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Review – Part 2: Ugly Little Things – Collected Horrors by Todd Keisling (Crystal Lake Publishing)

Hey everyone, I’m back with part 2 of my ‘Ugly Little Things‘ review. 🙂

If you missed part 1, here’s the link – in part 2 I’ll be looking at the final three stories in the collection. And the one that kicks off the final trilogy is a doozy!

When Karen Met Her Mountain is brutal, the kind of tale which hits you over and over again without letting up. In it you’ll meet Karen and her husband, road-tripping and trying to find their way back to each other after a tragic loss. In it, you’ll meet Karen’s therapist and a group of strange, violent, mask-wearing cultists. And in it, you’ll witness Karen’s descent (or is it an ascent) into madness. Not for the faint of heart, but brilliantly written.

In The Harbinger, a journalist in need of redemption and a career-saving story travels to a town famous for pigs and dolls. How those two (pigs and dolls) are connected, and what Felix Proust discovers as he digs deeper into the town of Dalton and it’s mysterious celebrity (the doll-maker), make this a truly memorable, creepy tale, which works on all the senses, too. Dolls have long had a unique creep-factor; Todd adds the that creep-factor while doing something unique, yet, terrible (in the terror-sense of the word) with dolls.

My favourite of the lot. I became of fan of Robert Chamber’s ‘The King in Yellow‘ without knowing it, thanks to the first incredible season of True Detective. Fast-forward a couple of years and I’ve been reading ‘The King in Yellow‘ for a while now; I’m honestly obsessed with it. I’ll explain that when I post my review, but suffice it to say that I haven’t read anything resembling ‘The King in Yellow‘. It’s utterly unique.

Which makes what Todd did with ‘The Final Reconciliation‘ that much more incredible. Todd takes a metal band (The Yellow Kings), an evocative yet utterly unsettling track list, a self-proclaimed gypsy, and the creation of a new album, and marries them with what reads like the true-life account of this band’s rise and fall. The tale is full of weird imagery and lyrical brilliance, and positively sings with the strange, unsettling aspects of what makes ‘The King in Yellow‘ so strange – yet Todd pulls it off in a way that adds to the mythos Chambers created, putting everything that makes that strange book stand out in a modern context, yet also not explaining anything. You’ll have to read it to understand what I mean. What’s terrible about this tale (terrible, yet utterly creepy) is that now, more than ever, I want to delve deeper into ‘The King in Yellow‘, and even though I probably won’t survive it, I need to hear The Final Reconciliation in all it’s mind-breaking brilliance.

This is, for damned sure, one of those must-have collections. 10/10

To order your copies, click the Amazon link; you can also add it to your Goodreads shelf, and check out the trailer.

And don’t forget to check out Todd’s website for more info, and Crystal Lake Publishing’s website for more excellent books.

Until next time,

Be EPIC!

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Posted by on September 25, 2017 in Crystal Lake Publishing, Reviews

 

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Launch Day Review: Satic by M.D. Thalmann

One of the craziest, coolest rides I’ve ever been on.

You’ve got God as a character (while also fulfilling one other interesting role), geneticists and the cutting edge (and way past it), SF that doesn’t boil your mind while still being interesting, and characters that are both naive and compelling, powerful and tragically weak.

You’ll step into a world massively changed by a world-wide catastrophe involving nanotech, robots, androids, one weird baboon, and creepy board members. You’ll meet face-wearing barbarians, too.

How does it all fit together? Not telling – that you’ll have to read for yourself. But it does all fit together – and many, many times you’ll be cursing the author, because often what was in your mouth (or even in your nose) will be forcefully expelled by sudden laughter.

This is a fast-paced, fun and ultimately awesome SF ride – I haven’t read anything quite like it before, and I’m looking forward to every book we’ll get from this author. Highly recommended!

10/10

Order at Amazon now!

Check out more about M. D. Thalmann and his work over at his website, and have a browse through his Amazon page.

Until next time,

Be EPIC!

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2017 in Reviews

 

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Launch Day Review – Part 1: Ugly Little Things – Collected Horrors by Todd Keisling (Crystal Lake Publishing)

(Illustrations by the excellent Luke Spooner)

(Cover design by the amazing Ben Baldwin)

Part 1? There’ll be a part 2? Yep, because I’m halfway with the collection, and since it’s launching today, I’d like to review what I’ve read so far and add my voice to those who’be been lauding this collection, since it really does deserve to be lauded. 🙂

Every good collection begins with a suitable foreword, and in this case the tradition not only continues but does so wonderfully – I have yet to read Mercedes M, Yardley‘s work (I know, right? I’ve got so much to catch up on!), but she does a great job of intro-ing the collection because she doesn’t give anything away and made me excited to read it. She evokes the emotions the tales made her feel and, like a good bookseller, convinced me to begin reading. 🙂

The first tale, A Man in Your Garden, is an absolute corker – trust me, you’ll go through this thinking that it’s nothing special, nothing notable -but like all good word-wizards, that’s exactly what Todd wants you to think- and then the end hits you like a sucker-punch in pitch darkness. Excellent stuff!

 

The next tale, Show Me Where the Waters Fill Your Grave, is one of those quietly building horrors… It lulls you into thinking that the main character is am idiot for making the choices he does, even though you can understand why he’s making those choices, and I was left wondering at the end of the tale what his final choice would be: give in, or fight? It’ll probably leave you with the same questions.

 

Radio Free Nowhere works well as cautionary tale and plays with the city-folk-in-the-country trope – I kind of new where it was heading, but I still enjoyed the trip, as Todd manages to evoke that road-trip/desert-crossing/driving-into-the-unknown feeling amazingly well with his tight descriptions and fully-realized characters. Even the petrol-station attendant is given layers, instead of being the caricature most movies make that kind of character into.

 

The Otherland Express is one of the real stand-out tales, both a parable for our time and the kind of Horror tale starring a character we can understand and sympathize with – as Stephen King likes to do, this tale also reveals the hidden, uniquely strange things which might be hiding out there and humanizes them, forcing the reader to think about what they would do, if they were ever placed in a similar situation.

 

Saving Granny from the Devil is a wonderful tale and showcases Todd’s character-creation talents – we follow the life and decisions of the main character from when he’s a little boy until he’s an adult, charting the events in his life and the decisions he’s seemingly forced to make. Todd also gives us a new, almost perfect look at ‘the Devil’, one which upends some conventional ideas and revels in creating a new, interesting take on the ultimate bad guy. Really good stuff!

 

The Darkness Between Dead Stars is superb cosmic Horror – the kind of Horror which leaves you with more questions than answers; the story is tight and small, is written from an interesting angle (instead of the expected POV), and features some truly creepy visuals. It’s visceral and memorable and I’m pretty sure you’ll agree.

 

Human Resources is perfect. Just perfect. Corporate Culture meets Cultist Insanity. Love it!

 

House of Nettle and Thorn plays with what I believe to be one of the ultimate formative tropes teenagers in the US have to deal with – Sorority Houses. Being a South African, and not having had to deal with anything similar in high school, it still surprises me that these places exist. 🙂 I’m very glad that Todd didn’t go the way many other writers have, concerning Sorority’s, i.e. not crafting a tale in which members of different SH’s go up against each other. This is something cool and twisted and dark, explicit in places and disturbing in others, but damned good. There’s also an incredible quote-worthy passage in the tale, regarding what some men are meant to do with their lives, which made me laugh out loud it was so nail-on-the-head, but I’ll leave you to discover that passage for yourself. 🙂

 

So, that’s eight stories reviewed in part one, with three more coming in part two. So far Todd has been hitting home runs – going places where dark thoughts tumble, where strange things travel our roads, where irresistable horrors ensnare… So, should you buy this collection? For damned sure. Click on this link and do so.

And see you next week for part two of my Ugly Little Things review. 🙂

Be EPIC!

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2017 in Crystal Lake Publishing, Reviews

 

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Review: Behold! Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders – Edited by Doug Murano

Hey everyone, hope you’re all well. 🙂

I got the chance to read this impending anthology, which will be published by Crystal Lake Publishing, and jumped at it. I’m glad I did – this is a truly memorable publication, and a stand-out addition to the annals of Horror.

First shout-out has to go to Josh Malerman for an incredible foreword – it’s not often that a foreword truly captures the essence of what the reader is going to be reading, but Josh did an incredible job; so much so that you’ll probably find yourself re-reading the foreword, as I did. And if you’ve yet to read Josh’s work, the foreword alone will make sure you do; the man has an enticing, evocative and lyrically rhythmic turn of phrase which seems perfectly suited to Horror. (and yes, I too have yet to read Josh’s work)

The anthology is divided into three sections – Oddities, Curiosities, and Undefinable Wonders, and Lisa Morton’s LaRue’s Dime Museum opens the anthology – an inspired choice by editor Doug Murano, as this tale hints at practically every strange and terrifyingly wondrous thing you’ll read. Let me be clear: the feel of it, how it blends reality, fear, and longing, as well as the imagery and atmosphere of it, will prepare you (to a certain degree) for the rest of the tales. It’s also a tale which defies end-guessing, and which will probably make you look twice at that strange-looking person across the street… Here’s an exceptional illustration from the mad-skills-afflicted Luke Spooner, to give you a taste of what you’ll be reading:

The next tale, Brian Kirk‘s Wildflower, Cactus, Rose is absolutely chilling in how it looks at society’s sick need to ‘look better’, as well as how ‘normal’ and ‘accepted’ abuse becomes. It’s a difficult story to read, and should be – we have to talk about the things that make us uncomfortable and that have no easy answers, and this tale doesn’t flinch from showing the uglier sides of human nature… Yet there’s a strange kind of beauty there, too.

Hal Bodner‘s The Baker of Millepoix is filled with the kind of imagery you’d expect from a charming foreign-language movie; the writing is flowing, lyrical, easy – as if your eyes are following the happy gurgling of a stream with birds tweeting in the background and a slight breeze puffing your hair. Yet when the horror arrives, it seems almost sweet and -dare I say it again- charming. You, the reader, will have witnessed something society says you must not allow to happen, must not take part in, yet… You’ll have found it a bit wonderful.

Next you’ll read Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament – not saying who the author is (either let yourself be surprised or spoil it for yourself). This tale is about the discovery of talents, the exercising of power, the black-hole-pull of love and lust, the physicality of intention, how guilt is able to ravage and inflame, and how, strangely enough, there’s a sick, twisted and yet breathtaking beauty in the experiences of pain and horror. The tale also ends with one of the most unsettling, yet fitting, scenes I’ve ever read.

What also makes Behold such a memorable anthology are the poems which split the book’s sections – Stephanie M. Wytovich isn’t one of those ‘read and have no clue what you’ve just read’ poets; her work won’t leave you feeling as if you missed classes at some high-brow literary school. It’s as if Stephanie has woven scenes or micro-stories using the ideas of Horror, the foundational elements and emotions. Her work is unsettling and addictive. An Exhibition of Mother and Monster is, to me, a scathing indictment of humanity’s need to make a spectacle of that which freaks us out. The poem points at us and says, ‘You giggle and cringe and thank your genes that you haven’t come out different, yet you don’t see the beauty and tragedy in what you’re paying to see and selfie.’

The next tale, John Langan‘s Madame Painte: For Sale is a quirky tale – it almost serves as a warning to bargain- or antique-hunters to be very careful of what they find, yet it could also be a warning to folks against believing the stories which accompany the pieces you’re interested in; it works both ways.

The next tale, Chalice, by another author I won’t name (for the same reasons as Jacqueline Ess) is one of those quaint, leaves-you-with-a-good-feeling tales – it’s sublimely written and marries the strange and out of place beautifully with the solitary life of a small-town retiree.

Fully Boarded by Ramsey Campbell is a story every traveller will love. 😉 Or maybe you’ll never travel again. Or maybe you’ll never go anywhere just to find fault with a place… Who knows? 😉

In Amelia’s Wake by Erinn L Kemper is, to me, a brooding, lovely and yet dark meditation on loss and progress, and about how grief can become a wall which not even more loss can break through. There’s a dark magic to this tale.

In A Ware That Will Not Keep, from John F.D. Taff, we hear the confession of an old man to his grandson, and we’re taken back to World War 2 and the atrocities committed against the Jews by the Nazis. It’s a tale which explores the nature and repercussions of revenge, and is probably also the first time I’ve ever felt true sorrow for a mass-murderer. Here’s a hint of what you can expect, again from the excellent Luke Spooner:

 

Then comes Ed Pruitt’s Smoker by Patrick Freivald – this tale ranks among my favourites because of the nature of the tale. It takes a seemingly innocuous subject -bees and bee-keepers- and gives it a terrifyingly wonderful twist; you simply have to read this one to understand what I mean.

We’re then treated to another poem by Stephanie Wytovich, As a Guest at the Telekinetic Tea Party, and this time she focuses on the utter uselessness, faux frivolity and inherent judgements made by women who hold tea parties. Or does she? You decide.

Hazelnuts and Yummy Mummies by Lucy A. Snyder will have you laughing out loud and perhaps wiping away tears, too – Conventions may be one of those events an author aspires to, but be careful of the cookies, okay? 😉

Brian Hodge‘s The Shiny Fruit of Our Tomorrows launches the reader into the anthology’s final section – Undefinable Wonders. Brian’s tale is one of the most beautiful, and heart-breaking, tales in the anthology. It reveals a world very. very few of us have ever (willingly or otherwise) entered, people by real people, the likes of which you have probably met without knowing it. You know how sometimes truth and need, when combined, can be heart-breaking? That’s what this tale represents. Wonderful, lingering stuff.

The Wakeful by Kristi DeMeester is sublime, slow-building horror… Don’t read it while sitting out in your garden; you’ve been warned.

Christopher Coake‘s Knitter beings to my mind the awesome work Stephen King did in Insomnia – that marriage of the seemingly innocuous with the truly strange; it’s a glimpse into a world which will be very real to you while you read the tale.

Sarah Read‘s Through Gravel is, to me, an exploration of how claustrophobic religion can become – Sarah shows us a world in which darkness is sacrosanct, and change is anathema; it’s when the light begins to filter in that things change…

The collection ends with Hiraeth by Richard Thomas – a beautiful tale which resounds with aching need, sorrow, and a growing love amidst slow and beautiful magic. A reminder that the world has more to offer than we can possibly see, or know from experience. Here’s another one of Luke Spooner’s incredible illustrations – perfectly suited to the tale:

Behold is one of those memorable collections – you haven’t encountered anything like these stories in fiction before. Beauty and darkness and terror and love swirl together to create a book I’ll be thinking about for a long time. You simply have to read this-experience this-absorb this. Major kudos to Doug Murano for excellent editing and to Crystal Lake Publishing for giving readers this anthology. Absolutely incredible stuff, and well deserving of a resounding 10 out of 10.

Pre-order the Kindle version for just $2.99, and join the two ThunderClap campaigns to spread the word about this incredible anthology, and check out the many other top-notch titles Crystal Lake has released. You can also add the book on Goodreads. 🙂

Until next time,

Be EPIC!

 
 

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Gail Z Martin’s The Hawthorn Moon Blog-Tour – Excerpt: Scourge – A Darkhurst Novel

Hey folks, I’m late to the party with this, but in my defense, I got started with Scourge and cannot put it down – this event completely slipped my mind! (thanks, Gail – I blame the awesome book!)

What’s ‘Scourge’ about? Here’s the low-down:

The city-state of Ravenwood is wealthy, powerful, and corrupt. Merchant Princes and Guild Masters wager fortunes to outmaneuver League rivals for the king’s favor and advantageous trading terms. Lord Mayor Ellor Machison wields assassins, blood witches, and forbidden magic to assure that his powerful patrons get what they want, no matter the cost.

Corran, Rigan, and Kell Valmonde are Guild Undertakers, left to run their family’s business when guards murdered their father and monsters killed their mother. Their grave magic enables them to help souls pass to the After and banish vengeful spirits. Rigan’s magic is unusually strong and enables him to hear the confessions of the dead, the secrets that would otherwise be taken to the grave.

When the toll exacted by monsters and brutal guards hits close to home and ghosts expose the hidden sins of powerful men, Corran, Rigan and Kell become targets in a deadly game and face a choice: obey the Guild, or fight back and risk everything.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, it is – damned good. I’m just about 100 pages in (review coming soon), and I can tell you that Gail has crafted a dark, tense tale filled with stand-out characters and interesting magic. Scourge has already found kickass company among a Best-Of list over at Bookwraiths, and it’s well deserved.

Here’s an excerpt to get you interested, and pre-order links will follow after the excerpt:

***

Chapter One

A HEAVY IRON candleholder slammed against the wall, just missing Corran Valmonde’s head.

“Son of a bitch!”

“Try not to make her mad, Corran.”

Rigan Valmonde knelt on the worn floor, drawing a sigil in charcoal, moving as quickly as he dared. Not quickly enough; a piece of firewood spun from the hearth and flew across the room, slamming him in the shoulder hard enough to make him grunt in pain.

“Keep her off me!” he snapped, repairing the smudge in the soot line. Sloppy symbols meant sloppy magic, and that could get someone killed.

“I would if I could see her.” Corran stepped away from the wall, raising his iron sword, putting himself between the fireplace and his brother. His breath misted in the unnaturally cold room and moisture condensed on the wavy glass of the only window.

“Watch where you step.” Rigan worked on the second sigil, widdershins from the soot marking, this one daubed in ochre. “I don’t want to have to do this again.”

A small ceramic bowl careened from the mantle, and, for an instant, Rigan glimpsed a young woman in a blood-soaked dress, one hand clutching her heavily pregnant belly. The other hand slipped right through the bowl, even as the dish hurtled at Rigan’s head. Rigan dove to one side and the bowl smashed against the opposite wall. At the same time, Corran’s sword slashed down through the specter. A howl of rage filled the air as the ghost dissipated.

You have no right to be in my home. The dead woman’s voice echoed in Rigan’s mind.

Get out of my head.

You are a confessor. Hear me!

Not while you’re trying to kill my brother.

“You’d better hurry.” Corran slowly turned, watching for the ghost.

“I can’t rush the ritual.” Rigan tried to shut out the ghost’s voice, focusing on the complex chalk sigil. He reached into a pouch and drew a thin curved line of salt, aconite, and powdered amanita, connecting the first sigil to the second, and the second to the third and fourth, working his way to drawing a complete warded circle.

The ghost materialized without warning on the other side of the line, thrusting a thin arm toward Rigan, her long fingers crabbed into claws, old blood beneath her torn nails. She opened a gash on Rigan’s cheek as he stumbled backward, grabbed a handful of the salt mixture and threw it. The apparition vanished with a wail.

“Corran!” Rigan’s warning came a breath too late as the ghost appeared right behind his brother, and took a swipe with her sharp, filthy nails, clawing Corran’s left shoulder.

He wronged me. He let me die, let my baby die— The voice shrieked in Rigan’s mind.

“Draw the damn signs!” Corran yelled. “I’ll handle her.” He wheeled, and before the blood-smeared ghost could strike again, the tip of his iron blade caught her in the chest. Her image dissipated like smoke, with a shriek that echoed from the walls.

Avenge me.

Sorry, lady, Rigan thought as he reached for a pot of pigment. I’m stuck listening to dead people’s dirty little secrets and last regrets, but I just bury people. Take your complaints up with the gods.

“Last one.” Rigan marked the rune in blue woad. The condensation on the window turned to frost, and he shivered. The ghost flickered, insubstantial but still identifiable as the young woman who had died bringing her stillborn child into the world. Her blood still stained the floor in the center of the warded circle and held her to this world as surely as her grief.

Wind whipped through the room, and would have scattered the salt and aconite line if Rigan had not daubed the mixture onto the floor in paste. Fragments of the broken bowl scythed through the air. The iron candle holder sailed across the room; Corran dodged it again, and a shard caught the side of his brother’s head, opening a cut on Rigan’s scalp, sending a warm rush of blood down the side of his face.

The ghost raged on, her anger and grief whipping the air into a whirlwind. I will not leave without justice for myself and my son.

You don’t really have a choice about it, Rigan replied silently and stepped across the warding, careful not to smudge the lines, pulling an iron knife from his belt. He nodded to Corran and together their voices rose as they chanted the burial rite, harmonizing out of long practice, the words of the Old Language as familiar as their own names.

The ghostly woman’s image flickered again, solid enough now that Rigan could see the streaks of blood on her pale arms and make out the pattern of her dress. She appeared right next to him, close enough that his shoulder bumped against her chest, and her mouth brushed his ear.

’Twas not nature that killed me. My faithless husband let us bleed because he thought the child was not his own.

The ghost vanished, compelled to reappear in the center of the circle, standing on the blood-stained floor. Rigan extended his trembling right hand and called to the magic, drawing on the old, familiar currents of power. The circle and runes flared with light. The sigils burned in red, white, blue, and black, with the salt-aconite lines a golden glow between them.

Corran and Rigan’s voices rose as the glow grew steadily brighter, and the ghost raged all the harder against the power that held her, thinning the line between this world and the next, opening a door and forcing her through it.

One heartbeat she was present; in the next she was gone, though her screams continued to echo.

Rigan and Corran kept on chanting, finishing the rite as the circle’s glow faded and the sigils dulled to mere pigment once more. Rigan lowered his palm and dispelled the magic, then blew out a deep breath.

“That was not supposed to happen.” Corran’s scowl deepened as he looked around the room, taking in the shattered bowl and the dented candle holder. He flinched, noticing Rigan’s wounds now that the immediate danger had passed.

“You’re hurt.”

Rigan shrugged. “Not as bad as you are.” He wiped blood from his face with his sleeve, then bent to gather the ritual materials.

“She confessed to you?” Corran bent to help his brother, wincing at the movement.

“Yeah. And she had her reasons,” Rigan replied. He looked at Corran, frowning at the blood that soaked his shirt. “We’ll need to wash and bind your wounds when we get back to the shop.”

“Let’s get out of here.”

They packed up their gear, but Corran did not sheath his iron sword until they were ready to step outside. A small crowd had gathered, no doubt drawn by the shrieks and thuds and the flares of light through the cracked, dirty window.

“Nothing to see here, folks,” Corran said, exhaustion clear in his voice. “We’re just the undertakers.”

Once they were convinced the excitement was over, the onlookers dispersed, leaving one man standing to the side. He looked up anxiously as Rigan and Corran approached him.

“Is it done? Is she gone?” For an instant, eagerness shone too clearly in his eyes. Then his posture shifted, shoulders hunching, gaze dropping, and mask slipped back into place. “I mean, is she at rest? After all she’s been through?”

Before Corran could answer, Rigan grabbed the man by the collar, pulled him around the corner into an alley and threw him up against the wall. “You can stop the grieving widower act,” he growled. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Corran standing guard at the mouth of the alley, gripping his sword.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” The denial did not reach the man’s eyes.

“You let her bleed out, you let the baby die, because you didn’t think the child was yours.” Rigan’s voice was rough as gravel, pitched low so that only the trembling man could hear him.

“She betrayed me—”

“No.” The word brought the man up short. “No, if she had been lying, her spirit wouldn’t have been trapped here.” Rigan slammed the widower against the wall again to get his attention.

“Rigan—” Corran cautioned.

“Lying spirits don’t get trapped.” Rigan had a tight grip on the man’s shirt, enough that he could feel his body trembling. “Your wife. Your baby. Your fault.” He stepped back and let the man down, then threw him aside to land on the cobblestones. “The dead are at peace. You’ve got the rest of your life to live with what you did.” With that, he turned on his heel and walked away, as the man choked back a sob.

Corran sheathed his sword. “I really wish you’d stop beating up paying customers,” he grumbled as they turned to walk back to the shop.

“Wish I could. Don’t know how to stop being confessor to the dead, not sure what else to do once I know the dirt,” Rigan replied, an edge of pain and bitterness in his voice.

“So the husband brought us in to clean up his mess?” Corran winced as he walked; the gashes on his arm and back had to be throbbing.

“Yeah.”

“I like it better when the ghosts confess something like where they buried their money,” Corran replied.

“So do I.”

The sign over the front of the shop read Valmonde Undertakers. Around back, in the alley, the sign over the door just said Bodies. Corran led the way, dropping the small rucksack containing their gear just inside the entrance, and cursed under his breath as the strap raked across raw shoulders.

“Sit down,” Rigan said, nodding at an unoccupied mortuary table. He tied his brown hair into a queue before washing his hands in a bucket of fresh water drawn from the pump. “Let me have a look at those wounds.”

Footsteps descended the stairs from the small apartment above.

“You’re back? How bad was it?” Kell, the youngest of the Valmonde brothers, stopped halfway down the stairs. He had Corran’s coloring, taking after their father, with dark blond hair that curled when it grew long. Rigan’s brown hair favored their mother. All three brothers’ blue eyes were the same shade, making the resemblance impossible to overlook.

“Shit.” Kell jumped the last several steps as he saw his brothers’ injuries. He grabbed a bucket of water and scanned a row of powders and elixirs, grabbing bottles and measuring out with a practiced eye and long experience. “I thought you said it was just a banishing.”

“It was supposed to be ‘just’ a banishing,” Rigan said as Corran stripped off his bloody shirt. “But it didn’t go entirely to plan.” He soaked a clean cloth in the bucket Kell held and wrung it out.

“A murder, not a natural death,” Corran said, and his breath hitched as Rigan daubed his wounds. “Another ghost with more power than it should have had.”

Rigan saw Kell appraising Corran’s wounds, glancing at the gashes on Rigan’s face and hairline.

“Mine aren’t as bad,” Rigan said.

“When you’re done with Corran, I’ll take care of them,” Kell said. “So I’m guessing Mama’s magic kicked in again, if you knew about the murder?”

“Yeah,” Rigan replied in a flat voice.

Undertaking, like all the trades in Ravenwood, was a hereditary profession. That it came with its own magic held no surprise; all the trades did. The power and the profession were passed down from one generation to the next. Undertakers could ease a spirit’s transition to the realm beyond, nudge a lost soul onward, or release one held back by unfinished business. Sigils, grave markings, corpse paints, and ritual chants were all part of the job. But none of the other undertakers that Rigan knew had a mama who was part Wanderer. Of the three Valmonde brothers, only Rigan had inherited her ability to hear the confessions of the dead, something not even the temple priests could do. His mother had called it a gift. Most of the time, Rigan regarded it as a burden, sometimes a curse. Usually, it just made things more complicated than they needed to be.

“Hold still,” Rigan chided as Corran winced. “Ghost wounds draw taint.” He wiped away the blood, cleaned the cuts, and then applied ointment from the jar Kell handed him. All three of them knew the routine; they had done this kind of thing far too many times.

“There,” he said, binding up Corran’s arm and shoulder with strips of gauze torn from a clean linen shroud. “That should do it.”

Corran slid off the table to make room for Rigan. While Kell dealt with his brother’s wounds, Corran went to pour them each a whiskey.

“That’s the second time this month we’ve had a spirit go from angry to dangerous,” Corran said, returning with their drinks. He pushed a glass into Rigan’s hand, and set one aside for Kell, who was busy wiping the blood from his brother’s face.

“I’d love to know why.” Rigan tried not to wince as Kell probed his wounds. The deep gash where the pottery shard had sliced his hairline bled more freely than the cut on his cheek. Kell swore under his breath as he tried to staunch the bleeding.

“It’s happening all over Ravenwood, and no one in the Guild seems to know a damn thing about why or what to do about it,” Corran said, knocking his drink back in one shot. “Old Daniels said he’d heard his father talk about the same sort of thing, but that was fifty years ago. So why did the ghosts stop being dangerous then, and what made them start being dangerous now?”

Rigan started to shake his head, but stopped at a glare from Kell, who said, “Hold still.” He let out a long breath and complied, but his mind raced. Until the last few months, banishings were routine. Violence and tragedy sometimes produced ghosts, but in all the years since Rigan and Corran had been undertakers—first helping their father and uncles and then running the business since the older men had passed away—banishings were usually uneventful.

Make the marks, sing the chant, the ghost goes on and we go home. So what’s changed?

“I’m sick of being handed my ass by things that aren’t even solid,” Rigan grumbled. “If this keeps up, we’ll need to charge more.”

Corran snorted. “Good luck convincing Guild Master Orlo to raise the rates.”

Rigan’s eyes narrowed. “Guild Master Orlo can dodge flying candlesticks and broken pottery. See how he likes it.”

“Once you’ve finished grumbling we’ve got four new bodies to attend to,” Kell said. “One’s a Guild burial and the others are worth a few silvers a piece.” Rigan did not doubt that Kell had negotiated the best fees possible, he always did.

“Nice,” Rigan replied, and for the first time noticed that there were corpses on the other tables in the workshop, covered with sheets. “We can probably have these ready to take to the cemetery in the morning.”

“One of them was killed by a guard,” Kell said, turning his back and keeping his voice carefully neutral.

“Do you know why?” Corran tensed.

“His wife said he protested when the guard doubled the ‘protection’ fee. Guess the guard felt he needed to be taught a lesson.” Bribes were part of everyday life in Ravenwood, and residents generally went along with the hated extortion. Guilds promised to shield their members from the guards’ worst abuses, but in reality, the Guild Masters only intervened in the most extreme cases, fearful of drawing the Lord Mayor’s ire. At least, that had been the excuse when Corran sought justice from the Undertakers’ Guild for their father’s murder, a fatal beating on flimsy charges.

Rigan suspected the guards had killed their father because the neighborhood looked up to him, and if he’d decided to speak out in opposition, others might have followed. Even with the passing years, the grief remained sharp, the injustice bitter.

Kell went to wash his hands in a bucket by the door. “Trent came by while you and Corran were out. There’s been another attack, three dead. He wants you to go have a look and take care of the bodies.”

Rigan and Corran exchanged a glance. “What kind of attack?”

Kell sighed. “What kind do you think? Creatures.” He hesitated. “I got the feeling from Trent this was worse than usual.”

“Did Trent say what kind of creatures?” Corran asked, and Rigan picked up on an edge to his brother’s voice.

Kell nodded. “Ghouls.”

Corran swore under his breath and looked away, pushing back old memories. “All right,” he said, not quite managing to hide a shudder. “Let’s go get the bodies before it gets any later. We’re going to have our hands full tonight.”

“Kell and I can go, if you want to start on the ones here,” Rigan offered.

Corran shook his head. “No. I’m not much use as an undertaker if I can’t go get the corpses no matter how they came to an end,” Corran said.

Rigan heard the undercurrent in his tone. Kell glanced at Rigan, who gave a barely perceptible nod, warning Kell to say nothing. Corran’s dealing with the memories the best way he knows how, Rigan thought. I just wish there weren’t so many reminders.

“I’ll prepare the wash and the pigments, and get the shrouds ready,” Kell said. “I’ll have these folks ready for your part of the ritual by the time you get back.” He gestured to the bodies already laid out. “Might have to park the new ones in the cart for a bit and switch out—tables are scarce.”

Corran grimaced. “That’ll help.” He turned to Rigan. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

Kell gave them the directions Trent had provided. Corran took up the long poles of the undertaker’s cart, which clattered behind him as they walked. Rigan knew better than to talk to his brother when he was in this kind of mood. At best he could be present, keep Corran from having to deal with the ghouls’ victims alone, and sit up with him afterward.

It’s only been three months since he buried Jora, since we almost had to bury him. The memory’s raw, although he won’t mention it. But Kell and I both hear what he shouts in his sleep. He’s still fighting them in his dreams, and still losing.

Rigan’s memories of that night were bad enough—Trent stumbling to the back door of the shop, carrying Corran, bloody and unconscious; Corran’s too-still body on one of the mortuary tables; Kell praying to Doharmu and any god who would listen to stave off death; Trent, covered in Corran’s blood, telling them how he had found their brother and Jora out in the tavern barn, the ghoul that attacked them already feasting on Jora’s fresh corpse.

Rigan never did understand why Trent had gone to the barn that night, or how he managed to fight off the ghoul. Corran and Jora, no doubt, had slipped away for a tryst, expecting the barn to be safe and private. Corran said little of the attack, and Rigan hoped his brother truly did not remember all the details.

“We’re here.” Corran’s rough voice and expressionless face revealed more than any words.

Ross, the farrier, met them at the door. “I’m sorry to have to call you out,” he said.

“It’s our job,” Corran replied. “I’m just sorry the godsdamned ghouls are back.”

“Not for long,” Ross said under his breath. A glance passed between Corran and Ross. Rigan filed it away to ask Corran about later.

The stench hit Rigan as soon as they entered the barn. Two horses lay gutted in their stalls and partially dismembered. Blood spattered the wooden walls and soaked the sawdust. Flies swarmed on what the ghouls had left behind.

“They’re over here,” Ross said. The bodies of two men and a woman had been tossed aside like discarded bones at a feast. Rigan swallowed down bile. Corran paled, his jaw working as he ground his teeth.

Rigan and Corran knew better than most what remained of a corpse once a ghoul had finished with it. Belly torn open to get to the soft organs; ribs split wide to access the heart. How much of the flesh remained depended on the ghoul’s hunger and whether or not it feasted undisturbed. Given the state these bodies were in—their faces were the only parts left untouched—the ghouls had taken their time. Rigan closed his eyes and took a deep breath, willing himself not to retch.

“What about the creatures?” Corran asked.

“Must have fled when they heard us coming,” Ross said. “We were making plenty of noise.”

Ross handed them each a shovel, and took one up himself. “There’s not much left, and what’s there is… loose.”

“Who were they?” Rigan asked, not sure Corran felt up to asking questions.

Ross swallowed hard. “One of the men was my cousin, Tad. The other two were customers. They brought in the two horses late in the day, and my cousin said he’d handle it.”

Rigan heard the guilt in Ross’s tone.

“Guild honors?” Corran asked, finding his voice, and Ross nodded.

Rigan brought the cart into the barn, stopping as close as possible to the mangled corpses.

The bodies were likely to fall to pieces as soon as they began shoveling.

“Yeah,” Ross replied, getting past the lump in his throat. “Send them off right.” He shook his head. “They say the monsters are all part of the Balance, like life and death cancel each other out somehow. That’s bullshit, if you ask me.”

The three men bent to their work, trying not to think of the slippery bones and bloody bits as bodies. Carcasses. Like what’s left when the butcher’s done with a hog, or the vultures are finished with a cow, Rigan thought. The barn smelled of blood and entrails, copper and shit. Rigan looked at what they loaded into the cart. Only the skulls made it possible to tell that the remains had once been human.

“I’m sorry about this, but I need to do it—to keep them from rising as ghouls or restless spirits,” Rigan said. He pulled a glass bottle from the bag at the front of the wagon, and carefully removed the stopper, sprinkling the bodies with green vitriol to burn the flesh and prevent the corpses from rising. The acid sizzled, sending up noxious tendrils of smoke. Rigan stoppered the bottle and pulled out a bag of the salt-aconite-amanita mixture, dusting it over the bodies, assuring that the spirits would remain at rest.

Ross nodded. “Better than having them return as one of those… things,” he said, shuddering.

“We’ll have them buried tomorrow,” Corran said as Rigan secured their grisly load.

“That’s more than fair,” Ross agreed. “Corran—you know if I’d had a choice about calling you—”

“It’s our job.” Corran cut off the apology. Ross knew about Jora’s death. That didn’t change the fact that they were the only Guild undertakers in this area of Ravenwood, and Ross was a friend.

“I’ll be by tomorrow afternoon with the money,” Ross said, accompanying them to the door.

“We’ll be done by then,” Corran replied. Rigan went to pick up the cart’s poles, but Corran shook his head and lifted them himself.

Rigan did not argue. Easier for him to haul the wagon; that way he doesn’t have to look at the bodies and remember when Jora’s brother brought her for burial.

Rigan felt for the reassuring bulk of his knife beneath his cloak—a steel blade rather than the iron weapon they used in the banishing rite. No one knew the true nature of the monsters, or why so many more had started appearing in Ravenwood of late. Ghouls weren’t like angry ghosts or restless spirits that could be banished with salt, aconite, and iron. Whatever darkness spawned them and the rest of their monstrous brethren, they were creatures of skin and bone; only beheading would stop them.

Rigan kept his blade sharpened.

 

©2017 Gail Z. Martin. All rights reserved. May not be copied or shared in any format except with the written permission of the author.

Here are those pre-order links: Amazon US, Amazon UK

And check out Gail’s site for more info, excerpts and giveaways! 🙂

Until next time,

Be EPIC!

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2017 in Blog Tour

 

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Book Review: Article Three

I was extremely lucky to be gifted an English version of this originally Swedish dystopian YA novel from the author herself for unbiased review. I spent my Christmas holiday reading this book and enjoyed it immensely!

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Trust will get you killed – and trust will keep you alive

In a world where the System governs everything, Ava’s a rebel – one who can control other people’s thoughts with her mind. As part of a resistance movement preparing for war, this is a useful skill.

Levi stopped believing in the struggle for freedom when it snatched his parents from him. Now he’s just trying to live a quiet life and control the voices that threaten his sanity.

One night Levi’s sister is arrested. To free her, he has to break old promises and get involved with people he swore he’d never associate with. Ava’s ordered to help him and, together, they leave on a rescue mission. She says he has to trust the rebels. But should they?

First of all, I tend to have a hate and hate-some-more relationship with translations, especially translations from languages I’m somewhat familiar with. While my Swedish definitely isn’t good enough to allow me to read this novel in its original form, I feel I know just enough of the language to be thoroughly irritated when I sense it going wrong. This book, however, was translated very well! There are a few instances of incorrect word use or slightly clunky syntax, but it was never enough to annoy me. And this book gets huge bonus points for being a self-published translation as well! I have read some truly atrocious Big House translations! Okay, but let’s get to the story…

This is a YA dystopian and starts off feeling comfortingly familiar with several identifiable tropes that have made this sub-genre of sci-fi so immensely popular. What made it so different and refreshing is that Lund presents us with a trio of main characters made up of strong, independent young women, and a physically weak, not particularly good-looking guy who freely admits that he isn’t all that smart either. Levi is the antithesis of every brave, buff, and (supposedly) intelligent hero of YA fiction. Forget Roar or Four or Gale – Levi is none of those things and yet, it’s his faults and ineptitude that make him so endearing, not only to the readers but to the women in his team.

Another refreshing aspect to this story was the Scandinavian setting. Without giving too much away, I can say that this book starts off somewhere in what might be the remnants of Germany and takes the trio on a several thousand-kilometre journey north through Denmark, past some well-known sites, to a snowy Sweden where they even get to interact with Sami reindeer herders! Being a resident of the north myself, it was pretty awesome getting to read a YA dystopian novel set in this part of the world.

And finally, the touch of near-supernatural that comes into the story in the form of ‘faculties’ some people possess – that is, explicable talents such as a form of mind reading – makes this a little different again from the way dystopian books usually play out, and another layer to already well-developed characters.

For a first book in a trilogy, the pacing is great and the resolution was satisfying while leaving plenty more story to be told in the sequels. But herein also lies my only gripe. While I know this is a series and Lund is very much going for a slow-burn approach to revealing the characters and their motivations, I did feel like I wanted to get to know the trio all much better as individuals. There are brief moments of flashbacks explaining their behaviour or thoughts but I wanted so much more! I also have to note that the ‘accent’ with which the one character speaks is really distracting and I wish it hadn’t been written into all their dialogue. So two gripes then – both fairly minor things.

Overall, this book is a refreshing take on the dystopian genre, a great first installment in a promising trilogy, and definitely a book I’d recommend to readers who are looking for something fresh in their YA sci-fi.

4/5 ink splats from me!

4 inksplats

~Suzanne~

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2017 in Reviews

 

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How to Twist Tropes for Fun and Profit by Delilah S. Dawson

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I didn’t get psychic powers the day I got my period, which really disappointed me. Stephen King’s Carrie was the first book that made me realize there was a really slim possibility that when one became a woman, one could also become a pyrotechnic mutant capable of exacting revenge. That was one of the first tropes I remember seeing twisted in a story, and I found it very satisfying. Instead of menstruation causing panic and fear, it could trigger empowerment—and someone was actually talking about it instead of acting like it was some shameful secret. That’s why I covered the trope of First Period Panic in the Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling from Apex Book Company, although my protagonist’s new powers further twist the trope in a different direction from Carrie.

The goal of Upside Down was to bring together a wide variety of writers working in fiction and nonfiction and let them twist the tropes that we see so frequently—or discuss and define the tropes. For many of us, it was a delight to take an annoying literary conceit that usually makes us roll our eyes– a chainmaille bikini, really? And turn that on its head. After writing their story, each author was asked to explain their trope and why they chose it, which further enhances the reading experience. It’s almost like reading secrets. It’s got great stories on the Damsel in Distress, Yellow Peril, The Chosen One, The Super Soldier, The Black Man Dies First, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Blind People are Magic, and so many more, often written by people who have experienced these tropes first hand.

I love twisting tropes in my books, and here’s how I make sure the story is about more than just a single twist.

  1. Decide on a trope to twist, usually in a fit of anger. Wake of Vultures, for example, is based on watching Lonesome Dove and being annoyed that women in the Wild West could only be portrayed as whores, martyrs, or lunatics, and also that people of color had very little power during that time of history.

  2. Craft a protagonist who embodies the twist and will be uniquely challenged by the world. In Wake of Vultures, that’s Nettie Lonesome, a mixed race girl raised as a slave who longs to be a cowboy.

  3. Create a rich world that offers tons of possibilities while uniquely challenging the protagonist. I wanted Nettie Lonesome to be more than just a regular cowboy, so I turned mid-1800s Texas into Durango, an alt version of our own history that’s full of monsters. Vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, harpies. Taking it a step further, I looked at the Texas Rangers and their spotted past and turned them into a monster hunting outfit … that sometimes performs atroticities in the name of what they consider public safety. And then I made Nettie become a monster-hunting Ranger. So … instant conflict.

  4. Begin the book just before the moment when everything changes so that we see where the protagonist begins and go with them on their journey. Wake of Vultures starts when Nettie is awakened from her nest of rags and goes outside at midnight to find … well, the beginning of her story.

  5. Find places in the plot where the protagonist will fail, nearly fail, or make stupid mistakes. I was also sick of women in stories being simpering and polite, so I made Nettie rough, rude, and violent, which gets her in plenty of trouble.

  6. At any point where you must make a decision, don’t go with what’s expected. Part of twisting tropes is to delight the reader by doing something new. There was one point where Nettie was feeling sick, and instead of having her be super tough, I decided she would be the victim of a troublesome digestion. She threw up on a coyote … who was actually a person. They had lots of arguments, from then on.

  7. Discover new tropes to twist along the way. In Wake of Vultures, a shapeshifter named Coyote Dan shows up to help Nettie and seems like he might be playing into the “Magical Negro/Native” trope, but he busts up that trope pretty fast.

  8. Remember that every character is the hero of their own story. Each character needs motivation, a reason to be near the protagonist or to push them away. The villain needs to have good reasons for what they’re doing. Ultimate Evil is just another crappy trope. Real people are ambiguous, not all good or all evil. The bad guys Nettie fights are never just in it for the hand-wringing Dr. Evil of it all.

  9. Have fun with it. Part of the joy of twisting tropes is to explore new ground. Everybody else went down the trope path, but you’re forging a new trail. If you get bored writing it, the reader will get bored reading it. So spice is up. When in doubt, throw in some sex or violence, I always say. Nettie agrees on both counts.

For more ideas on how to twist tropes, pick up a copy of Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. Believe me: You’ll find plenty to love. And plenty of blood, at least in my story.

delilahauthorpicDelilah S. Dawson is the author of the Blud series, the Hit series, Servants of the Storm, Star Wars: The Perfect Weapon and Scorched, and Wake of Vultures and the Shadow series, written as Lila Bowen. Her first comic, Ladycastle, is out in January with BOOM! Studios. She teaches writing online at LitReactor.com and lives with her family in the north Georgia mountains. Find her online at www.whimsydark.com.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2016 in Guest Post

 

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M.D. Thalmann

M.D. Thalmann, a novelist and freelance journalist with an affinity for satire and science fiction, lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife, children, and ornery cats, reads too much and sleeps too little.

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