Book Reviews

The Toy Thief by D.W.Gillespie

Jack wasn’t supposed to see the Toy Thief when he steals her friend’s doll. She was never supposed to see him at all, ever. By chance she happens to catch the crime on video and creates a plan, to catch him in the act again to prove to herself that what she saw on that video was in fact real and not a product of her imagination.
Jack loses her mother at such a young age that she was never given the chance to create any memories of her. The only thing Jack has tying her to her mother is a plush bear that was gifted to her. Living with her father, who does the best he can but, is rather absent, and her older brother Andy, who is dealing with several issues of his own, Jack encounters the Toy Thief again and again as he comes to strip her of the only item tying her to her mother and then ultimately, her brother.
The story changes back and forth from Jack’s point of view as a young girl and a bitter, distrustful adult. We get to see how the events involving the Toy Thief change Jack from a young girl, whose only burden in life thus far is figuring out how to interact with children that enjoy playing with dolls when she would rather spend her afternoon trotting through the woods, into a young girl who ultimately has to look out for the two men in her life.
This story was chalk full of nostalgia and surprised the hell out of me. Can you remember exactly how it felt to be in bed at 9 years old and swear that you just heard an unnatural noise in the middle of the night? Yeah, I couldn’t either until I read this book. While I was reading Jack’s story, memories of long forgotten bedtime rituals for protecting myself against strange shadows and household creaks and moans came flooding back to me. How nothing bad could happen if you pulled your covers right up under your chin, shut your eyes tightly and didn’t move. Yes, I was that child that was convinced, “if I don’t move, whatever it is can’t see me”, just like the T. Rex in Jurassic Park.
It was fun to read about the adventures of a child far braver than myself, take on an ancient and supernatural force that robs children of their security blankets. I am usually skeptical about children’s narratives but, Gillespie has written Jack wonderfully. He captures the imagination and rationalizations of a younger child perfectly without it feeling too juvenile for adult readers. This was the first novel I have read by D. W. Gillespie and I will absolutely be on the lookout for more!


Ugly Little Things by Todd Keisling

If you would have asked me a year ago what some of my favorite collections of short stories were, I probably would have laughed and assumed you were making fun of my short attention span. I am not sure what sparked my prejudice against any and all short stories/novellas. I had always just been under the impression that if a book was under 300 pages, I was going to find some reason not to enjoy it. It physically pains me to say this in most situations but, I was wrong. I have been converted. I officially now have a list of favorite short story collections and this book has crept it’s way onto that list.
Ugly Little Things by Todd Keisling is a collection of short stories that did not disappoint for even the briefest of moments. A Man in Your Garden is the perfect “what the hell?” story and introduction for the collection. The book opens with this quick little banger that while reading, you’re pretty sure the antagonist is losing his shit and maybe he’s not hungover from the night before but is, in fact, still drunk. Then you finish and cannot help but wonder if the character is the individual having trouble distinguishing drunken stupor from reality of if it is you.
Saving Granny from the Devil was one of my favorites. Upon finishing the story, I had a feeling there may have been a few non-fictional elements thrown in as the relationship between Todd and his grandmother in this story felt too real to have been pulled from someone’s imagination. After reading the story notes from the author, I learned that I was correct which only made me enjoy this story so much more. What you really need to know about this story is this: you will learn an incredibly important life lesson from a fictional Devil. Not even kidding, this Devil’s words are ones to live by.
My absolute favorite piece in the collection is The Harbinger. If there is one thing that will make me shiver and cringe every single time, it is dolls in a horror story. Dolls coming to life is NOT ok. With that being said, I really enjoy creepy little dolls in horror because it is guaranteed to scare me. Felix Proust is a writer on an assignment for the publication he works for to interview Miss Maggie Eloquence the founder of Dalton Dollworks. Miss Maggie has personally invited Felix to visit the doll factory for this interview and when he arrives, she pulls a no-show. Felix cannot return to his employer emptyhanded and decides to do a little unplanned digging. One thing that he finds is that for a town with a popular doll manufacturer located in it, there seems to be a surprisingly small number of children living there. When Felix finally tracks Miss Maggie down, the story takes a bizarre turn. If you think the children have been attacked and have disappeared due to the presence of evil little dolls, you would be wrong. If you think the story ends with Felix being attacked by the same evil little dolls, nope, wrong again. You will not be able to predict where this story goes and if you do not say something along the lines of “I seriously did not just read that” out loud, I will be thoroughly impressed.
The Harbinger and really this entire collection are a prime example of why I read horror and have come to love short story collections and novellas. All readers will become all too familiar with a variety of genre tropes once they find their niche. Ugly Little Things takes the horror trope handbook and slaps you upside the head with it. It will thrill you with its originality and ambiguity in all of the right places.


Walk the Darkness Down by John Boden

If I had to describe John Boden’s Walk the Darkness Down in two words, it would be “HOLY SHIT”. Yes, in all capital letters.
I have never read anything quite like this and I can say with confidence that this is my favorite read of the year and now, just one of my favorite books ever.
This story follows four main characters; Keaton and Jubal, Jones and Levi across a landscape that is ultimately disappearing. Not disappearing in the sense that it no longer exists but, disappearing as in becoming an unrecognizable shell of what it once was. Levi is largely to blame and to call him the villain of this tale is an understatement. You have never read about a villain quite like him.
At first, Keaton and Jubal are both looking to move on after experiencing an unexpected loss while Jones is seeking vengeance after the murder of his mother. All these characters eventually cross paths before a final “showdown”.
While the story itself is original and attention grabbing enough, the writing itself is nothing short of exquisite. I found myself in awe so many times of how Boden can take something as simple as walking from point A to point B and turn it into something you will never forget. The way he describes basic movements that we take for granted when we’re reading was so engaging alone, that I read the same sentence about one of the characters standing up from a seated position several times before moving on.
There are many, many instances in this book that I felt completely distracted by how well he was able to communicate something that I would normally overlook when flying through a book that I am enjoying. There is an immense amount of detail to ordinary actions and the author can do this without the chapters becoming convoluted. His writing is descriptive yet terse. Gritty yet beautiful. Boden’s writing style feels effortless yet, extremely effective. The author tips his hat to several figures in the horror fiction community and if you catch them, it will put the biggest smile on your face while you’re apprehensive about where it is going. This book confused the hell out of me emotionally but, in an amazing way and I cannot honestly say that that has ever been achieved before.
The malevolent forces that are presented to the reader and the characters contain the perfect amount of obscurity that you will want to fly through the chapters to find out what is going to happen yet, Boden has created such an electric and foreboding atmosphere that you aren’t really sure if you do in fact want to reach the conclusion.
This is not a long story, 154 pages to be exact. You could sit down, and binge read an incredible novella of this length in a few hours, easily. This was not one of those stories for me. It took me a couple of days to read this. I needed time to reflect after every few chapters as I have never experienced storytelling of this magnitude. Upon finishing the book, I felt what can only be described as a profound sadness that it was over. We all know what a book hangover is. Walk the Darkness Down takes this to a whole new level and I am not sure how I am going to recover from it.


Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite

Like many Horror Aficionados, I started dabbling in the genre at a young age. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Goosebumps and anything Christopher Pike ever wrote could probably be found on all our shelves in grade school. As I moved further into my adolescence, I desired a more “grown up” version of horror and made my way through the works of Poe and Dante’s Inferno. While I adored all the stories that I experienced in those years, there was still a void that only a specific variety of terror could fill. Being thrilled was ok for awhile but, I had yet to find even one story that left me even slightly shaken. A friend must have overheard me whining about this at some point and said “if you really want to read something messed up, read Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite. It’s gross.” Perfect. Just what I was looking for.

Seventeen years and six rereads later, Exquisite Corpse is still my favorite novel that I have been shouting at people to read.

The story follows Andrew Compton; serial killer, artist, confirmed as dead and Jay Byrne; playboy, artist and local creep on a collision course towards obtaining their ultimate piece of modeling clay, a young exotic man by the name of Tran. You may envision Spanish moss, beignets and Mardi Gras when you think of News Orleans, where our story takes place however, Brite navigates the darker, grittier parts of the Big Easy with far more dangerous debauchery. Written shortly after the peak of the AIDS epidemic, we are introduced to a small additional group of characters that are infected with the HIV virus. I find these characters particularly interesting as Brite uses them as vehicles for hate, self-loathing and confusion. Your heart breaks a little for them yet, the world they create for themselves is fascinating and inevitably overlaps with that of Andrew and Jay, with Tran as their conduit.
This book is always a nostalgic experience for me, as it reminds me of how I did not slowly dip my toes into horror as a younger adult but, took a full-on bloody plunge. This book will not be for everyone. I could list a slew of trigger warnings but, just know it is not for the faint of heart. Part Gore-tastic part Gore-rotica, this book is full of morbidly descriptive moments of horror of the worst kind; person on person. Yet, Brite took a grisly, violent story and turned it into macabre poetry. She may be the only author I have read that can make such violence seem beautiful. That is what these characters do to you. They convince you that their unspeakable crimes are in fact beautiful art. For a moment you will find yourself possibly agreeing with them.
You’re not supposed to like these characters in this book. They’re all obsessive and narcissistic criminals in their own rite yet, you do. You will like all of them. Not only will you like them, you will want them to all succeed in their own horrific personal missions. This is another testament to how Brite can reach inside your head and poke at your amygdala until you give in to the dark side. This alliance you develop with the villains will have you questioning what the hell is wrong with you for cheering on such horror.
Rest assured my friends, you’re at home here.


The Fourth Whore by EV Knight

Well now this was an unexpected and intense ride!
The Fourth Whore follows three individuals: Lilith, Kenzi and Sariel. Kenzi’s brother was killed while they were crossing the street when she was child. She should have died and yet, she was spared. As a result, Sariel, also known as Death, has been with her, looking out for her if you will, her whole life. In the immediate aftermath of the accident that kills Kenzi’s brother, Sariel and his carrion companion Enoch leave Kenzi with a lucky rabbit’s foot keychain that she uses as an emotional crutch growing up. What Kenzi does not know is that this keychain holds the bitter essence of Lilith imprisoned in it. When Kenzi is beaten within inches of her life, Lilith is released and every bat-shit crazy thing you can imagine happens afterwards.
The first three pages of this book let you know that you are in for an insane ride! Imagine the four horsemen of the apocalypse and then imagine it with women instead. That’s what you’re getting yourself into. Lilith is the very definition of “a woman scorned” but of biblical proportions. The book follows her on her quest to recruit three other women in her mission to spread violence and plague throughout the world and she has her eyes set on Kenzi as her fourth recruit. The parts of the book that followed her other two “whores” were probably my favorite parts of the story and as much as I would love to get into details, I won’t but, know that some of the tasks Lilith has them perform are pretty jaw dropping.
Knight does not shy away from gore, sex or taking feminism to the extreme in this novel. While most of it had the elements of a fantastic horror story, there were some parts that began to fall a little flat for me. I enjoyed most of the biblical re-imaginings but, there were a few parts that started to drag on a little too long for my reading pleasure when I just wanted to get back into the impending apocalypse. Sariel and Kenzi’s relationship was an essential part of the story but when I got to the last quarter of the book, I couldn’t help but picture two teenagers having a finger pointing argument and most of the dialogue felt too juvenile to me.
If you want an epic adventure with horror, mythology and a sprinkle of dark fantasy, this is exactly what you are looking for. I am quite curious as to what Knight comes up with next!


We Are Monsters by Brian Kirk

The Sugar Hill psychiatric hospital in Georgia is home to some exceptionally violent individuals. The media is in a frenzy over the recent admittance of Crosby Nelson, better known as The Apocalypse Killer, as he is deemed “unfit to stand trial”. Rest assured, Crosby, a paranoid schizophrenic, is in good hands. Dr. Eli Alpert and Alex Drexler will be presiding over his care and rehabilitation during his stay. While Dr. Alpert, the Chief Medical Director at Sugar Hill has an empathetic, humanistic approach to treating mental illness, his protégé, Dr. Drexler has been leaning more towards the Big Pharma pill pushing philosophy. Without Eli’s knowledge, Alex has been working on a secret (kind of) formula in attempt to cure schizophrenic delusions once and for all. Naturally, as with any “secret formula” in fiction, what Alex’s new drug unleashes is of reality bending proportions.
“The absence of the filter allowed Jerry to see beyond the veil of reality. A stark look into the raw chaos of the cosmos where life operates on a subatomic scale, a swirling soup of photons coalescing into the image of expectations. An indifferent energy field of infinite possibilities made material through the force of the collective unconscious.”
Brian Kirk, you are speaking directly to my nerdy black soul!
This novel was incredibly hard to put down! While I was a little skeptical of the trope at first, horror in a mental facility, there were such heavy considerations of what it means to be “sane” or human for that matter, that I got over it really quickly. This novel didn’t even come close to as campy as I expected it to be and I was blown away. The difference between the views of patient care between Eli and Alex were so completely different that it was curious how they were ever able to agree on anything. However, the development and back story of every main character in this book was so thorough, you were able to see how they arrived at their individual views pertaining to their respective fields.
I am probably a little biased but, I have stated before what a huge fan I am of scientific detail in horror. For me, it makes the story feel far more real even if the subject clearly is not. There is enough of this detail to excite someone like myself but, not enough to prevent anyone that does not care for scientific jargon from picking it up. Kirk did his homework and put an incredible amount of effort into these characters making them feel as if these could have been real people. Especially considering the real stigma that unfortunately surrounds mental illness, he does an extraordinary job of using his characters to illustrate the struggle between do we cater to the soul or the symptoms?
Don’t get me wrong, this novel isn’t an overview of politics surrounding this topic wrapped up in a beautiful little horror bow, it gets creepy as hell! This is the kind of horror that I enjoy the most; where the monsters could be anyone and most of the time, you cannot decide which one is worse.
“There were clusters of people – whom he now saw as electrons – orbiting around a binding force – a nucleus. There were rogue molecules darting from place to place but never attaching themselves to any single orbit, much like free radicals. And he imagined that if this scene were to be viewed from a great enough distance, it would look very much like our own microbiology seen through a microscope.”
Brilliant, right?! I seriously think that if Kirk had figured out a way to work Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle into the novel without confusing the shit out of everyone else, I would have declared this my favorite read of the year already.


The Patience of a Dead Man by Michael Clark

Tim Russell just went through a textbook messy divorce. After his now ex-wife takes a large portion of his successful contracting business in the settlement, Tim finds himself struggling to start over emotionally and financially as he tries to keep what is left of the business afloat. He finds the perfect investment property in Sanborn, New Hampshire, and dives headfirst into what he hopes will make him a large enough profit to provide for his financial future. Simple enough, right? No, there is always a catch. Several of the former occupants have never really left. Now you are left with the perfect set up for a fun and twisty supernatural story.
The Patience of a Dead Man is a multi-layered haunted house story that commands your attention. The story is a slow-burn mystery that lacks the cheap thrills that are not hard to come by in its subgenre. Sure, there are phantom footsteps and objects mysteriously being moved about the home however, we know exactly who/what is responsible, and it is just as, if not more, creepy. Clark does a wonderful job creating the atmosphere in this story. The house on Lancaster Hill Road is a character in and of itself. With an abnormal layout and incredible features on the property, the author has gone to great lengths to bring this parcel of land to life. Although, some of the descriptions of the house teetered on the edge of convolution, I fell in love with this property! A secluded farmhouse with a turret, acres of forest and your own private Christmas tree grove? Yes, please.
It does not take long for Tim to begin seeing some of the former owners of his new property. What made this story so much fun to read is that with these encounters, there are no moments that would equate to a jump scare in a movie. We very clearly know what the protagonist is looking at and/or dealing with and we get brief moments to study these subjects. Their appearances, their mannerisms, we witness them carry out specific, measured tasks. It was really unlike any ghost story I have ever read. When we start to learn more about what Tim is up against, bits and pieces of the history of his property are revealed to the reader in the form or journal entries and recollections from people in the community. The speculation with this one is extremely satisfying! I am so excited that I already have the next book in the series because The Patience of a Dead Man ends on a note that will make you want to dive right back in.


Lullaby (Nightmareland Chronicles #2) by Daniel Barnett

Lullaby is the second installment in the Nightmareland Chronicles and it is the perfect little book to string together the pieces of John Hawthorne and Mariah Nowak’s journey. If you haven’t read the first leg of their adventure, Nightfall, then what are you even doing? It was a tall order to fill and Barnett has not disappointed in adding to this perfect little apocalypse.

Nightfall left us with John and Mariah joining forces, in an attempt to search for answers regarding the sudden disappearance of the sun. In the first installment, we get to spend more time with John however, when John becomes incapacitated, for reasons I cannot mention, we are left with Mariah and her internal dialogue while crossing Death Valley in Lullaby. We witness Mariah persevere yet, become increasingly physically and mentally exhausted as she grapples with the burden of being on this long, dark road alone.

I have been shouting at fellow readers to read some of Barnett’s work for a little while now and the Nightmareland series is becoming another reason why. His writing is ominous yet, beautiful. The fluidity with which he writes in his stories never ceases to impress me. This story feels like more of a tether to the next that comes out later this year, and while we spend most of our time alone with Mariah and her thoughts, the parts that are meant to make you shiver are extremely effective.

Barnett’s writing feels like waking through a thick fog. You desperately want to be able to see where you are going but the longer the disorientation continues you begin to realize that what is on the other side has the potential to be wildly sinister. While I am anxious and excited to continue this journey with John, Mariah and, whoever they may encounter along the way, I know that it will continue to take even darker turns that I can imagine.