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

Bunny, by Mona Awad

My name is Octoclot, and I read literary fiction. I read more literary fiction than genre fiction. I’m a snob and I’m not sorry. That said, there’s nothing better than sinking my tentacles into the juicy unicorn that is the literary genre novel, and Bunny fits that bill perfectly.

I’d read Awad’s previous novel, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, and didn’t much like it. So I wouldn’t have read Bunny if I hadn’t attended a reading and fallen in love with Awad’s voice. Seriously smooth. I’d also recently read The Secret History (yes, I’m late to most parties), and the parallels intrigued me. I mean, Bunny.

Samantha is a scholarship student enrolled in a creative writing program at an elite liberal arts university (shades of Tartt and Ellis). Desperately poor and lonely, she’s recruited into a cult of beautiful women in her workshop that dress like little girls, eat miniature food, hug for hours, braid each other’s hair, and call each other Bunny.

Naturally, a cruel obsession lurks beneath the glossy cupcake frosting. In an MFA program fixated on the concept of ‘the body’, deconstructing it in their workshop to the point of meaninglessness, the Bunnies have summoned the power to create life, to create a boy, from a bunny. Though not exactly boys, they’re rough work, malformed drafts. Built to serve until required to ponder a sense of self and then they unravel (or explode, in the more gruesome scenes). They seem to think that Samantha, their unrefined, emotionally wooden newbie, has what it takes to do better, to create a real boy.

In this bizarre story described as The Secret History meets Mean Girls, the juxtaposition of the saccharine with the sinister evokes a dreamlike dread that’s hard to shake. Samantha is more disturbed that you think. The Bunnies, more hollow. The drafts, more calamitous. Make no mistake, this is a horror novel, an erotic horror novel, masquerading as literary fiction.

One of my favourite things about Bunny is the mythic references. We’ve got swans, lambs, wolves, and rabbits. The best part is the complete lack of subtlety. I mean, they go to Warren College for Christ’s sake, and there is almost literally a big bad wolf. Lit fic values nothing so much as metaphorical murk and obfuscation, and to see it explicitly splashed across the page in such an outsized way is terrifically fun. She also refers to poets as Lizard People. Seriously Mona, I feel seen.

And the end, oh the end! No spoilers, but the climax bricked me right in the heart. Let’s just say there are worse things than someone you love dying. And the more beautiful the lie, the more tragic the truth.

For this reader, Bunny was not about mean girls. Or classism. Or the ridiculousness of MFA culture. It’s about desire and loneliness, and the lengths we’ll go just to be loved. Without sentimentality, Awad suggests that perhaps that’s all we’re made for.

5/5

The Arby’s S’mores Milkshake Experience

Sometimes Lola Silkysocks wants to go where nobody knows her name and the feature milkshake is orange. Where Picasso prints line the walls, an annoyed shift worker slouches behind the counter, and the place is usually a graveyard. Until it’s not.

After the Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich catastrophe, I’d learned my lesson to not experiment at Arby’s, to just order my goddamn beef n’ cheddar and enjoy the fuck out of it under the sallow cubist gaze of the deserted dining room.

I do not peruse the menu. I know what I want. Noggy and I place our orders. The bored cashier asks if there’s anything else. I swear it’s another voice coming out of my mouth.

“I’ll have a S’mores Milkshake.”

As you may or may not know, Noggy has two glares. There’s affectionate exasperation or I suffer you to live, and they’re functionally identical. Though after the way I carried on about the buttered steak, you can guess which one this was.

How to describe the S’mores Milkshake? It makes you wonder things you never wondered before, like, “What are marshmallows supposed to taste like?” When a marshmallow forward milkshake prompts this question, you know you’re in shark infested waters and Terry is about to offer you a shrimp.

I slurp some more. There are chunks. I’m 60% sure they’re graham crackers. A vague thrill of chocolate runs through the whole business, though little more than it takes to lull you into a false sense of trust.

Meanwhile people are wandering into Arby’s by the dozen. Boomers ordering coffee, bougie boxing week shoppers, a mom berating her small child like she’s his parole officer. Arby’s employees leap into unprecedented levels of animation. The meat trays empty and full baskets of curly fries sizzle in their vats. Metaphysical laws are being broken. This is Arby’s. The very gates of Purgatory. No one comes here intentionally. But it is the season for Deadly Sins, and I’m heavily distracted by this confusing confection that is the S’mores Milkshake.

Eventually it had to happen. “Hey Nog, try this.”

In my defense, he didn’t have to drink the whole thing. But he did, and he can tell you the rest…

It should be obvious, if you’ve been paying attention, that Lola has this thing about trying ‘new’ and ‘possibly interesting’ items on the menu at our vintage Picasso adorned local Arby’s. Undeterred by the nightmare that was the Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich, and ravenous after running for thirty days straight, she swore they couldn’t possibly fuck up a milkshake.

Yeah.

I should have known something was up when Lola had a couple sips, pushed it across the table, and said “Try this.” She had that look in her eye. That glazed look. The kind you get when you’re teetering on the edge of a coma. And it wasn’t so much an offering, as a challenge. Sadly, I can’t resist a challenge, or any eatable substance jammed in my face.

Well, I’m going to come right out and say it. It’s not that it’s… bad. And not that it’s… good. It’s just… sickly sweet. Like you used a Christmas elf to clean your teeth with and then washed it down with liquid marshmallow juice. While it does taste vaguely S’more’ish (as any combination of graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow tends to) it’s a pale imitation of the actual heavenly camping staple.

Regrets? So many. Within minutes, my stomach began to gurgle. Within an hour, I was little more than a perturbed sea cucumber, nastily expelling both my stomach and twenty feet of large intestine, while hastily scrawling my last will and testament on three sheets of toilet paper I couldn’t actually spare.

Will I drink it again? Uncertain. I guess that depends on if she thrusts it in my face next year.

Noggy and Lola went back and forth on a flame rating and ultimately split the difference between the not totally terrible flavour profile and post-shake warp core ejection.

2/5