A Christmas classic for your reading pleasure:
By G. Robert Frazier
My latest reviews for BookPage include several novels and a cache of audiobooks, from thrillers to autobiographies. I even posed questions to author Chris Pavone for an engrossing interview.
There’s something here for just about everyone, so dive in!
In Chris Pavone’s suspenseful new novel, Two Nights in Lisbon, recently married couple Ariel Price and John Wright have shirked their former identities for new lives unfettered by past encumbrances. Or so they think.
To enjoy James Patterson and Dolly Parton’s Run, Rose, Run (10.5 hours) to the fullest, you must listen to the audiobook. Not only is it a necessary companion to Parton’s album of the same title (featuring songs inspired by the novel), but the cultural icon also voices one of the main characters, veteran country music star and bar owner Ruthanna Ryder.
Bestselling author John Darnielle’s most bizarre novel to date, Devil House (11.5 hours), is an odd amalgam of crime fiction, buried memories and investigative journalism.
The success of Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation of the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is enticement enough to revisit his epic fantasy novels, which debuted in 1990. But even more exciting is listening to the new audiobook of book one in the series, The Eye of the World (33 hours), narrated by Golden Globe- and Emmy Award-winning British actor Rosamund Pike.
In his raspy, unmistakable voice, comedien Mel Brooks reveals his enduring passion for such comedy classics as Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs and History of the World, Part I, as well as his respect for his relationships with showbiz luminaries Sid Caesar, Gene Wilder, Anne Bancroft and more in the audio version of his new memoir, All About Me.
The Nineties provides a fascinating, granular look at a defining period of history, and author Chuck Klosterman narrates in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion.
In The Boys (13 hours), Happy Days actor-turned-director Ron Howard takes turns with his brother, Clint, also a child actor in “Gentle Ben,” to reminisce about their memories of being icons to millions of adoring viewers in the 1960s and ’70s.
Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl’s memoir, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music (10.5 hours), is as raw and unfiltered as his music.
I’ve also reviewed three books for Chapter 16 so far this year, including Mark Greaney’s latest Grey Man novel Sierra Six, Don Winslow’s mob epic City on Fire, and Valerie Nieman’s suspense thriller In the Lonely Backwater.
Keep watching both sites and this space for additional reviews, including an audiobook review of John Grisham’s new collection of novellas, Sparring Partners.
Until next time, happy reading!
By G. ROBERT FRAZIER
It’s hard to pick a favorite. Or even several favorites. But here goes.
Of all the books I read and reviewed in 2021 – 41, counting the dozen audiobooks I also listened to – I’ve narrowed my list of best books to five, plus my top three audiobooks.
Looking over the list, my novel selections (except one) have a supernatural element or otherworldly force in them. That’s not all that surprising as my two favorite genres are mysteries/crime and horror (Stephen King being one of my favorite authors). You can’t go wrong with a gritty crime thriller or noirish detective tale combined with ghostly chills or otherworldly mayhem.
Top 5 Fiction
Clay Chapman’s Whisper Down the Lane stands out as one of my most memorable reads this past year.
Inspired in part by the real-life McMartin preschool trial—in which members of the McMartin family who operated a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were charged with sexual abuse of children, which in turn gave rise to a national panic over satanic ritual abuse—the novel follows similar circumstances, although in a highly fictionalized way.
Chapman alternates chapters from the perspectives of Sean, a kindergartener in 1983 Greenfield, Virginia, and Richard, a teacher living 30 years later in Danvers, Virginia, where he and his wife are raising his stepson, Elijah. As you might expect, their stories are inextricably linked, and everything starts when Sean, influenced by his mother’s paranoia, tells a lie that will change his entire world.
Part of the novel’s chilling effectiveness comes from its portrayal of the detectives assigned to Sean’s case and how their leading questions ultimately result in Sean saying what they want him to say, resulting in the unfair and undeserved persecution of Sean’s teacher on suspected sexual offenses. Chapman pulls no punches, revealing how the simplest of misrepresentations can result in a sort of mass hysteria against someone, just as it did in the real-life McMartin era.
The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix
The six women in Lynnette Tarkington’s therapy group are fiercely independent and strong-willed but also tragically haunted by their past experiences. All of them survived random mass killings that later became the bases for Hollywood slasher franchises that were popular among moviegoers in the 1980s and ’90s.
But then “America’s first final girl” and keystone support group member Adrienne Butler is killed in a massacre of camp counselors at Camp Red Lake. Hendrix puts Lynette and her fellow survivors through all the typical horror tropes as they are forced to once again face a mysterious killer.
The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig’s new horror/dark fantasy novel The Book of Accidents (Del Rey Books, 0399181136, $28.99) is a chilling romp through dark dimensions in the best Stephen King tradition.
The book starts out in typical horror fashion as our protagonists – husband and wife Nathan and Maddie Graves and their fifteen-year-old son, Oliver — uproot their lives to move to Nathan’s rural Pennsylvania family home following the death of his father. As is typically the case in a horror novel, though, strange occurrences soon follow and grow exponentially more bizarre as the story rockets along.
The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jonassen
The advertisement is simple and honest: “Teacher wanted at the edge of the world.” And for Una, the main character of Ragnar Jonasson’s The Girl Who Died, it is the perfect enticement to leave her drab life behind and start a new chapter.
The “edge of the world” is actually the isolated fishing village of Skálar, located on the northeastern tip of Iceland.
At first, the idyllic community of just 10 people, including two young girls whom Una is hired to tutor for the year, seems like something out of a storybook. It’s not long, however, before the remoteness of the community and the tight-lipped nature of its residents begin to weigh on her, forcing her to question if she’s made a serious mistake.
City on Fire by Don Winslow
The only book without a touch of the supernatural on my list is Don Wilson’s City on Fire, which I read for Chapter 16. But as the book’s publication date was postponed until spring because of the Delta Covid outbreak, my review has yet to be published. I’ll let you know when it’s up, but for now you’ll just have to take my word that it is not to be missed. (Hmm, I wonder if I should count it as a 2021 best book or a 2022 best book?).
Top 3 Audiobooks
Until this past year, audiobooks were not a thing for me. But BookPage editor Cat Acree asked if I’d be interested in taking on reviews and I was eager for the challenge. I’ve come to the conclusion that I prefer reading my books to listening to them, but maybe this audio thing will grow on me in time.
Certainly, the audio experience is vastly different from physical reading and takes some getting used to. It does require a different skillset, namely, listening. With audiobooks, you can’t allow yourself to become distracted by other tasks or …
Most of my audio selections were nonfiction-oriented, but I also managed to listen to a few novels.
Topping my list of best audiobooks is Carry On by John Lewis. Written by the late, great civil rights icon and representative from Georgia, the book is made up of inspirational essays from Lewis on such topics as teamwork, friendship, success and justice. It’s like those motivational posters on the walls of your workplace, only better, because his aphorisms are punchy yet never cliched, and you can take his inspirational words with you and play them anytime you need a lift.
One of the most important books, or audiobooks, you should listen to is Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe.
In jaw-dropping detail, the New Yorker staff writer Keefe recounts the greed, deception, and corruption at the heart of the Sackler family’s multigenerational quest for wealth and social status through their company, Purdue Pharma, and the rise of the OxyContin painkiller epidemic.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
In a series of first-person interviews conducted by journalist S. Sunny Shelton, the fictional oral history recounts the story of a 1970s rock collaboration between glam Black American singer Opal Jewel and white British singer-songwriter Nev Charles. Walton skillfully blends in real-life events such as Vietnam War protests to firmly establish the narrative’s tone and time period, layering the duo’s rise to rock stardom with social, economic, racial and sexual undercurrents.
Click the links in any of the above articles to read the full reviews.
One of the most thought-provoking books you could read this year, or perhaps any year for that matter, is The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (One World, 978-0593230572, $38), created and edited by Nicole Hannah-Jones.
An in-depth collection of essays expanding on the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine series, the book offers a critical examination of race in the United States from the introduction of slavery in 1619 to the push for voting rights in the present day.
The project makes the argument that America’s uneasy relationship with Black Americans has permeated every facet of society today – from race to politics, from citizenship to capitalism, from healthcare to music – and extends back to the first arrival of slaves in America in 1619, well before the country’s more publicly acknowledged “birthdate” of 1776.
The authors pull no punches as they highlight some of the biggest lowlights in this country’s history. The affronts to the Black community through history are numerous and, oftentimes, horrifying.
This is not some glossed over middle grade or high school textbook, but an unflinching and stark account of America’s darkest, most vile act of slavery of a race the authors argue became the backbone of the economy and the nation itself.
Detractors argue the book’s authors are biased and their arguments attempt to rewrite history. As such it has inextricably been tied to discussions of critical race theory, which they argue shames or humiliates whites.
More to the point, it reveals aspects of history all too often overlooked for a more palatable narrative.
This is not a rewrite of history, but a more thorough reckoning of our country’s origin.
Some of the arguments and essays may stretch the authors’ point, but there is certainly merit behind much of it.
Either way, it is information worth reading, discussing, debating, and learning from. If the country is ever to move past its racial divide, understanding comes from knowledge, not misrepresentations.
This book attempts to do that and deserves to be on everyone’s reading list.
by G. ROBERT FRAZIER
INT. HOUSE – NIGHT
Christmas Eve. Dark and quiet. Everyone’s asleep.
INT. MASTER BEDROOM – NIGHT
MAMA in her kerchief and PA in his cap had just settled down for a long winter’s nap.
INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT
A five-year-old girl, VIRGINIA, nestled all snug in her bed.
Visions of sugarplums dance in her head…
She smiles in her sleep…
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter…
Virginia bolts upright in bed to see what was the matter.
No, wait. There it is again.
Something on the roof?
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof…
Virginia’s eyes widen.
Virginia throws back her bed sheets and blankets, jumps into her fuzzy slippers, struggles to pull on her robe. Slowly opens the door…just a crack. Peers through.
She draws in a breath, slips into the darkened
Ahead, a dim glow from the living room…
Virginia edges closer.
Pauses at her parents’ door.
Still asleep. Should she wake them?
She shakes her head. Purses her lips. Pushes on down the hallway into
THE LIVING ROOM
Dozens of colorfully wrapped presents lie beneath the twinkling Christmas tree.
She tip-toes forward, kneels. Begins looking at labels for gifts with her name. Finds one. Gently shakes it.
And hears something behind her! Coming from the fireplace?
Virginia sets the gift aside, crawls over to the fireplace.
Dust and grime fall from the chute above.
Virginia blinks, stifles a sneeze. Stares more intently…and sees a black rubber boot sitting atop the ashes from last night’s fire!
She moves closer, tentatively reaches for the boot…and jumps back in shock!
A man’s voice echoes down to her from within the chimney.
VOICE: “Don’t go anywhere with that. I’ll need it.”
Virginia smiles excitedly.
Virginia slides closer, leans her head into the fireplace, twists her neck, stares up into the flue.
It’s dark, she can’t see anything…not even the night sky above.
Wait. What’s that? A shadow. A shape.
She knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
VIRGINIA: “Are you…stuck?”
THE MAN in the chimney laughs.
MAN: “Preposturous! Of course not, I’m — “
VIRGINIA: “You’re stuck! Oh my God! Santa’s in my chimney and he’s stuck! Oh my God! Mom! Dad! Santa’s in the chimney!”
MAN: “No, wait! Don’t — “
Virginia jumps to her feet, darts from the room.
VIRGINIA: “Mom! Dad! It’s Santa! He’s so fat he got stuck in the chimney!”
EXT. VIRGINIA’S HOUSE – A SHORT TIME LATER
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow gives the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
A fire truck, lights flashing, stops in front of Virginia’s two-story house. A dozen police cars and other fire trucks already line the small street.
A crowd — including Ma and Pa and Virginia, all bundled up from the cold — gazes at the
— at a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.
— at several firefighters chipping away at the chimney’s with crowbars and hammers.
— at the chimney coming apart, brick by brick.
— at Santa, chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, looking on in spite of himself.
FIREFIGHTER: “Almost there. We’ll have him out in a jiff.”
Santa sighs, clearly relieved.
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
FIREFIGHTER: “iif you don’t mind me asking…If you’re here, who’s in the chimney?”
Santa’s cheeks flush red like roses, his nose like a cherry.
SANTA (in a hoarse whisper): “My, uh, protege.”
FIREFIGHTER: “Your what?”
SANTA (louder): “My protege.”
The firefighter leans in to take a peek. Sees a man in a blue Santa suit staring up at them.The Blue Santa waves meekly.
Firefighter turns back to the real Santa, confused.
SANTA: “Hard to find good help these days.”
BLUE SANTA’S POV
Stars twinkle in the night sky through the hole in the chimney. Santa’s cheery countenance leans in.
SANTA: “I told you, son, to put your finger aside your nose and up the chimney you’ll go. Not in it.”
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
by G. Robert Frazier
Make no mistake, Chuck Wendig’s new horror/dark fantasy novel The Book of Accidents (Del Rey Books, 0399181136, $28.99) is a chilling romp through dark dimensions in the best Stephen King tradition.
The book starts out in typical horror fashion as our protagonists – husband and wife Nathan and Maddie Graves and their fifteen-year-old son, Oliver — uproot their lives to move to Nathan’s rural Pennsylvania family home following the death of his father.
Nathan is more reluctant about the move than any of the trio because of his traumatic past with his abusive father. But after Oliver experiences an emotional breakdown at school during an active shooter drill, they agree this may be the fresh start they all need.
At first, things seem to go well. Oliver makes a few friends in his new school, Maddie takes up a new hobby, and Nathan takes on a new role as a park ranger. As is typically the case in a horror novel, though, strange occurrences soon follow and grow exponentially more bizarre as the story rockets along.
Oliver falls into a feud with a new school bully and is rescued by a mysterious scarred youth who seems oddly familiar; Maddie’s hobby with wood sculptures results in a bizarre obsession; and Nathan sees a strange figure on his lawn in the middle of the night. It seems the town is haunted by the spirit of a serial killer who did most of his slayings under a bridge in the local park, which sits over a series of coal mines.
Oliver’s overly sensitive personality ultimately collides with a malevolent version of himself as the action ramps up toward a fierce, violent showdown.
Wendig skillfully alternates perspectives between the three family members over the course of the 500-page tome, allowing readers to become more invested in each character. While Oliver eventually takes center stage, the author roots the action in the family’s unique bond for each other, making each spell-binding chapter emotionally impactful and altogether terrifying.
This is horror at its grandest, darkest level: viscerally stunning and spooky good.
By G. Robert Frazier
Hilo, Hawaii chief of detectives Koa Kane has a talent for digging up secrets – and keeping them buried when needed.
Kane is tested on both fronts in Treachery Times Two (Oceanview Publishing, $27.95, 9781608094646), the fourth in Robert McCaw’s suspense-filled mystery series.
On the one hand, Kane is undaunted in his quest to apprehend whoever killed a woman whose mutilated body is discovered during a volcanic earthquake. On the other, he is determined to keep his own murderous misdeed years ago secret.
McCaw and Kane are both new to me, so I was a little hesitant about diving into a series that was already four books old. But McCaw managed his character’s introduction and set up the book’s premise so well that my fears were put at ease.
I was hooked by the first case when McCaw reeled me in all the way with the second.
Thirty years ago,Anthony Hazzard orchestrated the murder of Kane’s father at a sugar mill where they worked. Kane followed Hazzard to a remote hunting cabin on the island and confronted Hazzard, who retaliated, forcing Kane to fatally strike him with a fire iron. Kane staged the scene to look as if Hazzard had committed suicide.
But now, Bobby Hazzard has come to the big island in search of answers about his grandfather’s death. With a powerful senator backing him, Kane has no recourse but to cooperate and reopen the investigation into Hazzard’s death, even though it could point the finger at him.
“He had come to believe his suicide ruse had succeeded. He felt safe. Seeing Bobby Hazzard, his fear had come roaring back like a spike through his heart.”Robert McCaw
When a fingerprint left at the scene of the cabin identifies another man as a suspect, and the DA’s office seeks an indictment, Kane faces another moral dilemma: Does he let another man take the fall for a crime he committed?
“He saw his future as tenuous,” McCaw writes. “He could not, under any circumstances, let an innocent man go to jail for his crime.”
The internal struggle Kane experiences in the novel is enough to compel readers to keep turning pages alone. At one point, Kane even contemplates suicide.
But McCaw doesn’t let up. There’s still the initial case to be resolved.
After identifying the victim, Tiger Baldwin, as an employee at X-CO, a government defense contractor on the island, company officials prove less than willing to cooperate with his investigation. Before long, Kane’s efforts attract the attention of the FBI who are conducting their own probe into stolen plans for a secret weapon.
Kane’s sense of duty leads him to unwanted truths about a longtime friend as well as his own hidden past. Whether his desire to see justice done is enough to make amends for his own murderous past remains to be seen.
As its title suggests, Treachery Times Two is a riveting, double-edged mystery. Whether you enjoy good, old-fashioned police work or a moral tale of right and wrong, this one’s got it all.
I’ve definitely got the inevitable book five in the series on my radar.
by G. Robert Frazier
After listening to countless hours of interviews, panels, and presentations courtesy of my virtual pass to the 28th Annual Austin Film Festival last week, I was left wanting more.
By that, I mean I want more substance.
Don’t get me wrong. The various stories from incredibly talented writers, producers, showrunners, and directors were at times inspirational, awe-inducing, and chockful of valuable insights about breaking into and thriving in this singularly peculiar institution called screenwriting.
Austin Film Festival is regarded as having the best writers conference on the planet and for good reason. The staff do a phenomenal and, sometimes, thankless job coordinating dozens of speakers and panelists over four intense days every October for hundreds of writers. The best of the best screenwriters – everyone from David Self (Road to Perdition, Thirteen Days) to Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special, Loving), from Derek Kolstad (John Wick trilogy, Nobody) to Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead, The Shield) — appear to unselfishly share their wisdom, timeless advice, and incredible stories about the business.
Earlier today, Austin sent out an email survey to attendees – real and virtual – to ask how they did. And while there was plenty of reason to give kudos, the truth is I was left longing for something more.
The parade of speakers touched on everything from persevering in your craft, telling the story only you can tell, the importance of making connections (hard to do in a virtual environment), and, of course, doing the work.
All valuable advice, but after a while, it all sounded the same.
I was left wondering, where was the drama?
Where were the impassioned debates over posting loglines on Twitter for all the world to see?
Where were the answers about whether to use FADE IN or bolding your sluglines?
Where were the conversations about screenwriters’ rights and pay rates in the face of changing mediums?
There’s plenty of “drama” on #screenwriting Twitter from week to week. All the AFF organizers must do is monitor it and ask their pool of panelists to expound on it. Wouldn’t it be impressive if next year AFF assembled a Screenwriting Tribunal of experts to hear arguments pro and con and then issue a decisive end-all ruling on the debates?
Of course, I jest. Everyone knows there are no rules in screenwriting.
But it would be fun, wouldn’t it? And it might help break up the monotony of the interviews a bit.
Speaking of fun, I would be remiss if I did not mention my favorite panelist/speaker for the week. Meg LeFauve, who wrote Inside Out and Captain Marvel, marveled her crowd with an informative and thoroughly entertaining discussion about writing character emotions.
Whatever you do, Austin, ask her back next year!
Until next time, keep writing!
by G. Robert Frazier
Regular readers of this blog will recall my earlier entry touting my love of #Screenwriting Twitter. Yesterday, there was an abundance of love – and a bit of drama — over on the platform: Hundreds of writers pushing their screenplays upon an unsuspecting world!
In case you missed it, it was an event called #ScreenPit.
The idea was simple: Post tweets containing the title and a one-sentence description of your screenplay with the hope that a director, producer, agent, or manager would see it and want to read the completed screenplay. Or even better, they might actually want to buy your script or hire you to write a script.
Each tweet would include a set of hashtags to help further identify the screenplay you were tweeting about, from its genre to the type of production itself (whether it was a for a full-length feature movie, a limited series, TV pilot, or short film).
The screenwriting world answered the challenge.
Throughout the twelve-hour challenge, tweet after tweet scrolled by advertising everything from action-adventures to horror to serious dramas and hilarious comedies. Whether it was a haunting story about witches or an emotionally moving story about aging parents, you could find a logline for that screenplay.
The ideas were virtually limitless.
Some of the ideas, admittedly, were not particularly original. Some of the loglines were a bit rough and failed to convey exactly what the story was about (hey, it’s hard to condense 100 pages of screenplay into one sentence!). But some were incredible in both their descriptions and originality.
In reading them, you couldn’t help but sit up and imagine the screenplay flashing across the silver screen as a movie someday.
All of them represented the boundless pool of talent across the world and stories begging to be told.
Taking the plunge
I was initially a bit hesitant about joining in.
In the first place, there was no guarantee that anybody in a position of filmmaking power would even see it. If you have ever been on Twitter, you know how quickly your Twitter feed flashes by. If you blink, you’ve missed it. Even a hashtag search resulted in an endless sea of scrolling tweets.
The organizers invited a slew of top agencies, managers, and other movers and shakers in the industry to participate, but there were no clear commitments.
Instead, many warned against the idea.
Hollywood, you see, is afraid to look at unsolicited loglines or ideas because they fear it could lead to lawsuits from those claiming their ideas were stolen. Since you cannot copyright an idea, doing so is akin to giving away your fantastic movie idea to anyone else who wants to use it.
So, the whole idea of posting loglines would possibly fall on deaf ears.
Despite all of that, hundreds of screenwriters posted their loglines anyway. One after another after another.
I jumped in and posted a few of my own.
Why not? I thought. There are few paths into Hollywood as it is.
You can write your scripts, enter them into contests and hope against all odds that a reader likes it enough to send it up the ladder to the next level; you can cold query managers, agents, and producers in hopes that someone might give in and say, “OK, send it to me and I’ll take a look;” or you can network back and forth at social events and through social media in search of that one elusive person that will even look at your script.
Or you can post your logline to Twitter and cross your fingers. Who’s to say one method is more effective than the other? And, believe it or not, there have been Twitter success stories.
Writing a screenplay is a risky venture regardless. You put hours and hours of your life, your blood, sweat, tears, and every emotion you have into the product. Why? Because you have a story to tell and a story that only you can tell.
It’s a passion. It’s a curse. It’s a fool’s game.
So, why not play it? Why not take a chance? Try a new thing. Try something different.
#ScreenPit was that thing, and hundreds of screenwriters agreed to take the leap.
I posted a tweet commending the screenwriters on their trove of ideas and imploring Hollywood to take a chance on something or someone new. With the constant parade of reboots, remakes, and rehashes flooding the screen (big and small), and with the plethora of streamers in need of content, it is clear Hollywood needs people, ideas, and scripts, and I am not the only one that feels that way. My tweet obviously resonated, drawing more than 350 “likes” and nearly retweets over the next 24 hours!
The drama begins
By mid-afternoon, the naysayers in the screenwriting world began to grow more vocal. They began lashing out at those posting their loglines as foolish and amateurs.
The drama had begun.
Organizers of the event point out that authors have a similar Twitter day four times a year called #PitMad, in which they post the premise to their novels or books in hopes of attracting publishers or agents.
Proponents counter that book publishing and screenwriting are two distinct things, two vastly different industries. What works for one won’t necessarily work for the other.
Organizers say the event presents an even playing field for those who may not have the money or resources to enter the countless screenwriting contests or paid pitch events out there.
Proponents counter that contests, in the least, help sort through the riffraff and highlight the standout scripts and writers without having to wade through an endless slush pile.
As @TheZeusJuice put it in his Twitter HOT TAKE: “If all these execs were SO willing to read our stuff, we wouldn’t NEED to #ScreenPit anything.” His thread includes a few more choice statements worth reading if you want to check it out.
Jessica Kane @jesskane31 also has an interesting take on the controversy.
For better or worse
Now that the dust has settled, we are left to wonder if it was all worth it. I picked up dozens of new Twitter followers and followed dozens of others. That’s all part of that old networking thing, right?
Did #ScriptPit get anyone interest from the powers that be? The organizers are trying to audit its success now, as well as consider ways to improve on future events.
At the very least, I got a few “likes” on a couple of my loglines and a bunch of new followers. No one’s been knocking down the door to option my scripts or sign me as a writer. Not yet, anyway.
But my tweets are out there. My scripts are out there. I’m putting myself out there.
Maybe that counts for something, I don’t know.
What does horror mean to you? Is it the loss of a son or a daughter or loved one to some tragedy? The stranger on the street? The person you thought you could trust, only to learn they’ve betrayed you? The deal you cannot rescind? Is it the monster under the bed? The dark unknown?
Not everyone is afraid of the same thing.
Horror is subjective, our fears deeply personal. Sometimes even irrational.
Naturally, you may not be terrified of all the stories served up in the +Horror Library+ series, but you’re virtually guaranteed to cringe from some of the selections. First published by Cutting Block Books and editor R.J. Cavender, the seven-volume series has been re-edited, redesigned, reformatted and reissued under the Dark Moon imprint from two-time Bram Stoker Award winner Eric J. Guignard, who promises to keep the best contemporary indie horror alive with a forthcoming volume.
He was kind enough to send me e-books of each volume in the series to date to review, so let’s dive in!
First, know that none of the authors here are household names.
That doesn’t mean they are not talented wordsmiths with vivid, and sometimes twisted imaginations that will make you quiver, gasp, or flinch in fear. A search on Amazon reveals some have gone on to publish additional works and, if you pick up enough horror literature, you are bound to see their names crop up every once in a while on the table of contents pages.
You never know what you’re going to get in a non-themed collection like this – there are thirty stories alone in Volume One — whether it’s a bizarre alien encounter with sluglike beasts or a grisly story of dismemberment and torture.
Fair warning: Some works are exceedingly graphic and tackle any number of taboos from sex to torture, incest to child abuse, and more.
Cavender makes an unusual decision in leading off the book with one of its grisliest, unnerving selections, “Palo Mayombe in Matamoros” by Boyd E. Harris. The story offers one possible, terrifying scenario accounting for the 1,100 random deaths of taxi drivers throughout the world over ten years beginning in 1997 in what’s touted as a piece of creative nonfiction. Harris, who goes on to co-edit a later volume in the +Horror Library+ series, pulls no punches as he graphically depicts the torture and dismemberment of the story’s main character. With no plot to speak of and no escape for the main character, it’s a torture to read.
In fact, if you were not a stalwart reader of horror, you’d close the book here. But in doing so, you would miss much more interesting and haunting stories – and authors — deserving of your time.
As odd as it may be to admit, that’s part of the fun of a collection like this: reading an adventure that challenges your sensibilities or morals, forces you to confront your fears, and dares you to look upon the darker side of humanity.
Just remember, if you don’t like one story, skip on ahead to the next.
Like many anthologies, some stories naturally stand out more than others.
Take, for instance, “Oren’s Axe” by Jed Verity, in which the titular character discovers a grotesque oddity at his doorstep in the dead of night. Wracked by disgust and fear at the sight of the thing, Oren is moved by its plight and surprises the reader by showing his compassion for the thing, first by snipping away a set of sutures over its lips, and second by giving it fresh water to slake its thirst. But as noble as his intentions are, as often happens in the case of horror stories, he is shocked by the thing’s sudden, unexplained outburst of violence toward him.
Or, consider “Little Black Box” by Eric Stark, in which the seemingly innocent appearance of a small black box in place of the daily newspaper heralds a mysterious, inescapable invasion. The fear comes not so much from the boxes themselves – they don’t do anything other than grow in number – but in the unknown origin of the cubes and the stark realization that there is nothing anyone can do to escape them. “Who’s afraid of a little black box?” his lead character asks. Who indeed?
A simple mosquito bite leads to another unforgettable calamity in John Rowlands’ entry, “One Small Bite.” The ensuing outbreak is eerily reminiscent of the current pandemic’s spread. It hits a little too close to home during these harrowed times, but that’s what makes it so powerful.
“The Mattress” by John Peters is another story that will linger long after reaching the end. It’s a modern-day update on an age-old story of a succubus whose unyielding sexual assaults makes a long-lasting impression upon her victims. At the very least, you’ll think twice about ever buying a “slightly” used mattress again.
“Flamenco Amputee” by Paul J. Gitschner offers up a strange audition by prisoners willing to risk life and limb to impress a panel of judges to earn their freedom.
A shadow-like spider skulking around a mother recently risen from the dead is an eerie Creepshow-like tale of love and family sacrifice in Mark E. Deloy’s “Momma’s Shadow.”
Marcus Grimm entertains readers with a cautionary tale when making the deal of a lifetime in “A Hell of a Deal,” while eerie wishmaster Heman Black solves problems in a unique way in “Dark and Stormy Wishes” by Bailey Hunter. And in “The Exterminators,” Sara Joan Berniker reminds readers to read the fine print on their contracts.
A Boy Scout learns sometimes virtuous deeds are not worth that little badge in Curt Mahr’s shocker, “Helping Hand.”
The main character in Kevin Filan’s “The Remembering Country” is forced to recall an incredible secret about the beast within him.
And, in one of my favorites, M. Louise Dixon leaves readers in awe with a tale of giant worms in “Las Brujas Del Rio Verde.”
Sleep with the lights on
Oftentimes, there is little in the way of explanation for what transpires in each story, which is what makes short horror like this so incredibly weird and exciting. The answers are left to the readers’ own imagination.
By the same token, most stories end on a shocking or tragic note. These are not tales where the final girl prevails in the end, nor should they be.
These are tales that will make you go to sleep with the lights on, if you dare sleep at all.
Next time: +Horror Library+ Vol. 2