Book Recommendation – The Worm and His Kings

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Puzzle Box Horror’s book recommendation of the week is The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper.

Hailey Piper writes horror and dark fantasy, and is a member of the Horror Writers Association.  She is the author of Unfortunate Elements of My AnatomyThe Worm and His KingsThe Possession of Natalie GlasgowBenny Rose, the Cannibal King, and others. Her short fiction appears in publications such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, The Arcanist, Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction, Tales to TerrifyBlood Bath Literary Zine, and many more. She lives with her wife in Maryland, where she haunts their apartment making spooky noises. Find her on Twitter via @HaileyPiperSays and on Instagram via @haileypiperfights.

Hailey Piper author photo

Synopsis

New York City, 1990:

When you slip through the cracks, no one is there to catch you. Monique learns that the hard way after her girlfriend Donna vanishes without a trace.

Only after the disappearances of several other impoverished women does Monique hear the rumors. A taloned monster stalks the city’s underground and snatches victims into the dark.

Donna isn’t missing. She was taken.

To save the woman she loves, Monique must descend deeper than the known underground, into a subterranean world of enigmatic cultists and shadowy creatures. But what she finds looms beyond her wildest fears—a darkness that stretches from the dawn of time and across the stars.

Review

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 favourites. It has a protagonist you really root for, creepy monsters (love the Grey Maiden), 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.”

Ben (@reading.vicariously)

To read the full review, click here!

The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper is available now at Horror Hub Marketplace

Book Recommendation – Tome

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Puzzle Box Horror’s book recommendation of the week is Tome by Ross Jeffery.

Ross Jeffery is the Bram Stoker nominated and Splatterpunk Award nominated author of Tome, Juniper & Tethered. He’s also a Bristol based writer and Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine. Ross has been published in print with with a number of anthologies. His work has also appeared in various online journals. Ross lives in Bristol with his wife (Anna) and two children (Eva and Sophie). You can follow him on Twitter here: @Ross1982

Ross Jeffery author photo

Synopsis

Juniper Correctional, jokingly abbreviated to JC, a dark jewel in the crown of the godawful American prison system, where the very worst of Juniper rot for life-sentences that seem to stretch forever. In this hell-on-earth, it’s hard to tell most days who is worse: the inmates or the corrupt guards that enact the will of the monomaniacal Chief Warden Fleming. Fleming is a fallen star, a once bright-minded leader who turned the prison around, now hiding a terrible secret eating him away from the inside, a secret he’ll do anything to cover up. But Fleming has problems, problems that threaten to unveil his secret. There is killer among those housed at Juniper Correctional. Inmates keep turning up dead, murdered in ungodly ways, but nobody knows how or why. The only thing that connects them is a nameless book from the prison’s library.

Review

“So what were my favourite things about this particular story? Well something that I loved, was the little nods to the horror community. Both Joshua and Gemma Amor, another fellow West Country author, got a shout-out and there were a few little nuggets like that. Those meta references always make me smile, an if a normie was to read it, you never know, they might just go and google their name and hence, a new fan is born. I also really liked the fact that Ross wasn’t afraid to get right down to the nitty gritty with some of the gore. We had blood and viscera a plenty and I love that! Yes I know, horror doesn’t have to be in your face to fill you with dread but gimme some ghoulish gutting scenes and I’m in heaven – or hell haha.”

Janine Pipe, author of Twisted: Tainted Tales

“If you like the perverse mystery of Fincher’s Se7en (but with demons), the violent prison setting of Brawl in Cell Block 99, or the literary quality and bleak humanity of much of Cormac McCarthy’s writing, then you will absolutely enjoy this! The characters, though immensely flawed, are all fascinating and multifaceted. The story line is full of twists and scenes I will never forget.”

Ben Long, reviewer at @reading.vicariously

To read the full review, click here!

Book Review: The Burning Girls Explores the Horror and Hope of Religious Faith

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The Burning Girls horror book Cover
The Burning Girls by C.J. Tudor

Is there anything more complex than religious faith? Faith can be ineffably inspirational and intractably inflexible, a source of hope to motivate some of humanity’s greatest heroes and an excuse to defend some of our most despicable monsters. And when most people talk about the subject, they tend to focus on one quality to the exclusion of the other. 

So it’s to the credit of British author C.J. Tudor that her novel The Burning Girls incorporates faith into horror story in a humane and principled manner. The book’s title refers to two young girls martyred in the 16th century for their Protestant beliefs. Today, villagers in their hometown remember “the Sussex Martyrs” as champions, holding memorial ceremonies and constructing twig dolls in homage. And sometimes, the girls’ flaming ghosts appear as omens to those who are in trouble. 

The most important troubled person is Reverend Jack Brooks, a vicar who has been moved, along with her fourteen-year-old daughter Flo, to the tiny Sussex village Chapel Cross from her urban parish in Nottingham. Jack brings along her troubled past, including the murder of a young parishioner, her husband’s shadowy death, and a family history that she does not want to discuss with anyone, including us readers. 

Despite her increasingly weighty baggage, Jack makes for a kind and engaging lead. Serving as the narrator for the majority of the book’s chapters (Tudor employs third-person voice for chapters focusing on other characters), Jack is quick with a quip and a forgiving aside, without ever feeling like a saint. The mercy she extends to others stems from an awareness of her shortcomings. When she begins judging a colleague for engaging in a sin of omission, she checks herself and thinks, “Who am I to judge?” 

This isn’t to say that Jack doesn’t make mistakes. She gives into anger and (like all parents) constantly flubs in her decisions with Flo. But given how easily this smoking, swearing, horror-movie-watching woman of the cloth could become a “cool priest” cliché, there’s something refreshingly real to Jack’s grounded approach to the transcendent, especially to a lifelong practicing Christian like me. The Burning Girls insists that everyone has their demons and fights them their own way. 

Despite the certainly admirable quality of this theme, the novel does become laden with tragedy. Everyone from a small-time reporter to a fellow vicar’s wife has a tragic backstory, which can become overwhelming. Given the mundane atrocities that mark The Burning Girls, pyro specters and crooked exorcism blades seem excessive.  

The problem is exacerbated by Tudor’s sometimes too-lean prose, which prioritizes snappy dialogue over clearly defined spaces and characters. The book often reads like a script, as conversations between characters can go on for over a page, with little more than a signal phrase to break it up. As a result, the characters feel thin, as we’re forced to construct our mental image of them from the things they say, rather than the physical attributes the narrator allows us to see. This tendency crosses over from frustrating to irritating when the characters indulge in pop-culture references, talking about Evil Dead, Bill Hicks, and (with surprising frequency) The Usual Suspects. Unless you’re Nick Hornby, readers shouldn’t know more about your protagonists’ movie collections than we do about their physical features. 

Fortunately, Tudor balances these issues by moving the plot along swiftly. The author shows a deft hand at revealing clues and mysteries, allowing connections between the Sussex martyrs, the disappearance of two teen girls and a local priest, and Jack’s biography, to float into view with satisfying elegance. The reader feels like an active participant in the adventure, never ahead of the characters and rarely trailing behind.  

The Burning Girls treads some truly horrific ground, recounting some of the worst things humans can do to one another. And it does not shy away from the fact that religious faith often drives these acts of brutality. But it also shows us how faith can be a healing element, compelling us to care for each other, all the more in the face of such cruelty. 

Brahms: The Boy II Left Us With ‘Lunch Box Let Down”

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Brahms The Boy II Image Source: Exhibitor Relations Co. 2 – Box Office Boogaloo

We love movies about haunted artifacts and apparently so do millions of people. There is just something about an evil spirit trapped inside an inanimate object when it causes suffering and chaos to the unfortunate owner that is so mysteriously macabre.

We Really Like Katie Holmes (But Not in Horror Movies)

Laura Cohen was the central character of The Boy (2016) and she had already mastered horror after playing Maggie in The Walking Dead (2010 – ). As a horror actress, she’s an instant hit, because she brings a sort of fearless badassery that makes us believe she is experiencing authentic terror. When Cohen is scared, we are scared. This is something that Katie Holmes has not quite mastered because horror is not really a genre that fits her profile or range.

It takes someone who loves horror to act with believable fear in a horror movie. Laura Cohen had more than a decade of that experience as she was slaying zombies on-screen every week. She has the survivor chops that someone like Katie Holmes cannot quite muster in a scary movie. She does, however, play a really awesome victim who is being stalked by a psychopath, but even her performance in the 2002 movie Abandon was panned by critics. Katie Holmes is not someone we want to see in a horror movie; she belongs in forty-something adult romantic comedies or suspense movies.

Brahms: The Boy II is not the first horror movie that Katie Holmes has been cast in, which is kind of strange since we feel that she’s not really the kind of person you want to see fighting in a life or death situation with a demonic entity.  Holmes also appeared in “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”, “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” and “Disturbing Behavior”, which do not top the list of truly scary movies. More like, the kind of scary movies you watch with your mom who hates horror movies. Watered down. Decidedly un-scary.

We wondered if Katie Holmes was a closeted horror fan. Was she someone that had a massive collection of every horror movie ever made? Did she snuggle on the couch with Jamie Foxx with a big ass bowl of popcorn and watch The Exorcist for the 100th time? There has to be a reason why she seems to get cast into horror roles right? Is she asking for work in the genre, without knowing she would be a better fit on feel-good shows like a Gilmore Girls reboot?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNJgte__mIc

Apparently, she does love horror, but her inspiration for the movie was communicating the vulnerability of Liza, the mother of Jude (played by the talented Christopher Convery). In several interviews Holmes has said she wanted to show the protective nature of a parent, and she nailed that (tapping into her own real-life experiences). But while she states in several interviews that Brahms: The Boy II will ‘have you on the edge of your seat terrified” the truth is that the scariest scenes barely involve Holmes at all. That is not where the few (but impactful) terror moments in the movie come from.

A High-Quality Scary Movie Which Pales in Comparison to the First Iteration “The Boy”

There is a checklist of cinematic techniques and storytelling that make for a good (but maybe not great) horror movie. Real fans of the horror genre and writers are able to see these commercial cookie cutter elements that are (unfortunately) a predictable and repetitive recipe for mainstream scary movies.

  • At least one A-list actor to ensure audience enticement
  • A scary filming location (the Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, British Columbia Canada)
  • Eerie but pristine old looking wooded areas
  • Creepy doll
  • An older historian type figure who connects the dots for the family with facts they were not aware of about the house, and the doll
  • A dog that can sense the malevolent spirit is brutally killed (we hate this by the way but understand the psychological trigger of including it in the plot). Cheap shot.
  • A strained marriage because of [insert trauma type] that makes the protagonist feel like he/she may be going insane as they start to witness paranormal behaviors
  • The injury of a child playing with the possessed or influenced child, within the geographic influence of the haunted artifact.
  • A male partner who thinks the female protagonist experiencing paranormal is hormonal or possibly insane. (We love it when horror writers throw in the ‘female is batshit crazy’ card… thanks.)

Sounds familiar right? With very few exceptions and breakout moments of script and storyline originality, Brahms: The Boy II feels like a movie we have seen before. Time and time again.

We cannot call it ‘horror’ because we were not afraid to go into the basement with the lights off, after watching the movie. We did not feel the need to sleep with the closet light on, and we had no bad dreams after watching Brahm: The Boy II.  It made us jump a few times which was fun, but it failed to penetrate into that squishy psychological area of our brain which makes us think about the movie for days afterward. Zero trauma. We were disappointed.

Hollywood horror producers, if you are looking for some talented writers in the genre, we have a long list of talented horror creatives. Just in case, you know, you are actually looking for some truly terrifying novels to adapt to the kind of horror movies we want to see.

REAL. SCARY. HORROR.

Brahms: The Boy II is Less Intense and Terrifying Than “The Boy”

At time of publishing “Brahms: The Boy II was out in the theaters (hello pandemic, not that we can actually go see it or anything… anyone else missing hot pretzels and insanely large sodas?). We went to Redbox on Demand and found that it was not yet available for rent, but we could buy it for $9.99. So, we did.

In the first film The Boy, we see a much more violent and malevolent demonic presence and influence in the doll. Yep, we are Maggie fans, because the talented Laura Cohen makes you feel the same fear she is experiencing. By comparison to Liza, played by Katie Holmes, we have a ‘concerned mother’ who feels a little slow moving to connect the dots.

The trauma is to blame? Maybe, but Holmes comes across as the kind of Mom that is distracted (not distraught), and definitely not the horror movie hero we want her to be in the movie. She comes across as being too nice, like a Mom you would like to invite to your wine and book club. This movie and storyline based on the original had so much potential, and literally falls on its face. Great cinematography however and some amazing camera angles, set and performances by other new and supporting actors in the film.

The creepy factor of Brahms activities are really limited to moving his head, footsteps in the hall (or up the stairs), slamming doors and one particular scene with a flashlight that we won’t ruin for you.  But overall, the dolls behavior in this sequel is pretty tame when you compare it to his epic and eerie malice in “The Boy”.

For the record, we REALLY wanted to see this movie. We paid $10 to watch it at home! We wanted it to be a fun and scary experience but ended up watching something scarier after the movie was over. My 14-year old stepson (who is only toe dipping into the genre with books and movies) said it best:

“That wasn’t really a scary movie. Can we watch something scary next?”

Go back to what worked in the first film. We look forward to the potential twist of storyline in The Boy 3.

Definition of Lunchbox Let Down:  When your mom tells you that she packed something extra special for your lunch. And you get all excited about it, until you open it on the bus and find a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bottle of water, and an apple.

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Release date: February 21, 2020 (USA)

DirectorWilliam Brent Bell

Film series: The Boy

ScreenplayStacey Menear

Production company: Lakeshore Entertainment

Distributed by: STX Films

Run time: 86 minutes

Image: Theatrical release poster

Feature Image Source: Exhibitor Relations Co. 2 – Box Office Boogaloo

Call of Cthulhu Manifest: Illustrating an Outer-God

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The time is once again upon us to take a plunge into the morbid and cosmic horror world of H. P. Lovecraft, once more staggeringly illustrated by the visionary François Baranger. I’m now two books into this series which is beginning to feel akin to a sort of cinematic universe, only retained on paper where it can truly pay tribute to Lovecraft’s original work. Whereas the first part of At The Mountains of Madness left me hanging on the edge of a sheer plummet into darkness, Call of Cthulhu, a much shorter tale, manages to contain it’s entire self within the confines of this gargantuan hardback. But only just. 

With this being a story I’m familiar with and one I managed to enjoy in a single sitting along with all of the gorgeous artwork it swims in, how did Baranger and Free League Publishing do? In short: terrifyingly well. 

Call of Cthulhu is a rather more nautical outing than it’s snowy predecessor in this series and, for those with sensibilities such as my own, holds far more capacity for cosmic horror and its suffocating vastness. This story deals primarily with scale: the ocean, the dreaded city of R’lyeh, and the tentacled megalith himself; almighty Cthulhu. Of course the narrative wades in accounts and letters and newspaper articles in classic Lovecraft fashion, but towards the final act things heat up to boiling point and we’re treated to several devastating views of the alien geometry of R’lyeh and the towering, tentacled form of the lumbering god himself. 

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I’ve mentioned in the past that Baranger’s art makes Lovecraft’s writing even more dramatic and far more accessible. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Cthulhu these days, or at least seen one of the countless artistic depictions of the squid-dragon goliath. He was an obvious choice for this next huge illustrated issue, and the payoff involves some truly chilling images.

In an age of plush toys and parodies it’s good to see my personal favorite oceanic behemoth in a style more befitting his true nature, and in a book big enough to support him. These hand-painted renditions depict the colossal elder god rising from unfathomable depths, looming over a fiery, decimated New York and roaring into the heavens beneath stomach-dropping storms. It truly is the best tribute to the visual horror of Cthulhu that i’ve witnessed, and serves as the perfect accompaniment to Lovecraft’s unsettling tale.

Call of Cthulhu book art featuring a giant monster in the ocean

Thematically, the narrative centers around madness and obsession, as is common in Lovecraft’s work, though perhaps not to the extent of detail and thoughtfulness as displayed in this masterpiece of a short story. Implications of extensive lore are found throughout logs, notes, newspaper articles, alien statues and accounts of outlandish dreams. Much of it is a story within a story as our narrator, Francis Weyland Thurston pores over his late uncle’s notes and a strange bas-relief depicting Cthulhu reigning over R’lyeh. Insanity is displayed through obsessive artistry, mass hysteria and primordial cultism. The pervading racism is unfortunately as apparent as we’ve come to expect from this particular author. While the ignorance much of Lovecraft’s work is rooted in should not be glossed over, the style of story helps separate art from artist and merely take this as the views and wording of Thurston and his uncle. 

Baranger’s art remains moody yet grounded and rooted in realism so that when our titular overlord finally awakens, first time readers can breathe a sigh of relief that such an intense story ends on more than just implication. Lovecraft himself would be delighted and terrified at these powerful renditions of his brain spawn. I for one can’t wait to see what comes next in the series; with such an extensive backlog to choose from we’re left with infinite potential for stomach-dropping cosmic horror imagery. 

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