Grimm Mistresses (Anthology)

Short Take: Move over Brothers Grimm, and let the ladies show you how it’s done.

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What the world does not need is more fairy-tale reboots.  We already get so many retellings via movies, tv, Broadway plays, and books, do we really need another “brand-new take” on something that’s worked just fine on its own for centuries?  Fairy tales are classic for a reason.  They are simple stories that give us invaluable life lessons, like, if a girl is just pretty and patient enough, and silently endures whatever abuse is thrown at her, eventually, Prince Charming will ride in and whisk her away from all of it.  Or if a girl wants a man to love her, she just has to change everything about herself.  Or that all step-parents are monsters.  Or….

You know what?  Never mind.  Classic fairy tales are really great stories, but they could definitely use some tweaking for the modern world.  And oh my stars and garters, does Grimm Mistresses deliver on that one.

The ride kicks off with “Little Dead Red” by Mercedes M. Yardley.  It’s a new version of Little Red Riding Hood, one in which the Wolf kills the poor girl, and the girl’s mother is out for vengeance.  Folks, this is a dark, dark, DARK story.  I loved and hated every single page.  Marie’s pain cuts into the reader’s own nerve centers, and it’s so hard to experience everything that happens to her, but at the same time, I HAD to know what happened.  I found out in the end, and I think I’m still a little traumatized.

Nectar by Allison M. Dickson is the kind of balls-out crazypants take on Hansel and Gretel that only she could pull off.  The essentials of the story are there, but there’s also a depressed IT worker, a few futuristic pagan vampire warrior women, some really sweet emotional connections, and a handful of definite squirm-inducing ick scenes.  In short, it’s Allison doing what she does best, and she is at the top of her game in this one.

The Leopard’s Pelt by S. R. Cambridge is probably my favorite story in this collection.  It’s a haunting Beauty and the Beast tale that manages to keep a lovely bright thread of romance intact through all the pain and gore and suffering in the rest of the story.  The 1940’s setting was pure deliciousness, and I absolutely adored Beatrice in all her frazzled, frumpy, brilliant, kind, glory.

The fourth entry is Hazing Cinderella, by C. W. LaSart.  I thought the “mean girls” aspect of the story was great, and the author isn’t afraid to go down some seriously twisted roads, particularly in Jamie’s backstory.  There are a few sentences there that did a number on me.  But I just didn’t quite get Cinderella from Katie.  I mean, I know that there are some things that are definitely not what they appear to be, but other than some of the other girls referring to Katie as Cinderella, I wasn’t feeling it.  She never gave off the victim vibe (even if she was faking it) that is pretty much a requirement for Cinderella.

Finally, we have The Night Air, by Stacey Turner.  I don’t want to tell which story this is based on, because I didn’t figure it out until the end, and I think it would be a spoiler to put it here.  So I’ll just say that it’s a very old story that’s been tossed around with a bit of Shirley Jackson and The Twilight Zone.  Marla is a young wife and mother with three very young children who just moved to a new town and is trying to make the best possible life for all of them.  I was on her side throughout, but when she reclaims her birthright, she becomes selfish and complacent and distinctly unlikeable.  It’s a bold move, and I had to tip my hat to Ms. Turner.

Overall, this is a fantastic collection.  Read it if you like horror, fairy tales, or just excellent storytelling.  And for god’s sake, if a weird old woman tells you to close the windows, you keep those windows closed.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a handful of spice gumdrops.)

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The Last Supper, by Allison M. Dickson

Short Take:  I loved it, but I didn’t enjoy it.

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Give your brain a snack!!

I don’t read dystopian fiction.  It probably sounds weird coming from a horror nut like me, but usually, dying-world stuff is just too depressing.  That’s one of my favorite things about horror: the good guys usually win.   There might be a few casualties along the way, but usually, the terrifying thing is killed or banished or in some way shut down.

Not so with dystopian fiction.  It usually begins after what I consider to be the real story, after the good guys have lost, and the world has been destroyed.  Sometimes it’s fun, like in Bird Box, because the event that brought about the end of the world was just so weird and so out-there, I was able to just relax and enjoy the ride.

The Last Supper is a horse of an entirely different hue.  For starters, the world has been ravaged not by aliens or monsters but by our own stupidity and greed.  The mega-fertilizers and genetic modification applied to the corn have led to mutations in the plant life, and destroyed nearly all of our food supplies.  The governments have fallen, and been replaced by a religious sect (The Divine Rite) that periodically tests the citizens to make sure they are following the rules, and if they don’t, they are poisoned by the titular Last Supper.

John Welland is good man, a rule-following man, until his wife fails her exam, and dies after eating her Last Supper.  Something within him breaks, and suddenly, he sees what he’s been missing for so long:  how can a society that ostensibly is devoted to maintaining a clean food supply and keeping its citizens alive kill those citizens for the smallest of infractions?

He begins rebelling in small ways at first, defacing posters, sampling forbidden alcoholic beverages, keeping a journal of all of his “wrong” thoughts (shades of 1984, anyone?).  He eventually joins a small group of rebels who seek to bring down the Divine Rite, including one of his twin daughters, Kaya, the beautiful Genevieve, Christoff, who can fix anything, Turpin, who always has booze, and Genevieve’s father, Harry.

Sure, it doesn’t sound like my usual brain-candy, but I know that Allison Dickson is a terrific author, so I’ll probably like it, right?

Wrong.

Don’t get me wrong.  This is a great book.  The pacing is, as always, Ms. Dickson’s greatest strength.  She knows how to throw some crazy-quick action at you, then let you catch your breath with scenes that showcase her skill in characterization.  Did I mention how amazing the characters are?  They really are the high point of this book.  Whether they are mourning or laughing, you’re doing it right along with them.  She also knows just how to reveal secrets, in great bursts, and in small, slowly growing increments.

I also Capital-L Love the references to other myths.  Anansi was an obvious one, but there were also shades of poor cursed Cassandra, doomed to be able to foretell the future, but not to be believed.

So why didn’t I “like” this book?  Probably because I’ve spent the last week reading reports of how our own government systematically tortured hundreds of people, at least one to death, and many of which were innocent.  It might have something to do with the fact that a few jagoffs with computers half a world away may have irreparably damaged a major movie studio just by making a few vague threats.  Or maybe it’s the way some of our leaders are fighting harder and harder to take away the rights of people who don’t share their religious beliefs, and in some cases, they are winning.  Perhaps it’s the far-too-many stories of police officers killing unarmed men because they “looked threatening”.

It’s hard to enjoy a book in which the people are cattle, and the government is out of control, and innocent people are killed for just the barest appearance of wrongdoing, and our food is slowly poisoning us, when, well, I’m getting the same things on my news feed.  This may be the first “fantasy” novel I’ve read that was actually pretty honkin realistic.  I don’t think that this was necessarily a black mark against The Last Supper, however, more a commentary on the state of the world today.

My only real gripe was that the first part of the book was kind of an info-dump.  It took me a while to get hip to the lingo, and I had to keep backtracking to double-check various terms.  Of course in a book like this, it’s necessary, when the world changes, so does our language (selfie, I’m looking at you), but it broke up the rhythm of the early part of the book for me.  Also, the ending was a bit ambiguous, I’m still not 100% sure exactly what happened.  But damn, the final words were powerful.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS

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Holiday Wrappings (Anthology)

Short Take:  Put a little something spooky in their stockings.

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Note:  I was gifted a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I have reviewed some of these stories previously, in Wrapped in Black.  So I’m going to break this review into two parts.  If you’ve read my Wrapped in Black review, you can skip the first one, as it’s a copy/paste of my original.

Stories I have reviewed previously, from Wrapped in Black:

UNTO THE EARTH by Patrick C. Greene:   Probably the story that I felt had the biggest shocker-twist-wait…what?? ending in the collection.  I’m not going to spoil it here, but trust me, it’s a GOOD one.  This story is also the one that screwed with my emotions a surprising amount for such a brief tale.

HÄXENHAUS by Nick Kimbro:  The medieval setting was a great backdrop, and the atmosphere was wonderfully realized.

BEAUTIFUL, BROKEN THINGS by Rose Blackthorn:  A tough one.   It seemed to take place in a futuristic version of a typical US city, but that wasn’t really clear, so some of the references  (like the drug Prizm) were awkwardly shoved in.  I liked the story, but think it would have worked better without being bogged down by the sci-fi aspects.

SHE MAKES MY SKIN CRAWL by Shenoa Carroll-Bradd:  Shenoa Carroll-Bradd is just not right. This is one of the most crazily-inventive stories I’ve read in ages, but damn did it make me queasy.  Some serious nightmare-fuel, but at the same time, so ridiculously out-there that you can’t help but love the craziness.

HAIR SHIRT DRAG by Gordon White:   The voice of the narrator (Jesse) is so completely matter-of-fact about himself and his life and the extent to which he is “over it” that you can’t help but want to listen to him all night.  I mean, come on: “I ain’t never read the Key of Solomon, but I read the Book of Kings. Rest of the Bible, too, back when Mama thought that’d help me fit in. It didn’t, I won’t, and, truth be told, I ain’t all that broken up about it.”  With three sentences, White has created an entire personality.  Oh yeah, there’s a story here too, and it’s a good one (seriously), but truth be told, I would read a whole novel of Jesse doing things like grocery shopping and making coffee.


New (to me) stories:   

DADDY’S GLASSES by Allison M. Dickson:  This is not a ghost story.  This is a story about family and secrets and guilt and love that just happens to have some creepy glasses in it.  As always, wonderful detail to character, voice, and place.

MY BOSS IS A VAMPIRE by Michael David Matula:  FUN.  Funny.  “Even with a monstrous paycheck, could she in good conscience work for such a monster? Could she take his blood money and buy a nice apartment and a ton of awesome shoes?  Probably. Yeah. That sounded exactly like something she’d do.”  Giggling while reading horror stories is a good time, y’all.

INSEPARABLE Solomon Archer, Ph.D.:  Trippy, atmospheric, and gory.  The story moves like a top that’s winding down.  It spins, and tips, and dips in a different direction, and rights itself, and spins a different way.  It’s the bad dream that you can’t quite wake up from, and can’t completely remember.

DADDY USED TO DRINK TOO MUCH by Michael G. Williams – wonderfully voiced, finely nuanced, a story of the sacrifices we make for our children, and the demons that all of us live with.  And a vampire.

THE CURSE OF KIRBY by Patrick C. Greene – his 2nd entry in this collection.  So let’s say you have the neighbors from hell.  And you happen to bump into a Goth-ish girl who can communicate with ghosts, and sort-of control a particularly strong one.  The results could be gory, hilarious, a bit heartbreaking, or even all of the above.  LOVED THIS.

VERMILION by Bryan W. Alaspa:  Ohhhhhh, the visuals on this were so great! The flood, the attacks, the explosions…. this is one of those stories that I’d love to see as a movie.

AIN’T THEY BRIGHT by Cecilia Dockins – Hospitals are creepy even when they aren’t haunted.  This story is a great, weird mix of medical lingo, emotional upset, and gore.  It’s not an easy or quick read, but worth the bit of extra effort.  The sadness of the ending was an unexpected bit of loveliness.

NIGHTBOUND by Patrick C. Greene – (Before I review this story, I’d like to point out that Patrick C. Greene is the only author to have three stories in this collection.  When I skimmed the table of contents, and saw his name over and over, I may have rolled my eyes a bit at the lack of variety (I will neither confirm nor deny this).  But after reading all three of his entries, all I can say is:  He’s just really that good.)

Nightbound may be my favorite story in this collection.  Breaking into an abandoned mansion and finding coffins in the basement seems like a vampire story cliche.  But the buildup is what elevates it.  There’s a whole other story here, about escaped convicts, a heist, bags of money, a sociopath, and a girl who’s prettier and greedier than she is smart.

Overall, this is one of the more solid short story collections I’ve read in ages.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and maybe a bit of mistletoe.  Happy Holidays!)

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Bonus Review: Tumble, by Allison M. Dickson

Short Take:  I’ll be sending the author my therapist’s bill.


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**Note:  I was given an advance copy of this story for review purposes.

Allison M. Dickson must be stopped.   I’ve followed her works for nearly two years now, and her powers are only growing.  Sooner or later, world domination is inevitable, and I shudder to think of what she will do then.

Tumble is the perfect example.  It’s a short story.  Oh, you may ask, how much damage can an author do in 8500 words?  The answer, my friends, is PLENTY.  Bah, you scoff (that is how you scoff, right?), it’s only a story, and not a very big one at that, surely it can’t inflict much damage to your psyche or emotions.  And you would be so very, very wrong.

Miranda is a housewife who is going through a quiet kind of hell.  It’s coming up on the 1-year anniversary of the death of her son,  Aaron, who died of a hideous, prolonged illness when he was thirteen.  Her husband, Tru, has dealt with the loss mainly by avoidance.  He’s always at work or some community activity, leaving her alone with their two-year-old son, Sam much of the time.

It’s bad enough, trying to be a mother to a child who’s still mostly a baby, while dealing with crushing grief.  But then something very strange begins to happen when Miranda is doing laundry.  Some of Aaron’s things start coming out of the dryer with the rest of the clean clothes, despite the fact that she had long since packed away, donated, or thrown out everything of Aaron’s.

Knowing that Tru will never believe her, Miranda begins obsessively watching the washer and dryer, documenting every item that goes in and comes out, even buying a Nanny Cam to make sure that every bit of evidence is saved.

And it is.

Tumble is a genre-buster.  It’s a horror story, no question, and the ending is as terrifying, sick, and shocking as anything I’ve read before.  But it’s also a story of a family collapsing in on its grief, of the black hole of loss that sucks in everything that matters.  When I read the part about the comic book artist, I actually teared up.

And that’s why Allison M. Dickson can not be allowed to continue writing.  I’m sorry, I understand that she’s immensely talented, and that not having any new AMD stories would probably leave a hole in the world of literature.  But my heart just can’t take the trauma she can inflict when she chooses.

Eventually, everyone will read her works, and we’ll all be crushed into emotionless shells of the people we were.  There will be hushed conversations by people with pale faces and watery eyes.

“Hey, did you read the new – “

“Yeah, man.  Yeah.  It was intense.”

“And the part where she….”

“Dude, don’t talk about it, ok?  It was rough.”

“Yeah, I hear you.  I don’t know if I can sleep tonight.”

“Me either.  Call me if it gets too bad.  We can watch The Exorcist or something to calm down.”

I fear for the future if she continues.  Horror is one thing, bring on the ghosts and gore, but when you take a scary story and use it to utterly break the reader’s heart, nothing good can come of it.  That kind of power can’t go unchecked.  Mark my words, this is the beginning of the end of life as we know it.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a Valium)

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Wrapped In Black (Anthology)

Short Take:  Sometimes you get your wish, and sometimes, your wish gets you…..


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Note:  I was gifted an advance copy of Wrapped in Black in exchange for an honest review.  So, below are my honest opinions!

I’ve said it before, I’ve never been a fan of the short story.  My preference for oversized novels is pretty well-known.  Lately, though, I’ve started to re-think my position.  Maybe it’s that I’m getting older, and my patience and attention span aren’t what they used to be.  Maybe I’m finally starting to see the beauty in a lack of excess, enjoying the idea of something smaller, but just as well-crafted – the lovely, personal tiny house versus the soulless McMansion.  Is reading a collection of short stories by very talented but not very well-known authors the same experience is diving into the latest thousand-page Stephen King tome?  No, it isn’t.  But that’s not to say it’s a lesser experience in any way.

Wrapped in Black opens on the perfect note:  “Hair Shirt Drag” by Gordon White.  The voice of the narrator (Jesse) is so completely matter-of-fact about himself and his life and the extent to which he is “over it” that you can’t help but want to listen to him all night.  I mean, come on: “I ain’t never read the Key of Solomon, but I read the Book of Kings. Rest of the Bible, too, back when Mama thought that’d help me fit in. It didn’t, I won’t, and, truth be told, I ain’t all that broken up about it.”  With three sentences, White has created an entire personality.  Oh yeah, there’s a story here too, and it’s a good one (seriously), but truth be told, I would read a whole novel of Jesse doing things like grocery shopping and making coffee.

The downside to such a strong opening is that the rest of the stories will almost certainly suffer by comparison.  The next story, “Comes the Rain” by Gregory L. Norris is a good piece with some spooky touches that somehow seemed a bit hollow, more of a scene than an actual story.  Loved the nightmare Mary Poppins, but it just felt lacking.

“Number One Angel” by Allison M. Dickson is a similar type of work, in that the whole story happens in the space of a few minutes, but it felt more fleshed-out.  The author knows how to get into the head of a character though, and with a few well-chosen phrases, she gives us decades of history between Louise and her mother.

“Unto the Earth” by Patrick C. Greene is probably the story that I felt had the biggest shocker-twist-wait…what?? ending in the collection.  I’m not going to spoil it here, but trust me, it’s a GOOD one.  This story is also the one that screwed with my emotions a surprising amount for such a brief tale.

“Haxenhaus” by Nick Kimbro was also a stand-out.  The medieval setting was a great backdrop, and the atmosphere was wonderfully realized.

I adored “Stories I Tell To Girls” by Michael G. Williams, mainly because I loved the idea of the Book people, and am hopeful that one day they’ll open a chapter in my local library, and let me hang out with them.  But it’s also terrific at creating a sense of stories within stories, and complicated relationships, and pasts that become futures and… yeah, you’ll just have to read it.

James Glass’s “The Rising Son” is a tough one.  I loved the hints at the antagonist’s identity (some will recognize him at once). I don’t want to give too much away here, but it seemed like the author was going to go in a new direction, but instead, went for the expected one.  Beautifully written, though, and I will probably pick up his longer works.

“Beautiful, Broken Things” by Rose Blackthorn was also a tough one.  It seemed to take place in a futuristic version of a typical US city, but that wasn’t really clear, so some of the references  (like the drug Prizm) were awkwardly shoved in.  I liked the story, but think it would have worked better without being bogged down by the sci-fi aspects.

“Not This Time” by Mike Lester was probably my least favorite story in this collection.  It might just be that too much sugar has rotted my brain, but I couldn’t make sense of the story and relationships between the characters.  I had to re-read the ending several times to figure out what happened, and even then, it didn’t really stay with me.  I also couldn’t figure out if there was actual witchcraft involved, or just kids playing pretend.

“Into the Light” by Solomon Archer was more meaty than the other stories.  It had a bigger scope in terms of time period, characters, and actual physical action.  I actually wish someone would make a movie of this one, it’s fun and gory and fast-paced.

Shenoa Carroll-Bradd is just not right.  “She Makes My Skin Crawl” is one of the most crazily-inventive stories I’ve read in ages, but damn did it make me queasy.  Some serious nightmare-fuel, but at the same time, so ridiculously out-there that you can’t help but love the craziness.

Eric Nash’s “Pigeon” is a funky Rube Goldbergian (is that a word?) piece from the perpective of the Scorned Woman.   It’s an archetype as old as stories themselves, but with twists both digital and supernatural.  Fun, but the ending was a little flat.

“Pig Roast” by Aaron Gudmunson is the perfect ending to the collection.  Chet is the polar opposite of Jesse from “Hair Shirt Drag”.  He’s overweight, awkward, shy, and oddly attached to his mustard.  I sort of knew where the story was heading, but I wasn’t expecting the last few sentences.  YIKES.

Overall, this was a GREAT collection.  Every story was so unique that comparing them to each other isn’t comparing apples to oranges, it’s comparing apples to elephants to picture frames to knitting needles to meteorites.  And that’s the beauty of it – there’s literally something for EVERYONE.  You like in-your-face gore?  subtle metaphor?  killer birds?  Wrapped in Black has got you covered.


The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and one eye of newt.  Happy Halloween!)

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