post apocalyptic horror I’m a late­comer to Malerman’s grip­ping novel, BIRD BOX, which was pub­lished in 2014, but per­haps some other fans of hor­ror and post-​apocalyptic fic­tion have missed out on it, too.

BIRD BOX, which gets its name from the caged birds whose coo­ing is sup­posed to warn of approach­ing intrud­ers, is a fast-​paced, intensely creepy tale that starts with an ambi­tious premise – the world is sud­denly pop­u­lated with crea­tures that, once looked upon, drive humans into a sui­ci­dal rage.

We meet Mal­o­rie, a young woman on a twenty mile boat trip upriver with her two chil­dren, the unnamed Boy and Girl. All are blind­folded. Mal­o­rie relies on the children’s preter­nat­u­rally keen sense of hear­ing to tell her when dan­ger is near. Maler­man does a fine job of ratch­et­ing up the sus­pense as the trio approach poten­tial threats. Is that rustling in the bushes a human being? Is that musky smell a prowl­ing wolf or dog? Mal­o­rie and the kids are never sure, but to give in to temp­ta­tion and remove the blind­folds could mean a swift and vio­lent death.

Flash­backs to four years ear­lier inter­sperse the saga of Malorie’s des­per­ate canoe trip to find a new sanc­tu­ary. At that time she lived with a small group of sur­vivors in the same house she and her chil­dren are now flee­ing; in fact, she gave birth to them there, unat­tended and ter­ri­fied. The flash­backs tell us a lot about life in the house with the drawn shades and about a world where every activ­ity tak­ing place out­doors has to be per­formed wear­ing a blind­fold, but there’s not much flesh­ing out of the char­ac­ters. I’d have liked to know more about these peo­ple with whom Mal­o­rie shared the dark house, other than their pen­chant for quar­rel­ing among them­selves, but I fully iden­ti­fied with their angst – when com­rades leave the house to gather pro­vi­sions, who knows what they may have seen by the time they return?

BIRD BOX is both deeply dis­turb­ing and very hard to put down. Malerman’s fic­tion lures us into a night­mare world where not see­ing what’s out there may or may not kill you, but tak­ing off the blind­fold to look most cer­tainly will.

31377300 The scari­est thing about Underdown’s grip­ping novel isn’t that it’s based on the his­tor­i­cal record of one Mathew Hop­kins or that his cru­sade against witches is (in Underdown’s fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of his early life) pos­si­bly moti­vated by trauma he suf­fered as an infant, but that the dis­em­pow­er­ment and silenc­ing of those con­sid­ered to be infe­rior beings feels so famil­iar today.

The year is 1644, in Essex, Eng­land, a time of polit­i­cal and reli­gious upheaval. Alice Hop­kins, the nar­ra­tor, is a widow who seeks shel­ter with her brother Mathew, a preacher’s son bent on rid­ding the coun­try­side of women sus­pected of witchcraft.

The world Alice was born into has trained her to be meek and sub­servient toward men. As Mathew’s unwill­ing assis­tent, she faces a daunt­ing task: bear wit­ness to the hor­rors of the inter­ro­ga­tions while still try­ing to help the women escape their fate. Her efforts do not go as hoped. When we meet her, Alice is locked in an attic, keep­ing a jour­nal which opens with, “Nine months ago my brother Mathew set him­self to killing women.”

Those hanged for witch­craft are invari­ably unmar­ried or wid­owed old women, often of an eccen­tric bent. To prove their wicked­ness, almost any­thing will do. Some have odd birth­marks, oth­ers dab­ble in folk reme­dies, or have had the ill luck to quar­rel with a farmer just before his horse died. Some are sim­ply men­tally ill. One scene, in par­tic­u­lar, is haunt­ing: a teenaged girl who is clearly delu­sional insists that Mathew must ‘swim’ her to deter­mine if she’s pos­sessed by the devil, “swim­ming’ being a form of tor­ture in which the vic­tim is bound hands to feet and tossed in the water. Those who float are guilty; those who sink, drown as innocents.

Under­down skill­fully inter­weaves the mores and mind­set of 1644 Eng­land with Alice’s some­times quite mod­ern insights. Reflect­ing on her brother’s obses­sion with women, sin, and sex, she observes, “It was the thinnest of tricks: if a thing fright­ens you, to call it some­thing else.”

Of course not all the men Alice encoun­ters are focused on per­se­cut­ing witches. Some merely patron­ize and demean her while hold­ing out the car­rot of mar­riage like some great prize and fret­ting over the state of her “del­i­cate” health.

Read­ing THE WITCHFINDER’S SIS­TER hun­dreds of years after the real Mathew Hop­kins did his evil work, one would wish to find scape­goat­ing, misog­yny, and pro­jec­tion a thing of the past. Sadly, as any­one fol­low­ing cur­rent events well knows, this is not the case.

51ExyEhNNPL“I want you to kill my step­dad” begins Ham­mers on Bone, Cas­san­dra Khaw’s mas­ter­ful com­bi­na­tion of gritty noir detec­tive story and Love­craft­ian cos­mic hor­ror. The star­tling request comes from a young boy named Abel, who slams his piggy bank down on the desk of Detec­tive John Per­sons to prove he can pay for the hit.

Turns out Abel’s prob­lem is an abu­sive step­fa­ther, and Per­sons is the only one he feels he can turn to. Per­sons help­fully sug­gests Abel might “tell his mum to call child ser­vices,” but the kid, older than his years, is fully aware his step­dad, McK­in­sey, is much worse than just your aver­age social deviant. He is, in fact, a bonafide mon­ster. Abel also knows why Per­sons is the only one with a shot at tak­ing him down.

Added to this mix is a younger brother who’s at even higher risk from McKinsey’s abom­inable intent and Sasha, a pretty wait­ress who’s been tainted by the vile McK­in­sey herself.

Per­sons, a hard­boiled Lon­don gumshoe, turns out to have a soft spot for kids and ‘skirts’ and finally takes on the case. In a qui­etly har­row­ing scene, he inter­views McKinsey’s indif­fer­ent boss, who acknowl­edges the man is a men­ace but shrugs it off, say­ing “I’ve met worse than him.” After stak­ing out McKinsey’s house (while Down­ton Abbey plays on t.v. and McKinsey’s wife and chil­dren cower in another room), Per­sons dis­cov­ers the step­fa­ther poses a threat far greater than he imag­ined, one that could endan­ger all Lon­don. He has to pull out all his tricks, includ­ing shed­ding his own human form, in order to fight him on any­thing like equal terms.

Ham­mers on Bone is a stun­ning descent into a night­mare unfold­ing against a back­drop of a diverse, work­ing class Lon­don. Khaw throws in a dash of humor, too, as Per­sons, although liv­ing in mod­ern times, likes to fla­vor his speech with lingo from another era that at times ren­ders him both com­i­cal and quaint.

With superb writ­ing and a grip­ping plot, Ham­mers on Bone is an occult thriller not to be missed.

science fiction, post apocalypticThe night before my mother walked into the New Sea car­ry­ing my six-​week-​old brother, I heard her and Papi argu­ing. Even with the wind scream­ing past our tiny squatter’s house on the ciff, the rage in her voice slashed through the thin wall.”

So begins my story “Sweet­lings”, a sci­ence fiction/​horror nov­el­ette about a young woman named Mir, her father, and Mir’s friend Jer­sey, all strug­glng to sur­vive in a world reshaped by cat­a­strophic floods. Mir wasn’t yet born when the Great Inun­da­tion took place, but Papi lived through the floods that wiped out much of the east coast of the United States. Now he stud­ies the new forms of crus­taceans emerg­ing out of this New Sea and con­cludes the Great Inun­da­tion was just the begin­ning – there is much worse to come.

Like most of the peo­ple in their small set­tle­ment, Jer­sey wants to take his chances going inland. He tries to con­vince Mir to go with him, but she won’t aban­don her father, who suf­fers from Blis­ter Rot and is con­fined to a wheel­chair. Papi also has strange lapses in mem­ory; at times he looks at Mir as though she’s “noth­ing he’s ever seen before, but some­thing fab­u­lous and faintly unclean, a bizarre species of spi­der fish or toad that just wrig­gled its way into creation.”

Find out what fate awaits Mir, Papi, and Jer­sey – and what ter­ri­ble sur­prises this New Sea may have in store!

Visit www​.Tor​.com and click on fic­tion. “Sweet­lings” is free to read!

fa2025bbff3a5bad0eb60e40c4e2adf2 w2041xAgents of Dream­land by Caitlin R. Kier­nan is that rare work of fic­tion so grip­ping, com­plex, and dis­turb­ing that it begs to be read a sec­ond time, both to savor the exquis­ite writ­ing and to look for sub­tleties, clues, and ref­er­ences that may have been over­looked the first time.

When the novella begins, the agent known only as the Sig­nal­man, a cyn­i­cal hard-​drinking oper­a­tive on the trail of a cult leader, is arriv­ing in Winslow, Ari­zona. There he meets with the enig­matic Imma­co­lata Sex­ton, a woman whose cryp­tic, hard-​as-​nails exte­rior is later belied by small future acts of com­pas­sion toward the suf­fer­ing denizens of a doomed Los Ange­les. Sex­ton is a time trav­eler; we fol­low her from Ver­mont in 1927, where she exam­ines evi­dence of an alien space­craft, to the Amer­i­can south­west and a des­per­ate, present-​day race to stop a hor­rific plague, then to a future Los Ange­les where alien ships rule the sky and the few human inhab­i­tants eke out a pitiable existence.

All Kiernan’s char­ac­ters are mem­o­rable; for me, the most vivid was a con­fused, lost young woman named Chloe, who’s been goomed by cult leader Drew Stan­dish to become a key mem­ber of the Chil­dren of the Next Level. Chloe’s lurid, drug-​addled past makes her a per­fect, if tragic, foil for indoc­tri­na­tion by mad­man Standish.

To be fair, Agents of Dream­land is not for every­one (but what great fic­tion is?). Some may find it too per­va­sively dark or too graphic in its depic­tion of body hor­ror. Some may wish for a more tra­di­tional, less unset­tling end­ing, espe­cially at a time in his­tory when the idea of eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter, alien or oth­er­wise, seems all too likely.

As Kier­nan writes, “The haunted human psy­che craves resolution…humans, inher­ent prob­lem solvers that we are, chafe at prob­lems that can­not be solved, ques­tions that can­not ever, once and for all, sais­fac­to­rily be put to rest.”

With no glim­mer of hope at the end­ing and no promise of a res­o­lu­tion to come, Agents of Dream­land defies con­ven­tional expec­ta­tions and raises the spec­tor of a future we may not want to imagine.

In short, this is great writ­ing that is likely to stick with the reader for a very long time. Def­i­nitely not to be missed.

short story appWhy isn’t the short story more pop­u­lar?” That’s the ques­tion that Kelly Abbott, CEO of Great Jones Street, asked him­self a few years ago.

Kelly had grown up watch­ing his father labor over short fic­tion, so he knew the dif­fi­cul­ties writ­ers face. He wanted to find a way to offer high qual­ity short fic­tion to a wide audi­ence and came up with a the­ory – that mobile phones, our culture’s gen­er­ally short atten­tion span, and the desire for high qual­ity enter­tain­ment could lead to a resur­gence for the much neglected short story.

With the goal of bring­ing short fic­tion back to pop­u­lar cul­ture, Abbott and his part­ner Ken Trues­dale, came up with the idea for Great Jones Street, an app where read­ers can access vir­tu­ally any type of short fic­tion. They reached out to writ­ers who, in turn, rec­om­mended other writ­ers. In its first year, Great Jones Street acquired over a thou­sand short sto­ries, a num­ber Abbott says they’re on track to pub­lish every year.

To flesh out the cat­a­logue, Abbott and Trues­dale also con­tacted edi­tors like John Joseph Adams (for s/​f, fan­tasy), Suzie bright (erot­ica), and Nick Mamatas (mystery/​crime).

The GJS app not only gives a syn­op­sis of each story, but the approx­i­mate time it will take to read it. Wait­ing in a doctor’s office? In line at the DMV? Just found out your flight’s been delayed? With GJS you can find every­thing from longer works to exquis­ite lit­tle gems of five min­utes or less to fill the time.

As a writer, GJS is absolutely my favorite app, because it allows me to explore gen­res I gen­er­ally don’t read. It expands my read­ing uni­verse and gives me dozens of new, favorite writ­ers whose work I now look for.

For now, GJS is free (up until the first ten thou­sand read­ers), but it won’t stay that way. For lovers of short fic­tion, it’s the best deal in town.

And P.S. If you’re a hor­ror reader on GJS, look for my sto­ries: Nik­ishi, Blessed Be the Bound, Wing­less Beasts, Choke Hold, and Lust in the Days of Demons

we eat our own 9781501128318No script, no money, and soon no escape pretty much sums up the plight of the actors film­ing “Jun­gle Blood­bath” in Kea Wilson’s tightly plot­ted and beau­ti­fully writ­ten “We Eat Our Own”. Eccen­tric and pos­si­bly insane direc­tor Ugo Vel­luto lures des­per­ate wannabe actor Adrian White (whose real name we don’t learn until the end of the book) to be his unlucky and unlikely lead­ing man after the first actor to be cast in the part flees in ter­ror. To pre­vent this hap­pen­ing again, once White shows up, Ugo has his pass­port con­fis­cated and informs him there is no script.

The naive and increas­ingly des­per­ate White finds him­self immersed in a hotbed of inter­na­tional drug deal­ers, M-​19 gueril­las, and can­ni­bal­ism scenes that may or may not be entirely sim­u­lated. It doesn’t take long for him to real­ize he’s in way over his head and that his suc­cess as an actor isn’t up for debate so much as his survival.

Wil­son is being com­pared to Cor­mac McCarthy and with good rea­son; her prose is taut, her action thrilling, and her char­ac­ters veer toward extremes – guilt-​ridden kid­napers, ruth­less Loli­tas, a direc­tor who thinks set­ting the jun­gle on fire is a great way to get action footage of extras flee­ing the flames. Movie buffs will find the story espe­cially com­pelling since Wil­son loosely bases it on the con­tro­ver­sial 1970’s Ital­ian hor­ror film “Can­ni­bal Holocaust”.

If all this sounds a bit over the top, make no mis­take – “We Eat Our Own” is an expertly paced, riv­et­ting novel with char­ac­ters that may not be like­able, but are often unfor­get­table. Per­haps not everyone’s cup of tea – there’s graphic vio­lence, White’s char­ac­ter of ‘Richard’ is por­trayed entirely in the sec­ond per­son, and dia­logue is writ­ten with­out quo­ta­tion marks, so you have to pay atten­tion to know who is speak­ing. All of this may take some get­ting used to, but don’t be deterred. “We Eat Our Own” is a har­row­ing and mes­mer­iz­ing novel you won’t want to put down.

5e84e3b6eca28052f189bb7ffc44458577dfac9f thumbRead­ers of hard­core hor­ror fic­tion were first intro­duced to Painf­reak in a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries by author Ger­ard Houarner in 1996. Now Houarner is both a con­trib­u­tor to and edi­tor of the new anthol­ogy INTO PAINF­REAK, pub­lished by Necro Pub­li­ca­tions, Bed­lam Press & Weird West Books.

INTO PAINF­REAK fea­tures all new sto­ries from some of horror’s top authors, includ­ing a new nov­el­ette by Edward Lee. Con­trib­u­tors include Mon­ica O’Roarke, Wrath James White, K. Trap Jones, Linda Addi­son, Charlee Jacobs, and many oth­ers. I’m delighted that my own story “He Who Whis­pers the Dead Back to Life” is part of the line-​up – in my ver­sion of this Land of Erotic Enchant­ment, the entrance to Painf­reak is a casita near Gallup, New Mex­cio, guarded by a hybrid dog who admin­is­ters the cov­eted ‘mark’ with its teeth.

For those not already famil­iar with the ter­ri­ble delights of Painf­reak, this entry from the blog of David G. Bar­nett, pub­lisher, will give you an idea: “Wel­come to Painf­reak, the trav­el­ing club that arises out of the dark and calls to those seek­ing the ulti­mate in plea­sure and pain. Many come to expe­ri­ence the ulti­mate in deca­dence and debauch­ery. And many get lost in a labyrinth filled with depraved sex, beau­ti­ful death, and won­der­fully hor­ri­ble sights. You’ve been given the mark, now step into the heart of…PAINFREAK.”

INTO PAINF­REAK will be avail­able on 12÷12÷16. Look for it at http://​necrop​ub​li​ca​tions​.com/​p​r​o​d​u​c​t​s​/​i​n​t​o​-​t​h​e​-​h​e​a​r​t​-​o​f​-​p​a​i​n​f​r​e​a​k​-​t​r​a​d​e​-​p​a​p​e​r​b​a​c​k– and become lost in its seduc­tive monstrosities.

51OugRojXNL. SY346 THE GRAVE­YARD APART­MENT was first pub­lished in Japan in 1986 and is con­sid­ered among Mariko Koike’s best nov­els. With the Eng­lish trans­la­tion recently made avail­able, she will surely find a wider audi­ence for the hor­ror and detec­tive fic­tion for which she is known.

Read­ers look­ing for may­hem and a plot twist on every page may find the events in THE GRAVE­YARD APART­MENT unfold too grad­u­ally for their taste, but those will­ing to immerse them­selves in the tale of a fam­ily trapped in an appar­ently haunted apart­ment build­ing will find much to admire in this sleekly crafted novel of psy­cho­log­i­cal horror.

Misao, her hus­band Teppei, and their daugh­ter Tomao are a young fam­ily newly moved into an apart­ment whose sole draw­back appears to be that it faces a grave­yard. The fact that Tomao’s pet finch dies on the day of the move-​in – and that Tomao claims she and the bird still con­verse – is just the begin­ning of a series of omi­nous goings-​on, includ­ing an ele­va­tor appar­ently under the sway of malev­o­lent forces.

The sense of dread is aug­mented by a guilty secret the cou­ple shares, a tragedy that they’ve pre­sum­ably put behind them. Or per­haps not, and it’s sup­pressed guilt blur­ring their judge­ment, because really, would a young cou­ple with a child move into a build­ing where smoke from a cre­ma­to­rium occa­sion­ally wafts toward the win­dows and grad­u­ally, all the other ten­ants are mov­ing out? If you’re will­ing to accept that premise, how­ever, the hor­ror of an apart­ment build­ing sur­rounded by the dead can grad­u­ally seep under one’s skin.

That said, how­ever, THE GRAVE­YARD APART­MENT fol­lows a well-​trodden path, with obvi­ously creepy occur­ances that esca­late inevitably to the novel’s gen­uinely unnerv­ing con­clu­sion. Not a book to be savored alone at night or for apart­ment dwellers who dread a trip down to the basement.

imagesThe hor­ror the human mind can invent for the pur­pose of inflict­ing suf­fer­ing on our fel­lows is on full dis­play at this macabre and dis­turb­ing museum in the Old City of Car­cas­sonne, France. The focus isn’t on the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion, which lasted longer and is more widely known, but an ear­lier one – the Medieval Inqui­si­tion that fol­lowed a cru­sade by the Catholic Church against the so-​called heretic Cathars. In the thir­teenth and four­teenth cen­turies, Car­cas­sonne and other medieval towns like Bezier and Albi were strong­holds of Cathar beliefs, and the Museum show­cases some of the nas­tier ways the Cathars were forced to con­fess to devil wor­ship before, more often than not, being burned at the stake.

Among the devices on dis­play are the iron maiden, the stretcher, the head crusher and the pul­ley device in which a vic­tim whose wrists were bound behind her was hoisted into the air and then dropped down, often with weights attached to max­i­mize the dam­age. To add to the grotes­querie, before being used, these instru­ments were often blessed with holy water.

Women accused of witch­craft seem to have made up a large num­ber of the vic­tims, but even an ‘overly talk­a­tive’ wife could be silenced behind an iron mask crafted with demon-​like ani­mal ears. One ghastly device was a sharp-​ponted cone the woman was forced to strad­dle while weights fas­tened to her arms inex­orably pulled her lower, for a slow, excru­ci­at­ing impalement.

Even musi­cians were at risk for tor­ture – one sinister-​looking device was, accord­ing to the descrip­tion, used to pun­ish “bad musicians”.

Would I rec­om­mend the Museum to any­one vis­it­ing the south of France? Well, on the one hand, to see these mon­strous but care­fully crafted instru­ments and real­ize they were actu­ally used for their vile pur­pose, is depress­ing in the extreme. The sense of relief, how­ever, upon walk­ing back into the cob­bled streets lined with bistros, bou­tiques, and stores sell­ing fake swords and dag­gers, feels infi­nitely sweet!