June Horror Round-Up

June Horror Round-Up

Cuckoo - Gretchen Felker-Martin (Tor) *Pick of the Month*

Gretchen Felker-Martin’s follow-up to her celebrated provocation, Man-Hunt, is a visceral, violent, and often upsetting title about queer kids dropped into the desert for a type of torturous conversion therapy. The book picks up on the 1990s-2000s phenomenon of prison camps and reform institutions where kids were “scared straight,” where they were usually subjected to brutal abuse, confinement, and life-altering trauma. Martin’s book takes the real horrors of these experiences and accelerates them, highlighting the fact that many of those who took a leadership role in these camps seem almost as though they were possessed by a malignant force, one that is then passed on to the campers as they re-enter their communities. Martin’s prose rests on a barrage of graphic imagery and confused, panicked reactions by our ensemble cast, and at all times it remains both engaging and empathetic as we move into a quickly and intricately built Lovecraftian story that pushes the boundaries of what we expect from the genre. While there are moments that feel overwrought and almost punitive in Martin’s over-reliance on gut wrenching brutality, it also feels at though Martin’s use of such language is in accordance with how horror can recast our experiences of harm: the monsters and antagonists become bigger than life, just as our horrors were to us when we experienced them. I would be shocked if Cuckoo wasn’t made into a miniseries in the next several years with its perfect pacing, relatable characters, and well constructed action sequences.

Mouth - Joshua Hull (Tenebrous Press)

2024’s Mouth may be amongst the biggest successes for the new independent publisher Tenebrous Press, which has made a name for itself in the literary horror community for its novellas and collections. While the book has already hit several “best of the year” lists, its sparse characterization, unoriginal dialogue, and simplistic plot does little to make the book distinct in any meaningful way. A drifter was provided a piece of property by a dying acquaintance if the new owner promises to feed his pet. The story moves on from there, involving urban legends, subterranean horrors, and campy film fandom, but so little of it feels more than the sum of its parts. Since Hull is such a capable writer the book is, more or less, enjoyable, but it's hard to recommend when there have already been so many fantastic recent novellas available (including others from Tenebrous).

In the Valley of Headless Men - LP Hernandez (Cemetery Gates)

LP Hernandez seems to have hit the sweet spot with this novella, the story of which he says has also been written as a full length novel and as a short story. In the Valley of the Headless Men does so much in its rather meager page count, but in doing so the reader finds that there are no wasted words and that by centering the narrative on only three characters we are able to examine the themes of childhood and parental memory without feeling bogged down by extraneous dialogue and passing storylines. Two brothers with separate, negligent or abusive fathers, head into a wild area in Northern Canada where one of their fathers was thought to have gone. They bring along one of their (recent) ex-wives, a relationship broken by the loss of a pregnancy. From there we enter a region where our internal and external lives become intertwined, and where past and present become less distinct, allowing traumas of our distant past to become tactile and visible in ways we would rather they not. The book maintains a sneaking line of dread throughout the prose while also revealing a tenderness that underlies each character’s motivations. While there are some leaps in logic, and in characterization, later in the text, most fans of wilderness horror will be more than satisfied.

Weird Horror #8

Since you have to buy each issue like an individual book (and because it costs as much as one), I always review each issue of Undertow Publications Weird Horror here. There is a sort of sub-genre of its own that appears in the magazine, a kind of post-Lovecraftian strange that is hard to pin down from issue to issue. What this results in is a magazine whose contents are always quality, but never consistent in style, theme, or period. While there are a couple of good entries here, there is nothing particularly memorable other than “All the Things We Never Said” by Gary McMahon, “Rigor” by Alison Moore, and “The Haunted House” by David Ebenbach. I’ll be back next issue and, hopefully, our dice will land on some more winners.