Nightside Codex

The Nightside Codex is the latest anthology from editor Justin A. Burnett. This time, the theme is mysterious, invented writings–secret texts, obscure notes, unknowable symbols. The idea of hidden knowledge–whether actual or purely fiction–has a long history in the human imagination. It is the basis of much weird literature, and many conspiracy theories. It is fertile ground, here.

There are a couple of literal texts to be found among the inspirations for these tales (Dante’s Inferno and Virgil’s Aeneid are put to good use, as is a bit of Lewis Carroll). Otherwise, the authors have created their own imaginary works to serve as guidebooks to the dark side. Some are innocuous. Some are never shown. Some offer more than enough information to get into trouble with.

***

Nightside CodexOpening with a striking poem, “The Book of Black Dreams” by K.A Opperman, The Nightside Codex plunges into seventeen strong stories:

Richard Thomas’s “In His House” presents a strange and dangerous chain letter, of sorts, with a curse the recipient cannot avoid.

Brian Evenson”s “I Cannot Remember” is a discomfiting locked-room mystery, with the future perhaps already written. 

Nadia Bulkin’s “Les Belles Infideles” deciphers the symbols of a lost language against a background of male-dominated academia, cultural fetishization, and the long shadow of colonialism. Dreamy and gripping.

Jessica McHugh’s “Pulpit Fiction” repurposes the ever-popular religious tract as a gateway to weirdness.  

Alistair Rey’s “The Past is a Foreign Country” uses an unholy piece of music as its roadmap to the unknowable. Quiet, and very dark.

Michael Fassbender’s “Schattenlenker’s Hidden Treasure” presents a psychological treatise that can inspire fantastic intellectual achievements–but at what cost?

Scott J. Couturier’s “Monster of the Mind” puts a very different spin on an author’s attempts at world-building. 

Selene dePackh’s “The Red King” features the unspeakable reference books of an experimental clinician.

S.E. Casey’s “The Redneck Library” takes several strange turns before it reveals just how far the characters have gone in their pursuit of knowledge.

Devora Gray’s “Tongue-Tied” dives without hesitation into misogyny, fetishes, online echo chambers, and dismal life circumstances. Stunning, sad, and upsetting.

Philip Fracassi’s “As I Sit to Write This Story” uses a fragmented diary and the unreliable narrator trope to great effect. 

Luciano Marano’s “My Eyes are Closed to Your Light” takes the cult of personality and mixes it with both the warning against meeting your heroes and the obsessiveness of fandom.

Christine Morgan’s “For Bobby” gives the convention scene a classic Twilight Zone treatment.

Sarah Walker’s “Ouroboros” proves to be wonderfully atmospheric and chilling, in a distinctly M.R. James sort of way. 

Rhys Hughes’s “Between the Circles” turns to the classics for a new way to visit doom on its characters. 

Austin James’s “Vanity” uses the message from a fortune cookie to create a grim tale of identity and the need to be loved. 

Stephen Graham Jones’s “The Hero of Flight 247” begins with a deceptively simple concept, and follows it to its devastating non-end. Funny, bleak, and wonderfully overwhelming.

***

The Nightside Codex offers up a satisfying mix of moods, from the darkly playful to the profoundly grim–sometimes in the same story. There are unexpected philosophical questions, traditional weird turns, and several hauntingly untraditional weirder turns. All in all, a fine anthology. I heartily recommend it.

blood quantum

Blood Quantum presents its take on the zombie apocalypse with a sure hand and a wry sense of humor. It starts in the usual place, and follows the generally accepted plot line of zombie flicks, but it also chooses a much-needed new perspective. By focusing the story on the experiences and actions of its First Nations characters, we get a view of the end of one world from another one that may just survive.

***

blood quantumSet in 1981 on the Red Crow Reservation in Quebec, Blood Quantum wastes no time in diving into the beginnings of the plague. To do so, it relies on most of the instantly-familiar tropes of zombie horror. As always, people begin to act strangely. Animals won’t stay dead. People become violent, dangerous, bitey. Chaos erupts at the hospital. Things go downhill fast. 

The zombies here are dubbed “zeds”, and the tribe figures out very quickly that headshots are the best method of stopping them–but they still burn the bodies to be sure. The tribe also figures out very quickly that this plague turns White people into zeds, and that Indigenous people are immune.

Six months later finds the reservation transformed into an armed compound, with the Red Crow tribe holding their own and rescuing what White survivors they can. But there are long-standing family conflicts, wide-open racial wounds, and the question of how dangerous or vulnerable a new baby will be. As always, somebody lets the zombies loose in the middle of it.

***

The actors are excellent in roles that are familiar, but still outside the usual zombie apocalypse range.

Michael Greyeyes brings a believable dedication to Traylor, the reservation sheriff.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is frustrated, competent, and caring as Joss, a nurse and Traylor’s ex-wife

Forrest Goodluck plays Joss’s and Traylor’s son, Joseph, as a good person struggling to make better choices.

Kiowa Gordon is Traylor’s other son, Lysol, who has already embraced his rage at what the world has handed him.

Stonehorse Lone Goeman gives Gisigu, Traylor’s father, both wit and gravitas as an elder intending to make a stand.

Olivia Scriven is sympathetic as Joseph’s pregnant, White girlfriend, Charlie, who’s condition raises both real-world and horror movie questions.

***

blood quantumI was struck by how beautifully filmed Blood Quantum is. It opens with a spinning shot of sea and sky, bridge and shoreline, before it descends into the reservation and the town. There are brief segments of animation mixed into the live action, bringing to mind the spaciness and style of Mandy but on a more human level.

The gorgeousness extends to the splatter, as well. And there is a lot of it. Beside the thoughtful sociological issues it raises, Blood Quantum is a good, gleeful, old-fashioned gore-fest. 

It is full of great effects, from the makeup to the sunlight glistening off entrails to the creative destruction of various zeds. 

***

My takeaway? Tight, engaging, and fast-paced, Blood Quantum packs a lot of story into an hour and a half. It raises issues that need to acknowledged, while still delivering a great little horror movie. This is definitely one to watch, and relish, more than once.

la llorona

La Llorona, director Jayro Bustamante’s new interpretation of the popular legend, is a deeply affecting ghost story. Without any gore or jump scares, its terrors become more insidious, its horrors far more personal. In this version, the troubled spirit is not the source of fear for the people she haunts. She is more like them than they wish to admit.

Set against the long aftermath of the Guatemalan civil war, La Llorona is measured, deliberate and stylized, with a subdued palette and muted background noises. The film is full of whispers, of weeping, of running water, of billowing white curtains. Alzheimer’s is suggested. Superstitions abound. The real threats are internal, no matter what happens outside. 

***

la LloronaThe story opens as General Monteverde is finally tried for his crimes against the indigenous Mayan-Ixil people during the civil war in the 1980s–burning their homes and crops, raping, killing, stealing their land for its oil. The survivors’ testimony is grim. The General is convicted of genocide. The liberating verdict is annulled by the courts.

In the chaos following his acquittal, the General and his family retreat to his compound. It is not a comfortable place any longer. All but one of his servants abandon him. Protestors mass outside the gates, demanding justice, becoming increasingly violent. The family’s lives begin unraveling under the pressure.

And then a woman, Alma, knocks at the door and is allowed to enter. With her arrival, the family’s falling apart begins in earnest. 

***

The small cast is outstanding.

Maria Mercedes Coroy portrays Alma with dreamy grace and determination, as the lost, searching soul she is. 

Sabrina De La Hoz brings a sense of constant worry as the General’s daughter Natalia. She doubts her father’s innocence, in war and in family matters.

Margarita Kenéfic is haughty and cool as Carmen Monteverde, the General’s wife and Natalia’s mother. She refuses to believe her husband committed the atrocities he is accused of, but she suspects him of other betrayals.

Ayla-Elea Hurtador is gentle as Natalia’s daughter Sara, a lonely girl who befriends the mysterious Alma and begins to learn some of her secrets.

María Telón is stoic and dedicated as the family’s remaining servant, Valeriana. She understands more of her circumstances than she lets on.

Julio Diaz plays General Enrique Monteverde as an old lion, fading but still trying to wield the power he once had. He may be slipping into dementia, but he is still dangerous.

Juan Pablo Olyslager plays the General’s bodyguard Letona with a sense of hero-worship, but an underlying kindness.

***

la LloronaThis La Llorona explores the intimate damage done under the excuse of war. The pain that the aging General Monteverde has caused to the Guatemalan people and to his own family is laid bare. While women are the primary victims of the General’s crimes and infidelities, Bustamante gives the female characters real growth and agency. They lose faith in the General. They stand up to him. They diminish him. They achieve some measure of closure for what he has done.

Bustamante presents his retelling as the tragedy it is, and makes its ghosts as real as the living characters. This La Llorona is well worth seeking out.

screaming creatures

Screaming Creatures, Sean M. Thompson’s new collection from Nictitating Books, offers up fourteen meaty tales of horror and weirdness. They often tread familiar ground, but there are enough quirks and twists to keep thing interesting.

Thompson experiments with a wide variety of narrative styles, and with horrors beyond the supernatural. His characters are prey to addiction and abuse, in addition to the monsters that wander among them. Their relationships range from the secure to the profoundly dysfunctional. They rarely find redemption, or even solid footing. Injecting real-life traumas into often over-the-top splatter adds a depth to the goings-on that drew me in.

***

“Sunny Village” begins with the reliably unsettling idea of seeing something you can’t explain and shouldn’t witness, and ends with a left turn and a lot of loose ends.

“The Cliffside Tavern” is a good, old-fashioned watery ghost story.

“Centralia” was my favorite of the bunch, with its creepy video gaming superimposed on a famously creepy setting. It had me looking over my shoulder more than once.

“3 A.M. Orphan” is a strange, Twilight Zone take on someone who was never there.

“Cat’s Claw Llc” presents an isolated office building, suave man-eaters, and a woman who accepts a very tasty job offer. Off-kilter and oddly fun.

“Make It A Double” takes on the trope of evil twins, with the addition of ghosts, alcoholism, and hippies.

“Dead Visions Review” is styled as a movie review of a disjointed, bloody film that may or may not be cinéma vérité.

“Kiss Of The Succubus” starts off as a hard-boiled detective story with demons, then veers into introducing a monster-hunting agency. This should be a novella, at least.

“Metronome” is the classic tale of a writer being destroyed by the demons in his own work. 

“The Silent Man: A Documentary” is written as a transcript, and is reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project and the found-footage genre.

“Rot Gut” is a Western, with a terrible stranger haunting the dreams of a dusty small town.

“The Blind Opera”, told in the second person, follows a dangerous video, secret government experiments, and a wealthy psychopath who has figured out how to find out what it all means.

“Cycle” uses alcoholism as the engine driving the horror along, this time in a family riddled with violence.

“Screaming Creatures” is a long, slightly disjointed musing on the state of madness and the human race, punctuated with plenty of gory violence.

***

Overall, Screaming Creatures is an entertaining ride with a few rough edges that has to potential to be more. Bloody, scary, and eerie, I think it does a fine job of engaging its readers. But while full of ambitious ideas, a few of the stories (“Kiss of the Succubus” and “Rot Gut”, in particular) feel like they end in medias res. I wish they were fully-developed novellas. If Thompson chooses to expand them, I will be more than happy to keep reading.

miscreations

Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors, edited by Doug Murano & Michael Bailey, sets out to ponder the nature of monsters. The cover art and interior illustrations by HagCult set a fine, monstrous mood. And as Alma Klatu expresses it, in her foreword, “If you dwell on it, the logic is obvious. Monsters couldn’t exist without man to will them into existence. Monsters are (nearly always) man’s creation, sprung from man’s mind.”

It’s a terrific way to set the stage. But Miscreations does not quite play out as the foreword suggests.

Uneven in its execution, Miscreations gathers twenty-three stories from a panoply of talented authors into an anthology that never fully coalesces around its theme.The idea is left too broad, I think, especially since several of the selections use Frankenstein as their jumping-off point. This gives the anthology a definite direction that makes the rest of the not-Frankenstein’s-monster stories seem disconnected.

Fortunately, the stories themselves are all solid.

***

miscreationsThe stand-outs, to me, are these:

“Matryoshka” by Joanna Parypinski uses nesting dolls as the link between generations, and misunderstanding their importance produces disturbing familial rifts. A painful mother/daughter relationship, revealed layer by layer.

“Imperfect Clay” by Lisa Morton gives us a woman whose quest to build a better man reveals the slippery slope of defining “perfect”. The characters of the creator and her creation are finely drawn and fully believable.

“Ode to Joad the Toad” by Laird Barron winds through a grim and grimly humourous fantasy of gods, assassins, beasts, and politics. Byzantine, deeply weird, and thoroughly engrossing.

“Paper Doll Hyperplane” by R.B. Payne serves up a heady mix of Lovecraftian concepts, serial murder, and academia’s obsessive publish or perish imperative. Unexpectedly fun, and effective.

“The Making of Asylum Ophelia” by Mercedes M. Yardley is a striking twist on the character’s famous madness. Another fraught mother/daughter relationship, with an open-ended tragedy at its end.

***

Overall, I feel that Miscreations misses the mark on a truly unifying theme, which does the anthology a disservice. It delivers a variety of well-done stories with monsters ranging from the traditional to the distinctly new. But it fails to tie them together in a way that builds something bigger from all the different parts.

Nox Pareidolia

Nox Pareidolia, Nightscape Press’s recent anthology, stands as a quick-reference guide to excellent weird fiction. The thirty-one stories collected here are each disquieting and ambiguous, but never repetitive. They go their own strange ways, distinctly individual yet building like pieces of a puzzle to an inescapable sense of doom. Don Noble’s striking cover art and Luke Spooner’s vivid interior illustrations amplify the unease.

I found the horror in Nox Pareidolia to be generally quiet and introspective, although there is still an abundant selection of monsters and a healthy smattering of bloodshed. The characters throughout are lost souls, whether they know it or not. Their stories are compelling, slow-motion wrecks.

I relished every one of them.

***

Nox PareidoliaThe ones that stick with me are these:

“The Dredger” by Matt Thompson happens in a gritty, industrial wasteland that is itself as bleak and confusing as what happens to the protagonist. I saw a definite undercurrent of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner running through the story.

“Hello” by Michael Wehunt is a disorienting found-footage trip through conspiracy theories, the weird fiction community, and one of Lionel Ritchie’s greatest hits. Nonlinear and unforgettable.

“Rum Punch is Going Down” by Daniel Braum reads like Margaritaville by way of Hunter S. Thompson and White Zombie. Set on a tropical island where people go to escape their other lives, the story unfolds as a heady blend of light, dark, and bizarre. 

“The Past You Have, The Future You Deserve” by K.H. Vaughan is a quietly philosophical horror story that explores the weight and repercussions of responsibility, both shirked and assumed, before it comes to an abrupt and satisfying conclusion.

 “Sincerely Eden” by Amelia Gorman follows the disintegration of a woman’s life framed by communications from an old, lost friend. But as the woman explains what happened between them it becomes clear that the devil is in the details.

 “When the Nightingale Devours the Stars” by Gwendolyn Kiste presents a subtle and chilling view of witchcraft coupled with a scathing observation of small-town expectations. Flavored with hints of The Twilight Zone and deeply unsettling.

“In the Vastness of the Sovereign Sky” by S.L. Edwards delves into the disruptions of civil war and how it lets weirdness edge its bloodthirsty way in. The characters’ attempts to unravel past atrocities leave them exposed to the cult of personality behind the original horror. Another fine, nuanced tale from one of my favorite authors.

***

While I have my favorites, every story contained here is a strong one. Nox Pareidolia is a well-put-together anthology that, for me, evokes the unifying yet disconcerting feeling of being lost and helpless before inscrutable forces. 

What more could anyone ask of weird horror?

Pandemics have a way of throwing us all off-schedule. In addition to going on a mad writing binge for the past two months, I have been working on reviews of a couple of recent anthologies, and I am waiting to hear back on several submissions of my own.

Until there is news to report, here is a little more poetry to fill the time. These two originally appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer‘s Summer 2015 issue.

Stay safe.

 

Cut in Marble

I.
Arachne at her web,
With blithe indifference to her gods–
The hands that made her hands so skilled,
The minds that dreamed her.
She will learn too late
Or never learn
What debt she owes,
And with what blood she must repay it.

II.
I have been everything, incarnate,
Possible and protean,
Promethean, unbounded,
Brought to bay
By other gods.
I have dared excel amidst the mud,
And giving into mortal hands
Have created my own thousand faces.

***

Pasiphaë

The sun himself my father, you would slander me
that I lay with the ocean’s bulls, not even his stallions,
my son a monster by his sire.

You cannot even claim him,
cannot countenance that such a beast is yours.

Instead you give me sin to hide your greed,
that you would keep what you should sacrifice,
cast the weight of your rare insult onto me
since women cannot rule their lust.
Not like you men, with your young gods.
Ask your mother of that.
She gave us monsters of her own.

All the same he is called for you, his father.
History will remember that, if nothing else of us.

Distant Early Warning

We all know how these last few weeks have been.

Like many of us, I lost track of time. But back in February, my story “Distant Early Warning” appeared on Season 14, Episode 2 of The No Sleep Podcast. They do a good job over there, and it’s a fine way to pass all this time.

Since I don’t have a great deal more to report at this time (soon, soon!), I leave you with this, first published in The Rose Red Review a few years ago:

 

The Queen in Red

A year is not enough time to forget,

to see my face instead of hers

when he closes his eyes.

Her girl reminds him.

But I took my vows to him, I cannot go back.

 

She is mine now, in status if not fact.

Revenant. Dead queen’s daughter.

I would have named her differently,

Cynthia, Bianca, Alba,

but it was not my choice.

 

Mirror image in the flesh,

her mother’s echo, to remind

him that she gave him a child

and died to do it, to remind

him that I am his second choice, to remind

him of how fine she was.

The dead are always so.

I cannot compare.

 

I think sometimes he pretends she is her,

their two faces confused,

the girl’s scent her mother’s, the rustle

of her clothes a herald

that she is alive still and waiting—

and I am made of nothing, lost

among ghosts.

 

She reminds him that he can engender,

that my empty belly is my fault alone.

 

The glass does not lie. I am still a fair woman.

I will wear my hair loose

as she does, as I did when I was a girl.

I will fold my bodice so, to show my breasts,

I will perfume my lips and tongue with sweet fruit,

lady apples to please him,

but it will not matter;

I am not her.

 

She reminds him

that she filled her mother once.

She is old enough to marry off

but he keeps her near.

 

I will name my daughter Alba, if she is born.

 

A year is not enough of mourning,

not for a man’s desires.

Still I stay bare as a stick; he remembers

what it is to get a child on a wife, remembers

what it is to make her bloom.

 

I have felt it stir and bleed away,

twice now. Barren as old dirt.

Nothing will grow in me, nothing

but loathing.

I will carry one if not the other.

 

It is her he wants,

whose mirrored image he still can see.

 

I hate her, poor orphan. She gnaws my soul.

 

One would think she would smell my poison

on my skin like rank sweat,

weeping from my eyes. Bitter as salt.

Better hate the man that made her, but too much depends.

I took my vows to him.

I cannot go back.

 

She is obedient, if nothing else,

and coddled enough not to question.

Even me. Even now.

 

Come to me here, now, my poppet, my pet

 

Her name is awkward on my tongue,

I want to say Alba, my Alba—

yet she comes.

 

Come sit with me and let me comb your hair

Come sit with me and let me lace your dress

Come sit with me and let me feed you from my own mouth

as if you were mine.

 

I have paid dear

to host this banquet.

She will eat well

of the only fruit my womb has borne.

It is not sweet.

 

It will be me he sees then.

 

Only me.

luminous body

Luminous Body, Brooke Warra’s lovely novella, is a beautiful, rich, and unnervingly honest amalgam of family ties, motherhood, illness, and body horror. It is an engrossing story of a life lived on and beyond the margins, masterfully told.

***

luminous bodyI don’t know quite how to describe Luminous Body. It covers so much ground in so few pages– family dynamics, exploitative relationships, unhealthy friendships, memory, addiction, and lies. Warra’s language and phrasing is wonderful, precise and evocative. Her skill in drawing her characters renders them painfully real, fully developed and as hopeful and damaged as any of us are. It is a slice of life colored with strange magic.

I wish I had written it.

***

Mo, the narrator, comes from a long line of tenacious but marginalized women. Her mother died several years earlier, and she never knew her father. Mo is mentally ill by her own admission. She scrapes by, working as a waitress at her grandmother’s diner. She lives in a cheap apartment, does her nails with magic markers, drinks too much, smokes, and sleeps around. She is damaged, and, like any of us, is just trying to deal with it and get by.

And then one day she discovers she is pregnant. And then she discovers she is not. And then the mystery at the heart of Luminous Body begins.

***

Beautifully realized, Warra’s tale is full of the fine, awkward details that make up a tangled and misspent life. Every mistake, bad decision, manipulation and abandonment feels true. By the time Mo’s narrative slides sideways into the weird, that feels like just one more genuine experience, too.

This is the kind of book you read for the writing as much as for the plot. Gorgeously illustrated by Brooke Warra’s daughter, Zoe Leigh, Luminous Body is currently available as a limited edition, numbered chapbook from Dim Shores. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

shout kill revel repeat

Shout Kill Revel Repeat, Scott R. Jones’s new collection, is a dizzying trip through the void.

Lovecraft’s ideas make frequent appearances, but not as pastiche. Jones’s stories fly in multiple new directions, at turns frenetic and understated, militaristic, mystical, and sinister. 

His meaty, visceral prose and plots that flow in great loops across time and space, peopled with ghouls and Old Ones and shoggoths, imply motives and purposes that cannot even be recognized by frail humans. Jones does a remarkable job of conveying the utterly alien incomprehensibility of the Lovecraftian cosmos. His characters struggle to navigate a universe that doesn’t care if they exist or not. They are irrelevant to everything but themselves, and they know it.

***

shout kill revel repeatShout Kill Revel Repeat gathers seventeen tales of cosmic horror and science fiction that are immersive and jarringly realistic for all their weirdness. The common thread I find running through them is the instability of time, and what that instability costs. Plots and events are slippery things, unanchored and inconstant, while characters fight to keep their balance. It is all quite beautifully done.

My favorites are:

“The Spike”, which uses an ambitious employee in far over his head to introduce us to Eidolon Corporation and the recurring character of Aldo Tusk, a weird and mysterious tech magnate. 

“Last Stand at Cougar Annie’s”, an end of the world scenario after genetically altered men–and militarized women– have become the enemy. 

“Living” brings back Aldo Tusk, isolated in the arctic and facing down a driven, adaptive, and superhuman weapon of his own design. 

“Assemblage” Point” reads like a strange, gorgeously convoluted take on Sunset Boulevard’s story structure. It’s one of those uncommon second-person narratives that wouldn’t work properly from a different point of view.

“Wonder and Glory Forever” connects a lost and motherless man with the devout worshipper of an ancient sea god, in a surfing community in the Pacific Northwest. Vividly told, and compelling in its half-revealed secrets.

***

Jones, the man behind the late Martian Migraine Press, has also just released the novel Stonefish. So if you enjoy the dark worlds of Shout Kill Revel Repeat, there is immediately more to be had. I highly recommend diving in.