Monday, September 13, 2021

Book Review: Drifter: Stories by David Leo Rice

Drifter: Stories by David Leo Rice
Paperback, 284 pages
Published June 15th 2021 by 11:11 Press

 I got to start by being honest that I had never heard of David Leo Rice before he reached out to me to offer a review copy. I am glad he did as I really enjoyed this collection even if I was skeptical after reading blurbs that compared him to powerhouse writers like Bradbury, Brian Evenson, and Thomas Liggoti. I mean those are some serious towers of weird fiction and normally I happen upon voices like that On my own. OK, that is on me not David Leo Rice I may still think those comparisons are a bit strong but this collection is pretty impressive.

The introduction by Matthew Spellberg who I just learned teaches at Harvard did give some good insight into the collection but the poetic two pages about the author and video stores didn’t land with me.  His inability to rent R-rated movies didn’t feel like the inspiration for this collection of stories. When I think of video stores I think of trashy movies. That made me think of writers like Bryan Smith or Edward Lee. This book is filled with weird stories but nothing about it is trashy.

These stories are more sophisticated than the R-rated movies the author was not allowed to rent by his parents. These have more in common with the tales of Beaumont or Bradbury that young people happen upon at the library and the parents never know about. The tone reminded me of the types of thing T.E.D. Klein was buying and publishing in the Twilight Zone magazine. Anyone old enough to have read those knows there was a quality to them that matched the storytelling skills that Serling and the California sorcerers brought to CBS.     

The book is divided into three sections. HERE – THERE – WHERE. As a structure guy I like that they are different types of stories laid out in sections  The first of them HERE appear to be stories that have a hometown feel to them, the section THERE has many stories that take place across the pond in Europe and the last section are plain weird and surreal. Well they all are weird and somewhat surreal but WHERE is dialed to 11 on the unconventional bizarro scale.

My favorite story of the HERE section was the story House Sitter, which was about the title character it was would Richard Matheson would have called off-beat. This was interesting narrative style of being slightly surreal with what seemed to me to be a ghost story. The House Sitter Point of view gives the outsider feel to the strangeness of the home. This paragraph below is where I first raised an eyebrow took note and dog eared a page.  

“The screams filled first his room and then every room, like a gas leak. He closed his eyes and pictured the father’s pharmaceutical pad fluttering off across the kitchen floor and away to a place where it would never be found.”

I also enjoyed Snow Boy and found the balance of weird and vivid impressive.  Notice here in this one paragraph Rice displays a balance for the surreal and grounded…

“He yawned, scratching the surfaces around him, agitating the wreckage of the dead mind he inhabited: the summer steppe, Tarkov at nineteen. A farmhouse, a family at ease around a broad unsanded table with benches on two sides, bowls and platters in the center, high seats for patriarchs at the head and foot, bottles making the rounds.”

From the wreckage of a dead mind to unsanded tables I like the mix of the surreal and the very physically real. This balance is one of the things DLR does very nicely throughout the book. This is a feature, not a bug. Some parts of the prose are very grounded and give a strong sense of the moments the characters inhabit like this moment from the story Out on the coast which helped that story to feel very grounded.

“The ghosts were like mosquitoes-seasonal, pack animals, given to hanging out by the water. Max swatted at them and dabbed blood on his skin with the edge of his shirt, tasting some of it before it soaked in.”

In the THERE section came one of the most powerful stories if not the best of the collection to was one that perfectly balanced the two tones. Hate Room. Mostly made up of mood and tone as a story that at times felt surreal and supernatural but also vivid and alive. Contrast these two quotes from that story.

“They could hear tonight’s guest throwing himself against the walls and barking, screaming out his hatred for god and his wish to be put out of his misery now.”

“He always entered the Hate Room soberly, steeled for the grim business of cleaning the black matter out, but he always left it in rattled, in more of a hurry than he wanted to be.”

I also really enjoyed the short but powerful “The Painless Euthanasia Roller Coaster.” This one part did so much with so little. It was interesting to me that one of the shortest stories in the collection was one of the most powerful I read.

“Over the course of that day, spent, as all days, wandering the old and drafty streets of the city, from the edge of the university where he’s no longer welcome to the alley of used booksellers whose wares no longer speak to him, Anders comes to see that the roller coaster, and nothing else will be the culmination of his tenure on the planet.”

The best of the WHERE section is Ultra Max. I don’t have much to say about the most surreal stories of the collection. These are stories that you sorta let wash over you like sitting in a tide. DLR has a way with words so these stories are more like reading a flow than story. I am not complaining I enjoyed these more than anything.

The only thing that held me back on this collection was that I didn’t feel much connection to any characters in the book. The nameless Housesitter and Anders the disgraced character from one of the shortest tales were the first two that come to my mind as I thought about this. This type of style is one that is better suited for the short form. It is why we get so many more Brian Evenson collections than novels.  This is a minor nitpick as I liked the stories overall.

Drifter: Stories is a smart high-class collection of weird fiction. Sometimes horror, sometimes dark humor, and always the product of a fresh voice. OK David Leo Rice you have my attention now and hope my readers will check out. Leave the comparisons aside, I know why we do it but I am not super comfortable with this time. All that matters is David Leo Rice is a writer with a voice and talent worth exploring.  

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Book Review: The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein


The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred
by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published March 9th 2021 by Bold Type Books

I am not even entirely sure what I thought this book would be but I am glad that I read it for sure. If I had life to do over again there are a few careers I am jealous of, maybe I wish I had pursued.  The academics who study Science Fiction are number one in my mind but second for sure would be the men and women who get to devote all or most of their time to space and cosmology. I generally assume they are all awesome and intelligent folks who are devoted to understanding the universe.

Enter Chanda Prescod-Weinstein or CPW as I am going to refer to her. This book has more than a few things to say but a great sentence that could set the tone is right here…

“Science is supposedly about asking questions, except about scientists and how science is done.”

While CPW does set the tone beautifully with some universe-spanning, and thought-provoking science. This is important because I feel before she went further, she had to let us all know that she is a serious scientist. The second half of the is highlighting her experiences often negative but not also with scientists and the science community.

I have already seen one or two reviews that didn’t like the mirror this work spun around and focused on the science community. Mad bros will not like the point of view of this progressive thinker whose views are radical in the science community for sure. It is hard to be a trailblazer but honestly, science bros are on notice now.

More scientists with a radical point of view are being trained every day. This younger generation has very different ideas of what is fair and just. Look it is clear that CWP compiled many of her musings over years of doing a blog into this book. This is a science book but it is more about her experience being a person of color, without privilege in science.  

“I believe we can keep what feels wondrous about the search for a mathematical description of the universe while disconnecting this work from its historical place in the hands of violently colonial nation-states.”

Can we decolonize the sciences? Most scientists will reject these ideas out of hand. They refuse to believe that cold hard science can be racist or sexist but the men (mostly) who are the foundations of science are still part of systems. Systems that oppress.

Yeah, I was uncomfortable a few times reading this book. It was challenged me and my assumptions. What better feeling than being moved in any kind of way by a book. I would tell others to read it for that reason. Burst your bubbles. On a political or cosmic scale, this one has both to offer.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Book Review: Whether Change: The Revolution Will Be Weird Edited by Scott Gable & C. Dombrowski

Whether Change: The Revolution Will Be Weird
Edited by Scott Gable & C. Dombrowski

Paperback, 180 pages
Published August 3rd 2021 by Broken Eye Books

Revolution means many things in literature as it does in the world. Fighting for change in the world more often than not means envisioning the world we want to see. In most cases of both mainstream and radical speculative fiction, it means shining a light on a world we hope never to ever see. Broken Eye Books have released steampunk ghost and Lovecraftian anthologies including two volumes of books about campus life at Howie’s made-up university. All fun and exciting stuff but this book which has an activist feel is the most exciting to me.

It features several authors I was aware of and interested in such as Nick Mamatas and Nadia Bulkin and new discoveries like Bogi Takacs.  That is what the best anthologies do, give you a few authors you know and respect while opening your eyes to new talent.

From the back cover:

“Tomorrow is here! Superpowered nationalists, CRISPR babies, alien communists, bloodsucking buildings, holy street justice, otherworldly anarchists, resurrection in the post-apocalypse, and more. There will be no going back.”

My favorite stories in the collection were the stories by Bogi Takacs, Nick Mamatas, and S.B. Divya. Let’s start with my favorite the Takacs tale “A Technical Term, Like Privilege.” This delightfully strange story could be called Bizarro, Surrealist, or Absurdist. I am not such any of those are exactly right but the story is a very unique piece with biological homes, body horror class warfare, and probably more I could identify with a closer look. In this story, the main character lives in a housebeast.

What do I mean by class warfare body horror…

“I glare at the dark purple walls, the rugged, ribbed interior of the housebeast. Why does it need me? I can’t even hate it. I feel bad for it. It’s trapped same as I am. It needs my cheap blood filled with magic and whatever power comes out of a hot dog after it’s digested. I’m surprised my terrible diet hasn’t poisoned it already.

Well, that would certainly be a way to take Revenge on the rental office.”

Yes, this story is the reason I have the Dead Kennedys song “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” stuck in my head. This story is a wonderful metaphor for me to read when the eviction ban was being over turned and debated nationally.  

Nick Mamatas story The Nth International is a comical piece that savagely mocks the billionaire space race and features a communist Alexa AI assistant. It would be easy to laugh off this story as a goofy satire but it is no less radical than anything else in the collection. S.B. Divya writes the most emotionally rich story in the collection, it is subtle but a poetic story that really worked for me.

I loved almost all the stories in one way or another.WC Dunlap’s opener Salt Water to Wine played with mythology in a cool way and Nadia Bulkin’s story Purity was short but more evocative than some novels.

 The exception of Rachel Pollock’s Sarah Memory and Evan J. Peterson’s #wondercabinet. They were both fine stories that I didn’t connect with. Peterson’s story that takes place all in tweets is an interesting experiment just me personally turned me off. I get what he was doing and saw that he executed it fine, there is plenty of excellent commentaries. That said for this structure geek I had a hard time following it.

Whether Change
is a great collection. The revolutionary spirit is something that science fiction more often than not happens upon by accident. This is not an earth-shaking genre-redefining collection like Dangerous Visions in the 60s but it doesn’t need to be that. Whether Change is a home for overlooked voices in mainstream publishing, that is as just as important tossing over the table and redefining a genre. So thank Broken Eye Books by checking out this bold anthology.  

If enough of you do, maybe you all can prove me wrong and change everything. I would welcome a future not like these stories but one where these types of voices are mainstream.  

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Book Review: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon


Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published May 4th 2021 by MCD

This is my third Rivers Solomon novel and they have one very strong connection. They defy easy and typical genre definitions. On the surface, there is always some kind of easy commercial pitch, in the Unkindness of Ghosts it was a novel in the well-worn genre of Generation ships. It ended up having more in common with Butler’s Kindred than Heinlein’s Orphans in the Sky. The Unkindness of Ghosts is a surreal masterpiece, it took this space nerd a little time to accept the unreality of that novel and once I did the universe of that novel opened up. The longer I thought about the book and the more distance I had from reading my respect for it grew.

Solomon is a writer who creates deeply thoughtful fiction. As activists, we are taught to envision the world we wish to see, not the one forced on us daily. Sorrowland is a product of a writer who clearly decided they are writing the world as they envision. Solomon’s bio says they are a writer who writes about life in the margins.

It is clear from the dust jacket cover that they were “Born on Turtle Island but currently resides on an isle in an Archipelago off the coast western coast of a continent.” This was not said to be cute, or to signal radical views it is clearly the author’s heart felt position. Anyone reading this novel can FEEL that this author writes their truth and has zero fucks to give if that is not for you.

Sorrowland is a radical novel, sure it is gothic, it is horror, science fiction, and fantasy. It is all those things but at the core, it is the most radical of coming-of-age stories. It comes from such a fresh, thoughtful, and intensely unconformist place that I hesitate to imply that I understand it. I felt many things reading Sorrowland, I was moved by it and yet I feel from my position I have only seen the parts of the iceberg above water. It is not every novel that is able to comment on race, gender and personal identity, sexuality, misogyny, racism inherent in the American system, Well-intentioned but misguided radicalism, colonialism, religion, the state experimentations on people of color and do it all while telling a coming of age story of a teenage mother.

Before I get into why, let me say I went into this reading experience cold, based on the strength of the author. This is a five-star book so I recommend it 100%. So if you don't even want a hint of anything stop here.

Sorrowland is the story of Vern, she has just escaped from Cainland, an off-the-grid compound formed by black radicals decades before she was brought there by her afro-punk mother. 15 years old and pregnant with twins Vern escapes into the woods. Surviving outside of civilization she raises her children Feral and Howling for a couple of years. It gives the first act of this book a fairy-tale feeling. The second act brings Vern and the kids back into society that is where much of the commentary comes from. The third act is bananas in all the right ways. The novel almost explodes into something that frankly I didn’t really see coming like a superhero origin story.

It was a bold choice-making Cainland a product of the radical black revolutionary movement, of course, we learn that they were still being exploited by the system. There is a moment early in the book when a young girl who escapes is returned by a judge that tips off Vern and the reader that the system is protecting these radicals for some reason. 160 pages later Vern admits that she knows what COINTELPRO is and that it is taught in the Cainland schools.

“When they weren’t outright murdering and framing dissidents, they were orchestrating their deaths and downfalls using undercover agents.

It was one of the reasons Eamon started forbidding folks from leaving the compound. It was to protect against spies, informants, and provocateurs. He’d enforced a no- or limited contact rule with outsiders because feds lurked everywhere. Vern thought of the compound’s single phone, the one in his office, so other Cainites wouldn’t have their phones bugged.

Vern quaked as the truth of it hit her. His edicts weren’t defenses against cops but ways to concentrate power in his hands.”

The blessed Acres of Cain was Psyop. Meant to control and exploit the radical as a means to create weapons in the form of superhumans. There is some pseudo-science involving fungus but the nitty-gritty of it was less important to me than the themes that fill the novel. Vern’s discovery of never before felt freedom opens her mind to the world.

The early chapters in the woods don’t have the action of the final act but they are the foundational elements of Vern’s coming of age.

“I like the woods,” she said. “In them, the possibilities seem endless. They are where wild things are, and I like to think the wild always wins. In the woods, it doesn’t matter that there is no patch of earth that has not known bone, known blood, known rot. It feeds from that. It grows the trees. The mushrooms. It turns sorrows into flowers.”

Of course, Vern’s journey is one all non-conformists can relate to. Coming of age in a world where the evil and wrong are clear to you, but not the mainstream is painful. Vern was taught to question what she sees. America and apple pies are not what she sees. Divorced from society at a young age, and raising children outside of it all she sees through it as clear as glass.

“What turned babies, fragile and curious, into Shermans? Into Ollies? Into men who could not interact with a new thing without wanting to dominate it?

What order of events did Vern need to disrupt in the lives of the millions upon millions who woke up every morning proud to be Americans? What made someone love lies?

She saw that cursed flag on the hunter's T-shirt and wondered if he know about the glut of traumas that define this nation's founding. Had he fallen so in love with the myth of belonging that he thought the corpses of his imaginary foes were worthwhile sacrifices toward barbecues, megachurches, bandannas, and hot dogs?

The primary freedoms this nation protected were the ones to own and annihilate.”

Sorrowland is defiant fiction, radical in its response to all that smoke. One of the most beautiful asides happens late in the book. Vern’s children Howling and Feral are like many children, her teachers. She has to form them, teach them outside of all that. That blank slate and that ability for humans to rise above is one of the things the novel teaches us.

“Loving, worshipping, and bowing down to folks who harmed you was written into the genes of all animal creatures. To be alive meant to lust after connection, and better to have one with the enemy than with no one at all. A baby's fingers and mouth grasp on instinct.”

We seek that connection and it is not our fault that connection often grips us at a young age. Vern is a character who is a victim of experiments. Common enough trope for a Hero who ends doing battle with superpowers against evil. Vern’s journey is something new fresh and original because the journey is the work of a singular voice. One uniquely able to deconstruct all the bullshit we accept as mainstream. It is a hell of a thing.

I found Vern’s words very inspiring indeed.

“Ollie and those like her wanted people to think their power was eternal, but even gods died. Empires, too. Continents shifted. Nations came. Nations went. Castles became ruins. I’m going to fight them.”

 Fight on Rivers Solomon, and you have this reader locked in.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Book Review:Jackanape and The Fingermen by D. Harlan Wilson


Jackanape and The Fingermen by D. Harlan Wilson

Hardcover, 96 pages
Expected publication: September 3rd 2021 by Anti-Oedipus Press

D. Harlan Wilson is one of my favorite authors and every I get a new book to read it is exciting. Doesn’t matter what it is.  Could be he is writing non-fiction like his book on They Live, Kubrick, or Alfred Bester. Could be genre-defying novels like Dr.Identity or Outre, so odd he and his imprint of Raw Dog Screaming Anti-Oedipus press invented one with Scihz-flow.  And now it will be two tales he wrote for the stage.

His first play "The Dark Hypotenuse," was staged in Copenhagen in 2012. That was in an earlier book of stage plays. This book of two plays is his second collection in the form. While I knew DHW had written plays this was my first experience with his work in this medium.

It is not unique to Wilson, there are plenty of surrealists that write fiction that would seem impossible to translate to screen or stage. The thing about Wilson’s absurdist and surreal satires of the form itself is they often translation from page to brain. The process of the DHW book is kind of like this. Wilson’s weird thoughts, he types then, they are edited, readers think what the fuck? and often laugh, all the while trying to get a mental image of something impossible to nail down.

A play has to have a little more solid direction but don’t think for a second the weird has been lost. The first play Jackanape is about a Coatrack and murderous dinner jacket. The second The Fingermen is mostly dialogue centered around a group of characters all missing fingers.

The first play has a few hilarious stage directions but much of the humor comes from subtle but hilarious pokes at murder stories. The sheer number of victims the jacket has is funny enough but each of the victims makes a bit of a statement. Scene 5 with Detective Johnson and Cork was the first laugh-out-loud moment.

“Thirty-nine murders in forty-eight hours. And all of them in this room. It doesn’t add up.[Reflects.] Goddamn it, it doesn’t add up.[Pause.] It doesn’t add up I say.” Or “If you can’t laugh at the dark, you shouldn’t grin like the Sphinx. Understand?

Jackanape is a funny and weird play that has some seasons with long monologues and others that are nothing more than sound effects.  

The Fingermen is a more dialogue-heavy satire that uses the concept, set-up, and dialogue to satirize many modern insecurities and self-delusions. There are lots of scenes with whip-sharp dialogue that will have you reading, re-reading passages. It also has characters asking for intermissions, talking to the and breakdowns set to Land of Confusion by Genesis.

My favorite dialogue was “Don’t mind that. That’s just people burning in Hell…I was just kidding about Hell. There’s no goddamn hell. Nobody’s dead either.”

Both of these plays would awesomely uncomfortable audience experiences and challenging for the best of stage actors. I say this as a positive. Like all things by Wilson these plays are delightfully journey to What-the-fuck-a-stan, entry at the border doesn’t take a passport, all you need is a D.Harlan Wilson book in hand.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Book Review: Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman



Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman

Hardcover, 304 pages

Published April 6th 2021 by Quirk Books

I don’t remember how or why this book got on my radar; I am assuming a friend talked about it on Twitter but my normal plan worked perfectly. I put this book on hold at the library and by the time it came in and I picked it up I remembered nothing about it and went into reading this totally cold. I will say I was rooting for this book and while I didn’t love it, I liked it and was impressed enough that I will be reading more books by Clay McLeod Chapman.

The reason I didn’t fall in deep love with this book may be less on the book and more on my personal taste. This novel is about the satanic of the 80s. I am old enough to remember this happening.  While I had smart parents who didn’t hide the world from me, I was aware of this stuff happening. I mean our generation grew up despising Tipper Gore and PMRC (google it youngins) so this topic is one I was excited to see tackled in a horror novel.

I think once the novel started, I found myself sorta wishing for a less personal and more global take on the whole Satanic Panic thing. That however would require more shifting points of view like lawyers, cops, political figures. Sounds interesting, but this story could not do that as its narrative is deeply personal.

The narrative structure shifts from two points of view and timelines. Richard in 2013 and Sean in 1982. Richard ends up living a teacher’s worst nightmare, an accusation of abuse in his classroom. At the same time, we are cross-cutting with the Sean storyline where he might be connected to abuse and even SATAN. All caps to invoke Dana Carvey doing the church lady.

The second act twist wasn’t much of one but again that was the story and Chapman told it correctly. It is a spoiler (you are warned) but going back and reading the dust jacket (I didn’t do that till starting this review) it should be obvious. The stories are of course connected and of course, Sean and Richard are the same person. For that reason, the book had to have a tight narrow focus. The book was not exactly what I wanted but it was what it needed to be.

The best and most impressive thing about this novel is implied in the title. Whisper Down the Lane is another name for the game of ‘Telephone.’  How a story can mutate as it spreads as a rumor. That makes this a great title for a novel about this topic. In some ways, this novel is as much about manipulation. Chapman puts amazing amounts of attention to the moments where investigators manipulate and twist Sean into lying and making an accusation.

False confessions are a huge problem. Investigators use leading questions to plant seeds. So Chapman for very good reason puts entire interviews in the book. It is clear he did his research and that the details mattered. For that reason, Sean’s storyline required a certain detachment and I am assuming that is his storyline is in third person and Richard’s was first person.  Again that could also be to preserve the twist.

On pages 170-74 during one of the interviews has a perfect chilly example.  Kinderman (Exorcist easter egg) the investigating cop first gently works to earn the trust of Sean. Gives him a trick to feel comfortable telling him a secret and then berates him for being afraid. These are some of the most harrowing moments of the book.

This is a good novel, but I just didn’t love it like I felt I could have. The story is well told, but the events feel a little cataloged to me. I didn’t feel much dread outside watching the trainwreck of the interviews. For example, there is a scene where Richard goes to a meeting about the abuse accusations, in order to preserve the ‘Twist’ we don’t know his history, I actually think knowing this and building off his anguish and fear of his history turning on him would have been a scarier experience for the reader.

Inspired by true events Whisper Down the Lane weaves commentary on the real-life events and fiction into the story. I caught many of the references to Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist but I don’t know the real-life case, so there may be elements I was missing.  In this novel paranoia is like gas being thrown on the fire of a rumor. The ingredients are there for mass hysteria.

This is a case where I think my personal taste got in the way. I think Chapman wrote an important horror novel. I think many readers will like it more than I did. The best thing I can say about it is that Chapman just sold a reader on checking out his other books. I am excited to see what he can do outside of a novel inspired by a true case.  


Sunday, August 8, 2021

Book Review: Goblin by Josh Malerman


Goblin by Josh Malerman

Hardcover, 416 pages
Published May 18th 2021 by Del Rey Books (first published 2017)

I could be remembering this wrong but when I interviewed Josh last year for the Postcards podcast he said this book was some of his earliest attempts at writing and that makes a certain sense. We can debate if this is a novel or a collection of stories but I think the answer is yes. You and I (reader) are going to revisit this point after we talk more about this book. It was first published as a limited-edition expensive hardcover. I have no idea how different the edits are between the editions. It is exciting that Malerman has become bankable enough for Del Rey to shell out the funds to re-issue these small press books. I am sure this, in the long run, benefits This is Horror and Earthling so I am excited about that.

If this was early Malerman I am impressed with how confident and assured the writing is. I can see why JM and his team would wait to publish this one. It is not as commercial as the Bird Box books, the hooks are not as surface as Inspection and require a certain amount of patience from the reader. I scanned quickly a few GoodReads reviews and it is clearly some readers wanted less of a slow burn.

Here is the concept six tales set in the midwestern take on the haunted village, a motif we have come to associate with King’s Castle Rock or Lovecraft’s Dunwich. Goblin Michigan reminds me more of Charles L. Grant’s Oxrun Station novels and stories that ran from the 70s and 80s. These were atmospheric and moody horror novels that played with character and vibe. I have no idea if the Grant novels were an influence but they are a spiritual cousin to Goblin at the least. My memory could be wrong but I believe Grant did a collection of Oxrun Station stories called the Orchard.

The setting of Goblin a town cursed with abnormally high rainfall and haunted by secrets seems to be created as Malerman’s go-to creepy small town. I mean horror writers need one of these right? King uses Castle Rock and Derry like a pair of crutches but that is not the case with Goblin. A town that has not really appeared else in the Malerverse, yet.

None the less the six stories here are subtle gothic fare, if you are coming for the post-apocalyptic action of Bird Box make sure you don’t sleep on the equally good maybe better sequel Malorie. In that book, Malerman showed his chops for using plot, setting, and character to create terror.  Goblin however is VIBE with all-caps, bold, and underlined to make a point.

It is funny because the wrap-around story presents some of the best setup and pay-off in the book. Enough happens that you forget about the deliver-man with the weird instructions, by the time the epilogue came around I have a pleasant “Oh yeah,” and enjoyed that moment. Of the six Novellas, I liked the back half a little better. The last two “A Mix up at the Zoo,” and “The Hedges” were my favorites.

Kamp is the strongest of the first half, the story of a man who is scared of ghosts to the point that his biggest fear is being scared to death. This story plays horror tropes like a rhythm guitar player plays a solid power cord. It is a comforting feeling for this reader. I can relax a little knowing the storytelling is in good hands.

The only novella that lost me was “Happy Birthday Hunter,” which just made the animal rights guy in me a little uncomfortable, and that might not affect you. I couldn’t relate to the character but for the same reasons, moments of the Zoo novella hit my sweet spot.

This story of employees at the Goblin Zoo had several powerful moments of character. It is the story of a tour guide and a zookeeper who confront the nature of their jobs, the zoo, and the idea of cages. This is done through a carefully crafted three-way parallel between the man picking up the trash, one who gives a tour, and a female gorilla who is the star of the zoo.

“One night at closing time in his second week at his second week on the job, a possible explanation popped up, unasked for.

They know I’m not where I am supposed to be. Up here- he tapped his head – I’m caged too.”

Every reader brings their personal feelings to the mind-meld of a novel. This reader was hit hard by the power of empathy shown in this story for the gorilla Eula. Her cage has a sign ENTER IF YOU DARE! IT’S GOBLIN’S GREAT GORILLA. Dirk the zookeeper turned tour guide is so affected by her captivity and the shame of it he can’t speak or do his job. This was the most powerful and emotionally rich moment of the book for me. Dirk’s awareness that Eula was not just an animal but a woman was powerful.

“Her literal captivity was hard enough for him. But consider the woman inside the Gorilla, with no notion to break free, was enough to keep Dirk silent for the duration of the tour’s stay at her post.”

Powerful stuff.

All things being equal and divorced from my personal ethics the most effective horror story in the collection is the closer The Hedges. This one is perfect as is but I felt like it could have sustained a short novel in the 150 to 170 pages range. The story of Wayne a widow who plants the hedge maze (seen on the cover of this edition) to honor his dead wife. I understand why this is the cover story, Margot the young child on the cover goes to the police and tells them unlike basically everyone else she has solved the maze. She is telling them because she found something you will want to see.”

I love this setup. The narrative flips from Wayne’s backstory to Margot telling her story, Malerman breaking the rules a bit by letting Margot unfold this story in her own words. The back and forth is very well done with the alternating chapters ending on notes that will keep you turning pages.  

Consider the transition between chapters six and seven of this tale. Six ends with Molly Wayne’s wife dying…

“Molly would die, six years later in her sleep, and Wayne devastated and very close to being destroyed, intended to keep his vows.

He’d start by planting her a bush.”

Seven starts with Margot wanting to call her mom, her mom is on her way, but the cops are desperate to get the end of her story and the short chapter ends with her teasing that she cracked the code of the Hedges. We cut back to Wayne building the hedges. This structure helps build the story to the point I don’t want to spoil. Excellent storytelling.

The ending wrap around ties it all together. I believe this book is both a novel and a short story collection. Yes in a way it is both. The rules that define what a book are made-up bullshit anyway. A novel follows a character through a story and in this case, the character at the heart of this narrative is the town of Goblin.

I whole heartily recommend this novel for Malerman and horror completionists. This is not the book to begin a journey with this author. Not for any weakness on this book just based on the strength of his other releases. Birdbox and Inspection are great openers. I have yet to read a Malerman that didn’t show storytelling and prose chops. Goblin is subtle quiet horror but if that is your bag then take a trip to Goblin Michigan.

My first interview with Josh, Goblin focused episode coming soon!