Book Review – The Coma by Alex Garland

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Psychological Horror / Suspense
Publication Date: July 7th, 2005
Publisher: Faber & Faber

“When we wake, we die.”

Give The Coma a second chance, if at first it seems unclear or confusing. This novel is one of the moody, enigmatic types that likes to be shy with its details on your initial read-through, which gain an eerier significance on a revisit. It’s like an abstract painting in every sense, building up its steady storm of colours with intentions both sinister and serene.

Told through the deterioration of a man, Carl’s, psyche, after he is beaten to the point of unconsciousness on the subway, it’s less a linear story than it is a dreamlike exploration. In the aftermath of supposedly waking up, the pieces of reality that were once there don’t fit cleanly together anymore.

Maybe I’ve made it sound pretentious (a bad habit of mine when it comes to poetic books) but surprisingly, it’s not. Not even remotely. It’s just difficult to put into words. I read this a few years ago and wasn’t quite sure if I enjoyed it or not. I didn’t feel like I’d wasted my time, and remember thinking it was ambitious, but perplexing. I didn’t get it, but it haunted me. Now I think it’s actually a brilliant psychological novella. A philosophy of dream to aspire to, that leaves you with a ravenous need to know, while allowing the reader freedom to come to their own conclusions about what happens.

The Coma kind of hooks you in without your say-so, Garland’s abstract writing always skirting the bare edge of creepiness, like there’s some cosmic, horrifying realization budding under the surface that you know you’re going to have to face.

“I do all this alone. Everything I achieve, I achieve alone, because it’s my head I’m locked into, and I share this space with nobody but myself.”

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Poem – “Heart in the Catacombs”

Heart in the Catacombs

Heart in the catacombs, in the valve
A facsimile of the orchard, necrotic
Digital memory of a lifetime, corrupted
Suspended in its nightmare, evolving
In the dark fog, in the core of a plastic apple
Heart in the catacombs, in the valve
In the wishing well of the blue-eyed devil

Copyright ©2019 S. M. Shuford
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Psychological Novels You Should Read

Psychological thriller and its fraternal twin, psychological horror, are hands-down, my favourite genres. It’s the genre I strive to carve my name in, and it’s the one I get the most excited about when seeking new books and movies.
While few and far-between, compared to other genres, the spectrum of dark psychological fiction consistently churns out works of pretty high quality. There are exceptions, of course, but of all the psychological media I’ve watched, read and played, I can’t name ten that were any worse than “mediocre”.

That being said, I believe that the key reason for this, unfortunately, is that the genre is somewhat alienating. You have to be passionate about it to make it, and creating a good psychological work involves an exploration of dark places in the human psyche. Not exactly a fun weekend trip, that. Discovering new works in the genre can be difficult. So, I thought I’d share a handful of diamonds in the rough that I’ve discovered, and loved, in my eternal quest to scour everything the psychological duo have to offer.

The Coma by Alex Garland
Genre: Psychological Suspense
The Coma is like a softer, more sinister Inception, taking place in the mind of a man after he is assaulted on a subway, and wakes in the hospital to find he can no longer hold a grasp on what is real and what isn’t. Everything that was once normal in his life seems out-of-place and has a surreal, stilted tone to it.
I finished this novel over a weekend, and at first wasn’t sure what to make of it, or even if I enjoyed it, but in retrospect, I think it’s excellent. Garland conveys a transfinite reality that can be broken and morphed at will by one person’s subconscious.

Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi
Genre: Psychological Horror
Though its place on the roster shifts now and then, Perfect Blue is one of my favourite novels of all time and will likely remain one forever. It is, as you might have guessed, the basis for the cult horror anime Perfect Blue, but despite that and sharing a title, the film and the book aren’t incredibly similar other than the basic premise, and the creators’ shared disgust with the pop idol industry in Japan, and how those idols are (mis)treated by media and fans alike.
The master of creeps, the unnamed “Darling Rose”, who stalks and attempts to murder the pop singer heroine throughout the novel, is one of my favourite book villains. He is borderline inhuman, yet with an uncanny basis in reality, mirroring the crimes and motives of many real-life celebrity stalkers. Perfect Blue is not for everyone – some may be turned off by the blunt violence and abstract style, but I personally think it’s phenomenal both as a social satire and as a piece of horror. Continue reading “Psychological Novels You Should Read”

Price Drop – Dark Poetry on Kindle

ChapbookAbsHeav(Ebook)

The Kindle edition of Absolute Heaven has dropped, permanently, from $2.99 to $1.50 (USD)! The price drop is worldwide, so if you picked up the rest of my poetry collection, which is still largely free, by the way, if this is your first time hearing of it, here’s your chance to get this massive volume of cut, altered and early material from it for quite a bit cheaper. I’ve had some minor publication troubles with the paperback and ePub versions of the next book, so maybe this will make up for it in the meantime!
Absolute Heaven is a considerable volume with lots of illustrations, horror and offbeat philosophy, so if experimental works are your kind of thing, can’t hurt to give it a try. 🙂

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Lovecraft Reviews – “Hypnos”

Hypnos – ★★★ 3.5 Stars

Written: Spring 1922

“Death is merciful, for there is no return therefrom, but with him who has come back out of the nethermost chambers of night, haggard and knowing, peace rests nevermore.”

Is it dream that dictates the grey boundary between real and false, blurring and steeling the line at will? Is reality so murky, so mutable that it all might as well be delusion?
Hypnos, if you’ll recall, was the brother of Thanatos, after all. Dream, always so close to death.

This short is about a man who has an encounter with the god of dreams himself in a station, and finds he has something inexplicable in common, maybe a need for escape. They go to the man’s house and begin an opium-fueled trip that turns from a burst of creativity into a reality-warping nightmare, and possibly goes on for several years.

“Hypnos” is tilted more towards psychological horror than cosmic horror, even though Lovecraft uses the same kind of imagery he does in those stories. It’s a familiar paranoia, that sense of dread and conspiracy that spawns out of the blue, forcing you to question what’s real when it’s impossible to ever be one-hundred-percent sure. A vivid nightmare or a fever dream can do as much damage as opium, if not a little more because it’s a raw product of your imagination. When the man in the story sobers up, he is suddenly white-haired and elderly, and his friend has abandoned him. No one he asks believes that Hypnos was ever there at all.

I’m curious if this story wasn’t at least a partial inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. The way Hypnos is described – gaunt, with ghostly pale skin and depthless black eyes, dressed in a black robe – sounds an awful lot like Dream. Kind of a neat coincidence, if not, though I wouldn’t be surprised, since The Sandman uses a lot of Lovecraftian themes.

MHz Comes Out August 7th

ChapbookCoverMHz(Ebook)

At long last. This chapbook was supposed to be out at the end of June, but suffered several delays due to a variety of pop-up annoyances and not having time to get the layout finished. Strangely, this happened last year as well with its previous incarnation. I should treat MHz better than that, as I actually adore these poems. This fourth entry is probably my favourite besides Infinite Summer.

The surreal themes of paranoia and delusion will probably make it less accessible than the others, I suppose, but do make it one of a kind. I get frustrated with the trend of modern poetry to be “relatable” at the cost of all else. Do you really want endless reflections on the misery of modern life? Because that’s what “relatable” ultimately boils down to, at least in my experience, and I’ve already done several books like that. This one is more for the imagery. Anyway, I hope you look forward to it. I’ll post the moment it’s up for download.

Infinite Summer – Free for Kindle and ePub

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For the time being, Infinite Summer is free in most regions for Kindle and all regions in ePub, as are the two previous entries in the S.M. Shuford Poetry Collection. However, if you want a print copy, a brand-new ones is around $6USD.
I feel I haven’t done Infinite Summer enough justice as its author, even though from an technical, can’t-really-judge-my-own-work standpoint, it’s arguably the best one that’s been published so far, save for maybe Loverboy. The promotion that went into it in both of its incarnations has been lackluster, which I’m trying to make up for now.
Anyway, feel free to check it and the other books in the series out if poetry interests you. There’s a little something for everyone’s tastes in my ever-growing library.

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“Sunshine Weeping Demon” Featured in RPB

Avant-garde magazine Radium Piano Band is back after a brief hiatus, and was kind enough to feature two new poems of mine – “Sunshine Weeping Demon” and “Rose and Thrombus”. These appear in my chapbooks MHz and Infinite Summer as well. A neat little fact about these two poems is that they were both inspired, in an abstract sense, by the creative work of two different horror-film directors – Dario Argento and Shinya Tsukamoto. It might show, it might not.
This issue is a very strong one, and I especially love the first poem, “The House of Blue Lights” by Lee Ballentine. Check it out! 🙂

Radium Piano Band – Issue #15
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The Best Books of 2019 (So Far)

On this day, more of this year is now dead than alive. Normally I cling to time like a miser clings to pocket change, but I will be happy when this year’s over. Not merely happy, but elated. 2019 has worked its way into the official hall of shame in my memories, slightly higher than middle school but slightly lower than the entirety of 2016. And there’s still five long months to suffer through!

One of the few upsides, however, is that I’ve discovered some truly wonderful books. Most of my reading this year has been average, as usual, with only a handful of ones I would call “bad” reads, and a surprising amount that really stood out. So far, these are the best contenders, in no particular order, for the final countdown I’ll be doing around the end of the year. Be sure to check them out if you can. These are books and authors definitely worth their salt!

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette
Genre: Mystery / Thriller
Every now and then, the stars align and produce the exact book you desire at the exact moment you want to read it. This is one of those rare occurrences. The Mad and the Bad is an older, and comparatively obscure piece of noir fiction that is at the same time, far different from any noir fiction I’ve ever read – quirky and outlandish yet with an insanely dark sense of humor and irony. I plan on doing a review of this one eventually, so won’t spoil too much. You should just go out and read it, it shouldn’t take more than a few days to finish it.

Stain by A.G. Howard
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Young adult fiction needs more writers like A.G. Howard. Her writing style is unabashed and intelligent, and wickedly contorts the over-used tropes of fairytales into something brilliant. While I thought Howard’s more famous series, Splintered, was phenomenal, Stain shows a stronger sense of mischievous, calculating cunning and maturity in its development that ultimately made for a deeper story.

Smashed by Junji Ito
Genre: Horror / Short Stories
I am a hardcore Junji Ito fanatic, so pretty much any new work of his, even if it’s a stylish reprint of older stories, will automatically make the Top 10 for that year. Smashed got mixed reviews for being, I suppose, more haphazard in tone than his last two horror omnibuses, but as far as enjoyment of the stories goes, I actually liked this one more than both Shiver and Frankenstein. Continue reading “The Best Books of 2019 (So Far)”

Reviews Revisited – I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Horror / Mystery
Series: John Cleaver
Publication Date: March 30th, 2009
Publisher: Tor Books

“Fear is about things you can’t control. The future or the dark, or someone trying to kill you. You don’t get scared of yourself because you always know what you’re going to do.”

Dan Wells’s debut is an unusual witches’ brew of dark humor, cerebral horror and bleak small-town life. The writing has jagged edges in its beginnings, but I have yet to find another series that I love with so little wavering. This is one of those rarities where I feel it was written specifically for me, with everything I knew and didn’t know I sought in a novel.

Me and this series are like connate flowers. However, John Cleaver really schemed and staked his way into my heart, and was cemented as an instant perma-favourite series to me with the second book, Mr. Monster. I Am Not a Serial Killer suffers from initial uneasiness as Wells gets on his feet with the series, and sudden doses of genre whiplash. The first novel pools its arachnoid feet into many genres, but gives off a flighty self-consciousness about taking the leap from a mystery with paranormal aspects into straight-out horror, which it definitely becomes by the second book. This was the only trait it had I didn’t care for, and I still don’t upon revisits, but the unsure tone actually fits when the main character’s chaos of self. John is never sure what he wants to be.

John “It Doesn’t Matter What Other People Think When You’re Right” Cleaver is a bitter, anxious, antisocial teen with hair-trigger violent tendencies that he struggles to keep from unraveling on those who don’t deserve his wrath, whether it be his mother or his friends. He is pulled between crushing loneliness and craving nothing more than being alone, something that reflected painfully when I first read it. His discussions with his therapist, Dr. Neblin, devolve from him not taking them seriously and trying to freak the doctor out, into panic and emotional decay from trying to hold up the façade of being “normal” and never showing anger, out of fear of what he’ll end up doing.

“I’m on the edge, Neblin, I’m off the edge – I’m over the edge and falling to Hell on the other side. […] I’m down in the cracks of the sidewalk,” I said, “in the dirt and in the blood, and the ants are looking up and we’re damning you all, Neblin. I’m down in the cracks and I can’t get out.” Continue reading “Reviews Revisited – I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells”

Top 10 Scariest Stories to Tell in the Dark (Pt. 2)

Sorry for the delay between this and Part One, which began the countdown of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark I find to be the most unnerving, gruesome and haunting of them all, in light of the upcoming film adaptation. Please read Part One first if you haven’t already, and take into context that these are plucked from the original, beloved Schwartz and Gammell books, not any of the alternate reprints. Gammell’s illustrations (and a decent dose of nostalgia) have a massive effect on the creep factor that is absent from the Helquist-illustrated version.

5. Oh, Susanna! from Book 2
The story itself is disconcerting enough, being about a serial killer who sneaks into a student’s dorm and beheads her roommate while she’s trying to sleep, but the illustration for this is so abstract and bleak and “WTF” that it unintentionally makes it far more nightmarish. It depicts, at least in my personal interpretation, the killer as a skeletal beast severing the head of Susannah, the roommate, which carries the protagonist off into the abyss of horrific realization.
While it does it through grotesque methods, “Oh, Susanna!” is a great point to bring up when discussing cerebral depth in children’s books. This drawing made my imagination go insane and back around again, trying to determine what it meant.

Image result for oh susanna scary stories

4. Harold from Book 3
“Harold” is the darling of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and features on most of the new film’s promotional art. Scarecrows are not fundamentally scary. They are big, stuffed dolls with silly faces and button eyes. But that unchanging expression would be disturbing if say, you abused a scarecrow for kicks and it learned how to move like a person just to spite you. And it only gets worse. I won’t spoil this one because the ending is brutal. Most of the Scary Stories library, as far as the actual plots go, would not be upsetting to an adult, but I think this is one of the exceptions. Continue reading “Top 10 Scariest Stories to Tell in the Dark (Pt. 2)”

Poem – “Don’t Dream”

Don’t Dream

Better never to fear the abyssal and endless
Better to witness darkness than what it hides
Don’t dream, don’t sleep, don’t awaken
And you’ll never have to face seeing it
To speak in your head catches its attention,
To hear what it craves is to succumb to madness
Better never to fear the cloak that veils it

Copyright ©2019 S. M. Shuford
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Top 10 Scariest Stories to Tell in the Dark (Pt. 1)

Image result for scary stories to tell in the dark illustrations

A few days ago, I wrote some meandering thoughts on the upcoming Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film adaptation, which I’m simultaneously uneasy and excited about, so I thought for the fun of it, I’d do a countdown of my favourites from the classic children’s trilogy. This book series, as I’ve noted, is vital in forming my love of the horror genre. It’s about as important to me as one of my own creations.

These are loosely rated from tamest to scariest. What I found unnerving could easily not be to somebody else, however. I personally find ones with human, or once-human, perpetrators to be the most memorable, rather than the more supernatural shorts. Each of the three books has its own signature “feel” as well, which affected my ratings. Whereas the second book is about human evils and the third about paranormal, cosmic horrors, the first book is more lighthearted campfire horror and hence, fewer stories from it made this list, though I would call it equally as enjoyable as its sequels.

10. Such Things Happen from Book 3
The fear of witchcraft is heavily ingrained in American folklore. In my speculation, it’s a combination of the young country’s large expanses of isolation, which can lead to seeing things that aren’t easily explained, and America’s staunch religious background. Its root is a fear of becoming cursed or damned, and that fear is portrayed with eerie accuracy in this story about a man who accidentally earns the hate of a supposed witch by running over her cat. “Such Things Happen” doesn’t get mentioned enough, as it’s more on the psychological edge and it’s possible there’s nothing paranormal in this story.

9. The Window from Book 2
A woman wakes up late in the night to find a golden-eyed corpse staring in her window. She makes the mistake of running and it attacks her. The woman and her brothers discover that it’s a vampire ravaging fresh crypts in the graveyard and bleeding the living who are unlucky enough to be in its path. What makes this story haunting is the sheer anxiety of looking out the window at night. What would you do if you saw something that wasn’t exactly human anymore?

8. One Sunday Morning from Book 2
“One Sunday Morning” is an extremely short story about a woman who arrives at her church early to find she has intruded on a sermon for the dead, but all you need to care about is this illustration, and where it will show itself in your nightmares tonight.

Related image Continue reading “Top 10 Scariest Stories to Tell in the Dark (Pt. 1)”

Thoughts on the Scary Stories Movie

The new Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film has broken my personal record for being the third book-to-film adaptation I’ve ever actually been hyped for. I mean, this means as much to me as a film adaptation of my own books would. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, if you’re not familiar, are a trilogy of books by folklorist Alvin Schwartz and artist Stephen Gammell. Its legacy is being one of the most banned and challenged children’s series in recent history, compiling folklore, ghost stories and urban legends and retelling them in a nightmarish and surreal tone.

Scary Stories has been challenged by a number of American and international school boards for its raw and unrelenting depictions of cannibalism, black magic, violence, death and the undead. The Grimms could get away with it but Schwartz and Gammell couldn’t, the reason being that there’s something these books have that the Grimms didn’t… and that’s the signature artwork.

The disturbing artwork is the primary reason it was banned. Gammell’s work is stunningly beautiful from a technical perspective, but often featured grotesque, deformed humanoid monsters and scenes of surreal horror that were difficult to describe even as an adult. Obviously, they gave a number of children unlikely and specific phobias, but that hardly stopped them from loving the series.
There exists an alternate version with more subdued artwork by Brett Helquist that is largely, and unfairly, disliked by fans. Brett Helquist is a great artist, but his style is not the most suited to this collection, in my opinion. I feel the artist caught an unwarranted amount of hell for his work on the rerelease, seeing as Helquist was just doing his job, and his illustrations were good. They just weren’t Gammell’s.

Stephen Gammell’s notorious illustrations are one of the driving forces behind my desire to create. I had and have never seen anything vaguely akin to his style. It can’t be replicated, by anyone who retains their sanity, at least. Something interesting is that Gammell is quoted as being bemused that so many children found the illustrations scary, believing they were far too unrealistic to creep anyone out. About that…

Image result for scary stories to tell in the dark art

When I heard that the plot of the upcoming film, which comes out in August, would involve teenagers in a haunted house, I was devastated… I thought, oh God, they’ve turned my beloved into another cheese-laden summer slasher movie… but I was relieved quite a lot when I saw who the directors were and the monsters’ visual appeal in the trailers. I was severely anxious for a minute there. My reaction was about to become a horror story of its own, but I’m less doubtful now. Continue reading “Thoughts on the Scary Stories Movie”

Writing Progress – Project Gluttony

This is by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to write. The apt name Project Gluttony is a working title for a horror novel which will be part of a heptalogy loosely correlated to the seven deadly sins. It’s not exactly a series, but I’m treating it like one for the sake of progress. The books are barely related to each other, and might not even have the same publisher.
I feel like Gluttony will not be the most difficult of the seven, but it’s veering damn close, so perhaps it is better I’m getting it over with this year. Project Gluttony and Project Envy are the most pressing because they are the most developed – Envy has been much easier, since it’s basically a full-length adaptation of a short story I’d already written. (It wasn’t so short either, topping out at about forty pages.) Envy is also nearing completion, which means I’m allowed to take a break on it.

Gluttony, however, deals with more tender subjects that I have to be more careful with handling – namely abuse based in religion, and it is for the most part completely freestyle, since only a half-draft of the first two chapters existed, and I’ve since had to rewrite from scratch because they were terrible. I originally began the novel for an open call for pieces of horror fiction, which I’ve since forgotten the initial point of and is possibly long over. Continue reading “Writing Progress – Project Gluttony”

Writing Progress – Seven Sins Heptalogy

My book blogging unrelated to my own work is going on a soft hiatus throughout the summer. Reviews won’t halt, just slow to a crawl because this project will and is starting to eat up my already scarce reading time. Due to recent unforeseen upheavals in my life and this heptalogy, I won’t have as much opportunity to curtail the reviews, and would rather not update than risk posting something that was notably low-quality. Not a huge deal, this is just so you won’t be surprised when there’s more list reviews and re-reviews than previously unexplored books.

Anyway, what the seven sins heptalogy is, is not exactly a “series”. It is seven books that are tenuously related at best – I think some might be set in the same universe but with little-to-no overlap in settings and characters – but are labelled by their general theme. Project Envy, Project Gluttony, etcetera.

I have a lot of difficulty focusing on specific projects to finish, so decided to pull ten major ones that I cared about most from my list and complete them all before I allow myself to start anything new. I figure that if I can finish these works of fiction, I will be able to consider myself a true success as a writer, even if they don’t come out immediately after they’re done. Future works will flow out with far less distress. Continue reading “Writing Progress – Seven Sins Heptalogy”

✨Infinite Summer is Free on Kindle!✨

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I believe nearly the entire Poetry Collection is effectively free in all of its digital forms, except for the omnibus of art and cut materials that is Book Zero. This particular entry is loosely themed around fairytale horrors and romances.
This giveaway, like the others, is indefinitely permanent, because it’s my personal motto that poetry is the one genre that should not be barred behind hefty prices. If it’s in my control, at least, which most of it is. By its nature, poetry is intended to be shared among others. It and the rest of the series is available on Kindle, but the first three are also in ePub and PDF formats on Smashwords, Kobo, and other major sellers worldwide. Enjoy!

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✨Blood Ballet is Free on Kindle!✨

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Forever and ever and ever, so feel free to pick one up if it interests you! Blood Ballet is a compilation of horror poems with themes of feminism and body horror. It’s also available in ePub and PDF through Smashwords, Kobo, and the other major retailers. In a bit of other news, I’ve had to delay the next few entries in the series, Book 4 to June 16 and Books 5 and 6 to next year, to focus on more important work, so this should make up for it! Enjoy! If you read it, you’re welcome to let me know what you thought. 🙂

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Featured Releases

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These are the first four entries in my ongoing poetry saga. As always, eBook versions are $3USD or less – several are free, including a PDF version for those without eBook readers. These are available from Smashwords, Amazon, Kobo, Apple Books, and others, and all have a print edition for sale. Feel free to add them to Goodreads if you have an interest in reviewing one later. These make up books zero-through-three and the fourth and fifth should be out this June.

Absolute Heaven Blurb: Absolute Heaven is an omnibus of poems that capture the darkness which hides deep in the mind. Devilishly blurring the lines between romantic hatred and grotesque love, Absolute Heaven is a work of raw emotion, blood and nightmare that spans all genres of horror. Not for the faint of soul or the weak at heart.”

Cosmic Love Blurb: Solemn and dreamlike, Cosmic Love paints a vivid image of love and hurt in the wake of an unknowable future. An infusion of science and magic, heart and mind, this poetry collection rains down its verses like stars. Cosmic Love is nothing short of inspiring with its dark, imaginative romances.

Blood Ballet Blurb: Straight from the dark side of the female experience, this collection is a theatre of blood sprouted from an embryo of prejudice, injustice and mental illness. The poems in Blood Ballet may wear a violent mask, but their core holds a thousand years of women’s heartbreak and pain. Blood Ballet is a social and psychological horror story of murders, witch hunts, self-harm and nightmares – a hidden history brought to the open in honor of those who have had to suffer it in silence.

Infinite Summer Blurb: Infinite Summer is spun with a love that peaks and dies like the sun. Inspired by the dual nature of fairytales, this collection of poems is heavy with magic, ghosts, and memories lost to the golden enchantments of a summer’s day. Infinite Summer is in equal parts haunting and charming, a macabre kind of romance that only an imp’s curse could bring about.