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Monthly Archives: October 2020

The Return of Stories to Read on Halloween with the Lights Off

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In October 2015, I wrote a blog entry about my thirteen favorite short horror stories. In the reading I’ve done since then, I’ve come across a number of newer pieces of short fiction that are creepy, eerie, or downright terrifying. I wanted to highlight some of these works, so below is a list of thirteen “short” (novella-length or shorter) horror stories I’ve read for the first time during the past five years and greatly enjoyed.

“The Night Cyclist” by Stephen Graham Jones (on Tor.com): A chef who bikes home late at night after his restaurant closes forms a bond with a fellow cyclist who’s more than he appears. This was a riveting story, one of the few I can say I truly got lost in.

“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” by Stephen King (in If It Bleeds): As I said in my review of the collection, this felt like a classic campfire ghost story.

“He Sings of Salt and Wormwood” by Brian Hodge (in Ellen Datlow’s The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea): This was my favorite story in a strong anthology. A competitive diver witnesses something during a training run gone wrong that may be a hallucination induced by oxygen deprivation or may be something weird even for the deep sea.

I’ll Bring You the Birds from out of the Sky by Brian Hodge: This is another one I blogged about on its own. Its descriptions of folk art and its concern with the ecological devastation wreaked on Appalachia by coal mining serve to ground the story. It also gives a fresh take on the “sinister piece of art” trope.

In the Shadow of Spindrift House by Mira Grant: A group of teen detectives set out to handle one last case before adulthood scatters them to the winds. Naturally, it ends up being a lot more than they bargained for. The way in which the main character is eventually forced to choose between biological family and found family adds a level of poignancy to the tale.

“How Love Came to Professor Guildea” by Robert Hitchens (in David G. Hartwell’s The Dark Descent): This is one of the most unusual ghost stories I’ve ever read, because it manages to be unsettling despite the fact that no human or spiritual entity seeks to do any harm whatsoever to the main character.

“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner (also in The Dark Descent): A great Lovecraftian tale with an interesting premise. And, like “How Love Came to Professor Guildea”, one that hasn’t been appreciated or reprinted as much as it should be.

“Spectral Evidence” by Gemma Files (in her collection of the same name): This one is tough to describe without giving too much away. It’s a mystery story involving a group of parapsychologists, and the way in which the clues are presented is a big part of what makes this story so intriguing.

“Standing Woman” by Yasutaka Tsutsui (in Jeff and Ann VandeMeer’s The Big Book of Science Fiction): The past four years have led to a resurgence in the popularity of dystopian fiction, and this story presents a subtly horrific tale of life in a totalitarian state.

“Crispin’s Model” by Max Gladstone (on Tor.com): This story has some similarities to “I’ll Bring You the Birds from Out of the Sky” in the central role played by art. Here, though, it’s not only the artist who gets drawn into the world he portrays, but his model as well.

“Snapshot” by Joe Hill (in his collection Strange Weather): An ominous man with an even more ominous camera threatens a young boy. This is one of the stories that really proves Joe Hill is his father’s son.

“The Emperor’s Old Bones” by Gemma Files (in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Thirteenth Edition): The interpersonal relationships in this story are just as disturbing as the supernatural element. This story won the International Horror Guild Award for Short Fiction in 1999, and it’s easy to see why. Though it isn’t explicitly gory, it’s not for the faint of heart.

“Coming Soon” by Stephen Millhauser (in his collection Voices in the Night): We’ve all had the experience of returning to a place we used to frequent and finding it irrevocably changed. “Coming Soon” takes the feelings of dislocation this experience provokes and makes them the foundation for a compelling horror story.

“Ashes and Entropy” by Robert S. Wilson (editor)

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Robert S. Wilson’s small press Nightscape Press has put out a number of interesting books, and their innovation has clearly earned the attention of the horror community. Two of their anthologies, Nox Pareidolia and Ashes and Entropy, have won the This Is Horror Award. Ashes and Entropy features new stories from horror luminaries such as John Langan and Laird Barron alongside newer voices.

Nadia Bulkin’s work tends to contain strong elements of social commentary, and her entry here, “Flesh Without Blood,” keeps up that trend. The lines she draws between the literal human sacrifice in the story and the damage professional athletes do to their bodies in exchange for adulation and exorbitant salaries is thought-provoking.

John Langan and Laird Barron have occasionally nodded to each others’ mythoses (mythosi?) in their tales. Langan’s story “Breakwater” includes more indirect tributes to Barron by incorporating noir tropes while remaining firmly in the realm of horror. Barron’s “Girls Without Their Faces On,” on the other hand, is a classic Laird Barron story. The dog still being a good doggo after the arrival of eldritch entities was a perfect mix of creepy and adorable.

It’s not only the famous writers who deliver on the thrills and chills, though. Erinn L. Kemper’s “The Head on the Door” is more of a ghost story than a cosmic horror tale, but it’s a unique concept that comes to life through compelling writing. I hadn’t heard of Kemper before and would be interested to read more of her work. Autumn Christian’s “Shadowmachine,” meanwhile, is a wonderfully sci-fi-inflected horror story.

On top of all the great writing, the eerie illustrations by Luke Spooner add a dollop of extra spookiness to the stories.

Ashes and Entropy was funded by a Kickstarter. It was more than worth the price, and I encourage people to fund future projects by this publisher.

“When Jackals Storm the Walls” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

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I’ve been a fan of Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Song of the Shattered Sands series since the first book, so I was eager to read the latest installment, When Jackals Storm the Walls. Character arcs and plot threads that built up over the previous four books converge as the nature of the gods’ plan is revealed. Çeda, her friends, and even some of her enemies, will have to work together to prevent catastrophe for Sharakhai.

This book provides a payoff for a lot of things that have been building up over the course of the series. To go along with this, we see larger-scale conflicts among both mortals and gods. There are some truly spectacular set-pieces here, with Crowning Moments of Awesome and/or Heartwarming for some of our favorite characters.

Jackals also gives us more insight into the world of the Great Shangazi. After the gradual worldbuilding of the first four books, I had assumed that the reader now knew almost everything that was relevant to the main plot. But Jackals takes things another level deeper, building on what seemed like throwaway details earlier in the story. In the fandom for Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere books, there’s a saying that “there’s always another secret.” This seems to also be true of Beaulieu’s series, and it’s clear that one of these newly hinted-at secrets will play a major role in the last book.

This does make the pacing a bit slower than it was in the previous novels. That may seem like an odd thing to say, when I’ve just talked about epic battles and great character moments. Those things do happen, and they are satisfying, but it feels like there’s a lot of material surrounding them that the reader has to get through to reach those satisfying parts. Beaulieu also introduces a new significant secondary character. While I liked him, this is awfully late in the series to be bringing in someone new to be an important factor. I think it would have been better to let Davud and Esmeray achieve their goal either entirely on their own or with the aid of a previously-established character. That flaw aside, this is a strong entry in the series, and I can’t wait for the finale.