Category: Reviews

Epeolatry Book Review: The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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Title: The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror
Author: Daniel Mallory Ortberg
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Corsair
Release Date: 13th March 2018

Synopsis: From Mallory Ortberg comes a collection of darkly mischievous stories based on classic fairy tales. Adapted from the beloved “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” series, “The Merry Spinster” takes up the trademark wit that endeared Ortberg to readers of both The Toast and the best-selling debut Texts From Jane Eyre. The feature has become among the most popular on the site, with each entry bringing in tens of thousands of views, as the stories proved a perfect vehicle for Ortberg’s eye for deconstruction and destabilization. Sinister and inviting, familiar and alien all at the same time, The Merry Spinster updates traditional children’s stories and fairy tales with elements of psychological horror, emotional clarity, and a keen sense of feminist mischief.

Readers of The Toast will instantly recognize Ortberg’s boisterous good humor and uber-nerd swagger: those new to Ortberg’s oeuvre will delight in this collection’s unique spin on fiction, where something a bit mischievous and unsettling is always at work just beneath the surface.

Unfalteringly faithful to its beloved source material, The Merry Spinster also illuminates the unsuspected, and frequently, alarming emotional complexities at play in the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, as we tuck ourselves in for the night.

Some authors seem destined to shake things up in the best way possible. Daniel Mallory Ortberg is a New York Times bestselling author. Courtesy of his debut work Texts from Jane Eyre, which was based upon his longstanding columns in “The Hairpin” and “The Toast”, it envisions famous literary characters exchanging anachronistic text messages. A trans man who transitioned in 2018 and took his wife’s surname when they married a year later, The Merry Spinster is his second work. 

The Merry Spinster is a slender anthology of short fiction. It retells classic fairy stories like “The Six Swans” by the Brothers Grimm, and folk legends such as the Orkney folktale “Johnny Croy and His Mermaid Bride”. 

“The Daughter Cells” is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, and it explores the soul of the natural world as a multifaceted entity reflecting Nature’s complex interconnectedness. The human desire to own and control, and of course our inherent selfishness, are set in stark contrast to the world below the waves. 

“The Merry Spinster” (recasting “Beauty and the Beast”) exhibits a profound ambivalence towards marriage as the sole narrative drive of the heroine, especially when the man concerned is so challenging. Toxic masculinity can be tamed by the love of a good woman, to be sure, but why is the woman having to do all the emotional work, Ortberg asks. 

Recasting fairy tales and folk legends for a modern audience, or simply retelling them in a way that is more empowering for women and other minorities, is fertile territory for horror writers. This is true at the literary end of the spectrum, as with this volume, and towards the more popular end of the fiction market. In a process brought to worldwide attention by Angela Carter in the early 1990s when Virago published two books of fairy tales which she edited, writers have been reclaiming fairy tales and folk legends as their own. They’ve wrestled them from the likes of the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney ever since. 

The best writers give something of themselves in their work, however discreetly this is achieved.  One of the things I love most about Ortberg is how true this is of his writing. Educated at the private Azusa Pacific University and raised by Evangelical Christian parents, it isn’t surprising that faith is explored extensively within these pages. The ‘Sources and Influences’ section at the page lists, among others, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” by St John Climacus and “Summa Theologica” by Thomas Aquinas. 

Gender issues were also in play, with a thoughtful and potentially personal retelling of “The Frog Prince” by the Brothers Grimm. Here the youngest daughter takes the role of princess in the title (“The Frog’s Princess”) but is referred to as ‘he’ throughout in a way that felt compellingly natural to this non-binary reviewer. 

This was an immensely subtle but thought-provoking anthology. After two slow reads through for the purpose of this review, I feel like I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of what it has to offer. 

Review the reviewers! If you’ve read this novel, or just have some thoughts on any point made in this review, tag me at @JohnCAdamsSF on Twitter to share them. 

5/5 stars

Available from Bookshop, Amazon, and Amazon UK.

Epeolatry Book Review: Animal Uprising! from Nightmare Press

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Title: Animal Uprising! 
Author: Various
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Nightmare Press
Release Date: 9th April 2019

Synopsis:  A lion, a hybrid, a bear – oh no! A goat, a gull, and a big black dog! Can’t forget the roaches, the deer flies, and the tarantula hawk, or the abominable insect that rises from the earth! We got creepy crawlers and killer critters for everyone. Oh, you want mythical creatures? How about a malevolent spirit posed as a fox, a rambunctious jackalope, or a herd of unicorn-gazelles on a distant planet? Let’s not forget the supernatural silver stag with the power to raise the dead. Oh, did I mention the giant mantis shrimp? Yeah – we got a giant mantis shrimp. Humankind really has their work cut out for them in this collection of terrifying tales of beastly butchery. Need to know more? Check out Animal Uprising! for all of the mayhem.

Man’s despotic existence over the animal kingdom has finally brought him to reap what he has sown in this collection of fourteen tales.

A goat, the symbol of resistance and opposition, becomes an omen of death in “The Goat” by Michelle Mellon. Street-smart but tired and desperate, Aiysha, along with three other girls, were on a live-and-work farm, an alternative to juvenile detention. Mysterious deaths were marked by the goat’s presence. Would anyone be able to outsmart it?

Sea gulls, rapacious in their effortless gliding, are more than obnoxious to anyone who’s ever had a morsel of food displayed in their presence. “The Gull” by David Turton starred a particularly invasive bird who couldn’t get the job done on its own. No worries, there was a flock eager to pick up where it left off.

Two stories brought me the joy of revenge. “Old Shuck” by Patrick Winters featured a Scrooge boss. I enjoyed every moment of his pleading to God (who he had never put faith in) as canine predators advanced. “Tarantula Hawk” by Kevin Folliard featured a formidable employee out to stake claim on what was hers, and to right a wrong, while using the largest wasp on Earth to do it.

Daisy Tucker tried as she might in “How Does Your Garden Grow,” written by M. R. Deluca, to keep her unusual kaleidoscope of flowers and shrubs to herself. Enter a pesky reporter trying too hard and invading her sacred space. Enter Pokey, her befriended jackalope. With the sharp horns…

“The Day of the Deer Flies” by Stanley B. Webb transported incapacitating deer fly bites on its pages. The desperation of paralysis!

The diver on a research team encountered more than underwater lava flow and volcanic rock towers in “Upsweep” by Rebecca Gransden. Would the illuminated cable and her reinforced suit be enough to withstand what lies below?

“The Fox” by Judith Baron was a tricky and clever story about an eight-tailed fox, turned human, turned fox.

“Taxidermy Nightmare,” authored by one half of the Frightening Floyds, Jacob Floyd, kept me wriggling with its bizarre creations – dog head on a doe, bird head on a chipmunk, and other abominations of mammalian beauty. I warmed to the nine-foot silver deer that had the main character atone for his actions.

“Child of the Earth:  A Tale of the Bajazid” by Kenneth Bykerk took me back in time to the Mortenson Mine of 1890. The horror of cricket-like bugs invading the miners’ human orifices was foul in its own right, but was there something else – something worse – deeper inside the mine?

Another bug invasion grossed me out in “Grime” by Hannah Shannon. Roaches falling from the ceiling, getting in hair and underneath clothes. The sickening details forced me to keep reading!

Unicorn fierceness and tenacity in “Radish Hunting” by Melinda Brasher made me feel less empowered as a human. “The shot echoed against the bluffs, but the herd didn’t scatter. Twenty sets of eyes stared at her.” The helplessness!

I empathized with the part crocodile/part pig that got a bad rap in “Crocopork” by Liam Hogan. Just because most were dangerous didn’t mean Winston was, too. Did it?

My favorite story was “The Lion, the Witch, and the Walrus,” written by J. T. Haven in irreverent and matter-of-fact humor. Jimmy, poor guy, not the first person to wake up in a strange place after a night with a stranger, but maybe the first to find himself suspended horizontally over a cage of lions. The author had me rooting for him as the final showdown neared.

I felt the power of the uprising throughout this anthology. The authors’ interests in the creatures they produced was apparent. The creations were anything but ordinary and everything from predatory to annihilating.

4/5 stars

Available from Amazon.

Epeolatry Book Review: Varieties of the Weird Tale by S. T. Joshi

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Title: Varieties of the Weird Tale
Author: S. T. Joshi
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Hippocampus Press
Release Date: 1st May 2017

Synopsis: In his forty-year career as a critic and editor of weird fiction, S. T. Joshi has had occasion to study many of the leading writers of fantasy and horror fiction, and this book embodies some of his most provocative discussions on weird writers over the past century or more.

The “golden age” of weird fiction ranged from about 1880 to 1940, and Joshi studies such leading writers as Ambrose Bierce and Bram Stoker, as well as little-known but fascinating figures such as Edna W. Underwood and Gertrude Atherton. Bierce’s pungent political satires, rarely discussed by critics, are analyzed in detail, and we learn of both the lives and the writings of such pioneering writers of ghostly fiction as Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and E. Nesbit.

The early decades of the 20th century saw the emergence of such titans as Lord Dunsany and M. R. James, and Joshi provides penetrating glimpses into their variegated work. This was also an era of lesser-known figures, and Joshi shows how the work of Sax Rohmer, Irvin S. Cobb, and Maurice Level contributed to the development of weird fiction. Contemporary writers ranging from Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti, and Caitlín R. Kiernan are also studied in detail.

All told, this volume provides illuminating glimpses of many of the leading writers of the weird tale over the past century and a half, and also adds to S. T. Joshi’s stature as the leading critic of weird fiction today.

In Varieties of the Weird Tale from Hippocampus Press, S T Joshi expands upon his earlier work of essays on the weird tale. The first volume (The Weird Tale) analysed the writing and appeal of traditional practitioners of this horror subgenre, such as Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, MR James, Ambrose Bierce and, of course, HP Lovecraft. 

Joshi extends the time period under consideration. It stretches all the way from the golden age of weird fiction (beginning with Bierce) through the era of Lovecraft, to the contemporary scene. The most recent writer to appear is Caitlin R Kiernan.

Joshi is a well-known expert on Lovecraft and weird fiction, having edited and written histories of supernatural fiction, weird fiction, Cthulhu Mythos, and more. For budding authors hoping to learn more about weird fiction, the pertinence of his analysis and the thoroughness of his historically based presentation makes this book an excellent starting point. 

Some of the analysis is quite thematic, which I always appreciate. There are essays on ‘Christianity and Paganism in Two Dunsany Novels’, and ‘Science and Superstition: Fritz Leiber’s Modernisation of Gothic’.

The old masters are all present this time around, with more analysis of MR James and Ambrose Bierce. There’s also a wider range of established leading names such as Donald Wandrei and Sax Rohmer. One of the most notable elements of The Weird Tale was that there were no female authors. Thankfully that isn’t the case in this follow-up volume. Excellent writers, such as Gertrude Atherton and Mary E Wilkins Freeman, are treated in detail.

Every writer has their drawbacks. With Joshi, it’s the decided way in which he expresses himself. The introduction to this volume singles out the poor reading taste of the mass public in general, and (related to this) the success of writers such as Anne Rice and Stephen King (whose works I rather enjoy as it happens) for particular attack. There’s not much room for differing views. It’s easy for an academic to fall into that trap as the sole author of a work of criticism, but I recently reviewed Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendelsohn, and was struck by how successfully this pitfall was avoided. Likewise, there is an advantage to having multiple contributors, as the willingness to explore varied viewpoints showcased in, The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature.

I’m never a fan of critics complaining about the popularity of mass-market books. There’s simply no need to be snobby about reading material we all enjoy. In regard to authors who are much loved in the horror genre, it seems almost foolhardy to alienate their readership. The weird tale doesn’t lessen the achievements of Lovecraft and his fellows in any way. Vastly popular writers such as Stephen King, Dean Koontz or Clive Barker may be onto something, too.

Notwithstanding my thoughts above, Joshi has much to teach writers developing within the ambit of the weird tale, or within the horror genre. And you don’t need to agree with a critic on every point in order to learn a great deal from them. Joshi’s strength lies in his encyclopedic knowledge of his subject matter, and this provides a firm foundation for his worldview of genre fiction.

Enjoy!

4/5 stars

Available from Hippocampus Press and Amazon.

Reviewing Tools: Plot Factory

Disclaimer:  The reviewer was provided a membership of Plot Factory for an honest review. Features we talk about may or may not be available at lower tiers and could represent retired or removed elements.  Please check the site to ensure the features that interest you are available, and at which tier.

Disclaimer:  Our reviews may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through the links in this article we may receive a small commission or referral fee. This happens without any additional cost to you.

When it comes to writing tools, I’m often looking for the next new thing, the next *big* thing.
I’m on various writing sites, so when I was given the option to review Plot Factory and explore, I was delighted.  Mostly because they have a narration feature, and I’ve been exploring my editing with narration from either my text to speech on my Kindle, or in Word, so other options are always welcome.

But that’s not the only thing there is on the site. I’ll be talking more about canon and organising universes later, but there are tools in Plot Factory that are far more advanced than some other sites that let you do this – in fact, I had to design a Wiki to do it in the past.

The basics of Plot Factory

Plot Factory has a word processor, some basic formatting within it, and is pretty easy to use.  If you’re used to Blogger or WordPress, you’ll be unphased by it.  As it should be for a writing site. And as soon as you join, you’re directed to their very active Discord server.  I’ll touch on that later, but as much as I love all of the other features, honestly, the Discord server is quite incredible.
I can also confirm that as suggested on their front page, it’s completely mobile friendly.  I went through several devices while on the go over the last two weeks, and it’s all smooth and loads.  It’s still new, so I can forgive having to occasionally reload pages or faults that I’ve seen.
(and as an aside, all reported faults show up in chat on the Discord server and are almost immediately fixed, for the few I saw.  As it’s still in active development, the fact that the developer is available to answer on Discord and fix things is actually a very good thing).

Bells and whistles abound in Plot Factory

I’m sure that I could explore for weeks and find new things, but each of the tabs on this screen leads to more options.  But the easiest way to look at all of the options and branches are different ways to access things.  Each screen can, I think, pull other things in that have been created elsewhere, and if you’re building a series of books, with characters that repeat, or places, or rules, or other items you really need to keep track of, Plot Factory has you covered.  Organising is easy!
Stuck?  There are questionnaires to shake your thoughts free, and at the time of writing this piece, they are running a weekly writing prompt on the Discord server.

Narration from Plot Factory

One of the unusual things that I found on the site was the narration.  You can put your novel through its paces and see how it flows.  To give you an idea of how this sounds, I pasted the Horror Tree’s ‘About us’, and had ‘Matthew’ read it.  There are four options.  Matthew, Joanna, and Brian and Amy (British voices).  All four sound lovely – Amy (British) in fact, sounds like a narrator I recognise, which is quite neat.
Take a listen! (This is Matthew)

 

Pros and cons of Plot Factory

I wish I had some clear cut pros and cons to offer with the site – I’m still enamoured and exploring, and everything I’ve got issue with are things that are more to do with the fact that I code and write sites rather than actually issues with what the site does.  It could be too much if you write stand-alone and no-repeat universe books, but even then, organisation, backup, access no matter what platform, Epub export and narration (depending on your level of membership), could be worthwhile.  But, if you’re looking for no distractions, no fluff and filler, then the site may be a bit much for you.

Finally, the best bit

I’ll be honest, the bit that I’ve spent the most time with has been their community.  They are friendly, talkative, helpful, receptive and a joy to discuss things with.  Their server is quite highly trafficked, and there appear to be sprints, voice chat, and more going on, as well as the aforesaid writer’s prompts.  As far as I’m aware, the Plot Factory Discord is free to join, on their free plan.  There are people from all over the world available on the server, but do be aware that you might get distracted.  So far, I’ve talked about everything from language construction to study, to publishing, to cats.  LOTS of cats. 🙂

In summary

I think there’s a solid site in place with Plot Factory.  The narration is by far and away the most interesting thing on there for me, but I like everything from goals and accountability, to the writing challenges, the writing interface (which isn’t too simple, but isn’t hugely complicated – like I said – if you’re used to posting on sites, you’ll find it familiar), and backup.  I love that I’ve connected up to Dropbox and it just copies it over for me – something I don’t have on my other writing sites for now.   But, if you write standalone books, some of the features might not be necessary for your needs.  If like me, you write a lot of stuff that’s based in universes that you need to keep track of or are stuck on filling out your character details, then you’re going to LOVE Plot Factory… and most of all, it’s community.

If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out Plot Factory today!

Epeolatry Book Review: The Oppenheimer Alternative

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Title: The Oppenheimer Alternative
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Genre: Alternate History
Publisher: SFWRITER.COM Inc.
Release Date: 2nd June, 2020

Synopsis: While J. Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project team struggle to develop the A-bomb, Edward Teller wants something even more devastating: a weapon based on nuclear fusion — the mechanism that powers the sun. But Teller’s research leads to a terrifying discovery: by the year 2030, the sun will eject its outermost layer, destroying the entire inner solar system — including Earth.

After the war ends, Oppenheimer’s physicists combine forces with Albert Einstein, computing pioneer John von Neumann, and rocket designer Wernher von Braun — the greatest scientific geniuses from the last century racing against time to save our future.

Meticulously researched and replete with real-life characters and events, The Oppenheimer Alternative is a breathtaking adventure through both real and alternate history.

The greatest minds of science gather together to save the Earth in the new book The Oppenheimer Alternative (377 pgs.) written by Robert J. Sawyer. The Manhattan Project scientist, think with the completion of the A-bomb, their work is done; when they then discover the sun is going to explode in the next hundred years and they are the only ones who can stop it. The book becomes a race to see if these talented men and women can pull off the impossible and save humanity. 

As Sawyer states, every character in the book is a famous historical person; Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi and J. Robert Oppenheimer, are just a few of the familiar names. Sawyer does a great job at bringing out each of their personalities. Because the characters were real people the book has a familiar feeling as you read about them. You know these names from documentaries about the atomic bomb, and the space program. I loved that Sawyer starts each chapter with a quote or excerpt from one of these scientist that I found perfect for enriching the story. When possible he used known dialogue. The bibliography is hefty with research. 

Sawyer structures his book, using a sequential timeline that touches on the major events of history: the dropping of the 2 atomic bombs; the space program; JFK’s assassination; the McCarthy hearings. This structure keeps the book moving. The reader has a better connection to the history that is unfolding in these pages.

Sawyer also does a wonderful job of explaining the science. It is easy to understand and compelling. Fusion, fission, black holes, physics and many of the Einstein’s principals get trotted out and brilliantly explained for us laypeople.

This book is a timely read, with the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs in 2020. Sawyer makes the reader understand the guilt, some of the scientists felt, at creating these weapons

Sawyer, is one of only eight writers to win all three of the world’s top awards for best science-fiction novel of the year: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. He has also won the Robert A. Heinlein Award, the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award, and the Hal Clement Memorial Award; the top SF awards in China, Japan, France, and Spain; and a record-setting sixteen Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards (“Auroras”). Sawyer is a member in the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

Sawyer lives just outside Toronto. His website and blog are at sfwriter.com, and he is on Facebook and Twitter. 

The Oppenheimer Alternative is for people who love historical science fiction. I love when a book entertains and educates me. I give this book 5 out of 5. Enjoy.

5 stars

Available from Bookshop and Amazon,

Epeolatry Book Review: Arterial Bloom, ed. Mercedes M. Yardley

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Title: Arterial Bloom
Author: Various, ed. Mercedes M. Yardley
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing
Release Date: 3rd April, 2020

Synopsis: Crystal Lake Publishing proudly presents Arterial Bloom, an artful juxtaposition of the magnificence and macabre that exist within mankind. Each tale in this collection is resplendent with beauty, teeth, and heart.

Edited by the Bram Stoker Award-winning writer Mercedes M. Yardley, Arterial Bloom is a literary experience featuring 16 stories from some of the most compelling dark authors writing today.

With a foreword by HWA Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient Linda D. Addison, you are invited to step inside and let the grim flowers wind themselves comfortably around your bones.

There’s just something about an anthology. While a novel pilots a long, deliberate ribbon of highway, an anthology is all side streets and dark alleys. A good anthology offers myriad opportunities to get lost, to disappear into a new tale. Arterial Bloom mostly delivers on that front.

Arterial Bloom is a deep dive into the macabre heart of humanity. It is a collection free of an overarching theme, and the tales are as diverse as the writers who pen them. In this collection there’s everything from body horror to post-apocalypse to the delightfully and cosmically weird. This is a large palette of styles and subjects, and the diversity helps to keep the book fresh. You never know what you’re in for with each new blood-soaked tale.

Like any anthology, there are hits and misses. Some of the stories, although crafted well, tread worn and overly-familiar ground. Instead of surprising me, they rehashed standard apocalyptic tropes and horror clichés. Despite the overused plot and themes, the writing was, generally, solid enough to pull me through.

The biggest issue I have with Arterial Bloom is the too-frequent embrace of the current trend of ambiguity. Ambiguity can be a fantastic device, but it’s a difficult trick to pull off. If you don’t stick the landing, the ambiguous intention becomes muddled and confused. A few of Arterial Bloom’s stories lead to a narrative which got lost in the weeds of style over substance. Leaving aspects of the plot up to my imagination is fine. Substituting vagueness and labyrinthian prose for a structured and coherent plot is a horse of another color. When you sacrifice the telling of a focused story on the altar of a stylistic trend, you’ve done a disservice to your own talents as a writer. 

Though a solid collection of tales overall, several stories stood out. “The Darker Side of Grief” by Naching T. Kassa is a taut, tense slice of supernatural action where I learned there’s nothing more terrifying than a mother’s love. “Welcome to Autumn” by Daniel Crow is a surreal and strange tale of an artist with an otherworldly secret. I’ll admit I saw where it was headed, but that still didn’t keep me from enjoying the ending. “Happy Pills” by Todd Keisling features a medical experiment run to madness. I’m not normally a fan of body horror, but this story is executed well enough that it swept me along for the ride. “Mouths Filled With Seawater” by Jonathan Cosgrove is as a creeping example of ambiguity done right. “Blue Was Her Favorite Color” by Dino Parenti is a hallucinatory puzzle, and the dark highlight of the collection for me.

Arterial Bloom is a good anthology collection, with enough terrifying and bloody tales to keep you reading well past the midnight hour. So what if it was a bit uneven; this is common of many anthologies, and doesn’t detract from this satisfying stable of dark horror from a diverse collection of authors.

3.5 stars

Epeolatry Book Review: The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

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Title: The Complete Tales and Poems
Author: Edgar Allan Poe
Genre: Classic Horror
Publisher: Race Point Publishing
Release Date: 2014 edition

Synopsis:The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe is the next edition in the Knickerbocker Classic series, featuring works from the famous gothic American writer. His works span from 1827 to his death in 1849. His often macabre and dark works included “The Raven,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “Annabelle Lee.” For Poe fans worldwide, this stunning gift edition has a full cloth binding, foil blocking on the spine, ribbon marker, and is packaged neatly in an elegant slipcase. The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe contains every known Poe tale ever written, this deluxe edition boasts the entire Poe catalogue.

Edgar Allan Poe holds multiple distinctions as a writer. First, he invented the detective story. Second, he was a superb poet and short-story writer. Lastly, he was the author of some of the most terrifyingly uncomfortable tales ever penned. This isn’t a bad record for someone who wrote of his writing before his premature death at the age of forty, ‘I have no reason to be ashamed’.

 This volume contains all the poetry and fiction, making it a great starting point for the reader to enjoy the sheer variety of Poe’s short and long works, and for the writer keen to study in depth the skills required to construct compelling horror, mystery and (occasionally) fantasy fiction.

 “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, “The Purloined Letter”, and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” showcase many traits we would subsequently come to associate with the detective story. The arrogant genius, the amiable sidekick, and the pedestrian investigative skills of the police force were presented together for the first time. It was an intriguing combination that quickly became well established. As a result of Poe’s location choice, a lasting connection exists between Paris and the detective genre, something Agatha Christie cheerfully subverted in her Poirot Mysteries by making her Belgian detective perpetually mistaken for a Frenchman.

 The genius that was Poe’s detective fiction may have emerged spontaneously, but his fantasy and horror fiction (particularly the latter) grew out of an existing tradition in a more time-honoured way. The ‘rules’ of gothic fiction had been established, thoroughly explored, and (some might say) finally exhausted in the decades before Poe’s birth in 1809. However, he built upon these conventions to refresh the horror story by adding greater psychological penetration.

 “The Fall of the House of Usher” showcases many gothic horror features: an ancient family, a terrible home, secrets long husbanded. To this Poe added the inner dimension: an old friend arrives to witness the decline of Roderick Usher, funneling his inner response to the physical and moral environment in a manner more emotionally accessible to the reader than the focus on external action common in gothic horror.

 There’s also a lighter tone to this volume, presented through “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”. Poe offers outright bloodthirstiness in stories such as “The Masque of the Red Death”, and psychological torment in “The Pit and the Pendulum”. The outright stories of humour can feel a little forced at times, but this collection ends strongly with “The Narrative of A Gordon Pym”.

5 out of 5 stars.

 Enjoy!

Epeolatry Book Review: The Stain by Ruschelle Dillon

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Disclaimer: For full transparency, the author of this novel is a Horror Tree contributor.

Title: The Stain
Author: Ruschelle Dillon
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Black Bed Sheet Books
Release Date: 15th May, 2020

Synopsis: Born of bloodshed, a prolific stain, fed by the sins of earliest man….The Simmons moved into 228 Briar Street. With two growing children needing a stable routine and a house to call home, Marc and Claire settled into the old red brick, unaware of the neighborhood’s dirty little secret. In the dark and unfamiliar depths of the basement it lurks. It desires to manipulate the family into destructive chaos as it has countless times past and as far back as there were settlers in this plot of land, feed upon both flesh and the ecstasy of its dark influence. And not just in this house. It is old, mischievous, and inherently evil. It is…THE STAIN.

I’ve read Ruschelle Dillon’s dark fiction over the last couple of years, and enjoyed her often wacky, quirky take on tropes and the whole genre. Once or twice we’ve had our fiction published in the same anthology. Yes, she does reviews for the Horror Tree, and she also interviews writers.

So, having got that bit out of the way, and being above board about our writing acquaintanceship, I was more than happy to read her latest, this novella from indie American publisher, Black Bed Sheet Books.

The blurb was enticing: a family moves into a house, the oh-so-normal mum and dad, (Marc and Claire) and their two kids. They are hoping to build a more solid base in this old red brick with a basement than provided by their past string of short-term rentals. 

The story is told in shortish pacy chapters which crack along, and it’s heavy on dialogue. This is an accessible read, and one easy to get into.

Of course, the very first chapter which opens with the words, ‘I was born of bloodshed’, tips us off that all will not be a sunny walk in the park. There is something else, or someone else, sharing the house, living in the basement, whose history and evil heart are entwined with the foundation. And there is a lot of history, none of it good, attached to this particular house.

Familial relationships are evocatively and swiftly established. Olivia (Livy- the teen) is particularly likeable, shrewd, and feisty. She is the one who first realises something is not quite right about the shadows in the basement. Claire is a doting mum to Livy and three-year-old Jasper. Marc, though an absentee working-away dad, also seems a doting family man. Or is he?

Every few chapters, Dillon inserts a flashback, revealing another piece of The Stain’s history. The first time this happened it threw me off as it took me away from the current day narrative, but I quickly adjusted; the information gave perspective to what was lurking in the bowels of the house or, the ‘root cellar’ as Dillon called it. Never have I known anything good to happen in a fictional ‘root cellar’.

A third of the way in, there is a switch in the way we perceive the dad, Marc. The layers of his marriage to Claire deepen and darken. I won’t give away more than that, but it’s a fun ride.

Throw in the possible paedo neighbour who lurks on the sidelines, and uncle Travis—a work colleague who hangs around the family, and the human drama ramps up. Meanwhile, Livy becomes increasingly sucked into the web of tricks and games the inhabitant in the basement is playing.

There is a terrible tragedy which I didn’t see coming—it took my breath away. Dillon plays with our assumptions very effectively throughout the book. It certainly surprised me which way Dillon took the narrative.

The ending has a few more contortions to put the reader through before the final devastating paragraphs. 

This is an entertaining, fast read, which took me on a rollercoaster ride – a blend of horror and thriller with family drama. It’s rather different from Dillon’s previous fiction and not what I was expecting to read, but that’s not an issue, just a comment. 

The cover is pretty cool too.

4/5 stars.

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