Book Review: DEVIL’S CREEK by Todd Keisling

This review was originally shared as a guest post on the Kendall Reviews site. Link to the original post is here

I’m just back from a literary escape to the town of Stauford, Kentucky, and let me tell you something: this was one unforgettable trip. If I close my eyes and listen closely, I can still hear the children singing. Their lyrics may sound holy, but beneath the surface, there’s something sinister in their sound. They’re begging me to join in on the chorus, but I know better. The only hymn I’ll be singing today is one of praise for this superb piece of horror fiction known as DEVIL’S CREEK.

We’re only four full months into the year, and I can confidently claim that this novel has a place on my Best of 2020 list. It was my introduction to Todd Keisling’s writing, and I’m blown away. There were so many things I loved about this story, but what first caught my attention was the visual aspect of the cover and the internal formatting. Both are stunning. The cover lured me in, and aside from the words within the pages, I was taken with the illustrations scattered throughout the book. The design definitely adds to the haunting atmosphere throughout the story.

DEVIL’S CREEK was tough to put down once I started. You know those reads that settle into your bones and you’re left with an ache every time you have to set them aside? This is one of those books. Keisling drops the reader right into the action from the beginning, giving us a full glimpse into the church’s history. I was hooked immediately by this flashback, and then eased right into the present-day portion of the novel, feeling like I was along for the ride as Jack made his way back home. Speaking of this, I loved reading about this character’s return to Stauford after many years away. It seems like a simple thing, but the author’s descriptions of Jack’s return really moved me. Keisling perfectly portrayed the feelings one has upon arrival in their hometown after a long absence. I loved the reminiscence and the descriptions of what it’s like to experience new growth but also decay in a place where you’ve grown up. As Jack cruises around town, the moments of nostalgia are both relatable and gripping at times. This is where those early chapters lay solid groundwork for the ultimate small-town horror experience to come.

The author tackles important topics throughout the novel, one of which is organized religion and the negative aspects that can accompany an overzealous group of people. The reader witnesses the hypocrisy, racism and bigotry that sometimes breed faster in small towns. There are clear messages in the writing, but it’s never preachy (no pun intended) and seamlessly woven into the fabric of the story. Another aspect that I loved was the slow-building dread. The author did an excellent job providing just enough nuggets of information from the characters’ past to keep me guessing about the future and flipping those pages. The excellent pacing and the setting were two main factors in the success of this story. Keisling’s descriptions of the surroundings are so well done—you don’t need to be from the south or have traveled there to feel the setting come alive. But if you have been to this region, it will only enhance your reading experience and immersion into the story. When I was a teenager, I actually traveled to southeast Kentucky one summer, with a youth group of all things (you’ll get this when you read the book), and we stayed at a campground. Having been to this region before really made the images in my mind come to life as I was reading.

This is another book that I’d love to see adapted as a film. There were so many moments that actually frightened me, and that’s a rare occurrence. Jacob Masters, the leader of the Church of Holy Voices, is as creepy as they come, especially in his later form. The description of his image and even his voice is terrifying at times. As things begin to go south in the town, the creepiness and gore intensifies, and it’s some of the best I’ve read in a while. I don’t want to give spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that and allow you to experience it firsthand. As I visualized this story in my mind, some scenes, while original to the story, were vaguely reminiscent of some favorite horror films, and I loved that aspect as well.

I’m so excited to read more of Todd Keisling’s work, and hopefully soon. Those of you who are familiar with my reviews often hear me talk about that “triple threat” of horror, humor, and heart. These are the factors that propel a read to the top of my list. If it feels authentic, I connect with the characters, and I can feel the emotions coursing through the story, then I’m sold. Sometimes the balance of these three things is not equal, but they are all there in some measure in my favorite reads. This novel has a heavy dose of horror, and it comes in both human and supernatural forms. It also has a heartbeat that carries the reader along as they experience a range of emotions—fear, anger, grief, nostalgia, and even joy at times. This one left me both haunted and exhilarated. If you’re looking for the thrill and adrenaline rush that accompanies a solid horror experience, be sure to book a trip to DEVIL’S CREEK.

 

 

The Forest of Feelings: Drag Me Through Discomfort

Welcome to the inaugural edition of my new monthly feature.  If you’ve been following my reviews and social media posts, then you already know that I sit in my feelings often. I’m not always reveling in melancholy either, despite the way it seems based on some of my reviews. I’ve made a joke a time or two about filing certain books in the Forest of Feelings, and now I intend to do just that within this monthly post. Each month I’ll focus on a specific emotion and discuss books that gave me that feeling.

Let’s talk about DISCOMFORT.

I love books and films that take me out of my comfort zone. Sometimes my reading or viewing experiences in this realm lead me to discover new interests and favorites, and other times, I find that I do have some boundaries I’d rather not cross in the future. Either way, it’s always a learning experience.

Here are some books that made me uncomfortable, along with my thoughts on each reading experience:

MONSTERS AND ANIMALS by JF Gonzalez & Wrath James White

SURVIVOR by JF Gonzalez

I’ve listed these two together, because the first one is a prequel to the latter. Monsters and Animals are two novellas bound together which introduce the reader to some of the characters found in the world of Survivor. Let me tell you, I struggled with the first one, but I was still intrigued enough to pursue reading Survivor, because I’m a fan of the author’s work, and I’d heard so much about how it was a seminal work in the extreme horror genre. There are scenes in both of these books that I will never ever erase from my mind. I will not give spoilers, so please read the synopsis if you’re planning to dig into either book. I’ve never talked much about either, as I found it hard to formulate a review or any kind of rating. I can understand why others consider Survivor to be an important piece of fiction, but it was not for me. There were two or three points in the story when I almost DNF because it crossed some boundaries I was unaware I had until then. Despite that, I kept reading, because I felt compelled to know how it ended. It’s an effective piece of fiction, because it leaves a lasting impression on the reader, and makes you wonder how much of the depravity in the story goes on in the darkest corners of reality. This story takes you through many emotions, most of which hurt. Despite these things, I struggled to find deeper meaning to it. I honestly don’t think I’ll keep it on my shelf, but I also can’t imagine donating my copy anywhere, so for now it stays in my book piles.

ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS by Bryn Greenwood

This book is why I don’t read many reviews until I’ve finished a read myself. Based on the synopsis, I knew it touched on taboo topics, and I was intrigued. I read some reviews on GoodReads prior to reading this book, many of which were unfavorable. I felt like it was affecting my view of the story before I even started, so I went ahead and jumped in and decided to form my own opinion. I ended up loving this story. It’s still one of my favorite non-horror novels ever. Again, you can read the synopsis and see for yourself why it’s controversial, but I’d recommend going into it with an open mind if possible. There are many uncomfortable moments, but the payoff is worth it with this unforgettable story.

BITTERSWEET by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

It’s been a few years since I read this, but this is another book that I still think about on occasion. It’s mainly focused on relationships between the characters, and it put me through a range of emotions. What starts as a tale of friendship between two women from different sides of the tracks delves into much more. This is also a great summertime read, as it takes place during the main characters’ summer break from college.

BY BIZARRE HANDS by Joe R. Lansdale

This was my first Lansdale read, and a great place to start with his work. It’s a collection of short fiction, and several of the stories left me stunned and feeling complicit in the characters’ actions. He’s an author that is not afraid to take his characters to dark places. I loved that it made me uncomfortable, yet there was depth and purpose to each story. In my review for this book, I wrote the following, which sums it up:

“The stories in this collection are memorable. The writing is unapologetic, and a perfect blend of great storytelling elements. The dialogue and setting are often characters in their own right, and the human characters themselves are what seal the deal in each of these tales. Most of the stories in this book have no hint of the supernatural, and are further proof that it’s not a necessity in order for horror to be effective. In this collection, Lansdale has written some of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read, with the majority of them based on human monsters. The characters are real, raw, and often downright vile. In these tales, I’ve come across some of the most memorable antagonists I’ve ever encountered. As I was reading, I often felt like I was watching crime unfold from the sidelines—like I couldn’t stop watching in horror, and I was helpless to stop it.”

ODD MAN OUT by James Newman

An uncomfortable read that will break your heart and open your eyes to some of the bullying and injustice that goes on in real life. It’s a novella, so it’s a quick read, but it packs a punch. I squirmed in discomfort, wishing I could do something to help the protagonist. Newman’s writing is top-notch, and this is one readers can’t erase from their mind once it’s there.

GONE TO SEE THE RIVER MAN by Kristopher Triana

My most recent review was for this book, and it’s easily accessible, so I will give you a quick rundown on this one. As with the other books on this list, this one dragged me through many moments of discomfort, but I could not turn away. It’s heavy on grief, guilt, and shame. You won’t leave this story unscathed, but if you’re like me, you’ll be left stunned at its effectiveness in making you feel.

So, there you have it—this month’s trip through my feelings, with a closer look at some reads that dragged me through discomfort. In most cases, it was well worth the ride. For September, I’ll be tackling the topic of FEAR. I hope you’ll join me as I discuss the books that left me frightened.

 

 

Book Review: GONE TO SEE THE RIVER MAN by Kristopher Triana

It’s no secret that this past month I’ve been in a reading and writing slump. This past week or so, things have been ramping up, but I was still missing that spark needed to ignite the fire. That all changed once I read GONE TO SEE THE RIVER MAN, and now my passion for reviewing is back to full-blown bonfire level.

At 70% through this book, I told myself I’d sleep, and finish reading in the morning. That didn’t happen, as I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So, I finished it all in one evening, and I’m not sorry. This story grabbed me and did not let go. It’s heavy. At one point, I felt like I was going to choke on the emotion within its pages. I mean that as a compliment to the author in every way. I want books to make me feel, no matter the emotion, and this one left my shoulders heavy with the weight of grief, shame, and guilt.

 

Kristopher Triana has developed a strong cast of characters in this novel, but none leave an impact like Lori. No spoilers here—let me just tell you that I felt complicit in her actions, as I looked on, unable to turn away. This book went beyond my expectations based on the synopsis. The “River Man” and every other character will linger in my mind for some time to come. This story is terrifying in its portrayal of humanity. It’s saturated with secrets and shame, all of which take a toll on the characters as well as the reader. This book is an experience in the best sense of the word.

While I found some of the scenes to be gut-wrenching and uncomfortable, none of the content ever felt gratuitous. There’s depth and intent to this story. I love how it alternates between past and present in a seamless fashion, giving the reader a glimpse into the characters’ past, but only in small doses. As you read, you peel back the layers of the past. On the surface, this seems like a tale of obsession, but what begins as such becomes so much more. Delving into the characters’ motives and their psychological damage kept me hanging onto every word.

This was my first read from Triana, and what an introduction! The horror of humanity is often more frightening than any creatures one can conjure with the mind. This book is heartbreaking and haunting from beginning to end, and has claimed a spot on my Best of 2020 list.

Book Review: THE RAVEN by Jonathan Janz

Sometime last year, I caught myself moving too quickly through the work of Jonathan Janz. In fear that I’d run out of reads, I slowed my roll. I think it’s now safe to catch up, as he has several new releases on the way. Instead of opting for one of the unread titles still on my shelf, I decided to start back up with THE RAVEN, Janz’s upcoming September release.

I was a bit hesitant to take on a post-apocalyptic story, as they aren’t usually my favorite. However, Janz is one of the authors that I trust can write in any genre and create something special. I was pleasantly surprised at the unique spin he placed on this topic. The apocalyptic event and its aftermath are unlike anything I’ve read before, so that got things started on the right foot.

As with other books by this author, I enjoyed the infusion of heart and humor that flows within the horror. Right away I was drawn to the character of Dez and enjoyed getting to know his backstory. There were several other memorable characters along the way– some favorable and others downright vicious, and they all came to life among the pages. I liked that the villains in this world were not all alike. The apocalyptic event created many different predators, each with their own set of skills and traits that made them feared by others.

My favorite parts of this novel were those in which Dez was on the move and making connections with other people. The reader witnesses his strong survival skills in action but also sees a softer side as we’re given access to his thoughts and memories. I struggled a bit with a portion of the book leading up to the climax; it was just a bit drawn out for my liking.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It’s creative and entertaining, with all the features that make Jonathan Janz a master at his craft. Time spent in the worlds he creates is always comfortable, exciting, and worthwhile.

 

Publisher: Flame Tree Press

Release Date: September 8, 2020

*Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing an advance e-book copy for review consideration.

TBR Talk: August 2020

I’m back after a bit of a hiatus, with some TBR Talk for this month. By now, everyone knows that I’m not great at sticking to a designated reading list each month. However, I    still like to create a stack with the intention of reading the books I’ve selected. I’m definitely a mood reader and often select something completely off of my list. This month I’ve decided to select only novellas, in an effort to get out of my reading funk with with some shorter books. Aside from these, I’ll be working my way through my shelf of review copies, which have been neglected far too long.

This month I’m back with a new rock-themed challenge. I  love music as much as books, and I’d like to incorporate more of it into my bookish world. That means you’re going to see more challenges as well as blog/social media posts marrying these two things. August’s challenge is called ROCK ‘N READS 2020, and it’s an homage to 80’s and 90’s rock. I’d originally planned to do a separate challenge for each decade, but in the end I   decided a combination was best for now. If you read my posts on Instagram, you will learn more about the challenge. The basic rundown is that each day features a song title and a bookish prompt derived from that title. This one has had some great reception, and I  am very much looking forward to seeing what everyone posts throughout the month.

Here’s a photo of this month’s TBR stack…along with my “glamour shot” with Tommy Lee:

 

That’s the rundown for this month. I’m happy to be back to reading, reviewing and posting. I’ve made a few changes for my mental health, and this year has been rough, but  it’s teaching me many lessons. For those who have been waiting on a review from me, I    apologize for the delay and appreciate the understanding. If you’ve sent a book my way for review, I  will get to it as soon as possible.

 

Book Review: GHOST SUMMER: STORIES by Tananarive Due

One of my favorite experiences as a reader is this: discovering a new favorite author after only one encounter with their work. This is exactly what happened when I finished my read of GHOST SUMMER. Tananarive Due has secured a spot on my favorites shelf, and I’m so excited there’s more of her work that I get to read for the first time.

As I’ve said before, I adore short story collections, especially as an introduction to a new author. I can trust that an amazing short story collection means the rest of a writer’s work will be strong. Another thing I love? Author notes, in all forms—even if it’s just a foreword or afterword. But what really puts me over the moon is an inside look into each story in a collection. I loved that this author included notes after each piece, and the afterword written by her husband, Steven Barnes, was a fantastic way to wrap-up the book.

Every single story in this collection is great. I tend to read collections or anthologies in order, and highly recommend that others do that with these stories. They are split into sections based on a common theme. These include: Gracetown, The Knowing, Carriers, and Vanishings. I enjoyed all of the stories, but my favorite section was “Carriers”, as the theme resonated and was so pertinent to current times. If I chose a second favorite section, it would be “The Knowing”.

If you’ve been following my reviews and social media posts, you likely know by now that I feel deeply and I love books that give my heart a solid squeeze, even if they leave me in tears. This collection is right up there with others that I’ve wanted to hug, and it truly fits the definition of “horror with heart”. I found the writing to be so beautiful, and I could fill pages with lines that are worth repeating. It’s tough to narrow it down to five favorites, but I’ll do that here. The stories that stood out most for me are:

-FREE JIM’S MINE

-THE KNOWING

-LIKE DAUGHTER

-DANGER WORD

-HERD IMMUNITY

Friends, this is storytelling at its finest. Tananarive Due is one of those writers with a true gift for crafting a perfect story. The characters, setting, and dialogue are all top-notch, wrapped up in a veil of authenticity. I can’t count how many times her words tugged on my heartstrings and struck a chord. These stories will take you through vivid and vast experiences and on an adventure filled with a wide range of emotion. I can’t recommend this collection enough, and I feel confident that you can’t go wrong with any of Due’s work, even though I’ve yet to read more for myself.

Book Review: THOSE BELOW THE TREE HOUSE by Matt Hayward

Considering the downturn this year has taken only three months in, I’m even more grateful for the fact that I began my year with such a stellar reading lineup. In January I had the honor of beta reading THOSE BELOW THE TREE HOUSE, and it set the bar extremely high for the other books on my TBR list. After I finished this novel, I sat in my book hangover haze and thought to myself, I’m running out of ways to praise Matt Hayward’s work. I had this thought, not because I’m at loss for words, but because I don’t want to simply repeat what I’ve said before. I’ve got plenty of praise for this one, and while I don’t want to sound like a broken record, I just can’t help if I repeat some of what I’ve told you in the past. So in this review, be prepared to hear what you might already know about Matt’s work, as well as what I hope is a fresh take on the topic.

84C89FB6-2957-48AF-9D51-33E6C24A1AF5

Just give me one moment to grab my notes…

Oh, there they are! I thought I’d misplaced that file labeled “Books I Want To Hug and Call my BFF”. Turns out I’ve got it right here, and even if I’d lost it, I’d remember that this novel is on the top of that list. Let’s see what I wrote down about this one, and I’ll expand on each thought:

Tony=my favorite character

By now you’re all aware that Matt is a master at character development. It’s part of what makes his stories so authentic and relatable, and one of the main reasons why I love the writing. It’s impossible not to empathize with the characters in this story, especially the protagonist, Tony. I especially loved the moments about music and its effects on him amidst the tumult. This took me back to my own youth, and while I’m not a musician, I was practically born wearing a pair of headphones. Music was always a constant no matter how turbulent life was at the time. Before I ramble more, let’s just sum this up by saying that I think Tony is tied with Owen from Meeting Gregory for the spot of my favorite Hayward character.

This is my favorite coming of age story

You might know that I’ve struggled with coming of age stories in the past. There have only been a few that resonate with me, and this is one of them. Of all the books and stories I’ve read that fit this description, this one is my absolute favorite.

I couldn’t put this book down—finished 75% of it the first day I started reading

This is true, and will probably come as no surprise to anyone who is a fan of Matt’s work. I basically forced myself to stop reading that first night and save the remainder of the book for the following day. Then, I carried my Kindle around all day, and after work, I sat in a parking lot and finished the book before running errands. I just couldn’t wait. Isn’t that one of the best feelings when a book is so good, you carry it around all day just to sneak in a read whenever possible? You’ll have a hard time putting this one down. The story pulls you right in from the beginning, and from there the tension builds. This novel exudes everything that makes Matt’s writing great. Within its pages you’ll find the perfect combination of horror, humor, and heart (I think I’ll call this the “Triple Threat” from now on). My heart raced with suspense, broke with grief at certain points, and I had a good laugh when it was needed most.

I want to condense this book and wear it in a locket, close to my heart. Well, that was the last line of my notes, and while it might sound silly, I can’t think of a better way to describe how much I loved this novel. Things are rough for us all at the moment, but what a comforting thought to know that books are always there—amazing books like this one from Matt Hayward. In the midst of the turmoil, readers can take comfort in the fact that this novel is on the horizon.

(Review originally posted March 2020)

5/5 Stars

Publisher: Poltergeist Press

Release Date: June 11, 2020

Book Review: BUTCHERS by Todd Sullivan

When it comes to vampire stories, BUTCHERS has a unique premise. It’s one of the things that first caught my interest, aside from the eye-catching cover art. Reading this book was a new experience to me in several ways. I think that it’s the first horror story I’ve read about Asian characters; I’m aware of quite a few Asian horror films, but can’t say that I’ve been exposed to many of these stories within literature before. This particular tale is set in South Korea, and I enjoyed the snippets it provided in regard to culture and setting.

This is a fast-paced novella, and the author drops the reader in on the action from the very beginning. I thought that he did a great job with packing in some history on the main characters in so few pages—it never felt like too much. It was nice to have a glimpse of their pasts, and this added in my development of empathy for several of the characters. Without spoilers, I’ll say that this is a story about modern-day vampires blending in with human society, while maintaining order within their own species. As I mentioned earlier, there were some unique takes on the vampire trope, and I really enjoyed that. One aspect that really stood out to me was the description of how the vampires dealt with pretending to be human—trying to blend in but having to be cautious in order to do so. In a lot of vampire stories, their lives seem glamorous, but we don’t always see the negative aspects. Todd Sullivan shows the reader this downside when he describes how the vampires must restrain their speed and other abilities, and he also notes how they must consume human food to blend in. Some of my favorite scenes (and also some of the most cringe-worthy) involved this piece of their lives. There are some tense and visceral moments of horror throughout this story. The author doesn’t hold back in describing the brutality that the characters endure and dish out to others. It’s gory at times but never felt over the top or out of place to me.

 

My connection to the characters is always important in a read, and that was a standout aspect of this story for me. While I didn’t share their particular life experience, the author was able to humanize even the villains, and that added to my understanding. There’s just enough information in this story to leave you wanting more at the end, and once I finished reading, I discovered that there is a sequel, so I’ll be adding that to my TBR. If you’re looking for a fast-paced horror novella that reads like a movie, I’d recommend checking this out—especially if you’re looking for a fresh perspective on the vampire story.

 

 

Book Review: DISTINGUISHING FEATURES by Kealan Patrick Burke

If you’re already familiar with the work of Kealan Patrick Burke, then you know this—he’s great at crafting well-rounded stories that leave a lasting impact on the reader. Most of my experience with this author (thus far) has been through exploring his short fiction in novellas, collections, and anthologies. With each of those reads, I’ve found that “triple threat” combination that elevates storytelling to another level: horror, humor, and heart.

(Photo by It Came from Beyond Pulp)

DISTINGUISHING FEATURES is no exception to this standard. This story packs a punch in just a short number of pages. I was immediately pulled into the story, and carried along at a quick pace. Burke has a consistent ability to grab the reader by the feels and keep them going with moments of relatability mixed with scares and some scattered comic relief. This one has some authentic descriptions of struggles within the main character’s relationships, and I just found it to have excellent portrayal of his emotions at different moments throughout the story. There were also some flat-out chilling moments that brought unease, and the ending was certainly memorable.

Since this is chapbook, I’m extra cautious of giving too much away and ruining the details for other readers. Fans of Burke’s writing will not be disappointed by this one, as it’s the engaging storytelling style that you’ve come to expect, enhanced by the addition of artwork. Corinne Halbert’s illustrations are great, bringing the words even further to life. If you’re new to this author, this could also be a fun place to start—once you dip your toes in and get your feet wet, you’ll want to wade deeper into the expanse of his work.

Publisher: It Came from Beyond Pulp

Release Date: Mid-June 2020

Book Review: POEMS OF MY NIGHT by Cynthia Pelayo

Confession time: I still feel unsure when it comes to reviewing poetry. Aside from assigned reading in school, it’s not something that I’ve sought out over the years. There were definitely poems that I enjoyed, but I always felt like I just didn’t “get it”. In the past year, I’ve read more poetry than ever, and while I still consider myself a newbie, I’ve learned that it is something I enjoy—I think I was just never reading the write poems before. Now that I’ve ventured into the world of dark/horror poetry, I’ve come across some collections that I’ve connected with, but none have hit me in the feels like Cynthia Pelayo’s POEMS OF MY NIGHT.

1C8CE8D9-C6FD-4FB0-A3DE-13AC94EB31D9_1_201_a

Up until this point, I felt a bit like I was stumbling through the art museum, watching others stand in awe and admiration of pieces that I didn’t understand– and then suddenly I found the piece that spoke to me. There were many things I loved about these poems. The most intense and effective for me were those centered on topics such as insomnia and death. I loved how the titles were in Spanish. This added an even deeper sense of culture and authenticity to the writing for me. Another unique fact about this collection is that it was written in response to the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges (whose work I’ve not read, but will be seeking out in the future).  Pelayo’s words come alive on the page, and while I had many favorites in this collection, my top selections were:

Insomnio

-La Noche Ciclica

-Poema conjetural

-La Luna

-Limites

-El sucida

-Signos

-La Joven noche

Several of these pieces made me tear up, and many of them had me returning to the beginning for a second read to savor the words. I feel that my experience with this collection is further proof that we’re missing out if not reading widely, especially within the horror genre. We don’t have to share the same cultural background and life experience as the author to connect with the writing. I’ve said it before and will again—I myself have a lot of work to do when it comes to adding variety to my bookshelf. I’m happy that Latinx Book Month was brought to my attention, and I was able to load my shelves up with some work I might’ve missed out on otherwise, including this collection. I sincerely look forward to reading more from Pelayo, and hopefully soon. I loved her voice and stories woven into these poems—this is quality writing that makes me want to seek out more poetry for my shelf.