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WXXT is a strange radio station that lures people into the mysterious town of Leeds, Massachusetts. The 30+ short stories collected here form a novel of sorts, giving Bartlett leeway to create an uncanny atmosphere that delivers some serious chills.
In the opener 'The Woods in Fall,' a man hears the call of Leeds' woods through a WXXT broadcast and is given a glimpse of things to come (both for himself and we, the reader). It's super short and unsettling and hooked me from the get-go.
Several stories here are flash fiction length, but most are around 5-8 pages. Among my faves are 'The Last Hike,' about a man who is introduced to hiking through his girlfriend, which in GATEWAYS leads to a building suspense that'll surely rattle your nerves. In 'The Investigator,' the title character meets his fate in the basement of an occult bookstore that's run but a couple of off the wall locals. I can see films being made from both of these tales.
The rest of GATEWAYS is filled with sorcerers and satanic goats, strange old men who visit playgrounds where kids go missing, lethal, creepy insects and frightening news reports, radio broadcasts, and snippets of Leeds history. Much of the aura here reminded me of the classic film HORROR HOTEL (1960): you can almost feel the fog roll off the pages as you turn and dive deeper into Bartlett's unholy universe.
This is the first I've read from the author and I can't wait for some more. Fans of occult horror will eat this one up.
BLACK CREEK by Gregory Lamberson (2016 Medallion Press / 432 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
When doing construction, there might really just be some places it’s best to avoid. Ancient burial grounds, say, or the lot where the torture asylum burned down. Or, y’know, someplace like Love Canal, where decades’ worth of chemical toxins seeped into the earth and caused all sorts of health problems … but that was a long time ago, and it’s probably all fine now, right?
Except, not. Even if it was, the damage done back then has ways of lingering. Growing. Changing. Breeding. Some of the people who used to live there didn’t relocate when everyone else did. They’ve worked out their own ways of surviving as a society.
But, when a hard winter takes its toll, and the whiteout storm of the century offers them an opportunity to venture from their lair, it’s the new residents who are going to find their snowbound situation about to get a whole lot worse.
This was an advance, uncorrected proof, so I can’t in fairness quibble about the bloopers, though I sure do hope the ones that are more than mere typos got caught. The story’s good, if spread across a lot of characters only a few of whom ring genuine.
Personally, gorehound that I am, I was expecting something way more Laymonesque and much more focused on the tribe of weirdo muties. For the promise of the front cover art and the back cover copy, it didn’t feel like they got the chance to really stand out and deliver.
WYTCHCULT RISING by Philip LoPresti (2016 Dunhams Manor Press / 54 pp / limited edition hardcover and trade paperback)
LoPresti (best known for his obscene, weird poetry) unleashes his first piece of horror prose, that's adorned with his own striking photography.
The storytelling here is done in heavy shadows, which adds to the overall feeling of unease, especially in the first chapter where we meet a young girl who narrates the activities of her mother's coven as she and her siblings listen from inside a rucksack. The rest of this brief novella chronicles the girl's dealings with the witch cult, which are at times as perverse as they are terrifying. The cryptic ending promises another blast of blasphemy to come.
The brand of witchcraft on display here is extreme and will probably piss off "white witches" and Wiccans, but fans of occult/witch horror will surely enjoy the author's poetic writing style and eye for morbid detail.
Now I'm off to get a pre-exorcism just to be safe...
WE ARE WORMWOOD by Autumn Christian (2013 Amazon Digital / 376 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Some stories depict a gradual, inexorable descent into surreal otherworldly madness. Not this one. This one starts out there and just keeps twisting its way deeper and deeper. It’s a horribly beautiful, agonizing, compelling journey, dredging up emotions and experiences from the darkest hearts of the psyche.
And never mind “unreliable narrator” … in We Are Wormwood, you pretty much get unreliable everything … what’s real, what isn’t, who is, who isn’t, who’s crazy, who’s sane … all subject to interpretation. Well, I mean, of course obviously since it’s fiction, none of it’s REAL-real, but you know what I’m saying.
It presents an interesting puzzle and somewhat discomforting reading experience: when the point-of-view protagonist admits her own insanity, how much can her perceptions be trusted? Is it just her who’s completely ‘round the bend, or is everyone else really also that weird?
The character in question is Lily, and whether you’re of the nature or nurture camp in terms of mental illness, being raised by her mom, she’s basically sunk. Demons and exorcists, weird bugs, Vikings and robots, lost gods, and ancient sagas all figure into their lives...while Lily’s also dealing with school, other kids, being an outcast, and all that fun stuff.
Her best friend collects carnivorous plants, there’s this artist guy who paints in blood, there’s a boy who may or may not have been blinding neighborhood pets … and a bonus story at the end which manages to simultaneously shed some light and further muddy the waters.
Rich with elements of folklore, fairy tale, mythology, and age-old storytelling elements tapping into Jungian or even pre-Jungian archetypes, there’s a lot to unpack here. A lot to absorb. It’s beautifully done, unsettling, disturbing stuff.
BLURRING THE LINE edited by Marty Young (2015 Cohesion Press / 277 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
You know those stories you hear, not the urban legend ones like the escaped lunatic with the hook hand or the baby in the oven, but the more local-folklore / conspiracy-fodder ones that are a little harder to dismiss or discount? The ones that aren’t a friend of a friend, or my cousin’s hairdresser’s neighbor, but multiple sources, sometimes widespread over distance and years? When you can’t really with a hundred percent beyond reasonable doubt just chuff it off as wackos and superstition?
Well, here’s a whole book of it … not just of skillfully crafted inspired-by tales from the talented pens of some of the spooky spec-fic genre’s best, but interspersed with educational, informative articles and essays on past sightings, theories, and events. There are looks at some of the strangest, most inexplicable crimes and incidents in history, madness and murder and mass hysteria and magic, government experiments, cryptids, all kinds of things.
Best of all – speaking as someone who suffers through too many of those History or Discovery Channel shows – the level here is elevated, presented without all that breathless ‘could it be …?’ melodrama, but with an honest sense of ‘hey, this is a big weird world and we have not yet found answers for everything.’
Food for thought, food for thought, lots and lots of food for thought, especially where thought is bunches of nibbly little critters stocking up morsels for the winter, burying it, saving it in the nooks and crannies of your brain. I would have happily read a whole book just of that; the stories were extra bonus features!
Fiction-wise, it opens with a not-very-fictiony-at-all piece by the late Tom Piccirilli, written toward the end he knew was coming. It is hard to read, even for someone like me who never had the privilege of meeting him, but only knew him through the anecdotes of those who did. And maybe it’s strange to start a book with an essential goodbye, but in terms of setting the tone of transition and possibility, it works. It really works.
My personal favorite, for reasons involving my own predilections as well as familial lore of a great-aunt, is 'Hoarder' by Kealan Patrick Burke. Even though you know it’s a bad idea for the salesman to go inside (even though HE knows it), the lure is too strong, the compulsion, the curiosity. It’s chillingly creepy loooonng before the inevitable doom settles in.
Other particular stand-outs for me were Kaaron Warren’s 'The Body Finder,' 'Honey' by Annie Neugebauer, and Brett McBean’s 'With These Hands' … so much deep-down disquiet, wonderfully done.