Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror

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Southern gothic horror is uniquely (under-appreciated!) American literature, and too often written by white men. Imagine my surprise when stumbling across Eden Royce’s self-published anthology collection on GoodReads. A  black horror author with roots in Hoodoo/Conjure. Yasssss. I downloaded her book without hesitation and read it while listening to my old delta blues records. The proper way to enjoy a southern gothic is on a porch swing while the sweet, idle songs from grasshoppers rise up from the brush. Unfortunately, congested, downtown Chicago makes that impossible. So listening to Skip James was the next best thang, y’all. I’m also a little homesick and I miss my Gulf side of Texas. Reading “Spook Lights” was the perfect escapism for this reluctant city gal.

Connect with the author on

@edenroyce on Twitter  or her website, edenroyce.com, or blog

Or better, just buy her book on Amazon  or Lulu

There are 12 short stories in all, but my three favorites were “Doc Buzzard’s Coffin,” “Hag Ride,” and “The Choking Kind.” Royce’s melodic writing is full of texture, atmosphere, and characters that invoke the South. I felt the swelter and stale, human sweat rise through each word. Descriptive language meets Black folklore to create a leisurely atmosphere. Think ghost stories told around the campfire. Think of the fairytales your grandmother read to you when you were a child. Reading Spook Lights is more of an experience best enjoyed when not rushed. The horror element is subtle, often ironic, and I found myself able to predict most of the stories’ conclusions, however, the author’s charm and folksy delivery kept me squirming in my seat until the end of them. Most of the short stories are cautionary tales, where the main character often does something stupid, only to be punished or chastised by a vengeful spirit or magical spell later. There’s Hoodoo, Voodoo, murders driven by passion, and quests for revenge.

There’s also strong thread of female (often motherly) wisdom and jilted love in this collection. I appreciated the strong female protagonists of color. The women were often victims of their own making, but learned along the way how to find themselves. You don’t have to be from the south, Black, or a woman to understand the overall concept of this book, which I love. The author does a lovely job blending mythology for contemporary tastes. This is a book to kick back with and savor, bit by bit. It’s down-to-earth, like crackling bacon grease in a hot pan or like cold, tap water from the kitchen sink. Let the stories do the heavy lifting for you–Royce’s subtlety is masterful.

I enjoyed Spook Lights for its storytelling, not necessarily for innovation, horror, or plots. That said, I’m giving this anthology collection a solid 5/5. I heartily recommend Spook Lights to those looking for an enjoyable read rich with Southern atmosphere and non-traditional folktales told from Native American, Black, and a Caribbean perspective. Eden Royce’s ability to entertain is a dream. I will be reading more of her work.

 

Jonathan Strage & Mr. Norrell

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Catch Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on Saturdays on BBC!

I am not an anglophile like Damsel Bruja. I find most popular British television marketed to American audiences incomprehensible, but Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is refreshing, compelling, and dare I say, exciting? The first two episodes aired on BBCAmerica so you can catch up if you start now. I think English viewers are already on episode six?

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is an alternate historical story set during the Napoleonic Wars. The main characters, Jonathan and Norrell are two very different magicians destined to make magic respectable in England again. No longer the stuff of parlor tricks, magic can be applied to aid the war effort. Norrell is nervous, introverted, and socially awkward where Jonathan is a likable idiot whose failed attempts to win over his lady friend are used for comic relief. I’ve never seen anything like this! (No, it’s nothing like Harry Potter–thank god) There’s necromancy, supernatural deities, prophecies, and an unusual wit about the whole thing.

Not a fan of BBC? That’s OK. Apparently Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is based on the bestselling book of the same title by British fantasy/specfic author, Susanna Clark. I’ve only watched the first episode, but my fondness for female sf/f/h/specfic authors will probably lead me to the library this week. Fun fact: it took Susaana Clark TEN YEARS to finish the novel and several failed attempts to get it published. She was told her book was “unmarketable.” Ha. Showed them, right? I love author success stories like these and I can’t wait to read the book.

It’s rare I come across a series with original, refreshing material, but THIS is it. And I’m excited to sink my teeth into Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Set your DVRs, run to your library and watch/read with me. Trailer below.

This Way Darkness (anthology review)

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Supernatural creeps and bizarre creatures lurk behind the pages in “This Way Darkness” written by indie horror author, Latashia Figueroa. I was hunting for a well-rounded horror anthology to read this summer–y’know something spooky, well-written but short. Like waiting-for-your-pedicure-to-dry short. (Doesn’t everybody read axe murderer stories at the salon? No? Just me? ‘Kay) These three spine-tingling stories were just the little perk I needed.

Wrapped in Small Flesh and Bone | Figueroa opens the anthology with a tale reminiscent of The Omen; a familiar and predictable storyline, however entertaining. Unable to conceive, a desperate husband and his wife visit a mysterious witch. The husband realizes their mistake when the witch refuses to touch his crucifix necklace. Predictably, the wife becomes pregnant a short time after meeting the witch and then their child, Jenny, is born. Jenny is a lot like Damien. She talks to “imaginary friends” and always seems to be near or at the scene of a crime. I won’t spoil the ending. Ha, if you’re familiar with The Omen I don’t have to. Although I knew how the story would end, it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story. I think creepy kids are adorable.

The Alternative | The second story has more gore and violence. I thought the rape scene was the predominant horror element…but no. Hell no. This story took a direction I didn’t expect at all! If there’s such a thing as a fate worse than rape, Figueroa presents it here. There’s a religious thread throughout all of her stories, but this one was the most interesting and dare I say philosophical? “The Alternative” explores the Christian perspective of death and the afterlife. Traumatized by the death of her mother, the main character develops an intense fear of old age and dying. She does not think death is her ticket to salvation and so she turns her back on God. Literally. The plot rambles in places. Not my favorite in the collection but I’d say it was worth the read.

The Retreat | Everyone is familiar with the secret cult trope, right? Well here it is again. Like all of the stories in this anthology, the plot is very straightforward. A dude goes off on a religious retreat for self-empowerment only to be tortured and terrorized by his fellow campers. Their camp leader convinces his flock that everyone is their own god and therefore are above human laws. First the campers kill a deer. Then a priest. There’s even a homicidal vegetarian who goes apeshit. What an entertaining romp! I knew where the story would go, but I enjoyed the author’s route.

All in all I’d give this anthology a solid 4/5 stars. No, the book wasn’t inventive…and yes, it relied heavily on well-worn horror tropes. But still I found the anthology to be funny in some places and easy to read. I would recommend this delightful anthology for horror lovers who are looking for a light summer snack. It’ll fly by quickly–but you won’t be bored while reading it!

You should be reading Sumiko Saulson

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Every now and then I stumble across an indie author who writes such an incredible (and underrated) book, I have to shout their name from the rooftops. I present Sumiko Saulson and her bizarre horror anthology, “Things That Go Bump In My Head.” I took a chance on this anthology after reading positive reviews on Goodreads, and after reading the first short story, I knew this was one of those rare books that deserved the hype.

“Things That Go Bump In My Head” is an unusual horror anthology–it’s not quite literary fiction, not quite science-fiction, not quite fantasy, not quite horror…it’s a mishmash of all these genres. The author steered clear from conventional  slashers, and created a new kind of horror story. In that way, the anthology’s undefinable “weirdness” lends itself well to speculative fiction.  I don’t like the term, quiet horror, since there was nothing at all “quiet” about the morality lessons in her tales.

A Life Of Her Own | The anthology opens with a heartbreaking story about a 15yr old girl who is wooed by a smooth talking thief on a bus. Smitten by the encounter, she unwittingly returns home with empty pockets and is beaten to death by her father as a result. I was horrified by this story most of all, not because the events were frightening, but because I know things like this happen in real life. The author subtly reminds the reader that children are most vulnerable, thus forcing us to confront the monsters of everyday life. Sumiko Saulson’s narrative voice is reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s, “Good Country People.” I enjoyed this unusual ghost story almost as much as Agrippa.

Agrippa |Hands down, my favorite story in the anthology. This short story takes a sharp left turn from A Life Of Her Own and dumps the reader into a suspenseful, sci-fi dystopian romp. We meet Agrippa, a feisty 80-something year old woman who is forced into experimentation labs during the aftermath of the Dulcetta Reforms. Scientists swap old peoples’ bodies with organic and inorganic hosts to find the source for everlasting life. Agrippa has all the makings of a new classic, and should be read alongside H.P. Lovecraft’s, “Whisperer in Darkness” or any of Neil Gaiman’s short stories. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but definitely read this story if you don’t read anything else by Sumiko Saulson! The author reads a short sample of Agrippa aloud HERE.

The Best Book You Never Read | This story is a weird one. A depressed writer busts his typewriter open, freeing two genies, Brownshit and Greenshit. The writer asks the genies to help him finish his novel, however the genies’ intentions are as ugly as their appearances. It’s a cautionary tale about drugs, but I like that the narrative reads like an acid trip. The surprise ending is definitely a surprise. I think I like this story for its bizarre premise and original writing.

Company | A gothic ghost story that will make you think. Despair saturates each sentence, oppressive, and inescapable to the reader as it is for the characters. A doomed waitress lives in a haunted town that sticks to melancholy like roaches on flypaper. She struggles to free herself, but finds herself hopelessly bound to the lost souls around her. When they die, they stay. No one leaves. Ever. It’s an interesting story about life and death and moving past it. Again, Sumiko Saulson shows sensitivity towards her characters, painting even the most pathetic bum in a sympathetic light. Whether or not the town deserves it, the reader can’t help but feel sorry for its undead residents.

As with most anthology collections, the short stories in “Things That Go Bump In My Head” range from brilliant to just so-so. I enjoyed most of the poems and original artwork. All in all, this is a great introduction to Sumiko Saulson and quiet horror and speculative fiction in general. She’s a fantastic writer and more people should read books like hers. It’s different. But different doesn’t always mean “bad.” I’m giving this book a 4.5 out of 5 stars. Hell yes all the way!

The Moth Diaries (2011)

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Director: Mary Harron (female director, whoohoo!) 

Starring: Sarah Bolger, Lily Cole, Sarah Gadon, and Scott Speedman

Let me begin this review with a quote from the movie. Ahem. There are three things in every gothic vampire story:

  • 1. Sex
  • 2. Blood
  • 3. Death

But in this movie there’s a missing element. So I’ll just come out (no pun intended) and write it:

  • 4. Lipstick femmes and implied lesbianism

16yr old Rebecca is a *cough*closeted*cough* student at an all-girl boarding school. She shares a room with Lucy, her “best friend” *cough*girlfriend*cough,* who offers “comfort” in the wake of Rebecca’s father’s suicide. Rebecca makes a habit of joining Lucy in the bathtub and caressing her face (cuz straight girls LOVE sharing intimate bubble baths together.) They even have an “out” token lesbian friend named Charlie who they hang out with, too. Yup.  Everything in Rebecca’s sapphic utopia is cool until a new girl, Ernessa, shows up on campus.

Rebecca becomes troubled *cough*jealous*cough* when Lucy and Ernessa develop an unnatural friendship *cough*havingsex*cough. Mmmhmm there’s a love scene between the two girls. And menses. Mattress. Staining. Menses. I was half-expecting to see gory muff-diving stuff, but thankfully the movie didn’t go there. Rebecca is convinced Ernessa is a vampire. Ernessa walks through glass. She pops up everywhere in Rebecca’s wet dreams. And the girl has a rotten scent and never seems to eat at the cafeteria.

Rebecca goes so far as to burn her rival in a coffin. But you stopped paying attention once I wrote “lesbian love scene” right?  Let’s be honest. We’re here for the thinly veiled girl-on-girl stuff. Yes? OK? Good. I’m not the only one.

“The Moth Diaries” is long, predictable, and maudlin at times. The actress who plays Rebecca isn’t very convincing, and there’s not much horror here, either. What this movie has a lot of are perky femmes, meta gothic theory and…um…yeah. That’s about it. The plot is a hot mess. The ending doesn’t even make sense. But I’m giving it a “C.” I can see where the director meant to go, but there were too many derailments along the way to give this movie the bite it needed (pun intended.) I recommend this movie for folks who enjoy underaged schoolgirl fantasy flicks. And weird closeted lesbianism. Sigh.

Stewart Granger in “Blanche Fury”

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Don’t you just love these old timey, black-n-white flicks? The breathlessness. The melodrama. The lusty screams of terror. Can’t get enough of it. I’m also a sucker for Stewart Granger. That man can cock his brow like a boss. (Not convinced? Behold. The panty-creaming eyebrow raise)

Just got hot in here, didn’t it? 

Marc Allegret directed this British film. Valerie Hobson plays the title roll, Blanche Fury, opposite of Stewart Granger.  The cinematography is modern for its time, which is impressive. The acting is phenomenal and (since the movie is based on a book) the plot sweeps across the screen in epic glory.  “Blanche Fury” is less a horror and more of a crime-drama or gothic romance. It has the same appeal as a Brontë novel; scowling Byronic heroes and strong-willed heroines.

Blanche Fury is the cruel and ambitious woman, who, once employed as a governess at a mansion, quickly makes the moves on the nearest heir so to marry into wealth. She mistakes Philip (Stewart Granger) as the heir, when in fact he is only the heir’s bastard son. Philip admires Blanche’s cunning. He is a disgrace to the family, which is why he is forced to work in the stables without any money. Predictably, Blanche and Philip fall madly in love and carry an affair long after she marries her Sugar Daddy. However, the closer Blanche comes to inheriting the family’s wealth, the more resentful and unhinged Philip becomes. Eventually he goes insane and murders Blanche’s husband and attempts to murder their child.

I liked this movie a lot. And yes, I’ll shamefully admit it was a lot like watching a soap opera, but hey, I dig psychopathic heroes and infanticide. I recommend “Blanche Fury” for fans of moody cinema and classic, black-n-white film. Granger’s insanely hot eyebrow raise bumps the grade to a B+

Crucible of Horror (1970) REVIEW

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Classic British horror at its finest. I must say, I really enjoyed this movie! This cult-classic flick was directed by Viktor Ritelis and stars Michael Gough, Yvonne Mitchell, and Sharon Gurney.  John Hotchkins provides a deliciously eerie score, and the music reminded me very much of the wailing theremin in Dark Shadows. Is the story supernatural or a crime-mystery? Not quite sure. But I won’t spoil the surprise ending by revealing too much, here.

First five minutes: Not much dialogue, moody camera closeups while patriarch, Walter Eastwood, incessantly washes his hands and stares at his blinking cat. All of this would have bored me to tears if not for the odd camera angles and the characters’ stifled movements. Right away the audience feels a sense of veiled oppression, which is fully-realized once Walter’s daughter, Jane,  kisses a business associate and is savagely beaten with a switch. The camera immediately snaps back to Walter washing his hands again. His wife, Edith, listens to disembodied voices in the attic while Jane sobs from her wounds. There isn’t much dialogue and we’re still not sure what’s going on , but the absence of information only adds to the mounting suspense. We learn Walter is as meticulous as he is cruel. He coddles his son, Rupert, while terrorizing his wife and daughter with physical violence. He seems fixated on his daughter (and her sexuality) most of all.

When she receives a letter at breakfast the next morning, Walter snatches it away and tells his family he will go to the family cottage by himself. Once his back is turned, Edith casually suggests that she and Jane should kill him. Only she’s not joking. The mother-daughter kill-team show up at the cottage that night with poison and a loaded rifle.

I’m not going to write what happens next–but, oh, dear! Things for Walter go downhill from there!

It’s easy to see why Crucible of Horror is a cult-classic. The family is horrifying because audience can relate to them. And the twist ending…you will NOT see it coming! It is strange. Open-ended. And leaves unsettling questions in your mind long after the credits have finished. I didn’t expect to like the movie so much, but I will certainly add it to my collection. I recommend this movie for folks who like mysteries, family horror, British actors, and psychological surrealism. I’m giving this movie an A+ for creeping me out!

No Surrender (Review)

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No SurrenderNo Surrender by Dale Lucas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This military-historical-horror novella was my first exposure to Dale Lucas. I had heard good things about the author’s ‘Doc Voodoo’ series and so I gave the novella a go. ‘No Surrender’ is a “Lovecraftian Horror,” and successfully blends American Civil War history with H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Like a proper Lovercraftian yarn, the horror slithers at a snail’s pace, starting first with Yates and his hysterical retelling of the Terrible Awful Thing he saw in the woods. Orion Bell, the madman-scientist-occultist who now leads the Ku Klux Klan, is butchering Negroes to resurrect an ancient, evil deity. Of course no one believes Yates, but Lieutenant Kenning marches Union soldiers into the woods to investigate the claims anyway.
The weirdness progresses from there. They encounter a town full of crustacean-people who chase them onto a roof, terrified runaway slaves, a mansion haunted by a manic, homicidal bride, and of course, Nyarlathotep (aka Terrible Awful Thing that Yates saw in the woods.) I won’t spoil what happens because the story is so short. But it’s a fun read—gory in some parts and full of local color and atmosphere. Faces are nailed into tree trunks and everyone goes insane. Fun stuff.
I liked how Lucas weaved civil war history and the Ku Klux Klan into his plot. You will feel Florida’s mosquitoes and stifling humidity on each page. The author lives in the St. Petersburg/Tampa-area where the story takes place. And his regional knowledge shines through, here, as he paints the geographical landscape.
Alternate historical stories are great because familiar ideas are retold in creative ideas. Normally, I am bored to tears by American Civil War stories. Seldom are they interesting or informative, but Lucas manages to pack the historical references in without droning on like a 6th grade social studies textbook. I heartily recommend ‘No Surrender’ to anyone who enjoys H.P. Lovecraft or dark, military thrillers.

Darkened Hills (Review)

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Darkened Hills (Darkened - The West Virginia Vampire Series, Book #1)Darkened Hills by Gary Lee Vincent

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first glance ‘Darkened Hills’ looks like any other run-of-the-mill vampire book. With its unsubtle references to Bram Stoker’s, ‘Dracula’ and Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot,’ one might dismiss the novel for being yet another uninspired regurgitation. Horror readers are all too familiar with vampire lore and its tropes; therefore it takes an exceptional vampire story to stand tall above the rest. Gary Vincent not only succeeds in doing that, but does so while providing buckets of laughs and snorts.

‘Darkened Hills’ is an eccentric mishmash of gothic horror, pop culture, and black, tongue-in-cheek comedy. I appreciated the author’s nod to my favorite show, ‘Breaking Bad’ with the character, Walt Pinkman. I also loved how Vincent opened each chapter with a quote from one of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. Each quote foreshadowed the events of the chapter—a strange, but dexterous touch on the author’s part. But no, this is not a literary horror novel. Nor does it try to be. There is gore and splatter for comedic effect. Most memorable is the scene when that man runs over a herd of cats with his lawnmower. Do feline guts and “girlie cams” add much suspense? No. Was it funny? Hell yes. And that sums up much of what ‘Darkened Hills’ accomplishes here.

This book is an ode to popular vampire novels before it. Vincent does not attempt to supersede the legacy of Stoker and King, but rather poke fun at it and revel in their entertainment value. The campiness is a refreshing approach and reminded me of Robert Rodriquez’s movie, ‘Planet Terror.’ Even as I write this sentence, I am replaying the ridiculous “Cat Herding” scene in my mind and am grinning again.

I wouldn’t say ‘Darkened Hills’ is frightening, but it is funny and there’s plenty of cheese, sex, and violence to love.

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