Disclosure: I was given a free copy of this ARC in exchange for my honest review. The following may contain affiliate links.
Title: Dreaming at the Top of My Lungs
Author: Israel Finn
Release Date: February 23, 2016
Genres: Horror, Anthology, Short Stories
Star Rating: 4/5
Israel Finn’s Dreaming at the Top of My Lungs is a collection of a dozen short stories and vignettes without a framing narrative or theme, but the feel of a classic Twilight Zone or Black Mirror episode brings a cohesiveness to the selections. Broken parents, the inability to come to terms with one’s own choices, and the sudden loss of free will feature several times in the stories.
As with most anthologies, there are a few stories that just didn’t draw me in as much as others—but there are some genres of horror that I enjoy more than others, and I very rarely come across a collection of short stories without one or two that feel less strong than the others to me. But this isn’t due to a failure in Finn’s writing, and his lean, unpretentious style makes even the longer stories a quick read, which kept my enthusiasm and interest high throughout.
In order to keep the review spoiler-free as possible, I decided to give a snapshot of just my three favorite stories, rather than a summary of each one:
“Deadfall Lane” concerns a man who would do anything to keep his son, and the fallout that comes of it.
“The Present” follows a battered wife as she tries to avoid inciting her husband’s rage—especially after it begins to turn toward their teenage daughter.
“Ugly” is a quick, but powerful glimpse into the life of a waitress whose monstrous face attracts bad luck and scorn. This story's plot could easily be the basis for a longer, and extremely interesting, work.
The structure of the anthology is interesting: many stories toward the beginning showcase the ugliness and short sight of humanity, and gradually, stories that include tiny bits of hope, or simple kindnesses toward a stranger, begin to slip their way between them. The end result is that, just as you think you have an idea of what to expect from Finn’s stories, they become more surprising, and the emotional payoff is higher. The book itself also is one of the highest quality self-published books I’ve read. The texture of the book itself is pleasing, and apart from a tiny omission of a word in one sentence, the editing, formatting, and quality of the cover image are extremely professional. I think that the back cover could be more attractive if it were solid red, and used one of the fonts from the front cover, but that’s an extreme nitpick that doesn’t affect my score.
Dreaming at the Top of My Lungs is a solid collection, and more than half of the stories within it I thought were original, clever, and dark enough to make it into a prestige anthology with the big names in horror. With the sense of irony and understanding of dysfunction that shows here, I would love to see Finn take on character-driven stories, and I’d recommend him as a name to watch for fellow genre fans.
Content warnings: domestic violence, gore, bullying, threats/implicit sexual assault, child abuse.
Disclosure: I was given a free copy of this ARC (in unedited proof form) in exchange for my honest review. The following may contain affiliate links.
Title: Voodoo Heart
Author: John Everson
Release Date: October 20, 2020
Genres: Supernatural horror
Pages: 256 pages
Star Rating: 4.5/5 (rounded to 5)
John Everson’s newest novel feels like a 1970’s giallo wormed its way into the grime and booze-soaked charisma of New Orleans. Its troubled protagonist, Detective Ribaud (also known as “Cork"), investigates a string of late-night disappearances in which the victims leave behind a blood-soaked bed and intact heart. Although his wife was the first to vanish, the case becomes more and more personal as he gets closer to the heart of the mystery.
I love horror and thrillers set in the South, and New Orleans is a city steeped in things that make for a great atmosphere: poverty, liquor, French romanticism, a cruel history, and of course, voodoo (alternately spelled Vodou). Vodou and a similar Southern practice, hoodoo, have always fascinated me for a reason that I rarely talk about: my family’s history and escape from an extreme Pentecostal/evangelical faith, which made the lives of my mother and her sisters a living hell. My mother and her sisters once went away to a parishioner's farm for a weekend, where a chicken was butchered and served for dinner. The chicken feet were found stashed under my aunt’s bed later, bound with string to some other items, and my mother and her sisters were gravely punished for what was judged as a grisly prank. I heard this story several times until, as an adult, I found out via research that the feet were likely to be a talisman of protection in the hoodoo faith, and that one of the workers at the farm likely knew what my grandfather was up to, and risked quite a bit to try to help my mom and aunts.
So, what does this have to do with horror? Too often, Vodou and associated practices are portrayed as devious, near-Satanic practices in film and other media. The 1987 film Angel Heart is a great example, in which the rituals are used only to harm, and to depict Lisa Bonet’s character as exotic, dangerous, and untrustworthy. Voodoo Heart handles this much more sensitively—the novel shows the light and dark side of practices found in New Orleans and distinguishes more serious practice from the shtick of tourist shops. There is also much more of the history of Vodou practice and popularity than you would find in the average novel that includes it as a plot point.
The imagery in the book is as striking as you could expect from its cover, and it’s balanced by the emotional impact of the disappearances as well. Everson’s Detective Rimbaud isn’t the stone-cold detective that you see in bestsellers; his doubts, guilt, and horror are like a fruit expertly muddled into the liquor that is the blood-soaked, swampy, disturbing images of its plot. I never really found Rimbaud likable—the one sour point in the novel, for me, was his propensity to sleep with women in precarious or abusive situations, ignoring how much danger it could bring them. Still, the book is so well-written and beautifully atmospheric enough that I solidly recommend it – especially if you enjoy media like True Detective's first season, HBO’s Sharp Objects, or Jim Thompson’s work.
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Sara Gran
Nightfilm, Marisha Pessl
Content warnings: mind control, gore, alcohol abuse, mentions of domestic violence and sexual assault
Author: Joshua Marsella
Release Date: May 11, 2020
Genres: Supernatural horror
Star Rating: 4/5 stars
Disclosures: I bought and read this book through my Kindle Unlimited subscription.
I picked this up after seeing some buzz about it on Twitter—I’m always excited to support and find new horror writers, especially indie authors. I’ve been disappointed doing so several times, especially when newer authors write books with prominent female characters, but found that Marsella, in his first published work, was able to write flawed, but developed, believable, and human main characters.
Scratches follows an isolated mother and son, Janet and Connor, who move into her delapidated, inherited childhood home out of financial need. They have a dynamic of yearning to connect with each other but pulling away out of pain, which escalates with time in the house--especially after Connor begins to sleep in the foreboding basement, which his mother refuses to enter.
The novella does a fantastic job of examining two people who need each other, but fail to communicate as they suffer from intergenerational trauma. The tension between the two builds along with their internal anxiety and guilt. While some books subject their female characters to horrific happenings out of moralistic punishment or a grab at sympathy, this isn’t the case at all with Scratches. Janet comes across as someone that all of us have probably known, and felt for, at least once in our lives—particularly for those who grew up in poverty or a dysfunctional family. She originally closes herself off so much that Connor feels isolated and burdensome, much like she did as a child; however, the narration slowly begins bring all of her pain, shame, and anger out into the open with the progression of the plot.
Likewise, Connor is acutely aware of the invisible eggshells that coat the floor of their ramshackle dwelling. Despite the poor conditions of the house’s basement, he moves his bedroom downstairs to avoid further stressing and annoying his mother, which provides the catalyst for both the internal and external changes in both of their lives. Connor behaves very believably like a kid in his circumstances, and there’s an artful balance drawn between a kid who’s had to grow up too quickly and a child who’s emotionally unprepared for healing the family’s wounds.
The few things that distracted me from the story were some stylistic choices and a few grammatical errors. The plot moves quickly, but in the beginning of the book, the length of the chapters is much shorter than later on, which feels a bit choppy. The dialogue feels less authentic than the internal descriptions of the characters, especially the comic book shop clerk—to be fair, though, dialogue can have a steep learning curve, and this is his first novel. I would be excited to read a second work from Marsella, and think that just a little copy-editing and perhaps reading his dialogue out loud could catapult him into a force in the world of indie horror.
Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
Several stories in Ghostly, Audrey Niffenegger
Content warnings: sexual assault, wartime violence, child abuse, alcohol abuse.
Reviews of horror, nonfiction, and other genres from a life-long lover of books.