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: 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.

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.

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.

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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