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: 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. 

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.

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.

 

 

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.