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I’ve read a story or two from Kiernan over the years, but never read a novel or collection (and she has many of both). So when given the chance to check out her latest collection I figured it was high time to dive in. While most of the tales here are dark fantasy or sci-fi, almost all have elements of classic, sometimes extreme horror.
‘Andromeda Among the Stones’ is an apocalyptic Lovecraftian chiller set in California during WW1. An astrologer attempts to bring about the end after studying an ancient book he has taken home from the Middle East. His young daughter manages to keep him at bay with the help of her ghost mother and dying brother. One wicked opener...
In ‘La Peau Verte,’ Hannah turns to alcohol to deal with the death of her sister...or was her sister taken by mythical creatures? A wondrous dark fantasy and one of my faves of the collection.
‘Houses Under the Sea’ is the story of Jacova Angevine, a Berkeley Professor who has been fired after her controversial book is published. A man investigates her story, which leads to romance and an ancient cult. A great Lovecraftian piece to get the chills going.
In ‘Bradbury Weather,’ lovers are affected by a weird cult on Mars, and although sci-fi, this one is a psychological horror novella at its core. Loved it.
‘A Child’s Guide to the Hollow Hills’ is an inventive (and dark) look at a fairie’s fate.
In ‘The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4),’ a serial killer, who also happens to be a Collector, hires a woman violinist to play his new, custom made instrument. A couple of surprise twists made this one of the best of the lot.
In ‘A Season of Broken Dolls,’ a couple living in a post “micro-nuked” NYC manage their loose relationship over an extreme downtown art scene. Interesting but felt like part of a bigger story.
‘In View of Nothing,’ finds an assassin taken hostage during a future war somewhere in Asia. Told in future then past events, this sci-fi thriller is as weird as it is darkly suspenseful.
‘The Ape’s Wife’ features alternate versions of what could’ve become of Ann Darrow, the forced bride of KING KONG. And if like me, you’re a fan of the original film, this will be one of your favorites. Kiernan’s prose here is fantastic.
‘The Steam Dancer (1896)’ is a character study of a dancer and her mechanic husband who takes off one morning with her mechanical leg. Held my interest and ends on a melancholy note, but doesn’t really go anywhere.
In ‘Galapagos,’ a scientist from earth is called to check out a spaceship that has changed its course after encountering a bizarre alien “cloud.” She recounts her experience from a psychiatric clinic and this sci-fi head scratcher ends on an unexpected note.
‘Fish Bride (1970):’ A woman, who is turning into an aquatic being, falls in love with a man she knows can’t come with her. Reminiscent of classic mermaid tales yet quite different, this is a depressing look at loneliness, family and accepting one’s destiny.
‘The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean’ features an art journalist interviewing an elderly parapalegic woman who had modeled for a series of paintings by a late artist. As much a mystery as a fantasy, the author’s writing sings in this beautifully written collection highlight.
‘Hydrargurous,’ is another sci-fi tale about a drug transporter who’s convinced he keeps seeing people leaking an odd liquid. The ending had me a bit confused but the ride there was worth it.
In ‘The Maltese Unicorn,’ demons battle in Manhattan in an attempt to find a dildo (yes, a dildo) made from a unicorn horn. As funny as it sounds, this one is played straight (although there’s some dark humor—how can there not be?) and makes a way out there noir/Lovecraftian dark fantasy fans of weird tales will love.
‘Tidal Forces’ features my favorite ending of the collection, another dark fantasy about two women who live seaside when one develops a mysterious hole in her stomach that keeps expanding.
In ‘The Prayer of Ninety Cats,’ gothic horror is explored through a film about Countess Bathory who lives in her late husband’s castle. She now seems to prefer women over men, and stranger sexual fetishes, as she tortures victims. Despite her dwarf servant and believing her prayers will help, her destiny is literally sealed by members of the outraged state. Best of all, Kiernan managed to make this one interactive, if you will, putting the reader in the center of the story. Great stuff here.
‘One Tree Hill (The World as Cataclysm)’ finds a science journalist investigating a New England town where a home and its adjacent tree were struck by lightning. One of the spookier stories here, it reminded me a bit of 80s-era small town horror tales ALA Rick Hautala and TM Wright.
In ‘Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8),’ The Southwest becomes the killing grounds for two lesbian sisters in this nasty, sex-charged tale of mayhem.
And finally there’s ‘Fairy Tale of Wood Street,’ perhaps the strangest piece here (and that's really saying something), a dizzying account of a woman, returning from the restroom, observing what she sees from the back of a movie theater’s auditorium. The onscreen images hint the woman may or may not have a tail. Like a David Lynch film, the point of this one may decide to reveal itself to me (or any reader) at some point, but on this first read we’re with this woman and completely engrossed in the author’s odd visions and narrative.
These are 20 previously published stories, so this might not be of much interest to long time fans. But for this newbie, it has made me a fan, and a big one at that. Kiernan is easily one of the best writers of weird fiction working today and I'm looking forward to digging into her catalog.
There are the moments you’re about to head out for a doctor’s appointment and think to yourself, “Oh hey I should grab a book-book for the waiting room” and what happens to be next up on top of your literal TBR pile? Sorry, guys, I love ya but needless to say I took along another for that trip.
I did, however, read it pretty much straight through shortly after the appointment … which may have been its own sort of mistake because yeeee-owtch that was brutal! As if I hadn’t already been leery of pizza cutters to begin with!
There’s often community chatter about the hierarchies of various horror sub-genres; who’s king, who’s crown prince, etc. But here, working together, we have princes of TWO nations, in an alliance the likes of which would have turned medieval Europe on its ear.
I’m talking, making the darkest of the Dark Ages and the most violent of the Crusades look like a romp in Candyland. The contents of an inquisitor’s kit or indeed entire torture dungeon can’t stand up to what these guys manage with some simple household tools and kitchen implements.
The title alone should be warning enough, not to mention the cover. Imagine if you will, a vigilante whose one-man mission is to punish adulterers, to hunt down cheating husbands and unfaithful wives.
Out of town on a business trip? Carrying on a clandestine affair with a neighbor? Making use of no-tell motels and hookup apps on the sly? Well, catching his eye will make catching a disease the least of your worries. For a while. Not a very long while, maybe … but much too long a while when it’s actually happening, I’m sure!
On her way home from work, Erin Hopkins is assaulted until being saved by a mysterious figure whose face she can’t remember...except for the rows of long, jagged teeth which stuck out from its dark hood.
A month after the attack, Erin fights nightmares of her ghastly rescuer, and soon discovers a connection between the sharp-toothed thing and a local government research facility. Everyone in her life, from her boyfriend to her best friend, are now in danger as the strange stalker seeks revenge on those who experimented on him.
Told in multiple timelines, Duza packs this one with several surprising moments, some extreme violence, and a couple of decent twists. Kind of like a blend between Dean Koontz’ WATCHERS and Edward Lee’s MONSTROSITY, NOFACE is another solid offering from Duza’s dark arsenal.
GUIGNOL AND OTHER SARDONIC TALES by Orrin Grey (2018 Word Horde / 188 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
A few of the stories in this collection I’d had the pleasure of seeing before in their original anthology appearances (and called them out for special mention, more often than not, as I recall). But there’s definitely something to be said for having them gathered together to showcase the author’s consistently excellent quality and skill.
Various aspects of the Mythos are well-represented, though subtle. There’s not a lot of overt references, no visits to Arkham or Innsmouth. Mentions and shadows, a resonator here, a whisper of tattered yellow there, ominous cults, hints of madness. Several of the tales, written to order for themed calls, rise admirably to the challenges of diverse characters, eras, and settings
You’ll also find a very well-done and amusing choose-your-own-adventure, some dark and disturbing familial legacies, messages from the other side, and a particularly unsettling but beautiful take on a lesser-known fairy tale. Art is often a component, exploring the ever-haunting allure of finding mysterious lost films or pursuing the magic of movie-making, the effect of uncanny or forbidden melodies.
Now, if some of the stories also seem to touch uncomfortably upon elements semi-autobiographical ... it’s probably best not to speculate how much. But, going by my own experiences with the subgenre of weird fiction and Lovecraft fandom, I think I can safely say those are pretty much spot-on.
“Invaders of Gla’aki” deserves special mention for cleverness, not to mention sheer nostalgia factor and fun, deftly weaving together the works of the great Ramsey Campbell with old-school arcade games … we need a remake of The Last Starfighter done Gla’aki style!
KRONOS RISING by Max Hawthorne (2016 Far From The Tree Press / 554 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
If I ever say I’m tired of toothy aquatic monster horror, it’s code that I’ve been kidnapped. And this one, aside from a few issues (one glaring, one minor, one trivial), is solid good high-octane chompiness from start to finish.
Summary-wise, it’s what you’d expect and want: hitherto-unknown hungry critter rises from the deeps, disrupts local oceanic ecosystem, nobody wants to believe it at first and then they have no choice, some want to capture, some want to kill, boats are smashed, havoc is wreaked, people are messily devoured.
Those issues, though … most glaringly, it’s a sausage fest. The ONLY main female character is the gutsy, brilliant, witty science-type, who also happens to be an exotic beauty. Although a doctor and leader of her crew, she’s the object of crass remarks and casual sexism from other characters, even ones who should know better. Then to add in the ugly abusive relationship with the mercenary-jerk baddie who shows up to take over the hunt for the monster is more sour icing on that particular cake than I could take.
As for the more minor issue, I did think there were a few too many conveniences of miraculous coincidences, worsening situations, nick-of-time rescues and narrow escapes to plausibly stretch disbelief. The trivial issue is a personal peeve of author description, in which instead of using a simple name or pronoun, we get ‘the lawman’ / ‘the cetaceanist’ / ‘the young deputy’ / etc. trotted out in the prose.
Must say, though, the havoc-wreaking, boat-smashing, people-devouring scenes are among the best I’ve read, hugely epic fun with no fiddling about. Middle of a press conference, just as everyone’s scoffing at the experts? Whammo, chaos and panic and destruction everywhere; doubt or deny THIS! Tons of marine-monster fun!
SHEPHERD OF THE BLACK SHEEP by Kristopher Triana (2018 Blood Bound Books / 265 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
My previous experiences with this author’s work (particularly BODY ART) had me mentally braced for the most extreme of the extreme … and yet, having this one turn out to be much more quiet, subtle, emotional, suspenseful, and psychological was anything but disappointing.
It opens with two little girls playing in the woods, having whimsical fun, making up stories. Then something terrible happens, and only one little girl makes it home. This tragedy hits on the heels of being recently orphaned and sent to live with her widower grandfather, who’s dealing with his own grief as well as the unexpected challenge of trying to raise a pre-teen.
The last thing he wants is for her to endure more stress and trauma. But the investigation is underway, and she’s the sole witness, being questioned by detectives as well as therapists. There are mugshots and lineups to look at. The other girl’s distraught family is demanding answers, applying social and financial pressures, even making accusations. Then there’s the kids at school, how unkind they can be … and neighbors … people snooping around the house …
I read the whole thing in a single captivated sitting, eyes wide and almost breathless, repeatedly rocked and shocked even when I thought I knew where it was going. The loss and pain, the tension, the frustration, protective love, conflict, helplessness … this book hits strong on every mark.
Now, to be sure, when there are violent bits, they are VIOLENT violent bits, pulling no punches and taking no prisoners, not sparing the sensibilities about raw red horror and gore. And they work just so damn well against the gentler overall tone, making them all the more visceral and terrible.