his horrific childhood, was erased by the way he reacted to life’s unfairness, by turning into a monster himself and taking out on the innocent the rage and pain of his miserable existence, where instead Mia and Clay sublimated that pain through creativity or service to others, or Jamie internalized it by drowning it in alcohol.

Black Mouth is a truly compelling tale of atmospheric horror, granted, but it’s also a story about friendship and the kind of bonds forged in adversity that survive the test of time; it’s a story of violated innocence and of the struggles one faces to escape the dark prison of those experiences (and I guess that the comparison with the collapsed mine is not far-fetched at all…); it’s an often haunting tale of the search for new beginnings and the hope that accompanies it. And even though I have not yet forgiven the author for the unexpected character death that I can rationally acknowledge but still left me emotionally wounded, I’m certain that this will not be the only book I will read from his plentiful production.

My Rating:


WHAT MOVES THE DEAD, by T. Kingfisher

It was only a few weeks ago when I reviewed T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone, and here I am with another of her books, one that confirmed my intention of adding as many of them as possible to my TBR, because she is an amazing storyteller indeed.

I knew, thanks to my fellow bloggers’ reviews, that What Moves the Dead would take me on a gothic horror journey – and more specifically a retelling of Poe’s The Fall of House of Usher – and I was also made aware that the terror elements would be expressed in some wildly ghastly way, thanks to the cover illustration with its gruesome implications of body horror. Still, I found much more than I bargained for, because the dreadful elements are quite successfully blended with a peculiar brand of tongue-in-cheek humor that I’ve come to suspect might be T. Kingfisher’s trademark.

Alex Easton, the first-person narrator, is a non-binary former soldier who has been summoned by Madeline Usher, an old friend living with her twin brother (who used to be Easton’s comrade in arms) in a dilapidated house on the shores of a sinister-looking lake. According to the letter she sent to Easton, her health is failing and she also mentions her brother’s fears that she might be dying: worried for the sake of both friends, Easton comes to the mansion, where they are met by the siblings who appear aged beyond their years, emaciated and quite mentally troubled.  The dark, decrepit house and its environs fare no better than the Ushers: where inside one can see dust, cobwebs and peeling wallpaper, on the outside the lake’s waters appear unusually still and coated with something of an oily film which at night sports a weird luminescence. And creepier still, the local fauna – particularly the hares – shows unusual behavioral patterns, while strange fungal growths seem to thrive on the ground as far as the eye can see.

Worried for the plight of the almost-unrecognizable childhood friends, Easton tries to enroll the help of Denton, an American doctor also living at the manor, and of Miss Potter, a dedicated mycologist and illustrator, to try and understand what might be affecting the siblings and Madeline in particular, whose night-time cataleptic wanderings always take her to the lake’s shores. Unfortunately, events move rapidly toward tragedy, as a nameless menace hovers above the collapsing house of the Ushers…

While Poe’s tale might have been the inspiration for this novella, T. Kingfisher imbues it with its unique sense of dread and impending doom, enhanced by the villagers’ dire warnings and by the clues that the author seeds along the path to lead her readers toward the conclusion: I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the story, so I will keep any hint to a minimum – suffice it to say that other novels, some recent, some less so, have used that same narrative element but, in my opinion, not as successfully as Kingfisher did here.  There is a disturbing escalation of clues in What Moves the Dead that makes the horror palpable, rendering it so very easy to put oneself in Easton’s shoes as they walk through the crumbling rooms or fear for the Ushers’ failing physical and mental health at the same time as the former soldier tries to unravel the mystery of the house and its nearby lake.

Still, the story is not totally oriented toward gothic horror, because the author inserts a welcome vein of whimsical humor that takes some weight out of the narrative and offers a welcome respite: in my previous encounter with Nettle and Bone I enjoyed this element and I was glad to find it again here.  For starters, Easton is a delightfully no-nonsense, self-deprecating character who is hardly prone to flights of fancy, and therefore the right person to investigate the strange happenings of the house without being unduly affected by them: there is an interesting digression about the custom of Gallacia – Easton’s country of origin – whose linguistic flexibility extends to pronouns, which are assigned on the basis of situation rather than gender, so that for example a sworn soldier like Easton is referred to with the pronouns of ka and kan. This detour, together with some fun references to Gallacian propensity toward turnips, or to spoiling its national liquor with the addition of lichen, helps keep the overall tone from becoming too dreary even as the story progresses toward its dramatic climax.

The supporting characters, much as it also happened in Nettle and Bone, are explored with equal care and serve as a solid counterpoint to the main roles: Miss Potter, the spirited mycologist and naturalistic illustrator, is a delightful figure imbued with an indomitable spirit and a pointed view of the male-dominated scientific world, while Easton’s longtime footman Angus is there to offer his grouchy advice (whether one wants it or not…) and a steadfast support in times of trouble. And this review would not be complete without a special mention of Hob, Easton’s horse who, while not gifted with speech, is nonetheless able to comment on various situations in its own horsey way, delightfully reminding me of the demon-infested chicken from my first Kingfisher read. I now wonder if her other novels will sport more opinionated animal companions, because that’s an addition I enjoyed very much.

What Moves the Dead turned out to be another extremely engaging read and the confirmation that I just discovered a new-to-me author whose books I intend to explore as much as my overcrowded TBR will allow…

My Rating:


MEXICAN GOTHIC, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia #wyrdandwonder

I’ve had Mexican Gothic on my TBR for some time now, and with each new work published by this prolific author I kept promising myself that I would read this one and move on toward her other novels, but you know how it goes between bookworms and their TBRs…  It’s thanks to this year’s Word & Wonder that I finally “dusted off” the book from the virtual shelf: sometimes all we need is a little push!

Noemì Taboada is a young woman living in Mexico City and flitting between social engagements and more serious academic pursuits: she’s smart and very determined under her frivolous appearance, and that’s one of the reasons her father asks her to travel toward the fairly remote area where her older cousin Catalina went to live after marrying a handsome Englishman on the heels of a whirlwind courtship. The senior Taboada received a letter from Catalina in which his niece accused her husband of poisoning her, and also spoke of ghosts and of being a virtual prisoner: Noemì will need to find out if there is any substance to these accusations – which are expressed in a way that raises some doubts about the new bride’s mental stability – and eventually provide whatever help Catalina needs.

Noemì’s arrival at High Place, the isolated mansion built by Catalina’s new family, the Doyles, is far from auspicious: the house is clearly in disrepair, the Doyles’ welcome is far from warm, and the surrounding area – once the site of a now-closed silver mine – speaks of neglect and… something more ominous.  Noemì finds herself dealing with the too-brief, heavily supervised encounters with an ailing Catalina, the strict rules imposed by the family (like total silence at dinnertime) and the disturbing vibes coming both from her cousin’s husband, Virgil, and the family patriarch Howard; what’s more, she starts suffering from vivid, nightmarish dreams featuring the house itself and encumbered by a sense of impending doom.  The only potential ally for Noemì seems to be Francis, Virgil’s younger cousin, but the boy is also too enmeshed in the family’s secrets to be entirely dependable, and any information she gathers about the Doyles and their past serves only to increase Noemì’s dread, until the situation evolves into actual, inescapable danger…

I am of two minds about Mexican Gothic: on one hand I enjoyed the slow buildup of tension and the evocative atmosphere, the almost Lovecraftian suggestions offered by the story and the unhurriedly unfolding mystery that worked well in compelling me to keep reading until far into the night; on the other hand, however, once the revelations start to come, the novel takes on a far more grisly tone that offsets the previous atmospheric horror with grotesque touches, and to me this new tone felt out of place with what had come before.

What I liked: of course Noemì – she is an engaging character, only ostensibly concerned with fashion and appearance, but in reality quite solid and fearless, holding her own against the coldly creepy members of the Doyle family. The unsettling manifestations in her dreams and the pervasive rot and decay of the house do little to wreck her determination and the only moment when she’s truly afraid comes from the realization that she might lose independence and agency, because the loss of her power of choice is the most horrific condition she can think of – and that’s the perfect measure of the person she is.

The setting is also wonderfully drawn: first High Place, the Doyles’ house, a place of rotting wallpaper, barred windows and almost no creature comforts like hot water or constant electricity – the descriptions of the shadows created by candles and oil lamps, the only reliable source of illumination, help reinforce the sense of dread that hits the reader, and of course Noemì, from the very start. The isolation and the closeness to a graveyard, which is more often than not shrouded in impenetrable mists, add to that feeling and enhance the cloying sense of dismay that stands at the roots of the unfolding events. And then there is the constant presence of the mushrooms, which play an important – and creepy – role in the economy of the story…

And lastly, the nearby village, which shows all the signs of abandonment typical of a mining town well past its better days, where people struggle to eke out what meager life they can, burdened by a past of exploitation and disregards for rights, mixed with barely disguised racial inequality: there is a scene in which Noemì enters a small shop and observes the proprietor’s broken glasses, which is quite emblematic of the villagers’ conditions.

Sadly, once the mystery surrounding High Place is revealed, the tone of carefully orchestrated apprehension turns almost abruptly into over-the-top body horror whose lack of subtlety obtained the opposite of its intentions, at least for me, because instead of being scared by the descriptions I found them bordering on the ludicrous. Even the menacing evil that came off in waves from Virgil and his father, which until that moment had engaged in leering innuendo, lost its threatening impact to turn them into something closer to maniacally laughing, mustache twirling villains that looked more caricatural than dangerous.  Not even the final portion of the novel, with its adrenaline-infused scenes and hellish battle for survival managed to offset my disappointment at the revelation of the Doyles’ century-long secrets, which I found more repugnant than shocking.

Still, I consider Mexican Gothic a mostly solid story (if I can overlook the above slip into excess…) and I am certainly not discouraged by pursuing my journey into Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s other works.

My Rating:

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Short Story: SHARDS, by Ian Rogers – #wyrdandwonder

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Read the story online

A very creepy, quite disturbing tale made even more so by the lack of any explanation about the hows and whys of what happens.

The story starts, quite similarly to many horror movies, with a group of teenagers driving toward a secluded cabin in the woods to celebrate their upcoming graduation and to have some fun. There are many elements that are familiar to followers of the genre: the dilapidated cabin, the isolated location, and a mysterious trapdoor leading toward a dark basement… And yet, the way this story develops leads toward some quite unexpected paths, making the reader constantly wonder what’s at play here.

The very first sentence points toward a tragedy, no mystery here: we know from the start that something horrible will happen here, and that makes the cheer and fun of the outing that the group is enjoying even more poignant, particularly because it’s easy to see these people are very comfortable with each other since they grew up together and have developed a very close relationship.

If the dread of what happens in the cabin is bad enough, what the survivors have to endure afterwards is even more ghastly, because it becomes quite apparent that the evil in the cellar did not remain there, and it wants more of what it obtained. And it does not end with death…

Thoroughly chilling, and quite compelling.

My Rating:



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You would think that any cosmic horror, Lovecraft-inspired story – especially one that has Cthulhu’s name in it – would be full of terror and blood-chilling elements, wouldn’t you? Well, think again, because this short offering from Neil Gaiman pokes fun at all the tropes typical of Lovecraftian imagination and turns out to be a delightfully amusing tour of many of them.

Cthulhu is dictating his memoirs to a human scribe named Whateley who, at least judging by the monster’s reactions, is clearly torn between curiosity and (in larger part) awed fear of his host, who starts by waxing poetical about his birth and the place he used to call home: of course, Cthulhu being who he (it?) is, the birth implicated the death of both parents and “home” is a place where a gibbous moon bleeds into the ocean…

Showing a particularly grumpy attitude, Cthulhu goes on by describing an eons-long party which brought him to Earth, where he proceeded to enslave, rule and consume the hapless inhabitants, until… well, no, I will let you discover by yourselves how the rest of the story goes, it’s far better to go into it with no prior knowledge. And far more fun!

Except for the part about feeding the shoggoth, that is… 😀

If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s narrative style and word choice, you – like me – will laugh out loud at the way they are employed here, turning these cosmic horror themes into a genially entertaining read.

My Rating:


THE GULP (Tales from the Gulp #1), by Alan Baxter #wyrdandwonder

Stories’ collections can be a little tricky, sometimes, because not all of the offerings might encounter the reader’s tastes, but The Gulp did not suffer from this problem for two important reasons: the five short stories in this anthology revolve around a common element – the Australian city of Gulpepper – and the weird horror theme that permeates the collection, whose almost-Lovecraftian feel makes for a delightfully uneasy read.

Gulpepper is a pleasant seaside city on the Australian coast, but while it might be nice to pass through it, staying there carries a good number of problems: the inhabitants look friendly enough on the surface, but on closer inspection there is something… not right about them, something the casual visitors cannot put their finger on, but still proves unsettling.  The townspeople refer to the city as ‘the Gulp’, often mentioning that it has the tendency to “swallow” people, almost a warning about moving on as quickly as one can…

Unfortunately, not everyone heeds that warning, as it happens to Rich in Out of a Rim: he’s training to become a delivery van driver, and when a mechanical problem forces him and his instructor George to stay overnight in Gulpepper, Rich labels George’s warnings as an old man’s fancy – or even an attempt at hazing the newbie – and so decides to have a night on the town, while George refuses to leave the safety of the truck’s cab.  What Rich will experience cannot be labeled as horror with any certainty – although he finds himself facing some harrowing circumstances – but his exploration of Gulpepper and its inhabitants reveals the creepiness of the town and its people through a series of encounters that lay the tone and set the background for the rest of the book.

The second story, Mother in Bloom, deals with two siblings, Maddy and Zack, whose ailing mother just died: firmly set on not letting the authorities know of the woman’s demise, to avoid being consigned to social services, the two of them must find a way of disposing of the body, carrying on as normally as possible until Maddy will turn eighteen and be free to take care of Zack as her guardian.  Having a dead body in the house would be a disturbing experience for everyone, but the changes the kids’ mother’s corpse undergoes are part of the macabre tone of the story, together with Maddy and Zack’s emotional removal from the loss, due to their mother’s character which is often described as tyrannical and spiteful.  And if that’s not enough, the dreadful changes in the corpse point toward a supernatural factor that will compel the two kids (and particularly Zack) toward some truly appalling actions…

The Band Plays On sees a quartet of tourists become enthralled by a local band, Blind Eye Moon, whose performance in town encourages the four of them to stay longer than anticipated, accepting the band’s hospitality in their lavish mansion. A party fueled by alcohol and music leads to some very striking dreams that seem to hint at a dark past and whose cosmic horror quality compels one of the travelers, Patrick, to try and steer his friends away from Gulpepper and the magnetic influence of the band’s members.  But it might be already too late for that, because The Gulp has a tendency to swallow the unwary, indeed. This third story marks a definite progression toward horror, with its hints at vampiric possession and Lovecraftian elements, and it definitely enhances the sense of suffocating dread at the roots of this collection.

The fourth offering, 48 to Go, starts in a very mundane way as Dace, who works as a courier for the gangster lord Carter, is robbed of his precious cargo while trying to woo a young lady.  The only way to get back in Carter’s good graces is to refund the monetary loss, and to do so in the short time allotted by the boss – 48 hours – Dace sets his sights on robbing an elderly couple rumored to have huge sums of money hidden in their house. The man’s plan and preparations have something of a funny flavor, which carries on until the start of his undertaking, when the sheer number of setbacks and unexpected obstacles drives him to become much more than ruthless and callous.  Here the horror is all too human, and despite the lack of supernatural elements feels even more terrifying.

Rock Fisher is the final offering in this anthology and it goes back to a supernatural theme laced with a sizable dash of body horror as expert fisherman Troy comes back home with a strange “egg” which, once set in his aquarium, starts to grow and exert a compelling attraction on him, to the exclusion of any other ties to family or friends.

The Gulp offers a very intriguing – if creepy – setting for these stories, often adding other elements that remain as background detail but hint at much more and show the reader that the well of horror remains mostly untapped here. The dichotomy between the apparently normal surface and the eerie depths of the city and its people is where the uneasiness – and then the fear – comes from, trapping the reader into a compulsive immersion in these stories and the sensation to be just as imprisoned as the hapless characters depicted there. 

After discovering this author and this intriguing collection, I know I will look forward to the upcoming publication of the new collection of stories set in Gulpepper: hopefully I will be able to find my way out once more and not be swallowed by the Gulp… 😉

My Rating:

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