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review 2018-09-04 18:45
DOORBELLS AT DUSK: HALLOWEEN STORIES edited by Evans Light
Doorbells at Dusk: Halloween Stories - Adam Light,Gregor Xane,Josh Malerman,Jason Parent,Evans Light

DOORBELLS AT DUSK: HALLOWEEN STORIES was an above average anthology that challenged me to take my time and savor the tales of Halloween mischief. I failed that challenge!

 

There are 14 spooky tales included within, and these were the ones that stood out the most for me:

 

KEEPING UP APPEARANCES by Jason Parent. I just adored this story of Halloween thieves picking the wrong house to burgle. I laughed out loud at the eyeball scenes. (Not sure what that says about me.)

 

VIGIL by Chad Lutzke. This wasn't a gross-out or even a very scary story. (Unless you're a parent.) It was poignant though, something Chad has mastered in his tales.

 

THE FRIENDLY MAN by Thomas Vaughn. I don't even know what to say. This story was so darkly macabre that even though what was happening was just AWFUL, I found myself gleefully turning the pages. This was my favorite story in the book. Well done!

 

OFFERINGS by Joanna Koch. I absolutely loved the concept and execution of this story. It's not complicated but it is MESSED UP. The take away? Don't escort any trick-or-treaters to your bathroom whilst others are briefly left unattended at your front door.

 

TRICK 'EM ALL by Adam Light. A disturbed and misguided (?) boy. A talking Jack O'Lantern. What could go wrong?

 

THE RYE-MOTHER by Curtis Lawson. This tale spoke to me more loudly once I finished this anthology, because it was unlike every other story and because it kept popping into my mind at weird times. It has staying power. (Also, I'm opting out of the corn maze this year.)

 

I had a great time with this anthology and liked almost all of the stories included within, which is pretty rare for me. Evans Light did a great job of bringing these authors together and the stories flowed well from one to the next. If you're looking for a great anthology to fill out your Halloween reading this year, make it DOORBELLS AT DUSK: HALLOWEEN STORIES. (Oh, and stay away from those corn mazes!)

 

Highly recommended!

 

*I received a paperback ARC of this collection in exchange for my honest feedback. This is it.*

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review 2018-08-23 18:45
OCCASIONAL BEASTS: TALES by John Claude Smith
Occasional Beasts: Tales - John Claude Smith

 

For a few years now, I have been a big fan of John Claude Smith's twisted view of the world. This collection of tales only serves to remind me how skilled, (and twisted!), he really is.

 

I'm not going to get into each tale, as there a total of 14 stories in this volume, but I am going to touch briefly on the ones that affected me the most:

 

DANDELIONS: There was something about this story that put me in mind of Shirley Jackson. Maybe it was the feeling of the characters that something was wrong with the geometry in the hotel in which they stopped for the night? Other than that portion though, I doubt Ms. Jackson would have recognized the warped reality to which Mr. Smith delivered us, kicking and screaming. Bravo!

 

PERSONAL JESUS: Be it Depeche Mode or the Johnny Cash version, I will never hear this song again without thinking of this story. Creepy. Imaginative. Horrifying!

 

THE JOHNNY DEPP THING: Perhaps some would find it tasteless of me, or maybe even inhuman, but this story had me gleefully chuckling the whole time. It's just messed up.

 

THE GLOVE: I felt a bit of a Science-Fiction vibe from this tale, and I'm not sure why. Whatever the genre label, all I know is that if I come across a stray glove somewhere? I'm not touching it! (Also, fake psychics suck.)

 

Both THE WOUNDED TABLE and THE LAND LORD I've read before in another collection. Even though I was already familiar with them, I mention them both again here because they're still fantastic tales of...intensity? Both give the reader peeks into that aforementioned warped reality that belongs to John Claude Smith alone.

 

Now that he's again sharing that reality with us, I think any dark fiction lover would be remiss by not stashing a copy of of OCCASIONAL BEASTS on their shelves. It will call to you, and you will be unable to resist!

 

Highly recommended! *I received an e-ARC of this book from the author in exchange for my honest feedback. This is it. *

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review 2018-08-05 19:26
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories - Stephen Emerson,Lucia Berlin,Lydia Davis

I struggled with how to rate this book. On the one hand, this collection of 43 short stories is brilliant. The writing is clear, vivid, engaging and insightful. The author clearly has a deep understanding of people and how they work, and has been around the block a few times. The settings – mostly the American Southwest, the Bay Area and Mexico – come to life so that you can practically see, sometimes even taste them. And there are some really excellent, tightly-written stories here. They are often melancholy – dealing with alcoholism, difficult family relationships, social injustice – but written with a freshness and empathy that, for me, kept them from ever feeling too dark. A few standouts (not an exhaustive list):

“A Manual for Cleaning Women”: A woman describes her various jobs cleaning houses for the wealthy and her daily routine, while the tragic end to her last relationship is slowly revealed.

“Tiger Bites”: A young woman who has just separated from her husband goes to Mexico for a back-alley abortion, and upon realizing she can’t go through with it, is tasked with the care of a young girl.

“Good and Bad”: A teenage expat in Chile is drawn into the orbit of a socialist teacher.

“Friends”: A single working woman struggles to make time to spend with an older couple who seem alone, only to discover that they think they’re doing her a favor.

“Mijito”: A teenage girl follows her lover from Mexico to the Bay Area, only to be abandoned with a child in the worst possible conditions – a realistic portrayal of the life of an uneducated, impoverished immigrant.

“502”: An alcoholic leaves her car on the street, where it crashes into the car of her alcoholic friends (fortunately, neither car was occupied at the time).

So I don’t disagree that Lucia Berlin is a hidden gem of an author. But what drove me batty about this collection is that virtually every story seems to be taken from her life, and features a protagonist whose life is consistent with Berlin’s own distinctive biography: the early years in the mining towns; growing up with her alcoholic mother and grandparents in El Paso during WWII; being kicked out of multiple schools; the teenage years living a privileged life in Chile; college in New Mexico; an early marriage that produced two sons and soon ended; two more marriages (one spent primarily in New York and abandoned for the third husband in Mexico) that also ended, leaving her a single mother of four sons; moving to the Bay Area and taking jobs as a high school teacher, hospital switchboard operator and ward clerk, cleaning woman and physician’s assistant; the alcoholism; the scoliosis; the difficult, alcoholic mother with pretensions of class; moving in with her disowned younger sister in Mexico City to care for her while the sister was dying of cancer; the writing; eventually moving to Boulder. Sometimes names are changed, sometimes not; the sister is always named Sally, the oldest sons always Ben and Keith, the mother’s family always Moynihans and the flamboyant cousin always Bella Lynn; the younger sons’ names sometimes vary, as does the protagonist’s own (sometimes she is Lucia, sometimes not; Carlotta is a recurring alternative).

And that didn’t really work for me – having all the stories be about the author, or at least, about characters who had lived the author’s life (the two largely superfluous introductory essays argue that the stories aren’t entirely autobiographical because she changed some details and otherwise exercised creative license). What I enjoy in short story collections is the boundless possibility, reading about different people in different situations reading different lives. When all of the stories are about the same character, those possibilities are hemmed in, and the stories begin to feel repetitive. Some don’t really have a plot at all, but are simply musings on the author’s life and relationships: in “Mama” for instance, the narrator and her sister Sally discuss their memories of their mother and complicated feelings about her, rehashing what we’ve already seen in other stories. Stories often include superfluous details, as if the author knew too much about her own life to include only the information relevant to a 10-page story.

So that was frustrating; I wished Berlin had just written a novel or a memoir. Only in a couple of stories out of the 43 is the protagonist’s life actually inconsistent with Berlin’s. Three of them begin with a narrator who is very obviously not her, and I started to get excited, only to find upon reading further that her avatar was the second narrator and/or another primary character. Granted, some of my disappointment likely stems from expectations; if the stories were arranged chronologically and the book presented as a semi-autobiographical collection, I might have enjoyed it more.

So, do I recommend this? Sure – it is excellent writing and you know now what it is, so read it if that appeals to you. There is no doubt excellence here.

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review 2018-07-18 21:00
DARKEST HOURS by Mike Thorn
Darkest Hours - Mike Thorn

On top of having this super cool cover, within these pages I discovered some of the best short, dark fiction I've read in a long while! Let's talk about it, shall we?

 

When I was young and couldn't afford bookstores, I often went to the library. (I still do, actually, because I love them, not because I have to.) I developed a love of horror back then, but our library's collection consisted of about two shelves. Once I read those, I started reading all of their anthologies and collections, in the hopes of finding new authors. In this way, I discovered Richard Matheson, Steve Rasnic Tem, Dennis Etchison, Ray Bradbury and other writers that I still love to this day. DARKEST HOURS brought me back to that time of discovery-horror and dark fiction in all of its glorious, different forms. Reading this collection made me feel like a kid again. 

 

This volume begins with the story HAIR. I knew right then that this book was going to be a force to be reckoned with. Coming unapologetically out of left field, Thorn hits you with this tale of unstoppable hair and then moves on to something out of right field, just to keep you off balance.

 

THE AUTEUR It's important to know who you're talking to when you ask for horror recommendations from people. You may find out a little too much about them otherwise, but by then it might be too late. Hair plays a role in this story too. (P.S. Always feel free to ask me for horror recs. You're safe with me. But employees from Verne's Video? Watch out for them!) 

 

CHOO CHOO This story felt like it came out of one of those early collections that I loved so much. With an ending so unexpected that it felt like I got hit by a train, this tale made me laugh out loud with glee.

 

LONG MAN I never thought anything could compete against the Long Walker in my imagination. (Thank you to Nick Cutter's Little Heaven for that.) But now, now we have Long Man. He's even scarier-trust me on this. 

 

ECONOMY THESE DAYS Here again is another story, completely different, completely unlike any other story here. How much physical abuse would you be willing to take to pay your bills? What would that abusive job look like? Of what would a promotion consist? This tale proposes answers to all of those things and oddly, I don't think it's that far out of the realm of possibility. 

 

SABBATICAL If I hadn't felt the spirit of Stephen King in this story, the main character's names of Thad and Gage would've put me in mind of him anyway. I cannotdescribe this story, but it was just so much fun it made me want to do some kind of dance-the dance of my dark fiction people. The dance is delightful and it's only brought on by the best and most twisted of tales. This is one of them. 

 

Stars will collapse and new lights will prick through the sky,

and screaming will not help. 

 

SCHLUTER The most disturbing story I've ever read was written by Michael Blumlein who is a doctor. (Trust me when I say I have read some VERY disturbing stories.) I found it disturbing because in some universe it could happen. SCHLUTER has now taken THE MOST DISTURBING STORY EVER medal. What that medal would look like, I don't want to know, but Mike Thorn owns it. Take this one little harmless sentence for instance:

 

 His mind screamed, but his sutured lips twitched noiselessly.

 

If that sentence doesn't bother you, okay then, to each his own. However, if that sentence makes you want to run out and buy this book, heed your feelings, man! You won't be disappointed.

 

There are a few themes that became apparent throughout this book, academia being the one that surprised me the most, but also: hair. I don't remember ever reading a collection where simple hair is used in such a menacing, disgusting, or just mentioned in passing but still in a creepy-as-hell- kind of way. 

 

 

Okay then-to sum up: disturbing tales? Check! A wide-ranging variety of stories? Check!

Extremely well written? Check! It almost seems like this collection was written with me in mind-it was so perfect for me that I don't even know what else to say. Well, other than this: I think Mike Thorn is an author to watch. I think he's going to do great things in the world of horror and dark fiction, and I for one, will be there to watch it. Will you?

 

My highest recommendation. Period. Get a copy here: DARKEST HOURS

 

*I was provided an e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest feedback. This is it.*

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review 2018-05-20 15:46
PARDON MY GHOULISH LAUGHTER by Fredric Brown
Pardon My Ghoulish Laughter - Donald E Westlake,Fredric Brown

 

PARDON MY GHOULISH LAUGHER is a collection of mystery stories from the detective pulps. Most of these tales were originally written back in the 1940's. What fun!

 

All of these stories have the possibility of being supernatural tales, but all end up having a perfectly reasonable explanation. What's fun is the getting to the explanation! I enjoyed every single tale here, but I think my favorites were:

 

TWICE KILLED CORPSE- which had a nice little twist as well as a hero that wanted to be a detective.

 

PARDON MY GHOULISH LAUGHTER- which had a lead character that reminded me of Jimmy Olsen. (I'm showing my age here!)

 

DEATH IS A WHITE RABBIT- which was a strange little tale with a remote hint of Dr. Moreau and his experiments. These things never go well.

 

This book was a boatload of fun and reminded me of my pre-teen and early teen years when I read these types of collections. The old Ellery Queen's and Alfred Hitchcock's were always a source of entertainment, but somehow I missed Frederic Brown back then. With this collection and NIGHTMARES AND GEEZENSTACKS, (which I listened to last year), Mr. Brown has made made my list of memorable and witty short story writers. I'll be on the lookout for anything else of his I can get my hands on.

 

*I received this book as a gift from my friend Tigus, at Booklikes, with no strings attached. Thank you once again, sir! *

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