If It Bleeds by Stephen King

“AMAZING!” ~ slavish fan

“King at his best.” ~ slavish reviewer

“Loved! But the cover sucks.” ~ some dork from goodreads

Before you get mad, I’m not here to drag the King. I read almost everything he wrote up until 2010-ish. Needful Things, Pet Sematery, and Different Seasons are among some of my rare re-reads. I’m possibly the only person out there that really loved Duma Key. And King writes some of the greatest short stories and novellas out there. Apt Pupil is relentless horror on so many levels. The Road Virus Heads North is a master class in punishing suspense in the short form.

But he’s not incapable of mediocrity. Cell, anyone? He’s also a frequent idiot on Twitter, but whatever. Boomers gonna boom. Never meet your heroes. (Also, I haven’t read any of The Dark Tower books. Shut up, I don’t care.)

Now for the review! I picked up If It Bleeds because of the clever cover. I like animals all up in each other. It’s fun. Like the cat-rat version of turducken. Without the third thing. I don’t know what that would be. Maybe a fish or a lizard.

Now the review, for real this time. I was ready to settle into the comfy pair of slippers that is a Stephen King book and If It Bleeds did not disappoint. This book is very King-y. Four novellas containing all his greatest hits. Folksy olds. Poignant moments of loss. A child’s world existing just below the line of adult sight. And, of course, a struggling writer.

I’ll go through one at a time and give my thoughts.

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone

A ghost story for the digital age. Young boy earns a few bucks each week reading the newspaper to a retired finance industry titan. Eventually the old man dies, but not before the boy teaches him how to use an iPhone. Life goes on, but in some ways stays rooted in place where it begins to sicken and rot. It’s a story about grief. In a sense, all the novellas in this collection are about grief, but Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is the most explicit, and it sets the tone nicely. Also harkens back to the advent of the smart phone with a certain nostalgia and horror. This story felt the most fully realized of the four, but the novelty of tech doesn’t make it a novel King story. If an AI was programmed to generate Stephen King stories, this would be one of them.

The Life of Chuck

This one reads almost experimental, like a China Mieville novel. Told in three acts in reverse order, or from the inside out, or from the top down. I don’t know really. Chuck is born, he lives, he dies, and the world he carries within dies with him. I can’t say more than that without spoiling because this one isn’t a thriller chiller. It meanders, and does so delightfully. As a whole the story doesn’t quite take shape the way you sense King wants it to, but that’s why it’s my favourite of the four. It takes a risk and does something King doesn’t normally do. It surprised me.

If It Bleeds

You get the feeling the other stories are just blubber padding out the headliner. I didn’t read The Outsider. I hear it’s good. Maybe I should read it because this one was just okay for me. The premise is cool, a face shifting monster orchestrates a middle school bombing and Holly Gibney is on the case. This is what happens when an author loves his characters too much. This story is indulgent. King tries to get our hearts to bleed for Holly, but I didn’t feel it. She’s basically perfect with a few quirks. He loves her too much to give her actual flaws. It was a fun read, but nothing that resonated on the level I know King is capable of.

The Rat

I’m just going to say it. This story was some dumb shit. A recycled mish mash of Bag of Bones, 1408, and The Secret Window and probably any story where King is clearly writing some externalized version of himself. Writer is having trouble writing. Writer goes to cabin. Writer experiences a strange. Writer makes Bad Deal. Consequences. I kept waiting for King to subvert his own trope, but he doesn’t. If I had to guess, I’d say this was a trunk story he hauled out to meet a page count that would justify a $38 hardcover.

Overall, I enjoyed this collection, and with the exception of The Rat the stories were entertaining. The Life of Chuck was nearly brilliant, and I give King credit for taking that risk, considering the rest of the stories play it incredibly safe. Maybe the cover says it all? We’ve got the cat and mouse (or rat), which is clever if familiar. What’s missing is the third ingredient that surprises and makes the whole thing memorable. If It Bleeds is not bad, Constant Reader, but it’s no turducken.

3/5

Unnerving Magazine Issue #12 – Eddie Generous

All things change. Some frequently, some not, but it’s good to shake it up once and awhile, see where it takes you. With this latest issue, at the solid dozen mark, Unnerving Magazine does just that. Beyond dark tales of horror and accompanying non-fiction articles and commentary, we’re now blessed with a wide variety of shiny new toys including columns and comics and interviews and book reviews. Let’s dig in, shall we.

Danger’s Failed Film Pitches: This issue has not one, but two hilarious bites of pure, unadulterated Danger Slater giving us a peek at what really goes on in the world of A-List movie pitching. A gift, really, perfect bookends.

First Horror Features: Richard Chizmar, Cat Rambo and Daniel Kraus dish on their earliest horror memories. It’s always cool to see what formative influences authors have.

Too Stubborn to Quit: Eddie has a new column providing hard-learned wisdom on all things writing related – starting with cold story openings. If you want to know how to hook a submissions editor when they’re plowing through an enormous slush pile, this one’s for you.

Cancer and Creativity: A great interview with William Meikle about getting his life and writing jump started after a battle with cancer. William is one of my Rob’s go-to authors for supernatural detectives and cosmic horror, so it’s great to hear that William’s come out on top of it all.

Reviews: A solid collection of novel and anthology reviews including The Skin Factory by Lucas Pederson, which we’re definitely going to be picking up after reading about it.

Jacques: A mini-comic by Eddie and TovanSakura. Not going to spoil it, but it made us laugh.


And some great fiction, of course. Here are some two sentence thoughts:

“Here There be Spyders” by Graham Watkins

Sometimes you have to face your greatest fear. And undoubtably devour it.

“Circle of Lias” by Lawrence C. Connolly

 Is there anything sweeter than a honey-bun? A box of honey-buns!

“It Gets Blacker” by H. Pueyo

And very dark. And deep. An excellent short piece that doesn’t involve eating, but that’s okay.

“Black Brothel: Haunted Holes” by Renee Miller

Well, there’s something strange about Mary. And while ravenous, we’re no longer at all hungry.

 “A Friend in Paga” by Brent Michael Kelley

We’d kill, or worse, for a solid night’s sleep. How about you?


So all in all an excellent refresh, well worth picking up for an extremely reasonable few bucks a year. And while you’re at it, check out the Unnerving Podcast and Unnerving’s fiction offerings.

5/5

About the Editor: Eddie Generous

Eddie Generous is the author of many books, including Savage Beasts of the Arctic Circle, Rawr, Radio Run, Great Big Teeth, and Trouble at Camp Still Waters from Severed Press, Plantation Pan from Omnium Gatherum Books, and numerous story collections. He is the founder/editor/publisher/artist behind Unnerving and Unnerving Magazine, and the host of the Unnerving Podcast. He was born in Ontario, Canada and now lives on the Pacific Coast of Canada with his wife and their cat overlords.

In Dreams We Rot – Betty Rocksteady

Wow! I feel like I’m a little late to the party on this one, but you know what, the collection is timeless so no matter. I’d seen it bouncing around on social media of course, but it wasn’t until I was catching up on Ink Heist and caught the episode from last November where Betty was talking to Rich about Boy Meets World of all things, that I decided I’d wasted enough time, so I picked it up and dove in.

And yes, wow. I love my horror… well, horrible. As horrible as possible. Full of eye twitching sex and crowbar to the head violence and those little edges that make you feel like having a shower if you didn’t know something wasn’t waiting behind the curtain to siphon out your brain through a straw and fry up your liver without proper medical credentials. Nothing wrong with psychological horror of course, but you can’t beat worrying that the concrete corner you’ve wedged yourself into might not be as impenetrable as you thought. These stories deliver that and more. Weird fucked up dreams, weirder fucked up sex, copious amounts of blood and pretty much every sort of bodily fluid pooling around bits of furry chunks both real and imaginary.

Also, cats.

Cats, as any cat lover knows, are sinister. Alien. Predatorial. Biding their time while plotting world domination. And there’s a ton of cats in these stories. And bones. And art. Betty’s a fantastic artist and obviously had a lot of fun with it, though I’ll probably never look at elephants the same way ever again. So, pretty much perfect.

My favourites? I’m going to with These Beautiful Bones, where basement art takes on a sex life of its own, Root Rot where yeah, we’ve all had a bad hookup, but not THIS bad, Postpartum… having recently visited the Torrington Gopher Hole museum where they exhibit stuffed gophers in domestic environments I totally both get it and am scared shitless, and Larva, Pupa, Moth, where next time you think about scratching that itch, bring a hammer.

So if you haven’t picked it up, brave the quarantine apocalypse and hit your local indie bookstore, curl up under a monster proof blanket in front of a chimney searing fire with your cat, and prepare to be terrified.

5/5

About the Author: Betty Rocksteady

Betty Rocksteady writes cosmic sex horror, cat mythos, and surreal, claustrophobic nightmares.

Her debut novella Arachnophile was part of Eraserhead Press New Bizarro Author Series 2015. Like Jagged Teeth and The Writhing Skies were released by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. The Writhing Skies was voted Novella of the Year by This Is Horror Awards 2018.

Publisher: Trepidatio Publishing

The Haemophiliac by Tania Donald

The shortest month of the year is Women in Horror Month, and I’d rather not waste time inking out a list of scary ladies that’s mostly all the scary ladies you already know and are maybe dead (to all the horror bros proud of having read Shirley Jackson and Charlotte Gilman, I see you, here’s your cookie). Instead I’ll turn my tentacles to the ones doing amazing work not many people are talking about. Octoclot asks so little of you, so consider this humble request. Read Tania Donald. Do it now.

The protagonist of this historical gothic novella is the young and vulnerable Fraulein Klein. A seamstress desperate to turn her life around and climb out of the pit of poverty. Desperate enough to take job as a governess at a remote estate in the Black Forest. One year. For a suspiciously outsized sum. One year and she can afford to start her life over and take back the baby daughter she was forced to give up. In Fraulein Klein, Donald shows us a heroine battered by life but with enough steel in her to keep trying, for good or ill.

On arrival Klein is greeted by a haggard housekeeper who remarks on Klein’s scrawny appearance and immediately insists on feeding her, though not in a particularly kindly way. As Klein eats her first hot meal in an age, the housekeeper sets out the rules. She must remain in the child’s room at all times. She must eschew color, especially red. She must never ever allow the child to handle anything sharp, like a pin or a needle as she’s a hemophiliac, and the slightest prick will have her bleeding to death, the fate that befell her twin sister.

This novella is the epitome of a slow burn, punctuated with increasingly hot flare ups. What I particularly appreciated was the skill with which Donald developed the deep inner life of her protagonist. Complex characterization is so often lacking in the horror genre, especially in short stories and novellas, but Donald nails it. She also takes the time to develop those elements that make a story resonate past the final page. Things like theme, subtext, and symbolism, all through carefully chosen language and structure. The writing is sophisticated which elevates The Haemophiliac, in my unapologetically snobby opinion, to the level of literary horror.

Nothing is what it seems in this web of white lace nestled in the Black Forest. This is not the story of a sick child, but a story of what we carry in our blood, a legacy of betrayal and deception, the twin curse of lust and hunger. Traps of our own weaving. You are what you are, and no matter where you go you cannot escape yourself.

4/5

The Broken Hours, by Jacqueline Baker

This historical novel is a ghost story set in a maze of nested aliases. At its core, it questions the concept of identity. Who are we? Does that change depending on who we’re with? Who are we when we’re alone?

Arthor Crandle is a man fallen on hard times, a grieving father with an estranged wife. He’s travelled to Providence, Rhode Island to take a position as a personal assistant to a reclusive writer, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Once installed in the house, supposedly shared with a few other mystery tenants, he is consumed by the mystery of his employer’s past and drawn to the gregarious young actress living in the apartment downstairs.

In the well-established Lovecraftian tradition, Baker’s narrative is suffused with a gloomy nihilistic dread. Set in Spring – my least favourite season, muddy and cold – it rains constantly, the ocean is a repulsive set piece reeking of sewage, and the people are dour and suspicious. One gets the impression that nothing in this story will end far from where it started, and even if it did, nothing much will change as a result, because we are simply too insignificant to move that cosmic needle.

Arthor goes about his work, maintaining the household, transcribing handwritten manuscript pages, and communicating with H.P. primarily through letters. All the while Crandle is unravelling, seeing a ghostly little girl in the garden at night, hearing screams from the study, and encountering an oppressive malevolence stalking the halls. His one source of solace in a storm of confusion and despair is Flossie, the actress, though she too grows more and more insubstantial as the days press on.

It all comes back to the names, the aliases. Baker skillfully uses names as metaphor for the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. Who are you? Using beautiful language and clever subtext, she builds a new mythology around an already somewhat mythical figure, and slowly, mercilessly, strips it away.

4/5

The Nightshade Cabal

Strange things are afoot in 1880’s Halifax, the likes of which you’ve never seen. Isaac Barrow – full time technomancer and inventor, part time investigator, and, I think, aspiring curmudgeon (if he lives long enough) – is thrust head first into the thick of the action against the sinister necromantic Nightshade Cabal while searching for a missing young lady.

Isaac is a resourceful fellow, it must be said, clever yet fallible, with both old friends and new watching his back, but that might not be enough to see him through when his poking around dredges up enemies possibly higher than his pay grade. But that’s half the fun, seeing if he’s up to the challenge. The other half is, of course, immersing one’s self in a magical, steampunk infused Halifax. A place of light and darkness, shadow and intrigue.

A fabulous first novel for Chris, well worth picking up. And of course, be sure to check out a pair of short stories featuring our stalwart technomancer: “A Murder at Carleton House” in Enigma Front: Burnt (Analemma Books, August 2016) and “The Wolfville Horror” in in Enigma Front: The Monster Within (Analemma Books, August 2017).

I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Isaac Barrow, and for that I’m glad.

5/5

About the Author: Chris Patrick Carolan

Chris Patrick Carolan is an author, editor, and hovercraft enthusiast whose stories have appeared in the Enigma Front anthology series (Analemma Books, ExitZero Books), 49th Parallels: Alternative Canadian Histories and Futures (Bundoran Press), Baby, It’s Cold Outside (Coffin Hop Press), and Alchemy & Artifacts: Tesseracts 22 (EDGE Science Fiction).

Publisher: The Parliament House