Category: Reviews

Book Review: The Strange Thing We Become by Eric LaRocca

The Strange Thing We Become and other Dark Tales by Eric LaRocca Review

By Justin Montgomery

Disclaimer: This article contains 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.

Eric LaRocca sent shockwaves through the horror community earlier this year with the publication of their phenomenal novella, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. A masterclass in tension and storytelling, I was blown away. When I was approached to give a review of their debut collection, The Strange Thing We Become and other Dark Tales, I jumped on the opportunity, and was once again whisked away into LaRocca’s velvet prose, thrust mercilessly into their macabre imagination rendered so beautifully onto the page. 

The stories collected here are quite dark. This collection challenged me, pushed me into uncomfortable and repulsive territory, but I’m glad that it did—save for one story. I appreciated how the stories collected here grew in length and complexity as the collection went on, starting with the brilliant and quick “You Follow Wherever They Go” and growing. One thing that I simply love about LaRocca’s work is the way they title their stories. Creative and complex, yet effectively capturing the themes and emotion within the stories. A welcome change from the formulaic titles of “The (insert noun here)” that most authors (myself included) fallback onto. It’s here that, from the very outset of the stories, that LaRocca distinguishes themselves from the pack. 

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Epeolatry Book Review: The Rules of the Road by C.B. Jones

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Title: The Rules of the Road 
Author: C.B. Jones
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Ionosphere Press
Release Date: 24th August, 2021

Synopsis:

Do you ever wonder why it is you sometimes see a single shoe on the side of the road? What happens if you don’t hold your breath when you pass a cemetery? Why should you pay careful attention to that strange speed limit sign, the one that reads 67 MPH?

When an amateur journalist encounters a mysterious radio program while driving alone one late night, he is presented with a set of instructions with potentially fatal consequences. After escaping with his life, obsession takes hold and he is determined to find out who is behind the broadcast and who else it has affected. His investigation leads him to speak with travelers and truckers, vagabonds and vacationers, models and rock stars, each with their own sinister encounter with the strange program. His search draws him into a world of deadly discovery from which there is no turning back.

So settle down and buckle up. Stay alert for the signs to survive. Do not adjust that dial. Prepare to be a lucky—or unlucky—listener to “The Rules of The Road.” What will the static settle on for you?

Have you ever stumbled upon some random AM radio station while driving through the middle of nowhere? Extra points if you were traveling along a long desolate road in the middle of the night. Usually, it’s just some lower power signal of a fire and brimstone preacher, or some local sports talk broadcast. But there are always urban legends of some strange recording of ominous noises or some pirate signal broadcasting some guy ranting about chem trails and the secret cabal of lunch ladies across the Midwest.

Well, Rules of the Road by C.B. Jones stirs up those same feelings of unease through a collection of short stories wrapped in one framing story, a la Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. With each story you get another piece of the puzzle, another clue as to what is going with this strange radio broadcast sharing, ‘Rules of the Road’, which, if you don’t follow, may have deadly consequences. I’ll give you one example. If you come across a single shoe lying beside the road, you must stop and place one of your own socks within. What happens if you don’t do this? Probably something bad, really bad. So, why take a chance? What’s one less sock?

This book is an unsettling trip through the horrors of modern Americana. Discover the things that scare those who call the road home, like missed cellphone calls, social media, and the loss of self, Geo Metros (super creepy), mysterious phone numbers on bathroom stalls, and the ever-pernicious boiled peanuts!

My personal favorites from this are ‘Landslide’ and ‘What’s Your Name?’ Both take wonderfully unexpected turns.

So, if you like books similar to Brotherhood of the Wheel by R.S. Belcher or the Lost Signals anthology edited by Max Booth III, be sure to check out this new release from up-and-coming horror author C.B. Jones.

out of 5 ravens.

Available from Amazon.

Epeolatry Book Review: The Heron Kings by Eric Lewis

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Title: The Heron Kings
Author: Eric Lewis
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Flame Tree Press
Release Date: 23rd April, 2020

Synopsis: After a warlord slaughters her patients, Sister Alessia quits the cloister and strikes out on her own to heal the victims of a brutal dynastic conflict. Her roaming forest camp unwittingly becomes the center of a vengeful peasant insurgency, raiding the forces of both sides to survive. Alessia struggles to temper their fury as well as tend wounds, consenting to ever greater violence to keep her new charges safe. When they uncover proof of a foreign conspiracy prolonging the bloodshed, Alessia risks the very lives she’s saved to expose the truth and bring the war to an end.

‘The Heron Kings’ has us dive headfirst into a fantasy world at war. In it, two factions contest the rights to rulership in a kingdom divided, and instead of focusing on one side or the other, we get to see what happens to the commoners who have no stake in the game. The world that Eric Lewis gives us is rich and highly developed with characters who aren’t 2D and really stand out.
Right as the tale begins, we get to see that nowhere in this world is safe, including a religious haven for those who have come to be healed. As we begin, we meet Alessia, a healer and nun who has lost her faith. She strikes out on her own and sees that the failed world she has lived in is even worse than she had known. Gathering a band of survivors together, she is ultimately put in charge of their fates as well as the fates of countless others. Her primary frenemy is Ulnoth, a man set on revenge, having lost his family to the war. Neither of these characters is necessarily that likable, but their motives are easy to relate to, and the tale, on the whole, is compelling.
We’re also delivered complex characters on the opposite side as we meet the brutal General Taurix, who is leading the charge for one of the kingdoms, and a spymistress Vivian. Unfortunately, the central two leaders of the conflict aren’t fleshed out that well though the intrigue of the war overshadows everything going on, and there are mysteries within mysteries as to what actually kicked off this brutal conflict.
I should stress, this is brutal as the novel is full of gore and situations that won’t be for the squeamish. Though I will add that none of it was shoehorned in, and all was needed to properly set the tone of living through war.
Overall, I enjoyed this new world that Lewis created and felt that things wrapped up nicely. There is room to expand the story though this could just as easily be a completely self-contained work. With how brutal some of the scenes are, it won’t be for everyone, especially those who are looking for happy endings. As war tends to be, even when things end, they are messy and bloodthirsty things that have a negative impact on everyone and everything they come in contact with.

 

I give this collection  out of 5.

Available from Amazon and Bookshop.

Epeolatry Book Review: Blood & Bone, ed. A.R. Ward

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Title: Blood & Bone: An Anthology of Body Horror by Women and Non-Binary Writers
Author: Various, ed. A.R. Ward
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Ghost Orchid Press
Release Date: 22nd September, 2021

Synopsis: Since the earliest creation myths, womens’ bodies have been a site of conflict, venerated and feared in equal measure. In this collection, talented female and non-binary writers let rip with twenty-two powerful, visceral body horror stories that explore, celebrate and dissect (sometimes literally) femininity and the female experience. The stories traverse difficult and sometimes controversial ground, digging into subjects like eating disorders, the beauty industry, pregnancy, infertility, body dysmorphia, domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse–all done with passion, humour, and creativity. Approach with an open mind and a strong stomach.

According to the website TV Tropes, body horror is horror “involving body parts, parasitism, disfigurement, mutation, or unsettling bodily configuration, not induced by immediate violence,” which may give you an idea for what’s in store within the latest anthology from Ghost Orchid Press, Blood & Bone: An Anthology of Body Horror by Women & Non-Binary Writers. Most of the stories in this anthology hit the above threshold definition of body horror, with few exceptions. 

In the Foreword, Alex Woodroe mentions, “One of the greatest things about body horror is that it’s unlikely anyone reading this anthology right now is doing so by accident. You know what you want.” I have to hand it to Woodroe, going in to this anthology I had expectations for the types of stories that I would encounter, and I wasn’t let down. Being an anthology about both women and bodies, I expected tales of pregnancy, motherhood, self-image, identity, and troubled relationships. This anthology delivered on all of those expectations. 

 “Siphonophore,” by Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin, opened the collection on a high note. The creative use of point of view and beautiful prose took a tale we all know and created something interesting and original. 

Caitlin Marceau’s story, “Gastric,” took on issues of body image and self-esteem and combined them with gaslighting in a heartbreaking story about a woman who is repeatedly told how she should look and feel. 

Another highlight of this collection was Evelyn Freeling’s “What Goes Down, Must Come Up.” Freeling puts a fresh spin on her story with creative use of second person point of view. This story was at turns intense, disgusting, and heartbreaking. 

“Knit, Purl,” by Nicole M. Wolverton was another horrific tale. Very early in the story, I knew the direction the narrative was going to take, but the inevitability of the outcome didn’t detract from my enjoyment. It was a horrifying accident that I couldn’t tear my eyes from. 

The last story I’d like to mention is Nico Bell’s “Written on her Skin.” This story about the way people speak to (and about) women was absolutely stunning.  

This collection is for more than just fans of body horror. This collection speaks to the deeper horrors that women face on a regular basis, just by virtue of being female. While I didn’t enjoy all of the stories equally (as to be expected with any anthology), the stories listed above make reading the book well worth your time. 

out of 5 Ravens.

Available from Amazon.

Epeolatry Book Review: The Horror Collection: Ruby Edition, ed. Kevin J. Kennedy

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Title: The Horror Collection: Ruby Edition
Author: Various, ed. Kevin J. Kennedy
Genre: Horror
Publisher: KJK Publishing
Release Date: 25th July, 2021

Synopsis: The Horror Collection: Ruby Edition from KJK Publishing celebrates the 10th book of the series! Since its conception in 2018, The Horror Collection series has been a firm favourite amongst global horror readers.

With each edition, KJK Publishing has prided itself in bringing audiences new stories from a coalition of brilliant indie talent across the spectrum of horror literature. Putting these stories firmly in the hands of readers, these collections are perfect for those who enjoy shorter works of fiction, those seeking fresh talent in the horror genre and make great reads, as a break between devouring longer works.

Contributors: Tom Deady, Calvin Demmer, Lex H. Jones, Ronald Kelly, John Kennedy, Kevin J. Kennedy, Christopher Motz, Kyle M. Scott, Guy N. Smith, Steve Stred.

At only 139 pages, this collection of short stories isn’t long, but it still offers a good amount of variety in its subject matter. The horrors include apocalypses, forest creatures, ghosts, and serial killers. The volume even ends in a dark poem and excerpt from a novella, Halloween Land by Kevin J. Kennedy.

My two favourite stories were:

Tanglewood by Ronald Kelly – A man takes a short cut home from work one day and is temporarily stranded by a flat tire. While he fixes his car, he is confronted by ghostly figures from his past. I loved the dark, foreboding atmosphere present in this story and although I had a sense of where it might be heading, I still enjoyed the ride.

Where the Holly Ceases to Grow by Lex. H. Jones – A young boy, Jacob, strolls through the woods around Christmas time and makes an unusual friend. What drew me into this story was the mysterious nature of Jacob’s friend and the tantalizing hints at a larger world.

As with any collection, I found there were some stories that I enjoyed less than others. However, I think this was more due to personal taste than any lack of talent on the part of the authors. The stories were intriguing, but a lot of them didn’t scare me like I wanted.

 

I give this collection  out of 5 ravens

Available from Amazon.

Epeolatry Book Review: From the Neck Up and Other Stories by Aliya Whiteley

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Title: From the Neck Up and Other Stories
Author: Aliya Whiteley
Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy
Publisher: Titan Books
Release Date: Sept 14th, 2021

Synopsis: The new collection of beautiful, strange and disarming short stories from the award-winning author of The Beauty, Clarke Award nominee The Loosening Skin and The Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whiteley. In 16 stories Whiteley deftly unpeels the strangeness of everyday life through beguiling gardens, rebellious bodies and journeys across familiar worlds, with her trademark wit and compassion. 

Witness the future of farming in a new Ice Age, or the artist bringing life to glass; the many-eyed monsters we carry and the secret cities inside our bodies; the alien invasion through our language to the Chantress and her twists on the fairy tale. Fascinating and always unexpected, Whiteley is unlike any other writer working today.

A prolific novelist, shortlisted for various fantasy and SF Awards, Aliya Whiteley is a writer very hard to classify and totally unpredictable, as clearly demonstrated by this collection of short stories. She’s certainly endowed with a powerful, versatile imagination able to produce dark stories, often in a surrealistic vein. Fine examples are “Many-eyed Monsters” a bizarre, enjoyable tale where little monsters  expelled by human bodies try to attach themselves to their skin.

 “Three Love Letters From an Unrepeatable Garden” is about a delicate flower with a mesmerizing smell which must be kept inside a glass box to save it from wilting and dying.

“Corwick Grows” is a perceptive but puzzling story told by a man laying in a hospital bed, while

”Blessings Erupt” is an offbeat piece featuring a woman removing cancers from sick people by sucking them out and eating them.

The best stories, perhaps, are “Loves of the Long Dead”, a splendid, quite original dark fable  taking the reader on a wild ride from ancient Egypt across the centuries. “Reflection, Refraction, Dispersion” is a strange story about a paranormal phenomenon affecting the lives of a young woman and her father.

A “different” collection by a “different”, gifted author.

 out of 5 ravens

Available from Amazon and Bookshop.

Epeolatry Book Review: Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite

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Title: Lost Souls
Author: Poppy Z. Brite
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Dell
Release Date: 1992

Synopsis: At a club in Missing Mile, N.C., the children of the night gather, dressed in black, look for acceptance. Among them are Ghost, who sees what others do not; Ann, longing for love; and Jason, whose real name is Nothing, newly awakened to an ancient, deathless truth about his father, and himself.

Others are coming to Missing Mile tonight. Three beautiful, hip vagabonds—Molochai, Twig, and the seductive Zillah, whose eyes are as green as limes—are on their own lost journey, slaking their ancient thirst for blood, looking for supple young flesh.

They find it in Nothing and Ann, leading them on a mad, illicit road trip south to New Orleans. Over miles of dark highway, Ghost pursues, his powers guiding him on a journey to reach his destiny, to save Ann from her new companions, to save Nothing from himself. . . . 

The runaway success of a debut novel always interests writers who are looking to make a similar breakthrough in their own careers. In the case of Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite, it became a cult classic and launched a career that, so far, comprises eight novels and four short-story collections. 

 The main character, Nothing, is fifteen. He’s bored with his hometown, frustrated with his adopted parents (who seem uniquely unable to understand him) and is eager to skip town to find his real parents. Courtesy of a note pinned to his basket the night he was left on their doorstep, he at least knows his real name. He begins with a cross-country Greyhound bus trip to Missing Mile, North Carolina, the home of his favourite indie rock band Lost Souls?, which is fronted by Steve Finn and Ghost. On the way, he is picked up by a group of three vampires travelling in an anonymous black van, including (unknown to him) his natural father Zillah. 

 The need to feed emerged within Nothing as he grew up, and he takes easily to life on the road, snatching the vulnerable and draining their blood. Zillah is the group’s leader, violent and dangerous. Nothing is determined to find out more about his birth mother, and the arrival of a fourth member of the group, Christian, makes this possible. Meanwhile, Zillah’s sexual charisma seduces another young woman, Ann, and she falls pregnant with his child. Tough choices lie ahead, as carrying a half-vampire child is always fatal to the mother. 

 By 1992, the market was ready for a searingly honest portrait of a gritty, drug-addled vampire novel set against the popular fare of ‘vampires as glamorous, sophisticated and elegant’ we’d grown used to. It was the moment for grunge, so it probably wasn’t an accident that this novel centres in part upon a rubbishy rock band fronted by two stoners adored by their local following. Re-reading this book after many decades for the purpose of this review, it struck me how much the book reflected its time, and I realised all over again that this potential was what Penguin must have seen when they picked it up. It stood the test of time every bit as well as the bands and culture it drew upon, and it took me back to my college years in the early Nineties, going to dive bars to see indie bands of precisely that ilk. 

 The locations are one of the best parts of this novel. New Orleans is Brite’s stamping ground, and you can tell that the author is entirely at home there. No part of the Latin Quarter is left out. Likewise, the small North Carolina town of Missing Mile, which is incidentally the location for Brite’s second novel, a haunted house tale, is central to the action. She captures the ‘nothing ever happens’ nature of small-town America perfectly, and it offers the right contrast to the seedy violence of New Orleans. 

 Technically speaking, it was interesting to see the omniscient point of view utilised in the overarching introduction. Brite established a feel of group identity, essential in the environments presented here where there is so much pressure to fit in that everyone ends up thinking alike and no one wants to stand out from the crowd. Courtesy of Ghost’s ability to read other people’s thoughts and enter into their feelings directly, there were frequent journeys from one character’s point of view to another within a scene. At other times, the point of view spontaneously shifted mid-scene from one character to another to reflect the group identity that kept the protagonists pushing forward through their bloodthirsty nocturnal activities, murdering youngsters to drink their blood, without anyone turning a hair. 

 This is an unforgivingly bleak and grimy portrait of the underworld in which vampirism can flourish: runaway children vulnerable and exposed, young people experimenting with sex, drugs and alcohol, and of course the indie rock scene and small bars that play host to their performances. There are flashes of optimism, not least of all in Ghost, whose humanity is grounded in his magical ability to see into other people’s feelings and thoughts. However, precious few happy endings occur in such an unremitting environment, and this novel reflects that truth perfectly. I loved every moment of it. 

 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. 

 Enjoy! 

out of 5 ravens.

Available from Amazon and Bookshop.

Epeolatry Book Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Title: Mexican Gothic
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Del Ray
Release Date: 15th June, 2021

Synopsis: After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.   

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom. 

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness. 

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

I’m not sure what to expect going into this book. Mexican Gothic got a ton of positive press and was nominated for the 2020 Superior Achievement in a Novel Bram Stoker Award. But, I wasn’t interested at first. Not sure why. Then, after a little convincing from some friends (I did my best to avoid spoilers), I finally convinced myself to give it a try. I suggest that you readers do the same; go into this one blind. The less you know, the more you’ll enjoy.

But, if you do want a little taste of what’s in store, here’s what I have to say…

So, our protagonist, Noemi, travels to a remote estate in Mexico to check on her cousin. There, she meets the residents of the old family estate. Of course, the family’s fortune is haunted by a bloody past. What secrets hide beneath the deteriorating walls? Will Noemi save her cousin or get pulled into the intrigue herself? 

It’s a bit of a slow burn. Silvia (can I call her Silvia?) luxuriates in the gloomy descriptions of the spooky, and somewhat familiar, gothic settings. But once things start to wrap up, the end comes at a blistering pace.

Think Crimson Peak crossed with Haunting of Hill House and Dracula with a touch of horrifying moldy mansion. All of this is topped with a healthy dose of Hispanic culture.

I give this   out of 5 ravens.

Available from Amazon and Bookshop.