Diabolica Americana: A Dark States Horror Compendium by Keith Anthony Baird

If you’re looking for tricks and treats galore this Halloween, then look no further. The second horror compendium following last year’s Diabolica Britannica from Keith Anthony Baird doesn’t disappoint.

Diabolica Americana is a charity horror anthology featuring 22 authors, including a very humble foreword by Eric LaRocca, author of ‘Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke’.

I decided to read this collection of short stories in random order, based on titles that took my fancy when settling down for my October creepy reading time.

I’d heard of ten of the authors who I’d mostly seen sharing their love of the horror genre on Twitter. The other twelve new-to-me authors were promptly followed by yours truly as the talent levels throughout this anthology is staggeringly good.

To put together a bunch of writers whose diverse creativity and ability to suck you in to their worlds is no mean feat. Not a single tale felt out of place, this congregation delivered a mixture of scares, intrigue, oddities and outright horror in 22 tasty doses.

From River Witches to Serial Killers, Folk Magic, Vampires and Creepy Crawlies, there’s something for everyone’s terror taste.

It’s tricky to pick specific stories to recommend because each and every one has its own original voice. However, I will give a special mention to the following authors as their tales stood out for me, personally.

I made a beeline for Sadie Hartmann’s offering ‘Sunnies’. Sadie is Mother Horror on all her socials and is an important voice in the horror community. I’ve been following her since year dot for her excellent bookish recommendations and horror content and wasn’t disappointed. Sunnies was dark, disturbing and expertly written. The conclusion gave me a unexpected horror shock, just what the doctor ordered!

‘Hexmeister’ by Sara Tantlinger, was an eerie story of witches and dark folk magic that crept right into my bones. I’ll definitely be sniffing out more from Sara!

Another one that charmed my inner darkness was ‘The Iron Coffin’ by Laurel Hightower. Anyone for a stiff drink? You might want to grab a dram of Bourbon for this one!

I could praise every individual story in this glorious compendium, but my review would be so long, and I wouldn’t want to keep you from popping a pre-order on right away for your own copy of course.

I will add just one more to my mentions though, Richard Chizmar’s ‘Mischief’. Halloween isn’t Halloween without a serial killer is it? Well Chizmar had me hooked from the word go, talk about atmospheric, and what fantastically written characters! I best watch my back as an Aquarian…

So what are you waiting for? (Other than release day, obviously, which is October 28th!) Get your pre-orders in, lovers of thrills and spook. It’s available in both kindle and paperback format. I am very tempted to buy a physical copy for my horror shelf, I’ll just go and see if I’ve got space for it, spooky season is a killer for me because oh, the sweet, dark temptation…

Get your pre-order in right HERE folks!

Thank you to Keith Anthony Baird for sending me an advance e-copy, it was an absolute pleasure to read. And bloody well done to each and every author whose fine skills are showcased in this must-have collection.

New Animal by Ella Baxter

New Animal piqued my interest as it had a mix of all the dark things I look for in a book. By the time I’d read the first few chapters, I knew that Ella Baxter has quite a way with words. 

Set in Australia and Tasmania, a setting that I very much enjoy, I was instantly transported into the life of Amelia and felt I could relate to her in ways that surprised me. 

She’s an intelligent woman who instead of dwelling on all the sadness and confusion her life throws at her, she decides to deal with her grief by leaving her job/home/family and crashes straight into the BDSM scene. 

Death in the family? Deal with it by going to a fetish club. Why not?! Who says there’s a right or wrong way to do these things. 

However, New Animal isn’t a story about the kinky sex life of a woman who’s going off the rails. It’s about coping and not coping. Sometimes it takes a trauma in life to set people off on a journey in order to get their head together.

I flew through this at quite a speed, the writing style had a grip on me more than the story itself. The descriptions were so vivid. 

There are definitely scenes in this book that would be triggering for some. It’s crass, violent, and at times, brutal. One scene made me cringe and that is a rarity for me! I love to push the boundaries though, give me all the reading-feels, even the uncomfortable ones! 

Overall, New Animal was a dark and very well written story. It won’t be for everyone, but Ella Baxter and her New Animal has given me something to think about. 

Recommended for people who can appreciate that human nature can be an off-kilter thing and for those who don’t mind feeling just a tiny bit disgusted by stuff humans do to each other. 

Out 17 February 2022

Ella Baxter is a writer and artist living in Melbourne, Australia.

Immortelle by Catherine McCarthy

An immortelle is a long-lasting flower arrangement placed on graves in cemeteries. They were originally made from natural dried flowers or could be made from artificial materials such as china and painted plaster of paris or beads strung on wire arrangements. Unless made of a highly durable material (e.g. china), they would often be enclosed in a glass container (known as globes) to protect them from the weather.

[Source :Wikipedia]

Elinor’s daughter, Rowena, is found poisoned and dead in an animal trough, Elinor is certain the local priest is to blame. Influenced by her late grandmother’s interest in supernatural magic, Elinor crafts an Immortelle for Rowena’s grave in an attempt to capture her daughters spirit.

I’m not telling you anything else about the story. I read very little about it before starting (other than to find out what an ‘Immortelle’ is) and I think this is the best way to read.

Witchcraft, the natural world, mother/daughter relationships, (a firm favourite of mine) gothic tones, alchemy, love, hope, grief, the supernatural, spirituality, revenge, good/evil, it’s all in here. For a 95 page novella, it’s full to the brim of everything I look for in gentle, quiet horror.

We weren’t quite in September when I started, but on reading the first three chapters, I knew I’d made the right choice to kick off my “Spooky Season” reads.

My favourite time of year by far, Autumn is THE time for enjoying books that chill, thrill and creep into my mind. Horror doesn’t have to be all blood and guts and carnage. Horror can be subtle, hidden in the shadows, full of atmosphere and tension, characters created with careful consideration so the story instantly comes to life, an easy invitation to become entranced. Catherine’s novella has all this, and so much more.

Her story telling is mesmerising. It feels as though it’s made of the most sublime ingredients. She has a way with words, a way with pace and timing. Immortelle ticked every box. It is an astonishingly beautiful story. I had many moments with it where I had to stop and think and appreciate.

If you enjoy calm, wistful horror with touches of darkness, I highly recommend Catherine’s writing.

‘I press on, guided by the rhythmic lap of the sea, her breath a sizzle as it caresses the shore and a gasp as she sucks a mouthful back. The slow rhythm steadies my breathing, and the distant beam from the lighthouse, which seems to flash in time with the waves, illuminates the scene in a sweeping arc’.

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

‘One day, the mother was a mother but then, one night, she was quite suddenly something else…’

Nightbitch, that was her name. That is all she is. All she’s referred to. That was her something else.

Mothers, cast your minds back to when your babies’ body clocks were trying to get into a routine. Awake half the night, or all night. Those small hours when it felt like you and your tiny bundle were the only two people on the planet. The sleep deprivation holds strong. Your brain feels weird. Your body feels weird. Lack of sleep does stuff to you. Strange stuff. It’s a mad time looking after a new human.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a good man at your side. He might be snoring his head off peacefully or away all week, working, bringing home the bacon. But when you’re loosing your mind because twenty minutes sleep a night for months on end doesn’t quite cut it, a woman’s grip on reality may become a little compromised.

‘At first she did nothing, waiting for her husband to wake, which he did not, because that was a thing he ever did. She waited longer than she usually did, waited and waited, the boy wailing while she lay as still as a corpse, patiently waiting for the day when her corpse self would miraculously be reanimated and taken into the Kingdom of the Chosen, where it would create an astonishing art installation composed of many aesthetically interesting beds’.

Nightbitch used to have a career, a life outside of four walls. A life beyond feeding and vomit and nappy changes and laundry. She was an artist, a creator. She and her husband had made the greatest creation of all, their baby son, and yet, it wasn’t enough. She had a gap in her life which couldn’t be filled with toddler play dates, meetings with other Moms, chatting baby this, baby that, all day long. No. It wasn’t her. Nightbitch was her. Small signs. Small urges. Slowly, terrifyingly, and at times, hilariously, she felt that she was simply turning into a dog.

‘Yes, vegetables were very civilised. Dogs wouldn’t buy vegetables. Listen to what you’re saying, she said to herself.’

As Nightbitch became more and more Nightbitch, so her parenting abilities changed, for the better? In some ways, I’d say yes. In others, absolutely hell no!! Her son adored their playtimes, the ‘let’s pretend’ at being doggies. Woof!

She was finally finding herself. At last. Even her husband reaped some benefits, on occasion.

As you can probably sense by the first part of my review, this is a story about motherhood and coping and not coping. The best way to describe it to someone would be –

‘It’s an alternative Mother and Baby Book’. Or…

‘It’s an alternative Marriage Counselling Book.’ Or…

‘It’s an alternative Spiritual Health and Well-being Book’.

I’m laughing now, because, really, it is none of those things at all. It’s a dark and deeply disturbing story where the reader can take from it whatever they see fit. There’s a speculative feel to it all the way through, and I love that in a book. There is no right or wrong way to how this book should make the reader feel.

Rachel Yoder’s writing style has such wickedness to it. Her characters are drawn on the pages so clearly, yet we know only just below the surface of most of them. Apart from Nightbitch. Around half way, we know her well. A little too well perhaps.

What I found unusual in Nightbitch was the way her two year old toddlers personality developed into such a big-part character as the story unfolded. We start to see the kind of child he is becoming. How family traits can go far back and then journey their way to the current time. For such a young character, his innocence and sheer glee was a pleasure to read. It was even heartwarming in places. Not too often though, let’s not get carried away from the darkness this book has in spades.

Nightbitch is a wild, wild ride and I think it would either entertain or horrify. I don’t think there’s middle ground here. It entertained me from beginning to end. I loved everything about it. After all, we are all animals at the end of the day, aren’t we?

Be more Nightbitch ladies, and control yourselves in the raw meat aisle at Tesco.

Thank you to Kate at Harvill Secker for sending me an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Life on Other Planets by Matt Cook

It’s 1997 and Ben Carters Great Aunt Pearl has just died. Ben arrives with his Dad, Victor, and various Aunts and Uncles meet at the dilapidated old house in order to get cracking with the sorting out and organising of the funeral. Nothing unusual about that, where there’s life, there’s death. Where there’s families, there’s stress. Goes hand in hand.

However, no one can seem to find Aunt Pearls Will, which is a tad problematic. Patience is tested, the families true colours begin to emerge and relationships take a bit of a toxic turn. And then there’s the discovery of something called the ‘Church of The Holy Heavens’ which causes no end of questions and suspicions. Things begin to get as messy as the stale old house itself.

At first glance the title and cover hints that the story is going to be somewhat ‘out there’. Other planets, things that are not of this world, the suggestion of alternative life and beyond.

But the story within couldn’t be more grounded to planet earth and the people on it if it tried. I found myself becoming quickly absorbed and at one with the trials and tribulations of the Carter family.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 47 years of being on planet earth, it’s that humans can be pretty crap when it comes to familial stress. Moving house, new jobs, new schools, relationships, babies, doing the monthly ‘big shop’, health, money, death. It all plays a part in what we all become as we age and slide into that older generation category. (I’m not quite there, yet…!)

As we age, the more knowledgeable we become, yes? Well, actually, having just spent 266 pages with fourteen year old Ben and seeing his family unit through his young eyes has triggered a bit of a rethink actually.

Matt Cooks writing gave me a bit of a zap when I started reading. I knew from a very early point that this was going to be a thoughtful, relatable story, with nuggets of dark humour dropped in throughout.

So, this zap, let me explain. On starting a book, sometimes you read a paragraph, or one sentence in the first few chapters and you already know that you’ve got yourself some quality writing. That’s exciting. That’s the zap.

‘The refrigerator was a riot of mould and malfunction; ancient foodstuffs of unknowable content glistened and furred and hatched plans.’

I mean, who’d think to link crusty-labelled jars of the unknown with dodgy best before dates in the back of a cupboard with the ‘hatching of plans’? Matt did, and it made me laugh far too hard, I completely got it. I’ve rummaged through a similar cupboard or two myself!

That’s how Matt writes. His humour has a slightly dark, yet soft, spiritual side. He has a real understanding of the human psyche, which shines throughout the book. This is particularly prominent with his characters. He must of cast his mind back to his fourteen year old self numerous times.

Matt has created a heartfelt story that is full of life, even though the plot is predominantly about death. Humans are simply being human. Teenagers loitering on the sidelines, often invisible, yet brimming with ideas and carefully trying to work out their own lives. Adults in the thick of it, unknowingly (and probably knowingly) cocking things up.

Many of us have been there, lived it, seen it.

But have we properly seen it?

Fact: Matt has.

I think he’s a bit of a ‘people watcher’. He sees things from a different angle, this helped in creating his characters, the descriptions and situations.

‘I tried again to speak, to clear things up, but my voice was a chewy substance that fell straight out of my mouth on to the floor’.

Matt has a way with words, his story telling has a flow that is so immersive. Before I knew it I had read well over half the book, I’d only picked it up for a chapter or two. A sure sign of a great book is when you’re lost in those pages and don’t realise you have been until you stop, and jump back out into real life.

I would highly recommend Life on Other Planets to everyone. It’s the kind of book which would appeal to adults, teenagers, or a senior human being. It’s got an abundance of emotion, and what stood out most of all was it’s readability. It’s so readable, you don’t even feel yourself getting sucked in. I felt like I was hiding in a cupboard in Pearls hallway, earwigging and spying on the family.

So as you’ve probably gathered, I absolutely loved it and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Matt has up his sleeve. Marvellous stuff!

Thank you Matt for sending me a gifted copy, it’s found it’s comfy slot on my forever shelf.

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