We live at a time when much of the world we assumed was permanent is being shown as transitory at best. Unsustainable systems of living are falling apart before our eyes reminding us how dead-eyed consumption charging into the future will lead to our deaths. Science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler saw humanity headed in this direction back in the 1990s when Parable of the Sower was published. The book is set in the distant future of 2024 and is told from the perspective of Lauren Olamina, a young Black woman living outside of Los Angeles. Her deceased mother’s use of drugs during pregnancy imbued Lauren with hyper-empathy, meaning she experiences the sensations and feelings of others. In a crumbling world full of violence and rage, this is a very horrible thing to have.
The Best Horror of The Year Vol. 11 (2019) edited by Ellen Datlow
It had been a while since I took a deep dive into some new horror, so I decided to check out one of the fantastic Best Horror of the Year collections. These are edited by the prolific Ellen Datlow, a person who has composed some excellent horror anthologies since the 1980s and served as the editor-in-chief of Omni magazine. Like all anthologies, this is a mixed bag of stories that will depend on the individual reader’s tastes. I wouldn’t say there is anything bad here, but I enjoyed specific stories more than others based on my personal preferences.
I recently surveyed the crop of writers that made up the “freshman class” of Vintage Contemporaries. Vintage Contemporaries was a Random House imprint started in the 1980s and intended to publish paperback editions of literary authors of the era. This is where you would have found legends like Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, and many more. Among those writers was Joy Williams. Williams is a Massachusetts writer whose focus is often on the gradual decay of American life. She looks at it from all angles with middle-class characters who become disconnected from the communities they thought they would never leave. Adults are usually in failed or failing majors, and children are left to their own devices by grown-ups who are busy having affairs or in their own existential spirals.
The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell: Stories by Brian Evenson
I am a big fan of Brian Evenson’s short stories, having read A Collapse of Horses and Song For the Unraveling of the World. He exists in that space that perfectly defines weird fiction. It’s not quite horror or science fiction or fantasy but a great amalgam of them all. This book isn’t officially out until August, but I came across a post on r/horrorlit linking to Edelweiss where they were offering a free copy-protected Kindle download. It definitely appears that the text isn’t officially formatted entirely yet. However, the writing is so good any visual blips fade away. The stories here are just long enough, never overstaying their welcome and unsettling the readers perfectly.
The next episode of the PopCult Podcast has dropped.
I open things up by talking about my personal views on the future of movie theaters and film distribution in the wake of COVID-19. This leads to our Top 5 list with Ariana where we share our Top 5 Book Adaptations. Then I go over the highlights of DC’s new Infinite Frontier initiative. The episode wraps with Ariana & I sharing some books we’ve recently read.
I had heard Kim Stanley Robinson’s name for years but never picked up any of his work. I’m very picky about science fiction. I don’t really go in for space opera stuff or anything too hardcore when it comes to technical things or machinery. I’m more a fan of the type of science fiction you find with Phillip K. Dick or Ursula K. LeGuin. This article in Jacobin piqued my interest and had me put this short story collection on the To Be Read list. I have to say I was extremely surprised by what I got in this book. I had to look up an interview with Robinson to get a sense of where he was coming from, and it made a lot of sense. He explained that his approach to science fiction is that the genre is about imagined future history, and that meant you could imagine a new past history, and that could also be a part of science fiction.
You Know You Want This: Stories by Kristen Roupenian
Author Kristen Roupenian has penned a collection of contemporary feminist horror stories. The tone and styles are varied so that each entry feels fresh and unique. “The Mirror, The Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” is told like a traditional European fairy tale but degenerates in the most lovely of ways to a twisted allegory on obsessive love. “The Boy in the Pool” is about a woman uncomfortable with the ways her childhood friends have grown apart from her. To reunite them in a shared sense of nostalgia, she attempts to find the sex symbol from a film they repeatedly watched as teenagers. Her goal is to have this man show up at one of the friend’s bachelorette party but doesn’t seem to know what should come next. “Scarred”’s narrator discovers a book of spells and ends of conjuring a man into existence but struggles to figure out what to do with him. “Biter” is a hilarious dark comedy about a woman who has fought an urge to sink her teeth into everyone since she was a child. When she becomes aware of a workplace tryst between coworkers, the woman sees an opportunity to indulge in her desires.
Pew is our narrator’s name, who gets the moniker when they are found sleeping on a church pew Sunday morning. This person is genderless, racially ambiguous, and never speaks out loud cause growing consternation in the traditionally conservative community they end up in. Pew seems to be a person outside the boundaries of time and space, an eternal being unsure of their own purpose. They become jostled from one location to the next as a charitable family because fed up with the inability to categorize Pew based on cultural norms, and they end up with the local pastor, elderly relatives, and a black family on the other side of town.
Abe lost his wife to cancer after only two years of marriage. Dan lost his wife and two children in a car accident. These two men have bonded in their grief by fishing in and around the Catskills and the Ashokan Reservoir. One day Dan suggests they try Dutchman’s Creek, a body of water Abe isn’t familiar with and can’t seem to find on any of his maps. Dan seems to know where the creek is, and on a rainy Saturday morning, they head out. A fateful stop at a diner in the area leads to them to hear the story of how Dutchman’s Creek got its name and a warning to stay away from this place. John Langan has a masterful command of language and the ability to create a palpable atmosphere. He does something that, by all sense, should not work in a novel. Langan interrupts the main story to tell a novella-length history of where the horror of Dutchman’s Creek came from. I’m always turned off when horror attempts to explain itself, but here he refuses to give the evil origins. The story is filtered through four or five layers of people so that we get very rough descriptions and details only when they are needed to punctuate the unnatural nature of the evil.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
This fantastic novel from Paul Tremblay begins with the hook of Majorie, a teenage girl, and her rebellion against her parents being read as demon possession. Told from the point of view of her younger sister, Merry, we follow the domestic turmoil of their father losing his job, falling back into religious zealotry, and possibly exploiting his eldest daughter’s mental state for money. The Church becomes involved, followed by a basic cable channel out to make a docuseries on the possession. It’s all told through conversations between a now-adult Merry and a reporter, with asides to a fan blog that breaks down the episodes of the reality series. Tremblay has publicly stated that the novel is meant to be open for a multitude of interpretations. The big question when you reach the end is, of course, “Was Marjorie really possessed?” By not including direct transcripts of The Possession reality series, only having their events filtered through The Last Final Girl blog and Merry’s memories, we are forced to crane our neck around bedroom door frames in an attempt to see what truly went on in that house.
Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron
Laird Barron is my favorite contemporary horror author and has been ever since I picked up his short story collections. They are often told in pulpy voices but with profoundly Lovecraftian themes. Barron hasn’t just cribbed entities from the Cthulhu’s creator but has developed his own mythos centered around The Old Leech. All of Barron’s collections are fantastic, but I chose this one because it features two of my favorite stories of all-time. In “Mysterium Tremendum,” we are introduced to a crowdsourced travel guide of occult locales across the nation that sends one couple and their visiting friends into the Pacific Northwestern wilderness. They encounter something primal, dating back to the days of Neanderthals, which ends in brutal violence. This isn’t where the story ends and where it’s epilogue leaves us is one of the most profoundly affecting conclusions I’ve ever read. The second story I love from this collection is “The Broadsword,” the tale of a nightmarish apartment building and a man who becomes targeted by entities that wander the halls at night. This story fully embraces the strange alien insectoid elements of the Old Leech mythos and gives Lovecraft a run for his money. I highly recommend everything Barron has written, so you are in for a treat no matter where you start.
Wounds: Six Stories from the Borders of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
The most significant selling point of this collection is that it repackages the novella The Visible Filth, which I previously reviewed. However, this book has some of the most fantastic horror stories I’ve read in a long time, revolving around the intersection of our world and the forces of Hell. “The Maw” is a horror story that brought me to tears. The ground opens up, and demonic forces emerge that cordon off a portion of a city. Oscar escapes with his only friend, his dog. His dog runs off at some point, and Oscar is convinced she’s gone back to his old apartment in the occupied area of the city. He employs a teenage guide, Mix, who keeps trying to get Oscar to turn back. This story combines the best of Clive Barker’s hellish imagery with heart-aching pathos about love and not having that love returned. The collection is bookended by stories that create a cycle, “The Atlas of Hell” and “The Butchers Table.” The first story is in contemporary New Orleans, where a mob boss forces a man to journey out into the swamp and recover an artifact. The second story is a magnificent novella that is the story of that artifact and how it came to be. “The Butchers Table” is Pirates of the Caribbean through a demonic filter with so many tense triggers that lead to a Grand Guignol of a finale. We follow a group of Satanists who have chartered a pirate vessel to take them to the borders of Hell. Everyone has a secondary motive, and it all culminates in something so nasty and satisfying. It’s a bunch of bad guys getting everything they deserve, described deliciously.
Song for the Unraveling of the World: Stories by Brian Evenson
I have yet to read any of Brian Evenson’s novels, but I have enjoyed his short stories so far. His first collection, A Collapse of Horses, was tremendous, but this volume is even better. He’s very confident in the work and can present multiple perspectives without ever being reductive about mental illness. Several characters could be considered mentally ill, but they never get presented as tropes. In “Room Tone,” a young filmmaker is obsessed with getting a filming space’s ambient noise. However, the house he shot his movie in has a new owner that wants to be left alone. The director just can’t move past this and goes to extreme lengths to get his recording. In “Born Stillborn,” a patient believes his psychiatrist is visiting him at night as he tries to go to sleep, asking the real questions. His daytime sessions are full of false questions with secret messages the doctor is sending. “Leaking Out” is a wonderfully simple horror tale about a drifter seeking refuge in an old house. The premise is classic, but the monster living in this place is nebulous and terrifying. “The Tower” is a dark fantasy apocalypse about what might be a vampire who comes to a scattered settlement of survivors. This story was one of my favorites and created such a fleshed-out world in so few strokes that it made me want to explore this world even more. “Lather of Flies is a mind-being horror story about a reclusive director’s lost film which goes to some fantastic places. This is one of the most substantial short story collections I’ve read this year, which says a lot because I’ve consumed some great ones.
The Collection by Bentley Little
This is the best bang for your buck, 32 short horror stories that are all over the place. With any short story collection, you’ll find ones you love, ones you hate, and all the stuff in the middle. Author Bentley Little just straight up loves all types of horror and finds ways to give his readers a sample of everything. Little offers a brief preface before each tale to note his inspiration or how he was commissioned to write this particular story. The most visceral and potent to me was “Life With Father,” the story of a patriarch obsessed with recycling to an upsetting degree. It’s told from his eldest daughter’s perspective, who has normalized this insane behavior along with her siblings. There’s a breaking point, and it ends on a strangely happy note. “The Washingtonians” is a delightfully bizarre alternate history that frames the first president and the founding fathers as child-eating ghouls. “Skin” sees a family stopping on a road trip, and discovering the historical home they are visiting is made of human skin. This has rippling effects on them all after returning home. “The Man in the Passenger Seat” is a surreal waking nightmare coming out of the question ‘What if you got in your car and a strange man was just sitting there refusing to leave?’ Little loves mixing dark comedy with his work and knows when a story needs to be straightforward and bleak.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemec
Julie and James feel a strong need to leave their urban apartment and purchase a home in the suburbs. They find a large house that is surprisingly affordable, but something is off even during their first walk-through. There is a hum coming from somewhere beneath them, inside the walls, never becoming too loud but always ringing in their ears. The couple shakes it off and goes on with moving in and making this home their own. Things just get worse though, rooms that didn’t exist before suddenly appear, stains appear on the walls that won’t seem to go away, and even the neighbor and boys playing in the woods nearby start to become figures of menace and dread. James and Julie start lying to each other, which only increases their paranoia and disconnect, leading to a horrific conclusion. The Grip of It is an indie horror film on the page. It is profoundly ambiguous and offers no clear explanations, and the supernatural is the canvas on which a more human story is painted. But that is its strength, that the truth about the house is unknowable to our main characters. Much like the television series The Leftovers, the focus is not on uncovering the hook’s roots, but rather how the people involved live with this aberrant element in their lives. The story teases with hints of who used to live in Julie and James’ home but never features exposition to spell it all out.
Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt
Greener Pastures is the debut horror short story collection from author Michael Wehunt. This was my first encounter with Mr. Wehunt’s work. What I found was a robust variety of stories that touch on various types of horror. Everything about this book feels nothing like a first-timer, but someone very confident in their craft, weaving themes into the narrative and building characters who react in real, human ways to terrifying situations. One of my favorites is “October Film Haunt: Under the House,” a found-footage story. Ever since I read Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, I have been a sucker for representing visual media in text for horror. There’s something so compelling about reading a transcript of found footage that is much more terrifying than seeing it. There is such distinct imagery in this piece, but the meaning is left ambiguous. I read this story a few days before the release of the Resident Evil VII demo that also features found footage in a haunted house, and this story is much scarier than the decent jump scares of the video game. The book’s cover features an image from this particular story, a dog emerging from the woods holding a wooden crown in its teeth. Something that bears such horrifying weight in the context of the story.
I have not dug into Stephen Graham Jones as much as I should have, but the work I’ve read is fantastic. This is his latest novel (released in July with another book coming out in September, the man is a workhorse) and continues his blending of Jones’s indigenous background with his love of horror. The Only Good Indians centers on four Native men who took part in an elk hunt a decade earlier. During the hunt, they did something and witnessed a horror that haunted them to varying degrees. The plot is structured to move from man to man and see how the curse on them plays out. In that way, the book is sort of a mish-mash of linked short stories and novellas. The book’s core is Lewis’s story, a postal worker who has moved away from his hometown and is living with a white woman. There’s some cultural guilt there, especially when a Native woman a little younger than Lewis starts working at his job. He’s torn between his individual wants and the expectations of his culture looming over him. Through this triangle, the horror begins to manifest itself, culminating in the middle of the novel and creating ripples that shape the rest of the text. There’s no way this story could be recast in a different culture, especially not whitewashed. This is a specifically Native people’s horror story, yet Jones taps into universal themes that cause the novel to resonate on multiple levels.