Something about the late summer/early autumn months makes me crave spooky stories. There’s nothing better than curling up and reading a scary story or watching a scary movie on an early autumn afternoon. It’s a nostalgic feeling for me and I am constantly on the lookout for new and unique spooky stories to read. So, naturally, I adored Abby Howard’s The Crossroads at Midnight, a graphic novel collecting five short stories. Feeling both classic and contemporary, it’s the perfect fix for horror-lovers looking for something new to sink their teeth into. Plus, the artwork is gorgeous. (5 out of 5 wands.)
(NOTE: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher and Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are my own.)
The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard An old woman living alone on the edge of a bog gets an unexpected — and unsettling — visitor, throwing her quiet life into a long-buried mystery. An isolated backwoods family stumbles into good fortune for a time with a monstrous discovery in the lake behind their house, but that time is running short. And a misfit little girl, struggling to make friends, meets an understanding soul one day at the beach: but why will he only play with her alone at night? All these lonely souls — and more — have reached out into the darkness, not knowing what they might find.
Around the dark edges of reality lurk unknown beings with unknowable intentions — ordinary objects can become cursed possessions, entities who seem like friends can become monstrous, and those who seem monstrous can become the truest companions. In this collection of evocative, unnerving slice-of-life horror, five stories explore what happens when one is desperate enough to seek solace in the unnatural, and what might be waiting for us at the Crossroads at Midnight.
Halloween is right around the corner, which means now is the perfect time to find some new and interesting spooky tales. Some of my favorite spooky stories are those aimed at younger audiences. I love a good horror movie or novel, but so often those stories aimed at adults go into such extreme corners of horror that they just aren’t fun. This isn’t the case with horror stories aimed at younger audiences. These stories rely on creating scary atmospheres and balance their spooks with clever ideas and a sense of fun. This is exactly what the first book of Abby Howard’s webcomic, The Last Halloween, does. The Last Halloween is in the same vein as many classic spooky stories. It balances interesting and unique characters, scares, and a sense of adventure, spinning an atmospheric tale that is as addicting as it is fun. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)
(NOTE: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher and Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are my own. Additionally, there may be mild spoilers ahead.)
The Last Halloween: Children by Abby Howard It’s a lonely Halloween night for ten-year-old Mona. While everyone else is out having a ghoulishly good time, she’s stuck inside without so much as a scary movie to watch. Just when she figures this evening can’t get much worse, a giant monster appears in her living room, proving her very, very wrong. Running for her life, Mona quickly sees that she’s not alone; trick-or-treating’s been canceled due to monster invasion! A barrier keeping billions of monsters at bay has broken and the horrific hordes have descended upon humanity, wreaking bloody havoc everywhere they stomp, slither, or squish. She may not be equipped for it, but it’s up to Mona to save the world with a team of fellow weirdos by her side. Perhaps they will succeed. Or perhaps this will be . . . The Last Halloween.
I have lots of fond memories of reading middle-grade horror books as a kid. There’s just something so fun about those stories. These authors get to play around with scary ideas but can’t go too far with them. It’s like sitting around a campfire and hearing a scary story – it’s not necessarily scary, but it’s kind of creepy and it stays with you for a while after you’ve read it. The best children’s horror books are like that – Coraline, Goosebumps, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, etc. It’s with this context that I approached They Threw Us Away. I am a fan of Daniel Kraus’s work; he’s written some of my favorite books over the last few years and I was very excited to see what he’d do with a story aimed at a younger audience. In some ways, he did exactly what I expected him to do, delivering a story that mixes scarier elements with more adventure-filled ones. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of the book and I think it’s gonna be a big hit with its target audience. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)
(NOTE: There may be minor spoilers for They Threw Us Away. You have been warned. Additionally, I was given an ARC by the publisher in exchange for a fair review.)
They Threw Us Away (written by Daniel Kraus, illustrated by Rovina Cai) Buddy wakes up in the middle of a garbage dump, filled with a certain awareness: he’s a teddy bear; he spent time at a Store waiting for his future to begin; and he is meant for the loving arms of a child. Now he knows one more thing: Something has gone terribly wrong.
Soon he finds other discarded teddies―Horace, Sugar, Sunny, and Reginald. Though they aren’t sure how their luck soured, they all agree that they need to get back to the Store if they’re ever to fulfill their destinies. So, they embark on a perilous trek across the dump and into the outer world. With ravenous rats, screeching gulls, and a menacing world in front of them, the teddies will need to overcome insurmountable challenges to find their way home.
Zombies are one of my favorite horror story “monsters.” There’s something so haunting about a threat that is basically humanity but slightly… off. Zombies don’t have a motive; there’s no reason why they do the things they do. They simply operate off a basic needs-based system. They’re the very definition of id: they need to feed and they need to feed now. There’s something scary about a foe that looks exactly like us but cannot be reasoned with or stopped. But, all that aside, the most interesting thing about zombies is the way the stories that feature them force us to take a good look at ourselves. A common theme in most zombie stories is how the plague turns humanity into the real monsters. It’s one of my favorite tropes of the genre and something I love to see various storytellers sink their teeth into. Nobody was better at this than George A. Romero. His films pioneered the modern zombie genre by focusing their lenses on the intimate human stories rather than the epic, action-packed survival stories we might see today. Romero seemed most interested in how individual people react to zombies rather than what, specifically, caused them or how they might be defeated. It’s what made his films interesting and it’s what makes his novel, The Living Dead (completed by Daniel Kraus after Romero’s passing), interesting. The novel is more epic in scale than any of Romero’s films but feels no less intimate than the best of his work. It’s a brilliant achievement in the career of a man who had many brilliant achievements and it’s quite possibly one of the best zombie novels I’ve ever read. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)
(Mild spoilers for the novel follow!)
The Living Dead by George A. Romero and Daniel Kraus Set in the present day, The Living Dead is an entirely new tale, the story of the zombie plague as George A. Romero wanted to tell it. It begins with one body. A pair of medical examiners find themselves battling a dead man who won’t stay dead. It spreads quickly. In a Midwestern trailer park, a Black teenage girl and a Muslim immigrant battle newly-risen friends and family. On a US aircraft carrier, living sailors hide from dead ones while a fanatic makes a new religion out of death. At a cable news station, a surviving anchor keeps broadcasting while his undead colleagues try to devour him. In DC, an autistic federal employee charts the outbreak, preserving data for a future that may never come.
Everywhere, people are targeted by both the living and the dead. We think we know how this story ends. We. Are. Wrong.
I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading Killadelphia, Rodney Barnes and Jason Shawn Alexander’s new comic. I had been a fan of Barnes’ work on the second season of American Gods so I was eager to take a dive into some of his other work. Killadelphia looked really interesting because I love a good vampire story and it seemed like Barnes had a unique take on the genre – and boy did he ever. Killadelphia might just be the best comic I’ve read all year. It’s this perfect blend of absurd-yet-scary horror and gritty, grounded, realistic drama. In many ways, it feels old fashioned and reminiscent of film noir, but in other ways it feels startlingly modern and poignant. (Five out of five wands.)
(NOTE: This review may contain spoilers. Read at your own risk.)
Killadelphia, vol. 1: Sins of the Father (written by Rodney Barnes, illustrated by Jason Shawn Alexander) When small-town beat cop Jimmy Sangster returns to his Philadelphia roots to bury his murdered father, he stumbles into a mystery that will lead him down a path of horrors and shake his beliefs to their core. The city that was once the symbol of liberty and freedom has fallen prey to corruption, poverty, unemployment, brutality…and vampires.
There’s a reason they say you can’t go home again. Welcome to Killadelphia.
When I was a kid, I was scared of Bigfoot-like, properly scared. I can’t remember how old I was when I first encountered a Bigfoot thing, but I can remember having seen some pseudo-documentary on Animal Planet, or something, and being ever so frightened of looking out my bedroom window and seeing Bigfoot staring back at me. It became a recurring nightmare of mine for a while until I eventually grew out of that fear and moved on. But there is something kind of frightening about a giant ape-like monster with borderline-human intelligence whose existence nobody can seem to prove or disprove. And that’s where Devolution, Max Brooks’ newest book comes in. Resting closer to something like Frankenstein than Brooks’ World War Z oral history riff, Devolution is another epistolary novel (or, as I jokingly refer to it, “found literature”) from Max Brooks. But unlike World War Z, I really enjoyed Devolution. It’s a gripping read, filled with a lot of tension, some immediately captivating characters, and a lot of genuine chills. (Mild spoilers follow!)
Devolution by Max Brooks
Offering a glorious back-to-nature experience with all the comforts of high-speed Internet, solar smart houses, and the assurance of being mere hours from Seattle by highway, Greenloop was indeed a paradise—until Mount Rainier erupted, leaving its residents truly cut off from the world, and utterly unprepared for the consequences. With no weapons and their food supplies dwindling, Greenloop’s residents slowly realized that they were in a fight for survival. And as the ash swirled and finally settled, they found themselves facing a specter none of them could have predicted—or even thought possible…
In these pages, Max Brooks brings to light the journals of resident Kate Holland, recovered from the town’s bloody wreckage, faithfully reproducing her words alongside his own investigations into the massacre that followed and the legendary beasts behind it. If what Kate saw in those days is real, then we must accept the impossible. We must accept that the creature known as Bigfoot walks among us—and that it is a beast of terrible strength and ferocity.
I imagine a lot of people are going to be reading zombie books during this COVID-19 crisis. Just like the Contagion film has seen a spike in popularity, so too, I feel, will many zombie stories. I can’t blame people for turning to fiction during this time of crisis; it can be cathartic to view a disaster movie in a time of disaster. But that’s not why I finally picked up World War Z. World War Z is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years. It’s frequently touted as one of the best zombie novels. I read an early screenplay for the film – back when it still tried to adhere to the book’s structure – and loved that, but I just never got around to reading the book. And then I heard that the novel’s author, Max Brooks, was publishing a new novel this year – Devolution – and I thought now was the time to finally give World War Z a read. At the end of the day, I totally see why World War Z is as beloved as it is. It’s a really unique take on the zombie genre, combining it with a traditional oral history of a real-world war is a stroke of genius. But I don’t know that I loved this book. It’s good, but the hype might have killed it for me. (Mild spoilers may follow.)
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
We survived the zombie apocalypse, but how many of us are still haunted by that terrible time? We have (temporarily?) defeated the living dead, but at what cost? Told in the haunting and riveting voices of the men and women who witnessed the horror firsthand, World War Z is the only record of the pandemic.
The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.
I don’t normally review YA novels for the sheer fact that they so rarely appeal to me. I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the typical fare they cover (teenage drama, lots of romance, etc) so I tend to stay away from them. But I’ve read some of Daniel Kraus’ previous work, the most recent being his adaptation of The Shape of Water, and really enjoyed it. So, when I saw that he had a new book coming out and read the book’s synopsis, I was definitely intrigued. It sounded like the kind of thing that might be right up my alley (being an avid lover of Science Fiction and Horror), so it seemed like a fun book to look into. Having now finished it, I can say that it was a good decision on my part. It’s a really well-written story that does its damndest to defy the normal constraints of its genre. I really enjoyed it and I think it’ll be a good read for a number of different audiences – including, but not limited to, the YA crowd. (Mild spoilers may follow.)
Bent Heavens by Daniel Kraus
Liv Fleming’s father went missing more than two years ago, not long after he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Liv has long accepted that he’s dead, though that doesn’t mean she has given up their traditions. Every Sunday, she and her lifelong friend Doug Monk trudge through the woods to check the traps Lee left behind, traps he set to catch the aliens he so desperately believed were after him.
But Liv is done with childhood fantasies. Done pretending she believes her father’s absurd theories. Done going through the motions for Doug’s sake. However, on the very day she chooses to destroy the traps, she discovers in one of them a creature so inhuman it can only be one thing. In that moment, she’s faced with a painful realization: her dad was telling the truth. And no one believed him.
Now, she and Doug have a choice to make. They can turn the alien over to the authorities…or they can take matters into their own hands.
I’ve been a fan of Rhett and Link’s for a while now. Their content is so wholesome and enjoyable – and they grew up fairly close to where I live – so it’s hard for me not to enjoy their stuff. My love of Rhett and Link is what led me to their first novel, The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek. Were it not to have been written by them, it likely would have never made its way onto my radar. But, with its connection to these YouTubers, I eagerly awaited the publication of the book, unsure of exactly what to expect. Well, having read The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek definitely feels like a first novel. And I don’t really mean that as an insult, but an author’s first novel is often very imperfect and that’s exactly what The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek is – imperfect. There are a lot of really good ideas and characters scattered throughout the book, but it’s all a bit hampered by too-few pages and uneven pacing. (Mild Spoilers for The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek follow.)
The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek by Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal
It’s 1992 in Bleak Creek, North Carolina—a sleepy little place with all the trappings of an ordinary Southern town: two Baptist churches, friendly smiles coupled with silent judgments, and an unquenchable appetite for pork products. Beneath the town’s cheerful façade, however, Bleak Creek teens live in constant fear of being sent to the Whitewood School, a local reformatory with a history of putting unruly youths back on the straight and narrow—a record so impeccable that almost everyone is willing to ignore the suspicious deaths that have occurred there over the past decade.
At first, high school freshmen Rex McClendon and Leif Nelson believe what they’ve been told: that the students’ strange demises were all just tragic accidents, the unfortunate consequence of succumbing to vices like Marlboro Lights and Nirvana. But when the shoot for their low-budget horror masterpiece, PolterDog, goes horribly awry—and their best friend, Alicia Boykins, is sent to Whitewood as punishment—Rex and Leif are forced to question everything they know about their unassuming hometown and its cherished school for delinquents.
Eager to rescue their friend, Rex and Leif pair up with recent NYU film school graduate Janine Blitstein to begin piecing together the unsettling truth of the school and its mysterious founder, Wayne Whitewood. What they find will leave them battling an evil beyond their wildest imaginations—one that will shake Bleak Creek to its core.
You never know what you’re gonna get with an indie/low-budget horror movie. You could get a movie that’s super charming and works really well within the constraints forced upon it (by budget/time/available talent/etc) or you could get something that’s truly appalling and devoid of any entertainment value whatsoever. Or you could get something somewhere in between, where it’s clear that a lot of love went into the creation of the film but some element of its making went catastrophically wrong. That’s the joy of looking into a low-budget horror movie. For every gem (like Rubber), there’s an enjoyable-yet-bad film (like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes), and at least three films that are too awful to watch (like Thankskilling, half the Troma catalog, or Birdemic). So, where does Headshots fall in this breakdown? Well, much to my surprise and enjoyment, it falls within the first camp. Headshots is a charming film that makes the most of its constraints and brings an interesting twist to its premise. (Mild spoilers follow!)
Headshots (written and directed by Chris O’Neill)
HEADSHOTS follows a young British actress who goes to LA to be a movie star- only to cross paths with a serial killer in her acting class.