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Review of Flesh Rehearsal by Brian Bowyer

Flesh Rehearsal is undoubtedly a work of dark genius. I say this knowing full well the word genius is frequently overused in contemporary discourse, and often awarded to work that is simply shocking or experimental, as though this were the only barometer of worth. However, Brian Bowyer’s novel is the real deal, a morbid beast of a book that explores existential questions such as what happens when we die, that comments on modern culture and our obsession with violence and sex, and, most surprisingly of all, shows how true love can stand in the face of darkness.

I often start my reviews by saying there is so much to unpack that it’s hard to know where to begin, but this is especially true of Brian Bowyer’s novel. His style is economic, which doesn’t mean that Bowyer doesn’t occasionally flex his poetic muscles for a passage of wonderful (or horrifying) description, but ultimately his preference seems to be cutting the bone—pun fully intended. This means that whilst the novel is a lean three hundred and sixty pages, more happens in the first fifty than in most trilogies.

One of the great distinguishing trademarks of the Russian novelists, particularly Tolstoy, was their use of action. Tolstoy’s prose is full of verbs, of doing, of movement. This creates a sense that the characters are dynamic and alive. Yes, there is introspection, but even the introspection feels active somehow. It’s as though all the characters and even places are caught in a kind of eternal stream, a ceaseless motion. Indeed, Tolstoy actively comments on this at times, calling this ceaseless movement “God”. Bowyer’s Flesh Rehearsal is similarly active. His verb tenses are almost never passive. All his characters are constantly alive and in motion, which gives the narrative an unstoppable momentum. Once I was hooked into the characters, and got a sense of who they were, I couldn’t stop reading.

This is a nice segue into the characters, who are—not to put too fine a point on it—fucking bananas. Firstly, there’s Gretchen and her sister Abby (a sly nod to Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism or pure coincidence?), who have suffered a lifetime of abuse at the hands of their father. These are arguably the most grounded characters in the book. We sympathise with their plight and we want the best for them. But we also recognise that, due to their upbringing, there’s a darkness in them too. And this darkness is expressed in strangely theatrical soliloquies about the nature of black holes, and death, and evil. In another book, these might feel out of place, but Bowyer’s masterstroke is really his setting, a setting that contextualises these surreal moments and makes them feel earned.

Dean Koontz once observed that, “I can forgive a writer a lot if they can wield a warp and weft of mood”. Flesh Rehearsal oozes mood. Every page is laden with Gothic dread. Though the novel is set in America, and the main action of the plot takes place in L. A., it is not the L.A. you can visit, it is the secret “dark side of the moon”, the side hidden from the conscious mind, an underbelly blacker than sin and certainly magical. Though Flesh Rehearsal is grounded in our world and real suffering and emotions, it is also unashamedly mysterious and supernatural. Bowyer taps into the sense that all of us, even staunch atheists, have had, that there is a world beyond our own just out of reach, and this life is just a “flesh rehearsal” for it. Occasionally, this world encroaches upon our own, and sometimes it drives men and women insane with what it reveals.

The strange characters inhabiting this dark fantasyland therefore feel like they are in their natural habitat. Out of the six main characters, four of them turn out to be either murderers or serial killers. The majority of these reveals aren’t big narrative revelations, by the way, it’s just part and parcel of living in this deeply fucked up world. One of the characters may or may not be gifted with superhuman powers—such as unnaturally long life and supernatural strength—as a result of appeasing the “gods of death”. Another is a prize-fighter who specialises in death-matches. But she also has a sensitive side and writes graphic novels.

Several of these characters are in a heavy metal band called Noctourniquet.

Let that name sink in.

As you’re hopefully beginning to realise, there’s little I can really do to prepare you for reading this book. It’s an experience as much as a narrative, a headlong plunge into abyssal black waters from which you may not emerge the same as when you went in. But having said that it’s an experience, the narrative in the Flesh Rehearsal is incredibly strong, governed as it is by the characters and their desires. Boiled down to its barest, barest parts, the book might be said to be a love-story. It’s girl meets girl, both of them damaged, but each of them capable of healing the other. The sweetness of this love-story is, I think, the secret to the book’s success, for without it the darkness of the world would surely overwhelm us.

And speaking of darkness, the second major component of the book is a thread that is deftly woven throughout the novel of a serial killer called The Lobotomiser killing women across L.A.. As I’ve already mentioned, there are several serial killers in this book, and we follow quite a few of them, but The Lobotomiser is distinguished from the others for the sheer awfulness of his murders and vile desecrations. Some scenes in this book will turn your stomach and make you nauseous—you have been warned.

The Lobotomiser is the king of the killers, and L. A. is his playground. We start with a very distant perspective on him: rumours and news reports, gossip and glimpses, but slowly we move closer and closer until we finally realise who The Lobotomiser is. The way the revelation is handled is sheer brilliance—Bowyer gives us just enough to know, to work it out for ourselves, and as a result it raises the hairs on the back of the neck. The novel reaches its climax when The Lobotomiser crosses paths with one of our star-crossed lovers. The tension of these concluding chapters is frankly deleterious to one’s health—we know exactly how bad it’s going to be if The Lobotomiser gets what he wants (seriously, it’s worse than you think). The stakes are real, and this makes the narrative electrifying.

But if this summed the narrative, then I still probably could not give Flesh Rehearsal the hard-earned descriptor of “genius”. There is another thread running through the narrative, however, the story of a twisted and conflicted Gollum-like man called Ludlow, and this is what takes it to the next level. Ludlow was undoubtedly my favourite character in the story: a drummer, a drug-addict, and a schizophrenic wrestling with reality itself. His chapters feature a wondrous intermixture of pitch-black humour and hair-raising terror. He is a dreadful person yet we also pity him because he does not seem to be in control (hence my comparison to Gollum, it is as if he has two sides).

Clive Barker once wrote in Imajica, “in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there [is] only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer, or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death.” Ludlow, to my mind, embodies this third actor or player, this dynamic element that cannot be predicted but we know will serve some greater narrative purpose. This purpose is fully realised at the end of the book where, like Gollum, Ludlow’s evil comes to serve good—it sends chills down my spine just thinking about it. And perhaps the most spine-tingling aspect is that Ludlow finally gets to have a moment of control, where he chooses—character development at its finest. 

Whilst Flesh Rehearsal is undoubtedly gonzo—one might even say borderline bizarro—it juxtaposes hyper-violence, drug-use, serial killers, vampires, and steaming-hot lesbian erotica with moments of profound pathos. I'd like to hope the world is not as dark or full of killers as Brian Bowyer’s version of L.A., yet artists use lies to tell the truth, and we see in it a mirror of the human condition and the struggle of being alive.

Stephen King once described H. P. Lovecraft as horror’s “dark and baroque prince”. After reading Flesh Rehearsal, I have to conclude that the title has a new bearer.

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Review of Reconstructing A Relationship by Micah Castle

Reconstructing A Relationship is perhaps one of the most surprising stories I’ve yet reviewed on themindflayer.com—at once a grisly modern re-telling of Frankenstein and an exploration of abusive relationships. Though short—of novelette length at around 58 pages—author Micah Castle manages to take the reader on an incredible journey.

I will say that reviewing this novelette almost feels like a disservice, because readers will be rewarded by going into the story knowing as little as possible. I didn’t read the blurb or look at any reviews—my only clue was the front cover—and I found myself transported. If what I’ve said so far is enough to whet your appetite, then go right ahead and dive in without any further context. You can thank me later.

But for those who need a little more, which is perfectly understandable, strap in for a wild ride.

Firstly, I’ll comment on the writing style. Micah Castle writes real sentences. That might sound pretentious, but it’s possibly the most truthful way I can say it. Some of the images in this story will send shivers down your spine. Yet, he doesn’t sacrifice character for the sake of lyricism; the narrative voice remains distinct and relevant to the character we are following.

Structurally, Reconstructing A Relationship resembles a two-act play, two complimentary dramatic movements divided by a midway perspective shift. Part 1 of the story focuses on Terry, a southern American woman who has lost the love of her life in a car accident. Terry is on a mission to reconstruct her relationship: literally. At first, we’re not entirely sure what Terry is up to—we know it’s suspect from the brooding atmosphere of the prose, from the paranoid way she behaves, but we can’t quite put the pieces together (if you’ll pardon the pun). Very shortly, however, it becomes clear she’s building a new body for her lover, Drew, and she’s prepared to do whatever it takes to find the parts she needs. Victor Frankenstein famously plundered graveyards for the materials needed to create his monster. But Terry has no qualms about finding fresher samples...

Terry’s immoral pursuit of the means to resurrect her dead lover creates a brilliant conflict in that we simultaneously feel sorry for Terry and how deeply her loss has affected her but are also appalled by her actions; we admire her ferocious determination but we also know she has completely lost her mind. Micah Castle’s prose uses free-indirect discourse to put us right inside Terry’s head, and we can’t help but feel sympathy for her, despite the fact she’s insane. We chalk up her mania to desperation and grief.

But then comes the midway perspective shift.

I can’t say too much about this, for fear of ruining the story for you, but suffice to say our perception of what is really going on changes dramatically—our assumptions fall out from under us and we are left with some truths even more grisly than the body parts and organs that have littered the pages of part 1. Whilst body horror pervades the entire story, part 2 takes us deep into psychological horror as well, exploring intense themes including abusive relationships. Refreshingly, however, Castle’s storytelling never feels like it is gratuitous for the sake of it or that he is trying to shock the reader—the situation is simply shocking in and of itself. What’s even more impressive is that he manages to retain characterisation. Too many horror novels, at the nadir point, turn their characters into two-dimensional cartoon villains who get off on sadism—abandoning all personality in favour of a purely “evil” archetype. Castle’s villains, however, are governed by genuine motivations, and though we hate them we still feel sorry for how wretched they’ve become.

In part 1, we turn pages because we are so invested in Terry’s mission and whether or not she will succeed; the narrative propulsion is astounding. I imagined that with a perspective shift it would be difficult to sustain such giddy narrative momentum, and yet the author not only achieves this, but the momentum actually increases, as does the overwhelming horror. I could not stop turning pages until I had devoured the rest of the book in one sitting.

What perhaps pleased me most about this story was its ending. There has been a recent fetish for horror novels that end so bleakly that the entire preceding narrative feels utterly pointless—again for the sake of shock value. Micah Castle understands, however, that having passed through such darkness we must emerge into light. The final moments of the narrative are hair-raisingly uplifting, a cathartic emergence from suffering and trauma into the possibility of freedom. This ending shows the novelette to be unashamedly allegorical—which is why I found it to be not just emotive but also healing.

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Review of Bishop by Candace Nola

Bishop is my first experience with Candace Nola, and so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book either narratively or stylistically. The cover at first resembled a werewolf story to me—and I confess to having a weak-spot for werewolf narratives!—but upon closer inspection I realised it’s not a wolf, but a bear… This is a significant aspect of the story, in more ways than one.

Bishop is a novella, and its pacing reflects that. The opening chapters unfold at breakneck speed. Nothing feels rushed and yet we immediately get a strong sense of place—the frozen desolation of Alaska—and the hardy people within it. Our focus at the start of the narrative rests on Troy. His sister and niece have been missing for five days in the wilderness, and he’s determined to find them. In his desperation, for time is of the essence in these survival scenarios, he turns to a local legend—the mysterious man Bishop—to guide him into the wilds and find his missing family.

As soon as Bishop, the eponymous character of the story, is introduced, the story goes to another level. The strongest suite of the novella is by far the burgeoning relationship between Bishop and Troy. Bishop is a stoic man of few words, who seems more part of the landscape than human society. Troy is a caring and thoughtful man, altogether quite sensitive. Bishop is incredibly physically strong to almost superhuman levels. Troy has a busted knee from a hiking trip that went wrong. Yet both are determined and courageous in their own way. I found myself becoming heavily invested in their strange friendship, and the respect they gained for one another, and this is especially impressive to achieve in such a short space.

Set against this “buddy story”, for lack of a better term, is the story of the two women, Casey (the niece) in particular, who are trying to survive cut off from the rest of the world, hunted by something that seems like more than simply a beast of the forest… Casey is a plucky character, resourceful and driven. She’s no mere damsel in distress, and nor is her mother Erin, however what pursues them is beyond their experience, an evil that is deeply unnatural.

There is some cool world-building and lore here when we discover what is chasing these women and why. Without giving too much away, I could have stood to have read even more of it. I felt there was a fascinating backstory tantalisingly within reach, but it does not fully come to light. However, what we do see is interesting, and even more so when it is matched against Bishop’s narrative. Bishop is an enigmatic character, and sometimes giving enigmatic characters backstory can diminish their power, but not so here. We’re shown just enough to understand a little more about the man, but not so much as to break his spell.

I was also impressed by how Candace Nola was prepared to make narrative sacrifices. To overcome evil, we have to give up something. Something is lost so something is gained, it’s rule 101 of narrative climax (I’ve stolen this principle from Tristine Rainer and her fabulous book Your Life As Story). Candace Nola understands this and the scenes revolving around this loss are some of the strongest in the book. Her characters feel like they have real emotional interiors and give credible responses to trauma, and again, this is hard to do at the best of times, even more so in a novella-length piece.

I do have one minor criticism of the novella: I think Bishop could have done with further editing. There are quite a few typos in relation to how long the novella is. That said, Bishop shows a writer with tremendous talent, and hopefully that talent will get the nurturing it deserves in future efforts.

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Review of The Guild by S. C. Mendes

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of S. C. Mendes, and even got the fantastic opportunity of collaborating with him on a few projects, such as the Magical Writing podcast. Whenever an S. C. Mendes story drops I always stop what I’m doing and head on over to read it as soon as possible.

The Guild is a culinary-themed standalone novelette that still has all the ingredients you expect from an S. C. Mendes story: layers of mystery, occult principles, graphic horror and sexuality, and deep symbolic meaning.

The plot centres around Jordan, a young guy down on his luck, one who will be painfully relateable to many readers. Desperate for money, he answers a Facebook Ad that seems too good to be true: eat one meal and get paid $300. Simple right?

The problem with things that sound too good to be true is that they often are.

There isn’t much more I can tell you about the plot without giving things away. Suffice to say this story is a curious rabbit hole that is full of grisly surprises. Mendes knows how to weave a mystery, and because of the occult principles underpinning the book, which we’ll get to in a minute, the revelations never devolve into absurdity, even though they are downright weird.

Whilst the opening of this book is truly nasty, possibly a little too extreme even for my tastes (though Splatterpunk fans will be delighted), the overall tone and feel of The Guild is a subtle horror, an interplay between a low-key body horror (that terrible knowing, where you’re sick but can’t figure out what’s wrong), and psychological horror: being caught in a dependency money trap and unable to claw your way out.

Mendes definitely pays homage to the work of Lucy Leitner, not just with the odd sly reference to stories such as Get Me Out Of This Shimmering Oasis, but also in terms of his themes and setting. It’s clear Mendes has a healthy scepticism for the wellness fad and the New Age movement, but at the same time he understands the principles on which this movement was built. In this way he uses his narrative to kind of deconstruct the corrupt modern facade of wellness and New Age medicine whilst at the same time unveiling the secret truths behind principles such as “vibrations”.

And let’s talk a little bit about vibrations for a moment, shall we?

Without giving too much away: Mendes builds his worlds and characters from the ground up. They’re anchored in real human experience. It’s because of this he can tackle such esoteric and eyebrow-raising principles as “vibrations”.Behind the faux-gurus promising you wealth and happiness if only you can raise your vibration is the very real occult idea that the whole world is a symphony of many vibrations. In essence, the universe is sound, and everything material is music vibrating at such a frequency as to seem “real”. This accounts for the way that reality seems so strangely plastic, why we can have instant connections with certain people, and why others will remain forever alien to us. The ancient Hindus called this Nada Brahma.

Whether you view this as a cool bit of fantastical world-building or a secret glimpse of the true nature of reality is up to you. Mendes never preaches, he only teases. His books are laden with more conspiracy theories than a reddit forum, but whilst he points out their innate absurdity, he also recognises they—like vibrations and other occult ideas—are based on granules of truth (after all, MK Ultra turned out to be real). Mendes is one eternal wink at the camera, a writer with the wisdom to know that you can never be quite sure what’s real; after all, our world is totally absurd. This is what makes his books so interesting.

And despite this kind of esoteric truth-drop, the story never loses sight of the people navigating the very real problems of the modern world. Nor does Mendes sacrifice character for the sake of giving us a tour of his (albeit intriguing) mind-palace. Jordan’s actions are completely believable given his circumstances, and we buy into his plight. He’s isn’t a goodie two-shoes, far from it, but we can tell that beneath the anger and self-pity is someone who is genuinely trying to do the right thing. We root for him.

Similarly, Mendes’ “villains”, or shadow-figures, are always more than machiavellian moustache-twirling archetypes. They have real motivations, which they often conceal, and it’s up to the reader to try and pierce the veil of obscurity and see their true intent. Mendes knows that the true purpose of villains is often to teach us. Jung said the Shadow Self was ninety-percent pure gold, and that’s because of the insight the shadow offers us if only we tune in to what our darker selves are trying to tell us about reality. To put this in more simple and grounded terms: people with messed up views on the world can often show us what we really don’t want to admit is true. Thanos had a point: the world really is overpopulated. No two ways about it. Of course, his proposed solution is barbaric and evil, and we condemn it. But he’s still shown us a truth.

Mendes echoes this well-known truism with his sophisticated villains. And the climax of this novelette sees our hero, Jordan, come face to face with revelations about who he is, and his world, that re-contextualises everything we have just read.

The Guild is a top-class standalone horror novella that will delight fans of S. C. Mendes and readers new to him alike.

Get it on Godless

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Review of Inside: Perron Manor by Lee Mountford

Inside: Perron Manor is the prequel novella to Lee Mountford’s six-book Haunted series. I’m not normally a fan of the classic horror ghost-story, unless I’m reading the Gothic masters, but Lee Mountford’s novella blew me away.

Inside: Perron Manor is an exercise in verisimilitude, a literary technique—most often deployed by horror writer—to make a manuscript seem like an authentic document. The most famous example of this is Horace Walpole, who originally claimed that he found the manuscript for The Castle of Otranto in an ancient church in Europe and translated it from medieval Italian; he didn’t even claim authorship. Readers believed him and the book sold like wildfire. In reality, The Castle of Otranto is a cleverly written epistemological Gothic novel, and eventually Walpole came clean about that fact. However, it just goes to show how badly readers wanted to believe the legend. We can see an echo of this process in modern “found footage” films and CreepyPasta, a site where the more anonymous the author makes themselves in the process of the telling, the better. Consider how Paranormal Activity caused waves of controversy for not having a credits list at the end of the film; if no Directors or Actors were cited… surely that meant it was real?

Inside: Perron Manor continues this rich tradition and pulls it off with spectacular aplomb. The novella poses as a non-fiction book written by paranormal investigator David Ritter. Ritter is an obsessive who is drawn to Perron Manor, a house of infamy and legend on the outskirts of a crumbling little village called Alnmouth. Many writers have similarly tried to create their own verisimilitudes: posing their novels as investigative journals, or a collection of letters, or a tape-recording, but Lee Mountford (or should I say David Ritter, I am already getting confused about what’s reality and what’s fiction) succeeds where they fail because of his research. Simply put: he’s done his homework. Whilst taking us through the troubled and cursed history of the house, Ritter (I mean Mountford) illuminates each time period with a deft brush. Tiny details only a medieval history buff would know give this authenticity, to the point where I was looking up place and character names to double check which were real and which weren’t. Mountford (or is it Ritter?) so deftly interweaves real history with his own fiction that it becomes impossible to extricate the two, and that’s where the horror begins to settle in. Horror works best in the liminal spaces of ambiguity, where reality is dissolved and rationality destroyed. An author who can skillfully destabilise his readers will achieve far greater heights of terror.

I’ve read a lot of Splatterpunk and Extreme Horror in my time. I’m certainly not against the spilling of guts. But I admire an author who can turn the camera away and give me a different kind of fear even more than one who can twist my insides in disgust. Lee Mountford has taken to heart the age-old lesson that what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. He never oversteps the mark, which many horror authors do, where the plot then descends into parody, and even at the tense conclusion of the novella what is waiting for Ritter never quite steps into the light… Coupled with this intuitive sense of when not to show us something, or when to let the silence speak, is a concise descriptive power. Many of the “scares” in this book are classic horror fare: faces in windows, shadows at the end of the bed, and yet Mountford will often offer up just one subtle little detail that sets his image apart from the generic. For example,

Skin was dark and mottled. I could see bone through her cheeks. No lips. Just teeth and black gums. No eyes, either.”

This description (delivered by one of Ritter’s interviewees) is understated, yet extremely vivid. The fact it sounds like dialogue lends further potency to it. The detail I think is most unique here is actually the “no lips”. I can totally see those ape-like gums. But, in terms of scare factor, he saves the best until last: “No eyes”. It’s an iconic, almost archetypal image, that is made more powerful by what went before. We can’t help but picture Sam Neil in Event Horizon. Chilling.

The main purpose of this novella is to give us some of the background of the house in order to set us up for the main event of Book 1 in the Haunted series. It would be easy for this to therefore feel like an info-dump, but despite the fact Ritter (or Mountford? Help!) does take us through a long stretch of history (the house has deep roots), we don’t feel like it’s purely informational. Ritter has his own arc, though I suspect it’s not fully done with by the end of the novella—we’ll see him again in subsequent books, I’m sure. And the way the history of the house is layered feels more like the layers of a human mind, its Unconscious component stretching back into the dismal savagery of antiquity, and its Conscious component haunted by what lies in its id.

Inside: Perron Manor is a quick and thrilling read for anyone who loves haunted house fare but wants something with a bit more edge. Lee Mountford is an extraordinarily talented writer, and I may just have to read all 6 books of his series.

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Review of We Can Never Leave This Place by Eric LaRocca

Philip Pullman once wrote, “Swiftness is a great virtue in a fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.” (Daemon Voices). Though he was speaking about the classical fairy tales collated by the Brother’s Grimm, he could well be describing Eric LaRocca’s new novella We Can Never Leave This Place.

Dreamlike is a particularly apt word for the story LaRocca conjures in this brief but memorable fable. Despite the surreal nature of the narrative, the characters, and the setting, we feel that there is this dreadful and compelling internal logic to what is transpiring, much as we do when in the throes of the dream (and it’s only when we wake up that we realise how strange and impossible everything that occurred truly was).

Everything is slightly off in We Can Never Leave This Place. The house in which our fifteen year-old-protagonist, Mara, and her mother live seems like a house, yet a pipe breaches into the living room spilling raw sewage. It’s a constant feature of the landscape, a reminder of something festering at the hearts of our main characters. Then there are the weird “monsters” who, one by one, are brought into the house under the mother’s orders. There’s Rake, a spider. Samael, a snake. And other creatures from your worst nightmares. But so well-realised is the mood and setting of the novella that we don’t find the introduction of these anthropomorphised animals absurd, but rather unsettling. We question what they represent. And we question whether we are actually being filtered through Mara’s perception. She sees them as monsters, so they are described that way, and maybe she isn’t delusional; after all, what she sees seems to be the truth of who these people really are.

LaRocca is apparently a playwright and this is evident in the way he uses “the stage”. For example we know there is a war going on outside the house, but we never see it. We hear the booms of bombs dropping and the rattle of gunfire. Characters sometimes come in and tell us about what’s going on outside. But we don’t step outside. Many playwrights are, of course, limited by what they can portray on stage but of course this limitation can also be used advantageously to create a pressure-cooker of drama, which is what LaRocca achieves here. The title of the novella becomes more and more ominous as we sense that we truly cannot leave this place.

Some of the scenes in this novel might be considered obscene or disturbing by some, but I feel this is less about LaRocca being a horror-writer and more about the fairy-tale genre; fairy tales are full of brutalities that many would shy away from showing to adults let alone children in our modern world, from incest to mutilation and torture. LaRocca’s tale touches on all these things, but it is the psychological aspect that is far more harrowing: particularly the mother’s treatment of her daughter, Mara.

LaRocca’s characterisation of the mother will no doubt raise hackles. She is so cruel she does indeed seem the fairy-tale archetype of the “wicked queen” or “cruel step-mother”. Sadly, the savagery is all-too-realistic and representative of what abusive relationships are like, and whilst LaRocca doesn’t shy away from showing us her despicable actions, he also shows us why she is the way she is.

Perhaps my favourite element of this story—strange though this is to say—are the small, precisely chosen details (the mark of a truly skillful writer). For example, Mara owns a little, red pet bird called Kali. Kali is the Hindu Goddess of Bloodshed and Ruin (often depicted as red due to being covered in blood); she is also connected to the Arts and creative output. This is because the blood-symbolism is twofold: menstrual blood (which is connected to creativity for it’s the womb that creates life) and blood shed in battle. Naturally, all of this interlocks with the themes of the story: war, creativity, childhood, birth, and story itself. Mara is a writer, so the fact she owns a bird with this name implies that little Kali is her inner creative spirit.

Likewise, Samael, the name of the serpent character in the story, is the Talmudic or Hebrew name for Satan. What’s interesting is that LaRocca delivers on this association but also twists it slightly. I can’t say more for fear of spoilers!

I was also impressed by LaRocca’s diction and similes. Many horror writers forgo similes and struggle to write them well. Part of the issue is that in horror there is more of a burden placed upon the writer not to break the spell of terror, or anticipation, and one accidentally comedic or lazy simile will do just that. LaRocca, however, is a precision engineer. His similes are taut, often surprising, but never break the “warp and weft of mood” (to quote Dean Koontz) that is the very foundation of good horror.

Here is perhaps my favourite: “My father’s hand had been severed. The white of his exposed bone—a gorgeous pearl jeweled in a sleeve of tendon.” Virtually every word of this is luminous. The juxtaposition of the grisly body parts with beautiful, luscious imagery recalls the work of Clive Barker. Notice too how the em-dash works to simulate mimetically the slashed wrist! 

No book is perfect, and I do have one or two quibbles, particularly in terms of structure and pacing (those who read my work will know this is a bit of an obsession with me). But overall, it’s a vivid, nightmarish, beautifully written story that—and this is some of the highest praise I can offer—will stay with you for a long time afterwards.

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Review of All of Me by Iseult Murphy

I’ve long been a fan of Iseult Murphy. She writes with extraordinary clarity, intelligence, and wit. Best of all, she always ventures deep into her characters’ psyches. These are not two-dimensional plot devices, but living and breathing beings with vast emotional interiors.

All of Me is unquestionably the best book that Iseult Murphy has ever written. It not only shows massive growth as a writer but also reaches the highest level of art: transcendence.

One doesn’t need to know Iseult Murphy to be able to tell that All of Me is written about an issue that is deeply personal to the author. The compassion Murphy shows for her protagonist, Margaret, a 390 pound woman struggling with self-love and self-image, is palpable and heartrending. This doesn’t mean Margaret is spared, however, from Murphy’s ferociously sharp observations on the idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies of humans struggling to desperately improve themselves. Though she describes this book as "body-horror", and there's certainly an element of that, I think the real horror is in the human mind, which Iseult Murphy excavates expertly. 

Murphy’s development of her theme is masterfully expressed in the repetition of the phrase “Eat the elephant one bite at a time”. There is triple perhaps even quadruple entendre in this. Margaret is mockingly called Miss Elephant by her coworkers due to her weight. Yet, in the original saying, the elephant represents the big problems in life we have to break down into little bite-sized chunks in order to overcome. It’s also ironic that Margaret uses a metaphor for eating in order to describe the gruelling and slow process of weight-loss!

Margaret is desperate to lose weight, to change. And one day, someone makes her an offer that is simply too good to be true. Eating the elephant is laborious, painful, and taking too long. What if there was a quicker way to shed the weight? Desperate people will do desperate things. Margaret accepts the offer, a Faustian pact, and this is what truly kickstarts the narrative into the next level, because Margaret gets a great deal more than she bargained for.

I don’t want to give too much away—though what comes next is on the back-cover of the book—but suffice to say Murphy enters Freudian territory in which suddenly three facets of Margaret become independent. There’s Dot, who functions like a merciless and rational ego. There’s Peggy, who is always trying to look after other people but at the expense of all else, a kind of super-ego. And then there’s Daisy, eternally frightened, and only capable of eating her problems away, the primitive id. These three “aspects” also represent more personalised facets of Margaret. Dot is Margaret’s hardworking attitude. Peggy is Margaret’s caring side. Daisy is her defensive mode. By blending the individual and personal with the archetypal and psychological, Murphy achieves a compelling interplay. The fates of these “three” women who are really one matter to us, we care about each of them, even when they start doing despicable things.

Murphy writes the whole book in first person, heading the chapters with names so we know who is speaking. The genius of this is how it relates to the plot. We are reading about one woman divided into three, so it makes sense that the book is first person and not third. Yet, at the same time, Murphy reflects the differences between the characters with subtle changes in the narrative style. They all feel like they are part of the same person, yet we also begin to see the deviations between them. The skill it takes to do this is jaw-dropping.

Structurally this book works like Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. At times, it is unputdownable narrative. Each chapter ramps up the weirdness, the tension, and the stakes. Yet, despite the increasing strangeness, Murphy somehow manages to keep the whole thing grounded. Even when we receive a certain revelation about who a character truly is—which is masterfully done—we still remain in the realm of the believable. Perhaps this is because the novel remains so psychologically true.

Murphy uses her central plot device to explore so many ideas: the effect of low self-esteem on our lives, solipsism and how self-criticism can be a form of poison, our defence mechanisms (whether they be eating to avoid problems or attacking those we perceive to threaten us), and what it truly means to love oneself.

The ending of All of Me is my favourite ending Murphy has ever written and deeply moving. This is where the “transcendence” element comes in, because I felt like the book not only emotionally stirred me but also caused me to reflect upon my own life and desire to improve it. In fact, Murphy’s denouement ranks up there with the finale of Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is some of the highest praise I can offer.

All of Me is an amazing horror novella—one of the best I have read in a long time—and in truth it deserves to be on the Richard and Judy best-seller list. At once horrifying, funny, empowering, and viciously self-deprecating, it’s a true expression of the human spirit in all its glory and shame, and something that you absolutely have to read.

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Review of The Order of Eternal Sleep by S. C. Mendes

The Order of Eternal Sleep is the sequel to S. C. Mendes’s disturbing masterpiece The City. Set in 1913, three years after the events of the original, The Order of Eternal Sleep wastes no time plunging us back into the occult weirdness that gave The City its unique flavour of crazy. I described The City as a “conspiracy theorist’s wet dream” and The Order of Eternal Sleep is a worthy inheritor of the title.

We begin by picking up pretty much exactly where we left off after the events of The City. I’ll try not to give too many spoilers, as there are many terrifying surprises laid up in store for anyone enjoying these books for the first time, but this is a sequel, so it will be necessary to divulge some narrative information for context.

Max Elliot, the famous detective who lost everything in the case of the Chinatown Surgeon, is still missing. John McCloud, the man who once rescued Max and who semi-adopted Ming, a survivor of The City, is trying to carry on with a normal-abnormal life as a homicide detective. McCloud and Ming have become estranged after one too many rows, for which he experiences deep regret. McCloud is looking to retire, worn out by the darkness and the horror of his profession and his own failings. This is when, a week before he’s due to step away from the force, he’s sent to investigate a case of suspected arson and, in the basement of the house where six people have been reduced to ash, discovers a black shrine—along with something else totally horrifying I’m not going to spoil for you.

From there, the story simply does not let up the pace. Whereas The City was definitely a slow-burner, a kind of inexorable, incremental descent into a realm of madness and epiphany, The Order of Eternal Sleep is an explosive thriller that doesn’t lose sight of its intellectual roots and its 1910s setting.

The genius of Mendes’s writing is that he has a knack for making very complex ideas seem simple, whether these are nuanced emotional states, philosophical concepts, or occult principles. His stories contain layers. We can enjoy The Order of Eternal Sleep as a fast-paced period-piece detective yarn with some black magic thrown in. Or, we can look under the surface and see how Mendes explores—often from very esoteric angles—the primary questions of human experience.

To give an example of the layers of this story, a secret order—no spoiler here as they are mentioned in the title!—plans to perform the Rites of Eternal Sleep that will usher in the dawn of the Black Sun, an epoch of world-changing calamity and chaos (the reasons for this are more sophisticated than the stereotypical “evil people doing evil for the sake of it”, which is another way Mendes distinguishes himself). Reading this novel historically for a moment, we know that in the year 1913 the world teeters on the brink of World War I. Could it be, then, that Mendes is implying the catastrophes of the 20th Century were brought about by the performance of dark rituals, as other occult authors—including Kenneth Grant—have suggested? Or is this simply the conspiracy theory in me going into overdrive?

If you want another example of subtle depth: look at the dates Mendes gives us in the chapter headings. Think about it long and hard. Why are those dates significant? When the answer comes you’ll realise what he’s doing. I once described Mendes’s novels as “puzzle-boxes”, and one must treat them with the same respect!

I’ve already alluded to the villains in Mendes’s novel, but it’s worth devoting more time to describing how brilliant they truly are. They are terrifying and imposing, but most importantly, they are clever. Unlike most “evil” characters in stories who seem like little more than plot devices to be wheeled out at appropriate moments and overcome, Mendes’s villains seem to be genuinely interfering with the trajectory of the story. They show up and change things, often in devastating ways where we wonder how the heroes can possibly come back from such a setback. The villains are intelligent: they anticipate and predict their adversaries, and remain one step ahead. After all, if there really was a secret society trying to take over the world, one that had maintained its secrecy for centuries, it’s unlikely they would be foiled within a few weeks by one or two nosey investigators. The stakes, therefore, are very high in The Order of Eternal Sleep and though we spend a lot less time in The City in this book than in the former (which I think was a wise decision so as not to re-tread too much ground), the scenes of interrogation in this book are utterly nightmarish.

All of this connects to a broader point which is that Mendes’s characters are incredibly believable, grounded in a totally realised psychology. For example, John McCloud reflects upon his distance from Ming and Mendes tells us, “The desire was followed by a pulling undertow of hypocrisy.” With this metaphor we see the human condition encapsulated: we want things but often act in direct contravention of our conscious desires, sabotaging them; the unconscious undertow is too powerful to escape. Mendes uses all this psychological understanding to craft some moments of pure dread. The techniques his villains use to break the human spirit are very real indeed, exploiting weaknesses in the human mind, making us question whether we could withstand such pressures.

Mendes outrageously tempts the conspiracy theorist in all of us. He touches on pretty much all the major theories: that the world is being controlled by a secret order, that the pyramids were not burial sites but used for more esoteric purposes, that there are occult ways of amassing wealth, wealthy people have a way of infinitely extended their lifespans, and so on. And though he does it all with a sly wink to the camera, he makes it all alarmingly credible: “You feel it… When water runs over quartz, it creates electricity.” Little knowledge-bombs like this take us back and force us to ask uncomfortable questions. I mean, why did the Egyptians build twenty-four 30-ton sarcophagi out of quartz near a source of running water? Why have we never found a body inside them if they were for burial purposes (when Egypt is in no short supply of mummies!)? Google the The Serapeum of Saqqara and you’ll see what I mean.

Similarly, there is a ritual scene near the middle of the novel that is so disturbing it made every hair on my arm stand on end. The reason it was so potent is that Mendes doesn’t settle for the cliches like most authors attempting to write about the occult with little to no experience of it. Mendes’s understanding of magical principles and ancient occult orders makes the ritual feel hair-raisingly believable. This furthers the reader’s questioning of what could be real in our world that we take for granted (reassuringly) as being mere fiction. The character Valbas observes, “Interpreting ancient cultures through your modern paradigms can only reveal half truths.” Mendes asks us to open our minds a little, to consider that our own perspective is limited, and whether there might not be a grain of truth in the stories after all. The time-period of his novel serves to emphasise this point further, as at the beginning of the 20th Century there was a greater degree of uncertainty about our reality and about the past despite the Age of Reason being well underway—in many ways, we have become more close-minded in our modern time and chained to our so-called scientific truths.

To say a few more words about the 1910s setting: Mendes doesn’t overplay it and weigh us down with historical references. He gives us just enough detail at one or two crucial moments to make the setting come alive. For example, in one amusing scene, a character called Detective O’Neil observes that though the six bodies were burned to a crisp, the teeth survived. McCloud responds, “Well, unless you think taking a fistful of teeth down to the local dentist is going to give us a name, it doesn’t help the situation.” Of course, this is an era before the concept of “dental records” or identifying bodies by their teeth! Mendes slyly pokes fun at this idea we take for granted in the modern world.

Thematically, there are two central polarities Mendes explores throughout. The first is flesh versus soul. The adage “the flesh is weak” is repeated frequently, and as we go deeper and darker into the wilder lore and occult mechanics of the book we realise just how transient the flesh is in the cosmology of Mendes’s universe. So, if the flesh is nothing, what are we? What endures after we die, if anything? What is really “living” inside us? This profound anxiety about the condition of our existence is reflected in this aphoristic quote at the start of Chapter II: “Every man believes he will be the exception to the rule of life.” Ironically the “rule of life” is “death”. And of course, no one is the exception.

The second polarity explored is conscious versus unconscious. Throughout, characters espouse their conscious views only for their unconscious to betray them and reveal their true intentions and desires. We see Mendes explores this duality a number of ways: literally through the minds of his characters, metaphorically through the concept of “demonic” possession, and symbolically through the geography of a world divided into the “surface level” we know and the deep hidden world of The City. But whereas Mendes’s original novel spent a great deal of time excavating the unconscious by taking us on a tour through a warped underworld that was both a physical place and representative of the human psyche’s buried half, in The Order of Eternal Sleep he takes a slightly different approach. Much of the story explores liminal spaces—places between being awake and asleep, between leaving a destination and arriving at another, between knowing and not knowing, between living and dying. Mendes doesn’t settle for simply setting up a juxtaposition, but rather attempts the more daring feat of exploring the strange and unsettling territory between these two states. I always think that “dream sequences” in stories have to be deployed sparingly, but The Order of Eternal Sleep is an exception because—as the title would suggest—dreams form the very foundations of what the story is about: are we awake or asleep? And what happens when we wake up? When we’ve woken up from the dream and seen the strangely beautiful nightmare of reality, what do we do?

If we are tracking an over-arching narrative, it feels like whereas The City described an unconscious that was still buried and repressed, in The Order of Eternal Sleep that unconscious is beginning to emerge and drive towards the surface. This makes me wonder whether in the third book we’ll see a final integration of the two halves—or perhaps a complete catastrophic severance of them! And to re-iterate: there will undoubtedly be a third book, it seems, as the ending to The Order of Eternal Sleep, whilst complete and satisfying, certainly sets up a final dance between good and evil. Although, knowing Mendes’s ability to warp perspective and challenge conventions, I highly doubt it will be as straightforward as that.

The Order of Eternal Sleep is an incredible, unique book—a rare combination of both imaginative scope and haunting reality. Head on over to Amazon and buy your copy now, thereby joining us down here in the secret city!

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Review of The Mountains of Sorrow by Iseult Murphy

Iseult Murphy first left her mark upon me with her insightful reviews. Here was someone who wasn’t simply stating an opinion, but actually going a level deeper to incise the work she was discussing with a scalpel and see what was really going on underneath; in short, true criticism. Next, Murphy’s Horror series, currently featuring 7 Days In Hell and 7 Weeks In Hell, blew me away. Here is a story that deceptively lures the reader into thinking they are reading a small-town cosy mystery, when in actuality something much darker is taking place. The story slowly tilts into the macabre until it outright flings you into the abyss, though it is not without threads of beautiful hope.

Now, Iseult Murphy turns her hand to Fantasy—a favourite genre of mine—in The Mountains of Sorrow. This novella is a weird and wonderful mix. It starts by plunging us straight into the action and doesn’t really let up for the duration of its 100 pages. Our main character, Rowan, is a rebel with a mission to assassinate an evil and tyrannical Queen. There is a subtle critique of the modern world in the lore and mythos of Mountains of Sorrow, as the Queen is evil because she uses Star Magic to oppress the populace. Star Magic is a kind of forbidden, dark magic, because it’s technological rather than natural. The Star Magic allows Queen Zelda to create artificial lights that burn the skin, monstrous metal golems that lumber through the palace hallways, and energy centres that irradiate the populace and make them sick. It’s subtly done, a kind of Gene Wolfe double-blind where we realise that what’s being described isn’t what we think it is. Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler, there’re a lot more surprises in this.

The world-building, contained in such a brief narrative, is very impressive. Rowan is a wood-witch, one of the last of her kind, and so she has an affinity for the earth, magic, and the seven sacred dragons. The dragons are kind of druidic gods who watch over and guide those who are still connected to magic. Each of them can grant different boons. In this way, they operate almost like Catholic Saints; appealing to the right saint with the right cause can lend a magic-user aid. It feels original, and more importantly it’s done well; the naming conventions of the dragons lead me to believe they are partly inspired by Irish lore and mythology. There’s surprising depth considering how little wiggle room Murphy has in a story of this length.

In terms of characters, this story is again an interesting mix. It personally took me a while to warm to the main character Rowan. I found her to be so bitter and depressive that it was hard to feel for her. However, given everything Rowan has experienced, this was probably very psychologically accurate. Argento proved to be an interesting foil to Rowan, and the two work well together “on screen”. Murphy does not fall for the usual traps of a relationship of necessity like this, and if any of you are expecting predictable romance, rest assured you can think again.

There are a surprising number of characters considering the book’s length but perhaps the final ones worth mentioning are two very cute squirrels, Acorn and Oak. The book actually contains beautiful illustrations of these squirrels done by the author herself, and her talent is really off-the-charts. The interior of the book is exceedingly beautiful because of these illustrations, which also make their way into the chapter headings (very much echoing the illuminated text of medieval manuscripts) The inclusion of these squirrel characters is one of the brilliant but also anomalous aspects of the books. Murphy clearly has a love of animals. I know she keeps many pets and dogs feature prominently in her 7 Hells series. Cute squirrels, who are far more intelligent than they seem, would seem to lend the book more of a Disney-fantasy than let’s say Tolkien-fantasy vibe. Indeed, I wondered if this book was meant for children at times. The writing is straightforward; there is no cussing.

However, it seems that Murphy could not resist flexing her Horror-writer muscles at times, and there are some genuinely disturbing scenes in this that are worthy of a Stephen King novel or indeed something beyond. If you are looking for a literary comparison, the nearest would be C. S. Lewis. Lewis also created wonderful and enchanting fantasy worlds for children, but they were not without their share of horror, as anyone who read that scene in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe can testify.

When the true extent of the evil Queen’s machinations are revealed in one stomach churning encounter, I was caught completely off guard, and that made the horror all the more affecting and visceral. I admire Murphy for this. It would have been easy for her to write something pedestrian, something that conformed easily to a genre archetype, but she chose instead to push boundaries, to show us that even in the magical world there is suffering. In fact, this suffering is created by the intrusion of technological “magic” into the fantastical sphere. I will not preach to the choir: you may read into this as you will!

The last thing I want to say about this book is in relation to the title. Firstly, The Mountains of Sorrow clues us in to one of the interesting aspects of this book, namely, that I suspect it is part of a series. This book seems entirely concerned with the element of earth, and that includes not just literal stone, soil, and wood, but also the concepts of family, friendship, and the stability of civilisation. I suspect that Murphy might be planning to showcase the other elements in subsequent books! We can only hope.

Secondly, The Mountains of Sorrow feels very apt indeed. Sorrow permeates this story. Rowan has lost her mother. Argento has lost his family. The magical dragons seem to be leaving this world of wickedness and technologic gods. The “mountains” of sorrow are the psychological mountains that we must perilously climb in order to overcome our despair. What is so brilliant, however, is that Murphy’s ending is spiritual, redemptive, and hopeful, which, in our current era, is exactly what we need.

You can purchase The Mountains of Sorrow at the links below:

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Review of #DeadSealChallenge by S. C. Mendes & Nikki Noir

“Here we go. On three.” Looking at the infected penis on the cutting board, Gary fought back a grimace. He held the cock steady with his gloved left hand. His right hand held a cleaver. “One...two—”

If the opening lines of #DeadSealChallenge don’t grab you, few things will. Of course, they might disgust you as well, but S. C. Mendes and Nikki Noir have a habit of being able to hold your gaze even when showing you the most depraved scenarios and people. As storytellers, both writers exhibit a leaning towards the cinematic, and their ability to focus a camera unflinchingly is one resulting trait of their collaborations.

#DeadSealChallenge is a surprising short story, told Tarantino-style. We begin in media res, when everything has royally gone to hell. Through an interview with one of the principle characters, we begin to flash back and piece together the missing elements of the story. I say the story is surprising not just because of the strangeness of some of its concepts—bizarro authors eat your hearts out—but also because I’m frankly amazed at how much the two authors have crammed into a tale that can be no more than 6,000 words. #DeadSealChallenge touches on male insecurity, influencer culture, YouTube success, the depravities of the dark web, hashtag crazes sweeping the world, the monetisation of human shame, and the problems of fame, especially that unique brand of fame: “internet celebrity”. It’s difficult to say the main characters are likeable, but they are certainly believable, and you willingly follow them down the rabbit hole to see if they really can pull off their elaborate and highly immoral scheme.

#DeadSealChallenge explores the nature of viral media—and please bear that phrase in mind, because it might be relevant in more ways than one! I’ll say no more, lest I spoil a delicious surprise for horror lovers!—whilst itself being a viral piece of media that I have no doubt will infect the internet. When reading work by Mendes or Noir, one always has to be sensitive to the double meanings of things. A virus can infect the mind, body, or an online presence. A seal, in this context, is meant in the sense of the animal; but it won’t hurt you to also consider what happens when we break a different kind of seal… Seals keep things shut in, after all. Whilst Noir and Mendes clearly love writing about extreme topics, their work never descends into extremity for the sake of it, or shock for shock’s sake. Read between the lines and new meanings emerge; this is what makes their collaborative work so rich.

If I have one criticism, it is the same criticism I always levy at collaborations between S.C. Mendes and Nikki Noir: that I could stand to read 60,000 words, rather than 6,000! This story and concept has more places it can go. So, allow me to start a new hashtag:

#DeadSealChallengeII.

Let’s make it viral, folks!

You can purchase #DeadSealChallenge on Godless.