This quirky, witty novel by Japan­ese author Sayaka Murata isn’t hor­ror. In fact, it’s been com­pared to a love story of sorts between a woman and her con­ve­nience store. On the other hand, there’s an under­cur­rent of some­thing very dark, espe­cially those times when prot­go­nist Keiko Furukuru veers per­ilously close to chang­ing from a like­able kook to an out­right men­ace. As a child, she breaks up a school­yard fight by smash­ing one boy in the head with a spade. Upon find­ing a dead bird, rather than bury it as her mother sug­gests, she wants to grill it for her father.

9780802128256And as an adult, when her sis­ter wants the baby to stop cry­ing, Keiko matter-​of-​factly observes that a near-​by but­ter knife might get the job done. Just as trou­bling is the fact that Keiko’s alien­ation in the world is so pro­found she nav­i­gates soci­ety by mim­ic­k­ing oth­ers: their speech pat­terns, shop­ping styles, and the way they use their faces to express emo­tions she doesn’t feel.

In a way then, CON­VE­NIENCE STORE WOMAN exudes a kind of odd­ball, exis­ten­tial hor­ror, where Keiko feels proud that “I pulled off being a per­son” and aspires to be a “use­ful tool” inside the Hiiro­machi Sta­tion Smile Mart, a Japan­ese con­ve­nience store where she’s worked for eigh­teen years.

Into the Smile Mart comes Shi­raha, a boor­ish misog­y­nist “too good” for a con­ve­nience store job, but unable to get any­thing bet­ter. While tout­ing big ideas for mak­ing money, all he really wants to do is lounge in Furukuru’s tub, play­ing video games and whin­ing about how soci­ety has wronged him. This is pow­er­ful social comen­tary given the rise in Japan of the hikiko­mori, men who retreat (usu­ally) to their par­ents homes to escape the pres­sures to mate, pro­cre­ate, and find gain­ful employ­ment. Shi­raha sees Furukuru as the solu­tion to his prob­lems – if they live together pla­ton­i­cally, he explains, no one can crit­i­cize either of them and they will both fit in.

To sup­port her room­mate, Furukuru quits her job to look for some­thing bet­ter and finds, not sur­pris­ingly, that the con­veneince store is her true soul­mate. There is no bet­ter home for her than the Smile Mart, arrang­ing sodas in the cooler and rice balls on the shelves. When it comes down to a choice between Shi­raha and con­ve­nience store work, there’s no contest.

In spite of its dark under­cur­rents, I found CON­VE­NIENCE STORE WOMAN not just com­pelling but also strangely sooth­ing. Furukuru’s rela­tion­ship with the con­ve­nience store seems almost Zen-​like, with “chop wood” and “carry water” being replaced with “ring cash reg­is­ter” and “shout Irasshaimase!” to every­one who comes in the door.

P.S. I once taught Eng­lish in Tokyo and the Japan­ese con­ve­nience stores are a mar­vel, mak­ing Furukuru’s devo­tion not as bizarre as it might seem.

dino parenti dead reckoning

This pre­mier col­lec­tion by Dino Par­enti, pub­lished by Crys­tal Lake Pub­lish­ing, show­cases six­teen beau­ti­fully writ­ten sto­ries that delve into the darker aspects of Amer­i­can life in the late twen­ti­eth and early twenty-​first cen­turies. The sto­ries are grouped by theme and time period, from the sev­en­ties to present day and into a post-​apocalyptic future and include a num­ber of dif­fer­ent gen­res, sci­ence fic­tion, hor­ror, mys­tery and west­ern, to name a few.

Among the sto­ries that stood out for me is “On the Fickle Nature of Ger­mi­na­tion,” which chron­i­cles the jour­ney of a deadly virus from the ice fields of Patag­o­nia to the far cor­ners of the world when two sci­en­tists dis­cover the frozen remains of a cou­ple who died in each other’s arms. Iron­i­cally the nar­ra­tor and her hus­band were try­ing to start a fam­ily when they mis­guid­edly thawed out the dead lovers, dubbed Lady and Gen­tle­man. What begins as a touch­ing, almost roman­tic tale turns into some­thing very dif­fer­ent when Lady and Gen­tle­man are found to have suc­cumbed to a vir­u­lent plague now unleashed upon the planet.

Out­stand­ing even in a col­lec­tion of so many superb sto­ries is “Stra­tum,” whose pro­tag­o­nist plans to exit the Inter­na­tional Space Sta­tion for a close up ‘look’ at the impactor meteor Perses, now on a col­li­sion course with earth. His mis­sion is to launch a group of Remem­brance Spheres that will offer insight to future space trav­el­ers about what life on earth was like before being extin­guished by Perses, but his per­sonal quest may interfere.

The Mother-​of-​Pearl Way,” a qui­etly har­row­ing story of a post-​apocalypse earth, begins with an almost fairy­tale qual­ity. A young girl wit­ness­ing the after­math of a rit­ual fight-​to-​the-​death asks her wise grand­fa­ther, “Why do we keep doing this?” and then risks her life to cre­ate a bet­ter future for her people.

Finally, the title story “Dead Reck­on­ing” depicts a bru­tal bat­tle of wills between a sui­ci­dal priest and a vig­i­lante cop dri­ven to mur­der by a flac­cid legal sys­tem. Par­enti skill­fully unspools their con­flicted pasts as the two men endure a tor­tur­ous trek through Death Valley.

To sum up: DEAD RECK­ON­ING AND OTHER STO­RIES is spec­u­la­tive fic­tion at its finest, a bril­liant col­lec­tion that deserves to be savored, con­tem­plated, and read again.

That Which Grows Wild Front Cover 300 dpi The title of award-​winning author Eric J. Guignard’s debut col­lec­tion of short sto­ries hints at things unruly and dis­rup­tive, envi­ron­ments pos­si­bly dan­ger­ous and cer­tainly beyond human con­trol. Among them: an inhos­pitable desert where a des­per­ate woman hopes foot­prints will lead her to safety and a beach where a tsunami that wiped out a young woman’s fam­ily leaves behind a mys­te­ri­ous doll. Guignard’s abil­ity to uses expertly drawn locales to evoke feel­ings make these six­teen tales all the more mem­o­rable and haunting.

Some of the sto­ries strad­dle the line between gen­res, as in “The Last Days of Gun­slinger John Amos,” a story which com­bines ele­ments of west­erns, hor­ror, and sci­ence fic­tion in a tale about a good-​hearted gun­slinger strug­gling to save the lives of five kids not his own. In “Dreams of a Lit­tle Sui­cide” an offer of a chance to play a munchkin in the Wiz­ard of Oz evokes the tone of a romance until events take a darker turn.

Many of Guignard’s sto­ries involve ordi­nary peo­ple forced to try to adapt to the sur­real and the weird. In “Cer­tain Sights of an Afflicted Woman,” a woman’s infected eye enables her to see beyond the dusty, windswept prairie town now pop­u­lated only by corpses, includ­ing that of her sis­ter, who was gifted with a dif­fer­ent kind of “sight.” And in “Whis­pers of the Earth,” he looks at grief through the eyes of a wid­ower in a town where peo­ple are dis­ap­pear­ing into sink­holes that appear on the ten-​year anniver­sary of a tragedy.

The intrigu­ingly titled “A Case Study in Nat­ural Selec­tion and How It Applies to Love” posits a super-​heated world where watch­ing a friend spon­ta­neously com­bust is noth­ing out of the ordi­nary and win­ning your dream girl comes down to stay­ing alive longer than the rest of her suitors.

Guig­nard brings to his writ­ing a gift for vivid, some­times lumi­nous imagery, as when he describes the unrav­el­ing of a woman’s men­tal state as “…Margie’s imag­i­na­tion, pre­vi­ously a mouse slum­ber­ing in some dark crevice of her brain, began to wake and scurry about, gnaw­ing on com­mon sense…”

That Which Grows Wild cements Guignard’s already con­sid­er­able rep­u­ta­tion as an adept and mas­ter­ful sto­ry­teller. Read­ers who rel­ish dark fic­tion rich with com­pelling char­ac­ters and for­bid­ding land­scapes won’ be disappointed.

Five Senses Art 228This is not your aver­age hor­ror anthol­ogy. In addi­tion to offer­ing twenty sto­ries (full dis­clo­sure: mine is one of them) that incor­po­rate one of the five senses, it also offers a wealth of sci­en­tific infor­ma­tion about the brain and just how we process sen­sory input.

The book is divided into five sec­tions of four sto­ries each devoted to the five senses. Among the con­trib­u­tors: authors John Far­ris, Ram­sey Camp­bell, Poppy Z. Brite, Dar­rell Schweitzer, and Richard Chris­t­ian Matheson.

An engross­ing Intro­duc­tion by Jes­sica Bayliss, PhD looks at “Why Do Hor­ror Sto­ries Work? The Psy­chobi­ol­ogy of Hor­ror,” in which she explores how the brain, par­tic­u­larly the amyg­dala, trig­gers our emo­tions and how mir­ror neu­rons aid in cre­at­ing expe­ri­ences. And how do these psy­cho­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms get their data to begin with? Through the senses, of course – which is what night­mares in real life and in hor­ror fic­tion are made of!

Bayliss opens each of the sec­tions with a dis­cus­sion of how that par­tic­u­lar sense relates to fic­tion, so that read­ers may expe­ri­ence fear or revul­sion vic­ar­i­ously through the brain’s recep­tors. This means, in other words, that we expe­ri­ence shiv­ers not just when we watch a cen­tipede crawl across the floor, but when we read about a char­ac­ter in a hor­ror story who watches one.

In addi­tion to Bayliess’s com­ments, the anthol­ogy includes a fas­ci­nat­ing essay by Eric J. Guig­nard “Under­stand­ing and Incor­po­rat­ing the Five Human Senses into Mod­ern Hor­ror Short Fic­tion” that will intrigue any­one who writes hor­ror or aspires to do so.

And in the After­word, “Sen­sa­tion and Per­cep­tion,” K.H.Vaughan PhD raises some thought-​provoking questions:

How dif­fer­ent are my per­cep­tions from yours?

Does a real­ity exist inde­pen­dently of our perceptions?

Can per­cep­tions be trusted at all? (And what hap­pens if the answer is no?)

In short, The Five Senses of Hor­ror offers an illu­mi­nat­ing look at how mod­ern hor­ror fic­tion man­ages to evoke fear through each of the senses – a must read for hor­ror writ­ers, read­ers, and stu­dents alike.

tremblay cabin at the end of the world Paul Tremblay’s ter­ri­fy­ing new novel THE CABIN ATTHE END OF THE WORLD plays on the fear of the dan­ger that shows up out of the blue– bru­tal and over­whelm­ing, but also inscrutable. Are the bad guys an assort­ment of psy­chos who found each other online or are they basi­cally decent peo­ple try­ing to save human­ity from annihilation?

And if your life and the lives of your loved ones are at stake, how much does the dis­tinc­tion really matter?

Mar­ried cou­ple Eric and Andrew are faced with that ques­tion when they and their adopted daugh­ter Wen are spend­ing what was intended to be an idyl­lic week­end at a remote cabin. Wen catches grasshop­pers. Andrew and Eric relax on the porch. A man walks up the road and talks to Wen. He seems ami­able and harm­less, but he also makes promises to the lit­tle girl that, as the reader will soon find out, he is pow­er­less to keep.

Using a mas­ter­ful take on the hor­ror of home inva­sion, Trem­blay keeps the reader guess­ing right to the last para­graph, as Andrew, Eric, and Wen strug­gle to out­wit cap­tors who are by turns, politely apolo­getic for the incon­ve­nience and stun­ningly vio­lent. Are they insane? Or are they four self­less heroes forced into an unthink­able sit­u­a­tion? Or is the whole night­mare an act of vengeance insti­gated by a vio­lent homo­phobe, as Andrew theorizes?

As the ordeal pro­gresses, each man forms his own ideas about how to deal with their sit­u­a­tion. Do they pla­cate their cap­tors? Fight back? Try to make them see reason?

Or, most fright­en­ing of all, do they con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that maybe, just maybe, these peo­ple aren’t crazy at all and what they’re claim­ing is actu­ally true?

Therein lies not just the road to mad­ness, but also a hel­luva good novel.

51 uzv1SVHL. SY346 Lovers Mike and Ver­ity play a game fraught with dan­ger. They call it “The Crave” and it hinges on Verity’s abil­ity to attract would-​be suit­ors and mus­cu­lar Mike’s skill at fend­ing them off. In a night­club, Ver­ity hangs out alone at the bar until a man approaches. She teases and flirts until, upon a sig­nal from her, Mike storms over and inter­venes. “I love see­ing how scared they are of you,” says Ver­ity, as they find a dark cor­ner where they can have sex.

Writ­ing from the point of view of Mike, author Aram­inta Hall depicts a man whose wretched child­hood has left him so dam­aged he is pow­er­less to rec­og­nize the depth of his delu­sions. After the pair split up and Ver­ity rashly invites Mike to her wed­ding to Angus Met­calf (“London’s most eli­gi­ble bach­e­lor”), Mike con­vinces him­self the mar­riage itself is part of an elab­o­rate “Crave” meant to pun­ish him for a brief infidelity.

Of course Mike’s creepy obses­sion with Ver­ity and his inabil­ity to believe she really does love her new hus­band can lead to noth­ing good. When the novel opens, Mike is telling his story from prison where he’s being held for mur­der. Whose mur­der, we find out later.

OUR KIND OF CRU­ELTY is a page-​turner I read almost at one sit­ting. My only quib­ble with the novel is that at times char­ac­ters behave so fool­ishly that their actions defy all rea­son except as a plot device. Instead, a tragedy that could have been averted by sim­ply involv­ing the police or hir­ing a pri­vate secu­rity team is allowed to run its vio­lent course.

Still, in every other respect the novel is far too com­pelling and well-​done to pass up.

In her after­word, Hall points out what many women sadly already know, that we live in a world where “women must be per­fect, men are allowed to get away with murder.”

OUR KIND OF CRU­ELTY does a stel­lar job of illus­trat­ing that point.

TideStone TIDE OF STONE, Kaaron Warren’s spell­bind­ing dark fan­tasy novel, raises ques­tions about moral­ity, jus­tice, and the nature of com­pas­sion – who deserves it, and is there any­one who doesn’t? What about the liv­ing husks inside the Time Ball Tower, some of the worst crim­i­nals in his­tory who are, by turns, manip­u­la­tive and child-​like, cun­ning and vicious?

Nar­ra­tor Phillipa Mus­kett has grown up in the town of Tem­pus­ton, Aus­tralia, within sight of the Time Ball Tower off shore. Each day at pre­cisely 1:05 p.m. a large ball drops, per­haps a reminder to the men and women impris­oned there that they have stepped out­side time as most of us know it. Given the choice between death and eter­nal life, they chose the lat­ter and now have noth­ing but time to expe­ri­ence the enor­mity of their mistake.

Cit­i­zens of Tem­pus­ton serve as Keep­ers in the Tower for one year. When Phillipa gets a chance to become a Keeper, she sees it as an unpleas­ant but nec­es­sary way to redi­rect the path of her life. She’s right, of course, but in ways she could never fore­see. The pre­vi­ous Keep­ers have left writ­ten reports, some cryp­tic, oth­ers detailed, of their stay in the Tower, and these pro­vide Phillipa with an under­stand­ing of the prison’s his­tory and of the Keep­ers who pre­ceded her here.

By its end, TIDE OF STONE becomes even more deeply unset­tling as we real­ize, along with Phillipa that the Tower holds secrets even more ter­ri­ble than the dis­in­te­grat­ing human wrecks inhab­it­ing it.

A book that begs to be read more than once, TIDE OF STONE com­bines gen­uinely creepy hor­ror with the tan­gled psy­cho­log­i­cal games played between Phillipa and the peo­ple she watches over – and some­times tor­ments and is tor­mented by.

33784310Usu­ally I write about hor­ror fic­tion. This time I’m writ­ing about real-​world hor­ror and how author and self-​termed “vio­lence expert” Tim Larkin would have us pre­pare for it.

Vio­lence is rarely the answer, but when it is, it’s the only answer.”

Thus begins this fas­ci­nat­ing self-​defense book, in which Larkin dis­cusses two types of vio­lence: social aggres­sion and aso­cial vio­lence. Both are best avoided, but are far dif­fer­ent in terms of lethal intent. Social aggres­sion, as Larkin defines it, involves showy, chest-​beating behav­ior (usu­ally between males) and is basi­cally a jock­ey­ing for posi­tion in the social hier­ar­chy. Larkin stresses there’s only one intel­li­gent way to deal with it. You back down, apol­o­gize for what­ever the guy thinks you did, and buy him a drink. Bet­ter than a law­suit for invol­un­tary manslaugh­ter or a lengthy hos­pi­tal stay for your­self. In short, when it comes to these dis­plays of male domi­nence, fight­ing is rarely worth it.

With aso­cial vio­lence, on the other hand, there’s no talk­ing your way out of it. It comes at you from behind at an ATM or in a dark park­ing garage, with a big­ger, stronger, faster assailant who has no qualms about maim­ing or killing you. In fact, maim­ing and killing may be the goal.

For this kind of kill-​or-​be-​killed sit­u­a­tion, Larkin presents a wealth of anec­dotes: the kind where the good gal or guy tri­umphs in a ter­ri­fy­ing sit­u­a­tion and the kind where, trag­i­cally, the oppo­site occurs and the wrong per­son ends up in a pud­dle of blood.

So how does the aver­age Jane or Joe dis­able a much stronger attacker?

Larkin goes into great detail, with dia­grams for good mea­sure, about how all human bod­ies, nomat­ter how formidable-​looking, are vul­ner­a­ble to cer­tain dev­as­tat­ing injuries if the other per­son knows how to inflict those injuries and is able and will­ing to do so (a crushed tra­chea and gouged-​out eye­ball being two examples.)

In his classes, Larkin reports that sev­enty per­cent of the peo­ple who sign up only do so AFTER sur­viv­ing a vio­lent attack. The proac­tive stu­dent just want­ing to be pre­pared is rare in his expe­ri­ence, and Larkin wants to change that. Aside from detailed expla­na­tions of how to crush, snap, and gen­er­ally destroy var­i­ous parts of an attacker’s body, he also offers some obvi­ous but impor­tant tips: ditch the ear­buds and put down the phone in pub­lic, lis­ten to your intu­ition, and avoid the ATM after dark. Like jun­gle ani­mals, we need our senses on high alert; the dis­tracted are easy targets.

At the same time, Larkin him­self comes across as a fun­da­men­tally non-​violent sort who reminds the reader over and over that vio­lence is the last resort, no mat­ter how highly trained you may be.

9781942645825Take four of the world’s top hor­ror writ­ers, add an ambi­tious media mogul and his tech-​savvy girl­friend, mix in a creepy old house where two sav­age mur­ders took place and a dash of spook­ery in the form of two deceased sis­ters, and you’ve got the ingre­di­ents for KILL CREEK, Scott Thomas’s ter­rific debut novel.

Thomas’s premise is both straight­for­ward and intrigu­ing: media tycoon Wain­wright invites extreme hor­ror writer T.C. Moore, Chris­t­ian YA nov­el­ist Daniel Slaugh­ter, leg­endary hor­ror writer Sebas­t­ian Cole, and famous but fal­ter­ing gothic hor­ror writer Sam McGarver to spend Hal­loween night in the noto­ri­ous Finch House. No one is any too keen about the idea, but each can use the pub­lic­ity, not to men­tion the cash.

The fate­ful night in the haunted Finch man­sion proves dis­turb­ing enough, with a few gen­uinely scary moments as well as a mean-​spirited on-​air inter­view by their host, but the next day all four writ­ers leave the house, shaken but appar­ently unscathed.

The Finch House has let them off easy. Or so it would appear.

The real hor­ror begins later, first fore­shad­owed by a tragedy that strikes Daniel Slaugh­ter on the day they depart the house. After that, all four expe­ri­ence a period of writ­ing so obsess­sive there’s barely time to eat or sleep as each cre­ates their own ver­sion of a novel based upon the Finch House. Soon it becomes appar­ent the Finch House was only toy­ing with them that first night, let­ting them leave in order to lure them all back for a final, deadly bat­tle with the supernatural.

Thomas’s writ­ing is vivid, even at times lyri­cal, despite a plot that doesn’t shy away from vio­lence and gore. His char­ac­ters reflect the real­ity behind their work and the urgent cre­ativ­ity that’s some­times rooted in trauma, loss, and phys­i­cal abuse. To a per­son, they cover their scars care­fully, and the Finch House is all too ready to expose each painful truth.

KILL CREEK is Thomas’s debut novel and a final­ist for Best First Novel for the 2017 Bram Stoker Awards. It’s a bril­liant begin­ning that left me already look­ing for­ward to his next book.

9780143132172 Leila Slimani’s Prix Goncourt-​winning novel delves into the tor­mented mind of Louise, the ulti­mate nanny, who dou­bles as house­keeper, gourmet chef, and orga­nizer of chil­drens’ par­ties and out­ings, with­out extra pay. She’s also a work­ing parent’s worse night­mare: a woman whose doll-​like, Mary Pop­pins exte­rior con­ceals a dam­aged psy­che rife with resent­ment, obses­sion, and rage.

THE PER­FECT NANNY chron­i­cles the rela­tion­ship between Paul and Myr­iam, two ambi­tious pro­fes­sion­als in Paris’s tony 10th arrondisse­ment, and Louise, the nanny too good to be true who does the unthinkable.

She’s our employee, not our friend,” Paul reminds his wife, but because Louise has become so invalu­able, it’s a point they both keep con­ve­niently overlooking.

There’s no mys­tery here as far as the crime. On the first page, we’re told, “The baby is dead.” The ques­tion, of course, is not who mur­dered baby Adam and his older sis­ter Mila, but what demons drove Louise to kill them. To that end, Sli­mani takes us into her stark and lonely world, the sparse apart­ment where she spends as lit­tle time as pos­si­ble, the abu­sive hus­band who left her with crush­ing debts, the land­lord who hounds her for money.

Her days spent in her employ­ers’ chic apart­ment mean free­dom to Louise, and she makes the most of them. With the older child at school and the par­ents work­ing, she lux­u­ri­ates in a long, hot shower, then glides nude around the apart­ment, her skin pearles­cent with Miryam’s expen­sive creams.

Only occa­sion­ally does the unseemly sur­face, as when Paul comes home to find Louise has tarted up his daugh­ter in full glam­our make-​up. Dis­gusted, he pulls away from Louise after that, but by then the unequal rela­tion­ship has pro­gressed too far, mak­ing Louise almost impos­si­ble to dis­lodge. While Louise obsesses over whether Myr­iam is preg­nant again, the par­ents pon­der ways to grace­fully let her go. It’s that ter­ri­ble dis­par­ity – the nanny’s fan­tasies of being part of a fam­ily when she is, in fact, hired help – that brings the novel back full cir­cle to its dev­as­tat­ing open­ing lines.

Although the end­ing dis­ap­points, leav­ing the reader to the obser­va­tions of the police detec­tive going over the scene, as a whole I found the novel engross­ing on many lev­els – as a crime thriller and as a social com­men­tary on class dis­tinc­tion, eco­nomic dis­par­ity, and motherhood.