The Shaun Hupp Collection, Volume 1, by Shaun Hupp

Short Take:  Shaun Hupp has guts.  And they are all over the pages.51GL5H8xe1L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_[1]

 

Note:  I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

This book is a little different, in that it’s not exactly a collection of short stories, and not exactly a single story.  There are actually four medium-length stories in The Collection, with a fifth story serving as a framing device.  It’s a clever trick, no question, but it also makes a little difficult to review, as neither of my usual formats (short story collections vs. single tales) quite works.  So I’m going to do a little bit of my usual reviewer-stuff for each of the five elements that make up this book, and hopefully, I’m reasonably coherent.

The framing story begins with a stressed-out, exasperated mother of a teenage girl meeting a strange, sickly old man on the subway.  He tells her a terrible story (“I Will Make You Love Me”) before moving on to other passengers in other cars, telling each of them a tale of horror that resonates with something in their own life.  Although we are shown early on that his intent is probably evil, we don’t understand his true purpose until the end.  And it is FUN.

The first story, “I Will Make You Love Me” is the tale of a young woman being held hostage by a former lover. The flashback sequences in this one were impressive.  The pacing, and jumping back and forth between Megan’s history with Nick, and her budding relationship with Shannon was deftly handled.  I can’t say enough good things about the tempo during one critical scene, where the protagonist is waiting for something horrible to happen, and focusing on happy memories at the same time.  It’s a terrifying, breathless countdown, that I wanted to hurry through and savor at the same time.

The ending was kind of predictable, if you’ve read a lot of horror.  But the story itself was very well-written, and as I said, the pacing was fantastic.

In “The Worst Kind of Monster”, Dustin is a six year old boy with a pretty awful home life who hears a monster in his basement one night and decides to find out for himself what’s going on.  Mr. Hupp really shines when showing us the world through Dustin’s eyes.   He acts like a real little boy, and the dread we feel when following his investigation is intense.

I should add that I thought I had figured out the monster thing would go one of two ways, and I was happy (and more than a little horrified) when I found out I was wrong.  The gore is heavy in this one, bordering on torture porn.  But that wasn’t the scariest part of this story.  The final sentence is going to stay with me for a long, long time.  This is one of those “OH MY GOD THIS IS HORRIBLE I DON’T WANT THIS IN MY BRAIN” but at the same time “OH MAN I NEVER SAW THAT COMING I KIND OF LOVE IT” stories.  But absolutely not for those with delicate sensibilities.  You were warned!

“Last Words” is very similar to “I Will Make You Love Me”, in that it involves a woman being held captive, this time, along with her boyfriend.  The kidnapper, Adam, is kind of an odd character, in that he seems to bounce between serial killer/sociopath cliches and very human oddities and quirks.  Some of the dialogue rang a bit false, but there was at least one twist that I didn’t see coming, and I always like that.   

That said, I just didn’t care for the ending of “Last Words”.  The denouement was unnecessary to the rest of the story, and turned what would have been a fairly complete tale into an introduction to a whole other story that wasn’t included.  I would have preferred either just this story, with the rest of it, as a separate book, or for the final bit to be cut out.  And let me just take a second to say EW EW EW GROSS YUK – there are loads of gore in this one.

The final story, “Pound” is where Shaun Hupp really drops all pretense and shows us what he’s made of.  It’s two completely different stories, one of sudden, shocking violence during a home invasion and one of an overheated, disturbed high school boy who’s home alone when his dream girl knocks on the door.  The narration flips back and forth, and if you’re like me, you’ll be simultaneously following the action, and wracking your brain to figure out how the stories will collide.  When they eventually intertwine, the results are completely unexpected.  

So what did I think overall?

I’m well aware that I’m in a minority here, but to me, gore and horror are two different animals.  Gore is the terrible thing you see, and horror is the terrible thing you don’t.  I always tend to prefer the latter, and so to me, some of the more extreme elements in this book took away from the good stuff.  At times, it felt like the author was going for shock value, instead of using his obvious skills to go for more subtle jabs to the reader’s psyche.  Given Mr. Hupp’s flair for character, pacing, and telling a damn cool story, I feel like he could’ve toned down some of the over-the-top violence and had something just as good, and maybe even more effective.

There were also a few rookie mistakes, such as the occasional tendency to over-explain circumstances, and few paragraphs here and there that felt more like chunks of information which, while they might be relevant, slowed down the action.  But this book is a solid foundation on which to build, and I believe that Shaun Hupp is going to be a horror author to watch.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some carrot sticks.  I think I’m off cheeseburgers for a while.)

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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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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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Bonus Review – Making Deals With Devils, by Andrew Peterson (short story)

Short take:  Andrew Peterson is all heart.  

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I’ve not tried to review an individual short story before, so this may be a little awkward.  I’ve mentioned before that I’m not usually a fan of short fiction, I’m a total written-word glutton, and few things make me happier than a big meaty novel I can sink my teeth into.  

However, I’ve been following the author’s personal blogs for years now, and although his usual fiction genres aren’t my thing (sci-fi/fantasy), when he posted a snippet of Making Deals With Devils on his site, he got my attention.  He was also kind enough to gift me a copy (see?  all heart).

This review is hard to write, because I feel connected to the author, and I can see the story for what it really is, and as such, I feel like I’m kicking a wounded puppy by pointing out the flaws.  However, he DID say that he wanted honest reviews, and I respect him enough to give him that.

In the Afterword, the author states that he wrote the story (almost 9000 words) in a single day, in two sittings, and it shows in parts.  I got the sense in reading it that a lot of exposition stayed in his head, and some of it would have been helpful to understanding the story.  For example, I didn’t know for sure that the narrator was a woman until near the end of the story.  

The setting is iffy as well.  I’m a West-By-God-Virginia native (I’ve lived here my whole life), and I always greet stories that take place in The Mountain State with equal parts amusement and exasperation.  I get that for some reason, people who aren’t from around here see it as some mystical, backwoods, terrifying place, and that’s fine, but what irks me is when authors or screenwriters use “West Virginia – nuff said!” as a substitute for building atmosphere.  We aren’t all inbred, uneducated, toothless, scary, superstitious hillbillies, ok?  GOD.

Sorry, I got a little off-topic there.  It’s a pet peeve of mine, but some people may appreciate the mountain setting more.  One other thing I will point out before leaving West Virginia chat behind is that the narrator’s “hillbilly voice” was inconsistent.  

Despite these things, there’s a lot to love about Making Deals With Devils, and I think that is probably at the root of my frustration – I wanted MORE.  I wanted to know more about Abby and Rusty’s childhood, I wanted more of the local history and the generations of children who were affected, and most of all, I wanted more of Nana Zebula – everyone should have a loving, eccentric relative, whose uniqueness is a magic all its own.

The demon was one of the more interesting entities I’ve come across, and I read a lot of horror.  Its powers reminded me of sleep paralysis, which is terrifying.

I guess what I’m getting at is that Andrew Peterson wrote this in a burst of emotion, and it shows in both the strengths and weaknesses.  Despite the flaws, Making Deals With Devils evokes a lot of genuine emotions, and isn’t that what the best writing does?  


The Nerd’s Rating:  Three Happy Neurons, and one big hug.

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