Kate’s Review: “Distant Early Warning”

Book: “Distant Early Warning” by Elizabeth Hirst

Publishing Info: Renaissance, April 2021 (originally published 2014)

Book Description: Canada is in crisis. Global warming has taken hold, and amid the flooding and the super storms, another horror has risen, more devastating than the rest. The dead begin rising from the ground at night, screaming out strange gibberish songs that terrify and entrance anyone who hears them. With people dying and fleeing all around, the north quickly becomes a wild west, without the west.

Felicia “Denny” Dennigan lives far from the crisis, with a good job at the university and a roof over her head, but her life is far from perfect. A perpetual loner, she relies on sporadic visits from her Dad as her only lifeline to friends or family. So, when Dad doesn’t return one fall day, and his dog, Geoff, shows up without him, Denny is concerned for his safety. The last postcard he sent her was from Sudbury, on the edge of the chaos up North…

Denny’s worst fears are confirmed when she sees Dad on TV, dead, and screaming. Desperate to end his suffering, Denny gives up her job, buys supplies, and heads out with Geoff to discover the truth behind her father’s death, but truth always comes with a cost. What Denny discovers in the wilds of Northern Ontario will shatter all of her assumptions about her life, and what lies beyond.

Review: Thank you to Renaissance for sending me an ARC of this book!

It’s been a bit since I delved into a zombie tale, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m zombied out, or if I just haven’t been seeing as many lately. Whatever the case may be, I haven’t been hanging with the undead as of late. But when I was approached by Renaissance to read and review “Distant Early Warning” by Elizabeth Hirst, I was immediately interested, for a couple of reasons. 1) It sounded like a new take on a zombie tale, which I’m always down for, and 2) it’s a story set in the wilds of Canada! As a Minnesotan, I feel a deep kinship with our neighbors to the North, so I absolutely am game for any tale that takes place there. If you got a horror story on top of it, that sounds like a party!

And let me tell you, once international travel is safe again, I intend to go visit! (source)

Overall, I enjoyed about “Distant Early Warning”. I really liked Denny as our main character. For one, I thought that she was wry and funny, and I liked her scrappy spirit and her determination to figure out what happened to her father. She has a lot of relatable moments, and I liked that she is described in ways that feel not really of the norm from what you’d expect from a zombie story heroine. I loved her connection to Geoff, her father’s dog, and I liked seeing her slowly come into her own as she goes on her journey into the wild. And yes, I’m that sucker who liked the slow building relationship between her and Wayne, a man she meets under suspicious circumstances, but someone who she comes to rely upon for companionship (as he too relies upon her). Denny was easy to invest in, and was easy to root for. And the complicated relationship she had with her father is a journey that slowly unfolds and has a lot of pathos to it.

In terms of the zombie story themes, I thought that the Screamers and some of the ways that they functioned were pretty cool and original. They could range from the general menace to more of a boss fight in a video game, but what made it even more intriguing was that (without giving much away) Denny has the skills to counteract them in ways that hasn’t been seen in stories like this before. There are also clear moments of ‘the humans are the real monsters’ within the narrative, and we get the realization that 1) climate change that is man made has really screwed up everything else on top of the whole Screamers thing, and 2) it’s hard to know who you can trust when you stumble upon humans in these lawless areas. The climate change aspect felt pretty unique to me, even if the humans as the real threat has been done many times over in zombie tales. But I also liked the fact that there just kind of had a bit of hopefulness tinging the story as we go forward, from Denny finding strength that she didn’t know she had, to her being able to actually open up to people in face of hardship and loss.

In some ways “Distant Early Warning” keeps to well treaded paths of a zombie tale, but in other ways it has uniqueness to it that I enjoyed. It’s entertaining, has a great heroine, and a cute dog. What more could you want?

Rating 7: An at times unique take on a zombie tale with some mild eco-horror thrown in, “Distant Early Warning” is entertaining as well as hopeful in the face of the unknown.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Distant Early Warning” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Eco Horror Books”, and “Horror Novels Set in Canada”.

Find “Distant Early Warning” on the publisher’s website!

ALSO, before I end this post, I want to share some links to organizations and groups that are collecting donations for Daunte Wright’s family members during this awful time, as well as the community of Brooklyn Center. Daunte Wright should be alive. Black Lives Matter.

Brooklyn Center Mutual Aid

Donations to Chyna, Daunte’s girlfriend and mother of his son, through a local health organization

A GoFundMe Campaign set up by Duante’s family

Emergency Housing Resources for families who live in the apartment buildings across from the police station (as tear gas and flashbangs have been going off right outside their home)

Kate’s Review: “Whisper Down the Lane”

Book: “Whisper Down the Lane” by Clay McLeod Chapman

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, April 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent an eARC by the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Description: Inspired by the McMartin preschool trials and the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, the critically acclaimed author of The Remaking delivers another pulse pounding, true-crime-based horror novel.

Richard doesn’t have a past. For him, there is only the present: a new marriage to Tamara, a first chance at fatherhood to her son Elijah, and a quiet but pleasant life as an art teacher at Elijah’s elementary school in Danvers, Virginia. Then the body of a rabbit, ritualistically murdered, appears on the school grounds with a birthday card for Richard tucked beneath it. Richard doesn’t have a birthday—but Sean does . . .

Sean is a five-year-old boy who has just moved to Greenfield, Virginia, with his mother. Like most mothers of the 1980s, she’s worried about bills, childcare, putting food on the table . . . and an encroaching threat to American life that can take the face of anyone: a politician, a friendly neighbor, or even a teacher. When Sean’s school sends a letter to the parents revealing that Sean’s favorite teacher is under investigation, a white lie from Sean lights a fire that engulfs the entire nation—and Sean and his mother are left holding the match.

Now, thirty years later, someone is here to remind Richard that they remember what Sean did. And though Sean doesn’t exist anymore, someone needs to pay the price for his lies.

Review: Thank you to Quirk Books for sending me an eARC via NetGalley!

As a person who has very, shall we say, passionate feelings about certain topics, there are a few subjects that will send me off on rants, be they happy or angry or what have you. One of those topics that is of the ‘angry’ variety is that of Satanic Panic, a period in American History during the 1980s and early 1990s in which people started to believe that there were hidden Satanists all over who wanted nothing more than to molest children and sacrifice them and do other things horrible things all to please Satan. This led to a hysteria fueled by Evangelicals, unethical psychologists, manipulated testimonials, and daytime talk show hosts, and in turn led to a lot of people being unfairly accused of horrific things that didn’t happen, and it wrecked peoples lives. It is a subject that makes my blood boil (and it sure doesn’t help that with the rise of QAnon we are starting to see a new breed of secret Satan conspiracy theories in real time). This brings me to “Whisper Down the Lane” by Clay McLeod Chapman, which takes the infamous McMartin Preschool Trials and makes a novel about a man who, when he was a child, told lies about his Kindergarten teacher, and is now as an adult having lies told about him. I steeled myself, ready to be pissed as hell as I read. And reader, boy was I.

This very phrase uttered numerous times, but quieter as not to wake the sleeping husband beside me in bed. (source)

As “Whisper Down the Lane” is probably supposed to get you riled up, as a story it works. BOY does it work. We get to see a frustrating and also unsettling narrative about Richard, who has tried to forget that he is actually Sean, a boy who told many awful lies about his Kindergarten teacher Mr. Woodhouse, because he liked the attention and because he thought that he was doing what his mother wanted. The mystery of who has started stalking Richard as an adult and has started to try to ruin his life in the same way he ruined Mr. Woodhouse’s is a promising and enticing storyline, as the question is is someone after him, or is this a manifestation of his own repressed guilt? This in turn leads to some very creepy moments, and it also does a fantastic and cathartic dressing down of Satanic Panic and how it preyed upon the misguided fears of a lot of people, and in turn did a lot of damage. Instead of portraying Richard’s/Sean’s mom as a zealous true believer, we got to see a fairly normal single mother with understandable anxieties swept up into something that is untrue, as it take advantage of those anxieties. I didn’t LIKE her as a character, but I don’t think you are supposed to. But I also liked that Chapman gave her some grace, showing that it was this horror of something happening to her son, and then the horror realizing that something HADN’T, that had some tragic fallout. Chapman does draw some really insightful parallels to Satanic Panic of the 80s and the whackadoo and dangerous conspiracy theories that we are seeing today (not just Q shit but also School Shooting False Flag shit).

But there was a big issue I had with “Whisper Down the Lane”. The same grace that is afforded to his mother isn’t REALLY afforded to Richard/Sean. One of the really awful things about Satanic Panic (in a real soup of MANY AWFUL THINGS) is that this strange obsession with Satanists preying upon children in turn led to many children being manipulated to not only tell lies, but also to start believing the lies that some really HORRIFIC things happened to them. While Richard’s/Sean’s actions absolutely fueled what ultimately happens to Mr. Woodhouse, I don’t feel like enough attention and culpability was put upon the adults who fed him that narrative. Sure, that means his Mom, a bit anyway, but what about the authorities? What about the crackpot psychologist who bullies him into lying in the first place (these were the worst parts for me, the transcripts of the interviews)? What about the talk show host who propped him up AS A CHILD as an arbiter or truth and justice and added even more lies into it? While we feel a true amount of anger towards them, I felt that there was definitely too much of Richard blaming himself, with no pushback against that thinking whatsoever. I don’t need a long and winding speech about ‘you were just a child, Sean!’. But I also don’t want to see that perfectly reasonable ‘you were LITERALLY FIVE’ argument be tossed aside as not good enough. It just felt a little too much like ‘and now you’re getting some just desserts’ in a situation where just desserts shouldn’t be sent his way. At least not to the extent they are. And had I not been able to see where this entire thing was going from pretty early on, this may have been a little forgivable. But the mystery itself wasn’t that shocking or surprising. True, some red herrings get thrown in here and there, but they weren’t explored enough to make me feel like they were actual contenders for a solution.

In some ways “Whisper Down the Lane” missed the mark for me. It’s very possible it is because this is a topic that really touches a nerve for me, so I don’t necessarily want people to write it off. As an examination the horrible things Satanic Panic did, it’s very effective. I just wish it had been a little more discerning in where to place the lion’s share of blame, because as it it feels more like a morality tale than the multi layered tragedy it could have been.

Rating 6: A lot of promise, but a somewhat obvious solution and misdirected blame made “Whisper Down the Lane” a bit of let down for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Whisper Down the Lane” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Releases”, and it would fit in on “Satanic Panic”.

Find “Whisper Down the Lane” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Corpsing”

Book: “Corpsing” by Kayleigh Marie Edwards

Publishing Info: Sinister Horror Company, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eBook from the author.

Book Description: Kayleigh Marie Edwards has been entertaining and chilling audiences with her own eclectic mix of horror and comedy. Now, for the first time, this popular author has collected her works together, reviewing and revising each one to bring you the definitive versions of her unique tales.

From murderous children to nightmarish trips to an ill-fated zombie apocalypse, Corpsing will send you running for the light switch, but smiling as you do it. Featuring the stories: Bitey Bachman, Bits and Bobs, Siren, Now You See Them, Skin, ‘S’ Day, Barry’s Last Day & ’Twas The Night Before Christmas.

Review: Thank you to Kayleigh Marie Edwards for reaching out and sending me an eBook of this novel!

Since I’ve had a pretty okay run with short stories recently, there may not be a reason for me to do a disclaimer, but I’m going to do it anyway. Short stories or anthologies as a format for a book is VERY hit or miss for me. While there are definitely collections I’ve enjoyed, a good number in recent years, I still tend to stay away of my own volition unless it’s an author I REALLY love. But when Kayleigh Marie Edwards approached our blog about her short story collection “Corpsing”, I wanted to give it a shot, because the info I found out about it made it sound like it was going to be a treat. And let me tell you, when the first story in the collection had MANY “Rocky Horror Picture Show” references, I knew that I had made the right call.

One might say it makes me wanna take Charles Atlas by the hand. (source)

“Corpsing” is a very fast collection, clocking in under one hundred pages, so was able to finish it in an evening. But that isn’t to say that the stories within it feel rushed or incomplete in any way. On the contrary, Edwards has crafted some creepy, grotesque, and sometimes quite funny tales that make up this collection, all of them feeling well thought out with clear arcs. As per usual, I shall talk about my favorite stories, and then tackle the collection as a whole.

“Siren”

By far the scariest story of the bunch, “Siren” is about a girl named Lucy who moves to a new home with her mother, her father staying behind as their marriage has fallen apart. Lucy is resentful and bitter, but then she looks out her window overlooking a lake and sees a girl who appears to be floating on the surface. Lucy gets to know Alice, a ghost who is convinced that they are going to be the best of friends. “Siren” has so many creepy moments, from imagery to interactions to an unsettling feeling as the story progresses, and it is probably one of the most serious stories of the bunch just because of how bleak it feels. You get Lucy’s isolation and resentment, and she feels like a very realistic tween girl who doesn’t quite get the full consequences of her actions or the actions of those around her, and as she depends more and more on Alice the dread builds more and more. And again, back to the imagery I mentioned: holy shit. There was one moment in particular that made me shiver.

“Barry’s Last Day”

As someone who has felt resentment towards a job, I thought this was a pretty fun one. Barry has worked at his company for many years, only to be passed over in his promotion for a young and smarmy man named Todd. As he’s leaving his job, he wants to take revenge on those he feels wronged him, but it may not go to plan. “Barry’s Last Day” isn’t really a scary story per se, but it definitely falls into the suspenseful ‘will this work out for him, and if it does, what does that mean?’ realm. Barry isn’t particularly likable or sympathetic, but I feel like lots of people could relate to him in his frustration. And I laughed out loud at the dark gallows humor throughout, especially once everything shakes out in the conclusion.

“‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”

Jim has taken his sons Dan and Nathan out to chop down a Christmas tree, but the only one they can find is growing in an animal cemetery, and hadn’t been there the year previously when they buried the family cat. Jim brings it home anyway, as what could possibly go wrong? This one was such a creative concept, and I don’t really want to spoil it, but I feel like this one was the best in the collection in terms of combining true horror with the funny. And again, I don’t want to spoil anything. But the last line made me laugh out loud and clap. I see what you did there, Kayleigh Marie Edwards, and I APPROVE.

In terms of the other stories, I think that were I more into visceral splatter horror and body horror I may have enjoyed them more, so while a couple didn’t click with me, it is probably because the subgenres aren’t my jam for the most part. But they were still engaging and quick reads, so those who do like more body horror things and want a quick collection will probably be right at home with them. And yes, the dark humor is there for those who like that mixed in with their scares. Edwards does it well and captures a well balanced tone when they do mix.

“Corpsing” was a fun and fast read! Definitely seek it out if you’re looking for something quick with wit and gore.

Rating 7: A quick and nasty (in a good way!) collection of short stories that is sure to have something for everyone, “Corpsing” is a fun collection with a couple stories that really stood out for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Corpsing” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Spooky Short Story Collections”.

Find “Corpsing” at your library using WorldCat, or at sinisterhorrorcompany.com!

Kate’s Review: “The Witch Hunt”

Book: “The Witch Hunt” (Jonny Roberts #3) by Alexander Lound

Publishing Info: Self Published, February 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the author.

Book Description: Two months on from the tragedy of the burned house, and Jonny has spent most of the long summer days in bed, hiding from the miserable rain. Ghost-hunting is in his past. After all, it has proved to be little more than a curse.

However, when his dad reaches out to him after an eighteen-month absence, Jonny can’t hide his fury. He also can’t say no when his father asks him to stay at his new home in the quaint, little village of Peene. Maybe it will heal the hurt between them. At the very least, it will take his mind off Grantford, and his haunting nightmares.

But, when he realizes ‒ feels ‒ that all isn’t quite right with his dad’s new partner, Bella, he has no choice but to turn back to his ability. To uncover a grisly murder of years past. Even if it means risking another date with death…

Review: Thank you to Alexander Lound for approaching our blog and sending me an eARC of this book!

It’s always a nice day when I get a notification from an author I’ve highlighted in the past that they have a new book coming out. Earlier this year it was “Atonement”, which saw the end of the Cerenia Chronicles, and now we finally get a new story from Alexander Lound’s Jonny Roberts Series, “The Witch Hunt”. I was already thoroughly invested in the stories about teenage medium Jonny, and when you throw the mere idea of witches into that, well, you officially have me snared.

I will never not be super interested in all things witch. (source)

When we left Jonny at the end of “The Burned House”, things had taken a turn for the worse for our teenage medium. His best friend Stephen was dead, his girlfriend Cassy had broken up with him because of the dangers of his ghost talking abilities, and Jonny was all around feeling lost. “The Witch Hunt” doesn’t walk any of that back, and in fact puts him in an even more precarious place in that his father, who abandoned him and his mother a year and a half prior, now wants Jonny to come visit him and his new lady friend, Bella. What is supposed to be an awkward reunion turns into another supernatural adventure, as it becomes clear that there is something wrong with Bella and the local historic site that was the location of witch hunts and burnings centuries ago may have a key. I liked getting Jonny out of his usual routine for this book, as it gave him more space to explore and a different approach, given that now the case is actually personal to him. Another change is that Lound doesn’t walk back the separation from Cassy, at least not yet. I was wondering if we were going to have a tug of war of feelings, and then just a reconciliation to get things back to ‘normal’, but it’s not as simple as all that, as it is made clear that Cassy’s hesitancy and fear is perfectly understandable. This also gives Jonny a little leeway to just be on his own for this story (well, outside of his mentor/friend Aaron, who does come in, which is fine by me because I really like Aaron!), and not have to continue an complex teen relationship on top of everything else.

I also didn’t expect, but really enjoyed, the approach that was taken towards Jonny’s father’s new partner, Bella. I think that it would have been super easy for her to be the unlikable home wrecker trope. I mean, I probably would have accepted that without any questions. But instead she is a very likable person who you care about, especially when it’s clear that something is very wrong with her that is putting her, and her loved ones, in danger. While I DO think that there could have been a little more ‘responsibility’ taken on her part when it comes to getting involved with a married man, just insomuch that it’s definitely mostly on Jonny’s Dad, Bella did have a part to play in a lot of pain caused to Jonny and his mother. But that said, I liked that she wasn’t what I expected her to be, and that she was, in fact, overall a decent person.

As for the mystery itself about what is ailing Bella and where the Witch Hunt site comes into it, it was pretty solid. I don’t want to give too much away, but Lound takes the opportunity to explore misogyny, violence towards women, and makes connections between the medieval witch hunts and modern day victims of what people think women should be, and what women owe men. And while it may be true that witches as characters weren’t really a part of this as much as I had hoped, the themes of witches and witchcraft and what they have represented throughout history is definitely a HUGE piece of the story. And I really liked that.

“The Witch Hunt” is another fun ghost story from Alexander Lound! I’m so happy this series has continued and cannot wait to see where it goes next!

Rating 8: Another tense and suspenseful YA paranormal thriller from Alexander Lound, and a new focus for teenage medium Jonny Roberts.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Burned House” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “YA Novels and Psychic Abilities”, and “Young Adult Ghost Stories”.

“The Burned House” isn’t available on WorldCat as of now, but it will be available for purchase this week. For more information, go to Alexander Lound’s WEBSITE.

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “Burn Our Bodies Down”

Book: “Burn Our Bodies Down” by Rory Power

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: From the author of the New York Times bestseller Wilder Girls comes a new twisty thriller about a girl whose past has always been a mystery—until she decides to return to her mother’s hometown . . . where history has a tendency to repeat itself.

Ever since Margot was born, it’s been just her and her mother. No answers to Margot’s questions about what came before. No history to hold on to. No relative to speak of. Just the two of them, stuck in their run-down apartment, struggling to get along.

But that’s not enough for Margot. She wants family. She wants a past. And she just found the key she needs to get it: A photograph, pointing her to a town called Phalene. Pointing her home. Only, when Margot gets there, it’s not what she bargained for.

Margot’s mother left for a reason. But was it to hide her past? Or was it to protect Margot from what’s still there? The only thing Margot knows for sure is there’s poison in their family tree, and their roots are dug so deeply into Phalene that now that she’s there, she might never escape.

Review: After I read “Wilder Girls” I was left a little cold. Which was odd, because Rory Power’s debut novel had all the elements of something I thought I’d love: a boarding school, a post-apocalyptic event, sapphic characters, a mystery, the list goes on. I was thinking that maybe it was just me, and given that I liked her writing style a lot (the atmosphere! The world building!), I wanted to give her another go. Enter “Burn Our Bodies Down”, a YA horror story with a gorgeous cover, a strange small town setting, and family secrets. Again, things that I love in a story, whatever the genre. I gave it a go, hoping that it would click. But, once again, I was left a bit cold.

I wil start with what I did like, however. Power really has a skill at creating atmosphere and setting, and once again I was sucked into the world building of Phalene, the small town our protagonist Margot runs to in hopes of connecting with her estranged grandmother. Phalene feels like the kind of rural town that I remember passing through in my childhood, with familiar characters and places, as well as familiar hardships and hurdles. I could practically see the cornfields, and the town area, as well as the vast farmscapes and openness. Phalene itself felt like its own character that Margot was getting to know. I also will be the first to say that, without giving too much away, the big mystery that Margot’s grandmother is trying to hide, and that has affected Margot’s mother so profoundly that it has damaged her relationship with her daughter, is pretty unique and an interesting concept. I had a feeling that I knew what it was (once it became clear that this was, indeed, a horror story with fantastical elements, but I will talk about that in a bit), but it was still an angle that felt fresh and not like many others that I’ve seen before. Power had some of that going for her story in “Wilder Girls” as well, there is no denying that she has some really cool ideas!

But there were too many things that didn’t work for me. My biggest gripe was that it took a long time for the actual horror elements to arrive within the plot. I honestly went into this with very little knowledge as to what the general tropes and themes were, and while I was reading I was wondering if Power had decided to forgo her past horror genre foray and go into more of a family secrets thriller. And I guess that this could kind of be considered that as well, but by the time the actual can’t be argued as anything else horror elements popped up it was about half way through the book. That seems a little long to me. I understand that we had to have some set up of Margot’s family dysfunction before we could really explore the other issues, given that the dysfunction and the issues tie in together very tightly. But the dragging of feet didn’t really build up suspense, it just felt like it took too long. Along with that, I didn’t feel like we got to really know Margot as the story progressed, at least not past a kind of superficial level. There was so much potential for us to peel back layers of her, and hints to who she was outside of a teen who has a fraught relationship with her mom, but none of that really gets explored. Which, in turn, made it harder for me to care about her and what the deal was with her and her weird family.

I gave Rory Power another shot, but I think that this may be the end of the road for me and her books. “Burn Our Bodies Down” shines bright in the ideas department, but the execution was lacking.

Rating 5: Lots of solid ideas, but none of them fully execute in time for the big reveal for me to have investment in them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Burn Our Bodies Down” is included on the Goodreads lists “Corn Books”, and “2020 Horror to Scream For”.

Find “Burn Our Bodies Down” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Last Final Girl”

Book: “The Last Final Girl” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Lazy Fascist Press, September 2012

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Life in a slasher film is easy. You just have to know when to die.

Aerial View: A suburban town in Texas. Everyone’s got an automatic garage door opener. All the kids jump off a perilous cliff into a shallow river as a rite of passage. The sheriff is a local celebrity. You know this town. You’re from this town.

Zoom In: Homecoming princess, Lindsay. She’s just barely escaped death at the hands of a brutal, sadistic murderer in a Michael Jackson mask. Up on the cliff, she was rescued by a horse and bravely defeated the killer, alone, bra-less. Her story is already a legend. She’s this town’s heroic final girl, their virgin angel.

Monster Vision: Halloween masks floating down that same river the kids jump into. But just as one slaughter is not enough for Billie Jean, our masked killer, one victory is not enough for Lindsay. Her high school is full of final girls, and she’s not the only one who knows the rules of the game.

When Lindsay chooses a host of virgins, misfits, and former final girls to replace the slaughtered members of her original homecoming court, it’s not just a fight for survival-it’s a fight to become The Last Final Girl.

Review: I’m sure it’s come up before, but I love slasher movies. There isn’t necessarily much depth to them, and there are certainly problematic elements to many of them, but I thoroughly enjoy sitting down and taking in the likes of “Friday the 13th”, “Sleepaway Camp”, “Halloween”, and “Nightmare on Elm Street”. And many, many others. High School Kate loved them because of The Final Girl trope, in which the nice, shy, virginal girl was ultimately the one to come out of it at the end, traumatized but alive and ready to fight another day, as there was a lot to relate to with that portrayal at the time. I still like The Final Girl idea, even if it, too, is a bit problematic, and the gang that includes Laurie Strode, Tree Gelbman, and Sidney Prescott (and MANY others) is a girls club that I love. Which brings me to Stephen Graham Jones and his book “The Last Final Girl”. Which is a love letter to the genre that I love that twists it all up into something wicked and fun.

You know I love a good subversion of a genre. (source)

“The Last Final Girl” is a meta, experimental narrative with shifting points of view, stage direction, a script like structure, and bucket after bucket of blood as a number of ‘final girls’ find themselves in a Thunderdome-like fight to the finish, all while a slasher killer in a Michael Jackson mask is picking them and others off. While I did find the narrative structure a bit jarring at first, once I eased into it and got used to it it was easier to follow. This is probably the biggest hurdle for this story, as everything else worked pretty damn well for me. “The Last Final Girl” is filled with oodles of slasher movie references, from characters sharing names with movie heroines and villains (characters with names like Ripley, or Baker, or my favorite Crystal Blake, as if you remove the B, what do you get?), to references to plot points, tropes, actors, actresses, what have you. It’s a major opus of taking so many things and blending them together into a story that’s part deconstruction, part satire, part gore-fest. I loved finding the little Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout, as I love a good game of ‘spot the reference’.

I also thought that Jones created some fun protagonists in our troop of Final Girls. Izzy, the weirdo misfit and main girl we follow, was particularly fun, as, like many of the characters, she’s aware that she’s in a slasher film scenario, and is doing her best to adjust to it and perhaps get through it until the end. And on top of all of that, Jones tweaks and toys with preconceived notions of slasher films, virginal final girls, and masked killers (though given the details that have come out more and more about Michael Jackson in the past year or so, what may have been a sly twist at the time now feels all the more ominous and icky). It never feels like these twists or subversions are trying to outdo the original source material; on the contrary, you definitely feel the affection that Jones has for the genre as a whole, even as he’s playing with it a bit. It feels more like “Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” in that way as opposed to “Cabin in the Woods” when looking at deconstructing horror tropes. I felt that “Vernon” was parodying the genre with affection, with “Cabin” came off as feeling smugly superior to it (this is just my opinion, however).

I will say that if you aren’t well versed in the slasher genre, and if experimental writing styles confound you, “The Last Final Girl” is probably not going to be the book for you. I think that if I wasn’t so into the genre as a whole I would have been completely turned off by the narrative style, as the reason I kept going at first was because of the theme at hand. If it wasn’t a story by an author I really enjoy, and a genre homage that I hold close to my heart, I don’t know if I’d have been able to get past the experimental style choices. As mentioned above, I got into it as it went on. But it took a little adjustment.

Overall, I enjoyed “The Last Final Girl”. It made me want to have a full slasher movie marathon by the time I was done with it.

Rating 8: A brutal, fun, and funny love letter to slasher movies, though it may not translate as well if you’re unfamiliar with the topic.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Final Girl” is included on the Goodreads lists “Slasher Fiction (No Novelizations”, and “Books About Small Towns”.

Find “The Last Final Girl” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Harrow Lake”

Book: “Harrow Lake” by Kat Ellis

Publishing Info: Dial Books, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: Ebook from the library!

Book Description: Things I know about Harrow Lake: 1.It’s where my father shot his most disturbing slasher film. 2.There’s something not right about this town.

Lola Nox is the daughter of a celebrated horror filmmaker–she thinks nothing can scare her.

But when her father is brutally attacked in their New York apartment, she’s quickly packed off to live with a grandmother she’s never met in Harrow Lake, the eerie town where her father’s most iconic horror movie was shot. The locals are weirdly obsessed with the film that put their town on the map–and there are strange disappearances, which the police seem determined to explain away.

And there’s someone–or something–stalking her every move.

The more Lola discovers about the town, the more terrifying it becomes. Because Lola’s got secrets of her own. And if she can’t find a way out of Harrow Lake, they might just be the death of her.

Review: Even though I generally have my finger on the pulse of upcoming horror fiction, it does happen that I miss titles here and there. Because of that, I like to see various lists of horror and thriller titles that are in the pipeline. “Harrow Lake” by Kat Ellis ended up being one of those titles, as I hadn’t heard of it before I saw it on a YA horror list. I was rather bummed that I missed it, as the elements of a slasher movie, a secretive small town, and an urban legend check a lot of boxes for my horror fiction jollies. Luckily the wait wasn’t too long for the eBook hold list, and I got “Harrow Lake” in a timely manner.

As mentioned, “Harrow Lake” has a lot of potential when it comes to hitting many a thing that I like in horror fiction. Our protagonist, Lola, is the daughter of a notorious slasher film director, so we get a fun and extensive look into a fictional filmography of splatter gore flicks that sound like a hoot. We also have the small town of Harrow Lake that has some strange inhabitants, a reputation because of the movie Lola’s Dad filmed there (where he met her mother, who disappeared from her life when she was little). The eeriness of the town was palpable and built slowly, which was a nice way to build unease as well. The biggest factor in the strangeness is the urban legend of Mister Jitters, a being that sounds like he has chattering teeth and who keeps haunting Lola at every turn as she finds herself stranded in Harrow Lake with her maternal grandmother after her father is attacked and hospitalized. I loved the lore of Mister Jitters, the kind of small town monster story that I never got to experience as a child given my upbringing in a bustling urban area, and I thought that Ellis really captured it well. Her writing style was also interesting, giving me a good feel for the town itself and the reasons why it was the way it was.

But as the book kept going, it became pretty clear that “Harrow Lake” wasn’t living up to the potential that was oozing from its description. Lola is an unreliable narrator in a lot of ways, but I didn’t really find myself connecting with her even as the story went on. It does start to make sense as to why she is the way that she is, but even that reveal and explanation didn’t quite make up for a cliched personality and uninteresting characterization. The ways that her background was slowly pulled out felt a little garbled in some ways, with the sudden appearance of an imaginary friend feeling abrupt while other ways that addressed her mental state not feeling well explored. I could see a few of the twists coming from a mile away, and there were a few plot points that built up mysteries that didn’t really pay off for me. And I don’t want to spoil anything for those who do want to go on and read it, but let’s just say that Mister Jitters didn’t live up to all that I had hoped for him. Ultimately the pay off wasn’t that scary, and I had gone in with high hopes of urban legend scares.

At the end of the day, I felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities in this book, and that was really too bad. It may be that this book will connect with other people who give it a try, but for me it was a bit of a miss. I could see myself trying again with Ellis as her writing style was intriguing, but this one didn’t work.

Rating 5: There was a lot of interesting potential here, but “Harrow Lake” never quite clicked with me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Harrow Lake” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets“.

Find “Harrow Lake” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Secret Santa”

Book: “Secret Santa” by Andrew Shaffer

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, November 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Description: The Office meets Stephen King, dressed up in holiday tinsel, in this fun, festive, and frightening horror-comedy set during the horror publishing boom of the ’80s, by New York Times best-selling satirist Andrew Shaffer.

Out of work for months, Lussi Meyer is desperate to work anywhere in publishing. Prestigious Blackwood-Patterson isn’t the perfect fit, but a bizarre set of circumstances leads to her hire and a firm mandate: Lussi must find the next horror superstar to compete with Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Peter Straub. It’s the ’80s, after all, and horror is the hottest genre.

But as soon as she arrives, Lussi finds herself the target of her co-workers’ mean-spirited pranks. The hazing reaches its peak during the company’s annual Secret Santa gift exchange, when Lussi receives a demonic-looking object that she recognizes but doesn’t understand. Suddenly, her coworkers begin falling victim to a series of horrific accidents akin to a George Romero movie, and Lussi suspects that her gift is involved. With the help of her former author, the flamboyant Fabien Nightingale, Lussi must track down her anonymous Secret Santa and figure out the true meaning of the cursed object in her possession before it destroys the company—and her soul.

Review: Thank you to Quirk Books and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Happy Holidays, everyone! I know that it’s kind of a weird holiday season for SO MANY reasons, but I hope that everyone is making do with the circumstances and being safe as well as finding joy and togetherness. Even if that means doing it via FaceTime. In our house we’re wrapping up Hanukkah and getting ready to have a solitary Christmas, which means I’m digging into books when I’m not eating all the latkes. If you’re like me and like it when the horror genre and Yuletide combine, enjoying movies like “Gremlins”, or “Black Christmas” (more the old one. The new one was cathartic, but also SUPER hamfisted), then “Secret Santa” by Andrew Shaffer may be the kind of book you want with your holiday cheer.

Is this a scene from “Gremlins”, or is this me stuffing my face with Christmas cookies? (source)

Shaffer is known for his satire and cheeky humor, so it’s safe to say that “Secret Santa” isn’t the scariest book you could read this time of year. Luckily, I wasn’t expecting it to be terrifying, so that worked for me, for the most part. I liked Lussi, our ambitious protagonist, as she fits the ‘ambitious woman in a man’s world’ mold in a way that adds to the story. You understand her wants and her determination to succeed in the publishing industry, especially as a young woman in the 1980s. I liked her sarcasm and her wit, and I felt that her characterization fit into the story as a whole, reflecting a snide and cutthroat time and place. The mystery as to what is going on at Blackwood-Patterson when things start to go awry is a slow build, and it reads less like a horror novel building up the dread and more like a strange whodunnit. By the time we circle back to the actual origin on what is going on (I don’t want to spoil TOO much, but do know that occultism and Nazis do enter into it. Take that as you will), the lack of scares was a little frustrating. That isn’t to say that there aren’t creepy elements involved with this tale. Let’s just say that if you don’t like dolls, you will find a lot to be scared about. But overall, the scary elements are very obviously harkening to a very specific time in horror publishing, when pulp paperbacks were the rage and strange concepts weren’t hard to come by (I seriously suggest looking into “Paperbacks from Hell” by Grady Hendrix if you want more information on this). This will work for some people, but it may leave others in the cold.

But what worked the most was that this book is clearly a love letter to 1980s horror fiction, be it paperback pulp horror novels or films that involve tiny beings that wreak havoc and gaslight those around them into thinking they are losing their minds. You can tell that Shaffer really loves the horror of this era, and the winks and nods to the genre are fun for someone like me who has an affection for it. Sometimes the 80s references in general got a little heavy handed, but you feel like you’re in on the joke, so I was able to deal with it with minimal eye rolling. This book is very clearly a love letter to a very specific kind of fiction, and I, for one, really loved seeing it all unfold. You can just feel the fun he was having writing this book, and frankly, that’s charming as hell.

“Secret Santa” is a tongue in cheek ode to horror paperbacks with a festive holiday bow placed right on top. If you’re looking for some holiday creeps, it could be the right book to have by the fire with a glass of eggnog.

Rating 7: Entertaining and sardonic, “Secret Santa” has some Christmas fun as well as some creepy moments if you don’t like dolls. It’s not terribly scary, but it has more than enough 80s horror nostalgia to make up for it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Secret Santa” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “Creepy Christmas” to be sure!

Find “Secret Santa” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “This Is Not a Ghost Story”

Book: “This Is Not a Ghost Story” by Andrea Portes

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, November 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: I am not welcome. Somehow I know that. Something doesn’t want me here.

Daffodil Franklin has plans for a quiet summer before her freshman year at college, and luckily, she’s found the job that can give her just that: housesitting a mansionfor a wealthy couple.

But as the summer progresses and shadows lengthen, Daffodil comes to realize the house is more than it appears. The spacious home seems to close in on her, and as she takes the long road into town, she feels eyes on her the entire way, and something tugging her back.

What Daffodil doesn’t yet realize is that her job comes with a steep price. The house has a long-ago grudge it needs to settle . . . and Daffodil is the key to settling it.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I love haunting and eerie ghost stories of the Gothic variety, though I will admit that I sometimes find them to be predictable. The genre itself has such specific building blocks to it that a little bit of a road map is in place from the get go, which is perfectly okay. Because of this, I thought that I knew where “This Is Not a Ghost Story” by Andrea Portes was going to go when I picked it up. I was still excited to read it, mind you, but my overconfident ass thought that it wouldn’t have much new to say. But lo and behold, this story took me by surprise in all the best ways possible.

While the set up definitely seems run of the mill (money strapped college student agrees to house sit an isolated home, strange things start happening), Portes has created a Gothic ghost story that feels unique and fresh specifically because of how she has chosen to tell it. Daffodil, our first person protagonist, has a stream of consciousness and anxious voice in her narration, and as she tells the reader what is happening to her in this house and in the town around it, we have a slow build up of dread in the way that Daffodil would be experiencing it. As she tries to write off strange occurrences as they happen, we see the panic rise and rise until she is unable to deny that something very bad is happening, which I REALLY liked. From things that could very easily be explainable to the absolutely disturbing, Daffodil’s stream of consciousness builds the tension and also becomes VERY relatable as the story goes on. And all along she is cracking wise, making funny observations, and generally cracking me up, which helped cut the tension but didn’t ruin it. But along with the present bad things happening inside the house and on the grounds, we also get a slow unfolding of Daffodil’s past, and why her anxiety and unease is ever present. Most of this involves a love story with her high school boyfriend Zander, someone that she had always felt was out of her league but who loved her very much. Their high school romance felt real, and as it runs its course in her memories and unfolds in tragic ways, you see a whole other side to Daffodil that makes her all the more endearing.

In terms of scares and plotting, “This Is Not A Ghost Story” has some elements that are old hat, and some reveals that didn’t quite catch me by surprise in the way that they were probably supposed to do. But Portes still manages to write these elements and reveals in a way that made them enjoyable, and they still felt pretty fresh and convincing. I worry that if I say too much we’ll start getting into spoiler territory, but I do want to mention two aspects that worked really well for me. The first is the uncanny creepiness, of things going missing or ending up in places that don’t make sense. The other is the slow building unease with the people on and around the property, from a construction worker on the guest house named Mike to a nosy and stuffy neighbor named Penelope. We think one thing about them at first, but Portes picks away at our perceptions of them and makes them suspenseful in their own way (though I will say that Daffodil does the thing that MANY women do when it comes to men who may be threatening: she second guesses herself and her instincts. THIS was so well done that it felt like a GREAT way to show the target audience that no, your instincts should probably be listened to).

So while it may not have shocked me or really scared me too much, “This Is Not A Ghost Story” was an enjoyable and poignant ghostly tale of trauma, forgiveness, and the things that haunt us. Fans of Gothic horror should definitely check it out!

Rating 8: A haunting, bittersweet, and sardonically funny Gothic tale, “This Is Not a Ghost Story” will keep you guessing, and will stay with you.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Is Not a Ghost Story” is new and not on many specific Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Modern Gothic”, and “Not the Normal Paranormal”.

Find “This Is Not a Ghost Story” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge”

Book: “The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge” by Holly Rae Garcia and Ryan Prentice Garcia

Publishing Info: Close to the Bone, October 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the authors.

Book Description: US Army Veteran Henry Miller embarks on a hunt at the edge of the Black Forest, but strays from the path and finds himself too close to the East Cascade Mountain Range.

Something lurks in the forest on the other side of those mountains. An ancient race of Bigfoot that have kept to themselves for centuries, until one of them defies the warnings and roams too far from the safety of their home.

When these two intersect, alliances are broken and events set in motion that will leave residents of the town of Easton Falls, Washington, fighting for their lives.

Review: Thank you to Holly Rae Garcia and Ryan Prentice Garcia for sending me an eARC of this novella!

Back when I was a kiddo, along with my supernatural and ghost obsession I was also very into cryptids and cryptozoology. I would check out books from my school library about The Loch Ness Monster, The Abominable Snowman, and, of course, Bigfoot. As time went on my fascination with such things waned, but I’m still game to talk about weird cryptic stories if anyone else is (especially if we are talking about my boi Mothman!). I haven’t really dabbled into much creature feature horror in my book repertoire. Enter Holly Rae Garcia reaching out to me asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing the novella “The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge”, which she wrote with her husband, Ryan Prentice Garcia. I was taken with the description, and said yes, yes I would. It’s been awhile since I last did a stint with some Bigfoot lore.

Nuff said. (source)

“The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge” is a bloody, tense, fun horror novella in which humans have to contend with the wrath of Bigfoot, and let me tell you, I had a blast reading it. The authors do a fantastic job of fitting in relationship angst, small town drama, and a sense of foreboding and isolation, all while building up to a gory and unrepentant gore-a-thon where a couple Bigfoots enter a small town’s city limits and fuck shit up. There is a little background given to the area (being the Pacific Northwest, Bigfoot Central U.S.A.), as well as hints dropped about how the Indigenous people who had been there before connect to the Bigfoot lore. While I’m always a bit skittish when it comes to Indigenous belief systems and mythology being used in fantasy and/or horror media, I will say that in this book it wasn’t trotted out repeatedly or focused upon too much (that said, as a white woman, I can’t speak for Indigenous People). Along with a solid setting, we have some pretty solid characters too. Our protagonist, Henry, has a tough backstory which gives him a pall of sadness, and there are enough fraught and messy aspects to him and his relationship to his lover Kate that make you connect and feel for both of them. You also get a good sense about the town and how the people function within it, and how their relationships grow, change, and sometimes turn toxic. All of this is accomplished in a short novella, and I was impressed that so much was explored in the number of pages we had to work with.

And now the Bigfoot stuff. Fun as hell. I don’t want to give many spoilers, of course, but just know that the reasons behind the ‘revenge’ aspect that is promised in the title is pretty understandable. While I could sympathize with Henry, and certainly the townspeople that we encountered, ultimately I was here to see Bigfoots take out a bunch of humans, because humans are the WORST. And this book certainly delivers that. The descriptions of the various death scenes, and the aftermaths, are gruesome and over the top, and absolutely feel like they could be those you’d find in a B-schlock horror creature feature from Troma. Which makes the read super entertaining.

Halloween may be just behind us, but if you’re like me and always looking to extend the season by a hair, you should definitely consider picking up “The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge”. And hey, if you live in the Pacific Northwest, just be careful when you wander into the woods. You never know what you could find!

Rating 8: A quick bit of creature feature horror for cryptid enthusiasts especially, “The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge” reads like a cheesy horror movie in all the best ways possible!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge” isn’t featured on any Goodreads lists as of now, but I think it would fit in on “Sasquatch Books”, and “Cryptids”.

Find “The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge” at the authors’ website!