Book Review – The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey

The Unstrung Harp

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Dark Comedy / Fiction
Publication Date: 1953 / 2000
Publisher: Bloomsbury

“Even more harrowing than the first chapters of a novel are the last, for Mr. Earbrass anyway. The characters have one and all become thoroughly tiresome, as though he had been trapped at the same party with them since the day before; neglected sections of the plot loom on every hand, waiting to be disposed of; his verbs seem to have withered away and his adjectives to be proliferating past control.”

As writers, our beloved craft is often the catalyst of our madness. Our novels drive us crazy. If only it were as simple as writing it down, but even that defies us sometimes. Our stories lurk around in our heads begging and nagging constantly to be written, but when we have the time and materials to do so, they latch their claws to the dark corners of our minds and refuse to come outside, no matter what we try to tempt them out with.

I’ve always gotten the feeling that people who don’t write have no way of understanding this difficulty, even if they read, and especially if they work in publishing. Publishers, ironically enough, seem to have a history of undervaluing and not understanding the very people who keep them in business. It’s cathartic to see the troubles of writing reflected in such a funny, charming book, with Gorey’s signature lovingly detailed, Victorian artwork. Though it can be a little bit depressing how close the trials of Mr. Earbrass and his weird novel that refuses to come out right are to reality.

The Unstrung Harp is a self-aware, very true-to-life portrait of the demon that is writer’s block, among other curses bestowed upon someone just because they were born with the urge to tell stories – pitiful publishers, peer envy, bad criticism, fake criticism, cruel deadlines, the whole gamut. One has to wonder if that’s what Gorey himself had gone through with his early books, and makes me thankful that the indie press has blossomed into what it is.

(Even if it comes with the downside of people trying to pass off shoddily copy-and-pasted Wikipedia articles as actual books.)

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My Favourite Horror Collections

Teatro GrottescoNothing Is StrangeSmashed: Junji Ito Story Collection

I’ve always considered horror one of the best and worst genres for short stories. When short horror works, it can breed one of the most haunting, terrifying things you’ve ever experienced. However, making it work is no easy feat. For every disturbing, unsettling piece you’ll find, there will be ten out there that just won’t do it for you. There is nothing that will disturb every reader, though it’s possible to come close, and if you don’t succeed in scaring them, there are still ways to entertain them.

These are my top ten, for the time being, favourite collections of horror stories. I love variety, so there’s a bit of each kind of horror here – dark fantasy, visual horror, bizarro, classic horror – you name it, you’ll find it somewhere on this list. Some aren’t necessarily meant to be straight horror, but have a significant horror flavour to them that I felt qualified them enough to make the list. These are in no particular order. As there were quite a few books, I might include some honorable mentions in a later post.

Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti
Genre: Horror / Dark Fantasy
I would feel confident calling Teatro Grottesco the best compilation of horror shorts I’ve ever read. It remains, several years after I first read it, one of the few books of the genre to legitimately unnerve me. Ligotti’s prose is sinister and elaborate, like a spiderweb with the remains of cocoons dangling through it, yet this book reads very easily. I’d honestly recommend any Ligotti collection, but this one in particular is truly flawless.

Smashed by Junji Ito
Genre: Horror / Science Fiction
I covered this one in-depth not too long ago, so check out my review if you want. Smashed did not get as good reviews as his other recent collections, but I personally like the surreal, cosmic tone of these stories, especially the title story. Who knew a fruit tree could be so terrifying?

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Horror
Arguably, Pretty Monsters is the most somber book on this list. The overall tone of this book is depressive and gothic, as if it’s being told by a series of ghosts who find the whole thing darkly amusing. You really don’t see enough young adult horror anyway, but especially not of this caliber. This is a book that will bury itself in your skull.

Nothing is Strange by Mike Russell
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Nothing is Strange I don’t think was actually intended to be frightening, but well… strange. It’s in the title. I did a review on this and its sequel collection, Strange Secrets, but both reviews need an upgrade. Nothing is Strange can be breezed through in a day or two, but you won’t want it to end. Russell’s ideas are so original and inventive, and the imagery is so perfectly bizarre that it’s difficult to step away from the world he’s created.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Trilogy by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell
Genre: Horror
An old childhood favourite that I’m still fond of. The illustrations are what it’s known for, I mean, just look them up if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Gammell’s drawings still have power and are unsettling to look at as an adult. The stories are fun, too, especially for the folklore aspect. Schwartz was a collector of traditional stories, folklore, and American myths, so his notes on the writing of the trilogy are also pretty fascinating.

Fragments of Horror by Junji Ito
Genre: Horror / Dark Comedy
I’ll probably do a full review on this one later in the month. It would be fitting for the season, yeah? Something I love about Ito is that he can take anything, no matter how small and innocuous, and turn it into something to fear. A phobia. A paranoia. Continue reading “My Favourite Horror Collections”

Haunt Me to Sleep Preview!

“Float far out into the Pacific. Follow its surface in any direction you want, whenever the anxiety gets to be overwhelming, whenever there is no treatment left for the black clot that forms a body-wide cancer. Adrift in the crystalline sea, you will come upon a cavern, whether you intend to or not.”

One of the prose pieces from the upcoming horror-dark fantasy collection Haunt Me to Sleep, “Grotto Siren”, was published in Radium Piano Band. You can read it for free at the link below. Haunt Me to Sleep is a mix of horror “atmospheres”, ranging from dark humor, to fairytale, to existential horror, to grotesque. It was difficult to place a specific sub-genre to its name.
I had originally intended for this book to come out around October 7th, but due to the massive rush on horror during that time, I’ve decided to move it closer to Halloween itself, when, believe it or not, fewer horror books are published. The final date for all versions, at least, will be between October 21st and November 9th, the ePub version coming out slightly later than the paperback and Kindle ones.

Radium Piano Band – Issue #17

Book Review – IC in a Sunflower by Mitsukazu Mihara

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Science Fiction / Short Stories
Publication Date: January 9th, 2007
Publisher: TokyoPop

Integrated Circuit in a Sunflower is an interesting title, in more than a linguistic sense. Mihara’s art is lovely, and the delicate sense of innocence it has purposefully works at odds with the cynical, morbid themes the stories explore – the ethics of cloning, dehumanization and abuse, quirks that develop into diseases. There’s not quite enough time given to any of the questions this manga tries to propose for it to brand itself in my mind, though. The stories operate like haiku, poetic yet sinister hints of a larger picture.

I liked most of the stories, particularly the title story and “Alive”, which is about human children being cloned to use as organ donors. Still, I had a similar issue as I did with Mihara’s Doll series, in that I appreciate the importance of what it’s trying to say, in regards to man’s relationship with technology, and how some aspects of scientific progress could easily benefit or corrupt human relationships, depending on the route taken to test them out, but it felt inexplicably dark-hearted and unclear.

This is not as bad for that as Doll was, but that disjointedness is still there and kind of mars my enjoyment of some honestly clever concepts. It’s difficult to explain and probably kind of petty, but it’s like the feeling of a sinking gut – uncomfortable, but in a sense that can’t be pinpointed. I suppose that means it succeeds at horror as well as it does sci-fi, but I’m not sure.

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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.

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)”

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)”

Lovecraft Reviews – “The Book” and “Memory”

The Book – ★★★ 3.5 Stars

Written: Autumn 1933

“For he who passes the gateway always wins a shadow, and never again can he be alone.”

The Necronomicon strikes again in its coat of human skin, to terrorize a poor stranger who happens to find it lying by a gutter. It’s interesting how throughout H.P. Lovecraft’s body of work, the book of curses manages to destroy reality in such a variety of different ways. In this incarnation, it wavers reality through its very fabric, and the narrator is stalked through the state of flux by a hoard of beings he cannot see.

Does “The Book” sounds familiar? That’s because it’s an apparently incomplete reimagining, or perhaps another version, of “The Festival”. The prose is tighter in this story, at least, and it has traces of that unusual dream-discomfort I love to see in horror and suspense, but this and “The Festival” are essentially the same plot with a different outcome. Reading a heavy dose of Lovecraft at once can, in fact, invoke a feeling of those “choose-your-own-adventure” books from the 90s.

The 1890s, that is.

Memory – ★★★ 3 Stars

Written: Spring 1919

“Memory” recalls a primordial past, a vein of previous selves that are perhaps better left behind. This free verse piece has the atmosphere of a sinister, dystopian Arabian Nights, but that’s really the only strength it has to tell, as it’s only three pages. I’ve always thought that Lovecraft was more cut out for poems and prose than storytelling, personally, though his creative ideas were psychedelic and grotesque, mostly in a good way.

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Book Review – Smashed by Junji Ito

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Horror / Short Stories
Publication Date: April 16th, 2019
Publisher: VIZ

An unabashed Itoholic, I’d already read most of these shorts years ago. To see them together in such a physically, artistically beautiful collection however, is much appreciated. Smashed is a peculiar mash-up of two or three previous books by Ito that never made it into English translation during their run, one being the infamous and beloved Yami no Koe, or Voices in the Dark. I noticed them blending books with their reprint of Ito’s Frankenstein last year. It is needlessly confusing, but hey, horror manga is actually starting to be taken seriously as an art now, thank the Great Old Ones, so I’m not complaining.

Smashed is admittedly not the strongest set of stories, I suppose, but this is the kind of Ito I like best. The stories that lurk here are eldritch and teeming with a preternatural urge for revenge, existing somewhere in-between visceral and psychological horror. They’re all at least decent story-wise and will give you a twisted sort of Stendhal Syndrome art-wise. I don’t ever find horror books that terrifying, so I can’t estimate a fair judgment of whether it might be to someone else or not, but Ito is always inventive, which is what I admire in the genre.

“Bloodsucking Darkness” –★★★★
A reverse vampire tale wherein someone drains their own blood to feed another who is starving. This is an unexpected and strange metaphor for eating disorders. It’s bittersweet and surprisingly in-tune with such a difficult topic, for what it is. “Bloodsucking Darkness” reminds me of another short, “Bio House”, except slightly more wholesome. Both have to do with a woman who finds herself drinking blood under unlikely circumstances.

“Ghosts of Prime Time” –★★★
Imagine being such a painfully unfunny comedian that you have to possess people into laughing at your jokes. “Ghosts of Prime Time” focuses on a comedienne duo who are that terrible, and kill their critics as well. Like many of these, this skirts the edge of social commentary but I have no idea what exactly it’s supposed to mean, if anything. It’s not particularly creepy but it is relatable.

“Roar” –★★★
This one is also not scary, however, the concept of a phantom flood which a living person can still drown in is really unique. This is a simple ghost story but thought-provoking in its own way. Continue reading “Book Review – Smashed by Junji Ito”

Book Review – Accents of Horror by Chris Snider

★★★★ 4 Stars

Full Title: Accents of Horror: Four Flavors of Death
Genre: Horror / Paranormal
Publication Date: September 15th, 2013
Publisher: Independent

“Who else knows you better than yourself? You know all of your secrets.”

Accents of Horror is a four-act theatre of dark deeds, revenge and restless phantoms. It’s a load of creepy, classic urban-legend fueled fun. I like that it can be cut into different varieties of horror, from a ghost story to occult horror to a very real horror that comes completely from human beings, nothing paranormal involved.

These are all very brief stories, so it’s difficult to go in-depth about them without outright spoiling the plots, but here is a quick rundown of my thoughts on each. I recommend this collection if you’re looking for something short, sweet and with a conservative but lasting dose of disturbing imagery.

“A Stranger in the Rain” – ★★★★

This I believe was my favourite, along with “The Comeback”. “A Stranger in the Rain” is a story of sin and retribution in the classic way. Twisty, sinister and laced with devilish hallucinations.

“Headlights” – ★★★★

A rather sweet take on the vanishing hitchhiker myth. It isn’t incredibly scary, but is creative in its retelling and a pleasant read otherwise. It is more heart-warming than anything.

“Dinner With Death” – ★★★

This was the darkest story atmospherically, but somehow didn’t stand out to me as strongly as the others.

“The Comeback” by Ellen C. Maze – ★★★★

The twist in this short is like a gut-punch. I loved everything about this story, which follows a has-been actor and his rivalry with an up-and-coming actor that he feels has stolen his role in the spotlight. The bitterness of losing fame and jealousy react to a terrible and violent end.

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Lovecraft Reviews – “The Festival”

The Festival – ★★★★ 3.5 Stars

Written: Autumn 1923

“The nethermost caverns, wrote the mad Arab, are not for the fathoming of eyes that see; for their marvels are strange and terrific. Cursed the ground where dead thoughts live new and oddly bodied, and evil the mind that is held by no head.”

One can outrun the devil before they can their own genetics.
In “The Festival”, a man travels to an ancient sea town in Massachusetts, that he feels his ancestors have been calling him to, who turn out to be a sort of witch-race that enlighten him to their horrors.

This story features our beloved book of curses, the Necronomicon, as the narrator’s trigger into his primordial and disturbing genes. It’s an interesting metaphor for someone who comes from a line of mostly evil people, but themselves retain none of their wickedness, which does happen more often than you’d think.
“The Festival” is a pretty and occultish monstrosity of the sort I like, but apparently the author himself did not, it being mostly inspired by his own trip to Marblehead, Massachusetts, and being overwhelmed by the clash of historical and brand-new that existed there.

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Lovecraft Reviews – “The Colour Out of Space”

The Colour Out of Space – ★★★★★ 5 Stars

Written: Spring 1927

“This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space – a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it.”

With the blossom of an unnatural and premature spring brings corruption that is unfit for the eye or mind. “The Colour Out of Space” is a prime piece of botanical horror, planting all of the discomforts there can be about things that arrive with the spring – water, mold, and flora.
This is so far my favourite short story by Lovecraft, other than maybe “The Rats in the Walls”, but the racial insensitivity in that story causes me to like it much less than this one.

“The Colour Out of Space” regards a nameless man who looks into a strange piece of farmland that none of the locals will touch, nicknamed ‘the blasted heath’ for its rotting and burnt appearance. He discovers through talking with a local named Ammi Pearce, that the land’s corruption began with a meteorite that crashed there, as well as something strange that settled in the farm’s well, and investigates its history.

This is a terrific and terrifying short that settles on your skin like cold mildew, especially the fate of the farmers themselves. The imagery and physical horror that develops as the narrator learns more about the cosmic disease that’s settled on the farm is absolutely uncomfortable, but you want to know more about it.

The disease is keeping its secrets, however.

“The reservoir will soon be built now, and all those elder secrets will be safe forever under watery fathoms. But even then I do not believe I would like to visit that country by night – at least, not when the sinister stars are out; and nothing could bribe me to drink the new city water of Arkham…”

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Lovecraft Reviews – “Ex Oblivione” & “Azathoth”

Azathoth – ★★★ 3.5 Stars

Written: Summer 1922

“Azathoth” is a poem of dream states alchemically combusting, a transcription of what it’s like to give oneself to the void.
The name refers to a demon of sorts that is mentioned in some of Lovecraft’s novels, but before I knew that I thought it was a corruption of azoth, which in alchemy, is the ultimate medicine. So I suppose Azathoth would be the ultimate poison, wouldn’t it?

This is a prose piece, that calls up a lot of dreamy, lotus-eating imagery. The creature Azathoth itself is supposed to be a sort of living black hole that is too evil for a solid shape, but is just a mass of everything disturbing and wrong. Its poem, however, is weirdly romantic, making me think that its nature must be to possess people into searching it.

Ex Oblivione – ★★★ 2.5 Stars

Written: Winter 1920-1921

“For doubt and secrecy are the lure of lures, and no new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonplace.

Curiosity killed the dream-sage. The writing is lovely, almost too much so, but what bothers me about “Ex Oblivione” is that it’s just rather samey.
It feels like a watered down or underdeveloped version of “The Nameless City”, which also came about in the same winter. Same delusion, different name. I do like the idea of returning to the unknowable, and in this case terrifying, roots of our species through dreams.

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Lovecraft Reviews – “The Nameless City”

The Nameless City – ★★★★ 4 Stars

Written: Winter 1921

“That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.”

Before I get into the short story itself, this is where the sour root of the Necronomicon began to sprout its mysteries. While the cursed book won’t actually show itself in Lovecraft’s work for a few more years, “The Nameless City” is where it began to grow its pages.
The Necronomicon became so famous and so dreaded, that people began to fear its appearance in real life. Similar to how people thought the Voynich Manuscript was some kind of lost alien gardening manual, a lot of people thought the Necronomicon was an actual spellbook that you could… buy, for some reason? No doubt in part because of all the fake copies that came out. The only store that would have no qualms about selling evil incarnate would probably be a used bookstore.

Anyway. I love “The Nameless City”. I personally think it’s one of Lovecraft’s best. What I really appreciate about it is the strange sensitivity to dreams that’s there. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, it’s like you’ve found an explanation you’ve been seeking for years, and it’s both beautiful and traumatic at the same time.
The world of this story has shades of Agartha, a city thought to be in the earth’s core, but it’s like a twisted, unholy version of that idea. Continue reading “Lovecraft Reviews – “The Nameless City””

Lovecraft Reviews – “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”

Beyond the Wall of Sleep – ★★★ 3.5 Stars

Written: Spring 1919

“We shall meet again – perhaps in the shining mists of Orion’s Sword, perhaps on a bleak plateau in prehistoric Asia. Perhaps in unremembered dreams tonight; perhaps in some other form an aeon hence, when the solar system shall have been swept away.”

In dreams we hear songs which cannot be captured, yet which we will always long to hear while awake. We can hear in them our history, hidden away in other planets that are no longer our own.
In “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, a strange man from the boondocks, Joe Slater, is taken in for evaluation after a series of violent psychological attacks. A doctor there takes the opportunity to study the man’s mind more closely and notices that, while at first there doesn’t seem to be much to unravel, there seems to be two halves to his personality. There’s a weird and surprisingly heavy presence in the man at certain times which makes the doctor curious, and he begins to be obsessed with finding out who this is inhabiting Slater’s brain, because it’s certainly not him alone.

“Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is an exploration into the relationship between dreams, madness and the interconnected nature of living things, with a twist of the paranormal. It reminds me, even though it’s not super similar, of the Hypnos and Thanatos myth, with sleep often thought of as being the only link to death that does not involve dying. I feel like at least one of the characters is driven truly insane by the end, though it’s hard to tell which, and when.

This idea… has been done better, I hate to say, and in this instance Lovecraft’s writing style can get pretty grating, being more obsessed with twirling vocabulary around rather than telling us what is happening. No doubt it’s creative, though, and I can see shades of my favourite author in it. I suspect Junji Ito is a big fan of this particular story, having done several adaptations of it. If it piques your curiosity, “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is worth looking at. I would recommend the original as well as Ito’s “Long Dream” and “Den of the Sleep Demon”, which are similar but also improve upon the theme.

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Book Review – Love is Hell by Melissa Marr

★★★ 3 Stars

Genre: Romance / Dark Fantasy
Publication Date: November 25th, 2008
Publisher: HarperTeen

” ‘There are two types of people in this world: those who believe in love and those who don’t. I believe in love.’ She closes the book. Indeed, it’s not her thing.”

(Un)happy Valentine’s Day. Here I present the fitting title Love is Hell, a romance anthology that, despite the name, is not that infernal. Like the Valentine’s holiday, it’s neat but also easily forgettable.
Love is Hell dips its toes into the border of dark fantasy with the caution of someone who would be humiliated to be seen playing around in such territory. This collection tries on a patchwork flesh of genres, unsure about which it’s supposed to be. However, it does at least succeed at coming across as a romance book. If ho-hum about its paranormal side, I believe that paranormal romance fans are who it would probably appeal to most. I’m not grand on paranormal – not a species of book I have a positive history with. So you might want to break out your salt-shaker for my opinions here.

Love is Hell was a slog for me. The authors are all talented people, no doubt, but there is more aggravation than captivation about this, as well as zero consistency. It’s not fair to expect an anthology to be consistent as far as the writers’ styles, but there’s nothing threading them together. The shorts are at odds with each other rather than bleeding into a theme. One of which there isn’t, not that I could tell. Does this book even make the statement that love is, in fact, equal to eternal torment? Let’s break that down, shall we?

“Sleeping With the Spirit” by Laurie Faria Stolarz – ★★★
Hell-O-Meter: Low

The tragedy of a human who falls in love with a handsome ghost that was murdered in her house. Of course, this only happens after he drove her into severe insomnia because she was initially horrified by him. I found it creepier not that the boy was a phantom but that he was constantly watching her in her room. The apex of romance, that.
This story is alright, though. The plot is a little clichéd but the writing and pacing make for decent intrigue, and the ending is sweet. Continue reading “Book Review – Love is Hell by Melissa Marr”

Book Review – Red Boots by Kate Willis

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Short Stories / Fiction
Publication Date: December 6th, 2017
Publisher: Toward Home Press

Red Boots is a Christmas story with a lovely message about generosity. It has a very Dickensian vibe, the shopkeeper protagonist who is not so wealthy himself going out of his way to help a family with a young child.

There is no stress of anxiety over the holidays, it’s the kind of cozy short read that’s perfect for the frosty evenings on the horizon. Red Boots is optimistic and hopeful, and could’ve made a good short novel as well. I wish I had gotten to know more about the shopkeeper, like he doesn’t really elaborate a whole lot on his own situation. I suppose that shows his selflessness, but still would’ve been neat.

Book Review – Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Magic Realism / Short Stories
Publication Date: September 5th, 2006
Publisher: Mariner Books

I have a strange split-dimensional relationship with magic realism. Sometimes we are the best of friends, sometimes it worms under my skin in an annoying way. Many books covet its charm but are not brave enough to attempt it, but that can never be said for Kelly Link, who might as well have invented it. Sewn it together into a beautiful monster out of abandoned skin shed from horror and fantasy and whatever lurks in the mind.

Link’s stories can be frustrating. They are alchemical clockwork, unexpected treasures made out of completely strange ideas. But it’s not a simple task to make such a thing understandable, and sometimes it’s not. A lot of Magic for Beginners has no clear-cut linearity. The endings are often left up for interpretation, and take place in a world that runs on the logic of lucid dreaming.

Boy, but is it a quilt of fascinating tales – mismatched, maybe, but in their entirely working smoothly together. “The Cannon” is the tattered point. As much as I like experimental writing, I usually skip that one on re-reads.
The jewels of the collection are the ones that begin with the mundane. “The Hortlak”, easily the crown story, begins with two men working in a convenience store. Except it happens to be a convenience store on the threshold of a grand chasm, where the dead crawl out when it’s dark. Some nights the dead offer things to the two clerks, but they always leave the store with nothing and nobody can figure out what they want.
“The Hortlak” is a really haunting piece about the aimlessness people carry in their lives like it’s a physical burden, forever confused about what we really want.

Some other favourites were “Some Zombie Contingency Plans”, the unexpectedly Lovecraftian “Stone Animals”, and “Lull”, which has echoes of my own stories.
I first read Magic for Beginners about seven years ago, and it struck a chord in me. I hadn’t really experienced books with this surreal quality I’d been seeking for so long. Link is a difficult standard to try to live up to, but I wanted to write something that gives off the same ghostly unease.

These stories are never obvious or blatant, they are like a painting – they stand discreetly and wait for you to make your own decision about them, and then you notice the scenes that lurk in their backgrounds that have something sinister in them.
To properly enjoy Magic, you have to let your sense of logic free and appeal to your imagination to listen, and it will create its own meaning that’s more than can be said in words.

Book Review – Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publication Date: January 30th, 1988
Publisher: Grove Press

“Inching one’s way along a steep cliff in the dark: on reaching the highway, one breathes a sigh of relief. Just when one can’t take any more, one sees the moonlight. Beauty that seems to infuse itself into the heart: I know about that.”

You could say that the kitchen makes us kindred. Food is the needle that crochets humanity into a single but colourful web. Good or bad, pure or processed, all food is blossomed from something in the earth, as are the living beings that consume it. So is it any wonder that a room full of food is a comfort? It’s a thing that doesn’t tend to change unexpectedly.

It is said that we choose our cravings for certain foods based more on a memory that they were present in, over the taste alone. A delicious food might even trigger a bad memory, say if you were stranded somewhere desolate and happened upon a lone candy bar. Dubious and unlikely maybe, but definitely tasty. You’d have been content for a minute but then you’d think “Well, I won’t be having one of those again for some time.” and it’d be just another depressing occurrence formed out of seemingly good fortune.

Kitchen and its companion, Moonlight Shadow, revolve around the mourning of memories. Opportunities not taken, lives not spared, are the ghosts behind Kitchen. This is not a simplistic book, however short it is. It examines the tendencies of the human heart with poetic science, and the double face of innocent things that serve as constant reminders.

I’m at odds with this book. It’s difficult to say if I actually enjoyed reading it, but I admire what it has to say and the elegant way it goes about it. I don’t agree with the funereal philosophy, but I’m familiar with the way hatred of fate seeps in like a weed after a bad strain of luck, and during those times you really want ghosts to exist, or even a little fluorescent kitchen nook that can heal all wounds. Anything phenomenal, even boring pseudo-phenomenal, would be better than what depression whispers into the mind.

Yoshimoto’s take on the course of human relationships is both bleak and enticing, for a tiny book that begins with a cozy obsession with a kitchen, but it’s not a book I’ll want to read again.

“Everyone we love is dying. Still, to cease living would be unacceptable.”

Book Review – Perfect Blue: Awaken From a Dream by Yoshikazu Takeuchi

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Thriller / Horror
Publication Date: April 24th, 2018
Publisher: Seven Seas

“Maybe he was a phantom. Maybe that’s what he was all along – a monster conjured by jealousy and obsession.”

Obsession is where the garden of desire overgrows. What begins a selfish, one-sided love becomes a monstrous weed that eventually, if left unchecked, will suffocate what flowers of sanity remain beneath it.

Awaken From a Dream, like Takeuchi’s book Complete Metamorphosis before it, suggests that the capacity for stalking and fanaticism is not so remote. In fact it may only take an overwhelming loneliness for a long period of time. Obsession is born from a distant closeness, and the media certainly doesn’t help.
Awaken From a Dream doesn’t have quite the disturbing relevancy Metamorphosis did, the short story format strips quite a bit of the character depth. Nevertheless, Takeuchi is something of a master at painting the minds of creeps and innocents. Takeuchi knows well how madness forms and the subtle, sometimes horrible relationships that can form between complete strangers. His style spares no mercy on his characters. In fact it kills a few of them.

There’s a surreal, pitying quality to these stories, as if they were some wretched dying thing remembered from a flitting dream. There’s nothing to be done but watch the whole weird tragedy unfold in your head.
“Wake Me From This Dream” is the best of the three, with heavy echoes of the murder-suicide theme that carried into the first book. Toshihiko is a perverse and disgusting man but he knows this, and in a strange, strange twist finds himself with a stalker much like what he hates in himself.
“Even When I Embrace You” in my opinion is the weaker story, drifting on too long and being unrealistic, but not quite surreal or disturbing enough to stand out either. “Cry Your Tears” on the other hand is incredibly, suddenly violent and stands out stronger than the other two. I think “Cry Your Tears” ended up being my favourite despite some rather… unusual decisions on the characters’ parts, such as not assigning security to a famous singer when she’s being harassed by a psychotic fan.

Even after reading both Awaken From a Dream and Complete Metamorphosis, or perhaps especially after, I’m still not entirely sure who the audience for Takeuchi’s books is supposed to be.
Maybe it is just for those who have wandered into alleys at night, empty save for fluorescent lights, and thought “this is where I’d like to stay forever”. Those who only start to wake at 4 AM and drown their eyes in that hour’s remnants of television. Those who have felt nothing but loneliness in the heart of a crowded city. It’s hard to say.