Chad Lutzke Delivers Another Authentic Tale with Slow Burn on Riverside

Chad Lutzke is a master at writing heartfelt stories, especially in the realm of coming-of-age tales. Slow Burn on Riverside is his latest to fit this category.

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Technically a prequel to The Same Deep Water as You, this novella provides more background on the character named Jex. If you’re new to Lutzke’s work, I’d recommend reading these in order for the full effect, but it’s not a requirement. They both work as standalone stories too.

Lutzke’s stories are tough to put down, and this was no exception. It’s a quick read, and once I started, I knew I’d finish this in one or two sittings. The wild ride that is Jex’s summer goes by in a blur, but it’s packed full of human struggle and emotion. The story is told from Jex’s point of view, so we see his experiences and his feelings firsthand.

I loved that I found certain parts relatable, despite not sharing the exact same interests and life experience of the main character. The dialogue and the storyline are realistic enough to draw readers into the story and carry them along to the end. This one started out feeling like I was just along for the ride in the characters’ crazy summer, but ended with a creep factor I didn’t see coming. I love that it left me with questions regarding what truly happened.

I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers, but just know that if you’re into stories with heart and authenticity, Chad Lutzke’s writing should be on your shelf.

Snow White’s Shattered Coffin is Horror with Heart [Book Review]

If you’re looking for horror with heart, Cynthia Pelayo’s work will not disappoint. I feel confident in that statement even though I’ve only read two of her books so far. The first was her collection, Poems of My Night, and the most recent—Snow White’s Shattered Coffin.

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When an author creates quality short fiction and/or poetry, it’s pretty much a guarantee that I will enjoy their longer fiction. After this most recent read, I’m absolutely looking forward to reading Pelayo’s novels. Snow White’s Shattered Coffin is a chapbook, and therefore a short tale, but it’s packed full of substance.

The author has a talent for creating memorable characters and balancing their development with equally solid pacing and plot. I found this story to be equal parts heartbreaking and haunting. I was not surprised to find the prose infused with a poetic quality, and certain lines brought tears to my eyes.

About that—yes, I cry easily, but it still takes a special story to move me to that place. I could go through my shelves and point out every book that has made me cry. There are a lot, but fewer than you’d think. I never forget a story with heart, and I especially love a connection with the characters. Those type of stories share many traits, and authenticity is at the top of the list. You can tell when an author writes from the heart, and Cynthia Pelayo is a great example. In this particular story, her love of family, heritage, and her hometown shine through. She writes what she knows, and does it well. Her stories speak to the human experience and the ties that bind us, no matter our background. I think I mentioned something similar to this in my review for Poems of My Night, but it’s worth stating again.

I also want to note the beautiful artwork accompanying this story. The illustrations are from Chicago-based artist Vheto Gutierrez Vazquez. What Pelayo brings to life through her words, Vazquez enhances with his drawings. It’s a wonderful combination that makes for effective storytelling.

I look forward to reading more of Cynthia Pelayo’s work. There are several published titles on my list, and future projects to anticipate. Readers should add her stories to their shelf if they haven’t already, and be prepared to see her name on book covers for many years to come.

Publication Date: March 24, 2021

Publisher: It Came from Beyond Pulp

Book Review: THE HEADLESS BOY by Kelli Owen

While each experience is unique, all of us have dealt with grief at some point in life. It’s an inevitable, painful part of our existence, and lays a seriously effective foundation for a horror story.

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Because grief is a universal aspect of the human condition, it’s easy to empathize with the characters in The Headless Boy. Most readers can relate to the main characters on some level. We all know how grief can make people behave differently, and understand its impact on relationships. Even the most sensible people can become unhinged by the emotions within the grief process, especially in the beginning stages.

This novel gripped me from the beginning, when Maggie and Jake are introduced in the midst of emotional turmoil. The feeling quickly switches from joy to sorrow, and draws the reader in with empathy for their situation. Despite never suffering the loss of a child, I was able to relate to the emotions that were part of their grief process. Aside from the sad moments, the happier moments still shared between the couple in the midst of the depression were very realistic. Owen does an amazing job depicting the grief process and all of its peaks and valleys.

This book was a great read for me due to many factors—the first of which is that it’s a story with heart. Without that authenticity and emotion, it just wouldn’t be as gripping. Also, I love stories about haunted houses, especially when they start out as a quiet type of horror. The dread slowly grows until suddenly you’re hit with major unease and fright. That’s what happens in The Headless Boy.  I love how there are subtle creepy things happening to Maggie in the beginning. Jake is unable to fully understand, as he is not able to see the boy’s ghost at the start. However, he witnesses the changes in Maggie and leaves it alone for the time being, in fear of causing more grief. Eventually as the events grow more sinister, Maggie’s mental health deteriorates further, and this takes a toll on their relationship. At this point, Jake can no longer deny that the evil within the house has a firm grip on his wife.

I never want to give away too many details, so let me just say that there are some truly creeptastic moments in this one. I don’t need those scary moments to make it a horror story, but I welcome being frightened with open arms. It happens so rarely for me that I get a huge thrill when I’m scared by a book or film. I love how the supernatural aspects gradually build and intensify throughout the story. I also enjoy how we’re able to see things from the viewpoint of both characters, thanks to strong descriptions of their inner thoughts and actions.

Can I also go off on a little (related) tangent and mention my love/hate relationship with evil children in books and on film? They make for some of the most memorable and sinister villains in my opinion. In this story, Bobby gives me the absolute creeps, pisses me off, and yet I also feel sorry for him. There’s something about manipulative, vindictive children (in ghost form or alive) that’s just not right. It’s probably because of the idea that kids are all innocent and often charming. To see them capable of malice is absolutely chilling.

After this read, I can say that grief horror is one of my favorite subgenres. It’s so relatable and effective when done right. The Headless Boy now ranks among some of my favorites in this category, alongside Pet Sematary and Remains. It has everything I look for in a well-developed story. Excellent pacing, dialogue, and character development. Can I also mention THAT COVER? It’s reminiscent of the vintage horror paperbacks we all covet, but the quality extends beyond the surface. Trust me when I say that this is more than just a cover buy.

Book Review: BURNER by Robert Ford

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a lifelong fan of horror, it’s this: the scariest monsters are human. While I enjoy the thrill of a scare from supernatural beings, the fear induced by real life scenarios is the most threatening. This type of fear has an unsettled, lingering effect, and is a key player in some of the most haunting stories I’ve read. Burner is one of these stories.

I’ve known that Bob Ford is a gifted storyteller since I first laid eyes upon his work, so I had high expectations for this one, and I was not disappointed. This novel is difficult to read at many points in the story, due to the subject matter, and while there were times that I wanted to turn away from the horror, I couldn’t set it aside. I had deep empathy for the characters because Ford is one of the best when it comes to character development.

The pacing is excellent, and I loved the setup of the chapters. The focus of the story alternates between two main characters’ experiences, and also goes back and forth between past and present. While this can sometimes be difficult to follow, it’s not an issue in this case. Again, it’s another aspect that showcases the author’s skill at storytelling.

I’m not sure there is much else I can tell you that hasn’t already been said. In short, this is a story that shows how quickly one’s life can change—in the blink of an eye our world can be turned upside down. It shows how we don’t always know others as deeply as we think, and how circumstances and trauma can change a person. While I was appalled at many of the characters’ actions in this story, I also recognized the fact that we’re all capable of becoming monsters ourselves. This book also opened my eyes to many things I wasn’t aware of—scary stuff that goes on in the real world—and it was truly frightening. In my opinion, Burner will remain a standout in the collection of Ford’s work for years to come.

Book Review: THE HORROR ANTHOLOGY HANDBOOK by Keith Hopkins

I was recently given the chance to step outside of my comfort zone and interview a filmmaker and author for the Wicked Horror site. I enjoyed the opportunity and the book, so I thought I’d talk about it here on the blog and bring it to the attention of a wider audience. The Horror Anthology Handbook is a bit outside the range of my typical book selection, as it’s a non-fiction piece centered on filmmaking. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I connected with the topic, and I’d recommend this read to fans of both horror fiction and film alike.

Filmmaker Keith Hopkins spent the better part of two years interviewing a number of people involved in the making of horror anthology films. His knowledge of horror anthology films and what he learned about the filmmaking process really shows in this book, and it’s written in a manner that draws the reader in and holds their attention from beginning to end. I enjoyed the setup, as the book is broken into sections. It begins with a great introduction that draws on the author’s beginnings with regards to storytelling and an interest in horror. Following the introduction, Hopkins presents his interviews with filmmakers, which I found to be very informative just as a fan. For those who like to view horror films, you’ll enjoy the background behind the making of the movies, and for those who aspire to make a horror anthology film, you’ll gain valuable insight to inspire you on this journey. The interviews are set up to include a background on the film, the question/answer section, and a takeaway. They are structured well and feature not only directors, but a wide variety of roles within the field, including editors, writers, producers, and actors.

Following the interviews, there is an extensive history of horror anthology films from the Silent Era to modern day. As a horror fan, this was probably my favorite part. The author first discusses different wraparound styles used in horror anthology films, and then goes in depth for each film listed, noting the wraparound style, notable cast and crew, and descriptions of each piece in the anthology. I walked away from this section with a long list of films that I still need to watch, and feel like I’ll view them in a new light after reading this book.

Overall, this is a fun read for horror fans. I think there’s something here for everyone—readers, moviegoers, writers, and filmmakers. This anthology is packed full of insight into the creation of a horror anthology film, and its focus on storytelling will appeal to a variety of readers.

Book Review: LABYRINTH OF THE DOLLS by Craig Wallwork

Craig Wallwork’s Labyrinth of the Dolls is an excellent follow-up to his novel Bad People. Sometimes, a sequel doesn’t have that something special that’s found in the first book, but that’s not the case with this one. I’m a fan of both, but I think that this new release might be my favorite so far.  

Wallwork has created another solid read with this novel. This is a perfectly paced thrill ride, packed with moments of shock and suspense, but the best part is that the story has heart. I loved following the characters that the author created in the first book, digging deep into their past and understanding their motives. Another aspect that stands out is how the author is able to create empathy not only for the protagonist, but for the antagonists as well. I found this especially true in Bad People, and it also applies in this follow up. 

I think I mentioned this in my review of the first novel, but it’s worth repeating: if you’re a fan of gritty crime thrillers such as True DetectiveThe Killing, or Se7en, you’ll enjoy this read. This one took me on a dark and dreary adventure, but left me with a bit of hope, which I enjoy. Books like this make me want to seek out more thrillers in general, and I would love to see this series continue or make it to the big screen. 

Book Review: CIRQUE BERSERK by Jessica Guess

Cirque Berserk was my first read from Unnerving’s “Rewind or Die” novella series. It certainly won’t be my last from this series or from author Jessica Guess. I was initially drawn into this story by the 80’s vibes, but I stuck around for so much more. 

There are a lot of things to love about this book, starting with the 80’s pop culture references, which I adored. I loved all of the song mentions throughout the story, and how each section of the book was titled with an 80’s track (especially how the first and last section tied together). The musical mentions and the setting, in an abandoned carnival, both add a lot to the atmosphere of the story. 

This book read like a movie to me. It’s like a teen horror film that I would’ve selected on VHS during my high school days. I was drawn in fast, and carried along by a great combination of suspense and character development. I really enjoyed the format for this story. As we follow a group of modern day teens into the carnival, we’re then introduced to a group of murderous teens who’ve haunted the place for 30 years. The chapters each focus on a specific character’s background as we’re still carried through current affairs. It was nice getting a glimpse into each of the main characters’ past. This allowed for a lot of depth to my understanding and connection with the story, as I was able to empathize not only with the protagonists, but with the antagonists as well. 

The kills in this tale are cinematic and memorable. There’s a nice balance of gore and substance within the story, which I appreciated. I’m fairly certain I’ll never hear a few specific 80’s songs in the same way again, and I’m now even more creeped out by carnival attractions like the Funhouse. By the end I wanted to transport myself back to my local roller rink in the late 80’s. There was never a better time to don a pair of roller skates, snap some bubble gum, and drop a song request in the deejay’s bucket (which they lowered down on a string). What a fun and nostalgic read!

Book Review: DETRITUS IN LOVE by Mercedes M. Yardley and John Boden

Here we go again…

I’m here to talk about another story that gave me all the feels. I’ve been stuck in a serious reading rut, and figured that some comfort reads might help. As I scanned my TBR stacks for unread books by favorite authors, I came across this gem of a novella.

If you’ve read work from both authors, then you know that they both excel at this: creating stories which marry the macabre and drab parts of life to those that are beautiful and wondrous. When it comes to books, music, and film, there are few things I find more enticing than a piece of art deliciously dark and haunting, yet soft around the edges. I liken the feeling to being in an abandoned building—there’s something beautiful about the chaos and ruin, and maybe a bit of light creeping among the shadows. 

Every piece of fiction I’ve read so far from Boden and Yardley fits this mold. I was not at all surprised to discover that the authors’ voices blended well throughout this story. I adored the figurative language used and found myself reading numerous sentences two or three times in a row to savor the beauty of the words. There are so many quotable lines that beg to be read again, and the sensory experience is strong. I couldn’t always tell who was writing, but I did find several mentions of band t shirts that I’m sure were the work of Boden, and each instance made me smile. The characters are a standout feature in this story. Whenever I find myself empathizing with the protagonist within mere pages, I know I’ve found something special. But it’s not just Det’s story that resonates—I found something to love about his best friend and his love interest as well. The dark characters in this story, both human and supernatural, also left a permanent mark on my mind.  

This novella is a short read at under 60 pages, but it packs an emotional punch. If you love a story that will creep you out, possibly break your heart, and leave you with an unsettling book hangover, pick up a copy of Detritus in Love. 

Enter at Your Own Risk: Five Novels Featuring Houses that Will Haunt You

What comes to mind when you think of haunted houses? Growing up, whenever I heard those words, I’d immediately conjure up images of a county fair attraction. I’m sure many of you have spent time touring one of these places and know what I’m talking about—sometimes it was a walk-through event, and other times it was an actual ride. I always found a sense of comfort in those spooky attractions, and was actually more frightened by the “Funhouse”, with its mirrors, dead-ends, and a swirling tunnel at the exit…and let’s not forget that there always seemed to be a clown. Clowns belong in the haunted house, in my opinion.

Over the years my definition of a haunted house broadened, thanks to the countless films and books in the sub-genre. There are many different monsters that can live in a haunted house. Many are of the supernatural variety, but sometimes the monsters are human. Other times, the house just takes on a life of its own. The books I’ve listed here are some of my favorites in this category, and they each feature a unique spin on the classic haunted house tale. Some of these houses require an extended stay, as their horrors are gradually unleashed. Others require no more than a foot inside the door before their sinister nature takes hold. Either way, you won’t leave the same as when you entered. Whether you enjoy quiet horror that gets under your skin, or prefer a house to display its horrors loud and clear, I think you’ll find something enjoyable on this list.

 

Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco

To me, this is one of the defining pieces of literature in the “quiet horror” realm. I saw the movie first, several years prior to reading the book. I think if this one works for you, it won’t matter which order you follow with the book vs. the film. But I typically prefer to read the book before watching the film, so I’d recommend that if you have the option. As is the case most of the time, the book is better, but the film is well done and really amps up the creep factor. (Just a note: both the book and the film are from the early 1970s).  It’s unfortunate that this book didn’t get more attention upon its release, and that the author really didn’t put out more horror fiction afterward. If you like a slow burn that will get under your skin, check this one out. You can read my full review here.

 

Murder House by C.V. Hunt

This is the story that I’ve referred to as “Great Lakes Grit”, and I’m dying for more horror stories set in Detroit. I’d call this a bit of a mind-bender that will leave you with questions. Everyone I’ve discussed it with had different ideas regarding the answers to those questions. The atmosphere weighs heavy in this one and I was left thinking about it for days after I finished my read. Want to hear more about what I loved? Check out my review here.

 

House of Blood by Bryan Smith

This was my first read from this author and I was not disappointed. This book is the only one on my list that I’d consider “extreme horror”, but don’t let that put you off if you’re new to that realm of the horror world. It starts off with a group of friends in a broken down car, and not long after, the reader is introduced to the “House of Blood” and its inhabitants. Yes, there’s some gore and sex, but there’s more to the story here. I haven’t read more from Smith with regards to novels, but I’m planning to, and I’m going to bet that if you’re new to his work as well, this is a great place to start. Click here for my original review.

 

Remains by Andrew Cull

One of my Top Reads of 2019, and it’s still on my mind. I’ll never forget the house in this story or the emotional gut-punch that followed once I started reading. I’ve sadly not read this author’s short fiction collection, but it’s on my list, and I can only imagine the quality stories that await based on this novel. It’s frightening and deals with grief. If you’d like to know a bit more on why I loved it, you can find my full review here.

 

House of Skin by Jonathan Janz

This is one of my favorite books by Janz. It was actually his first novel, and it’s one of the books I credit with waking me up to the fact that haunted houses are one of my favorite horror tropes. You really can’t go wrong with any of his books. Read my full review here for more information if you’d like. To sum it up for you, this book features a memorable cast of characters and an evil abode that has a lasting effect on its inhabitants. I’m not sure if I’ve said this before, but I’m going to now: Janz writes some of the best steamy love scenes in horror. If that’s your thing, check it out based on that alone, and then be amazed when you discover everything else his writing has to offer.

Book Review: MURDER HOUSE by CV Hunt

(My review for this book was originally published as a guest post on High Fever Books)

I think we can all agree that setting plays a major role in a story. In some ways, it can take on a life of its own and become a character of sorts. This is especially true when the reader is familiar with the place, whether it be from a past visit, or the fact that they’ve spent a portion of their life in that location. Setting often sparks the mood, creating an atmosphere that saturates every other aspect of the story. C.V. Hunt’s MURDER HOUSE is one such story. Propelled by the setting, and carried along by authentic moments of darkness, fear, and despair—this one creeped into my mind and crawled under my skin.

 

There’s a reason I want to discuss setting first. It’s always a part of my connection to a book, but in some cases it’s more intense than others, and that’s what happened here. This story is set in Detroit, which leads me to this assumption (one I feel safe to make): if you’ve never been there, one of the first thoughts to pop up in your mind when the city’s mentioned is urban decay. Even if you’ve spent a fair amount of time in the city, you’re aware of its overlooked positive qualities, but you can’t deny this reality. As someone who has experienced Detroit firsthand, I always feel the need to point out that there are many wonderful aspects of this city that you won’t learn about from the media. That being said, the urban decay and the accompanying feelings it evokes make for one hell of a setting for dark fiction. As soon as I opened this book and realized it was set in Detroit, I was intrigued.

This story pulled me in from the beginning, with a snippet of the “Murder House” history, and then I was drawn in further by the dysfunctional dynamics of Brent and Laura’s relationship. The tension between these characters coupled with the description of their arrival at the house gave me a sense of unease that continued throughout the story. I developed empathy for Laura’s character early on, and I felt a sense of authenticity in the writing, which means a lot to me when connecting with a story. Some parts of this story contain simple and straightforward descriptions of the unfolding events, but it’s also peppered with deep insight into the main character’s mind, exploring topics such as mental illness and poverty.

The creep factor is high in this story, but it’s not all in-your-face. Sometimes it’s subtle. There are some detailed descriptions of the house’s condition and some scares that stood out. Let’s just say that between the basement, attic, and tunnels, I was left with some serious unease (even more so after finishing the book and thinking it through). While there are moments of gore and intense shock, these are well-balanced with more subtle psychological horror woven into the entire thread of the story. I found some ambiguity in the meat of the story and at the ending. Earlier on this left me wanting more insight into Brent’s experience and his mindset. However, by the end, I felt like the unknown aspects added to the reading experience and made more of an impact on me.

I will tell you this—I think readers will do well by taking their time with this story. Don’t rush it, and take in all the details. At the end I found myself flipping back to review earlier parts of the story, and I had little “Ah ha!” moments where some of the pieces fell into place. I’m still not quite sure exactly what led to the madness, but I’m not sure we’re meant to have all the answers in this one, and it works. This story has been swirling around in my head for a couple of days now, ever since I put it down. To me, that’s one sign of a job well-done by the author.

I’m such a big fan of stories in which setting plays a big role. Subgenres within horror such as southern gothic and Appalachian noir really get under my skin in the best of ways. I think with MURDER HOUSE, we have a tale of what I’ll call “Great Lakes Grit”, and I’m here for it. It’s raw and real in the best way, and an excellent portrayal of madness and decay in both a physical and mental sense. After basking in the book hangover that this one provided, I think it’s safe to say that I give it 5 stars.