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.

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’.

The Maid by Nita Prose

Meet Molly Gray. 25, lovable, intelligent and rather eccentric. Her mind is as organised as her maids trolley, she’s a stickler for routine, order and cleanliness, so working at the five star Regency Grand Hotel is the perfect job for her.

I’m not one for reading cosy mysteries, they can be a bit ‘twee’ for my tastes, but there is so much more to Molly than meets the eye. I got this feeling from reading just the synopsis. When my request was approved on NetGalley, the prologue reinforced my theory that this Molly character really had quite an edge.

“Have I mentioned how much I detest cheaters? Cheaters deserve to be thrown in quicksand and to suffocate in filth”.

I really enjoyed this closed (hotel!) room style murder mystery. Nita Prose created a dazzling hotel, the descriptions and scene settings were so easy to visualise. Inside the hotel, the array of characters were as colourful and as quirky as the hotel decor itself. From kind, gentle and caring, to acerbic, unlikeable and untrustworthy, The Maid had it all.

Molly lived with her Gran, but sadly she passed away, so Molly is left to deal with life and everything that’s thrown at her by herself. She finds interacting with people a little tricky and prefers to be blending in and doing her job rather than being the centre of attention.

Mollys world is tipped on its head in an instant when she discovers the dead body of hotel guest Mr Black, on the bed in one of the hotel rooms, and so the story takes off from there.

Mollys intelligence and unusual way of thinking things through is tip top entertainment from the word go. She maybe JUST a maid, but she’s not daft. Far from it.

“Cheryl may be my boss, but she’s definitely not my superior. There is a difference, you know”.

I enjoyed how Molly and her Grans relationship and their backstories were subtly weaved in throughout the story giving little nuggets of who they are and how they came to be.

“Where shall we travel tonight?” she (Gran) would ask. “To the Amazon with David Attenborough or to Japan with National Geographic?”

Molly went from delightful, model employee to a deep, dark thinker at the drop of a hat.

“…I fantasised about all the things I would do – spray bleach in her face, strangle her with a bathrobe tie…”

This is the main reason I loved this story as much as I did. Me and my dark heart, lapping up those macabre moments. I had lots of questions dancing around in my mind about what kind of person Molly truly was, and I wasn’t disappointed when things began to fall into place. I was rooting for her from the get-go.

The Maid is thoroughly enjoyable, completely believable and above all, a cracking murder mystery. I read that the film rights have been bought for it and an actor chosen already to play the part of Molly. That, I have got to see!!

Thank you so much to the publishers, Harper Collins, for my advance readers e-copy via the NetGalley platform, it was an absolute pleasure to read.

The Maid is out in January 2022.

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.

The Sound Mirror by Heidi James

‘The Sound Mirror spans three generations and thousands of miles. It is an examination of class, war, violence, family and shame from the rich details of ordinary lives and intimately rendered characters.’

Sometimes you can tell instantly when an author has put their heart and soul into writing a book. It’s more to them than simply their book or their story. It becomes a venting tool, a diary, a place to allow inner feelings to emerge. A therapy of sorts.

Has this book won an award? I couldn’t find anything that says it has and I find it very hard to believe that it hasn’t.

Heidi’s story telling is phenomenal. The creativity is outstanding. How can writing with such a spiritual calm incorporate the brutality of life and truths without becoming a confusing conflict?

I had to concentrate hard with the three different characters and the joint narrative that told this story. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it. I needed silence and zero distraction. I wanted to hang onto every word, allowing myself time to digest and ponder this journey. There was no reason to rush.

The Sound Mirror is an education. It’s astonishing how much connection I felt with the characters and how their lives affected me directly and indirectly.

I can’t say much more other than I love Heidi’s writing, I read Wounding last year and that left one hell of an impression. You can read my review here.

Anyway, may I suggest you get yourself a copy and quietly settle into Heidi’s world, she writes for listeners, for thinkers, for ponderers and above all, she writes for herself.

The Sound Mirror by Heidi James is published by Bluemoose Books and you can order your copy direct from them here.