Story Review from Thomas Ligotti’s Grimscribe: “The Dreaming in Nortown” and “The Mystics of Muelenburg”

My look at Thomas Ligotti’s work continues with the next couple stories from Grimscribe.

“The Dreaming in Nortown”

The graduate student narrator is living with a roommate named Jack Quinn who has become involved with a mystical/philosophical group that uses hallucinogenic drugs and, quite possibly, has unlocked the secret of psychic dreaming/travel outside the body while asleep. At the same time, the narrator is plagued by terrible nightmares. One night the narrator follows Jack around the city’s downtown area during one of Jack’s nocturnal rambles. He remains unnoticed by Jack as he visits a variety of establishments, clearly looking or waiting for something or someone but not finding it. He then follows Jack into a theater, then loses sight of him when he disappears into the backstage area. Strange bursts of colored, kaleidoscopic lights are a recurrent theme in the story, and it seems to me that these occurrences represent manifestations of otherworldly entities or demons. Jack never returns, the narrator moves out of their shared apartment, and is then no longer troubled by his nightmares, though his new roommate is. A long story, but one filled with fascinating stuff. This was a masterful depiction of walking around a strange city at night, a theme I find myself enjoying immensely wherever I find it. There’s nothing quite like walking around a city at night, either a bustling one or a desolate one, and Ligotti captures a sense of that here.

“The Mystics of Muelenburg”

Muelenberg is a medieval cathedral-town. One day the residents of the town realize that reality as they know it has begun to warp and dissolve, and is being replaced by a reality that is twisted and hideous from their perspective. Then this altered reality is returned to its previous state and the townsfolk are left with no conscious memory of it. I found this story horrifying in an existential sort of way: what if this happens to us, perhaps all the time? What if we experience unspeakable horrors, but then have no memory of it and things are returned to “normal” from our perspective? While I don’t think that’s at all likely, it’s a terrifying possibility.

Buy the book on Amazon

Week 267 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Fleming, Lanagan, Narnia, and Klein

Welcome to Week 267 of my horror short fiction review project! Some decent stories this week. I’d say that my two favorites are probably Soren Narnia’s “eyes” because it’s an especially grim bit of what turns out to be body horror and T.E.D. Klein’s “Well-Connected” because the premise really gets me: what happens when a random person you meet is a homicidal lunatic and you don’t realize it?

The Black Magic Omnibus, edited by Peter Haining (Taplinger, 1976)

“Writer’s Witch” by Joan Fleming

A writer has purchased a home that seems to be haunted. He’s got a bad case of writer’s block. Just kind of stops rather than reaching a conclusion, so I didn’t love this one.

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

“Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan

Intriguing and odd. I know that the author likely considers the story a success because of its sheer lack of context and ambiguity but I as a reader cannot. I frankly needed a bit more context on this. A family sits and watches as a female member of the family—the narrator’s sister—is publicly executed via slowly (very slowly) being sunk into a tar pit. It’s interesting but the effectiveness of the story was mitigated by the sheer lack of contrast surrounding this ritual of public execution.

Knifepoint Horror: The Transcripts, Volume 1, by Soren Narnia (self-published, 2018)


Wesley Harrod is a Virginia congressman in 1884 who is investigating spiritualist frauds. He ends up attending a séance hosted by the medium Mrs. Crowdy, who inadvertently summons the spirit of a vengeful woman who really has an axe to grind with Harrod. The spirit’s rage takes a dreadful toll on him. Grim.

Reassuring Tales: Expanded Edition, by T.E.D. Klein (Pickman’s Press, 2021)


There’s a reason why I don’t tend to make conversation with strangers—you just never know who you’re going to encounter, especially while traveling. A man and his girlfriend are staying at a quaint inn at the foot of a mountain and meet a nice man who offers to take them up to see his former boss’ mansion on top of the mountain. He’s got a great heated pool, top-ranked chef, etc. Just follow him up the mountain. It’s a fun one.

Buy the book on Amazon

Buy the book on Amazon

Buy the book on Amazon

Buy the book on Amazon

Story Review from Thomas Ligotti’s Grimscribe: “Flowers of the Abyss” and “Nethescurial”

My look at Thomas Ligotti’s work continues with the next two stories from Grimscribe.

“Flowers of the Abyss”

The narrator is a small town teacher selected by the townsfolk to visit the new inhabitant of an old mansion on the outskirts of town where the five members of the Van Livenn family killed each other in fits of rage over the course of a month many years previously. The current resident—a strange man who discusses his psychic voyages—gives the narrator a tour of the house and (barren) garden and seems to unleash madness onto the narrator and the nearby town. I wish I had a clearer sense about this one, but I found the prose style adopted by Ligotti here to be excessively flowery (no pun intended) in a way that was unnecessarily obfuscatory. While I have never read any of V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic series, I wondered if Ligotti was aping what Andrews was trying to depict in her modern-day gothic of a house (and household) profoundly disordered and filled with incest and violence. I wanted to like this one, and there’s clearly a great premise buried in here, but I’m not sure it worked for me as well as it should have.


A delightfully creepy and subtle weird tale. Like almost all of Ligotti’s work, it must be read carefully, allowing all of the nuances and atmosphere to be absorbed. On its surface, this story is an unnamed narrator reading portions of a letter by an enigmatic adventurer-cultist named Bartholomew Gray, who describes an encounter with Dr. N—, who possesses a fragment of an idol that Gray plans to use to revive an ancient, godlike, malign entity that has been called Nethescurial. Note though, that Nethescurial is also the name of a mysterious island—or many islands—where the idol’s fragment may be found, as well as that of a metaphysical concept of malignity that corrupts and shapes all matter in the universe—for Ligotti, this malignity and horror are intrinsic, constitutive elements of all reality. It is also a kind of horrific supernatural meme that draws power and form from those who learn of it and believe in it. It cannot be eradicated as long as even a single person who knows about or believes in it continues to exist. Also note that in some ways this is an even bleaker, more existential vision of cosmic horror than Lovecraft’s—imagine that!—because it cannot be fled from, or thwarted, because each of us, as beings made of matter, already contain this thing, and are constituted by it; it is not simply that the universe is vast, and uncaring, and malign, while we are small and weak and meaningless, but we too contain, and are, this malignity. The reading of this letter and understanding of its contents shatters the narrator’s psyche; nightmares soon follow, and the story ends with the narrator’s panicked fugue state driven by existential dread and terror. This is not an easy read, but it is well worth the effort.

Buy the book on Amazon

Week 266 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Kantor, Abraham, Narnia, and Klein

Welcome to Week 266 of my horror short fiction review project! This week we are starting with a new collection: T.E.D. Klein’s Reassuring Tales. Lots of really good stories this week–I genuinely enjoyed all four–but my favorite was probably “Flat Diane” by Daniel Abraham because of the originality of the premise. But gosh is it dark.

The Black Magic Omnibus, edited by Peter Haining (Taplinger, 1976)

“The Witch Doctor of Rosy Ridge” by MacKinlay Kantor

Really nice tale of backcountry folk magic/folk medicine. The local witch/herbalist raises her orphaned grandson, who everyone calls Thin Jimmy. He starts falling in love with the daughter of the local physician. She gets very sick while her father is away on extended travel and Thin Jimmy must save her life, though he’s also got to deal with a local man who is his romantic rival. Sometimes I find rural stories like these annoying if they use too much dialect, but this one didn’t suffer from that. Very enjoyable read.

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

“Flat Diane” by Daniel Abraham

You know those silly “Flat Stanley” things where children would mail a two-dimensional character off to people all over the world and they would take photos of Flat Stanley’s adventures in other places? Here we have a little girl named Diane doing the same. She’s a troubled child and her parents are going through a nasty divorce and her mother has moved across the country. Things take a downward turn when it becomes clear that Diane is somehow empathically picking up things that people do near Flat Diane. (She discovers that her uncle is beating his wife, for example.) The problem comes when a pedophile takes the Flat Diane and begins taunting the girl and her father with lewd photos. Diane’s father must do whatever it takes to help his daughter. I really liked this one.

Knifepoint Horror: The Transcripts, Volume 1, by Soren Narnia (self-published, 2018)


Sean Locksley is a college student whose friend disappears on Halloween under mysterious circumstances. Sean ends up pursuing the matter and finds out what happened to his friend. Excellently creepy tale.

Reassuring Tales: Expanded Edition, by T.E.D. Klein (Pickman’s Press, 2021)

[previously reviewed] “The Events at Poroth Farm”

“One Size Eats All”

Three boys are staying overnight on a hike up a mountain. One of the boys has just gotten a new sleeping bag and for some reason he’s terrified of it. I love this one because the boys’ interactions felt so real, as did the seemingly irrational fear of the sleeping bag, which seems so important when you’re a child and so silly as an adult.

Buy the book on Amazon

Buy the book on Amazon

Buy the book on Amazon

Buy the book on Amazon

Story Review from Thomas Ligotti’s Grimscribe: “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and “The Spectacles in the Drawer”

My look at Thomas Ligotti’s work now turns to the first two stories from Grimscribe, including one of my absolute favorite Ligotti Stories, “The Last Feast of Harlequin.”

“The Last Feast of Harlequin”

Utterly fascinating story; one of my favorites in the collection for all of its understated glory. An anthropologist who researches the clown figure/motif learns of an annual winter solstice festival that involves clowns or clown-like figures and must investigate. He finds the town desolate and its populace unfriendly but nevertheless persists. One of his former mentors, Dr. Raymond Thoss, is coincidentally one of the only scholars to have studied the town of Mirocaw’s festival, though his published research suggests that much more exploration is needed. The narrator attends the festival and observes a cadre of quasi-homeless people in the role of the clowns—including Thoss himself, it seems—being abused by the locals (this abuse seems somewhat ritualized and part of the “festivities.” On the second night of the festival, the narrator disguises himself as one of the clowns and participates in the festival. He is picked up with the other clowns and taken to a kind of underground tunnel/cave network outside of town. A ritual of apparently great occult significance takes place, with the probable sacrifice of the elected winter queen and the transformation of some of the clowns into wormlike beings, as well as possible links with ancient ritual practices of Saturn. Thoss is a kind of high priest-like figure, and announces that the narrator is one of them, the clowns, and has always been one of them. Truly original and creepy with excellent atmospheric build-up.

“The Spectacles in the Drawer”

The narrator has an annoying acquaintance (Plomb) who frequently invites himself over and wants to see the narrator’s collection of strange trinkets and the various things he brings back from his travels. Plomb becomes entranced by a pair of spectacles that the narrator tells him allows one to see en entire universe in a drop of blood (as far as the narrator knows, the spectacles are perfectly ordinary glasses of mundane origin he found in a thrift shop). He gifts these spectacles to Plomb since he is so taken by them. Plomb then starts avoiding the narrator, even going so far as to hurredly leave when he spots him in an antique store. Soon, the narrator starts dreaming of the glasses and becomes obsessed with them. Finally he decides to go to Plomb’s home and demand them back. He finds that Plomb has killed himself after creating an entire room of mirrors, liberally splashed with his blood. This is a tragic tale, I found, equal parts creepy and sad.

Buy the book on Amazon

Week 265 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Matheson, Samuels, Narnia, and Campton

Welcome to Week 265 of my horror short fiction review project! Today marks our final week of the collection Whispers, which I found only so-so; I mainly read this one because I happen to own a really neat copy of it that was signed by almost all the contributors. Next week that one will be replaced in our line-up by T.E.D. Klein’s Reassuring Tales. We’ve got some amazing stories this week to discuss. I will award a rare tie for favorite stories because how can you pick between two stories this good? “The White Hands” by Mark Samuels and Soren Narnia’s “town” are both treasures. They couldn’t be less alike; the Samuels story is about an academic digging into the archives about an obscure Victorian author and unearthing horrors, and the Narnia story is a genuinely unsettling tale about returning to one’s home town and realizing that there’s something truly horrifying going on there for a very long time but the residents just seem to ignore it. Both really amazing stories.

The Black Magic Omnibus, edited by Peter Haining (Taplinger, 1976)

“By Appointment Only” by Richard Matheson

A really nice little story. Poor Mr. Pangborn has been feeling poorly lately and his regular doctors can’t figure out what is wrong with him. Perhaps his barber, the new Haitian manicurist, and the voodoo dolls they’ve made for all their customers might have something to do with it. Short and sweet.

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

“The White Hands” by Mark Samuels

I love this story. A researcher of early weird fiction contacts a disgraced academic about a nineteenth-century writer, Lilith Blake, who is said to be one of the greatest weird fiction writers in the early period, though she remains in obscurity. He then falls down a rabbit hole as he begins researching the materials that the researcher’s contact provides him, which suggests a truly strange and disturbing history of the woman. I don’t want to say anything further about this one, but it was very much worth the read.

Knifepoint Horror: The Transcripts, Volume 1, by Soren Narnia (self-published, 2018)


The longest piece of fiction in the collection by a fair bit—this is a decently-sized novella—but well worth the length. William Roydon is a videographer hired by a semi-fringe scholar, Forsch Cording, to accompany him on a day trip through Roydon’s home town of Robin Song, Virginia. This is a (fictional, though realistic) small town that seems to have a deep history as a kind of weirdness magnet and the site of many disappearances and missing persons cases that the locals just kind of blithely ignore after a day or so. There’s no clear explanation, which I’m happy about, though it is clear that something sinister and supernatural is going on. Deeply creepy and unsettling. I found myself on the edge of my seat throughout. Wonderful atmosphere and suspenseful pacing. An excellent weird tale.

Whispers, edited by Stuart David Schiff (Jove/HBJ, 1979)

“Goat” by David Campton

A man with the delightful sobriquet of Goat lives in a small village and terrorizes the place because he seems to know everyone’s darkest secrets and threatens them with revealing their secrets unless they do what he wants. Eventually two people cross him and he kills them under mysterious circumstances. This was a fun one.

[previously reviewed] “The Chimney” by Ramsey Campbell

Book Review: Dark Is Better by Gemma Files

Dark Is Better
Gemma Files
Trepidatio Publishing (February 3, 2023)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers

If you’ve been reading any weird fiction or cosmic horror collections in the last decade or two, you’ve seen the name Gemma Files appear prominently on the tables of contents for most of them. Dark Is Better is Files’ sixth short story collection; as far as I can tell, each of the nineteen stories in the collection was previously published elsewhere, from 2008-15. While I wish that there was a brand new story or two included, having all of Files’ stories in one handy volume is certainly worthwhile.

Files’ reach and breadth with these stories is vast, so I will just describe some of the stories that had the greatest impact on me. Note that there are few to no duds included, but these are the ones that I found to be the most emotionally evocative.

Let me begin by talking about “Oubliette.” What an amazing story. Perhaps my favorite in the collection, and that’s saying something because this was an unusually strong and imaginative collection of stories. Thordis Hendricks is a wealthy young woman who is placed in a live-in care program after two failed suicide attempts. She lives in an apartment under a doctor’s care, plus she has a care worker named Yelena who checks in on her daily; Thordis also records her dreams and other thoughts in a journal, which Yelena regularly reviews. A couple wrinkles quickly present themselves: Thordis is in Shumate House, a therapy center/program developed in the late 1970s to help rehabilitate some of the Jonestown survivors. Over the years, Shumate House also housed the sole survivor of another (fictional) cult, a kind of Heaven’s Gate suicide cult, a young woman who eventually killed herself in the apartment because of her regrets about not joining her comrades on their cosmic voyage. I think you can begin to see where this is going. Thordis is now living in the same apartment that the cult survivor did; everyone who has lived in this apartment since then has ended up killing him/herself. Things aren’t looking so great for Thordis. This is almost a kind of ghost story, though I suspect it’s closer to a kind of spectral colonization of consciousness tale, if you catch my drift. I don’t want to spoil any more of this because it’s an amazingly effective tale—truly chilling, once you begin to see what’s going on here—that is mostly told through journal entries, emails, transcripts of therapy sessions, and the like. Really well done. This is the kind of complexity of vision that Files brings to the table in her writing.

I’d probably be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly discuss the opening story in the collection, the novella “[Anasazi].” This is a story about a memetic infection that comes to plague a paramedic Corin who happens to respond to a domestic disturbance at an apartment where Corin is inexplicably attacked by an old professor. As it turns out, the grandfather of the professor traveled to Tibet with a Nazi expedition and brought back a symbol that drives its viewers insane. The story is interwoven with periodic notes about the Anasazi, who seem to have been malign alien interlopers rather than a Native American tribe. There’s a great deal more I could say about this one, but I will simply note that postmodern memetics map very nicely onto the older weird fiction trope of media (a play, a cursed rune, an ancient grimoire, etc.) that drives its viewers insane.

In “each thing I show you is a piece of my death” (co-written with Stephen J. Barringer), films around the world are being destroyed by the inexplicable insertion of a nude man in scenes that he couldn’t possibly have been in. This all began as a kind of experimental art project but now things have gotten serious, with the explanation for what is going on is wonderfully horrifying.

If you, like me, appreciate works that revisit Chambers’ King in Yellow Mythos, you’ll enjoy “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars,” in which a team of forensic anthropologists are excavating some mass graves on the island of Carcosa near Indonesia. They run afoul of the locals’ traditions, who really don’t like the idea of them uncovering—and accidentally rejuvenating—the King in Yellow, who is also entombed there. A fascinating and novel relook at the King in Yellow/Carcosa Mythos. Really original.

In “Homebody,” Kay is a homeless person living a marginal existence that is spiraling downward. She begins to hear rumors around town of an empty house with a red door that offers shelter, but just for one night. It seems that the place is kind of a genius loci, or something even stranger. It can never be found in the same place, and while it never harms anyone who enters it, they are unsettled by the experience. Kay finds the house and makes a connection with it. A wonderfully atmospheric story that shows just how to craft a work of weird fiction that doesn’t need to revolve around danger or menace.

Some brief descriptions of a few of the other stories that I really appreciated. In “This Is Not For You,” a group of women have returned to a kind of atavistic savagery. They take on the roles of predatory huntresses from Greek mythology and make sacrifices (of men, usually) in the woods. Excellent. In “The Thin Places,” a woman chaperones her son’s summer camp trip; then the boy disappears, seemingly led away into the night by a woman who may have been part of the mother’s childhood experiences. There’s no resolution, and that’s why this one is so powerful. Sometimes really weird (and tragic) things happen, and they may be connected with something half-remembered from a long time ago, or not. “Night-Bird” is a wonderful folk horror tale in a contemporary urban setting. Here, a mother with two children flees her abusive partner. Some older immigrant women take her in and help her. They are not at all what they seem. Are they witches? Are they some kind of mythological creatures reminiscent of birds of prey? They are guardians and protectors but also predators. Hungry, hungry predators. I likewise enjoyed the excellent “Nanny Grey,” in which a wealthy girl has inherited the eponymous nanny from her mother, who inherited this being from her mother and so on. The nanny is far more than a simple servant, and exacts a terrible price for its loyalty and protection.

If you’re into contemporary weird fiction and cosmic horror, or if you haven’t already begun reading Gemma Files’ work, this is a terrific collection to get started with. Definitely recommended.

This review originally appeared in Hellnotes.

Story Review from Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer: “The Journal of J.P. Drapeau” and “Vastarien”

My look at Thomas Ligotti’s work continues with the final two stories found in Songs of a Dead Dreamer.

“The Journal of J.P. Drapeau”

This story is told via excerpts from the diary of a writer from the 1890s who seems Poe-esque. These diary entries begin with some creepy and morbid sorts of fantasies and imaginings, the kind of thing one would suppose Poe might have recorded in a dream journal. Over time these entries become superimposed with a sense of existential dread and questioning his own basic self-identity. Some tropes that Ligotti returns to, such as a creepy stage magician, are included. A good story, but this is one that I wish had been expanded into a longer work—I could see these diary entries developing into even more horrific directions over time.


Victor Keirion discovers a strange little 12-sided bookshop in his quest to find just the perfect book that he can never quite define. This search has taken him to a great many out-of-the-way bookstores over the years and he doesn’t expect that he will find much of interest at this new bookstore. A strange little dark-haired man who is repeatedly referred to as “crow-like” is also shopping in the store and, apparently a friend of the owner’s. Victor finds himself drawn to a book that he finds fascinating—perhaps the object of his quest—but at first the owner quotes an outrageous price and dissuades him from purchasing it. The crow-like man (he remains nameless throughout the story and I’m not exactly sure who he is) intercedes on Victor’s behalf and, later, as Victor finds out, subsidizes his purchase; both the crow-like man and the bookstore owner are surprised that Victor can even read the book—no one else has been able to. Perhaps this book has found its owner. The book opens up a whole new world to Victor; while this is vague, I suspect that Victor enters Vastarien, the world accessed via the book, or perhaps the book is this world, in his dreams. Fairly abruptly, Victor ends up in an insane asylum after confessing to killing a man (perhaps the crow-like man?). There is one supernatural element that arises in the story—Vastarien, after all, could be merely an imaginary figment of a madman—no matter how many times the asylum staff take the book away from Victor, it always reappears in his cell the next day. Who is the crow-like man? I don’t know but I find him an especially puzzling character. It could be that Victor’s surname is pronounced like “carrion,” suggesting a tie to the man, or even that he is meant to be consumed by the man. I also believe that the dream that the story Victor experiences at the opening of the story is one that he is having from inside the asylum. Fascinating story that only vaguely hints at a great deal. Now having read this story, I’m not at all surprised that “Vastarien” was the name given to the journal of Ligotti-esque fiction and non-fictional Ligotti studies.

Buy the book on Amazon

Week 264 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Davidson, Evenson, Narnia, and Wellman

Welcome to Week 264 of my horror short fiction review project! As promised last week, one of our four selected collections is Soren Narnia’s first Knightpoint Horror transcript collections, drawn from his podcast. While I really liked Narnia’s “sisters” (this would have been my favorite story in a typical week), my favorite this week was the excellent “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” by Brian Evenson. I had read the expanded, novel-length version of this story, but I don’t think that actually improves on this one. A detective investigates a murder that takes place at a cult in which the members cut off parts of their own bodies. How can you get any better of a concept than that?

The Black Magic Omnibus, edited by Peter Haining (Taplinger, 1976)

“The Power of Every Root” by Avram Davidson

Set in Latin America, this one includes way too many Spanish elements that can’t be discerned by context clues, or at least I personally struggled with it. The style of Davidson’s prose really didn’t grab me at all. Not all that interesting of a story. Essentially this is the story of a bungling cop who runs into a local hedge wizard/witch doctor. It just keeps going on way too long.

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

“The Brotherhood of Mutilation” by Brian Evenson

This novella was later turned into the novel Last Days, which I have read (and very much enjoyed). This is the story of Kline, a detective who had his hand chopped off by a man with a cleaver; Kline then cauterized the wound and shot the man to death. Because of the notoriety this case brought him, Kline has been contacted by what can only be described as a cult that believes it is their sacred duty to amputate as much of their bodies as possible. The more they cut off, the higher their rank in the organization. Kline is then brought in to help solve the murder of the group’s leader. Or has he? There is more than a little frustrating, Kafka-esque bureaucracy that Kline has to deal with. But I love the body horror elements in the tale and think that this original, abbreviated version of the story might just be a little stronger than the full novel. The novel adds a great deal, but ultimately I don’t think the expanded version of the story adds anything essential. Sometimes less really is more, and I think this may be one of those cases.

Knifepoint Horror: The Transcripts, Volume 1, by Soren Narnia (self-published, 2018)


Julien Serrault is an innkeeper in the French Alps in 1882 who makes monthly supplies deliveries to a nearby convent, the Abbey St. Genest, around which swirl rumors of occult dabblings in the distant past. One month, the sisters show Julien a baby deer they found that is oddly hot to the touch. Then a mysterious sickness sweeps through the abbey and the sisters go silent. Julien investigates and makes a horrifying discovery. This was a very, very good story. I believe it was the first Knifepoint Horror podcast episode I listened to, and demonstrated the strength of Narnia’s writing abilities. It’s a great start to the collection.

Whispers, edited by Stuart David Schiff (Jove/HBJ, 1979)

“The Dakwa” by Manly Wade Wellman

This one could have been a Silver John story (and I’d have probably liked it a little better had it been). A man lives on an island in a remote area in which the local waters are inhabited by a water spirit that the local Indian tribes had known about for a long time. A friend comes to visit and helps him imprison the thing. Okay, but not stellar.

Buy the book on Amazon

Buy the book on Amazon

Buy the book on Amazon

Buy the book on Amazon

Book Review: 8:59:29 by Polly Schattel

Polly Schattel
Trepidatio Publishing (February 24, 2023)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers

I first encountered Polly Schattel through her disturbing novel Shadowdays (reviewed here) —seriously, this book has stuck with me—and was delighted to see that she’s back with a new novella 8:59:29.

As with most reviews of novellas, I’m wary of giving too much away, but let me set up 8:59:29’s premise. Adjunct film professor Hetta Salter is in a precarious position. While she loves film, she’s stuck in a truly marginal professional existence teaching disinterested students just trying to fulfill general education requirements. She has one student who actually cares about film, Daryl Tanner, but he’s just unofficially auditing because he can’t afford to pay his tuition any more. Walter Hensley is Hetta’s department chair and chief tormentor—as a former academic myself I’ve encountered far too many Walter Henseleys in my life—and he’s all too willing to throw his weight around and lord it over Hetta. There have been complaints from the students about Hetta, you see. She’s not easy enough. She doesn’t respect them enough. So Hetta needs to make significant changes, including getting rid of Tanner, or her teaching contract won’t be renewed. She begins to realize that if only Hensley was out of the picture, her life would be a lot easier. To do this, Hetta and Tanner must make a film—a very unusual film—one that ultimately goes viral and “succeeds” beyond their wildest dreams. And boy is this dark.

Schattel has brilliantly captured the appallingly marginal existence of adjunct faculty, who are the bedrock of higher education in the United States. For those of you not already aware, it’s estimated that 70% of all college teachers are adjuncts, which means that they don’t have tenure, and never will, and they’re paid an average of $3000 per class that they teach. They are hired on short-term contracts, which might be renewed the following semester or they might not, depending on a lot of factors, including the whims of the Walter Henseleys of the world. The term “precariat” has been coined for folks like this; despite their dedication to teaching and their advanced degrees, they have almost no job security and receive just enough pay to scrape by. Most college students (and their parents) aren’t aware that their college professors might be so poorly paid that they’re on public assistance or are even homeless. This is what higher education in the United States looks like, though it’s almost never discussed. This is Hetta’s life.

Having read Schattel’s previous book Shadowdays, I should have been expecting an ending that packs a real wallop but…this one caught me by surprise. Wow. Polly Schattel is a very fine writer and I’ve added her to the (short) list of authors whose work I’ll read as soon as it’s published. 8:59:29 is a really interesting blending of the modern, the postmodern, and the premodern. Key elements of the novella hinge on the medieval, the 1980s when it seemed like anyone could rent a camcorder and make a zero-budget movie, and today, when almost anything can be found in the deepest bowels of the internet. If you’re a film buff I think you’ll especially enjoy this one.

This novella is a novel that has been boiled down to its essential core. It very much works at its current length, but I do wonder if 8:59:29 could have been expanded into novel length for added depth. Some additional detail on Hetta would have been delightful, and I’d have loved to see an extended look at her life as an adjunct under Hensley’s thumb. Be that as it may, 8:59:29 is highly concentrated horror and I really enjoyed it. Highly recommended, for the climax if nothing else.

This review originally appeared in Hellnotes.