Book review: We Sold Our Souls

We Sold Our Souls

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Funny, gruesome, breathlessly paced, and with a loving, near-reverent tone toward its subject matter–metal–We Sold Our Souls chronicles what happens when a little known metal band signs away more than it bargained for on a fateful night in 1998.

The protagonist is 47 year old Kris Pulaski, one-time lead guitarist and writer for a metal band called Durt Work. Kris and the other members of the band are enticed into signing a contract late one night by their lead singer Terri Hunt, aka The Blind King, giving away a lot more than they suspected in the process. The night’s events end in tragedy and the dissolution of Durt Wurk.

Jumping forward to 2019, the story picks up when Hunt decides to reunite with his successor band, Koffin, for a final tour. Intrigued and unsettled by the tour, Kris begins putting together what really happened on that fateful night in 1998 and the story kicks into high gear, barreling relentlessly toward an inevitable but entertaining conclusion.

Ending each chapter with an epistolary snippet that uses radio shows and news reports to foreshadow or chronicle events, Hendrix presents a story in which the power of metal and music in general is literal, and which can be used to fight against evil, or to at least to hold it at bay. In this case, the evil is something called Black Iron Mountain, an entity Kris wrote about without understanding its implications on Dürt Würk’s album Troglodyte. As forces array to stop her, Kris tries to warn and then enlist the members of her former band before Koffin completes its shows and very bad things happen.

Kris gets pulled through the ringer and there are scenes featuring gory action that recall the pulp horror of the 70s and 80s–a subject Hendrix explored at length in the delightful Paperbacks From Hell. I found one scene (minor spoiler) in which Kris works her way through an increasingly claustrophobic tunnel to be especially vivid, perfectly capturing the suffocating despair one might feel in such a space.

We sold Our Souls is both a love letter to heavy metal and the freedom and power of being in a band, of doing your own thing, of having an axe and using it to make your mark on the world, and a perversely funny take on “What if every conspiracy theory turned out to be true?”

The prose at times is laid on thick, but it fits perfectly with the over-the-top, larger-than-life world of metal (and seemingly demonic forces) it depicts. Kris is a hero you will want to cheer for and see succeed, and We Sold Our Souls is a terrific old school work of horror.

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Book review: The Liar’s Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

The Liar's Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

The Liar’s Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anyone looking for nuts and bolts advice on writing should be warned that this is a collection of some of Block’s fiction columns from Writer’s Digest, and as such they sometimes provide instruction or advice, but sometimes Block just takes you along on his musings about the writing life.

It’s probably also relevant to add that the columns in question date from 1981 to 1987. He mentions typewriters a lot.

And that is probably what I enjoyed most about the book. Some of the writing advice is obviously dated–he has a wonderfully detailed column about self-publishing his own book that isn’t particularly relevant to how self-publishing works in the 2010s, but Block has such an affable style that the column still entertains.

The columns also serve to paint a portrait of the author as he draws extensively on his own experience writing and publishing–he had been in the business about 25 years at the time these columns were new–and in a way, this makes the pieces serve as a kind of memoir. Block recounts his early days writing soft porn novels, confesses to questionable behavior in his youth, details his fights with editors, agents and others, and regularly reminds the reader that what works for him may not work for them and to adjust as needed.

If you want a no-nonsense book about writing full of advice on plot, pacing, story structure, characters–you will find that here, to a degree. But more than that, you will get a good glimpse into the life and habits of a particular writer, and a snapshot look back at what the writing life was like in the 1980s.

I wouldn’t recommend this as your first book on writing advice, but I would recommend it as one of the books to check out.

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Book review: Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect

Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect

Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect by Mick West

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mick West was a video game programmer in the 90s who cashed out, retired early and became fascinated with conspiracy theories–and then more specifically in debunking them. With plenty of time to support his hobby of debunking, West went on to create multiple sites on the subject, with https://www.metabunk.org being perhaps the best known. This is his first book on the subject.

Escaping the Rabbit Hole delivers exactly what the sub-title promises. West devotes space to general techniques and methods on debunking conspiracies, with the aim of helping you (the reader) to help someone else (referred throughout in the book as “your friend”) break free from believing whatever conspiracy or set of conspiracies they are holding to. He also offers more specific information on some of the more popular–and in one case, more fringe–conspiracy theories, including the claim that a controlled demolition brought down the World Trade Center towers, that the Sandy Hook shootings never happened, the theory that contrails from planes are actually chemtrails either changing the weather or poisoning us (or both), and, of course, the flat earth theory. The latter may boggle any sensible person, because it is by far the most extreme and easily disproved conspiracy theory, yet West provides an example of someone who genuinely believed the earth was flat.

West accompanies each specific conspiracy theory with a shorter chapter chronicling how a particular individual escaped the rabbit hole (such as the aforementioned flat earther), showing how for some it can happen swiftly–in a matter of a week–and how for others it may take years. Often it is the patient work of a friend that pulls them out, but sometimes it is seeing a specific video or getting a critical piece of information at the right time that gives the conspiracist just enough pause to start questioning what they believe. West also shows how it can also be a matter of adherents to a particular theory crossing a line that the believer isn’t prepared to step over.

Throughout the book, West keeps repeating his mantra of being respectful and patient, urging the reader to avoid arguing and mocking the conspiracist’s beliefs, rightly stating that this puts them on the defensive and makes them less receptive to hearing other points of view. He emphasizes the use of examples and evidence, or actual demonstrations where possible that show how the conspiracy theory doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Anticipating one of the claims conspiracists will throw at him–that he is a simply a paid shill–West spends a chapter providing background on himself and how he came to be a debunker. Reading where he came from and how he ended up running metabunk as a hobby, I both envy and admire him for having the freedom and funds to not just pursue a hobby, but one that will genuinely help to make the world a better place.

He perhaps puts too much faith in the efforts of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to combat bots, disinformation and conspiracy stories/videos. He is heartened by the work they have done (I am more skeptical), but still warns it is likely to get better before it gets worse, with AI growing ever-more sophisticated in its ability to present itself as credible-sounding “people,” not to mention the work being done in the area of deep fakes where pulling apart what is real and what is a fabrication will get increasingly difficult.

Escaping the Rabbit hole is a thorough, sensible and compassionate toolkit for getting someone you know out of the world of conspiracy theories. Even if you don’t know anyone personally who has gone down the rabbit hole, the book’s techniques and background are an interesting examination of modern conspiracy theories and the damage they can do.

Recommended.

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The Matrix 20 years later -or- lol CRTs

I watched The Matrix again recently, having not seen it in its entirety since it originally came out in 1999. Some of the effects are a bit dated-looking now, but the bullet time and all that still looks spiffy.

The funniest part was Morpheus explaining that it was around 2199 in the movie, though Neo believes (as others in the matrix do) that it is 1999. You may be puzzled to discover that in 2199 we have touchscreen displays, but they all run on giant CRT monitors.

While I still enjoyed the movie, it almost felt a little too lean, because Neo’s journey from “I am totally not The One” to “I am totally The One and can fly like motherf’n Superman” seems a bit abrupt. Also Trinity falls in love with him for no apparent reason, as per The Oracle’s prophecy.

I am not really sure what to expect from the just-announced fourth Matrix movie, starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne-Moss, especially since the latter’s character died in the third one. But I’m expecting the CRTs to at least be updated to flat panels.

Book review: The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy

The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy

The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy by Brian Klaas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oof.

For historical reference, this review was posted in August 2019. The book in question came out in late 2017, a little less than a year into Trump’s term as president of the United States. That means there’s been more than a year and a half of further events and actions to either bolster the case Klaas makes on how Trump is undermining democracy in America, or to provide evidence that Trump has “become” presidential and changed course.

Anyone who knows anything about Trump will know, of course, that the latter was never and is not a realistic scenario. Trump has no experience in government and in the time he has been president has shown little inclination to learn or improve, unless you count improvements on being a terrible person and a terrible leader.

This book is exhausting. Reading it is like getting punched lightly but continuously. It hurts but you go on, because the punching is bound to stop. But it never does.

In the short time span covered, Klaas documents all the horrible things Trump has said and done, underlining how just a few things have essentially kept America’s democracy intact for now–mainly by the grace of Trump’s incompetence and inexperience, and the still relatively strong (but weakening) bedrock that forms the democratic government the U.S. has had since 1776.

The problem, as Klaas points out, is that much of what holds U.S. democracy together, takes the form of political norms and traditions. Presidential candidates always release their tax returns. Presidents don’t profit from their presidency. Presidents don’t mollify dictators while attacking allies. But Trump doesn’t care about norms–he bulldozes through them, showing how fragile democracy is when it relies on people being innately good, or at least respectful of what government should be.

Klaas makes it clear that Trump is not the first president to engage in lies and work at tearing down important government structures, citing Nixon as the obvious modern go-to equivalent, but in comprehensive detail, he lays out how Trump is so much worse–and therefore, more dangerous.

All of this is compounded by America’s troubled history, something Trump has taken advantage of, choosing to divide and turn Americans against each other and the rest of the world. Klaas repeatedly shows how Trump is emulating despots both old and current, by assaulting the free press, by perpetuating damaging lies, by undermining trust in government institutions. The list–and examples–go on and on. As I said, it’s an exhausting read.

The book ends with four possible scenarios (remembering that this came out before the 2018 midterms in which a glimmer of hope was raised when the Democrats won back the House of Representatives), three of which result in things getting worse. The first suggests a slow decay of democracy, as people grow numb and then indifferent to Trump’s actions. The second offers the chilling scenario of a Trump 2.0 coming along and picking up from where Trump left off–but imagines the successor being much more intelligent, savvy, and able to appeal to a broad audience in a way Trump simply can’t, making this person far more dangerous. The third scenario offers Trump the opportunity to use some kind of large scale disaster or terrorist attack to provide cover for further draconian actions under the pretext of national security. George W. Bush’s popularity soared into the 90s following the 9/11 attacks. Trump’s popularity could hit the lofty heights of fifty percent! More seriously, a country under attack or ailing is more vulnerable, and a person like Trump could easily take advantage of that to peel away rights and freedoms.

The fourth scenario offers Trump as a virus, with people banding together to make a vaccine to fight back. This did come to pass in the 2018 midterms, and there is some evidence that it is still a process that is advancing and not retreating. Trump, through it all, has not changed.

In the end this book didn’t really offer me any new insights, but it did lay bare and in explicit detail just how thoroughly, through malice and incompetence, Donald Trump has carried on the work of chipping away democracy in America. Even if he does not get re-elected in 2020, the U.S. is looking at years or even decades to undo the damage already done.

It’s hard to recommend a book like this, but Klaas makes his points clearly. The only fault I can offer is the idea he has of working alongside your political adversaries to keep government functioning and healthy. Klaas states what seems obvious–the Democrats and Republicans can disagree on specific policies, but must work together to keep the institutions of government strong and healthy. In an ideal world this could happen, but the current incarnation of the Republican party has been taken over by extremists who are of much the same mind as Trump. Those who oppose Trump’s actions ineffectively offer criticism from the sidelines or say (and do) nothing at all, making them complicit and helping to enable Trump’s behavior.

If you still hanker for a primer on how Trump’s first year in power emulates the worst sort of authoritarian leader, The Despot’s Apprentice will provide everything you might need. You might want to start by choosing a palette cleanser to read after, though.

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Book review: Perihelion Summer

Perihelion Summer

Perihelion Summer by Greg Egan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Greg Egan’s Perihelion Summer does a mostly good job of taking a high concept science fiction premise–a black hole comes through our galaxy, possibly imperiling Earth–and marrying it to how it affects a relatively small group of people.

In this case, the people are a team on a custom-built ocean-going aquaculture vessel called the Mandjet. Early on, marine biologist Matt tries to convince his family to come aboard the Mandjet, as initial predictions expect the black hole to cause mega-tsunamis across the globe, wiping out populated coastal areas planet-wide. His family, in Australia, refuses, with his sister insisting they will move inland if the need arises.

Eventually, the trajectory of the black hole is worked out more precisely and in a way, it is even worse, as the black hole will come close enough to pull Earth out of its orbit enough to drastically alter seasons, making them far more extreme, with parts of the planet becoming uninhabitable depending on the time of year.

When this happens, the story shifts gears, becoming more a tale of survival, as the crew of the Mandjet plots a course to Antarctica, now newly habitable compared to the burning hellscape that Australia has become. There is some drama involving Matt trying to rescue his family, and pirates of a sort threatening to disrupt the Mandjet’s journey, along with the flotilla of other ships it is leading south.

Egan does a good job of evoking the horror of a dramatically changed climate, and how people adapt–some better than others. In a way, the short novel is affirming, because most of the people are depicted as willing to help others, to barter and trade for mutual benefit, to take risks for the safety of others, facing adversary with (some) humor and courage.

There are a few aspects that don’t hold up as well, though. I never felt I had a good handle on what type of person Matt is, who comes across as decent and caring, but also nondescript and weirdly flippant. The story also ends on an abrupt, odd note between Matt and his mother. I’m not sure what (if anything) Egan was going for with this, but it left me shrugging.

The overall story, though, is well-constructed, offering a fascinating “What if?” scenario that Roland Emmerich would probably love to turn into a terrible disaster movie. Recommended for anyone into hard science fiction featuring big concepts with some old-fashioned human drama mixed in.

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Book review: The Outsider

The Outsider

The Outsider by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Outsider is both vintage King and a continuation of his recent fondness for police procedurals, notably the Bill Hodges trilogy. Here he fuses a murder mystery with a classic King monster. There is a shift in the story where it goes from being a baffling murder case to more of a monster chase, and at first the shift felt a bit abrupt to me, almost as if King started writing a whodunit and couldn’t figure out how to finish it, so reverted back to supernatural boogums.

But in the main character of police detective Ralph Anderson, King works the angle of the disbeliever hard, laying down the groundwork for the novel’s closing act and the introduction of Holly Gibney from the Hodges trilogy, who becomes the linchpin who helps steer events to their conclusion.

While not reaching the heights of some of King’s latter day work like Duma Key or 11/22/63, The Outsider still has all the strengths typical of King–instantly engaging (or despicable) characters, and an authentic feel for the places the people inhabit, while avoiding most of the excessive bloat. The story could probably stand to lose a bit of the flab, but King is one of the few writers I’ve read who makes even the flab interesting.

There is an analogy used by one of the characters late in the novel about how we all skate on the thin ice of reality, and how few fall through to see what is beneath, and that both summarizes the main theme of the story, and also serves to ground it in a way some of King’s other straight-up horror novels don’t quite manage. Here the characters basically confront weird shit, acknowledge it’s weird shit, then deal with it, because what else are you going to do?

For King fans, this is a solid effort. For those intrigued by the police procedural aspect, be warned that while it is there and is a good chunk of the story, this is ultimately a horror novel that fits neatly alongside the others King has written.

Recommended.

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On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer (Million Dollar Writing Series)

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer by Kevin J. Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This slim volume is basically Kevin J. Anderson and Martin L. Shoemaker telling you why they use voice dictation for their writing, and the specifics of how they do it. Their techniques differ–Shoemaker dictates while driving a one hour commute to and from work (and emphasizes the safe way to do so), while Anderson usually takes a digital voice recorder with him when he is out on hikes, keeping fit while staying productive. They sometimes overlap methods and Anderson in particular makes use of typing services, which can transcribe at a typical cost of one cent per word or thereabouts. He admits this is not suitable for all writers. A 100,000 word novel would cost $1,000 to transcribe, a hefty sum for a lot of people, especially those new to writing.

Each author also uses dictation for brainstorming, tossing out ideas, character background and more into their recordings. Shoemaker uses Dragon Professional 15.0 to transcribe his recordings and is satisfied with its accuracy, noting that cleanup is always part of the editing process, regardless of writing method.

They cover all the basics–when and where to dictate, overcoming the embarrassment of talking to yourself in public, getting comfortable with the sound of your own voice, and more.

All of this is good stuff, and both writers present their use cases in convincing fashion. The book does lack a certain amount of depth–this is Anderson and Shoemaker relating their experiences, with a minimum of advice, technical or otherwise. Those looking for more specifics on using voice dictation for writing may be better served by checking out The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon by Scott Baker (which still covers the latest version of Dragon as of this writing, August 2019) or Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per hour.

Still, this is very much a worthy read, if for no other reason than to provide a little more incentive to making the jump to using voice dictation.

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Book review: 5,000 Writing Prompts

5,000 WRITING PROMPTS: A Master List of Plot Ideas, Creative Exercises, and More

5,000 WRITING PROMPTS: A Master List of Plot Ideas, Creative Exercises, and More by Bryn Donovan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I did not read all 5,000 prompts.

But I did read most of them, actually, not just to get the inspiration, but to get an overall feel for how Donovan puts together her lists. Quite often you can see her riffing on a theme or flipping a prompt to generate another (“Write why you like scrambled eggs. Or why you hate scrambled eggs with the fire of a thousand suns.”)

There are a few things Donovan does that elevates this above so many other writing prompt books or websites:

  • Quantity. Yes, sometimes size does matter! The sheer volume of prompts means you’re bound to find some that appeal to you, even if you use her method of randomly picking one.
  • Speaking of randomly picking one, Donovan directly tackles the purpose of the prompts and suggest picking one to write every day for two weeks, to rekindle your interest in writing if it’s faded. This is an entirely sensible plan, but a lot of prompt books don’t address this at all, they just pile on the lists.
  • Speaking of lists, Donovan provides a great deal of variety and even the groupings that might seem marginal to you (for me it would be the poetry prompts) actually offer a lot of good ideas that can be applied to other types of writing.

Donovan offers commentary and background on some of her ideas, especially those that have cultural or historical significance.

Really, this is just a solid all-around collection. I expect to use a bunch of these prompts as I seek to re-ignite my own fiction writing (and if you don’t write fiction, there’s lots of material here for blogs and other forms of non-fiction writing). Recommended.

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Book review: Keep Going

Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad

Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a delight. Austin Kleon not only has an awesome name, his art is a fun and quirky mix of collage, cartoons and wordplay. This is someone who sees art all around him, then dives in to make even more.

The focus on the book is primarily aimed at creative types, specifically writers and visual artists, but most people can glean useful stuff from the sensible, thoughtful ideas he shares. Many may seem common sense, like finding a “bliss station”–a space where you can focus on your creativity, whether it’s a physical spot or just time you carve out of the day–but Kleon presents them as a piece with his own thoughts, creating a unified, accessible whole.

Kleon emphasizes experimentation, not getting hung up on the pursuit of perfection, and focusing on making art that makes others–and yourself–happy. He is big on gifts, less so on selling your stuff on Etsy, or somehow trying to make money from your creativity (he is not opposed, as he does it himself, obviously, but warns of the danger in trying to commercialize something you love and are passionate about).

He urges the reader to take social media in small doses, to turn your day to day life over to a virtual “airplane mode” from time to time, to not focus on doing things just to generate likes or clicks.

Keep Going is a short book, all the better to get through it and start applying what Kleon advocates. I read this on an iPad Pro and definitely advocate reading it in a format large enough to appreciate the numerous sketches, cartoons and notes, whether it be through tablet or even quaint old paper. The illustrations are all black and white, so a larger e-reader should work, too.

A solid thumbs up for creative types seeking easily-acted on inspiration and tips, and still recommended to others for the positive approach to life.

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Book review: The Frighteners

The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore

The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore by Peter Laws

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was better than expected. Going in, I was unfamiliar with Peter Laws, apart from the blurb for the book mentioning that he is a reverend and perhaps a seemingly unlikely choice to author a book about why we are delighted by things that scare us (he devotes an entire chapter on this near the end, and also addresses it at the beginning). A writer when not conducting church services, Laws has authored novels about a professor aiding in the solving of religious crimes, and also reviews horror and similarly themed movies for The Fortean Times, the delightfully wacky magazine devoted to the weird and out there. This is relevant, because Laws demonstrates wit and verve throughout The Frighteners.

Laws has done his research on why we seek out to be frightened by various things, but this is not a carefully considered study and analysis, it is very much Laws providing expert testimony and studies, while adding in a lot of his own personal take on the various spooky subjects, neatly divided into their own chapters. There are fictional frights—scary movies and TV shows, but also could-be-real frights like ghosts, werewolves, cryptids and more. Then there are the sadly real, like serial killers, their “murderabilia” and crush videos (don’t look up the latter if you are at work or anywhere else on the planet. Trust me on this.)

Laws doesn’t defend the more dubious aspects that some people seem to crave, but he does attempt to understand motivations. And he highlights that most of us—even people into murderabilia (mementos from famous crimes or killers) have our limits. For example, a couple that run a curio shop in York sells things like strands of Charles Manson’s hair, among other ghoulish “delights”, but the American half of the couple admits she turned down the chance to sell bricks from Sandy Hook, because she lived nearby and had no emotional distance from the killings.

A lot of the fare Laws covers is lighter, and even silly. Zombie-themed escape rooms are a big thing now, and Laws partakes not as research for the book, but because he just loves them so much (he went to Transylvania for his 40th birthday), going out of his way to squeeze every last bit of drama from them, like the hero of a horror film.

In the end I was carried along by Laws’ enthusiasm for the macabre and frightening, and his gleeful delight in the same. He provides enough research, expert interviews and other material to elevate the book well above “I like scary stuff, let me talk about it”, so if you find the subject matter interesting, this is an easy recommendation.

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Book review: American Nightmare

American Nightmare

American Nightmare by George Cotronis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

American Nightmare is a themed horror story collection, with every story taking place in 1950s America. Ultimately the theme doesn’t add much to the stories, serving mostly as window dressing (everyone smokes, for example), and the stories themselves are a mixed bag, typical of most horror collections. This is not a bad read, but you might want to wait for a dale price to grab it.

Also in the tradition of horror collections, a lot of American Nightmare is Men Behaving Badly, with abusive husbands figuring prominently. The real monster is us. And also the tentacled horror in the lake.

Story by story:

Grandma Elspeth’s Culinary Enchiridion for Domestic Harmony. An abusive husband gets his just desserts (or dinner, rather) while the son watches with horror and wonder. But mostly horror. A decent intro to the book and is the first (but not last) to feature tentacles.

CHIAROSCURO. A weird tale that swaps between first person POV for scenes of a soldier in WWII and second person for the then-present day of 1958, as the former soldier and now-detective with an odd affliction that prevents him from recognizing faces, goes after a murdering couple that dresses as Raggedy Ann and Andy.

The author repeatedly references famous paintings to literally illustrate scenes, lending an odd sort of whimsy to the story, but it’s bloody and violent and ends with a lot of gunplay. It almost feels like it would work better as a longer piece, but it’s an interesting and surreal bit of mayhem.

Bow Creek: Kids living in a bucolic small town discover All Is Not What It Seems and those who see the ark underbelly either join or die. The End. Really. Slight, perfunctory and did not really do much for me. It tries to create a 50s horror movie vibe (and references the same), but it only partly succeeds.

Glow: Frustrated teen finds space rock that seems to have something to do with Cthulhu. Screaming (of others) follows. Not bad, but given the potential it seems to fall short.

Lucy’s Lips: Misunderstood high school girl leaves town, comes back with the circus, may have some ties to Cthulhu. Sort of features tentacles and might be trying to make a statement (not a nice one) about promiscuity, whether by accident or design. Did not grab me.

Pear People from Planet 13. As you might guess from the title, this is a comedic piece that riffs on the monster movies of the 50s. Weirdly gory and a little too on the nose, maybe.

Ghost Girl, Zombie Boy and The Count. A self-loathing killer meets some very interesting kids trick or treating. Another just desserts story, but written with some verve and wraps up appropriately.

The Two Monsters of Levittown. A clumsy attempt to address Nazis, racism, medical experimentation and just who are the real monsters, anyway? This could have worked better, but the writing is just too unsubtle, bludgeoning all of its points like a mallet to the skull.

Double Feature: What seems like a charming story about a teen couple watching a double feature at the drive-in descends into horror at the very end. It’s not quite a twist ending, but I was almost disappointed by it. This is one where I felt the journey was more interesting than the destination.

In the Blood: Totally Cthulhu, complete with the tentacles. Military experiments on soldiers prove disruptive to a nuclear family. Violent, gory, with that air of hopelessness one expects from a good Old Ones story. Despite this playing directly into expectations, it was just okay. The 1950s/Cold War setting could have been exploited better.

The Black Pharaoh of Hollywood. An ancient pharaoh (are there other kinds, really?) uses a desperate screen writer to return to the living. This was is well-written, but is undermined by an ending that feels forced, not earned, particularly in how the protagonist makes his decisions. Good, but could have been better.

The King. An old woman/witch mails seeds that grow weird black oak trees that make people commit literal blood sacrifices. This one pays lip service to the book’s theme and is just weird. Nothing is really explained and sometimes in a horror story that’s for the best. There’s some characters-doing-things-to-advance-the-plot business here, which I hate more than weird black oaks that prompt blood sacrifices.

A Night to Remember. A cancer-ridden man in a dinner encounters a strange, possibly Lovecraftian fellow who has a message. The Titanic does not figure at all, sorry. This one goes for ominous and mostly works.

All the Marilyns. An unconvincing look at a smart young man who years to move beyond his small town and somehow turns into a murderous psycho. Maybe I missed the subtle transition, but it felt jarring and off-putting.

Looking back, it seems I didn’t care much for most of these stories. The majority are decent, but flawed in some way. You could probably do worse for a horror collection, but you can also do much better.

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