Book Review: Giallo Fantastique

Edited by Ross E. Lockhart

Published by Word Horde

Review by Mer Whinery

Picture it:

1984.

Three thirteen year-old boys in a shadowed living room, huddled around a flickering television set gorging themselves on block-cheese nachos, all hopped up on a case of Mountain Dew. On the screen, a beautiful young woman is admiring herself in a mirror. Suddenly, a wall of dissonant music overpowers the scene; a pair of demonic eyes appear outside her window. The stage is set for ultimate terror.

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This was my first exposure to the genre of film known as giallo. The movie was Dario Argento’s Suspiria. It was broadcast into my best friend’s living room courtesy of a hacked satellite dish.  For the uninitiated, “giallo” is the Italian word for yellow, and is a genre of film trapped somewhere between murder mystery and slasher horror, often served with a side helping of supernatural gravy and kinky sex. It eschews coherence and logical plot in favor of style and shock, leaning far into the realm of the surreal. Giallo often features storytelling through melodramatic music and overwrought imagery. After Suspiria came others. Argento’s Deep Red, Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve, Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, and even films shot outside of Italy such as England’s Don’t Look Now, directed by Nicholas Roeg. These movies had a profound impact on me both as a writer and a lover of cinema.

Giallo Fantastique, the new collection of short fiction compiled and edited by Ross E. Lockhart, attempts to capture the feel and tone of those films and transfer them to the written word. However, this collection also seeks to marry the giallo with a French genre of fiction called fantastique. Fantastique is a variety of fiction with blatant supernatural overtones, more closely related to weird fiction than any other categorization. The results are mixed, but ultimately satisfying, with a few tales that skirt tantalizingly close to brilliance.

Most of the tales entombed within Giallo Fantastique lean more toward the fantastique than giallo. Mixing the two is not as easy as it sounds. Many of the stories get bogged down in shock for the sake of shock, and an over-reliance on the surreal, which is not uncommon for a giallo. However, since the goal of the collection is an attempt to merge the two genres together, a stronger balance needs to be struck. The majority of the stories are well written and a few are very clever, but only a handful really set themselves apart from the dark flock. But oh, what a handful of darkly delicious doozies are they!

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My favorite selection would have to be the enigmatic, and oh-so-gialloesquely named “The Strange Vice of ZLA-313” by MP Johnson. Johnson totally nails the spirit of the giallo but adds his own twist, setting the mayhem in the future. It’s fantastique, sci-fi, and horror all rolled into one delightful, sexy, and creepy chimichanga. Here is a writer who understands the genre and elevates it to new and exciting heights. I would have loved it to be longer.

“Sensoria” by Anya Martin is a little less far-reaching, but no less compelling. A cocktail of weird fiction ala Lovecraft and Argento-ish psychedelia, it sits with the reader long after the final page has turned. Out of all of the tales within Giallo Fantastique, “Sensoria” is the most cinematic, practically begging to be lensed by David Lynch.

High marks go to Michael Kazepis’s “Minerva,” a straight-up balls-to-the-wall giallo, and Orrin Grey’s “The Red Church,” a creepy little number which digs deep into the hallowed territory of Robert W. Chambers. Brian Keene’s “Exit Strategies” rounds out the collection as a chilling exposé of the secret occult history of the U.S. Transportation system that, honestly, doesn’t really lock into either the giallo or fantastique genre yet, somehow, fits perfectly into the collection. It’s a wonderful closing number.

Enough cannot be said about the excellent introduction by editor Ross E. Lockhart. The man knows his stuff, and his thoughtful and thankfully entertaining explanation of the entangled genres at play here makes sense of what is presented. Lockhart’s introduction makes the book much easier to digest and appreciate, especially for readers who may not be as familiar with Italian cinema.

4/5 Geysers of Fake-Looking Blood

Mer Whinery is the author of The Little Dixie Horror Show and  Phantasmagoria Blues, which is available for pre-order here. His short story “The Projectionist” also appears in our latest anthology, High Strange Horror, available now.

Red Eyes in the Dark: A Review of The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel

The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel (2002 edition)

If you are interested in high strange phenomena, this is a good place to start. The work is a solid look at ufology from a well-known researcher, whose influence is still felt in the ufology field.

I enjoyed the Richard Gere film of the same name – it was a solid exercise in creepy, under-explained menace and atmosphere. It was great to get an inside look at the “real story.” This book is cleanly-written, with a lot of anecdotes and connections made in and beyond Point Pleasant, WV during the Mothman/UFO flap of the 1960s.

Keel posits some really wild ideas about who and what these visitors are and what they represent. Basically he argues that all paranormal phenomena has a common origin, and it’s not extraterrestrial. This force has always been with us, and is at once very influential over and totally baffling to us.

He makes a compelling argument, and the wild stories about Mothman (who is not really the focus of the book at all) and company are really weird, creepy, and engaging. There’s plenty of weird little details and straight-up terrifying stories here that will keep you up at night.

However, the book does become repetitive and, once he establishes his hypothesis, the book doesn’t have much else to say except more of the same: more encounters, more weird stuff, more UFOs, more witness testimony, more tapped phones, more false memories…

The book’s final third is largely focused on Keel’s perception of being targeted by non-human entities: suddenly, every other person’s contact experience is about HIM. At some point the book crosses over from being an enjoyable read by a likable researcher to feeling like Keel is suffering a mental breakdown akin to mania, schizophrenia, and paranoia. However, I suspect Keel would offer a knowing smile at my statement: getting personally involved in ufology has a toxic effect on your personal life and state of mind.

These criticisms aside, this is clearly a classic of high strange literature. You don’t have to be familiar with the field to enjoy this book.

4/5 Giant Terror Birds

Best Read by Candlelight: A Review of The Lord Came at Twilight by Daniel Mills

Published by Dark Renaissance Books

Review by Michael Bryant

The wind howls through the skeletal branches of the forest outside my house, as light of the flame throbs yellow on the paper. My eyes slide over the words on the page.

“In that lonely hollow, the oak tree broods as it has done since days of Eden, feasting on the dreaming dead, alight with autumn’s fire.”

Reading at my desk, the candle flame feebly pushing away the darkness, I feel my heart pulse and the bleakness of the winter night creep into my bones.

From author Daniel Mills comes a sampling of antiquarian New England horror. Mills serves up a melancholic brew of tragic characters, oppressive atmosphere, and the abysmal fear of the unknown beyond. He is the satyr leading us through the phantasmic history of the spectral wilderness, and bewitched urban landscapes of North Atlantic America. Melding pagan traditions with puritan dread, Mills sends the reader floating down a course twisted as the Miskatonic. Formed in modern style with classic intonations, Mills’ stories tease the imagination and drive the reader into feasting on the lugubrious aesthetic. After gorging on the tome, we are left hungering for more.

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The opening story “The Hollow” examines the beauty of despair, with freedom from the memory of love, where escape from that abyss is found only in the eradication of one’s existence. “Dust From a Dark Flower” finds the burying ground in the village of Falmouth infested with a soul-devouring fungal growth, whose insidious tenacity does not restrict itself exclusively to the deceased.

A favorite pastime of mine is strolling through an old cemetery, admiring the engravings and decoding the history of a community, seeking the sum of lives laid to rest there. Daniel takes us on such a tour of an old churchyard in “Whistler’s Gore”, where it seems  the year of 1798 was a trying time for the settlement. “The Falling Dark” administers an injection of cosmic horror and the struggle of temptation at the threshold. A veteran of the Civil War relates the horrors of Shiloh, and his strange and brief stay at “The House of the Caryatids”, a southern manor with valkyrie guardians. The anthology concludes with the title story “The Lord Came at Twilight”, which steps out of the American locales and into the arena of middle ages Europe where a series of misfortunes plunges the faithful and virtuous into the pit of corruption and debauchery.

Wayne Miller illuminates the gloom of Daniel’s mind with his illustrations, enhancing the experience of the stories and steering the reader’s mental imagery to the intended discourse of the emulation of sorrow. The literary and visual artworks combine to create an overall sense of morbid ambiance, sure to delight the most discerning weird fiction enthusiast.

Settle in for the evening and wander the broken and muddied path through the centuries with Mr. Mills as your guide, moving toward the hour of twilight and His coming.

5/5 Fungal Rotted Tombstones

Book Review: The Children of Old Leech

Published by Word Horde; Edited by Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele

Review by Michael Bryant

We are all food. From our birth to well after our death, we serve to nourish other life forms. We who hold ourselves the supreme rulers of this planet—and the only known “intelligent” life form in the universe—are merely food and spawning grounds for the “lower” and older organisms.

This is the truth of Old Leech, Negotium Perambulans in Tenebris (“the pestilence that walketh in darkness”), who loves you.

Such is the nature of the work of Laird Barron, who focuses the template of cosmic horror through a lens of carnivorous savagery. If you have never read Barron’s’ writing, you most certainly should; however, familiarity with his mythos is not required to read the tribute anthology The Children of Old Leech edited by Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele.

The book features numerous authors skilled in the art of the weird. While each tale offers a standalone testimony to the love of Leech, together they form a colloquy on the carnivorous cosmos and the terrible beauty of unbridled nature. Think Blackwood with teeth, Lovecraft with brutality, the monstrous and the godly indivisible.

I have dubbed this anthology an “album” for just as music decorates time and stimulates passion, so does this collection paint the temporal cortex with original artwork. Through this beautiful thing, we come to know Old Leech and his love, and move to the warm embrace of his jaws.

Justin Steele sets the tone in the introduction with a desperate yet pointless warning against reading this, the New Testament of Leech. The fool still harbors the delusion of hope, although he seems to know his place and role in service to Leech, but does not yet accept or understand it. No matter, his troubles are over now.

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Gemma Files contemplates the underworld and deceit of the light in “The Harrow”. T. E Grau gives us an account of pilgrimage to the fossil ossuary under the mountain in “Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox”. We take communion alongside Richard Gavin in “The Old Pageant”, and rejoice of a young man’s coming to Leech at the end of his quest in Paul Tremblay’s “Notes for The Barn in the Wild”. Daniel Mills thrills us with the opulence of temptation and ultimately seduction, and sends us dancing in Lilith’s embrace in “The Women in the Wood”.

To hear more of the good word, you’ll have to read the book, available in paperback and in e-book formats. Elevations of the spirit and metamorphoses of the flesh will not be possible without the knowledge contained therein, and brother, you’ll need it on the Day of His Coming. So come with me into the deep wood, ascend the mountain to the caverns, and enter to pray before the broken circle. Let us go to find the beautiful thing that awaits us all.

5/5 Infectious Worm Gods

Available Here

Book Review: Resonator – New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond

Edited by Scott R. Jones; Published by Martian Migraine Press

Available for pre-order now

“From Beyond” is a Lovecraft story that, while lacking the elegance and polish of some of his other works, is effective precisely because it presses the right buttons in very few words. It’s profoundly Lovecraftian in the hidden-world-higher-dark-power aspect. Human beings stumble blindly through magic and forbidden science to open up a dangerous and increasingly hostile new world that is always just out of sight. It’s only a few pages long, with most of the terrors generated by the reader’s mind. Lovecraft supplies us with just enough details to stoke the fires of imagination.

The film From Beyond, conversely, shows quite a bit—and liberally dumps buckets of slime and blood everywhere—while also under-explaining the true nature of the creepy-crawlies that float, bite, suck, consume, and ultimately corrupt and metamorphize the humans who come in contact with the infamous Resonator. Or, is it the bodies of that characters themselves that cause the corruption? Does the pineal gland, once stimulated, assume a life of its own, pushing the characters into new states of abominable evolution?

Martian Migraine Press has assembled an all-star team of horror writers who tackle these themes. In Resonator -New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond, these writers pick up where Lovecraft and Gordon left off, tracking the fate of the Tillinghast family and the Resonator technology through a variety of weird and slimy tales of lurid erotica, old-fashioned splatterpunk, and paranoid science fiction-horror.

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I feared that the collection would at one point run out of steam—after all, how many different ways can you rebuild and re-frame a concept like the Resonator technology? The writers of this collection—expertly assembled by Scott R. Jones—managed to write stories with common themes and gross-outs, but that stand on their own in setting, characterization, and creativity. None of these stories feel like repeats or filler; each new story has a fresh and viscous take on the terrors that lurk in the branes beyond and within the human heart.

While there are reasons to like every story in this collection, I have a few personal favorites.

“IPO” by Darrin Brightman explores the Post-9/11 commercialization of the Resonator technology. Brightman’s social critique is so on-the-nose it’s easy to miss: the very machines meant to protect us make us see monsters, everywhere.

“Film Maudit” by Christopher Slatsky explores one of my favorite horror tropes: that of a forbidden film and/or a haunted movie theater (see Mer Whinery’s “The Projectionist” in our upcoming High Strange Horror release). A gorehound who has seen it all attends a special screening of a supposedly lost art house/snuff film, with the experience enhanced by the RestoRed Oscillator, an almost-forgotten spookshow gimmick that thrills the audience in new and horrifying ways.

“Bug Zapper” by Richard Lee Byers follows a scientist and a team of Army Rangers—wearing armor and popping pills to keep them motivated—as they try to destroy a special tower the government built to keep the invisible monsters away. Turns out, we are far more connected to that invisible ecosystem than even Tillinghast could have imagined, and mucking around in t-space wasn’t the best idea after all.

“Parasitosis” by Lyndsey Holder is about a man with unexplained psychological issues—including the ability to see emotions and psychological states—exploring the meaning of memory and current experiential reality, one moment at a time. This story is disorienting as it is frightening.

“The Wizard of OK” by Scott Nicolay shows us an Aleister Crowley devotee as he uses an unspeakable mix of technology and blood sorcery to explore space and time, at the expense of one very lost and damaged woman and her son. There’s a demon-thing-god-worm-creature that defies the imagination, with a psychic and physical presence that preys upon our unsympathetic characters, resonating with both physical and emotional fear.

“The Divide” by Damir Salkovic is the soul-scarring final piece. It’s more of a science fiction sequel to the original story, with a near-utopian future consisting of a wealthy elite seeking greater and greater thrills and experiences that lead them all the way to the center of creation. There they encounter a fate—and a truth—far worse than they could possibly have imagined.

There’s plenty more to like. This is a creative exploration of form and content around the shared conceit of technology/sorcery and third-eye truth. In case you missed the original story, it’s included at the beginning of the collection, so don’t worry about being lost in the shuffle. Each author takes those primordial ideas and conjures up terrors both immediate and existential. In Resonator, merely getting eaten alive by unseen monsters from outside time and space is the least of your concerns, and one of the more noble fates the hapless characters end up suffering.

This book comes with my strongest recommendation for fans of both science fiction-horror and body-horror.

5/5 Resonance Waves

Book Review: Nightmare Carnival

Edited by Ellen Datlow; Published by Dark Horse

Recently I’ve been interested in reading short story collections rather than novels. I’ve become tired of failing to get invested in a long-form story’s characters or plot, and have become accustomed to recognizing when a novel’s length is padded for thickness’ sake.

I’ve also been interested in reading work by female authors—especially within the horror genre—because most of the books I pick up tend to be written by men.

Add to that a desire to read something fun and pulpy, and Nightmare Carnival edited by Ellen Datlow seemed like the perfect fit. An entire short story collection with a diverse authorship—helmed by one of the industry’s top editors—and it’s about scary clowns, freaks, carnivals, and circuses (yes, there is a difference between the latter two).

If what I’m describing sounds interesting to you, I’ll save you some time and say that you should pick up the anthology. The book isn’t without its uneven or weaker stories—find me a collection that is—but the good (and a couple of great) outweigh the bad and the boring.

That said, this is not a book for the hardcore horror fan. Many of the stories—probably half or more—aren’t strictly horror, but are instead dark literary fiction or fantasy. The lack of the supernatural—or its de-emphasis, or its use as a vehicle for vaguely weird experimental fiction—in many of these works left me a little disappointed.  I wanted the book’s cover, complete with cut-off text and faded comic-style coloring—to deliver on its promise of fun and pulp. I wanted a carnival spookhouse ride of mayhem, cheap thrills, and bright colors. Certainly, some of these stories deliver on that promise, and in very interesting and disturbing ways. Others simply do not, relying more on experimental forms of suspense and plot that don’t seem to have any substantial connection to the circus motif, which is obviously ripe for exploration in the horror forms.

Maybe this is my issue, not the book’s—but a book called Nightmare Carnival with ghouls, a weird-looking kid, and a bleeding clown on the cover tends to imply horror, right? While none of the stories were poorly written—the authors in this collection are certainly true talents—a few of them were, well, kind of pedestrian. They felt like something you’d read in a mainstream literary magazine, with a few big-top tents and carnies thrown in for flavor.

But there are quite a few really solid pieces in the book.

“Scapegoats” by N. Lee Wood is a sordid tale of mob rule and outcasts’ revenge; “And the Carnival Leaves Town” by A. C. Wise is bizarre supernatural detective story where the evidence just doesn’t add up; “Corpse Rose” by Terry Dowling is part science fiction, part urban legend; “Hibbler’s Minions” by Jeffrey Ford is a darkly-funny tale of monstrous fleas; “Screaming Elk, MT” by Laird Barron feels like a pulp action-horror romp in the contemporary Robert E. Howard school.

The two stand out stories of the collection are “The Darkest Part” by Stephen Graham Jones and “Skullpocket” by Nathan Ballingrud, both for very different reasons. Jones’ work is the only truly terrifying work in the collection; he forgoes all humor and pretense and goes straight for the jugular, capitalizing on fears of child abuse and molestation, torture, and clowns. It’s a story I read right before bed—and immediately regretted it. It also served to illustrate how the fear of clowns and the circus that many people suffer is completely underutilized in this collection. His story creeped me out in all the wrong ways.

“Skullpocket” uses horror tropes in new and interesting ways, following a cult priest and supernatural creatures as they reflect on their bizarre hybrid-town’s violent and compelling history. Out of all the stories in this collection, Ballingrud’s had the most behind it, implying a fantastic world of wonder and ruin beyond the scope of its too-few pages.

Nightmare Carnival comes recommended for these stories. Those looking to face their fear of clowns and the big top head-on, or those expecting a straight horror anthology, may be disappointed (with a few notable exceptions).

Then again, your mileage may vary—and the stories that work, well—they justify the price of admission. It’s the popcorn you pay for, but the peanut smell is free.

3 out of 5 Talking Balloon Animals

Indie Quickie: Into the Hive of Saarlathesh (Kindle Edition) by Johnny Toxin

Johnny Toxin, a self-published author and computer programmer, released his debut novel, Into the Hive of Saarlathesh at the beginning of 2014. The description of the book caught my eye – he specifically calls out David Wong, H.P. Lovecraft, and Neil Gaiman as influences.

Their work (especially Wong) is all over this book, so much so that it often feels like a tribute. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective. Although I haven’t read Toxin’s short fiction, it’s clear that he’s finding his voice as a long-form novel writer, and he’s channeling the influences of some great talents to help him get there.

Whether you’ll like this book or not depends on your taste for horror and comedy. Often, the book contains scenes that would belong in an early Kevin Smith movie – crude, with a parade of characters that are overly cynical and weird, and plenty of low-brow humor. Is that a negative criticism? That depends. Did you like Clerks or Mallrats? Picture those characters in a series of bizarre supernatural situations (ghosts, giant insects, conspiracies) and you’ll get an idea whether it’s for you or not.

There’s definitely enough weirdness in this book to make it stand out. Characters dressing up like Robin? Depressed ghosts? Action? Sure, that’s all in here. And it never takes itself too seriously.

Toxin has a flair for creativity, but sometimes the writing gets bogged down (several pages worth of character description in tell-not-show fashion tends to slow things down) and it’s hard to get a handle on where the narrative is heading, or how we’re supposed to view the main character. I found him to be completely unlikable early on.

Then again, I think that’s a totally reasonable response, and part of the pull of a niche product like this novel. Not everything is neat, clean, and conventional.

For fans of cynical horror comedy, this book is worth a look.