Book Review: Light-Years From Home by Michaelbrent Collings

Light-Years From Home

Michaelbrent Collings

Written Insomnia Press (June 30, 2022)

Reviewed by Andrew Byers

Given Michaelbrent Collings’ prolific and wide-ranging output, I never quite know what to expect when I open one of his novels. Light-Years from Home is significantly different from anything else Collings has written that I’ve come across. I would describe it as a young adult science fiction novel (not Collings’ usual psychological/supernatural horror in other words) and would compare the essential premise with The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator, and Galaxy Quest with a modernized version of Tom Swift thrown in for good measure. Though this one’s markedly different from Collings’ usual fare, I had a lot of fun with it. It certainly brought me back to the 1980s when teens/pre-teens got together and saved the day without an adult in sight.

In Light-Years, four young people—Max, budding genius; Noah, his more athletically inclined best friend; Leya, Noah’s cousin and Max’s romantic interest; and Chloe, Max’s awkward but funny younger sister—are just supposed to go to a forest and collect some samples for a school science project. Things rapidly spin out of control when they’re abducted by aliens. These aren’t your typical little grey aliens who want to conduct…experiments on their unwitting human test subjects though. These are slightly friendlier aliens than that, though they’re biologically and culturally unique, and happen to be on the losing end of an intergalactic war, one that threatens their species’ (and eventually Earth’s) very survival. They need some help, and Max, Noah, Leya, and Chloe are just the Earthlings to provide that aid.

There’s lots of tension throughout because the kids first have to make sense of their new surrounds—and their alien captors, who they do eventually befriend—then figure out how they’re going to survive the alien war they find themselves embroiled in, then, not incidentally, find their way home and save Earth along the way. The aliens we encounter are truly alien in terms of their outlooks, biology, and technology, and that’s always appreciated. It’s very wholesome and should be fun for tweens, teens, and adults. Good action-adventure and problem-solving in a sci-fi setting.

Because Light-Years From Home is fairly far afield from Collings’ usual fare, I was interested to learn that he wrote this novel as an adaptation of another writer’s screenplay. I don’t know if this story will ever be filmed, but I will say that under the right direction and with a big enough special effects budget, this could be a very solid, family-friendly summer blockbuster.

If you, like me, need to occasionally intersperse your dark and brooding horror reading with some lighter, family friendly fare, or have any nostalgia for the days when a group of kids can truly save the day, then I think you’ll enjoy Light-Years From Home. Recommended.

Week 228 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Holder, Gibson, Shirley, Whetstone, and Zelazny

Welcome to Week 228 of my horror short fiction review project! This week is the last of the Cthulhu 2000 collection, which was far better than I remembered it being when I first read it 20+ years ago (what can I say, I’ve matured a lot since then); next week that one will be replaced by the nearly-as-venerable collection The Children of Cthulhu, which I’ve had in my library for many years but not yet opened. I really, really enjoyed three of the four stories this week: “Orfeo the Damned” by Nancy Holder, “The Belonging Kind” by William Gibson and John Shirley, and “24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai” by Roger Zelazny. I will reluctantly and under some duress choose “The Belonging Kind” as my favorite of the three because it’s just such an original take. I think it’s as fresh today as when it was written decades ago, though I never hear anyone talking about this gem.

Hellbound Hearts, edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan (Pocket Books, 2009)

“Orfeo the Damned” by Nancy Holder

Lindsay, a young artistic type, is married to the older and staid Jake, but has grown bored with their relationship. She end up being taken to Hell by the Cenobites, and is raped and tortured by the Ravager (the Cenobite assigned to her case) for what seems like centuries of subjective time. She eventually comes to appreciate what the Cenobites are trying to achieve with their victims after all this time; I almost got the impression that she might eventually be transformed into a Cenobite herself as a result, but I could be reading too much into that. Jake finds a way to eventually rescue Lindsay (only a few months or years have passed on Earth), and he is, of course, going to be tortured for all eternity by the Cenobites. He offers to take Lindsay’s place, but she knows that it will simply be eternal torment for Jake and he will never experience the personal transformation that she has. As a torment for Lindsay, the Ravager casts her and Jake out of Hell, and she is told that she must stay with Jake for the rest of her life or else he will be taken back to Hell. So we have Lindsay trapped in a boring, loveless (on her part) marriage for the remainder of her days. A very, very good one. This seems to be one of the few Hellraiser tales to really explore the sexual dimensions of the Cenobites’ torments.

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (Tor, 2012)

[previously reviewed] “The Brood” by Ramsey Campbell

[previously reviewed] “The Autopsy” by Michael Shea

“The Belonging Kind” by William Gibson and John Shirley

What a great story. It builds nicely on the concepts in “Mimic” by Donald A. Wollheim, though it isn’t directly connected with that earlier tale. The narrator is a linguist who has never fit into society, so he mostly spends his free time in bars, still isolated from the rest of humanity. He meets a woman who fits in perfectly in modern society but who isn’t exactly human, as he soon discovers. She, and others of her kind, mimic the things that humans do, and fit in with us, superficially at least, but they aren’t human, as such. Really awesome story.

Weird Vampire Tales, edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, and Martin H. Greenberg, (Gramercy Books, 1992)

“The Thirsty Dead” by Raymond Whetstone

A simple little tale of a younger man who encounters an older guy who seems pretty obviously a vampire. It’s only the tale’s final passage that makes this one interesting—that ending calls into question the narrator’s credibility. Without that hint of an unreliable narrator, this one wouldn’t be interesting at all.

Cthulhu 2000, edited by Jim Turner (Del Rey, 1999)

“24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai” by Roger Zelazny

Mari travels throughout Japan with a really cool staff (this is set in the near-future) seeking her ex-husband Kit, who has transplanted his consciousness into a datanet (keep in mind that this novella was written pre-Internet). Mari was an espionage agent of some sort and is hunted by an old foe as well as some really neat energy constructs that Kit sends after her. Mari eventually destroys Kit at the cost of her own life because he had simply grown too powerful and was beginning to meddle in global affairs. While this one took a while to get going—it feels like an extremely long novella—it was great by the end. You may rightfully ask why this was included in a collection of then-modern Cthulhu Mythos tales: I don’t know. There is a very brief reference to something like Innsmouth and the Deep Ones, but that is entirely unconnected to the central plot and I can’t figure why that reference even exists within the story. Anyway, great story, just don’t go into it hoping for a Mythos tale.


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon

Week 227 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Matheson, Leman, Cave, and Ellison

Welcome to Week 227 of my horror short fiction review project! My favorite story of the week by a country mile was “Window” by Bob Leman. I say that in part because it’s an amazing story about what happens after scientists accidentally open a window onto another world, but also because I had been looking for a copy of this story literally since I first read it in the mid-’80s but couldn’t recall the title or author. Here it is. It was worth the wait.

Hellbound Hearts, edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan (Pocket Books, 2009)

“Bulimia” by Richard Christian Matheson

A two-page vignette that I didn’t care all that much for. A woman is vomiting into a restaurant’s toilet while awaiting her date’s arrival. She imagines (or perhaps really does?) that she is vomiting up the lost souls of the damned. Not much too this one. I didn’t love it.

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (Tor, 2012)

“Window” by Bob Leman

A few pages into this one and I realized that it was a “lost” story I had been seeking since the 1980s. I couldn’t remember the author or title and wasn’t even close to finding it until I happened upon it here in The Weird. Lots of nostalgia for this one, and I’m happy to report that it holds up very well on re-reading. Some scientists accidentally discover a “window” onto what they think is the past. There’s a delightfully bucolic cottage and a happy family and once per day for five seconds, the window allows for travel between our world as theirs. But these happy people aren’t at all what they seem, and now they pose a really horrifying existential threat to humanity. I refuse to spoil this one for you if you haven’t read it yet. It’s a remarkably chilling tale.

Weird Vampire Tales, edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, and Martin H. Greenberg, (Gramercy Books, 1992)

“Stragella” by Hugh B. Cave

Two survivors of a shipwreck take shelter in a derelict ship they find floating nearby. This derelict turns out to be inhabited by three vampires, themselves victims of a calamity aboard the ship that has left them with no more blood to access. One of the two men is saved by the grandiose and colorful tattoo of a cross he has on his chest. Not bad, certainly an evocative setting for a vampire tale.

Cthulhu 2000, edited by Jim Turner (Del Rey, 1999)

[previously reviewed] “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe

[previously reviewed] “The Faces at Pine Dunes” by Ramsey Campbell

“On the Slab” by Harlan Ellison

The body of Prometheus (yes, that Prometheus) is discovered, exhibited as a circus freak, then eventually revived. The man who exhibited him then asks Prometheus if his body—a gigantic Cyclops form—is what humans used to look like. No, he is told, this is what humans would have looked like if they had been worthy. A bit of cosmic horror here, I suppose.


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon

Book Review: We Can Never Leave This Place by Eric LaRocca

We Can Never Leave This Place
Eric LaRocca
Trepidatio Publishing (June 24, 2022)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers

In the last few years, Eric LaRocca has developed a cult following that originated with his viral hit Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke (among other works), but he was a new author to me. LaRocca has a sick mind, and I mean that in a highly complimentary way.

Let me plunge right into a quick description of this novella so you can see what I mean. In an unnamed war-torn dystopian hellhole, teenager Mara is living with her mother, who is pregnant and about to give birth. At the outset of the story, Mara’s father has just deserted the family, and then promptly killed in the city outside. His corpse is returned to the family by local militiamen. Like the relationship between the two women, their apartment is falling apart—the place is collapsing around them and the floor is covered by raw sewage, which continues to flow inside—but the city outside offers no escape or safe haven. Mara and her mother have a fraught (read: terrible) relationship, and the mother soon invites Rake, a sentient large spider, to come live with them. With Rake comes a host of his cronies, an array of anthropomorphized vermin (snakes, lizards, and cockroaches), who quickly take over the place. As Mara’s mother progresses from Rake’s sexual plaything to his slave and food source, Mara must attempt to grieve the loss of her father and the breakdown of her relationship with her mother while surviving in this horrifying and surreal environment.

This is a story about grief and tragedy in the wake of still unfolding terrors, so the personal loss in the midst of war metaphoric setting is very apt. I read We Can Never Leave This Place as an ongoing existential crisis on multiple levels, an exploration of someone whose life is imploding catastrophically on multiple levels and filling up with literal and figurative excrement.

This is not a feel-good story. Quite the contrary. You will feel dirty as you begin reading, and this feeling will stick with you long after you’ve finished it. The novella is, after all, filled with omnipresent filth, muck, and literal raw sewage, as well as oppression and exploitation by predators and scavengers. Perhaps more importantly, the characters are mostly all physically and morally unclean. We’re talking about sapient vermin in a dystopian ruin preying upon a young woman and her mother in the midst of an impossible situation from which there is no escape. This takes on the form of a kind of fever dream—not one of the fun kind—as Mara’s situation goes from bad to worse.

LaRocca’s prose is smooth, even while his subjects are grotesque and their situations tense and harrowing. Creepiness, dread, and tension pervade throughout. Mara is suitably sympathetic as a character and her tormentors both bizarre and awful. I can almost guarantee that you’ll be unsettled as you read.

If you’re looking for a story set in a surreal nightmare landscape that will almost physically make you feel dirty, Eric LaRocca’s We Can Never Leave This Place is for you. Recommended.

This review originally appeared in Hellnotes.

Week 226 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Armstrong, Martin, Brandon, and Blaylock

Welcome to Week 226 of my horror short fiction review project! While I really liked Kelley Armstrong’s “The Collector,” the best story of the week was the timeless classic “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin. Written long before he began writing epic fantasy, Martin wrote a lot of nice science fiction shorts and this is one of the best.

Hellbound Hearts, edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan (Pocket Books, 2009)

“The Collector” by Kelley Armstrong

The narrator is a world-renowned solver and collector of puzzles. Since this is a Hellraiser-themed anthology, I think you can see where this one is headed. She enters a puzzle-solving contest and is eventually brought in to solve a Lemarchand’s Configuration puzzle box. She’s intended to be a sacrifice to the Cenobites but she neatly turns the tables on the woman who has set her up to die and turns out to be much more knowledgeable than she initially appeared. Really good with a nice twist.

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (Tor, 2012)

“Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin

An absolutely wonderful novelette. I think it’s one of Martin’s greatest works, and yes, it’s better than all the A Song Of Ice and Fire stuff. Set in the far future on an alien world called Baldur, Simon Kress is a very wealthy sadist who makes the mistake of purchasing a terrarium full of alien creatures called sandkings. They are not pets, though he treats them as such, and Kress is not nice to his pets. They are supposed to worship him, but they soon come to know him as a cruel god. Of course, as we all knew they would, things get out of Kress’ control and the sandkings rebel. Kress meets a bad end, as does everyone who comes into contact with him. But it’s the journey that matters here. Martin is a wonderful fantasist and prose stylist. Really, really great story, and if you haven’t yet read this, do so immediately.

Weird Vampire Tales, edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, and Martin H. Greenberg, (Gramercy Books, 1992)

“The Dark Castle” by Marion Brandon

Two men, one older and the other younger, are traveling by car in the Romanian countryside. They run out of gas and take shelter in a ruined castle, where the younger man is killed by a female vampire. The older man, our narrator, makes note of which grave the vampires enters into at dawn and tells the locals. They disinter and stake her, as she has been terrorizing the area for centuries, killing young men. Okay story, just not much to it. Seems kind of by-the-numbers.

Cthulhu 2000, edited by Jim Turner (Del Rey, 1999)

[previously reviewed] “The Last Feast of Harlequin” by Thomas Ligotti

“The Shadow on the Doorstep” by James P. Blaylock

A puzzling little story with good atmospheric menace but no real punch. A man who has a cozy home life recalls three times during his life when he encountered strange aquarium shops. He’s since given away all of his fish, though he is periodically visited by a vaguely menacing being who rings his doorbell. I wish there was much more of a payoff here.


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon

Book Review: Timewalker by Thomas F. Monteleone

Timewalker
Thomas F. Monteleone
JournalStone (March 18, 2022)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers

Do you like dinosaurs? I remember going through a phase when I was much younger in which I was utterly obsessed with them—a lot of people probably do. I suspect that Thomas Monteleone may be similarly obsessed. He certainly needs no introduction from me; you probably know him from his prolific career as a horror novelist (I still remember his The Blood of the Lamb very fondly), but if not, you’ve almost certainly read one (or all) of his Borderlands anthologies that pushed the boundaries of what modern horror could be in the 1990s and 2000s. And if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading any of his fiction, correct that oversight immediately!

But Timewalker is his latest effort, a novella that is the story of Edward Drinker Cope, a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the nineteenth century’s most important paleontologists. Cope was engaged in a decades-long feud with Othniel Charles Marsh, a Yale paleontologist, in what came to be called the “Bone Wars,” as both men sought to discover new species of fossils and become the preeminent paleontologist. (These are real historical figures, feel free to…oh heck, I can’t help myself…bone up on them.)

Here, in 1876, Cope is out west on a dig seeking dinosaur fossils. He’s not having much luck, and is facing the prospect of a wasted expedition until he saves the life of Red Moon, a Crow medicine man who Cope soon learns also calls himself a “timewalker.” Red Moon can literally, physically travel into the past, and in discharging his debt to Cope, he offers to take Cope into the distant past to see actual living, breathing dinosaurs, then take note of where they died so their fossilized bones can be located. What could go wrong?

Monteleone’s writing chops are on full display here: Cope, an actual historical figure, and the rest of the cast come alive in Monteleone’s prose. Timewalker isn’t a thriller in the vein of Jurassic Park, but its pacing is solid and the pages will fly right by.

Timewalker is a really nice piece of historical fiction—well, maybe alternative history is a better sub-genre for it—with a good sense of blended menace and wonder. Plus, it’s got dinosaurs! Recommended.

This review originally appeared in Hellnotes.

Week 225 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lebbon, Kincaid, van Vogt, and Friesner

Welcome to Week 225 of my horror short fiction review project! Some decent stories this week, but none blew me away. The best of them was still fun though: “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” by Esther M. Friesner. This one is Lovecraftian, but set at a romance novel publishing company.

Hellbound Hearts, edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan (Pocket Books, 2009)

“Every Wrong Turn” by Tim Lebbon

A man who is fascinated by labyrinths travels deep inside a jungle to explore a long-abandoned maze. There, he encounters various tableaux of his worst failings in life (his greatest sins). As it turns out he has behaved abominably to everyone from his wife to friends and strangers. He is forced to relive these occasions by the Gardener, a Cenobite. Pretty good, not bad at all. A little run-of-the-mill perhaps.

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (Tor, 2012)

“My Mother” by Jamaica Kincaid

A brief story about a mother and daughter. They may be gods, they may be monsters, they may be witches of some sort. In any case, over the course of the story their bodies transform in various ways, sometimes growing in size and other times taking on lizard-like traits. Not much too this one, and nigh incomprehensible to me. Just not very interesting. I recommend skipping this one.

Weird Vampire Tales, edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, and Martin H. Greenberg, (Gramercy Books, 1992)

“Asylum” by A. E. van Vogt

A long novelette set a hundred years or so in the future. Two members of a vampiric alien species (who, I believe, appear human) have just discovered Earth, which is under the protection of their adversaries, some kind of galactic federation. Earth, as it turns out, is a long-long colony of this galactic federation, though humanity doesn’t know this. There are a couple of these benign aliens (who also appear human) somewhere in the solar system, though their identities aren’t clear at the outset. (Obviously there are a lot of old-school SF shenanigans going on here.) Now insert intrepid reporter Leigh, who discovers the vampiric aliens’ plot to feast on Earthlings and summon their fellows to drain Earth dry. Leigh gets hypnotized and used as a pawn by the evil aliens, but despite this, must stop the aliens before their fleet arrives. Not bad, kind of fun actually, despite (or perhaps because of?) the silliness, but too long.

Cthulhu 2000, edited by Jim Turner (Del Rey, 1999)

[previously reviewed] “The Unthinkable” by Bruce Sterling

[previously reviewed] “Black Man with a Horn” by T. E. D. Klein

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” by Esther M. Friesner

Sarah Pickman, theoretically a descendant of HPL, submits a romance novel to an unscrupulous publishing house. Pickman and her editor eventually fall in love, while the head of the publishing house loses her mind. Silly but a very fun story.


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon

Book Review: And in Her Smile, the World by Rebecca J. Allred & Gordon B. White

And in Her Smile, the World
Rebecca J. Allred & Gordon B. White
Trepidatio Publishing (February 11, 2022)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers

I went into the reading of And in Her Smile, the World with no expectations for what I was about to experience and was promptly blown away by the sheer creepiness and surreality of the story. I think that’s the right way to approach this one, so I won’t give away too many of the twists and turns. This really is a case where the less you think you know about this novella’s premise the better.

The reality of the world of And in Her Smile, the World is not what we think it is. There is a being known as the Quiet Woman with the power to unmake the world and a hidden cult of women who serve her and whose smiles can alter reality in sudden and terrifying ways. Jeffrey and Serena discovered something of these truths during their childhoods and, as adults, are drawn much deeper into this mystery. What happens when you discover that the world is not what you think it is? What happens when you discover that you yourself have the power to change reality?

And in Her Smile, the World is a prime example of how to create a truly original work of cosmic horror when you throw out all the old paradigms and cosmologies and start from scratch to create something truly new and original. The result was extremely creepy—which is always appreciated—and I have to say that it’s going to be hard to look at a big, toothy grin the same way after reading And in Her Smile, the World.

Rebecca Allred is a new writer to me, though I was already familiar with Gordon White’s excellent Rookfield (reviewed here previously). Their joint prose stylings are smooth and effortless. This is a quick-moving tale with just the right blending of action, characterization, and uncertainty for the reader about what’s coming next.

It’s the mark of an excellent tale that can take something as innocuous as a stranger walking toward you—as the film It Follows did—and make it genuinely terrifying. That’s rare, but And in Her Smile, the World has now done something similar with a simple smile. A haunting smile that just keeps growing and growing, exposing more and more teeth all the while…and with the power to consume and alter reality. If you’re seeking a creepy, surreal tale of cosmic horror, look no further than And in Her Smile, the World. Recommended.

This review originally appeared in Hellnotes.

Week 224 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Golden, Mignola, Basso, La Spina, and Wilson

Welcome to Week 224 of my horror short fiction review project! Some okay stories this week with one clear stand-out: “H.P.L.” by Gahan Wilson. If you have any fondness for Lovecraft, I think you’ll appreciate this one as a very pleasant fantasy about how Lovecraft’s life might have turned out had he lived longer.

Hellbound Hearts, edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan (Pocket Books, 2009)

“Mechanisms” by Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola

Overly long for not nearly enough payoff. Colin Radford is a young man studying at Oxford, probably at some point in the nineteenth century. He returns home after being notified that his father has gone missing. The man seems to have built a Rube Goldberg-esque machine in the basement to contact his dead wife. The man seems to have entered it, becoming one with the machine. His son follows. Not bad by any means, but also entirely unconnected with the Hellraiser mythos—no one has committed a transgression worthy of being dragged off to Hell. A man simply built a machine to contact his dead wife’s spirit.

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (Tor, 2012)

“The Beak Doctor” by Eric Basso

A plague doctor lives in a permanently fog-shrouded city that is afflicted with a strange disease that causes random citizens to fall into coma-like slumbers from which they cannot be awoken. These slumbering near-corpses are sometimes raped by passersby when it happens in public. That’s mostly about it. This was far, far, far too long of a story and not worth the lengthy wordcount in my view.

Weird Vampire Tales, edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, and Martin H. Greenberg, (Gramercy Books, 1992)

“The Antimacassar” by Greye La Spina

Kind of disappointing really. Lucy is a mother driven to madness by the fact that her daughter Kathy has become a vampire and murdered a woman. Comes off like way too much of a soap opera for my liking.

Cthulhu 2000, edited by Jim Turner (Del Rey, 1999)

“H.P.L.” by Gahan Wilson

Long but charming. Edward Haines Vernon is a young writer who is in regular correspondence with a 100-year-old Lovecraft in an alternate universe where Lovecraft learned to harness the power of various Cthulhu Mythos beings on his deathbed and went on to live a very happy and successful life. He even managed to resurrect a deceased Clark Ashton Smith from his “essential saltes” to serve as his companion. The duo live in a wonderfully described mansion, and take young “Edwardius,” as HPL calls him, as an understudy. It seems that HPL must periodically make sacrifices to the Mythos beings, though those are just bad people who write negative reviews of his work and the like, so no harm done. Eventually HPL is taken off by one of these summoned entities and Edwardius must live on in his stead. A wonderful, long life for poor HPL, which we all wish he had gotten to enjoy.


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon

Book Review: The Golden Road by Selene dePackh

The Golden Road
Selene dePackh
JournalStone (February 25, 2022)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers

I read a lot of supernatural horror—don’t get me wrong, I love supernatural horror—but The Golden Road is a reminder that you don’t need supernatural elements to have a thoroughly enjoyable, creepy, suspenseful horror story.

While Selene dePackh was new to me as an author, I very much admire what she’s done here. The novella’s premise is a pretty simple one: we have two older women, Stephanie and Sylvie—deeply close friends—who live in rural Maine. Stephanie discovers a badly injured wolf-dog hybrid and brings it to Sylvie, who is a gifted healer. Several complications emerge immediately: the dog is potentially extremely violent, and probably not even suitable to keep as a pet; Stephanie is being stalked by an ex-husband who is insane, twisted, and increasingly desperate; and Sylvie is barely clinging to sanity via her spiritual practices. This is a recipe for a titanic, suspenseful, highly satisfying clash, and The Golden Road doesn’t disappoint.

A story like this hinges on the depth of the characterization for the central characters. I’m delighted to report that dePackh doesn’t disappoint—her characterization of Stephanie and Sylvie was supremely good. These are women who come off as fully realized, and deeply troubled, people. Everyone in The Golden Road, human and animal alike, is damaged. There’s nothing better than reading about how damaged individuals cope with stress, trauma, and danger. I would also add that The Golden Road offers a fascinating and detailed examination of mental illness, individual spiritual practices, and the uses of spirituality for dealing with trauma and mental illness. This can be dreary or hopelessly vague stuff if done poorly, but it works well here. We’ve also got a genuine sense of menace throughout. Stephanie’s stalker ex who sets things in motion is chilling, as is his use of surveillance. I’m increasingly coming to find the use of newer technologies for illicit surveillance and nefarious purposes deeply creepy, so it was very nice—and by “nice” I mean extremely creepy—to see how that plays out in this story.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Golden Road and was on tenterhooks the entire I was reading it. It’s a very taut tale of suspense and tension throughout that lends itself to binge-reading. Recommended.

This review originally appeared in Hellnotes.