Heart Of Glass by David Winnick

When it comes to chapbooks, I tend to prefer vibrant displays of poetic wordplay, intense gore, or creepy-crawley quickies that are good for a fix. With Heart of Glass, I didn’t get any of that. What I did get was far better. This is a piece that picked me straight up out of my reading chair and into a completely different place.

Heart Of Glass is an incredibly well paced story with an end resulting in a feeling I didn’t expect at all. After all, it’d been a long time since I’d felt this. What was it, you ask? Well… I felt surprised. In a good way.

Time has not been kind to Adam and Sonia’s marriage. They have drifted away from each other and barely speak anymore. On a trip to the local antiques mall, Adam finds a jigsaw puzzle made of clear glass. He believes that working on the puzzle together may help with their problems. However, the puzzle has a strange hold on Adam, and what he thought might bring him and Sonia together threatens to tear them apart forever.

The pace of this story is very… I don’t know… it’s not quick, but it’s not slow. It’s moreso an incredibly stable, dependable story that really doesn’t give you any allusions as to where it’s going. Winnick builds characters that speak to the reader very clearly, and never waver. Like I said, this is a very stable story. One of the most solid ones I’ve read in a while, to be honest.

His main character, Adam, is pretty standard issue, but delivered with enough finesse to stand apart from the masses. He’s just like any old American Joe, really, but Winnick adds a subtle layer or two to the man that makes him feel more 3 dimensional than those who you may find in any other genre fare. I have a feeling that if this character had been written in a more dynamic sense, it would have set a different feel throughout the story, and completely destroyed the illusion that the author carefully creates throughout this work of art.

Everything is very carefuly orchestrated towards a single overall feeling or loss and frustration on the part of the two main characters. That is, until the end of the story – the moment when he pulls the rug out from under everybody and everything. It’s genuinely incredible, and heart-breaking, in a way. In what is one of the most unexpected endings I’ve ever read, Winnick completely turns the tables and provides an ending that defies the entire tone of the story. It’s a great revelation, and a really fresh and interesting way to finish off the story. I thoroughly enjoyed it, making Heart Of Glass one of my favorite reads of the year.

Heart of Glass is short, solidly written, and thoroughly enjoyable. Take a look at Bad Moon Books‘ catalogue for more stellar horror fare, and grab yourself a copy of this chapbook on Amazon as an ebook.

C.

Vanishing Hope by Tobin Elliott

Jesus… I wasn’t expecting this one from Burning Effigy Press – a micro press that I pride myself on having most, if not everything they’ve published. When Monica announced on Twitter that she would be releasing a book from a completely new and unknown author, I was very intrigued. After all, I’ve enjoyed just about everything that’s come out from this press. And I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy this chapbook. What I’m saying is… I wasn’t ready.

And I don’t think you are, either.

And that’s what makes Vanishing Hope so goddamned good.

The book knows your dark places. It knows your weaknesses. It knows your innermost desires. It feels your pain and knows how to twist it to its own needs. It knows how to become our best friend.

All the things we can do together…

Talia is nine years old. The book is ancient. Talia hates her life. The book explois hate. It shows you all the things you can do to those you hate. All the ways you can hurt them. Talia is powerless. The book is power. Now the book has found Talia.

With that synopsis, the reader only gets the slightest hint of the darkness yet to come. It seems as if you know the grand idea as to what’s coming down the pipe, but really… you don’t even know the half of it. This chapbook is incredibly visceral, agressive, and supremely effective at making the reader uncomfortable, all in a good way. In all honestly, this is an incredible story written by an incredible author, published by a fantastic press that is willing to take a chance and do something daring, and something you really don’t want to miss.

Vanishing Hope is the kick in the ass that the small press publishing world needs and, more importantly, something that I, as a reader, have been looking for all over the place. This is fresh, new, and unabashedly raw. It makes no apologies for what it is, and begs for no forgiveness either. What it does do, however, is provide the reader with a glimpse at the new blood of the genre. With our current sociopolitical and economic climates, we really only had to wait so long before someone penned a tale that matched the feel that is permeating the streets these days. What Elliott has achieved with Vanishing Hope is just that – a literary release of aggression and pain that forces the reader to face some incredibly uncomfortable situations head on.

Elliott excells at matching the ebb and flow of the main character’s feelings, starting out with a tone that feel somewhat innocent and unthreatening, all the way to the climactic scenes of the chapbook where her mental state and aggressive nature can only be described as frenetic and utterly pissed. It’s virtually impossible to retain any internal composure when reading this little story, and it seems that when Elliott wants to drive a scene home, he does so in the highest gear possible.

The main character, Talia, is a beautiful child, but exhudes a terrible mean streak that Icertainly hope my kids don’t harbor deep down inside themselves. It’s terrifying to think that something so small and innocent could be so damned malicious. The fact that Elliott took a chance with this piece of fiction and created this circumstance from the perspective of a child, well, that’s one for the books, folks. I haven’t seen something this daring since Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door.

At the end of the chap, way back there in the author bio, I found a shimmering ray of hope. It seems that this chapbook is essentially acting as a prelude to a full length novel featuring this subject matter, and even gives a quick little peek at who the major players may well be. Personally, I’m excited to see what Elliott can bring to the table in terms of longer fiction. His ability to capture the reader’s attention and use their emotions against them is phenomenal. I hesitate to call Vanishing Hope a “sleeper hit”, but really… you didn’t see this coming. Guaranteed.

Vanishing Hope was officially released just prior to the 2011 Festival of Fear. Elliott can be contacted at his website, and on Twitter. Burning Effigy Press can be contacted at their website and on Twitter, as well.

In related news, I’ve got 2 signed copies of Vanishing Hope to give away. Go hit up and “like” our Facebook page and hang tight. Leave a comment in the thread featuring this review, and we’ll see if we can throw this your way. I’ll let the winners know by the end of the week.

C.

Nowhere Hall by Cate Gardner

Nowhere Hall is not only a great ride into a weird and wild world, but it’s also one of those stories that keeps you guessing, and hides something in every little corner of itself.

Gardner obviously takes her time crafting these images and emotions, supplying  the reader with the what she believes will make for a truly unsettling, yet thoroughly mindblowing array of literary voices. So much so that story culminates in a heart pounding ending that begs the reader to replay the entire tale in their head immediately upon completion. A whirlwind of greatness is contained within the pages of yet another brilliant Spectral Press release.

In the ballroom, wallflower mannequins stretch their fingers towards Ron. He can’t ask them to dance. He’s already waltzing with other ghosts.

someone stole the world while Ron conemplated death. They packed it in a briefcase and dumped him in the halls of the ruined hotel – The Vestibule. A nowhere place.

Gardner sets this short story up with a very dominant sense of gloom, introducing a character that exhudes sadness as if it were a very coporeal aura surrounding his entire being. We watch as Ron contemplates suicide, physically standing on the kerb side, but also in the lonliest place he could possibly be – his own mind. Gardner is very adept at making the reader feel the pain of this character, making it almost too difficult to work from sentence to sentence, but also encouraging him to persevere with subtle hints of what is yet to come and strange happenings that entice the mind to follow. From the beginning, we know there is much more to this story than originally revealed.

The pace of this story is interesting. At times, it meanders along, not really going very quickly, but instead allowing the reader to take in the sights. At other times, the author blasts so much information at the reader that they might feel as if this is an insane rollecoaster ride. The whole feel is very psychedelic and raw, with the above mentioned sense of gloom feeling like a storm cloud on the verge of dropping a deluge of rainwater. Gardner keeps this flow perfectly throughout the entire chapbook, never once breaking for a literary ray of sunlight.

Having said that, while dark and oft-times very bleak, the story does have an upside… if you look deep enough. It’s there, but its hidden under layers of metaphor, rich and expertly crafted visuals, and raw emotive prose. Gardner is incredibly gifted, and succeeds in bringing the reader on a very strange, wild, and mind bending journey into the heart of emotional pain. Nowhere Hall is a powerful little book that will leave its mark on your psyche for much time to come.

As usual, Spectral Press has offered a fantastic piece of fiction that isn’t confined to any genre or sub-genre. The releases that have been coming out of this press are incredible, and don’t show any signs of letting up in quality. Make sure you go take a look at Spectral’s upcoming releases, and give Cate Gardner‘s website a gander as well.

C.

Ill At Ease by Mark West, Stephen Bacon, and Neil Williams

Ill At Ease is one of those books that you really have to get your hands on in order to understand it thoroughly. A combined effort by West, Bacon, and Williams, this is a chapbook that will challenge, entertain, and horrify you with its simple prose and ambitious stories.

See more after the break. Continue reading

This Little Light Of Mine by Nate Southard

This story is amazing.

The first 8 pages alone are just so brutally gut wrenching that it is virtually impossible to look away. Having read nearly everything Burning Effigy has to offer in terms of horror, I am not in the least surprised. What I am surprised about, however, is how someone can like Southard, for example, can come strolling into the genre, take a few well placed swings, and completely own everything and everyone in sight.

If Nate Southard is the face of the new breed, I’m happy to say that the genre is in incredibly capable hands.

It was supposed to be a normal day for Brandon, but then the earthquake came, trapping him in a collapsed parking garage with a pair of strangers. Now, he’s buried underneath Manhattan with no light, no food, and no way of knowing if rescue is on its way. And there are sounds in the darkness. Something’s coming, and saving Brandon is the last thing on its mind.

The first couple of minutes that the reader will spend with this story are absolutely wonderful. The beauty that Southard conveys through the relationship between Brandon and his wife Amanda is absolutely wonderful. This author obviously knows how to control the emotions of his captive party (the reader), and ultimately exploits that ability with the snap of his fingers, and the turn of a phrase. Within the space of 5 minutes, I went from being very interested to absolutely riveted.

And then the action started.

To say that this book surges forward like a typhoon of relentless action and purpose would be an understatement. The sheer amount of lyrical prowess that this author holds in completely awe-inspiring. One minute the main character is talking on the phone, thinking random thoughts, and living a normal life – and then a moment passes, and the world comes crashing down around him. Almost literally.

Southard’s ability to describe a scene vividly is brilliant. He has such a way with words that one cannot help but be absolutely forced to see what he wants them to see. In my opinion, that’s very rare these days. The style is not grandiose or over-dramatic. On the contrary, it’s rather subdued and meticulous. The author seems to choose his words very carefully, placing everything in the best possible order that they could be in. The result is an overwhelming success, bringing the reader to his/her knees with the finality of it all.

While Southard does allow space for the imagination to run free, he also paints a very detailed, terrifying landscape for the adventure. Southard’s characters in this story are thick, layered, complex, and surprisingly heavy for a piece this short. They’re instantly identifiable, perfectly sympathetic, and not at all unbelievable. While speculative fiction usually relies on the reader’s ability to suspend their disbelief, This Little Light of Mine and it’s characters never ask that of their audience. The story is there, and will go on even without being read.

It is, in and of itself, one of the most perfect pieces of fiction that I have ever read.

Now, that being said, I would like to express the fact that I’ve read Southard’s work before, and have become quite used to his style. His novel Red Sky blew me away, but his short story “In The Middle of Poplar Street” left me wanting more. Granted, I have yet to read the author’s complete works, but I can say with authority that this is a writer to watch. He is a master of his craft, and deserves to be known the world over.

Southard’s writing does more than grab the reader and force his/her attention to be focussed on what transpires within the page. He takes the reader away on a journey. It just so happens that it’s sometimes to a place filled with things one would rather not see. I would take a trip with Southard anywhere, any day.

This Little Light of Mine can be purchased from Burning Effigy Press. While you’re there, I implore you to check out some of the other titles available. Burning Effigy has been one of my favorite small presses for some time, and I can guarantee you that the quality of these stories is the absolute top notch.

You can visit Nate Southard at his website, and connect with him on Twitter, and Facebook.

Colum McKnight

Abolisher Of Roses by Gary Fry

In January 2011, Spectral Press dropped a great little chapbook on the genre called What They Hear In The Dark, by Gary McMahon. With that publication, Spectral Press peaked my interest, and satisfied my need for an emotion and evocative story.

This time around, Spectral is offering up an intense, emotional, and psychologically-challenging read with Abolisher of Roses, by Gary Fry – cementing themselves as a press to watch, and delivering yet another incredible piece of short fiction.

It’s not always the guilty who have the darkest secrets…

Peter has been married to Patricia for nearly thirty years. He’s a practical man, the owner of a thriving factory, and the father of two fine lads.

He also has a secret mistress.

One day, his wife takes him along to an outdoor arts exhibition involving some of her paintings, staged in a dark, deep wood.

But his are not the only secrets in this marriage, and as Peter strays off the only path through the woods, he soon realizes that Patricia has more than a few secrets of her own…

A powerful piece is always a great treat, and this story is just that. Psychologically gripping, Abolisher of Roses makes the reader take a look at infidelity and relationships from a different angle. The relationship presented in this chapbook, between a husband and wife, is a perfect example of the idea that sometimes out past indiscretions can catch up to us and make us pay in the strangest of ways.

What the author does here is phenomenal. The story starts off at a walking pace, coaxing the reader into thinking that they’re looking at a sleepy little tale, only to amp up the pressure like a slow cooker, and eventually throttling the reader into a forceful introspection of their own deeds. Fry decidedly plays with the imagination in a wonderful way, offering very subtle instances of creepiness that will haunt the reader long after the story is finished.

The characters are well played out, the setting and surrounding ambiance are delightfully transgressive, and the overall feeling is a mixture of a semi-sedated, creeping terror and the outright finger-in-the-face kind of accusation that makes this read feel like a roller coaster ride to certain doom.

Fans of UK horror will definitely love this story, and those who are unfamiliar with them will be in for a treat. This is definitely something to grab and throw yourself into.

C.

The Collectors by Matt Bell

Matt Bell’s The Collectors might really be the most disturbing, but beautiful example of cross-genre literature I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Short yet epic, disturbing yet beautiful, and absolutely haunting to the core – this is truly the stuff of nightmares and, most assuredly, a diamond in the rough.

From mdbell.com:

The tale of compulsive hoarders Homer and Langly Collyer so shocked 1940s Manhattan that the brothers and their Harlem brownstone live on today as one of the most notable American case studies of acute disposophobia. With nervous energy and obsession to match his protagonists, Matt Bell’s prose burrows, forensically, into the layers of the brother’s lives, employing a multilinear narrative structure and a prenetic plurality of perspectives to reach a core of despair that is both terrifyingly primal and distressingly familiar.

First off, I have to that the incredible Judy Black for pointing me in the direction of this little story. It’s an incredible piece, and more incredible is the fact that you can catch it for free. In all honesty, this is an absolute crime, as I would pay good money for a story this impressive and satifying.

Bell’s prose is immaculately crafted, leaving the reader completely in awe and unable to tear him/herself away from the story. The words slide off the page beautifully, but leave a film on the brain that just reeks of desperation and sorrow. It’s virtually impossible not to feel something deep down inside while reading this. This, in my opinion, is a work of art. A masterpiece.

The two main characters in this story – brothers Homer and Langly Collyer – were compulsive hoarders who lived in Manhattan until 1947 – when their bodies were found in the Harlem brownstone where they lived as hermits. This part of the story is true. With Bell’s help, we are given a unique and harrowing fictional account of their last days in that brownstone, and the reaction of the community upon their demise. The truth of the story is just as terrifying as Bell’s interpretation, but it is this author’s ability to string together so perfectly that really steals the show. Bell adds layer upon layer to a story that is already twisted and disturbing, thus giving it more of a dark fairy tale feeling than normal historical fiction.

The overall result here is astounding. Bell has really created an incredibly unsettling, vibrant, disturbing, and beautifully haunting piece of fiction.

Grab yourself a free copy at Matt Bell’s website here, or a direct download here. Also, check out his collection – How The Were Found, available at Amazon, B&N, Amazon Kindle, and other online retailers.

C.