Review of “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It falls into the horror genre and was published by Tor.com. This review contains spoilers.

Helen York is an English expatriate and down on her luck, so she is happy to take a position as governess when her friend Bärchen offers it. The position is to teach Bärchen’s orphaned nephew Peter, who stays at a beautiful castle overlooking a lake in Germany. Although beautiful, the place is clearly neglected, with dust everywhere and small bones scattered through the rooms. Peter’s nursemaid Mimi is young and looks attractive as a potential lover, but she allows Peter to wander at will. Helen finds him in the cellar trying to open the crypt door. The cellar is crusted with salt and smells like a meat larder, but she is happy to find a good store of wine as well. Can she ignore those seductive smells from the cellar? What are those things floating in the lake? And why does everyone at the castle have bad teeth?

Good points: The narrative here is third person from Helen’s point of view, and very well crafted. Helen’s responses and her conversations with Bärchen and the other servants quickly reveal her playgirl character and unsuitability for the job as governess. There’s a foreboding as Helen gradually discovers the strangeness of the castle, and the story rises to a horrific climax that was hard to forecast. There’s enough description of the setting to make it creepy, and a lot of sensory imagery as the scents from the cellar start to get to Helen.

Not so good points: This doesn’t quite hang together. It appears the family isn’t really human, and that they go through a life cycle from larvae to humanoid to sea serpent. So, I gather the crypt is where they hang corpses for the larvae to feed on, but how the scents accomplish this is a huge stretch. If you can create hallucinations, there are easier ways to get people into the lake.

Two and a half stars for the failure to make good sense.

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Review of “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde

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This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards, and was published in Uncanny Magazine.

The doorperson takes the dime of curious patrons. If she determines you are worthy, she will tell you how to open the panel and let you have a look and a souvenir. Past the Entrance is A Hallway of Things People Have Swallowed, A Radium Room, A Room of Objects That Are Really People, Our Curator’s Special Collection, A Room of Objects That Are Very Sharp, The Hall of Criminals and Saints and then the Exit. Can you get out of the exhibit whole and in once piece?

Nothing is clear in this story. The scenario sounds like Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a collection of the bizarre and unusual. There are whispers and giggles in the shadows, a few clues in the narrator’s account. She isn’t especially reliable, but we gather that the curator is missing and the freaks are now running the show and looking for revenge. Enter at your own risk.

Good points: I would guess this falls into the category of experimental lit. You have to study it, something like a puzzle, to put together things like comments about beautiful hands, sticky carpets and the taste of brine. It’s also very surreal and atmospheric, the prose creating images and sensory experiences something like an art installation.

Not so good point: This is pretty much just an experience, like an art installation. There’s not really a story here—no characterization, no setting, no plot, no conflict—only revelation. Because of the puzzle quality, it’s pretty opaque, too. There are a couple of events/situations in there that I can guarantee as pretty likely, but I’m not really sure.

Most likely appreciated by literary horror fans.

Three stars. It’s very literary, but I can’t recommend it as a story.

Review of Third Flatiron Best of 2017 (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 21)

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This is a collection of thirteen speculative fiction short stories edited by Juliana Rew, including her choice of the best stories from the Third Flatiron Anthologies published in 2017. These stories range from SF to fantasy to horror, and right now it looks it’s only offered as an ebook.

Third Flatiron Anthologies has proved to be a pretty reliable series for lightweight, entertaining fiction, mostly without the heavy political messages that sometimes turn up in short stories just lately. These offerings follow that standard, including everything from the quirky to the serious.

The stories include John Sunseri’s take on a different racetrack, James Beamon’s humorous tale of programmed troops, Konstantine Paradias’ projection of CRISPR in the kitchen, Brian Trent’s vision of Dorian Gray after the fall, Jean Graham’s spooky comeuppance for murder, Ville Nummenpaa’s contest for the most boring speaker, Wulf Moon’s Beast of the Month Club, Rati Mehrotra’s vision of the afterlife, Keyan Bowes’ integrated pre-school, Vaughan Stanger’s burdensome message, and Jill Hand’s projection of what your dog might say to you if it could talk. There were a couple of stand-outs. I especially liked J.L. Forrest’s witchy tale of rescue and Premee Mohamed’s vision of self-sacrifice.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Bloodybones” by Paul F. Olson

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This novella was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was published for the first time in the author’s collection Whispered Echoes.

David’s friend Amy disappears from her property at Vassey Point during a violent storm. David helps her father close up her home in the old lighthouse, but six months later, he’s drawn to return. He meets Amy’s sister Karen wandering on the property, and the two of them strike up an acquaintance. They begin reading through Amy’s journals, finding creepy things. Can they solve the mystery of what happened to her?

Good points: This is a psychological horror, a ghost story that takes shape as the supernatural closes down slowly but surely on the two protagonists. It’s very smooth and offhand, so I gather Olson is very practiced at this. It includes a lot of information from David (as the narrator) that gives us local color and background on Amy, Karen and the history of the point that’s led to its haunting. Also, I can see the film in my head. This is very cinematic.

Not so good points: The narrator’s casual, matter-of-fact tone keeps the events here from becoming really scary. It’s very white bread and traditional. The techniques for generating horror are fairly standard—enclosed spaces, violent storms, ghostly presences, etc. I appreciate Olson’s technique and subtlety, but this just shivered my nerves a little. It didn’t really scare me.

Four stars.

More Shameless Self-Promotion: Tales of Blood and Squalor Release

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Tales of Blood and Squalor
I recently sold a story called “The Offering” to a Dark Cloud Press anthology titled Tales of Blood and Squalor. My first horror sale, yah!

This will be available for sale at Amazon on November 20. There are 14 stories. From the Dark Cloud website, the description reads: “A novelist a tad too committed to realism in her craft, a tourist thirsting for blood, the king of a trailer park dungeon…” If you’re a horror fan, check it out!

Contributors:
Lee Allen Howard (Editor)‎
Joshua Bartolome
Lee Forsythe‎
Jay Seate
Sarah Gribble
Rob Francis
C. W. Blackwell
Rainie Zenith‎
James Edward O’Brien
Gab Halasz ‎
Bryan Dyke
Rachel Verkade
B. D. Prince
Lela E. Buis

Sales!

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I’ve sold a story called “The Offering” to a Dark Cloud Press anthology called Tales of Blood and Squalor. This is a landmark sale, as both the story and the anthology are horror. I just don’t do horror, but a little while back I got in this mood. So, my first horror sale. Yah, me!

I’ll post an update as publication becomes imminent.

Review of Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

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This book was published in 2017 by Hogarth, and is promoted as interrelated stories. It would most likely be classified as psychological dark fantasy, though a couple of the stories might be considered science fiction. Enriquez is Argentinian and the work is translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell.

I was expecting something like Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, but this work didn’t really produce a timeline or anything like a plot; instead, the stories are only tenuously connected by setting and sometimes character names. The tales are variously described as gothic, macabre and spooky, which is appropriate reading as we move into October. They provide brief glimpses of unreality, psychosis and death as the author takes us into the minds of people with different and terrifying visions.

Almost all Enriquez’ main characters in the stories are women. She’s a very strong writer, and her characterizations and imagery suck you in gradually, as people who first appear normal begin to slide into different perceptions. Her stories include a lot of social criticism, taking place against a backdrop of poverty and addiction, and cover issues like cutting, anorexia, murder, suicide, hikikomori and even more horrifying personal statements. Highly recommended.

I don’t think this will fly as a novel in the 2017 awards cycle, but I’m going to post some of the stories on the Nebula Reading List. I also think some of these stories would be excellent choices for the Stoker Award. I’m not a member of the HWA, but I’d like to recommend this book to people who are.

Four and a half stars.

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