The Toy Thief by D.W. Gillespie
As a girl, Jack lives with her father and brother after her mother passed away during childbirth. Her father is a well-meaning construction worker who treats her more like a roommate, while her brother, Andy, is an introverted loner prone to violent outbursts, a virtual mirror to his sister who is outspoken to an extreme. The story opens on a sleepover with nine year old Jack and her close friend. While putting on a pretend show, the two girls leave a video camera running, and when Jack replays the tape the next day, she sees her friend’s toy being snatched off the end table and out the back door by a swift, nearly unseen hand. Excited and bewildered, she tries to show the tape to her thirteen year old brother, Andy who is still furious about the spat he and Jack got into the night before. Without another word, he smashes the tape of the intruder. That night, determined to catch the creature she now calls The Toy Thief, Jack sets up a series of traps, all of which fail miserably. Once she awakens in the middle of the night, she finds her friend’s toy has returned, brought back by The Toy Thief, an impossibly tall and rat-like creature with glassy eyes. Just then, Andy steps out of his room, and as The Thief flees in a panic, Andy realizes his sister is telling the truth. The two of them are able to surmise that The Thief most likely travels through a tangled section of woods called The Trails, and they go out in search of it. After returning unsuccessful, Jack awakes the next morning to find Andy missing from his bedroom. As her father informs the police, Jack knows it’s up to her to find him. Jack must venture into the dark place WHERE TOYS GO to get him back. But even if she finds him, will he ever be the same? FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launching in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.
This was a fantastic horror offering! Gillespie combines those universal childhood fears of the disappearance of something beloved and the thing under the bed to give us a story that resonates viscerally with the reader.
In terms of story and plot, The Toy Thief reminds me strongly of an early Stephen King short story (Some of his best work, in my opinion) given guts and sinew pulled over the bones to form a full-length story.
Maintaining the creep factor is incredibly hard over a few hundred pages. And while there are a few spots where the story lags, in general the pacing is strong and consistent. Gillespie is also a dab hand at creating fantastic mental imagery with his writing. The weirdness and wrongness of the toy thief shine through, as does the quiet disfunction of Jack’s family.
This is a well-written, well-plotted, and original horror story. Fans of the genre will enjoy this new entry!
An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Indian Summer by Rick Hautala
An Indian Summer has a small town Maine town making full use of the gloriously warm days before the chill of autumn sets in for good. Billy Crowell and his friends are playing home run derby at the local park and pretending their middle school is out for the summer when the town fire alarm sounds; a forest fire has broken out nearby. Trying to get a better look at the fire, Billy finds himself roped into helping keep the flames back. But as he makes his way along the fire line, he becomes lost, and the woods he’s known all his life are suddenly unfamiliar, dark, and threatening. After stumbling upon the bloody, ravaged corpse of a deer, it soon becomes clear that something terrifying lives in these woods…something edging closer and closer.
This is a great little horror novella that emulates Stephen King’s style more than a little. We have an idyllic small town, the fuzzy warmth of times gone by, and a young protagonist who must face a terrifying evil that lives under the idyllic surface. Most of the adults in the story seem to know that something is wrong, but without understanding or appreciating the depths of the darkness in their midst.
My biggest complaint about this story is that I felt there could have been more. I love a good scary short story, and I’m really coming to love the novella length tales, like Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar. Most of the time, shorter is better; it allows a maximum of horror with none of the detritus that can take away from the terror. But here, I felt there was room enough for a novel-length book. I’d love more back story, more local lore I’d love more time with the strange and mysterious Ellie. I want the creeping terror that Joe Citro gave us in Shadow Child. I guess if the worst thing I can say about a book is that I wish there was more of it, that’s pretty good.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
It started with strange news reports out of Russia, stories of people seeing … something and going mad, performing grotesque acts of violence on themselves and others. Then the incidents are reported in Alaska, whatever it is seems to be moving slowly westward, and no one seems to know what it is. Five years later, and the world may as well be empty. Malorie has been living in isolation with her two young children. The only rule: don’t look outside. The children have never been outside their sealed-off house without blindfolds. But now, they have to leave, and their best chance for safe refuge lies twenty miles away, down the river. Calorie will have to row the distance blindfolded, with another but her and her children’s senses to guide her. But as they set out, it soon becomes clear that something is stalking them.
This was my first read of 2018, and my god, it scared the crap out of me! The book is told entirely from Malorie’s point of view, and since she cannot look at what is happening without going mad, neither can we. Malerman forces the reader to go through the book blinded, relying on the information Malorie is able to glean using her other senses. The tension in this book is thick enough to cut with a knife. Even in story form, the lack of visual data is terrifying.
The story moves back and forth between when the incidents are just beginning, and five years later when Malorie is making her journey downriver towards (what she hopes is) safety. Malerman let’s the tension build slowly, and keeps the reader in a state of near panic for most of the book. I read Bird Box in one sitting because I literally could not stop reading. Malerman is clearly a master of the horror genre, I can’t wait to read his other books.
Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar and Billy Chizmar
On an isolated stretch of the Nova Scotia coast, the Widow’s Point lighthouse stands alone against the cliffs and the ocean. The local townsfolk look on the lighthouse with suspicion bordering on superstitious dread–there has always been an air of tragedy and death about the place. The increasing body found over the decades does nothing to help the lighthouse’s reputation.
Enter Thomas Livingston, best-selling author and ghost hunter, who is determined to spend a weekend locked inside Widow’s Point with a video camera and a tape recorder, hoping to strike supernatural gold for his next book. What he finds inside the lighthouse is something utterly malign and alien, something awake and hungry.
This is a haunted house tale along the lines of Stephen King’s early work. Imagine The Shining takig place not in an expansive, snowed in hotel, but within the twisted confines of a century old lighthouse. The story is told as a transcript, the video and audio recordings made by Livingston having been recovered by another party. Most of the story is relayed to us via transcripts of Livingston’ s audio files, allowing the reader’s imagination to provide the bulk of the horror.
This is a great read, and a truly creepy story. Chizmar has already proved himself to be a credit to the genre with Gwendy’s Button Box, and Widow’s Point does not disappoint.
An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn
In 1983, Jeffery Halcomb instigated a massacre. Living Charles Manson-like among a group of fanatical followers, he convinced eight people to commit suicide, while he murdered a pregnant woman and tore the baby from her womb. The police interrupted his bloody ritual, and now, thirty years later, he still has not said a single word about his crimes. Enter Lucas Graham, struggling true crime writer on the verge of divorce. When a strange letter arrives from Halcomb offering him the interview of a lifetime, he jumps at the chance. There’s only one small catch, Lucas must live in the house where the deaths occurred. Bringing his twelve-year-old daughter Vee along for the ride, Lucas soon discovers that sometimes, the past will not stay buried . . .
I genuinely believe that Ania Ahlborn is one of the great modern horror writers. The Devil Crept In was a phenomenally written creature feature. Within These Walls is probably best described as a haunted house story, and the story showcases Ahlborn’s superb grasp of suspense and creeps-up-your-spine horror. As usual, Ahlborn conceives her protagonists as full-fledged people. There are of course the stereotypical roles of the desperate divorced dad and moody teen, but Ahlborn manages to bring Lucas and Vee to life as more than their simple tropes.
Within These Walls is also wonderful because it is truly, deeply scary without the need to resort to disgusting levels of blood and gore. As I’ve said before, I find the torture-porn style of horror to be lazy and utterly not fun, and I’m so glad to find an author who knows that it takes more than blood and guts to make something scary. I have to say that after reading this book, it is going to be awhile before I feel like walking through my house at night without turning on all the lights.
Fans of the horror genre should definitely check out Ania Ahlborn’s (dead) body of work (heh heh heh). I really feel like she is one of the natural successors to genre legends like Stephen King. Anyone looking to find a good entre into the genre will find Within These Walls to be an example of horror in its tip-top form.
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
I have to shout a thank you out to the folks at The Nocturnal Reader’s Box, and of course Grady Hendrix and Paperbacks from Hell for introducing me to this author. Nocturnal Reader’s had to post a picture of the very pretty book you see above, and then after reading the blurb, I simply had to read it. Hearing Hendrix sing McDowell’s praises in Paperbacks from Hell cemented my decision.
This book features two wealthy Mobile, Alabama families, the McCrays and the Savages. The two families have been friends for years, and the McCray daughter is married to the surviving Savage son. But the Savages are an old and strange family, and after the traumatic funeral of the Savage matriarch, the two families descend on their shared vacation spot: Beldame. Beldame consists of three identical old Victorian houses on a spit of sand in the Gulf of Mexico. One house traditionally occupied by the McCrays, another by the Savages, and one that is slowly being consumed by the sand dunes. But as the days drag by, it becomes more and more obvious that the abandoned house isn’t so empty. Something is occupying the crumbling building, something evil, something hungry . . .
This is easily one of the best horror books I’ve read in a long time. My biggest regret is that I didn’t read any of McDowell’s books years ago (The Elementals was originally published in 1981). I am very glad that McDowell’s book are starting to garner fresh attention, both through Paperbacks from Hell and Valancourt Books’ gorgeous paperback editions.
The Elementals is delightfully scary without needless gore. I’m not some wilting flower, but I have to say that the recent popularity of “torture porn” style horror simply made the genre gross and not very much fun. There were a couple of places in this book where I was so utterly creeped out that I found myself holding the book as far away as possible, because it was freaking scary but I still needed to find out what happened. This is the reading equivalent of watching a scary movie through your fingers, and it totally works.
Horror buffs who’ve not read McDowell’s books should start now. Right now. McDowell is an incredibly talented writer who chose to use his gifts for cult horror books, and I think we should all be grateful. Expect a review of Cold Moon Over Babylon, also by McDowell (and one of the books in October’s Nocturnal Reader’s Box), in the near future.
Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael Sims
So what did science fiction look like when modern science was still in its infancy? Michael Sims has put together a collection of 19th century short science fiction stories that illustrate not only the breadth and the creativity of the field prior to the turn of the 20th century, but also the creepy prescience of some of the writers (if not for strict scientific fact, then for topics that would remain scifi staples into the current day).
In this collection we find mechanical brides made to order, vicious monsters awaiting daring pilots in the upper levels of the atmosphere, superhuman senses, alternate dimensions, strange aliens, time travel, and apocalyptic plagues and disasters. The stories, which include samples from authors like Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, and Rudyard Kipling, range from chapter excerpts to short stories to stories fashioned so like news items that, War of the Worlds-style, many people accepted them as fact.
My biggest complaint is that for the bigger names in the collection, clearly selected for their name recognition to the larger public, Sims has largely chosen to include only bits of chapters from their most famous works. As someone who looks to these collections to find little known authors or stories, this was a bit frustrating. I would have preferred something a little more off the beaten path.
Fans of Victorian literature and scifi buffs should check this volume out. In these stories, we can see the seed of inspiration for a number of modern tales.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
I got this book as part of the Nocturnal Reader’s Box August haul, and I was so excited to read it. I love me a good haunted house book, and this one promised to deliver something original.
Julie and James are your typical couple, who decide to move from the city to the suburbs after some personal troubles. They come across the perfect house at a too-good-to-be-believed price (I’m sure you can guess where we’re headed from here). The house comes complete with mysterious hidden passages and rooms, a creepy neighbor, strange children playing in the woods, trees that slowly creep up on the house, an unmarked grave, and a rotten spot in the basement that seems to be growing in size. As events spiral out of control, it becomes less clear if it is the house or the people living in it who are haunted.
This book was so so so much fun! I started reading it at night while home alone (a terrible, terrible idea). I had to stop the book, sleep with the lights on, and then finish it the next morning sitting in a pool of sunshine. There are some truly creepy moments in this book, especially for those of us (like me) who recently bought an older house.
The book is told in alternating first-person chapters from both Julie and James’ points of view. Sometimes events overlap, and sometimes what happens seems to be at odds with what the other is experiencing. The tone of the book begins in a fairly straightforward manner, but both Julie and James’ narratives begin breaking down as the story moves along. All in all, the book reminds me of House of Leaves by MarK Z. Danielewski, but without all the superfluous bits that distracted from the story. The Grip of It is a bare bones, scary as hell story.