“Handmaiden’s Fury” by JM Guillen

I spent most of an afternoon drawn into JM Guillen’s free short fiction over at Irrational Worlds, and was quickly hooked by the rich and evocative worlds conveyed in just a few paragraphs.  Needing even more, I decided to try the novella Handmaiden’s Fury.

Handmaiden’s Fury is the story of a young priestess named Keiri.  She is a devotee of the goddess Rydia, whose grants power through sexuality.  Keiri’s power allows her to bond with people, control them, and even destroy.  Of course, it is not without personal cost, as the rituals to channel Rydia’s power involve a fair share of pain and submission.

When Keiri’s master discovers an evil sorcerer who smuggles slaves and ritually tortures innocent victims, he decides to use Keiri to put a stop the vile magic.  As he and Keiri work together to defeat their foe, Keiri realizes the depth of love and passion that she and her master share.

As with the short fiction at Irrational Worlds, I was immediately drawn into the story, which combines elements of horror, dark fantasy, and erotica.  Sexuality is an important part of the story, but is handled tastefully.  The bond between Keiri and her master is something to be treasured, and it keeps Keiri’s power from consuming anything in its path.  The magic system is unusual and well-developed, and the city in which the story is set seems like an organic part of a much larger world.  My only real complaint about Handmaiden’s Fury is that it didn’t come to a complete resolution, leaving me wanting more.  I hope that Guillen returns to Keiri’s story one day.

Categories: Erotica, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror/Gothic | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Black Fire Concerto” by Mike Allen

After seeing glowing reviews at The Little Red Reviewer, Lynn’s Book Blog, and Just Book Reading, I knew I had to read The Black Fire Concerto.  I’m on a book-buying hiatus until the government shutdown ends and I have a regular paycheck again, but lucky for me, it is available through the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library.  It’s the first time I’ve used that particular feature of Amazon Prime.  Mike Allen, you have taken my Kindle-book-borrowing virginity.  Yay!

Every evening, twelve-year-old Erzelle is called to play her harp aboard a riverboat named the Red Empress.  Like Scheherazade, this means that she can live another day.  You see, the boat is kept by the Family, who lure unsuspecting diners aboard their ship to feast on ghoul meat, which is said to grant extended life.  Once aboard, the poor unfortunates are bitten by ghouls, turned, and served up as dinner themselves.  When they decide that Erzelle isn’t worth her keep, then she too will become dinner.

That all changes when Olyssa, a kickass woman with a magic pipe, shows up one night for dinner.  She springs Erzelle from her predicament, and the two embark on a voyage to find Olyssa’s long-lost sister.  While doing so, Erzelle learns about the origins of the magical apocalypse that caused the Storms, the ghouls, and the end of normal life.

The magical apocalypse envisioned in The Black Fire Concerto is unlike anything I’ve ever read.  Magic is real, but humans only learned to tap the darkness a few decades ago.  The results were catastrophic, and led to the dystopian society that presently exists.

One of the things that impressed me the most was the way that the author was able to depict the way that magic affects its users.  This was especially evident as Erzelle learns how to use it and is gripped by the rage and the temptation to unleash too much power.  Heroes and villains alike are shaped by the magic that they use, and every action has a consequence, regardless of intention.

Mike Allen’s imagery is incredible.  He creates great machines fueled by rotting corpses, the friendly fox-like Vulpines, and villains that will give you nightmares and make you feel sympathetic at the same time.  A blend of fantasy and horror, The Black Fire Concerto will leave you begging for more.

Verdict:  Buy this.  Immediately.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Horror/Gothic | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

“Lucretia and the Kroons” by Victor LaValle

I received a copy of Victor LaValle’s novella Lucretia and the Kroons through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  The novella is a companion prequel to LaValle’s full-length novel The Devil in Silver.

Twelve-year-old Lucretia Gardner (Loochie for short) is excited at the chance to have her best friend Sunny over for a late birthday celebration.  Sunny missed Loochie’s real birthday celebration because she has cancer and was in the hospital for treatments.  Right before Sunny is supposed to come over, Loochie’s brother tells her a story about the Kroons, a family of crackhead monsters living in unit 6D who snatch children.

“I don’t know why things like that have to happen to children,” Louis said quietly.  “But being young doesn’t protect you.  Horrors come for kids, too.”

When Sunny doesn’t show up, Loochie knows what she must do.  She must travel to unit 6D and face the evil Kroons who abducted her friend.

The sinister and nightmarish world beyond the doors of unit 6D serves as a backdrop to Lucretia’s deeper struggle, coming to terms with her friend’s condition and learning to move on.

It is always heartening to see a more diverse world in speculative fiction.  Lucretia and the Kroons is a perfect example.  Lucretia is African American, and Sunny is Chinese.  The story takes place in an apartment building in Queens, and the monsters are suited to an urban environment.  For example, while in a park in unit 6D, Loochie battles flying rats with pigeon wings.  The horrors imagined by Victor LaValle are equally as scary as more traditional monsters, and are without a doubt a product of hellish alternate version of New York City.

The ending of the story leaves more questions than answers.  It didn’t feel organic, but rather like a way to set the stage for The Devil in Silver.

If the theme of the book wasn’t so horribly depressing (and let’s face it, cancer always is), I would have enjoyed it a lot more.  Lucretia’s adventures in the land of the Kroons were action-packed and filled with suspense.  However, readers quickly realize the message that Loochie is there to learn.  Bad things can happen even to children.  The Kroons are a metaphor for the cancer that is ravaging Sunny.

At only 102 pages, Lucretia and the Kroons isn’t a particularly long read, so if the premise sounds interesting, then by all means give it a try.  Even though the book was more depressing than I generally like, I give LaValle credit for an unusual and imaginative story.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Horror/Gothic | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Guest Post on H.P. Lovecraft

When fellow H.P. Lovecraft fan Brandon Engel contacted me about writing a guest post, I was eager to accept.  Lovecraft’s stories are especially fitting during this time of year, as the leaves begin to change and Halloween approaches.

  It takes a unique individual to construct an alternate world ruled by sinister gods who resemble octopuses. And, apparently, it takes several more unique individuals to flesh out that world — to canonize it and to enrich it with their own interpretations of Lovecraft’s work. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a writer of some note. He will be affectionately remembered by fans for his rich writing style, and his distinct ability to match his keen attention to detail with an artful restraint. Lovecraft would disclose the minute details about the interior architecture of some alien monster-god dwelling, but then when you see the description of the monster, it would be extremely brief and would force readers to evoke their own monsters — which is, ultimately, the most horrifying thing any horror writer can do.

   It was around 12 years ago that a wonderful and fairly comprehensive compilation of Lovecraft’s best known works was released — an omnibus entitled The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories.It features such classic Lovecraft tales as: “The Dunwich Horror”, “At the Mountain of Madness,” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

   Unfortunately for Lovecraft, he never achieved the recognition he deserved while he was alive and writing. Even though he was impoverished throughout his lifetime, Lovecraft is regarded by modern readers as a distinguished author of horror and fantasy — one of the strongest fiction writers within his niche from the early 20th century, and potentially one of the greatest horror authors of all time.

     He first started to build a reputation, and make friends within his peerage, in the 1920’s when he started contributing short stories to the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Among his contemporaries at Weird Tales were Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan the Barbarian) and Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho). Among the stories which Lovecraft first published through Weird Tales was The Call of Cthulhu, published in 1928. The story introduced the Cthulhu character, who would become extremely important within Lovecraft’s world. The story is based on the fictional manuscript of a character named Francis Wayland Thurston. Thurston had been investigating the death of his uncle Gammell Angell, a Semitic language scholar, who had written about a strange cult which worshipped a god named Cthulhu, a gigantic sub-aquatic monster who is described as resembling an “octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature…. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings.”

     Lovecraft was relatively unknown during his time, but he did correspond with some fellow fantasy writers and publishers who admired his work, such as August Derleth. It was actually Derleth who coined the “Cthulhu Mythos” to describe Lovecraft’s self-contained world ruled by Lovecraft’s pantheon of strange, Alien gods. Other writers have contributed to the Mythos, creating unique characters, and striving to expand upon the world Lovecraft created. Among the many writers who’ve contributed are Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, and Derleth himself.  

  Lovecraft fans and scholars have attempted to categorize alien entities within the Cthulhu Mythos. In the H.P. Lovecraft Companion, author Philip A. Schreffler divided all the alien gods into two distinct camps: there are the “Outer Ones” living in the center of the fictional universe who we can not reach, and then there are the“Great Old Ones” like Cthulhu who live on earth and are worshipped by deranged cultists.

   Lovecraft’s alien deities predate human beings, and they also have no reverence for humanity. In Lovecraft’s bleak world, the human phenomena of grief, anxiety, and emotion are inconsequential. A beast like Cthulhu would look upon a “mere mortal” in the way that “mere mortals” look upon gnats. We are an inconsequential species in their fearsome eyes.  

    But it’s not just alien god monsters that Lovecraft will be remembered for! He authored some works which dealt with bizarre medical practices, and raised questions about scientific ethics, such as his short story Herbert West Re-Animator which was immortalized in the 1980’s by director Stuart Gordon with his film adaptation Re-Animator. The story followed Herbert West, an eccentric, morally ambiguous medical student who has developed an elixir which reanimates dead bodies. Or his novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which followed the story of an elite young Rhode Island man who has resurrected a remote relative of his, Joseph Curwen, an infamous wizard who practiced black-magic and was responsible for countless deaths. Not only did Ward resurrect Curwen — he surrendered his very identity to him. Curwen attempts (unsuccessfully) to live as Ward, but his great antiquity works against him. The towns’ folk, believing that Curwen is insane, have him locked up in a mental institution. Roger Corman used the story as the basis for his film The Haunted Palace.

   It is somewhat heartbreaking that Lovecraft never got to fully experience real commercial or critical success within his lifetime. Nevertheless, his legacy lives on, as his terrific body of work still resonates with readers to this day.

Author bio: Brandon Engel is an entertainment blogger with Direct-ticket.net whose chief interests include cult films and classic horror literature. Among Brandon’s favorite authors are Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, and Stephen King.

Categories: Guest Posts, Horror/Gothic | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Mini Review: “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs

My review of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is a part of a mini-review series to write about books that I read while on blogging hiatus last fall.  I had originally planned to write about it during the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril challenge.

Jacob’s grandfather has always told him wild and imaginative stories.  At 16, Jacob dismisses them as mere tales, but when his grandfather is murdered, he begins to wonder if there might not be a grain of truth in them after all.  Seeking to discover his grandfather’s secrets, Jacob travels to Wales to visit the orphanage where his grandfather was raised.  There, he discovers a world distanced from time and populated by peculiar people with psychic powers.

As I read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I found myself continually pondering whether the children were real, or a figment of an overly active imagination.  It is the story of the magic and ideals of childhood being intruded upon by the harsh realities of the grown-up world.

This is the kind of book that you engage and interact with.  It is interspersed with vintage photographs, giving it an eerie and vaguely sinister quality.  I would recommend the physical book over the e-book because the visuals play such a key role in building the story’s atmosphere.  I read the Kindle version, and although there’s nothing wrong with it, the hardcover editions are gorgeous and would give the pictures even more prominence.

Highly recommended.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Horror/Gothic, YA | Tags: , , , , , | 19 Comments

“The Graveyard Book” Readalong, Parts II & III

So I didn’t quite get my Graveyard Book post up last week… the combination of grad school and the new job have been a bit rough, but I only have a semester and a half left to go after this one.  I can’t wait to finally be done with school!

This will just be a quick post, because I just finished a paper and need to go to bed before waking up at 5:30 am to go to work.  I’ll need lots of caffeine to avoid being Zombie Librarian.

Warning – from this point forward, there will be major plot spoilers from Chapter 4 through the end of Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book.”

I love the way that Neil Gaiman creates the theme that the world isn’t entirely bad, and that not everything that seems scary is inherently evil.  Liza Hempstock and the Sleer are both great examples of this.  The chapter where Bod gives Liza a headstone was my favorite part of the entire book; even though everyone told Bod to stay away from Liza because she was a witch, she ended up being a true friend and a good person who just happened to get shafted with some bad luck.  I’m glad that Bod had the good sense to look past everyone else’s prejudices and make a new friend.  And the Sleer?  The Sleer is just awesomely creepy, and I love that it’s not malevolent, but just has motivations of its own.

Ghouls, on the other hand, are just nasty.  So are Jacks of All Trades.  Even though Gaiman created a lot of characters that are rough on the outside but just misunderstood, he allows that there are still evil things in the world that will try to harm you, whether or not you are nice to them.

I’m not sure that I particularly cared for the way that the book ended (even though I loved the book).  I realize that it’s meant to be a parallel to “The Jungle Book,” but let’s face it… a fifteen or sixteen year old with a pocketful of cash is going to have a hard time being thrust into the world without some sort of direction, especially if he has no idea about modern life. I don’t think that going for pizza with Silas counts as understanding the world, and even when he went to school, Bod was very sheltered.  I fear for him a bit.  Perhaps Neil Gaiman will revisit Bod in a short story later on and let us know that he found a place for himself.  I’d like that.

I still totally think that Silas is a vampire.  There was that part at the end where he was talking with Bod about how he used to do bad things, as bad as Jack, even.  When he said that, I kept thinking to myself “Yeah, he’s a vampire alright.”

What did everyone else think of the book?

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Horror/Gothic | Tags: , , , | 16 Comments

The Graveyard Book Readalong, Part I

Hey everyone!  Welcome to this week’s discussion of the first part of Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book.”

For anyone just joining in, the readalong is hosted by Carl over at Stainless Steel Droppings.  Links to other people’s thoughts can be found here. Oh, and from this point onward there will be major plot spoilers from chapters 1-3. You have been warned!

One of the things that I’ve noticed thus far is that each chapter is almost a story in itself.  In the first chapter, we learn about a little boy who came to live in a graveyard after his parents were murdered by Jack-who-isn’t-the-Ripper with a big knife.  I had initially thought that he was Jack the Ripper, but then a later chapter mentioned airplanes, which weren’t around in the late 1880s.  Either way, I thought that the idea of a boy being raised in a graveyard was delightfully spooky, and adorable at the same time.  The ghosts are the kind of people that I’d love to spend time with, as they each have their own quirky personalities.

In the second chapter, we learn about how the little boy known as Nobody Owens makes his first friend who isn’t a dead person.  The world beneath the hill reminded me of something straight out of Lovecraft, and I kept wanting to tell Bod that going down there was a bad idea.  I liked how Gaiman made fear itself to be something more dangerous than the monsters in the hill, which is a nice little twist on a familiar theme.

Now, for the third chapter.  This was my favorite, because Bod’s new guardian is such a typical Russian mother.  I am jealous that Bod got to eat borscht and dumplings and beet salad every day, and I’m perturbed that he didn’t appreciate it.  At the same time, I can see how there’s a gap in understanding between Bod and Miss Lupuescu were coming from two completely different backgrounds.  Neither one respected the other until disaster struck.

I like the fact that each chapter is so distinctive and tells its own story.  It makes the book quite amenable to a readalong format, because the story is broken down into small chunks and there aren’t major cliffhangers from one section into the next.  Neil Gaiman’s a great storyteller; this is rapidly putting me into a Halloween mood!

Does anyone else think that Silas is a vampire?

Categories: Fantasy, Horror/Gothic | Tags: , , , , , | 11 Comments

RIP VII: Intro Post & Reading Pool

It’s that time of year again!  From Sept. 1-Oct 31, Carl from Stainless Steel Droppings hosts the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril challenge.

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII  focuses on reading novels from the following genres to set the mood for fall and Halloween:  Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, Supernatural, and anything otherwise creepy.

As far as reading ideas go, I’ve been saving up some books for a while now.  Here’s what I have to choose from, in no particular order:

  • “Freak” by Jennifer Hiller – Generally I don’t read thrillers, but I won this one in a Name That Author contest over at BookRiot, and it seems like a good place to start.
  • “The Twelve” by Jasper Kent – Russian history paired with vampires.  I’ve been impatiently waiting to read this one because I wanted to wait to review it till RIP.  It seems like the perfect book for me.
  • “Ironskin” by Tina Connoly – A re-telling of Jane Eyre, but with more fae.
  • “Ripper” by Amy Carol Reeves – YA novel about Jack the Ripper. Buahahaha!
  • “Drood” by Dan Simmons – I didn’t get to this one during last year’s challenge, so maybe this year will work out better.
  • “Galilee” and/or “Imajica” by Clive Barker – I read Barker’s Weaveworld last year and was very impressed with his writing.  Clive Barker is a horror writer who also dabbles in dark fantasy.
  • “Lucretia and the Kroons” by Victor LaValle – Horror novella that I picked up from Netgalley.  It appears to be a nightmarish tale of two children who discover a shadowland.
  • “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” – This was the book that everyone was reading during last year’s RIP, but I didn’t get a chance to pick it up from the library/bookstore.  Luckily, I now have a copy sitting on my Kindle, and I hope to read it this year.
  • “The Dirty Streets of Heaven” by Tad Williams – Urban fantasy involving angels, demons, and body-snatching.
  • “The City & The City” by China Mieville – Another one that I’ve been saving for a while.
  • “The Vampire Lestat” by Anne Rice – I love Anne Rice’s writing, even though her vampires are a wee bit emo.
  • “The Spindlers” by Lauren Oliver – Spiders that abscond with children and steal their souls.  It seems like it might have a Neil Gaiman-like aesthetic to it.
  • “Splendors and Glooms” by Laura Amy Schlitz – Victorian Gothic about children being kidnapped.  There are also puppets.

Mind you, these are all rather loose ideas; I probably won’t get to all of them, but it’s a starting point and gives you a general idea of what I have to choose from.  It’s also not an exhaustive list, but rather the books on my shelf that seemed to jump out at me and shout “It’s RIP time again!”  Just from glancing at my list, evil creatures stealing children seems to be a bit of a theme.

This year’s RIP also includes two groupreads.  The first is of “The Little Stranger” by Sarah Waters, and it begins right away.  The signup is here and the first posting should be around Sept. 10.  The second readalong is Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book,” which begins in October.  I’m definitely participating in the Gaiman readalong.  I’m leaning towards doing “The Little Stranger” as well, but I’m not 100% decided because I am scheduled to participate in two blog tours at the end of the month and don’t want to overburden myself too much.  C’mon, somebody be a bad influence and convince me!

Has anyone read any of these, and if so, what did you think?  What are you looking forward to reading this fall?

Categories: Horror/Gothic, Other | Tags: , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

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