Kate’s Review: “My Dearest Darkest”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  
Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “My Dearest Darkest” by Kayla Cottingham

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, March 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: WILDER GIRLS meets THE CRAFT in this Sapphic horror debut that asks: What price would you be willing to pay to achieve your deepest desires?

Finch Chamberlin is the newest transfer student to the ultra-competitive Ulalume Academy… but she’s also not what she seems. Months before school started, Finch and her parents got into an accident that should have left her dead at the bottom of a river. But something monstrous, and ancient, and terrifying, wouldn’t let her drown. Finch doesn’t know why she woke up after her heart stopped, but since dying she’s felt a constant pull from the school and the surrounding town of Rainwater, like something on the island is calling to her.

Selena St. Clair sees right through Finch, and she knows something is seriously wrong with her. But despite Selena’s suspicion, she feels drawn to Finch and has a sinking feeling that from now on the two will be inexplicably linked to one another.

One night Finch, Selena, and her friends accidentally summon a carnivorous creature of immense power in the depths of the school. It promises to grant every desire the girls have kept locked away in their insecure hearts―beauty, power, adoration―in exchange for a price: human body parts. But as the cost of their wanting becomes more deadly, Finch and Selena must learn to work together to stop the horror they unleashed, before it consumes the entire island

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

As someone who loves horror as well as soapy academic settings, it’s probably not a big surprise that “My Dearest Darkest” by Kayla Cottingham grabbed by attention based on that summary alone. She also had me at the promise of a Sapphic romance with hints of “The Craft”, a film that I hold near and dear to my heart (and which will be referenced again soon on this blog…). I hopped into this horror novel with certain expectations, and while there were a couple stumbles here and there, there was a lot of potential and lot that was well executed.

I’m actually going against my usual process and will opt to start with the negative first, mostly because I feel like the positives are greater in the long run and I want to tackle them second. In terms of characterization, “My Dearest Darkest” is a little more on the weaker side than I was hoping for. I really liked misunderstood ‘bad’ girl Selena St. Clair, as her inner conflicts regarding toxic friendships, fear of rejection due to her bisexuality, and hardened spirit due to a traumatic event at the hands of someone she trusted makes for a complex character. She’s rough around the edges, but you also see just how big her heart is. Selena is the exception to the following critique. Everyone else is just kinda dull, from Selena’s mean girl friends to Finch, the new girl who has a strange connection to Nerosi, a strange being that has awakened on the school grounds who can grant favors to those who ask, if only for something in return. Finch has tragic background and a connection to a supernatural threat, but compared to Selena she fades a bit, falling back on meek characteristics we’ve seen many times before. I liked Selena and Finch as a burgeoning pair, but that, again, may have more to do with Selena. And don’t even get me started on various side characters, who are just there to provide exposition when convenient and little else.

But the horror elements. My GOSH the horror elements! Cottingham is not messing around here, bringing in multiple subgenres like body horror, Gothic horror, and Cosmic horror with some ghosties for good measure, and it all works really well. I wasn’t really sure of what to expect in this regard, as sometimes YA authors err on the side of caution and make horror moments a little less intense, hedging their bets in case there are readers who may need some restraint. Not this book. There were multiple moments where I was like ‘oh shit!’, from people pulling their teeth out, to descriptions of cosmic limbs in all their tentacled disgustingness, to a VERY creepy moment with a ghostly being that moved in jerky, uneven spurts. Which is totally one of the things in horror movies that really freaks me out.

It certainly didn’t help that I had just rewatched “Kairo”, the movie with this scene which nearly gave me a panic attack the first time I saw it. (source)

I also liked the Nerosi mythology and mystery, from an eight eyed stag familiar that brings nothing but trouble to an urban legend about a band that may be based in truth who disappeared years prior. At the end of the day, I pick up a horror novel because I want to be scared in some way, shape or form, and there isn’t any question that “My Dearest Darkest” was super creepy, with knowing nods to Lovecraftian ideas as well as the likes of “The Craft” and “Jennifer’s Body”. And what a glorious amalgamation it makes.

So while I thought that a lot of the characters were pretty cardboard in their execution, I really did like the horror elements, which elevated the book over all. I am very interested to see what Kayla Cottingham comes out with next, because their horror prowess is pretty solid!

Rating 7: While some of the characters felt a bit two dimensional and stiff, there was plenty of gnarly body and cosmic horror to make up for it!

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Dearest Darkest” is included on the Goodreads lists “Spooky Books with Bi Characters”, and “Queer Horror”.

Kate’s Review: “Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror” by Joh F.D. Taft (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, March 2022

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

Where Can You Get this Book: WorldCat | Amazon | IndieBound

Book Description: Dark Stars, edited by John F.D. Taff, is a tribute to horror’s longstanding short fiction legacy, featuring 12 terrifying original stories from today’s most noteworthy authors, with an introduction by bestselling author Josh Malerman and an afterword by Ramsey Campbell.

Created as an homage to the 1980 classic horror anthology, Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley, this collection contains 12 original novelettes showcasing today’s top horror talent. Dark Stars features all-new stories from award-winning authors and up-and-coming voices like Stephen Graham Jones, Priya Sharma, Usman T. Malik, Caroline Kepnes, and Alma Katsu, with seasoned author John F.D. Taff at the helm. An afterword from original Dark Forces contributor Ramsey Campbell is a poignant finale to this bone-chilling collection.

Within these pages you’ll find tales of dead men walking, an insidious secret summer fling, an island harboring unspeakable power, and a dark hallway that beckons. You’ll encounter terrible monsters—both human and supernatural—and be forever changed. The stories in Dark Stars run the gamut from traditional to modern, from dark fantasy to neo-noir, from explorations of beloved horror tropes to the unknown—possibly unknowable—threats. It’s all in here because it’s all out there, now, in horror.

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

“Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror” was a long time coming! As has been a theme for some books in the past two years, it was initially supposed to come out at one time, then got bumped back by a number of months due to various issues. It had been on my radar for awhile, as it was sporting the names of a number of my favorite authors (Caroline Kepnes and Stephem Graham Jones, what’s up?), AND was set up as an homage to horror anthology collections over the years (the title alone harkens to “Dark Forces”, a horror anthology from 1981 that is considered a game changer for horror short fiction in many horror circles). Those two things alone were enough to make me shrug off my nervousness about tackling a short story collection, when my experiences with such things are mixed. Granted, lately I’ve had a pretty good run with short story anthologies, but as a pessimist I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop!

I’ll break it down first with the stories I liked best. And the ones I’m picking are a mix of the obvious but also something new.

“The Attentionist” by Caroline Kepnes

Kepnes is one of my very favorite authors, so no duh she ends up as a top story in this collection. “The Attentionist” is a story that has a huge focus on sisterly rivalry, with a heavy dose of the original 1970s “Black Christmas” thrown in for good and horrifying measure. Maeve and Reg are teenage sisters, both desperate for the attention and approval of boys. They both have fantasies about being swept off their feet and live vicariously through each other, especially when Maeve gets a phone call that Reg answers and it leads to a fantasy about a potential boyfriend… But when Maeve picks up the phone, it isn’t a dream boy, but a threatening stalker, who keeps on calling, much to Maeve’s horror… and excitement. Kepnes is so damn good at making creepy and disturbing content go down with ease thanks to snark, sarcasm, and satire, and I was both very unsettled by this story while also being highly entertained. I liked the pacing, the turn on a dime reveals, and the way that Kepnes easily shows the consequences of her teenage girl characters being so deeply warped by society’s message about male approval at any cost.

“All the Things He Called Memories” by Stephen Graham Jones

Another favorite author makes it to my favorites list from this collection! And he did not disappoint, which isn’t surprising. “All the Things He Called Memories” is a blend of a few kinds of horror themes: isolation, the unknown, and the fear of not knowing a person you think you know. Jones sets his tale during the height of the first year of COVID-19, with married couple Bo and Marcy not leaving their home and trying to find ways to pass the time, Marcy suggesting they talk about their fears and the scariest thing they can remember from their lives. Bo talks about the feeling of always being watched whenever he was alone in his house, and feeling a presence around him…. And then, that presence starts to creep back into his psyche. But is it something supernatural, or a symptom of COVID restlessness.. or something worse? This story, like many Jones stories, has a deeply human element to it, with relatable characters and a slow build of creepiness that set my teeth on edge, and as Bo tries to figure out what is going on, Jones lays out many possibilities, only to have a very unsettling outcome that is going to stay with me for awhile. As someone who also has a terrible irrational feeling of being hunted while on the steps in my house, afraid of what may or may not be in the dark, this one was a home run for me.

“Challawa” by Usman T. Malik

I hadn’t read anything by Usman T. Malik until this short story collection, so I really didn’t know what to expect going in, but “Challawa” was fantastic. Karima and her husband Ed have travelled to India, with Karima interested in folklore and history of a small town that was the location of an English backed match factory during the Imperial occupation of Britain. As Karima learns of the folklore and mythology of the region, she is also dealing with her husband’s infidelity, the stillbirth of their child, and how their relationship has been reeling because of it (and other issues). As Karima gets closer to her guide and the lore, the history of violent colonialism bleeds in and leads up to a terrifying realization. This one was probably my favorite in the collection as a whole, as Malik not only has some great South Asian monster lore he’s working with, but also very real horrors of misogyny, racism, colonialism, and the traumas that all come with it. I’m reluctant to use this comparison because this is very much an Eastern story and shouldn’t have to have Western analogs, BUT, there are definitely similar universal themes that made me think of “Midsommar”. But given that I didn’t like “Midsommar”, I’m not going to say that “Challawa” is akin to it in all ways. It stands on its own as something unique and SUPER scary.

And while there were standouts from a couple more authors (I do want to acknowledge Alma Katsu’s story “The Familiar’s Assistant”, because man did that nail vampire themes!), the rest were mixed. There were some that were okay, or at least kept my attention, and there were others that really didn’t work for me, be it because of strange style choices, scattered narratives, or some slight to expansive appropriation of Indigenous cultural stories and themes. That last point aside, I’m sure that the variety of story types and subgenres means that there will be something for everyone in this collection, but as someone who is already wary of story collections the number of misses merely confirmed my wariness. There are certainly gems here, as you can see above, but having to get through the stories that weren’t as interesting was a bit of a chore.

If you are a horror person who really enjoys short story collections (and I know a few!), “Dark Stars” is a pretty good example of that. I’m always happy to find more authors I connect with, and that is something that this book provided for me.

Rating 7: A third really stood out, a third were okay, and a third were not for me. All in all, a mixed collection.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward to in 2022”.

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 6): Alpha & Omega”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 6): Alpha & Omega” by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, January 2014

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: The shadows have never been darker and the end has never been closer. Turn the key and open the last door; it’s time to say goodbye.

The final arc of New York Times bestselling Locke & Key comes to a thunderous and compelling conclusion.

Review: I feel like my re-read of “Locke & Key” went by in a flash. It could be because my re-read of “Sandman” was a few volumes longer, but I think that it’s also the fact that Joe Hill has created something that has depth, complexity, and some great horror and fantasy moments that is well packaged and easily digestible. I found myself kind of dreading the end, as I knew that it was going to pack an emotional wallop, but once I picked up “Alpha and Omega”, I basically devoured it in a sitting, taking breaks only to weep into my hands because of said wallop.

I don’t even know where to begin as I review the end of this series. Hill has built up to this moment, and you know that there are going to be a lot of casualties and a lot of collateral damage as Dodge makes his final moves into trying to open the Black Door, but when it centers around graduation night and a high school party in the caves, the stakes are raised to the highest point that the series has seen. It’s up to Tyler and Kinsey to try and stop Dodge, though they have no idea that Dodge has inhabited Bode’s body. So when Dodge does start wreaking havoc, all through the body of a child, it’s just heart-rendering to see. Especially since all the chaos that unfolds involves teenagers, and therefore other children. No one ever said that Hill was sunshine and rainbows, but I had forgotten just how goddamn bleak this last arc is as the horrors unleash and demons do their best to overtake Lovecraft, and perhaps the world at large. It’s a great reveal, it all comes together and makes sense in terms of what we’ve seen so far, and it is a fantastic climactic story arc for this series with awesome horror moments and full fledged mythology. And a whole lot of death, a lot of it coming for characters we have come to care for.

But there are also a lot of wonderful bits of hope throughout this tale. We’ve followed the Locke children (as well as their mother and uncle to lesser degrees), and now we get to see them come to the end of their journey and to live up to the potential of who they are meant to be, as Lockes and as people in general. Tyler and Kinsey have come so far as characters, and through the highs and lows of both I came to just fall in love with them both all over again, just like I did the first time I read it. They are teenagers with a lot of pain in their hearts, and they are messy and damaged, but they are also, ultimately, great people who love their family, even as the family has gone through something terrible and hasn’t figured out how to come through the other side just yet. Hill writes them both as incredibly human, and as such sometimes they just made me want to throttle them, and other times I want to hug them and never let them go. By the time we got to the end of their journeys, Tyler’s in particular, I was a weepy mess.

There are a couple things that don’t work. One is how Hill writes Jordan’s, Tyler’s girlfriend’s, final storyline. I feel like we never really got to fully explore Jordan as a character, as she was relegated to ‘bad girl with a heart of gold who pushes those who care for her away’. We’ve seen it before. She’s more there to give Tyler the ability to learn and grow, and I felt like she deserved more than that. There is also one big moment (no spoilers here) that didn’t really get the explanation I think that it needed, but ultimately these things are minor within the grand scheme of what does end up working. Because so much works.

And one more shout out to Gabriel Rodríguez. His artwork is so fantastic, and there are a lot of moments in this book that have emotional beats that fully rely on the visuals as opposed to what is being said.

Though full disclosure, these days any emotional content with mothers and daughters is going to set me off. (source: IDW Publishing)

“Locke & Key: Alpha and Omega” is a near perfect ending to a fantastic series. I am so glad that I decided to revisit it, as I feel like I got even more out of it this time than I did on my initial read. I imagine I will revisit the Locke Family in the future, as they and the story they have is a wondrous dark fantasy horror creation with so much heart.

And given that there is a crossover story with “Sandman”….. we may be seeing both worlds from some comic re-reads in the near future…

Rating 9: A practically perfect ending that made me weep, “Locke & Key (Vol. 6): Alpha & Omega” brings it all to the finish with emotion, horror, and hope.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 6): Alpha & Omega” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Coming of Age Horror Novels”, and “Graphic Novels That Are Quality”.

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “Sundial”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Sundial” by Catriona Ward

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

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, March 2022

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Sundial is a new, twisty psychological horror novel from Catriona Ward, internationally bestselling author of The Last House on Needless Street.

You can’t escape what’s in your blood

All Rob wanted was a normal life. She almost got it, too: a husband, two kids, a nice house in the suburbs. But Rob fears for her oldest daughter, Callie, who collects tiny bones and whispers to imaginary friends. Rob sees a darkness in Callie, one that reminds her too much of the family she left behind. She decides to take Callie back to her childhood home, to Sundial, deep in the Mojave Desert. And there she will have to make a terrible choice.

Callie is worried about her mother. Rob has begun to look at her strangely, and speaks of past secrets. And Callie fears that only one of them will leave Sundial alive… The mother and daughter embark on a dark, desert journey to the past in the hopes of redeeming their future.

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

You perhaps remember last Fall when I reviewed the supremely hyped horror novel “The Last House on Needless Street” by Catriona Ward. And that while I thought it was engaging and entertaining, I thought that the big twists and surprises were based in kinda cliché tropes that we’ve seen before, and that I called them from a mile away. I wasn’t super concerned about that when I saw she had a new book called “Sundial”, however, as I could tell that Ward has a serious talent for convoluted horror with a lot of misdirection and oddness. So I jumped in one weekend, eager to see if this one would be an experience that was a bit more fulfilling. And oh. It was. It was a fucked up ride but fulfilling it was.

Me closing my Kindle at 11pm after reading something so supremely fucked and feeling great about it. (source)

As a reader you are thrown into a very strange narrative when you start “Sundial”. All you know is that you are following Rob a wife and mother who is hiding a terrible backstory, is married to a shithead named Irving, and has two daughters, the softspoken Annie and the weird and morbid Callie, who likes to play with bones and may or may not be talking to ghosts. After a violent incident that involves Callie nearly ends in disaster, Rob in convinced that the wrongness in her is getting out of control, and takes her on a mother daughter trip to Sundial, the compound that Rob and her now absent twin sister Jack grew up on. Which involved animal research, complete isolation from the outside world, and Jack seeing ghosts that weren’t there? Does Ward explain any of this as we are tossed into the deep end? Nope. But all in good time we slowly get to see Rob’s backstory at Sundial, her relationship with her sister and her father and stepmother, and how she ended up in a violent marriage with a kid who has something wrong with her. It’s told in Rob’s present, as well as Callie’s present POV, and through flashbacks to Rob’s life moving up to the present. Ward is so good at keeping things unexplained without making them frustrating for the reader, as I was absolutely muttering to myself ‘what the fuck is going on?’ without getting mad about it. I really liked how it all comes together, and how even in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have predicted how so many things were going to shake out, while still seemingly ‘believable’ within the world we are exploring. It’s a very unique horror tale, and it works.

I also liked the characters in this book, at least the ones that we spend the most time with. And again, I want to emphasize that Ward kind of drops us in the middle of the high stress and strangeness life of Rob and doesn’t feel a need to explain until she is ready. But Rob is such a relatable and interesting character from the jump that it didn’t bother me. Why is she married to this man she obviously hates? What is she so afraid of when she sees how Callie is behaving? And also, why is Callie the way she is? I loved the way that we carefully peel back both of their characters and how nuanced they both were. I’m doing my very best to work in vague terms because it’s definitely best to go in with this muddy situation. But I ended up caring for them both and worrying about them both, even when they are potentially at lethal odds with one another. The fear, anger, and love between them really connects, and makes the read all the more emotional.

My one quibble? A couple of the twists were a bit frustrating to me, and I think I know why. Without spoiling, I’ll try and explain. The first is the most obvious, as it is once again a twist that happens right at the end as one last gotcha. You know that I don’t like this kind of thing unless it is REALLY earned. And actually, it is, for the most part, somewhat earned in this book. But it’s one that still felt a bit like a hackneyed ‘didn’t see THAT one coming moment!’ just for shocks, though not as bad as many are! The other is one of the twists involving Rob’s twin sister Jack, and how it changes some of the perceptions of Rob and her relationships with those around her (honestly, I thought that Jack was the least interesting character of them all, as she functions in tropes that we have seen many times before. It’s kind of too bad that she plays such a huge role in the story in term’s of Rob’s characterization and more, because I found her grating). The effect it had and the fallout that transpired was hard to swallow for me, as, again, it’s the kind of twist that has been done within themes like this before, and it’s one that feels over-explored at this point.

BUT, overall I really enjoyed “Sundial”! Ward has proven herself to be skilled at writing stories with discombobulating plots that eventually come together and make sense, and it worked even better this time around with even muddier waters to navigate. I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

Rating 8: A surrealistic and twisted horror tale about sisters, mothers, and daughters, “Sundial” kept me guessing and kept me riveted.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sundial” is included on the Goodreads lists “Horror to Look Forward To in 2022”, and “2022 Horror Written by Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Joint Review: “Dead Silence”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Dead Silence” by S.A. Barnes

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, February 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: We received eARCs from NetGalley and Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Titanic meets The Shining in S.A. Barnes’ Dead Silence, a SF horror novel in which a woman and her crew board a decades-lost luxury cruiser and find the wreckage of a nightmare that hasn’t yet ended.


Claire Kovalik is days away from being unemployed—made obsolete—when her beacon repair crew picks up a strange distress signal. With nothing to lose and no desire to return to Earth, Claire and her team decide to investigate.

What they find at the other end of the signal is a shock: the Aurora, a famous luxury space-liner that vanished on its maiden tour of the solar system more than twenty years ago. A salvage claim like this could set Claire and her crew up for life. But a quick trip through the Aurora reveals something isn’t right. Whispers in the dark. Flickers of movement. Words scrawled in blood. Claire must fight to hold onto her sanity and find out what really happened on the Aurora, before she and her crew meet the same ghastly fate.

Thank you to NetGalley and Edelweiss+ for providing us with eARCs of this novel!

Kate’s Thoughts

We’ve gone over this before, but I always like to preface my reviews of this genre with a note: I’m not super into Sci Fi as a genre, though there are certain exceptions that I am good with. Namely, “Star Trek”, the original “Star Wars”, and Space Horror as a subgenre. So when I saw “Dead Silence” by S.A. Barnes being chatted about on Twitter and Goodreads, I couldn’t help but have my interest piqued. Something described as “Titanic” meets “The Shining” is bound to be a unique combination, so I tossed my Sci Fi apprehension aside and took a chance! Especially since I was also getting some serious “Event Horizon” vibes from the description.

Where we’re going we won’t need eyes to see… (source)

And if you throw in “Alien” and “Aliens” into this mix, you pretty much have “Dead Silence”, which makes it a familiar but engaging space horror novel. Barnes does a good job of setting up our story, with our protagonist Claire at the end of her run as a Team Lead for a corporate space mission, who is worried about what she does next, as she has no money and no prospects due to a checkered past. So when she and her crew stumble upon a distress signal from the long lost space liner Aurora, which disappeared with numerous wealthy passengers on board, she sees an opportunity she can’t pass up. Things, of course, don’t go as well as she would hope, and carnage ensues. And in terms of space horror beats, “Dead Silence” hits them all pretty well with a combination of slow burn build up, well done exposition, and a genuinely disturbing scenario that will set the reader on edge. I was enthralled during the first half of the book, loving the haunted ship and how it was messing with Claire and her crew, as well as how Barnes slowly reveals Claire’s backstory and why she is already perhaps a little unreliable in her own mind in terms of what she thinks she is, or isn’t seeing.

But it’s definitely familiar. From a mysterious distress signal to a ship that perhaps is haunted and drives people to the brink to a corporation having a vested interest in what may or may not be on board, “Dead Silence” has a lot of elements that are straight call backs to other space horror stories. I think that had we not diverted from the original ‘crew goes aboard an abandoned vessel and finds terrible things’ plot, I probably would have enjoyed it more, but when we get to the very “Aliens”-esque ‘and now they’re forcing her to go back for their own motives’ plot in the second half, I was a little less enthused. That isn’t to say that it was poorly done, as it wasn’t. I still found it entertaining. But once a bit of the mystery was gone, or at least had changed a bit, the dread and suspense went down for me. And perhaps that’s because it started to lean more on other Sci Fi things that don’t resonate as much for me.

Regardless, I had a fun time reading “Dead Silence”. It totally makes me want to revisit the stories it was paying homage to.

Serena’s Thoughts

Hi! Surprised to see me reviewing anything with the slightest twinge of “horror”? But, like Kate with her reading of science fiction stories, I do make exceptions for horror stories that cross over into my preferred genres. I’ve read a few good horror fantasies last year, but this is the first horror sci-fi book I’ve read in quite some time. And man, emphasis on the “horror” part!

Like Kate references, there have been plenty of science fiction horror stories in the past, both on the screen and on the page. So with that in mind, going in I always feel like there are two rather predictable routes the book can take. And this book does employ one of those and some other commonly seen tropes. That said, the actual horror, dread, and jump scares of the book still came in hot and fast. The first half of the book had me on the edge of my seat. And, I won’t lie, several of of these scenes have stuck with me and popped into my mind at inopportune times when trying to get to sleep, even days later. It also helped that Claire herself was an unreliable narrator, so it was hard to know exactly what horror was coming from her and what was coming from the strange happenings on the Aurora.

But I’ll also agree with Kate that the book lags a bit towards the second half. It almost feels like the author got up to speed on the horror of the situation and then slams on the brakes, cutting all tension and suspense off at its knees. From there, it shifts gears, and while the story does build to a different sort of tension, we never regain the jittery creepiness of the first half. And that’s such a shame! As we learn, there was plenty of scary stuff to come and for some reason the author just jets us away from it all unexpectedly. It’s a bizarre choice, frankly.

That said, I definitely enjoyed this read and gobbled it up over only a few reading sessions. For me, a little horror goes a long way (can’t have too much nightmare fuel all at once), but this was definitely a good choice for one my rare ventures into the genre.

Kate’s Rating 7: Pretty serviceable space horror with some good scary moments, but also pretty familiar in terms of plot points.

Serena’s Rating 7: Very creepy when it stuck to its horror themes, but a bit baffling with some of the choices the author made later in the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dead Silence” is included on the Goodreads lists “Space Horror”, and “2022 Horror and Sci Fi Releases”.

Kate’s Review: “Echo”

Book: “Echo” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, February 2022

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

Book Description: Travel journalist and mountaineer Nick Grevers awakes from a coma to find that his climbing buddy, Augustin, is missing and presumed dead. Nick’s own injuries are as extensive as they are horrifying. His face wrapped in bandages and unable to speak, Nick claims amnesia—but he remembers everything.

He remembers how he and Augustin were mysteriously drawn to the Maudit, a remote and scarcely documented peak in the Swiss Alps. He remembers how the slopes of Maudit were eerily quiet, and how, when they entered its valley, they got the ominous sense that they were not alone. He remembers: something was waiting for them

But it isn’t just the memory of the accident that haunts Nick. Something has awakened inside of him, something that endangers the lives of everyone around him… It’s one thing to lose your life. It’s another to lose your soul.

FROM THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLING SENSATION THOMAS OLDE HEUVELT comes a thrilling descent into madness and obsession as one man confronts nature—and something even more ancient and evil answers back.

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

It’s been awhile, a long while, and I’ve been long anticipating a new book by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. I loved his last book “Hex”, the story of a small town cursed by the ghost of a witch that wanders the community and makes everything scary and awful for the townspeople. Like, it scared the hell out of me, truly scared me to my bones, which I always love to encounter in my books. So when I saw that he finally had a new book coming out in the U.S., called “Echo”, I was AMPED!!! Because if there is going to be an author who genuinely, GENUINELY scares the living daylights out of me, it’s going to be Thomas Olde Heuvelt.

Bring on the nightmares. I know they’re coming. (source)

And let me tell you, “Echo” has many moments that absolutely filled me with dread. The first chapter alone was enough for me to say ‘okay that’s enough for one night’ and close my Kindle. Heuvelt combines elements of survival horror, possession horror, body horror, folk horror, and a good old fashioned ghost story to tell his newest scary tale, one that is perfect for a cold winter’s night (we’ve had a couple of those this winter!). Heuvelt really knows how to slowly build up the slow creeping dread. As our protagonists Nick and Sam have to contend with what is happening to Nick post mountaineering disaster that left him disfigured, and his friend Augustin dead, we slowly see how things are so very wrong, and how both men are caught up in the supernatural danger in their own ways. With Nick, his body has been potentially inhabited by a malevolent force he can’t control. With Sam, his initial repulsion at his lover’s disfigurement turns into an unwavering obsession with keeping Nick close, keeping him safe, and trying to fix whatever it is that is wrong… even if it isn’t fixable. We get both of their perspectives through various means, be it personal journals, notes, or flashbacks, and as the truth as to what happened slowly comes to light, we also get introspection into their relationship as well as their core wants and fears. They are well conceived characters that I ended up caring about.

And as mentioned. The SCARES. OH THE SCARES. That first chapter scared the piss out of me, and Heuvelt sprinkles in a lot of horror moments that range from the somewhat unsettling to absolute nightmare fuel. By taking elements of a traditional possession story but making the origin of the possession more nature based than religious based, Heuvelt has breathed new life into the subgenre that I really appreciated. Anyone can be possessed by a demon, but who can say that they’ve been possessed by a piece of the natural world (I’m trying to be vague here, though other reviews have kind of unpacked it a bit more)? It’s very unique in its creepiness, and I liked that quite a bit. And his descriptions are still so vivid and visceral, knowing how to take basal, primal fears and translate them to the page. Goddamn this book is scary.

I will say that “Echo” does have some stumbles here and there. The first is something that I kind of mentioned above: there is a LOT going on. There are a lot of subgenres at work here, and while combining a couple could work wonders, when you throw a lot into the mix it becomes too much. I think that this is mostly because to do due diligence to all of these subgenres or tropes, it means that you have to spend a fair amount of time on each of them. And that makes for a long read, one that goes on a little too long. Especially since some of the elements invariably do feel under-explored. There was one offshoot during the last fourth of the novel in particular that I thought felt a bit tacked on, as while it absolutely did tie back to other parts of the book (and had a VERY upsetting moment that set me on edge), it felt like we had let this moment stay off to the sidelines for a bit too long before we do reconnect to it. Ultimately I think that it just felt overstuffed. Not enough to turn me off, mind you! It just could have used some trimming.

Ultimately, “Echo” delivered the scares. Thomas Olde Heuvelt once again messed me up and created a story that has disturbing elements that got under my skin.

Rating 8: Deeply disturbing and another solid winter horror story, “Echo” runs a little long and is overstuffed but has many scares along the way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Echo” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Wilderness Horror Stories”, and “Horror To Look Forward To In 2022”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 5): Clockworks”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 5): Clockworks” by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, 2013

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Tyler and Kinsey Locke have no idea that their now-deceased nemesis, Lucas “Dodge” Caravaggio, has taken over the body of their younger brother, Bode. With unrestricted access to Keyhouse, Dodge’s ruthless quest to find the Omega Key and open the Black Door is almost complete. But Tyler and Kinsey have a dangerous key of their own — one that can unlock all the secrets of Keyhouse by opening a gateway to the past. The time has come for the Lockes to face their own legacy and the darkness behind the Black Door. Because if they don’t learn from their family history, they may be doomed to repeat it, and time is running out!

Colonel Adam Crais’s minutemen are literally trapped between a rock and a hard place; in the first days of the Revolutionary War, they find themselves hiding beneath 120 feet of New England stone, with a full regiment of redcoats waiting for them in the daylight… and a door into hell in the cavern below. The black door is open, and it’s up to a 16-year-old smith named Ben Locke to find a way to close it. The biggest mysteries of the Locke & Key series are resolved as Clockworks opens, not with a bang, but with the thunderous crash of English cannons.

Review: As we know I’ve really been enjoying this re-read of Joe Hill’s dark fantasy horror series “Locke and Key”, though I’ve been saying the whole time ‘I don’t remember when and how a lot of this is all going to come together’. The exposition has been building and building and it’s been getting close to the end of the series and there are still a lot of questions to be answered. I remembered really loving the series overall, but I think that the first time I read this I was like ‘okay, I have two books left and few answers, is this going to pay off?’. Because it has to pay off.

And my God, does it pay off. Everything comes together so perfectly and with such thoughtfulness and intricacy that I was just blown away, even though it is my second time reading this book. Joe Hill’s storytelling prowess is at its best in this volume.

There are two major reveals in this story right when things have started to get dire for the Lockes (even if they don’t realize how dire). Given that Kinsey killed Dodge, and Dodge (or whatever it is) moved its consciousness into Bode’s body without them knowing it, the race is on for the Lockes to discover the truth before Bode/Dodge can find the Omega Key. The first reveal that we see we jump into right away, which is the origin of the keys, Keyhouse, the demon, and how the Lockes are connected to it. And we go all the way back to the Revolutionary War, in which we meet a young locksmith named Ben Locke, who discovers that hidden Minutemen have opened a door deep in a cave that has let an evil out that they are trying to put back and contain. The first time I read this I remember thinking that it went on a little long, but this time I thought that this origin story of the Black Door and the keys was pitch perfect. I loved the setting, I loved the connection to the Locke Family (and the backstory for the Lockes, who were victims of Red Coat tyranny), and I loved how Hill sprang this all on us but still managed to make it feel in depth and well explored. He lays his magical system out bare, and it falls into place with ease.

Our second big reveal is we finally, FINALLY, get to see how Rendell Locke and his friends ran afoul Dodge, as well as explanations as to how back in the day Dodge Caravaggio became the Dodge that we know now, how Ellie Whedon became so broken, and how Erin Voss lost her memories and her consciousness, and how ALL of it relates to the keys. And it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel super exposition-y, as we get another key reveal that allows for Tyler and Kinsey to go back in time to see everything happen, and to get a new perspective on their late father. While I do think that we didn’t get enough exploration of all of Rendell’s friends (specifically his girlfriend Kim; I appreciated that Hill tried to make her complicated, but she just came off as cruel and privileged more than anything else), the backstory itself is so fantastic, so heart wrenching, and so SCARY as a bunch of kids who have been bestowed a monumental responsibility of guarding keys get too complacent… and all hell breaks loose. Good God is this an emotional story arc, as we know how things turned out for a few of our characters, but we didn’t know how they got to that point. Hill makes it so complex, satisfying, and devastating, and it adds compounded grief as two kids who lost their father in a terrible act of violence have to see his biggest mistake that ruined lives as it unfolds. Goddammit, it hurts, and it’s beautiful.

And the artwork continues to be great. I can’t praise Gabriel Rodríguez enough, and he has this way of creating the most grotesque and disturbing images as well as the most tender and joyous.

This image specifically took my breath away. (source)

This penultimate volume is fantastic. We will finish up this re-read with the next and last volume, “Omega”. I’m not sure I’m ready to be emotionally destroyed by it, but it’s time regardless.

Rating 9: Fantastic pay off for all the build up before it, “Locke & Key: Clockworks” is the strongest in the series so far.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 5): Clockworks” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels!”, and “Best Coming-of-Age Horror Novels”!

Find “Locke & Key (Vol. 5): Clockworks” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “Road of Bones”

Book: “Road of Bones” by Christopher Golden

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

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

Book Description: A stunning supernatural thriller set in Siberia, where a film crew is covering an elusive ghost story about the Kolyma Highway, a road built on top of the bones of prisoners of Stalin’s gulag.

Kolyma Highway, otherwise known as the Road of Bones, is a 1200 mile stretch of Siberian road where winter temperatures can drop as low as sixty degrees below zero. Under Stalin, at least eighty Soviet gulags were built along the route to supply the USSR with a readily available workforce, and over time hundreds of thousands of prisoners died in the midst of their labors. Their bodies were buried where they fell, plowed under the permafrost, underneath the road.

Felix Teigland, or “Teig,” is a documentary producer, and when he learns about the Road of Bones, he realizes he’s stumbled upon untapped potential. Accompanied by his camera operator, Teig hires a local Yakut guide to take them to Oymyakon, the coldest settlement on Earth. Teig is fascinated by the culture along the Road of Bones, and encounters strange characters on the way to the Oymyakon, but when the team arrives, they find the village mysteriously abandoned apart from a mysterious 9-year-old girl. Then, chaos ensues.

A malignant, animistic shaman and the forest spirits he commands pursues them as they flee the abandoned town and barrel across miles of deserted permafrost. As the chase continues along this road paved with the suffering of angry ghosts, what form will the echoes of their anguish take? Teig and the others will have to find the answers if they want to survive the Road of Bones.

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

So many horror subgenres, so little time. I have always had a hit or miss relationship with folk horror, but I’m always up to try out books that catch my eye or get a lot of hype. So I was drawn to “Road of Bones” by Christopher Golden for a couple of reasons. The first was that I’ve been meaning to check out Golden for awhile, but haven’t done it yet. The second was that “Road of Bones” kept popping up on my various timelines with a lot of praise. So folk horror or not, I was down to jump all the way in. And the fact that it takes place in the cold wilderness of Siberia was just an added bonus, since I was reading it over some frigid winter days and nights here in Minnesota.

As cold as Siberia? Probably not. But it was recently -21 without windchill here, so…. (source)

“Road of Bones” does the ingenious thing of taking a real life horror and using it as the context and setting for a horror story steeped in folklore, history, and supernatural creepiness. The action of our tale takes place along the Kolyma Highway, a federal road that was built by and upon the bones of gulag prisoners during Stalin’s rule. It is estimated that perhaps at least half a million people died during construction, their bodies just paved over by permafrost and infrastructure. So, good lord that’s horrifying on its own, but Golden manages to take the location and make it all the more creepy and upsetting vis a vis Russian folklore. Our main characters are Teig and Prentiss, two filmmakers who have been friends forever and who are chasing one last dream (mostly Teig’s) of trying to create a ghost hunting show. Teig has his own reasons for wanting to chase ghosts that he doesn’t necessarily believe in outside of monetary ones, and Prentiss is there because he loves his friend, even if he’s exasperated by him. Their dynamic is a familiar one, but Golden makes you care about them as people and as friends. As they drive through the ice cold and desolate wilds of Siberia on a lonely highway, they find themselves suddenly in supernatural danger, and by the time we get to that point we care enough about them that anything that comes next is going to be high tension and high stakes. The other characters we meet have similar roles to play, from their brash local guide Kaskil to a stranded driver named Nari, and once they reach the small village they hope to rest in, it’s clear that things have gone very wrong. I liked all of our characters, so they were more than just fodder for angry spirits by the time shit started to get real.

But it’s the horror elements that really sold me on this book. I initially assumed that the supernatural element would be a traditional ‘angry ghosts’ kind of story, given that the Kolyma Highway has such a dark and violent history, but instead we go full folk horror with it, and hoo boy is it effective. From an abandoned village to shadows in the distant treelines to shamanism and forest spirits, “Road of Bones” runs a gamut of creepy elements that make for some really, REALLY scary moments. The isolation of a deadly tundra is scary enough on its own, and Golden makes that threat just one of many others that is always there to compound the other issues at hand. Golden taps into folklore and involves forest spirits, potential demonic possession, transformative body horror, and the fear of the missing and unknown. The descriptions of the abandoned village, of many sets of footprints wandering through the snow and into the woods, actively gave me shivers as I was reading (definitely had another ‘oh Jesus CHRIST’ muttering moment during one moment in particular), and let me tell you, the things that Teig, Prentiss, and the others encounter freaked me out, and a lot of that is based in folk horror tropes and imagery. Golden made it work for me, and how. The horrors of nature and the things that dwell within it combine super well with the location and terrible history that resides there.

“Road of Bones” is scary and highly enjoyable. I’m so glad that this was the Christopher Golden book that served as my first experience with his writing, as I really, really liked it.

Rating 9: A scary folk horror tale perfect for a cold winter’s night.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Road of Bones” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books of Horror FB Group”, and “Most Anticipated 2022 Thriller Books”.

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

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!

%d bloggers like this: