For the last day of Wyrd&Wonder 2022, I’m glad to celebrate it with my latest happy discovery: a short while ago I reviewed a short story by Daniel Polansky, an author I had previously encountered through some other short offerings, and a comment from fellow blogger Sarah led me to learn more about Polansky’s Low Town series, which Sarah mentioned with great fondness. Luckily for me I was able to get my proverbial feet wet with this prequel story which I was able to find online, and which prompted me to acquire the first book in the series immediately afterwards.
In the imaginary city portrayed in this story, Low Town is one of its seediest areas, under the control of a local crime lord who goes by the name of Warden, and is the first-person narrator as well. In Low Town anything goes: drug trade, liquor trade, every kind of more or less illicit trade one can imagine, and Warden rules it all through a deceptively nonchalant attitude – that is, until a rival consortium starts trying to undermine his rule and not-so-gently remove him from his place, so Warden goes on the offensive – but in a very crafty, very offhand way that belies both his determination and his underlying ruthlessness.
I was quite surprised at how I “clicked” with the character of Warden, given that he’s a hardened criminal who does not balk at bloodily removing any obstacle on his path, and does so in the perfect spirit of the place he rules:
”…the locals are unfriendly, unfriendly by the standards of an unfriendly city in an unfriendly world, and the local guard know better than to waste their time trying to police the place, like a doctor knows better than to bandage a corpse”
And yet, the combination of Warden’s laid-back attitude (which is anything but, in truth) with a peculiar kind of humor, that sometimes becomes of the self-deprecating kind, managed to endear him to me very quickly, and to make me want to learn more about him and the world he lives in. And so Low Town is now comfortably sitting on my e-reader, and I’m very much enjoying this story as well, which I’m reading as I write this review…
With my sincerest thanks to fellow blogger Sarah for the recommendation! 🙂
Much as I was intrigued by the synopsis for this book, what I found in it went well beyond my expectations, offering a fascinatingly different point of view on a medieval-analogue background undergoing far-reaching changes. Sir Konrad Vonvalt is an Emperor’s Justice, a traveling judge performing his circuit throughout his allotted slice of the Sovan empire and acting not only as judge but also as jury and, if required, as executioner whenever crimes are committed.
Vonvalt is accompanied in such travels by his guard/factotum Bressinger and by his clerk (and potential judge in training) Helena, and the tale is indeed told through a much older Helena’s memoirs. As the story starts, Vonvalt and his small retinue are trying to shed some light on the murder of a noblewoman, and in the course of the investigation discover that the case is tied to a far-reaching chain of events that might lead to the unraveling of the empire’s fabric, and to the very end of the Imperial Justice system.
I appreciated the choice of having Helena as a chronicler, because the wisdom (and some disillusionment) of the older woman help put the account into perspective and turn her into a quite reliable narrator, observing the facts – and her own past self – through the lens of experience. The three main characters form an interesting team: Sir Konrad is a serious, and at times moody, individual but he also possesses an inner core of conviction and respect for the law that he tries to transmit to Helena, whom he clearly envisions as his successor; his usual sternness does not always manage to cover a fatherly attitude that at times comes through but is almost never perceived as such by the younger woman, so that the sometimes strained relationship between the two of them often reminded me of Merela and Girton in the Wounded Kingdom saga. Bressinger, on the other hand, represents a more approachable adult for Helena, and despite his gruff, world-weary approach and his shifting moods, he’s the one she feels more inclined to confide in.
Helena herself is what you might call a survivor: orphaned by one of the many wars of annexation that gave birth to the Sovan empire, she learned at a very tender age to fend for herself, and was rescued by Sir Konrad who saw the promise in the young woman and decided to give her a chance for a better future. The Helena described in the story is a mixture of innocence and strength, determination and uncertainty: it’s clear that her childhood left her somewhat emotionally stunted, and she does not know yet what she wants to do with her life – following in Sir Konrad’s footsteps would certainly give her the status and security she did not have in her early life, but Helena is not sure that this is what she truly wants, and she’s often chafing at the restraints that her present role is imposing on her.
These interesting character dynamics take place in an equally interesting background: the Sovan empire is the result of some bloody wars – Sir Konrad himself did fight in one – and the judicial system put in place by the emperor is viewed as the glue that should hold it all together, which is the reason Vonvalt is always so meticulous in weighing all the aspects of his profession and authority, careful that the meting out of justice never turns into mere vengeance or an expression of unchecked power. And that’s where the unrest running throughout the empire stands: a struggle is brewing between the religious and secular powers, hinted at for the first time through the opposing views of Sir Konrad and the priest Claver over the behavior of some villagers, which the former chooses to simply reprimand while the latter would like to kill as an example to the rest of the world. The clash between Vonvalt’s concept of justice and Claver’s excess of zeal looks like the spark that might ignite the empire – and in truth we understand this is more than a possibility thanks to the opening sentence of the novel, in which the events at the small village where the two men battle are foreshadowed as the spark for the coming upheaval.
But such a spark must find a consistent amount of kindling to start the proverbial fire, and that comes to light in the course of Sir Konrad’s investigation, which proves to be the microcosm of what is brewing in the empire: the murder mystery (which is an intriguing addition to the fantasy setting) allows the readers to get a close-up view of Sovan society in the merchant town of Galen’s Vale, with its intricate political ties and the buried secrets of a small community which – as so often happens in such investigations, no matter the time frame in which they happen – come unraveled as Sir Konrad leaves no stone unturned in his search for truth and for the murderer.
The murder inquiry also offers the chance for the introduction of the only “magical” elements present in the story: Justices like Vonvalt are empowered by special skills, like the Emperor’s Voice, which compels anyone subjected to it to speak the truth, no matter what; and then there is the much darker element of necromancy, the ability to connect to a recently dead individual to learn either the details of their deaths or the secrets they carried to the grave. This latter skill is disturbing – in one occasion Helena participates in the ritual and is grievously affected by it – and also taxing for the individual performing it, introducing a welcome limitation to what might otherwise have been a deus-ex-machina narrative device: the concept here is that such powers must be used sparingly and only in the direst of circumstances, both to prevent the tainting of one’s soul and the corruption of one’s skills in pursuing truth and justice.
In the end, The Justice of Kings proved to be a compelling story of a world in the early throes of disruption, and if sometimes the pace falters between the detail-rich murder investigation and the echoes of developing unrest, the narrative remains consistently fascinating and the characters worthy of further exploration. Given this premise, I more than look forward to the next installment in the series.
A beautiful, poignant story weaving the concepts of memory and music into a tale I will remember for a long time…
Eri is a thief, and a very peculiar one since she possesses the ability to open magical locks: her skill landed her in a prison from which she was “saved” by her current employer, a shady character for whom she must secure the bounty from five ships’ holds – after that, she will be a free woman. But Eri’s talent requires a high price: for every magical lock she can defy, she must surrender one truth, a part of herself she never shared with anyone.
Once relinquished, however, that truth, and the memories associated with it, are gone forever: as the story starts, Eri already lost a great deal of her memories, of her past, and she wonders what will remain of her, of the person she is, once her contract is fulfilled, and the hope of freedom is the only thing lending her the strength to go on.
One day, toward the end of what is her last voyage, Eri is in the ship’s hold plying her trade when she meets with Anea, a musician from a troupe contracted to play at a lavish wedding. In this world, music is considered dangerous because it could drive people to recklessness, or worse, and therefore it’s strictly regulated, but Anea needs some practice and she asks for Eri’s help, which casually leads to the discovery of the power of music on memory, and to the alliance of the two young women, both yearning for a better life.
I was unprepared for the depths of both sorrow and wonder I encountered in this story, and it left a profound impression on me, all the more precious because it was unexpected. The theme of memory, which is the core of this short tale, is indeed a powerful one, and when paired with the evocative power of music gives birth to what I’ve come to see as a small, but quite precious gem.
This is the first time I encountered a work by Ms. Curtis, but I fervently hope it will not be the last, because this short story holds great promise for some compelling future reads.
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.
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…
As it so often happens, I took notice of this book thanks to the review from fellow blogger Lynn, but did not add it immediately to my reading queue, so that it took Lynn’s mention of the second volume in the series to finally push me start this one, and now I know I will not let too much time elapse before adding the sequel to my TBR because I had a great deal of fun with The Stranger Times.
The book title refers to a Manchester-based newspaper focused on the strange and the bizarre – like alien visitations or kidnappings, the birth of two-headed cows and so forth – its anchor to reality being that the paper is only reporting those weird occurrences, not stating a belief in them. The staff is just as eccentric as the news it publishes, consisting of Vincent Banecroft, the editor, a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited drunkard who lives on the premises; Grace, Banecroft’s secretary and office manager, whose main activities consist in keeping the editor’s profanities to a minimum and making tea for everyone; Reggie and Ox, the actual reporters, who seem to have lost faith in their work; and Stella, the young apprentice who looks far from happy about being there.
The latest addition to the team is Hannah, recently divorced from a philandering husband and the recipient of unwanted fame for having set fire to their home while burning the man’s clothes: having left her comfortable life behind, Hannah is in dire need of work and her last chance comes though the ad published by the Stranger Times, claiming to look for “desperate human being with capability to form sentences using the English language. No imbeciles, optimists or Simons need apply”. Despite the oddities of the place, and Banecroft’s foul temper, it does not take long for Hannah to find her niche as assistant editor in this new setting, and just in time, because strange happenings are troubling the city of Manchester and soon enough a death that touches the staff very close to home launches them into an investigation where the supernatural and its dangers are not limited to the rantings of the newspaper’s readers.
The rapid POV changes in the story – which besides the main characters include a powerful villain, a police inspector and some of the gruesome crimes’ victims – make for a quick and lively run through this book, which alternates its more dramatic aspects with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor that I found quite refreshing for the genre: Urban Fantasy tends to be uniformly dark, its characters often tormented by a dismal past, and finding here this successful blend of seriousness and fun offered a very welcome respite from the gloom of our current reality.
Where the story is quite intriguing, listing a series of bizarre deaths and the hints of some magical dastardly plot our heroes need to prevent, the characters are its true backbone and it’s through their spirited exchanges that their nature is revealed as they turn, slowly but surely, from a group of people at odds with each other into something approaching a found family. Hannah is of course the one whose journey is more detailed, and the one who shows the greatest changes: at first she is not only the classic “fish out of water” due to the upheavals in her life, she also looks somewhat clueless and fumbling, since her first days at the Stranger Times are a source of misery, thanks to Banecroft’s vicious attitude and to her duties for “Loon Day”, when a long theory of contributors comes calling with their weird anecdotes. But as the days pass, we can see how those challenges help Hannah to tap some unknown reserves and turn into a determined, proactive person who is also able to face unusual or terrifying situations and even to challenge Banecroft on his own ground, probably gaining his unexpressed respect in the process.
Banecroft himself is a very interesting character: even though he’s outwardly rude and profanity-inclined (to the point that Grace had to put a daily limit to his use of nasty language), and lives in what can only be described as a disgusting mess of papers, dirty clothes and empty liquor bottles, it’s difficult to outright hate him because the way he’s written and his over-the-top demeanor lead the reader more toward indulgent amusement than real disapproval. What’s more, there are some hints at a past tragedy that might explain his current manners (or lack thereof…) and that I hope will be explored in more depth in the next book(s). I liked Grace very much, particularly for the unflappable way in which she deals both with Banecroft and with young Stella, whose difficult-teenager attitude hides a very interesting secret which ties with some of the information (sorry, no spoilers!) we gather along the way. And, last but not least, the interactions between Reggie and Ox are nothing short of delightful.
What’s interesting here is that we see the point of view of the villain just as much as that of our “heroes” and that serves to counterbalance the whimsical tone of the story with some darkness, which grounds the story in its dramatic aspect as we learn of the increasing danger presented by this mysterious figure as he claims his victims with a sort of… amused nonchalance that’s quite chilling.
I had a very good run with The Stranger Times, to the point that I have already acquired the sequel – This Charming Man: the blend of Urban Fantasy and humor is very well balanced, an amusing journey that at times makes you laugh out loud, particularly when you get “extracts” from the newspaper itself detailing some of the published articles. A different take on the usual elements of the genre that will not disappoint and will leave you with a smile on your face.
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.
I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
The Hunger of the Gods was one of the books I was most looking forward to this year, given that its predecessor, The Shadow of the Gods, was one of the best novels I read in 2021 and I was eager to find myself again in the company of the characters I had come to love in this Norse-inspired saga.
First things first, I need to express my appreciation for author John Gwynne’s choice to place at the start of the book not only a list of characters but a very useful synopsis of the events so far: even though I still had a good recollection of the previous novel, many details had by now escaped me, so it was important for me to regain my footing in the story before diving into the second volume.
The action starts where we left it in book 1: the dragon goddess Lik-Rifa has been resurrected and her followers, the Raven Feeders, start with her the journey to reclaim the rule of the land and free the so-called Tainted – humans in whose veins runs the blood of gods – from their servitude; to that end they are training the Tainted children who have been kidnapped from their families in the use of powers bestowed by that blood. Lik-Rifa is not, however, the only resurrected god, because the Battle Grim, led by Elvar, bring back to life the wolf-god Ulfrir with the goal of battling Lik-Rifa and freeing young Bjarn, the son of witch Uspa to whom Elvar has pledged a binding oath. And former warrior Orka, whose own son Breca is among the kidnapped children, is still in pursuit of the Raven Feeders, and reconnects with her old company of the Bloodsworn, the Tainted warriors she left long ago to raise a family and live in peace; young former thrall Varg is with them as well and he’s learning to master his powers as he seeks his own vengeance for the murder of his sister.
In this second book, these three main POVs are joined by some new ones, which offer a different perspective to the story while balancing the characters’ range with some… less positive traits: Bjorr – formerly attached to the Battle Grim – has been revealed as a mole for the Raven Feeders, and has now returned to them, but does not feel totally comfortable anymore with his old companions, memories of the camaraderie he shared with the Battle Grim, and guilt over his murder of the former band leader, often intruding in his thoughts, while the suffering of the kidnapped children never fails to weigh on his conscience. The dichotomy showed by Bjorr makes him a very interesting character, one with still a foot in his previous life: even though his stint with the Battle Grim was done in service of his goddess, he seems unable to completely accept her harsh rule and the methods she employs to reclaim power, turning him into a potential lynchpin for future events.
Gudvarr, on the other hand, is another matter: his failure in capturing Orka after her incursion in Queen Helka’s hall has put him in a difficult position and he needs to establish his usefulness, while seeking glory and recognition – unfortunately he’s something of a coward, and the dichotomy between his outward behavior and his inner thoughts reveals this quite clearly: what I found surprising, given the pettiness of the character, is that I enjoyed reading about his exploits and his undeniable skill in taking advantage of situations. For starters, he represents a necessary balance to the heroism and endurance of the main characters, and then his ability to land on his feet more often than not is a very enjoyable counterpoint to his less-than-palatable attitude.
But of course the original trio of Orka, Elvar and Varg still enjoys the limelight here, as they travel on their individual paths toward the goals they set themselves: Orka is probably the one who exhibits the less changes, but it’s not surprising when considering that her focus is only on freeing Breca and avenging the murder of her husband at the hands of the kidnappers. All of Orca’s energy is concentrated in the fierce determination that keeps propelling her over hardships and dangers, and there is little room for anything else, apart perhaps from the growing gruff affection toward traveling companion Lif, who is slowly evolving from village fisherman toward warrior. Things might change in the next book, however, given that Orka is at the root of the truly massive cliffhanger that ends this second installment – and which left me both stunned and not a little exasperated…
Varg, former thrall and now part of the Bloodsworn, is gaining confidence in his newly discovered abilities, but even more he’s getting settled in this found family that is both teaching him how to be a warrior and how to be part of a loving, caring group. He’s growing in confidence just as much as he grows closer to his companions, and it’s poignant to see how much this lonesome individual is thriving in the company of the Bloodsworn, even though the love they show him is more often than not of the though kind. Again, the story shows great balance here, juxtaposing the ferocious battle scenes, which are depicted in the usual cinematic way you can expect from John Gwynne, and the quieter moments when affectionate hazing or discussions about cheese (yes, I kid you not) serve to strengthen the bonds among these people.
In the first book of this series, Elvar was the one I felt less attached to, even though I recognized the potential in this character, a young woman who had given up a life of privilege to be free and gain some glory for herself: now that she’s stepped into the role of chief of the Battle Grim, she needs to re-think her approach – the responsibilities that the position heaped on her shoulder weigh heavily on her and help mature her, turning Elvar into a more thoughtful – but also more effective – person than she was at the beginning. And I have to admit that the chapter focusing on her return to her ancestral home was both gripping and emotionally satisfying, and I look forward to seeing how her journey will continue.
Where the characters proved extremely rewarding in their continued path, the story itself seemed to suffer a little from the “middle book syndrome”, in that the characters’ constant travels looked a bit meandering, slowing the pace and at times making me feel the compulsion to skip ahead – something that never happened to me with John Gwynne’s novels. With hindsight, I can see that it was a way of positioning the game pieces on the board – so to speak – and preparing the events for the final showdown, and I can say that I enjoyed the final chapters very much, given the adrenaline-infused series of events that they portray. The slight lull I perceived might very well be the calm that precedes the storm we will certainly witness in the final book of the trilogy – one I’m bracing for and looking forward to with great expectations.
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… 😉
The congratulatory gesture is more than called for since this is the fifth iteration of the month-long event celebrating all things fantasy: for the occasion, our Fairy Godmothers Imyril, Lisa and Jorie are joined by Ariana and Annemieke, bringing their total to five. Neat! 🙂
If you’re old hands at this, you already know everything there is to know about our neverending party where Elves can safely mix with vampires and enjoy the buffet alongside wherewolves and wizards, but if this is your first time don’t fear: our Fairy Godmothers have thought of everything.
Learn all about Wyrd & Wonder HERE (where you will also find the amazing banners to showcase on your posts)
And don’t forget to update the grimoire… pardon me, the Master Schedule of Posts HERE
So, let’s don our pointy hats, give the last stirring to the boiling cauldron and prepare to unleash our magical potions on the world! Now, if only I could remember where I last parked my flying broom….
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