I am unabashedly a huge fan of the weird and wonderful genre of cosmic horror. The ambiguity and dread of unimaginable terror is something that strangely fascinates me, regardless of how much I understand when I read it. Plus cosmic horror stories typically involve cults, so that’s another win in my book. And while I appreciate the godfathers of the genre, such as HP Lovecraft cosmic horror movie The Color Out of Space and Robert Chambers, what has been really exciting is seeing all the new blood coming on the scene in the past decade or so. Whether it’s Victor LaValle updating a classic with The Ballad of Black Tom (2016), or Lonnie Nadler writing an original tale with Black Stars Above (2020), or season 1 of True Detective (2014) bringing the weirdness to the masses – it’s clear that cosmic horror is in good hands. And now The Worm and His Kings has entered the genre.
What I also love about more recent cosmic horror stories is that they are bringing much needed humanity and depth to their characters, in an often esoteric genre with flat characters and dense writing. Gone are the interchangeable and one-sided professors or explorers who narrate their descent into madness. Instead we now have a wide range of dynamic and diverse characters; still finding themselves trapped in the supernatural but with emotional arcs and personalities that are much more relatable and realistic for modern audiences.
And that brings me to Hailey Piper’s latest novella The Worm and His Kings (2020). Set in 1990s New York City, it’s about a young woman named Monique who is down on her luck and living in an abandoned freight train tunnel. Her partner Donna has recently been taken by a taloned monster that stalks the city’s underground tunnel system. One night Monique works up the nerve to follow the monster in a half-planned rescue mission that quickly turns sideways. As she descends deeper into the earth’s depths, Monique will encounter a variety of creatures and mind-boggling horrors in her desperate bid to save the woman she loves.
Oh man, where to start on this one? Spoiler alert: I absolutely loved it! Monique is a great protagonist and one whose struggles I immediately sympathized with. While she is somewhat at the mercy of the cosmic forces seeking to ensnare her, she’s not going to give up without a fight. I desperately wanted her to win, but I was constantly afraid that she would not. She’s up against some formidable foes, including the deranged cultists who sing (and kill) in preparation for the Third Coming of the Worm as well as other shadowy, scaly creatures. The Gray Maiden, the giant lizard-like monster who stole Donna, is like something out of a Dark Souls game and particularly terrifying.
The lore that underpins the story is fascinating and manages to feel hauntingly familiar yet also stand on its own. The history of the Worm and the Kings, the emphasis on alternate dimensions and timelines, the enigmatic practices of the cult – all of it is very compelling. And not only does Hailey Piper write an engaging story, but the way she writes it is beautifully evocative. I loved the vivid details, descriptive imagery, and the constant atmosphere of unease. I really felt Monique’s fear and like I was right there with her in the story, whether in the glaring halls of the cult base or the wet, cold, creeping horror of the Sunless Palace far below ground. Piper also does a good job of balancing clear language with frightening ambiguity, giving me a story that felt grounded but that also threw me off-kilter in an apprehensive way.
The Worm and His Kings is the best cosmic horror story I’ve read all year, and easily takes a place amongst my all-time favorites. It has a protagonist you really root for, creepy monsters, a fantastic backstory, lots of twists and turns, and plenty of unsettling and mind-bending scenes. It also has an ending that surprised me, but also makes perfect sense with the story. This is my first book from Hailey Piper, and I can’t wait to read what else she has written!
The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper is distributed by Off Limits Press.
Ben’s love for horror began at a young age when he devoured books like the Goosebumps series and the various scary stories of Alvin Schwartz. Growing up he spent an unholy amount of time binge watching horror films and staying up till the early hours of the morning playing games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Since then his love for the genre has only increased, expanding to include all manner of subgenres and mediums. He firmly believes in the power of horror to create an imaginative space for exploring our connection to each other and the universe, but he also appreciates the pure entertainment of B movies and splatterpunk fiction.
Nowadays you can find Ben hustling his skills as a freelance writer and editor. When he’s not building his portfolio or spending time with his wife and two kids, he’s immersing himself in his reading and writing. Though he loves horror in all forms, he has a particular penchant for indie authors and publishers. He is a proud supporter of the horror community and spends much of his free time reviewing and promoting the books/comics you need to be reading right now!