Darkened by Bryan Smith

When it comes to post-apocalyptic literature, authors have devised numerous ways to destroy humanity. If it isn’t mankind’s scientific hubris that gets us in trouble, our careless disposal of toxic wastes will. If not self inflicted, then certainly an alien invasion or other cataclysmic event is destined to destroy the world. Whether a serious novel that redefines the post-apocalyptic landscape or just a fun romp into a broken world of man-made monsters, the important part of the story, and what keeps readers coming back, is the people who survive. The characters are typically broken, morally ambiguous and not always likable. A powerful component of the post-apocalypse scenario is it allows for self-reflection as the reader considers what lengths they would go to to save themselves and protect the ones they love. Bryan Smith takes this well-worn genre convention and turns it on its head by blending science-fiction and fantasy into a novel horror fiction fans will love. Originally published as Deadworld (Bitter Ale Press Feb 2011), Smith’s Darkened gives a super-charged, B-movie inspired Armageddon serious consideration. The plot device is fantastic and the reader will have plenty of fun playing around in this world, but the plight of the characters is no less sobering.

From the prologue:

…that unbridgeable gap between our reality and the unknowable began to decay. Until the denizens of that dark place came howling into our world, bringing with them a storm of death and destruction, and planting a seed of rot that would infect each of the intermingling alien worlds.

This is my story.

This is everyone’s story.

This is how the world died…


Our doomed expedition begins with an anonymous narrator who explains that, as a survivor of the End Times, their hope is “this manuscript might serve as a cautionary tale.” From there, the reader must guess which survivor is recounting the story as we shift to a third-person omniscient perspective, the identity of our anonymous tour guide hidden until we edge closer to the end of the tale. An added bonus for those of us who like surprises and a fair challenge since Darkened has many characters, any one of which is captivating enough to be the main protagonist.

Emily, the songwriter and musician, awakes the day of Armageddon head abuzz with the aftermath of her depression-induced bender the night before, freshly dumped, and unemployed. Over 800 miles away from her home in Nashville, Tennessee her long lost love shares a similarly pathetic existence. Warren “awoke to a familiar buzzing… a subtle crackling he recognized as the sub-aural sound of untold thousands of brain cells dying as a result of last night’s overindulgence…” It’s after 1pm and he’s missed class again. But it doesn’t matter anymore because he’s flunking out of Rutgers University anyway and this afternoon, as if he couldn’t get any lower, he discovers a breakup note from his girlfriend. Almost simultaneously, Zeke Johnson, news anchor, discovers a portal into another realm through a camera lens as he awaits the end of commercial break in Atlanta, Georgia. Jasmine Holtz, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, finds that her “daisy’s center, normally a cheerful bright yellow, had darkened considerably.” And then there’s Aaron Harris, a Layomesque psychopath who is so preoccupied with winning, or violently forcing, Emily’s sexual affections that he barely notices the coming apocalypse until winged demons dive bomb him from a darkened sky.

Aaron isn’t the only psycho in Darkened. The resultant anarchy of the apocalypse brings all the thieves and killers out of the woodwork. Whatever social restraint they showed before no longer applies and it’s in this dark world they really thrive. A completely nude Mary Lou kills her boyfriend Billy in cold blood when he refuses to shoot Zeke the anchor man after robbing him at gunpoint, simply stating “that’s what happens when a man don’t do what I tell him.” From there Mary Lou takes off toward Nashville, Zeke in toe, making him beg for his life for her entertainment and subjecting him to the simple psychological tortures of being her prisoner.

Once all hell breaks loose, people cling to the closet person they know. Warren’s recent ex Amanda enlists his help to get her home to her family in Florida. Emily reconciles with her ex Jake and they take in a strange young girl who appears to have been abandoned in the chaos. Jasmine flees her home after a beastly attack and Zeke is still prisoner to Mary Lou’s whims. Each individual has their own path and destination. These disjointed threads all find their way to one united center as we near the end of Darkened.

The suspense of finding out what happens to each individual drives the plot at an electric pace. Will Emily and Warren be reunited? Will Aaron exact revenge on Emily for rejecting his advances? Can Zeke finally escape the sinister clutches of Mary Lou? What will become of Jasmine? And who is our anonymous narrator!?

Darkened’s gigantic Lovecraftian creatures, winged demons, tears in the fabric of reality, and hyper-accelerated aging of inorganic objects are the stuff of science-fiction dreams. With several gripping threads for readers to follow and a suspenseful yet energetic pacing, Darkened is a must read for horror fans looking for a book with fresh ideas. Bryan Smith fans will find that Darkened is even more ambitious than previous efforts in regards to the scope of his story. Even though he is skilled at character development, his anonymous narrative device gives him further opportunity to exhibit the wide spectrum of personalities kicking around in his head. In addition to our cast, the world Smith has created, with its multiple alien dimensions, is the novelized version of a sci-fi epic geared specifically to fans of the macabre.

Darkened is this readers favorite Smith novel yet, and since it’s available in Kindle eBook format for the low price of $2.99 there’s no excuse not to pick it up!

House of Blood by Bryan Smith

The synopsis and opening of this book would have the reader assume that Bryan Smith’s House of Blood is simply a throwback to the old trope that finds young people terrorized and slaughtered by an inbred cannibal family. The description for Smith’s authorized edition, which was released for Kindle by Bitter Ale Press in April, even ends with a statement that plays on the tagline from one of the most popular and well-known cannibal family films Texas Chainsaw Massacre – “Who among them, if any, will survive the night?” There is no doubt Bryan Smith would do justice to a cannibals-run-amok concept as a seasoned veteran of horror fiction, but as a twist on the old formula, House of Blood is actually more a dark fantasy novel than straight horror. Although certainly horrific, Smith offers a simple premise that proves complex as the reader peals away rotten layer upon rotten layer like a hellacious onion from the garden of an angry God.

At the center of this story are a group of five college kids who lose their way after a road trip turned disastrous. The individuals struggle with infighting, personal demons, and lingering bitterness that threatens to unravel their friendship. Dream, Alicia, Chad, Shane, and Karen are thoroughly exhausted and reduced to petty bickering by the time we catch up with them. Still over a hundred miles outside their home in Nashville, Tennessee all the way from Key West, Florida, the driver of the packed Honda Accord, Dream, takes an ill-fated turn leading them to the titular House of Blood. Each character has taken the gloves off, resorting to personal attacks and shocking revelations about each other at this point, so Smith is able to reveal a significant amount of back story for them. And because the reader has this intimate understanding, by the time they reach the house of horrors you have a vested interest in their survival. Well, some of them.

Smith exhibits strong character development in House of Blood for the most part. The tortuous experience in the house exposes strengths and weaknesses in each of them. While you start out booing and hissing at one, you will find yourself cheering them on as a hero later and vice versa. Of course, there are a few that were doomed to be fodder for the slaughter from the get go. The house is also populated by a number of sadistic weirdos and tragic victims outside our group of travelers that add to the complexity of this tale and solidify the deep history of the house. There is the sadistic Master of the household and his equally vicious Mistress, Ms. Wickman, who is likened to the beautiful and cruel Ilsa from the Nazi exploitation films. Joining them are the victims who have accumulated over time, some occupying torture chambers in the main house, others exist in the perverted underground city known as Below. There is a great deal of action and a suspenseful plot, but it wouldn’t be as engaging without Smith’s well-crafted characters. They are not always likable, but consistently entertaining and Smith is able to reveal details about them in an organic way. The reader feels like they’ve come to know these people without the novel being bogged down with back stories that upset the pacing.

In addition to the strong cast of absorbing characters, House of Blood delivers enough buckets of oozing, blood drenched viscera to live up to its name. House of Blood offers up a disgusting smorgasbord of torture, sexual violence, and shocking brutality. Smith really pushes the limits of cruelty in this book by subjecting his victims to Ms. Wickman’s sexual sadism and sacrificing their lives in cannibalistic blood rituals to the Gods. While excessive, it’s believable within the context of the world he has created which allows him to explore the darkest realms of perversion.

More inspiring than the cast and the despicable acts that play out in the pages of House of Blood is the surprising direction the story takes throughout. With his science fiction / fantasy angle, Smith has created a tale that isn’t just another book riffing off the psycho family device.

This is highly recommended for readers with a taste for extreme violence, a bit of graphic sex, and a penchant for the wild and strange.

You can pick up the authorized version of House of Blood released by Bitter Ale Press for the Kindle here for just a few bones.