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I'm always thrilled to receive something new from Cushing, and her latest novel A SICK GRAY LAUGH is highlighted by an unreliable narrator whose bizarre history lessons and dark sense of humor kept me glued to the pages.
Noelle Cashman is an award-winning writer whose depression and anxiety have brought her to a place where she needs to start taking a new medication. And despite the success she's had with her weird fiction, she now finds herself inspired to write a non fiction book about her small Indiana town. Feeling like a new person (she now jogs and has lost seventy-five pounds), Cashman sets out to tell the history of Naumpton, Indiana and as she begins to take notice, she discovers a "grayness" seems to be everywhere … and she's gung ho to find out why this is.
Set up in three sections, LAUGH first introduces us to Cashman and her plight, then the second gives us insights into her town's bizarre religious heritage (and it's here where we learn about a group known as The New Israelites, along with their charismatic leader and his right hand man, who give the novel an edge that will come back to haunt you). And in part three, subtitled "The Cure," we discover Cashman's findings in her studies of Naumpton's history, and her involvement in a 5K charity race which had me laughing out loud while simultaneously disturbing the shit out of me.
Being the unreliable story teller that she is, Cashman has us convinced of certain things than has us doubt them within a sentence or two later. Have the new meds truly helped her? Is she a descendent of one of her town's religious cults? Or is she perhaps even grayness incarnate? The beauty of A SICK GRAY LAUGH is we really don't know, and Cushing (or is it Cashman?) pulls us along like students in a bizarre Sunday school class, forced to listen and face the darkness while making us laugh uncomfortably while we do so.
With images and ideas that have been stuck in my head for weeks, Cushing has once again delivered an original story that's hard to define, yet manages to bring the chills in a way all its own and seldom seen in genre novels. Don't miss this.
VICTORIA by Jason Parent (2018 Bloodshot Books / 204 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
My only real frustration with this book was never finding out how Chester got her name! Well, and that I wanted more story, more backstory and history and mythology. But I’m greedy that way.
Plot-wise, there is a lot to unpack, but the upshot is, sometimes the little voice in your head may actually be a demonic spider who crawled into your ear and made a nest in your brain.
A demonic brain spider who then encourages you to become an expert thief, team up Leverage-style with a like-minded group of daring rogues, and pull a heist at the Vatican … where you run into a Kingsman-type special agent priest on his own secret mission to hunt down the demonic brain spiders.
No, wait, really, stay with me here, because this is how the book goes, and it’s fantastic throughout! Much better than any of the Dan Brown stuff (also self-aware enough to make jokes about it; I love that touch).
In a way, it could even classify as YA, with the adventuresome young protagonist, but it’d definitely be YA with a harder edge. Not a lot of sex, but the body count gets pretty impressive and the fight scenes are great.
The best fights of all, though, are the ones between Victoria and Chester, who come to some ethical disagreements and personality clashes. As they say, the toughest battles are the ones that take place inside our own heads, even if it’s not usually meant quite like this.
Terrific read, fast-moving and fun! Though when you then develop an ear infection or see those stories online about people finding bugs living in their faces …
GODS AND MOBSTERS by Adam Millard (2019 Amazon Digital / 260 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
I’m so glad the author decided to make this one available after all! It’s an absolute blast, mixing genres with wild and gleeful abandon. Starting off a la Aesop’s fables, with a drunk fox playing checkers with an arrogant squirrel … and only accelerating into sheer wackiness from there on out.
Imagine the Iliad, only, instead of interfering with the Trojan War, the gods are mostly loafing around Olympus being petty and snarky at each other as usual, until Artemis the huntress decides she wants to check out how the mortal half lives. Just her luck, she’s got the physical form of a pre-teen Girl Guide, but she’s still got her arrows and her attitude.
Uncle Poseidon ends up sent after her, but instead of bringing her promptly back home, they run into an old-school noir gumshoe working his latest case (hired by a dangerous dame, of course, to get the goods on her cheating mobster husband).
Some misunderstandings and arrow injuries later, the pieces are falling into place for an East London smackdown between immortal goons, undercover cops, and wayward Olympians. While that same poor hapless drunk fox keeps simply trying to skitter out of the line of fire.
Loaded with pop-culture references and social commentary, giving some amusing spins and updates to mythology, and bringing hilarious footnotes back into style, I enjoyed everything about it.
MANNEQUIN: TALES OF WOOD MADE FLESH edited by Justin A. Burnett (2019 Silent Motorist Media / 169 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
That occasional bias of mine about certain anthologies comes into play here again; I love themed calls and can rarely resist an intriguing challenge. And the theme for this one certainly hits upon what may be a universal truth – dolls are freakin’ creepy.
‘Dolls’ being a broad category in this case, including not just childrens’ toys but ventriloquist dummies, mannequins (of course), and even scarecrows. They tend to give us an instinctive approach/avoidance reaction … we’re drawn to them because of the ways they resemble us, but disturbed by them because of the unsettling ways that they don’t.
Or maybe they do, when we’re not looking. Maybe they move. Maybe they think. Maybe they’re far less fond of us than we are of them. Maybe they resent the way we play with and treat and use them. Maybe they want some payback. To punish us. Or to become us, take our places. Who can know what’s going on behind those often-painted-on eyes?
See? Creepy. Creeeeeepy. And here, for your goosebump fodder, are a whole bunch of stories sure to stir unease in the back of your mind or make you do double-takes from the corner of your eye. From horrormaster Ramsey Campbell’s vintage chiller “Cyril” to Daulton Dickey’s experimental weirdness in “Allegory of Shadows and Bones,” from a giant-marionette-apocalypse staggeringly imagined by C.P. Dunphey to tiny trinkets locked away with memories in Austin James’ “Fugue,” they run a varied gamut while all still adhering to that central disturbing theme.
THE PULP HORROR BOOK OF PHOBIAS edited by MJ Sydney (2019 Lycan Valley Press / 636 pp / hardcover, trade paperback)
I can never get enough anthologies about weird phobias. Always helps me feel at least a little better about my own assorted quirks (though, sometimes, it gives me new things to freak out about I hadn’t thought of before).
This particular volume wanted to push far past the basic ordinary run-of-the-mill phobias, really digging deep for the weirder the better. And did so in entertaining A-to-Z order, each author being assigned a different bizarre fear starting with a different letter of the alphabet.
26 stories does make for one hefty tome, some 630 pages. If big honkin’ books scare you (what would that be? megabibliophobia?), you might not want to pick this one up in print. Heck, 630 pages, some might not be ABLE to pick it up in print! But I digress. Moving on!
With cover art by Kealan Patrick Burke and interior illustrations courtesy of Luke Spooner, it’s already a star-studded production even without taking a skim of the table of contents. Doing that, seeing names like Richard Chizmar, John Skipp, Sephera Giron, Tim Waggoner, Gabino Iglesias, Mehitobel Wilson, Ray Garton, Ed Erdelac, and Hank Schwaeble (among others, remember, 26 stories!), you know you are in for some serious quality stuff.
There are far too many winners to choose from to pick a favorite, or even a top five, but I do have to give special mention to Jonah Buck’s “Just Desserts” for sheer genre-blending wackiness (like a hardboiled Murder She Wrote meets Lovecraftian cult meets cooking network) … and Mehitobel Wilson’s “True Confessions of the Happiest Pistachio” for telling it too much like it is, or like it will be if society keeps on at this rate.
Give it a whirl … maybe discover you have phobias you never even knew existed … enjoy!
MAYBE THE DREAM KNOWS WHAT IS REAL by Steve Grogan (2018 Amazon Digital / 74 pp / eBook)
This is a very well-written but incredibly uncomfortable read … like a book-length version of one of those petulant letters to an online advice columnist or ranty MRA blog or incel forum post, basically boiling down to an entitled awful person blaming everyone else for his problems and expressing horrible views about women while complaining how girls never give Nice Guys a chance.
So, if that was the author’s intention with this character, consider the nail hit right on the head. Hit all too well right on the head. We get the nameless protagonist’s entire history as the loner, the outcast even among outcasts, who acknowledges this but nonetheless considers himself better than everyone else, we get a front-row seat to the way he treats others, and we’re helplessly dragged along for the ride when he finally snaps and goes total revenge fantasy porn.
Now, don’t get me wrong, like I said before, it IS very well-written. Almost too much so, maybe. But not in a fun, escapist, entertaining way. More in the sick-morbid-fascination way, like we view manifestos by someone who shoots up a school or a mall because hot chicks don’t date him.
So yeah, incredibly uncomfortable. It’s all there: the objectification, the misogyny, the crude attitudes toward sex, the resentment, the superiority … the whole skin-crawling grossness of realizing some people actually DO think like this protagonist. When we’ve already got a plethora of that stuff in the news every day, it just left me feeling kind of queasy.
THE DAMNED by Kirk Kilgrave (2018 IP / 228 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Reality show meets haunted house, when two teams of ‘experts’ compete to rid a spooky mansion of malevolent forces, for the promise of a big cash prize. One team is composed of ghost-hunters, brash mouthy dudes loaded down with equipment and skepticism. The other team consists of psychics and spiritualists, including the gifted crone, her young apprentice, and our gutsy protagonist who’s had a previous run-in with demons.
Of course, the house IS haunted, plagued with more (and worse) than ordinary ghosts. Of course, it’s remote and they have no way to call for help if anything goes wrong. And of course, things quickly go wrong. One by one, they’re picked off, as they realize they’ve been brought here under false pretenses.
For alleged ‘experts,’ most of the characters are dumb-stubborn in the head-desking obnoxious unrealistic way of so many horror movies. They also spend way too much time info-dumping and tediously explaining things to each other. Heavy on the “telling,” light on emotion and reaction, pretty much meh overall.
SKIN by Dr. Circus (2019 Amazon Digital / 88 pp / eBook)
Um, okay then. Not sure how I ended up with this one, but thought I’d give it a whirl. Never know, right? Might discover a gem, right? Or not.
Sorry to say, this time the answer’s more over on the side of ‘not.’ While there’s a definite enthusiasm to it, some wildly-imagined descriptions and visuals, and some really wildly-imagined really really graphic demon smut, the writing needs a LOT of work and I don’t think an editor or even so much as a beta-reader had a look at it before it was made available.
Do I think it has potential? Possibly. Like I said, there’s definite enthusiasm and creativity, the author was clearly having fun, but the result is far from final-draft-worthy. I only kept reading partly because it’s a very short book and partly out of morbid curiosity.
Several storylines intertwine, centering around a girl named Luna who runs an online business selling occult stuff – books, spells, curses, etc. They’re surprisingly effective, because Luna’s got a direct connection to Hell, though Luna’s finding out that dealing with devils has its own dangerous side effects.
The other storylines follow some of her customers. Such as Emma and Cory, who’ve gotten their hands on an evil book that leads them into a nightmare landscape of flesh … and Anya, who’s ordered up a visit from an incubus to sate her most depraved desires … and an expectant father who’s neglected to mention buying a fertility spell to his wife.
So yeah, it’s dirty, it’s nasty, there’s blood and gore and the abovementioned demon smut. It has the imagination and enthusiasm, but the writing seriously needs work. Might have better luck browsing the “erotic horror” category on Literotica in the meantime.
THE ADVERSARY by Mauricio Limeira / translated by Fabiola Lowenthal (2017 Amazon Digital / 285 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Then there are the days you get an envelope covered with international postage stickers and it’s a nifty-looking paperback from Brazil, with really cool built-in flyleaf cover design (why don’t all paperbacks have that? brilliant!)
Even better, it turns out to be a really cool read. Admittedly, not the easiest one; the translation from Portuguese is far from perfect, and might throw some readers off. Me, language-loving weirdo that I am, I found it extra-fascinating to compare and contrast, and see how various concepts came across. I think I enjoyed that aspect as much as I enjoyed the story itself.
I think it also helped that it’s in first-person point-of-view (well, mostly; halfway through it does inexplicably switch to third for the rest of the book). Makes the tone very conversational and natural, like listening to someone who’s not a native speaker nonetheless do a great job getting their point across.
Story-wise, our protagonist, Zeca, is on the run. It’s a mess he got himself into by, in a moment of grief-stricken desperation, hiring a killer to seek revenge on his behalf. Casimir, however, turns out to be no ordinary assassin, and his interest in Zeca quickly becomes a deadly, even supernatural, obsession. To save himself and his rapidly-dwindling list of loved ones, Zeca will have to confront his own inner dark side, while trying to stay a step ahead of evil.
Most impressive of all, this is the author’s first novel, and if this is how good of a debut they’re making, the rest of us better look out! Even taking the language/translation issues into account. I’ve seen far rougher works from more experienced native English speakers. Definite kudos to the author and translator!