A Collection of Dreamscapes – Haunting Horror Poems

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I don’t read nearly enough poetry, and I review even less of it. In fact, only recently was it brought to my attention that “dark poetry” is a sub-genre (and one that I need more of in my life). For readers like me Christina Sng’s A Collection of Dreamscapes is the perfect introduction into this macabre literary form!

This absorbing and haunting collection of poems is grouped into five sections: The Love Song of Allegra, Fairy Tales, All the Monsters in the World, The Capacity of Violence, and Myths and Dreamscapes. Below I will give some brief thoughts on each section.

The Love Song of Allegra

This section contains 17 poems that give us glimpses into a fantasy world of war, betrayal, and revenge. It’s a creation myth, oral history, action/adventure story, and epic battle of good vs evil (or humans vs demons) all rolled into one and set nicely in the same vein as traditional classic myths and legends. At its core is a violent, gruesome, and vivid tale of vengeance, and I like how the poems mostly focus on specific characters and scenes, while also hinting at the larger world/story surrounding them. My only complaint is I wanted to know more about this world, these characters (like the warrior Mephala or Margritte, the daughter of fire and ice), and what all happens next. Some favorites include “The Child Who Would Be Queen, “The King Who Became a Sycophant,” and “Lifegiver”.

Fairy Tales

This section contains 15 poems that all function as sorts of “fractured” fairy tales, based on stories we know and love, but with twists and dark deviations. There’s Little Red Riding Hood, whose first encounter with the wolf launches her young career as a monster hunter, a toughened orphan facing werewolves and much more. There’s Beauty, who becomes mother to Rapunzel, and the Beast, who devolves into an abusive husband. There’s the continuation of this tale where Rapunzel escapes captivity to hunt down her father and seek her revenge. And there are plenty more dark parodies to enjoy, including versions of Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and an intriguing and humorous twist on “Snow White” that has been updated to modern times and technology. Some favorites include “Snow,” “Always a Beast,” and “Beauty Sleeps for a Century”.

All the Monsters in the World

This section contains 15 poems about, unsurprisingly, monsters. However what is surprising is just how tender, beautiful, and forlorn some of the poems are. Sng explores our conception of what a monster is and examines the term from every angle. There is much variety here, be the cruel creatures human or otherwise. The stories shift perspective and some of the most interesting poems are the ones that are written from the point of view of the monster, causing us to feel an empathy we might not have otherwise. It was in this section that I really began to think of Sng’s magical ability to hook us in and engage with just a single poem, springing characters and circumstances to life in a matter of lines. I also noticed the author’s tendency (and joy) at placing some sort of twist or “reveal” at the end of her poems. Some favorites include “The Monsters Within,” “Memoirs in the Dark,” “Concepts,” and “Into the Tall Grass”. 

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The Capacity of Violence

This section contains 17 poems of grim and ghastly brutality. Though previous sections have contained violence, the ante is certainly upped in this segment. There’s a variety of perspectives, from victim to bystander to captor to killer, and the acts of violence are carried out in numerous ways. Cruelty is committed by loved ones, by random aggressors, and even by the recently deceased. There are stories of sacrifice and stories of being scarified. A running motif seeks to answer the questions What will we do to protect the ones we love? and What lengths will we go to seek revenge?. Some favorites include “Mortal Life,” “The Deer,” “The Tooth Collector,” and “A Future Without Fear”.

Myths and Dreamscapes

This final section contains 20 poems that are, admittedly, hard to categorize (as perhaps the title would imply). They are tales that span time and space. Tales of creation and destruction, of chaos and rebirth. They incorporate characters and events from Greek mythology, fantastical dreamworlds, and new and exciting lands of adventure. The stories are woven by a connective thread of journeys, exploration, and the desire to escape (by choice or by necessity) to a better place. Some favorites include “Starlight, “Future World,” and “The New World”.

A Collection of Dreamscapes horror poetry cover

A Collection of Dreamscapes is an excellent collection of poetry, full of poems that are worth reading over and over. Needless to say the beautifully descriptive language and fervent imagination of the author make for wonderful stories. Their cruelty, brutality, and violence clearly put the collection as a whole in the category of “dark poetry,” but that’s not to say there aren’t also stories of grace, love, and redemption. Christina Sng is a master at getting right to your heartstrings, whether the poem is an epic narrative or a short snippet of a particular moment. My only real complaint is that I’m often left hanging and wanting to know more about the characters and worlds that are being created only to end several stanzas later (that and the fact that occasionally some poems come across a little too formulaic/generic). But I still highly recommend this, and I think there’s a little something everyone could enjoy as the collection overall has a wonderful blend of style, stories, and genres.

A Collection of Dreamscapes is available now from Raw Dog Screaming Press.

The Thirteenth Floor – A Sentient Computer’s Nightmarish Playground

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As British horror comics became more popular in the 1950s, so too did the controversy over content deemed repulsive and reprehensible. When the horror comic anthology Scream! was created in 1984, it ran stories that were more tongue-in-cheek and geared towards a younger audience. One of the publications most popular series was The Thirteenth Floor, written by the duo John Wagner and Alan Grant with illustrations by the illustrious Jose Ortiz. This series, about a crazed sentient computer that makes itself the moral arbiter of a 17-story apartment building, continued its run when Scream! merged with the comics periodical Eagle. The series ended in 1985, but thankfully 2000AD has resurrected it to be enjoyed by old fans as well as a new generation of comic enthusiasts.

The Thirteenth Floor is about an advanced computer system named “Max” who runs the day to day affairs at the high-rise apartment building Maxwell Towers. He performs routine maintenance, takes messages, sends residents important reminders, and – most importantly for this story – operates the sole elevator in the building. As Max is quick to remind readers, the welfare of his tenets is his primary concern. In fact, Max is so protective that he creates a hidden virtual 13th floor where he can trap robbers, debt collectors, and other criminals who would seek to harm his residents in some way. The sci-fi horrors these offenders face may be constructs of Max’s imagination, but they are real enough to the unlucky souls who find themselves ensnared. And Max will get them to see the error of their ways, even if it means their death.

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I absolutely loved this collection of what is essentially a series of interconnected short stories. The recurring format is simple enough: a person Max deems wicked enters the building, Max tricks him into the elevator, there’s a moment of “but wait this building doesn’t have a 13th floor,” and then Max deposits him into a nightmare world where the wrongdoer either has a change of heart or meets an untimely demise. And while this structure could quickly become monotonous (the comic ran on a weekly basis for almost a year), it’s actually a nonstop ride of excitement and cliffhanger endings that lead perfectly from one issue to the next.

Grim reaper art from The Thirteenth Floor horror comic
The Thirteenth Floor is full of nightmares

One reason the storyline works so well is the ingenuity of writers Wagner and Grant, who creatively conjure a steady stream of situations for Max to deal with. With each new enemy that enters the elevator, Max cycles through an unending variety of nightmares to get his point across, including spiders, snakes, centipedes, skeletons, rough cars, demons, disappearing floors, and so much more. The writers also come up with numerous conflicts to keep the story moving along. Max hypnotizes several people to aid him, and he is constantly having to outwit a police investigator who seeks to shut him down. Despite the formulaic set up, each issue managed to come up with some new twist that kept me engaged and allowed the overarching plot to build in ways that I did not expect.  

Another reason this series is so great is simply because of Max. He has such a big personality in the story, like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey but with more sass. He is constantly breaking the fourth wall to address the readers, making us something of unwitting cohorts in his antics. I also love the way he narrates the story, giving us insight into the reasoning behind what he does (the morality of Max would make for a very interesting analysis piece, but I don’t have time to get into it here). He genuinely cares about the people he is responsible for, and even feels remorse when several decent characters get caught up in his escapades.

Max the computer art from The Thirteenth Floor horror comic
Don’t cross Max or his tenants

On the other hand, Max also delights in tormenting his victims, and regardless of their perceived crimes he comes off a little sadistic and unhinged. Actually, he reminds me of other beloved sociopaths from pop culture, such as Dexter, Hannibal Lector, Joe Goldberg from You, and numerous characters in the TV series American Horror Story. Max has a likeable personality and his heart is mostly in the right place, so we care about him. We are excited to see what schemes he concocts, but we also want his plans to succeed and we’re a nervous wreck when a wrench is, figuratively, thrown in the gears (which happens constantly for poor Max).

I would certainly put this series in the realm of dark comedy. Max enjoys finding ways to make the punishment fit the crime, whether it’s a debt collector being chased by grotesque versions of himself looking to “collect” or a loan shark being stranded at sea on a quickly crumbling raft. No matter the situation Max is ready with a witty, and often grim, one-liner to seal the deal. Not everything about the plot adds up, but that’s not the point and I was very much okay with it. Instead I allowed the story to lift my spirits and carry me along, cheerfully rooting for Max to find his way out of each new debacle. The Thirteenth Floor is billed as 17 stories of pure entertainment, and on that it won’t let you down.

The Thirteenth Floor horror comic cover

Jennifer Strange – Demon Hunting and Ghost Curses

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Young Adult (YA) and horror are two genres that I have a lot of affection for, and so it stands to reason that a book combining both of those should be one I would truly enjoy. Of course you have your celebrated series such as Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but it’s been years since I’ve read those and I’ve been looking for something new. Enter the recent YA horror Jennifer Strange by Cat Scully.

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange is the Sparrow, cursed with the ability to give ghosts and demonic spirits a body-a flesh and blood anchor in the mortal world-with the touch of her hand. When a ghost attacks her high school and awakens her powers, her father dumps her unceremoniously in the care of her estranged older sister Liz, leaving only his journal as an explanation. Drawn to the power of the Sparrow, the supernatural creatures preying on Savannah, Georgia will do anything to receive Jennifer’s powerful gift. The sisters must learn to trust each other again and uncover the truth about their family history by deciphering their father’s journal…because if they can’t, Jennifer’s uncontrolled power will rip apart the veil that separates the living from the dead.

Wow, I had SO much fun with this book! There’s an element of mystery to it right from the beginning, but then it also turns fairly gruesome and horrifying very early on. It reads like a typical YA book, so I was actually caught off guard (in the best way) by the brutality and pulse-pounding scares of our protagonist’s first major paranormal encounter. It’s violent, it’s instantly memorable, it lasts for three glorious chapters, and it instantly hooked me into the book. From that point on reading this was pure bliss.

I’ve seen this book compared to the Supernatural and Evil Dead franchises, and those are the two that really resonate with me (sorry, I never watched/read any Buffy). Much like the Winchester brothers, Jennifer and her older sister Liz were born into a demon-hunting family of sorts and are forced into taking on the family business as they search for their missing father. And much like the demons called forth from the Necronomicon, the spirits here are vicious, relentless, and feature a fair amount of gore and bodily fluids. I also liked that a paranormal attack (be it regular ghost, Wraith, Banshee, or something else) could literally come out of nowhere at any moment. Fortunately Scully balances this well with slower scenes and moments of character building, and the pacing works really well.

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Jennifer Strange horror book cover

Speaking of characters, I really like Jennifer as a main character (and I even grew to like her sister Liz). She’s caught in a new world of surprises and is having to deal with some heavy discoveries while fighting for her life. Not only is she sympathetic and realistically detailed, but her struggle with her newfound power and its damning implications is incredibly compelling. I also liked the character Marcus, and I’m glad he was written with care and complexity. Unfortunately those three are the most fleshed out characters. We learn enough about the others, their personalities and motivations, to get their relation to the plot, but I wish they were given opportunities to be as dynamic as Jennifer, Liz, and Marcus. 

The other thing that I didn’t like as much is the ambiguity that floats in and out of the pages. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the climax hinges around a series of events that, while epic and interesting in their telling, are overall a little confusing at times. And there are certainly pieces to the puzzle missing, though as this is the first in a trilogy I must presume they will begin to fall into place in later books. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book! I loved that it is set in Savannah, GA (the perfect place for a ghost story), I loved some of the twists and turns, I loved the variety of ghouls, and I loved the pacing, structure, and characters. Yep, lots to love here! I also thought it was really neat how the book splices in pages from their father’s journal, including his diary entries and illustrations from their mother. Made for a cool dynamic to chunk the story and break things up. Jennifer Strange fits very well into the YA horror genre, and I think it’s a story that both teens and adults will find worth reading!

Hope…for the Future, Vol 1 – A Neo-Noir, Pulp Crime Horror

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Imagine the black and white pulp crime world of Dick Tracy mixed with the neo-noir of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Now, add in a dash of occult magic and envision the love child of James Ellroy and Alan Moore, a genre-bending mashup of L.A. Confidential and Hellblazer. Starting to get the picture? If you love any of those genres as much as I do, then you will be head-over-heels for 2000AD’s gritty detective graphic novel Hope…for the Future. 

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Hope for the Future comic book cover
Hope for the Future comic book cover

In an alternate post-war 1940s Los Angeles, where occult forces are a fact of life, Mallory Hope is a private detective haunted by his past… and by the demon he works with. When a new case involving a missing boy reminds him of his own lost child, Hope is determined to find him. But he soon discovers all is not what it seems, with dark powers lurking behind the lights of Hollywood

Our protagonist, John Mallory, is very much a John Constantine type: a hard boiled private investigator who’s tuned into the magical world existing beneath everyday reality. He’s a man on a mission, navigating the dark underbelly of 1940s Los Angeles with a dry wit and a grim disposition that makes him immediately likeable. He’s rough and tough, and when given the option to run or double down he always chooses the latter (at one point shrugging and saying “It’s been hours since my last beating”). But he’s also compassionate – demonstrated when he risks his life to save a misfortunate child threatened by a gang of violent goons. I was invested in him from the very first page, his narration really helps to carry the story and give it the necessary exposition and snark.

john mallory art from Hope for the Future comic
John Mallory takes a beating

In this story Hope is tasked with finding a young movie prodigy, a child star who has suddenly gone missing. His investigation will take him to various Hollywood locales, from glitzy film production studios to seedy underground clubs. Along the way we learn about his use of magical powers and how these supernatural interactions are slowly draining his life force. We learn about the enigmatic spirit he accidentally conjured, who wears a nun’s habit and gas mask and feeds off his misery. And we learn, to my great excitement, that there is an overarching storyline about him tracking down the dark being who stole away his wife and son.

demon kidnapping art from Hope for the Future comic
A demonic kidnapper

The writing of Guy Adams is on point here. Literally every single wistful, droll, and pessimistic line from Hope is gold. The story includes a good mix of drama, horror, and humor, and the core mystery of the missing boy would be compelling enough, but the added occult elements really elevate it. Inserting scenes of snake-tongued demons into a detective thriller plot is jarring, but in the best way possible. I definitely appreciate that magic is simply part of the story, and that it’s the dynamic characters who drive the momentum. We get just enough backstory on Mallory to make him engaging, but there’s suggestions of more intriguing reveals in the future. 

And that art from Jimmy Broxton…wow. Normally, I’m a fan of vibrant colors in comics, but the black and white illustrations here just fit so superbly. They’re grungy, gritty, and the art certainly feels like an homage to earlier horror/crime comics. I love the shading and stark contrasts, and how the style bends towards realism in the way the characters and settings are drawn. I also love how Broxton overlays swirling runes and symbols across the panels to let us know when magic is (literally) in the air.

Occult magic art from Hope for the Future comic
Seeing the world through dark magic

This first volume, in my opinion, is a near perfect story. It’s a horror crime thriller with a solid plot  and great pacing, populated with wonderful character archetypes plucked from the supernatural noir genre that bred it. It has a self-contained storyline, but it expertly weaves in a larger plot and perfectly sets up the next book. At 66 pages it’s a very quick read and it leaves you hungry for more. I absolutely cannot wait to join Mallory Hope’s further adventures in the next volume!

Hope…for the Future is available now from 2000AD Comics

Killadelphia – A Horror Comic Fable

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Before I start a new book, I’m always interested to see who else is talking about it. I like to think if creators I respect are praising the book then I too will enjoy it. So it’s safe to say my expectations were pretty high when I came across the much lauded graphic novel Killadelphia, which Jordan Peele claims is the “stunning and fresh horror fable” he’s been craving and Tananarive Due says is a “genuinely frightening horror graphic”. But therein lies the double edge of the sword, where cover blurbs and comparisons can sometimes over inflate an otherwise decent story and put it in a realm of expectation that is impossible to meet.

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Killadelphia horror comic cover
Killadelphia horror comic book cover

So, the question is does the Killadelphia comic live up to the hype?

I’m happy to report that for the most part it does. It’s bloody, gritty, and completely engaging.

Killadelphia Horror Comic Synopsis

Jimmy Sangster Jr is a cop who has returned to his hometown in Philadelphia to bury his recently deceased father, detective Jimmy Sangster Sr. Their father-son relationship was never very strong, and the death comes as a relief to Jimmy. However, back in his childhood home he finds his father’s journal and reads a startling story about Sangster Sr and chief medical examiner Jose. Recently they had been investigating a string of bizarre murders and, as the bodies in the morgue come back to life, they realize the culprits they’re hunting are…vampires!

vampire art from killadelphia horror comic
Killadelphia is full of unexpected surprises

Turns out John Adams, a founding father and former president, is a vampire and has been slowly amassing a horde of followers over the centuries in a bid to take back the America he helped begin so long ago. His crooked revolution is 300 hundred years in the making and apparently now it’s time to put it into action. With the doomsday clock ticking down, Jimmy Jr realizes he’s going to need the help of someone he had finally let go of. With shovel in hand he digs up his undead father and together, with the help of Jose and a few others, they face the vampire army dead on in a final effort to save their city.

For a story about an undead former president trying to take over the city (and yes, I kept thinking about a certain Deadpool storyline from Brain Posehn), Killadelphia is firmly grounded in realistic characters and a gripping plot. Jimmy Jr has conflicting feelings about his father, who was at turns abusive and absent during his childhood. His mother was the glue holding their family together, and when she passed their fragile relationship seemed to have crumbled. But now father and son are going to have to learn how to work through their differences in order to save the city they both care for. As readers we care about their characters, but I am thankful their back and forth quibbling was kept to a minimum.

There are also many relevant social issues and ideas woven into the storyline, including class disparity, poverty, racism, gentrification, addiction, and political corruption. The city itself, with its historical implications and complex history of social unrest, plays a significant role in the plot and is the perfect setting for such a story. I also appreciate that this isn’t just a story of good vs evil, as arguably none of the characters are purely good or bad. Even Adams, with his disturbing plan to rebuild the country, truly believes what he is doing is right.

vampire attack art from Killadelphia horror comic
Resistance is futile in Killadelphia

Of course, in a story about vampires there is also going to be a fair amount of supernatural horror elements. Apart from the whole blood-sucking monster thing, there’s also an interesting twist involving a (relatively) young vampire named Tevin and a magical book that he is entrusted to carry by John Adams. Tevin is actually one of my favorite characters in the graphic novel, and I really like the arc his storyline takes. I can’t say much more because of spoilers, but I’ll just say the second half goes in some neat directions I did not expect.

Killadelphia Vampires

Though the characters are strong and the plot is interesting, the vampires are definitely what elevate the story. Their design follows classic tradition for the most part: humanoid, yellow eyes, fangs, elongated fingers, and a healthy fear of sunlight. They can fly, they cohabitate in “nests,” and sleep hanging from the ceiling. Interestingly, they also are typically naked and cry tears of blood. They are also incredibly brutal, vicious, and efficient at killing. This is certainly a horror graphic novel, and there are several frightening and suspenseful moments along the way. It’s not Scott Snyder’s Wytches kind of scary, but it still works. I do love how much of the story is focused on the vampires’ perspective (be they “bad” or “good” they do make up most of the characters). And we get to see a lot of different perspectives on vampirism, from those who see it as a spiritual awakening or means to power to those who see it as a curse or form of slavery.

good vampire from Killadelphia horror comic
Not all vampires are bad

Killadelphia Comic Art

And the art! Oh my goodness the illustrations and colors are gorgeous here. The artwork of Jason Shawn Alexander excels in creating the dark, gritty noir atmosphere necessary for the story. I love the style, and it reminds me somewhat of comic artist John Bolton (whose style I also adore). Facial expressions and body movements are drawn in realistic detail, and it was interesting to learn at the end of the book how Alexander does photoshoots with live models to prepare for his pieces. Colors by Luis NCT perfectly compliment, bathing scenes in dark shadows and buckets of blood.

Here Rodney Barnes has given us a pretty solid story. There are some themes that didn’t quite pan out, and the romance angle between Jimmy Jr and Jose felt unearned and tacked on. But overall, I really enjoyed reading it. And though the primary storyline is wrapped up here, the ending easily sets us up for a sequel. I for one am very much looking forward to sinking my teeth into another volume of Killadelphia in the future!

Killadelphia is available now from Image Comics

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