Kate’s Review: “Reprieve”

Book: “Reprieve” by James Han Mattson

Publishing Info: William Morrow, October 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A chilling and blisteringly relevant literary novel of social horror centered around a brutal killing that takes place in a full-contact haunted escape room—a provocative exploration of capitalism, hate politics, racial fetishism, and our obsession with fear as entertainment.

On April 27, 1997, four contestants make it to the final cell of the Quigley House, a full-contact haunted escape room in Lincoln, Nebraska, made famous for its monstrosities, booby-traps, and ghoulishly costumed actors. If the group can endure these horrors without shouting the safe word, “reprieve,” they’ll win a substantial cash prize—a startling feat accomplished only by one other group in the house’s long history. But before they can complete the challenge, a man breaks into the cell and kills one of the contestants.

Those who were present on that fateful night lend their points of view: Kendra Brown, a teenager who’s been uprooted from her childhood home after the sudden loss of her father; Leonard Grandton, a desperate and impressionable hotel manager caught in a series of toxic entanglements; and Jaidee Charoensuk, a gay international student who came to the United States in a besotted search for his former English teacher. As each character’s journey unfurls and overlaps, deceit and misunderstandings fueled by obsession and prejudice are revealed, forcing all to reckon with the ways in which their beliefs and actions contributed to a horrifying catastrophe.

An astonishingly soulful exploration of complicity and masquerade, Reprieve combines the psychological tension of classic horror with searing social criticism to present an unsettling portrait of this tangled American life.

Review: You all know what a big fan I am of Halloween, and while for various reasons I haven’t done this in a long time I also really enjoy doing haunted hayrides, and living in Minnesota it’s not hard to drive outside the city limits to find such shenanigans. But I’m not as big into walk through haunted houses, and am certainly NOT into any ‘extreme’ haunted houses. Locally we had something called The Soap Factory, which made you sign a waiver before you went through, but they closed a couple years ago. The most infamous ‘extreme’ haunt, however is almost assuredly McKamey Manor, a combined haunted house escape room puzzle experience that is notorious in the haunt industry. Yes, you sign a waiver, and you may be subjected to physical and psychological torture for hours on end all in the name of thrills. There is no question in my mind that “Reprieve” by James Han Mattson is partially inspired by McKamey Manor, and that made an already enjoyable reading experience that much better. This book seems to be polarizing. I’m firmly on the ‘love’ team.

“Reprieve” is a deeply layered and multidimensional horror story that comes to life through literary structure. The guts of the tale involve a slowly revealed violent incident at Quigley House, a hardcore escape room/haunted house that offers players serious money if they can solve the puzzles in all the ‘cells’ while actors inflict psychological terror upon them. What exactly happened is slowly revealed through court room transcripts, flashbacks through character perspectives, and the straight narrative of the timeline of what happened in each cell up until the moment in question. I liked the slow build up and the combined story telling techniques, and how all of them combined to make a building tension of dread while also getting to know each character and what role they play. I’m sure that it’s the literary structure that threw readers for a loop, as I can definitely say that the creative choices made here are probably not for everyone. Which is totally okay. I, however, really liked it. I’m not the kind of person who thinks that horror needs to be elevated or classed up by any stretch of the imagination, but “Reprieve” does this without feeling pretentious or disingenuous. The scares are knowing what is coming (even if only in part), seeing it all unfold, and seeing the way that the REAL horror is in the bad behavior of villainous people, unwitting or not.

This is also a really well done commentary on capitalism, the weaponization of entertainment, and race in America. Many of the characters are POC, some are LGBTQIA+, and many of them feel lost, isolated, or Othered. Kendra is a new resident of this small Nebraska community and one of the few Black people (outside of her family) and finds herself working at Quigley House. The ‘we’re family here’ mentality definitely pulls her in deeper when she feels isolated in other ways. Contestant Jaidee is an international student from Thailand who is also gay, and feels scrutiny from his college peers because of both of these facts. And then there are the characters of Leonard, a hotel worker who feels inadequate in his personal life, and John, who owns Quigley House. Their friendship is a toxic concoction that encapsulates misogyny, xenophobia, and aggression, and sets off the first domino that leads to tragedy. Mattson knows what he’s doing with these characters, and while they easily could have felt like two dimensional villains, we get into their minds a bit, and it makes them fascinating, and all the more upsetting.

Boy did I enjoy “Reprieve”. It’s one of the more unique horror novels I’ve read lately, and it finds the horrors in both an extreme haunted house, and the darker side of American cultural consciousness.

Rating 9: A stunning literary horror thriller, “Reprieve” is mesmerizing, blistering, and deeply sad.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Reprieve” is included on the Goodreads lists “Deliciously Chilling Horror”, and “If You Like ‘Squid Game’, You Should Read…”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Such A Pretty Smile”

Book: “Such A Pretty Smile” by Kristi DeMeester

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2022

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

Book Description: A biting novel from an electrifying new voice, Such a Pretty Smile is a heart-stopping tour-de-force about powerful women, angry men, and all the ways in which girls fight against the forces that try to silence them.

There’s something out there that’s killing. Known only as The Cur, he leaves no traces, save for the torn bodies of girls, on the verge of becoming women, who are known as trouble-makers; those who refuse to conform, to know their place. Girls who don’t know when to shut up.

2019: Thirteen-year-old Lila Sawyer has secrets she can’t share with anyone. Not the school psychologist she’s seeing. Not her father, who has a new wife, and a new baby. And not her mother—the infamous Caroline Sawyer, a unique artist whose eerie sculptures, made from bent twigs and crimped leaves, have made her a local celebrity. But soon Lila feels haunted from within, terrorized by a delicious evil that shows her how to find her voice—until she is punished for using it.

2004: Caroline Sawyer hears dogs everywhere. Snarling, barking, teeth snapping that no one else seems to notice. At first, she blames the phantom sounds on her insomnia and her acute stress in caring for her ailing father. But then the delusions begin to take shape—both in her waking hours, and in the violent, visceral sculptures she creates while in a trance-like state. Her fiancé is convinced she needs help. Her new psychiatrist waves her “problem” away with pills. But Caroline’s past is a dark cellar, filled with repressed memories and a lurking horror that the men around her can’t understand.

As past demons become a present threat, both Caroline and Lila must chase the source of this unrelenting, oppressive power to its malignant core. Brilliantly paced, unsettling to the bone, and unapologetically fierce, Such a Pretty Smile is a powerful allegory for what it can mean to be a woman, and an untamed rallying cry for anyone ever told to sit down, shut up, and smile pretty.

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

I’m sure that this following statement is probably relatable for a lot of people: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like I’ve been dismissed because of the fact that I’m a woman. While I absolutely know that I have a lot of privilege that others don’t, there are still times that I’ve felt like I’ve been talked down to, condescended to, or flat out sneered at because of underlying currents of misogyny in our culture. Throw in the fact that I have diagnosed mental illnesses, and I find myself not only feeling bad about these moments of being belittled, but then I start to question my own perceptions because of my anxiety. Enter “Such A Pretty Smile” by Kristi DeMeester, a new horror novel that uses these themes as the foundation of a genuinely disturbing and trippy tale of terror involving missing and murdered girls, mothers and daughters, and the way that all these women are victimized by society and many of the men around them.

It’s basically this. But also horror. (source)

“Such A Pretty Smile” as a title tells you a lot about what you are going to read. Lord knows that in “Little Red Riding Hood” a canine foe has his mouth and smile commented upon, but there is also the ‘you’d be prettier if you smiled’ bullshit that women hear (let me tell you, working in a public library at the desk made this a common occurrence). Our story is told in two perspectives over two timelines. The first is that of thirteen year old Lila, a girl in 2019 who is dealing with a lot of the awkward coming of age issues: she has a crush on her beautiful (but manipulative) best friend Macie, her father has moved on to a new family and has little time for her, and her mother Caroline is a good mother but has secrets of her own. When girls her age start disappearing and turning up dead, with a mysterious killer named “The Cur” being theorized as the culprit, Caroline starts to get more paranoid, and Lila starts to feel something strange and almost feral awakening inside of her. The other two perspectives are Caroline’s the modern day one trying to keep Lila safe from harm as things escalate, as well as one in Caroline’s past, which centered around her terminally ill father, her jealous of her talent boyfriend (Lila’s father), and seeming hallucinations involving barking dogs. Oh, and also a string of teenage girls disappearing and turning up murdered in the same way that the girls in the present are. The way that Demeester pulls all of these stories together takes time, but it’s done in a way that feels very deliberate, even if it sometimes leaves it up to the reader to parse out their own thoughts and feelings. The slow build dread of Caroline’s past trauma mirroring with Lila’s present situation is tense and well executed, and it all builds to a strange and haunting climax that is genuinely disturbing. Sometimes the jumping around is a little hard to follow, and I definitely found the Caroline POVs more interesting than Lila’s, but in the end it all blends to create a well done whole.

But its greatest strength is the solid ‘fuck you’ to patriarchy that “Such A Pretty Smile” spits out as much as it can. From ‘bad girls’ being victimized but not as valued in society’s eyes, to Caroline dealing with a condescending therapist, to Caroline ALSO dealing with a petty and jealous boyfriend who gaslights her out of envy, this book has so many moments that had me seething in rage. Demeester translates these reality based horrors into something supernatural and strange, and it really worked well for me. We have people like the murder victims being brutalized and objectified before and after death, but we also have the smaller but hurtful moments of one girl being reprimanded for lashing out at a boy who groped her in the lunch line, or another girl being groomed by an older boy in hopes of being accepted, or Caroline herself being told that her genuine and real fears are hysteria by people she is supposed to trust. It’s heartbreaking and terrifying, and Demeester taps into all of it and finds horror fuel at the root.

“Such A Pretty Smile” is upsetting and compelling, and I will definitely be checking out what Demeester has to offer in the future.

Rating 8: All too relevant and relatable as well as creepy and haunting, “Such A Pretty Smile” was a disturbing read that will be familiar to a lot of women who have been silenced by misogyny.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Such A Pretty Smile” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Horror”, and “Surreal Horror”.

Find “Such A Pretty Smile” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Route of Ice and Salt”

Book: “The Route of Ice and Salt” by José Luis Zárate

Publishing Info: Innsmouth Free Press, January 2021 (originally published in 1998)

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A reimagining of Dracula’s voyage to England, filled with Gothic imagery and queer desire.

It’s an ordinary assignment, nothing more. The cargo? Fifty boxes filled with Transylvanian soil. The route? From Varna to Whitby. The Demeter has made many trips like this. The captain has handled dozens of crews.

He dreams familiar dreams: to taste the salt on the skin of his men, to run his hands across their chests. He longs for the warmth of a lover he cannot have, fantasizes about flesh and frenzied embraces. All this he’s done before, it’s routine, a constant, like the tides. Yet there’s something different, something wrong. There are odd nightmares, unsettling omens and fear. For there is something in the air, something in the night, someone stalking the ship.

The cult vampire novella by Mexican author José Luis Zárate is available for the first time in English. Translated by David Bowles and with an accompanying essay by noted horror author Poppy Z. Brite, it reveals an unknown corner of Latin American literature.

Review: I think that for a lot of people, if they hear the phrase ‘homoerotic vampire fiction’ they are going to immediately think of Anne Rice (may she rest in peace). After all, “Interview With the Vampire” is at its heart the story of two guy vampire lovers who have a bad marriage and make the mistake of having a baby to try and save it (I am NOT wrong). Louis and Lestat have an undercurrent (and overcurrent) of sexual tension that Rice explores more through Lestat in later books, but it was definitely the formative relationship for gay vampire fiction in modern times. And to be fair, vampire lore is usually pretty charged with sexuality, even going back to Bram Stoker’s grand daddy of vampire tales “Dracula”. That book is horny as hell, something that Francis Ford Coppola took FULL advantage of in his 1990s adaptation. So it’s not really surprising that “The Route of Ice and Salt” by José Luis Zárate takes a mysterious element of “Dracula” and gives it a shot of homoerotic adrenaline, and pulls it off with ease.

I’ll let you decide what that ‘one thing’ is. (source)

“The Route of Ice and Salt” is the story of the Demeter, the ship that transported Count Dracula and his many boxes of Wallachian soil to London, and arrived aport with no crew left and a dead captain, tied to the mast with a rosary in hand. It’s a moment in the original source material that’s really just there to show that Dracula is brutal and has had his fill, so is at full strength when he arrives in England. But Zárate lets us have a look into what happened on the doomed voyage, and creates a story that is both horrifying and absolutely heartbreaking. It’s told through both the Captain’s own thoughts and experiences as well as his ship log, and the first half of the story is a LOT of him fantasizing about the men on his crew, but unwilling to act upon it as he finds his same sex attraction repulsive and monstrous. We slowly find out that he has his reasons to feel that way, as a man he once loved was treated as a monster after being accused of a crime he did not truly commit, which had to do with his sexuality. As the Captain grapples with his attractions, something else, an ACTUAL monster, is stalking the ship, feasting upon the crew in a far more literal and violent way.

Though it took a bit to get there, once we got to the slow progression of crewmen disappearing, while the others slowly realize they are being hunted, I was fully invested not only in how we get to where we end up in the original tale, but how The Captain is going to ultimately make his sacrifice. As well as if he’s going to be able to forgive himself for his perfectly natural attractions (though certainly not at the time; Stoker himself has lots of rumors about his own sexuality that may have subconscious laid out hints within “Dracula”. Like I said, that book is horny as hell). Zárate made the Captain very believable and sympathetic, and once he realizes that he is alone on the boat with a monster, an ACTUAL monster, even though I knew the ending, I still felt a deep attachment to him, in spite of myself. And while MAYBE I thought that I was going into a story that had Count Dracula and the Captain getting it on over and over (please don’t judge me, I will say it again, “DRACULA” IS A SEX FUELED BOOK!!!), what I got was far more satisfying, emotional, and terrifying. The descriptions of the ship at night in the fog, with crewmen’s screams starting and then stopping…. GOD, it set me on edge, and it’s the perfect companion to one of my favorite vampire stories. And not for nothing, this updated version has a FANTASTIC Afterword by Poppy Z. Brite that addresses the transgressive nature of this book, and it gives a lot of great context that I thought was SUPER interesting.

“The Route of Ice and Salt” is sexually charged and scary as hell. It now lives on my shelf next to the source material (all three versions I own), and in my mind it absolutely belongs in the “Dracula” canon.

Rating 8: Haunting and erotic and oh so creepy by the end, “The Route of Ice and Salt” takes the voyage Dracula takes across the sea and turns it into a creepy (and horny) nightmare.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Route of Ice and Salt” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Horror”, and “Books About or Consisting of Vampires”.

Find “The Route of Ice and Salt” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, July 2011

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke & Key unwinds into its fourth volume in Keys to the Kingdom. With more keys making themselves known, and the depths of the Locke family’s mystery ever-expanding, Dodge’s desperation to end his shadowy quest drives the inhabitants of Keyhouse ever closer to a revealing conclusion.

Review: After I set “Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” down, I realized that I only had two collections left until the end. This re-read has gone by pretty quickly, and it had been long enough that I feel like I’m finding brand new things with each moment I turn the pages. I had been talking a bit about how patient and deliberate Joe Hill has been up until this point, but in “Keys to the Kingdom” things have started to speed up, which means that the intensity has started to build as well. And that has mostly been a positive thing.

Plot progression has picked up again in this volume, and boy does it ever! Hill covers a lot of territory in this collection, but he manages to do it in such a way that it doesn’t feel like it’s bloated, nor does it feel like things are being rushed. He opts to focus on certain things, but does show snippets of the Locke kids battling it out with Dodge over keys, as well as conflicts they are having with each other in the story arc “February”. I liked how it puts in the effort to have development for our characters, but doesn’t get bogged down in EVERY conflict they have with Dodge. We also get to see more backstory to Rendell and his high school friends, as Kinsey, Tyler, and Dodge run into Erin Voss, Rendell’s childhood friend who is now committed to a mental asylum. Kinsey is desperate to know what the connection is to Rendell, Voss, and the secrets they were keeping, while Dodge wants to keep Erin’s mouth shut since in her addled state she still recognizes him as her childhood friend. This also led to a kind of awkward within present context optics plot point, in which Kinsey and Bode use one of the keys to change their race so they can visit Erin, as her rantings make it seem like she is super agitated by the presence white people (let me just say that this isn’t the case, though I won’t reveal what I mean). I definitely understand the way that Hill used it to make a greater point about how Black people are perceived by white people in American society, and there is a moment that I thought was genuinely poignant at the end of the issue, but pretty much putting Kinsey and Bode into magical black face so they can learn a lesson about the humanity of Black people didn’t really land for me. It just felt a bit patronizing. But by the end everything had made a comeback for me, as a significant plot development that signals the last third of this series knocked my socks off. I knew it was coming, but it was still VERY well done, and ups the stakes to the highest levels they’ve been thus far.

And in terms of character development this volume was top notch. For Tyler, he is starting to feel the weight of all the difficult things in his life, and it’s making him overwhelmed and under severe pressure. His only solace is his girlfriend Jordan, whom he is head over heels in love with, and while Jordan obviously cares deeply for Tyler, she is pretty damaged. Which, of course, leads to problems down the line, and Tyler starts to think that being strong is something he can achieve through magic, much like Kinsey tried to extract her fear through the same means. It’s a pretty heavy moment when Tyler feels enough despair over everything that he turns to something that may not work out the way he wants it to. And speaking of Kinsey’s issue, we see all of that coming to a head now too, as having a lack of fear and grief has not only affected her relationship with Nina, it has also started to affect her friendships. Funnily enough, having no fear and no grief has made Kinsey a pretty shitty and selfish friend, and the most interesting part of this entire arc for me is that she recognizes this, but literally cannot bring herself to care because of her actions with the Head Key.

And finally, the art continues to be visceral and gory, but with a bit of a nostalgic twist in one of the stories. The first story, “Sparrow”, involves Bode trying to make friendships but preferring isolation, and he eventually puts himself into the body of a sparrow for a bit of time. And this is all drawn and written in a way that is in tribute to “Calvin and Hobbes”, a comic that has been near and dear to my heart since I was a small child. While it’s true that some of the juxtapositions of the nostalgic and bright Watterson style mixed with the gore and violence of “Locke & Key” is unnerving, I honestly thought that it was super charming and fun to give Bode this kind of adventure with a loving tribute to a cartoonist and storyteller that clearly inspired the Hill and Rodríguez.

“Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” has left us two thirds of the way into the story of the Locke family, and we are now heading for the final showdown between them and Dodge over the keys in Keyhouse. I know where we are going, and I’m still a little nervous to tread into the places that I know are coming up. But Hill and Rodríguez have something truly wondrous in store, and I’m ready.

Rating 8: Some things come to a head in this volume plot wise, with some social commentary and “Calvin and Hobbes” love thrown into the mix, which is a pretty good combination for the start of the final issues of this series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Coming of Age Horror Novels”, and “Required Reading Graphic Novels”.

Find “Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 3): Crown of Shadows”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 3): Crown of Shadows” by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, July 2010

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The dead plot against the living, the darkness closes in on Keyhouse, and a woman is shattered beyond repair, in the third storyline of the Eisner-nominated series, Locke & Key! Dodge continues his relentless quest to find the key to the black door, and raises an army of shadows to wipe out anyone who might get in his way. Surrounded and outnumbered, the Locke children find themselves fighting a desperate battle, all alone, in a world where the night itself has become their enemy.

Review: I continue to find myself becoming completely immersed in this re-read of “Locke & Key”, Joe Hill’s fantastic dark fantasy horror series. I think that it had been long enough since I read it that I had forgotten some things that have been nice surprises, which is good. But even the things that I have stark memory of are still hitting me where it hurts. I didn’t remember that it’s a slow build up of actual plot progression in favor of character development, and that is made pretty clear in “Crown of Shadows”.

Dodge is making some moves in this book when it comes to trying to get the keys, though it wasn’t as much as I thought it would be. His first big plot point is dealing with the angry ghost of Sam, who is still trapped in Key House and is PRETTY pissed that Dodge manipulated him. The other is his continued quest for the keys. We are about halfway through the series at the end of this, and while Dodge does have some moments of significance here (outside of Sam’s ire), Hill is still taking his time. The biggest development is a Shadow attack on Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, in which Dodge uses literal shadow creatures to try and find the keys and take out anything, i.e. the Locke Kids, that stand in the way of that. It’s the first significant battle between Dodge and the kids, with Tyler at the helm for the most part, and I was once again enthralled with the directions Hill took this, even though I’d read it before. It’s a BIG battle, but we still don’t really know what Dodge’s end plan is, and why he wants all these keys. Again, I know that we get there, and I know that Hill is biding his time, but it just surprised me that we still haven’t gotten clarification on that, NOR have we found out much more about where Rendell fits into all of this outside of a couple sinister clues. It’s a slow burn. Hill is good at that, but I just wanted a little more clarity right now as I think it’s going to get a bit hectic, if I remember correctly.

But it’s the subplots involving Nina and Kinsey that really stuck chords with me as I re-read “Crown of Shadows”. When I initially read it, I don’t think that Nina’s plight caught my attention as much as it should have, as when I read it this time I was just shattered for her and where she is. She’s still drowning in the trauma that she has endured due to the brutal murder of her husband, as well as the violent rape committed against her during the home invasion, and now that Duncan is off dealing with Brian’s injury she is adrift with her three children, and her dependence on alcohol is far more obvious to them now. Her agony is compounded by the horrible guilt she feels as a mother who can’t give her children the love and support and protection that they need, and that sends her into an even deeper spiral, which leads to more drinking, and it just keeps cycling. Hill always covers this with empathy and care, and it never felt exploitative to me. He just knows how to tell it the right way. But then we get an interesting development involving her daughter Kinsey. When we left Kinsey in the last volume, she had used the Head Key to remove her sense of fear. We now see that playing out in two ways in “Crown of Shadows”. The first is the obvious way: she isn’t fearful of risky or dangerous situations anymore. In this volume Kinsey finds herself in a couple of dangerous situations. The first is the aforementioned shadow attack at the house, in which she is cool as a cucumber and completely unphased, while the second is when she and her new friends get trapped in a cave with rising water. While the other teens are understandably freaking out, Kinsey is casually trying to figure out a solution. She’s also a bit more adventuresome in her interactions with others, no longer insecure about being around other people. But the less obvious path Hill takes her upon has everything to do with Nina and Nina’s emotional spiral: Kinsey has absolutely no problem telling her mother what a fuck up she thinks she is, completely comfortable to unload on her whenever Nina has a bad moment. Hill ties the idea of empathy to fear, at least it seems that way to me, and that is SUCH a fascinating theme to lay out with these two women, with one who is consumed by it and one who has excised it, and how bad both scenarios are.

“Locke and Key (Vol. 3): Crown of Thorns” may have given Dodge just a little more ground in his quest to get the keys, but the lack of key movement gave the Lockes, especially the women, more time to shine. Things have to be looking up for the Lockes soon, right? I mean, I think I remember the answer to that question, but we’ll see when I go on to “Keys to the Kingdom”!

Rating 8: We get some slow plot progression and some dark but well done character development, and “Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows” continues the moving tale of the Locke Family, and those who are after them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 3): Crown of Shadows” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Coming of Age Horror Novels”, and “Graphic Novels That Are Quality”.

Find “Locke & Key (V0l. 3): Crown of Shadows” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “All These Bodies”

Book: “All These Bodies” by Kendare Blake

Publishing Info: Quill Tree Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Sixteen bloodless bodies. Two teenagers. One impossible explanation.

Summer 1958—a string of murders plagues the Midwest. The victims are found in their cars and in their homes—even in their beds—their bodies drained, but with no blood anywhere.

September 19- the Carlson family is slaughtered in their Minnesota farmhouse, and the case gets its first lead: 15-year-old Marie Catherine Hale is found at the scene. She is covered in blood from head to toe, and at first she’s mistaken for a survivor. But not a drop of the blood is hers.

Michael Jensen, son of the local sheriff, yearns to become a journalist and escape his small-town. He never imagined that the biggest story in the country would fall into his lap, or that he would be pulled into the investigation, when Marie decides that he is the only one she will confess to. As Marie recounts her version of the story, it falls to Michael to find the truth: What really happened the night that the Carlsons were killed? And how did one girl wind up in the middle of all these bodies?

Review: Back in October I found myself in a super stressful situation. The pipes in our house were continuously backing up, with supposed solutions being trotted out and then falling through, all while my husband was out of town for a week for work. After a third plumbing misadventure led to pipes backing up into even MORE sinks than previously, I eventually packed our daughter up and went to stay with my parents until it could all be sorted out. But since they live near my favorite children’s bookstore, I took an excursion one day to do some book retail therapy, and that was where I saw “All These Bodies” by Kendare Blake on a Halloween display. And that was how a book about a number of murders with bloodless bodies at the forefront was added to a self care regimen. I’d read Blake before, be it in short story form or her book “Anna Dressed in Blood”, and felt that it was high time to dive back in. Bonus: this book takes place in Minnesota, and as a typical Minnesotan I LOVE media that references my home state. And if you combine that with a story that takes influence from Starkweather and Fugate AS WELL AS the Clutter Family Murders, AND THROW IN SOME VAMPIRE LORE TOO?

You betcha I’m interested in that kinda thing. (source)

“All These Bodies” is a horror novel when it comes down to it, but it takes a couple of horror themes and smashes them together. The first is the small town loss of innocence post murder horror theme, one that usually is seen more in thrillers, but if implemented properly can be full on horror. Blake is clearly influenced by two huge American cases from the middle of the 2oth Century that I mentioned above: the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, and the Clutter Family Murders. The first involved a young man and his teenage girlfriend who traveled on the interstates randomly killing people, the second was an entire family killed in their home in the middle of the night by intruders looking for cash. Both completely obliterated the idea that rural America is totally safe from violence at the hands of strangers. Blake captures the absolute fear and disillusionment of Black Deer Falls, Minnesota, as tension builds up and neighbors question all they believed about their safe community. When the only suspect is a teenage girl covered in blood named Marie, our protagonist Michael wants to find out what happened, not only because he’s a budding reporter, but also because he just wants to make sense of something so senseless. Everyone else in town is convinced that Marie is the perpetrator, as are authorities from Nebraska, where other victims were found. Blake does a superb job of creating a rapport between that of a naive teenage boy, and a teenage girl who knows the horrors of the world and what will ultimately become of her, even if she, herself, is a victim of something very, very dark and supernatural in nature. Marie is a combination of creepy in her own right, but also vulnerable and tragic. She knows that she’s going to be the bad guy because of hysteria, because of her gender, and because of her background, even though someone much worse is out there, no matter her role. Because someone has to pay for this, and she fits the bill. It’s eerie and sad, and Blake mastered blurring the lines between potential murderer and potential victim.

And the other horror element is that a vampire is quite possibly the real culprit of all of this, and continues to stalk Black Deer Falls and Michael as he tries to get the truth from Marie. Vampires have been a bit neutered in recent YA stories, and since a lot of iconic vampire lore is so closely tied to sensuality and eroticism it’s hard to be mad about it. But Blake taps into the idea of a vampire being a predator through and through, be it when it comes to feeding on people and draining them of their blood, or manipulating a desperate girl to possibly do unspeakable acts. This vampire is mostly off page in this book, and that just made the tension all the more freaky as the book went on, as unseen threats just give me the willies in a primal way. There is one particular moment in the woods while Michael and a friend are tracking a deer, and Michael starts to get the feeling that it isn’t just the deer being tracked, and let me tell you, it is UNSETTLING AS HELL.

But that is the best thing about “All These Bodies”: the ambiguity of it all. Instead of deciding to be clear cut in her story and what is going on, Blake instead opts to leave some things a bit open ended so the reader has to draw their own conclusions as to what happened to all the bodies drained of blood. Sometimes the need for ambiguity made the story run a bit long, however, and while I like the due diligence of trying to make things grey, there were sometimes that it got repetitive as Michael contemplates if Marie is a monster or a damsel in distress. But that aside, I’m pretty sure I know where I fall in terms of conclusions, but you could make the argument for it to go the other way. Healthy debate in horror is always welcome, and I would love to hear what others think, if you’ve read this!

“All These Bodies” brings bittersweet pathos to a vampire tale, and I think it’s a nice way to explore vampirism and what it symbolizes in a YA setting. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rating 8: A creepy, ambiguous, and somewhat tragic story about small town innocence lost and predatory men, vampires or not, “All These Bodies” is melancholy and unsettling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All These Bodies” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Horror Releases”, and “2021 YA Horror Written By Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Find “All These Bodies” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Mary Shelley Club”

Book: “The Mary Shelley Club” by Goldy Moldavsky

Publishing Info: Henry Holt & Company, April 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: New girl Rachel Chavez is eager to make a fresh start at Manchester Prep. But as one of the few scholarship kids, Rachel struggles to fit in, and when she gets caught up in a prank gone awry, she ends up with more enemies than friends.

To her surprise, however, the prank attracts the attention of the Mary Shelley Club, a secret club of students with one objective: come up with the scariest prank to orchestrate real fear. But as the pranks escalate, the competition turns cutthroat and takes on a life of its own.

When the tables are turned and someone targets the club itself, Rachel must track down the real-life monster in their midst . . . even if it means finally confronting the dark secrets from her past.

Review: Though Halloween is over, we all know that it lives on in my heart year round, and that I’m always into reading something creepy and crawly no matter the time of year. But I am definitely kicking myself a bit for not reading “The Mary Shelley Club” by Goldy Moldavsky during the Halloween Season, because it would have been SO PERFECT. I was basically able to read it in one day, for one, and for another it wraps itself up in the comfort and familiarity of horror movies, and those who love them. Honestly, that sounds like a great Halloween read. Kicking myself just a little bit here for sitting on it.

When it comes to the foundation and bare bones of this book, we have Rachel Chavez, a teenage girl who survived a traumatic home invasion that left her attacker dead, and her psyche on edge. She’s moved to a new school for a fresh start, but is having trouble fitting in outside of her one friend Saundra, so she turns to horror movies to try and control her anxiety. Rachel as a main character is great. I thought that her characteristics have all the boxes you like to see for a ‘final girl’, so following her made narrative sense. I also liked how her trauma is introduced early, but parsed out over time and shows actual mental and emotional fallout for her. And her love for all things horror is so, so endearing, as I am always for stories that have spooky girls whose love for scary things may be more about exploring the horrors of life in a safe way (because I feel this on a deep cellular level). I also liked seeing her interact with various members of The Mary Shelley Club, a secret group that specializes in all things horror as well as setting up elaborate and scary pranks on unsuspecting targets. From the sarcastic and catty Thayer to charismatic and charming Freddie, Rachel has her allies and people she can bond with, while making the usual mistakes that someone desperate to fit in may make. Especially when other members, like sullen Felicity and mysterious Bram aren’t as warm to her presence as a new member.

The plot and mystery itself is a little bit weaker. The big question about this story is who is starting to target the members of the Mary Shelley Club as their pranks start to go wrong, and there may be an outsider who is hoping to take one of them out. While I thought that Moldavsky has the pacing down well, and while there were a couple moments of surprise as the mystery continues, overall I thought it was kind of easy to see what was happening in terms of red herrings and reveals. But some of those weaknesses were easy to overlook, because what I liked best about “The Mary Shelley Club” that elevated it from mere ‘okay’ status is the love of horror movies that is displayed on the page. Moldavsky has made a cast of characters, especially in Rachel, that showcase a wide range of horror movie affection, and the references are ample and peppered throughout the narrative. And while they aren’t as in depth or expansive as, say, “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”, there are still so many that made me smile from ear to ear. Rachel and the other club members debate the merits of the original “Black Christmas”, they dress up as various horror movie icons for Halloween, the movies on their watch lists are fun to spot, and even when I didn’t agree with the things Rachel said about various horror movies, I still appreciated the references(but seriously, “Sleepaway Camp” being described as the worst horror movie of all time is a BIT much. Cheesy, yes. Inadvertently transphobic, probably. But the WORST?).

When stupid trying to be funny but completely unwatchable dreck films like “ThanksKilling” exist, there is no way “Sleepaway Camp” is the worst horror film of all time, (source)

Overall, “The Mary Shelley Club” is a fun book because it has such an earnest love of horror and all the beautiful things and people that come with it. Goldavsky has set up for potential sequels, and I would probably read them with relish.

Rating 7: A fun tribute to horror movies and the people who love them, “The Mary Shelley Club” isn’t super unique narrative wise, but has a couple surprises, and some good moments of suspense.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Mary Shelley Club” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books in Academia”, and “2021 YA Horror Written by Women (cis and trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Find “The Mary Shelley Club” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Joint Review: “Comfort Me With Apples”

Book: “Comfort Me With Apples” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Tor.Com

Where Did We Get This Book: Received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.

It’s just that he’s away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.

But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband’s face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can’t quite meet her gaze

But everything is perfect. Isn’t it?

Kate’s Thoughts

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novella!

I will be the first to admit that, unlike Serena, I haven’t really found myself connecting with the works I’ve read by Catherynne M. Valente. I know that fantasy readers really love her stories, and I recognize the talent there, though the content itself hasn’t ever wowed me. But when Serena asked if I’d be interested in joint reviewing Valente’s new horror/dark fantasy novella “Comfort Me With Apples”, I was totally game. After all, the description was mysterious, with hints of Bluebeard and suburban horror, and I figured that all those things combined would make for an interesting tale. And then Valente went and shocked me with a whole other element that TOTALLY WORKED… and that I can’t really talk about because I don’t want to spoil anything.

Frustrating I know, but really, you should go in a bit blind. (source)

But here is what I will say about “Comfort Me With Apples”: Valente has created a very well plotted novella that slowly builds the unease from the jump, and it eventually escalates to dread, and hope, and frustration, and a bit more dread. We get two different ways of telling this story: the first is the story of Sophia, a young wife living in the perfect community of Arcadia Gardens, with a perfect husband that she feels completely devoted to and defined by, who shouldn’t have any care in the world as everything is so laid out and, well, perfect. As she lives her day to day life of perfection, she starts to have niggling doubts due to how secretive her husband can be, and small, creepy discoveries she’s making in her home that imply that someone was there before her. We also have the rules of this community interspersed in the narrative, as they go from general (if not incredibly stiff) HOA guidelines, to things that sound far more punitive and threatening. I loved how Valente used both these ways to clue you in to what Sophia was slowly discovering about herself, and the secrets her husband, and neighbors, are keeping. And boy did it build up and seep into my veins. I don’t know what I expected from this short story, but it definitely blew past them, and hit every single thing that I wanted it to hit when the big picture was finally clear for all to see.

I enjoyed this novella quite a bit. If you want a quick, creepy, and in some ways frustrating (in a good way?) read, definitely look into “Comfort Me With Apples”.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve really liked Valente’s books before, most especially her “Fairyland” series. Knowing her writing style, very lyrical and and fanciful style, I was really curious to see how that would adapt to a more chilling tone and story. I had high hopes, which is why I brought in our resident horror expert! But even with that in mind, I was still struck with just how well her unique use of words and phrasing would work to draw an increasingly disturbing picture. The build is slow, but the tension and dread wrap around you from quite early on, even if you can’t put your finger on just what is wrong.

Like Kate mentioned, this book is incredibly hard to review without spoiling the many secrets that are slowly unveiled as the story progresses. I think it is particularly interesting, though, having both Kate and I read it, because in some ways, we both came at this book from very different perspectives. Kate is more familiar with general horror and thrillers, giving her a unique perspective on the story. And I….

More like, I have a particular background knowledge set that I can’t mention because it will spoil the story. That said, those who have the same history will be quick to pick up on some elements of the story and can see where things are going a bit early on. Not to brag, but I was even able to put names to characters who never make the page. Yeah, be impressed. But that’s really neither here nor there in the end, as I don’t think being able to predict some of these twists or not really affects the reading experience too much. It was still super creepy and a very unique twist on some familiar elements.

Kate’s Rating 8: Unexpected and creepy, and hits all the right buttons for the kind of story it ends up being!

Serena’s Rating 8: A quick but creepy read that wraps up some familiar (and less familiar) elements into a brand-new tension-filled tale.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Comfort Me With Apples” is included on the Goodreads lists “Suburban Gothic”, and “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Find “Comfort Me With Apples” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, 2009

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Following a shocking death that dredges up memories of their father’s murder, Kinsey and Tyler Locke are thrown into choppy emotional waters, and turn to their new friend, Zack Wells, for support, little suspecting Zack’s dark secret.

Meanwhile, six-year-old Bode Locke tries to puzzle out the secret of the head key, and Uncle Duncan is jarred into the past by a disturbingly familiar face.

Open your mind – the head games are just getting started.

Review: I am definitely enjoying going back and reading “Locke and Key” if only because of how it still manages to surprise me on my second read through. I’m curious to try and give the Netflix series a chance again, as I watched the first few episodes and then kinda lost interest. But reading “Head Games” has reminded me that Joe Hill was laying groundwork for so many things early on, and while it’s a slow process, you can see that it’s all going to fall into place as time goes on. “Head Games” takes its time. But it is definitely laying a lot of foundation, while still hitting emotional beats.

There is still a fair amount of groundwork to be laid out in this series, and “Head Games” continues to slowly peel back the origins of the demon Dodge, who has taken on the form of a teenage boy named Zack, and gone to the high school gym teacher, Ellie Whedon to be used as cover. Because this form is the exact replica of Rendell Locke’s high school friend Luke Caravaggio, who was Ellie’s boyfriend at the time. We don’t know as of now what happened to Luke, nor do we know when we start what hold Dodge has on Ellie, and Hill carefully and methodically starts to reveal various elements of Ellie, Rendell, and their connections to Dodge and the keys. Ellie’s story is particularly sad, as she is wracked with guilt over the unknown thing that happened in high school, and is trying to care for her special needs son Rufus. Dodge/Zack knows just how to manipulate and terrify her, and it reinforces the insidiousness of Dodge, as well as some dark secrets that Rendell and his friends may have been hiding.

We also get to see Dodge/Zack start to realize that staying incognito may not be so easy. After all, Duncan Locke, Rendell’s brother and the uncle to Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, was a little kid during the time that Rendell et all were headed on an unknown dark path to Dodge and the keys, and seeing this new teenager hanging out his nephew and niece could be tricky for the demon should he put two and two together. This also opens up the door to see a little bit more about Duncan’s life now, having to step in as a parent to his nephews and niece given that his sister in law is incredibly traumatized and unable to care for them too well at the moment. We also see his romantic life at the front of a subplot, as he and his boyfriend Brian find themselves targets of homophobic violence. It’s not super great that this is the big storyline for Duncan, but I will say that it does flow into a bigger picture storyline with Dodge and the keys, so that’s something anyway.

But in terms of straight up fantasy world building, “Head Games” starts to dig into the depths of another one of the keys that the Locke siblings have discovered. The focus this time is on the Head Key, in which a person can insert the key into their head, and open up their consciousness and imagination to add things, or remove them. Bode stuns his siblings with this trick, and while Tyler is interested in what you can add (after all, inserting a book makes it so you know all the contents within that book), Kinsey, still deeply feeling the trauma of her Dad’s murder and the family attack, is more concerned about what you can remove. And decides to remove her ability to fear, and her ability to cry. Going through the first time I didn’t think too much of it, as there was still so much going on that I was trying to wrap my head around, but now that I’m going through again with a lot more knowledge, I could appreciate just how utterly heartbreaking Kinsey’s arc is. While Bode was probably too young to understand everything that happened as of now, and while Tyler has been pushing it down, Kinsey’s deep pain has made it so she just doesn’t want to deal with any of it anymore, and decides to remove crucial parts of herself to do so. It’s such a fascinating place to take this Head Key storyline, and I think it’s so well done.

And the illustrations are still excellent. Gabriel Rodríguez really gets to let loose in this volume, since the Head Key is so abstract and outside the box.

A look into Bode’s mind. (source)

Rating 8: Still a lot of groundwork being laid into the mythos, but “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” is starting to slowly unravel all the secrets of Key House.

“Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” continues to bring a strong dark fantasy/horror feel to a cerebral and funky series. I am very stoked to go back and revisit the next volume, as I’m sure I will continue to be surprised at what I do and don’t remember.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” is included on the Goodreads lists “Graphic Novels That Are Quality”, and “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”.

Find “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “The Bright Lands”

Book: “The Bright Lands” by John Fram

Publishing Info: Hanover Square Press, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The town of Bentley holds two things dear: its football, and its secrets. But when star quarterback Dylan Whitley goes missing, an unremitting fear grips this remote corner of Texas.

Joel Whitley was shamed out of conservative Bentley ten years ago, and while he’s finally made a life for himself as a gay man in New York, his younger brother’s disappearance soon brings him back to a place he thought he’d escaped for good. Meanwhile, Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark stayed in Bentley; Joel’s return brings back painful memories—not to mention questions—about her own missing brother. And in the high school hallways, Dylan’s friends begin to suspect that their classmates know far more than they’re telling the police. Together, these unlikely allies will stir up secrets their town has long tried to ignore, drawing the attention of dangerous men who will stop at nothing to see that their crimes stay buried.

But no one is quite prepared to face the darkness that’s begun to haunt their nightmares, whispering about a place long thought to be nothing but an urban legend: an empty night, a flicker of light on the horizon—The Bright Lands.

Review: I went to a high school with a pretty terrible football team. And hey, sports weren’t really the point of this academic institution, but it was pretty funny that we were a few blocks away from one of the most elite sports schools in the state, while we just crashed and burned on the football field repeatedly. I went to one football game my entire high school career, and I only went because the guy I had a crush on was going. Oddly enough, that was one of the few games we won during my high school time. So I really don’t connect to the high school football worship that I hear about, but I absolutely know that it is a THING and that I am not interested in it at all. Enter “The Bright Lands” by John Fram, a small town with secrets (and a high school football obsession) horror novel that takes on not only urban legend scary story themes, but also a dismantling of homophobic and toxic masculinity culture. It really succeeds at the latter. The former, on the other hand, leaves a bit to be desired.

Our protagonist (well, one of many, but we’ll get there) Joel is a gay man who fled his small Texas town of Bentley after his sexuality was exposed in a very public and demeaning way. While hasn’t gone back and has been living it up in New York City, his younger brother Dylan, star of the football team, is his tie back to his home. So when Dylan reaches out via text and sends him strange and disturbing messages, Joel goes back, hoping to help his brother…. who then disappears. This is the bare bones of this book: a gay man who has to return to the town that inflicted great pain on him in hopes of saving his brother, and unbeknownst to him that the town is living with a dark secret that has been feeding off of young men for decades. As Joel digs into the mystery, he is once again steeped in the small town football craze, how the football players get away with a lot, and how gay people like him are harassed and brutalized by the community. Fram really presents how a town that prides itself on community and family values can be so harmful to LGBTQIA+ people, and how gay men will go to many lengths to hide who they are, or to suppress it with terrible consequences. I also liked seeing how he took the idea of the small town football obsession and examined how the value placed upon it and those who play it (who then are rarely held accountable for when they do bad things) can be unfair at best, and incredibly damaging at worst. The town places football on a pedestal that it will do anything to keep the secrets and wrongdoing of those involved hidden, and anything to keep them happy. All of this I really, really liked.

What didn’t work as well in “The Bright Lands” were the huge cast of characters, and a supernatural plot line that felt a bit neglected. I went in thinking that Joel was going to be the main person we followed. Then there was also Clark, Joel’s high school girlfriend (and unwitting beard) who is now a local cop who is pulled into Dylan’s disappearance and all that comes after. I could handle two, as both Joel and Clark work well together, they have a connection that has a bit of conflict, and they play well off each other characterization wise. But then there are a slew of other characters we follow, from football players to girlfriends to suspects and others, and it makes for a lot of perspectives that jump around a lot. Had we been more focused on Joel and Clark, I feel like I would have followed it a bit better, but as it was it felt like not enough attention was paid on most of the people we were following. On top of that, there is definitely an urban legend/supernatural element to this tale that makes it more of a horror novel than a thriller, involving some kind of being or creature that Clark had been told about by her mother when she was a girl, and Joel had potentially seen in passing one crucial night in his youth. And while it does, ultimately, focus in on this element by the end, it’s so few and far between in the build up that it feels more tacked on than anything else. It was a shame, because there was a lot of potential there that just wasn’t quite realized.

“The Bright Lands” has things that work and things that don’t, but I’m definitely interested in reading more John Fram in the future. Still not interested in the high value placed on high school football you see from time to time.

Rating 6: A really good examination of homophobia and toxic masculinity within a community filled with secrets, but too many characters and not enough monster moments.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bright Lands” is included on the Goodreads lists “Make Horror Gay AF”, and “Queer Horror”.

Find “The Bright Lands” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!