Halloween Carnival Volume 5 – Brian James Freeman (editor)

I’ve been dragging my feet on this anthology series for years now. I was so excited to sink my teeth into some Halloween scares but they consistently disappointed me so I gave up. Now it’s Halloween month again and with one volume to go, I decided to dive back in and hope for the best.

Devil’s Night by Richard Chizmar – 🎃🎃🎃🎃

The newspapers reported the story of what happened that night but that’s not the whole story.

Halloween may be a night for make-believe ghosts and goblins, but you’d better be sure to turn on all the lights and lock your doors on Devil’s Night. Because that’s when the real monsters lurk …

The Last Dare by Lisa Tuttle – 🎃🎃🎃

The tower house is still there, all these years later. Going inside was the last dare between childhood best friends.

“Tell us the story about the tower house”

The Halloween Bleed by Norman Prentiss – 🎃🎃🎃

An interview with a difference.

“What if Halloween … bleeds into other days? It doesn’t matter when the story is written, or when you read it. What matters is that it has an effect on you. It casts its spell.”

Swing by Kevin Quigley – 🎃🎃🎃

Death follows love. Every time.

Most thought she was dancing because she was free, but I knew the real Jessica. She danced because she was trapped.

Pork Pie Hat by Peter Straub – 🎃🎃🎃

Hat, a story from his childhood and all that jazz.

“Most people will tell you growing up means you stop believing in Halloween things – I’m telling you the reverse. You start to grow up when you understand that the stuff that scares you is part of the air you breathe.”

While the stories included in this anthology were okay, I didn’t get the Halloween horror vibe I was looking for. I didn’t find any of the stories scary at all. I’m glad I finally made it through to the end of this series and there were some decent stories along the way, but overall I remain disappointed.

Content warnings include death by suicide.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Hydra, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, for the opportunity to read this anthology.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Richard Chizmar, Lisa Tuttle, Norman Prentiss, Kevin Quigley, and Peter Straub unmask monsters hiding in plain sight in an anthology of heart-pounding short fiction assembled by horror author and editor Brian James Freeman.

DEVIL’S NIGHT by Richard Chizmar
You’ve read about what happened that night. What you don’t know is the true extent of the damage. The papers got it wrong – and the truth is so much worse than you thought.

THE LAST DARE by Lisa Tuttle
Elaine hasn’t been back to her hometown in years. The house she lived in is gone. The tower house isn’t – nor are the stories of the fate that befalls whoever dares to go there.

THE HALLOWEEN BLEED by Norman Prentiss
People think there’s some sort of mystical power that allows enchantments and witchcraft to come to life on Halloween night. But real magic obeys no calendar – and true evil strikes whenever it’s least expected.

SWING by Kevin Quigley
In Hollywood, everyone lives forever. At least that’s what I used to think … before Jessica. But no one seems to live long when they’re around me.

PORK PIE HAT by Peter Straub
When it comes to jazz, there are players, and there are legends. “Hat” was a legend. His real name didn’t even matter. Still, he had his secrets – secrets best left buried in the past. 

Dark Screams Volume Seven – Brian James Freeman & Richard Chizmar (editors)

I was disillusioned by some horror anthologies last year but October is calling to me, so here I am again. I’m not sure what it is about horror short stories but I don’t find them scary and would rarely even classify their content as horror. While all of these stories are okay, I didn’t find any scares amongst them.

My favourite was James Renner’s A Monster Comes to Ashdown Forest (In Which Christopher Robin Says Goodbye).

Lizardman by Robert McCammon – 🎃🎃🎃

The lizardman has been searching for Old Pope for a long time. Tonight he will find him.

Oh, yeah, the swamp had teeth. Eat you up, bury you under. That was how it was.

A Monster Comes to Ashdown Forest (In Which Christopher Robin Says Goodbye) by James Renner – 🎃🎃🎃🎃

You’ll never see Winnie-the-Pooh the same again.

“Sometimes the bad things take up the most room in your heart. Don’t they?”

Furtherest by Kaaron Warren – 🎃🎃🎃

Those boys died in the dunes but there’s more to the story.

“So don’t go into the dunes, kids. You never know who’s lurking in there.”

West of Matamoros, North of Hell by Brian Hodge – 🎃🎃🎃

This is the photoshoot from hell.

“Everybody’s got a plan until the knives come out.”

The Expedition by Bill Schweigart – 🎃🎃🎃

Nazis vs. the wolf.

Had they known then of the chest and the doom that awaited them all, Bruner would have chosen prison.

Snow Shadows by Mick Garris – 🎃🎃🎃

A man and boy are haunted by the death of a woman.

“Did you love her?”

Content warnings include death by suicide.

Thank you to NetGalley and Hydra, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Robert McCammon, James Renner, Kaaron Warren, Brian Hodge, Bill Schweigart, and Mick Garris reveal sinister secrets and unsavoury pasts in a haunting anthology of short stories collected by acclaimed horror editors Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar.

LIZARDMAN by Robert McCammon
The lizardman thinks he knows about all the mysterious dangers of the Florida swamps, but there are things lurking in the bayou that are older and deadlier than his wildest dreams.

A MONSTER COMES TO ASHDOWN FOREST (IN WHICH CHRISTOPHER ROBIN SAYS GOODBYE) by James Renner
Although every child dreams of visiting Hundred Acre Wood, only one has ever actually frolicked in that fabled forest – and survived.

FURTHEREST by Kaaron Warren
She’s been going to the beach since she was a child, daring the other kids to go out past the dunes where those boys died all those years ago. Now she realises that the farther out you go, the harder it is to come back.

WEST OF MATAMOROS, NORTH OF HELL by Brian Hodge
After the success of their latest album, Sebastián, Sofia, and Enrique head to Mexico for a shoot under the statue of Santa Muerte. But they have fans south of the border who’d kill to know where they get their inspiration.

THE EXPEDITION by Bill Schweigart
On a quest to bring glory to the Führer, Lieutenant Dietrich Drexler leads his team into the ruins of the Carpathian Mountains. But the wolf that’s stalking them is no ordinary predator.

SNOW SHADOWS by Mick Garris
A schoolteacher’s impulsive tryst with a colleague becomes a haunting lesson in tragedy and terror when he’s targeted for revenge by an unlikely, unhinged rival.

Tomb of Gods – Brian Moreland

Spoilers Ahead!

“We are standing at the threshold of one of life’s great mysteries”

Dr Harlan Riley hadn’t been the same since he was found “wandering the desert southeast of Cairo”. Scars covered his body and he alternated between speaking an unknown language and uttering cryptic warnings. It is five months months after his death, in March 1937, when a team of British archaeologists find Nebenteru’s tomb, whose secrets Harlan took to the grave.

I have witnessed miracles. Nightmares. Forgotten realms.

Leading the team is Dr Nathan Trummel. His own personal team is made up of assistant, Piper, blind psychic, Dyfan, and bodyguard, Aiden Gosswick. They are joined by mercenaries, Sergeant Dan Vickers and Corporal Teddy Quig, and a guard, Corporal Rex Sykes. 

An Egyptian guide, Bakari Neseem, an American photographer on assignment for National Geographic, Caleb Beckett, and a number of labourers, archaeologists and students round out the team. With this many volunteers signing up to enter the final resting place for an unknown number of explorers, it’s fairly certain the pharaoh’s tomb is likely to become many of theirs.

Late to the party is Imogen, an expert in Egyptian mythology and Harlan’s granddaughter. Raised by Harlan and his sidekick on expeditions when she was a child, she’s likely to be quite useful in navigating the potential pitfalls ahead.

“Damned are we who enter the abyss.”

Once the bloodbath got under way the story went in a direction I hadn’t expected. The world building was extensive and it often felt like I was walking alongside the team, or perhaps somewhere closer to the middle of the group so whatever was coming next would get them first. 

Peoples’ true natures rose to the surface and tensions were high as the explorers faced their demons, and I’m sure the characters’ blood pressures increased each time they noticed sentences that commenced with:

Twelve explorers

All nine explorers

The eight explorers

I couldn’t help seeing parallels between Imogen searching her grandfather’s diary for clues and Indiana Jones using Henry’s diary to find the Holy Grail.

I grew up sharing my Nan’s love of Egyptology and know she would have loved this book. The way the mythology was injected into the storyline made me appreciate how much time the author must have spent researching it and had me Googling some unfamiliar names to figure out if they originated from history or the author’s imagination. When the lines between reality and fiction get blurry I know an author has well and truly sucked me in.

I had two main niggles:

  • The way the explorers made their way through the various gates was repetitive at times.
  • I felt the epilogue was unnecessary and its contents frustrated me. The chapter prior to this provided a natural end to the story for me and I wish it had concluded there.

“Something’s coming.”

Content warnings include death by suicide, murder, self harm, suicidal ideation, torture and war crimes.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Flame Tree Press for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Deep inside the tomb exists a hidden world of wonder and terror. 

In 1935, British archaeologists vanished inside an Egyptian cave. A year later, one man returned covered in mysterious scars. 

Egyptologist Imogen Riley desperately wants to know what happened to the ill-fated expedition led by her grandfather. On a quest for answers, she joins a team of archeologists and soldiers in Egypt. Inside a mountain tomb, they’ve found a technologically advanced relic and a maze of tunnels. Dr. Nathan Trummel believes this tomb leads to the most guarded secrets of the pharaohs. When the explorers venture deep into the caves, they discover a hidden world of wonder and terror.

Friday the 13th, Camp Crystal Lake #4: Road Trip – Eric Morse

Spoilers Ahead!

It is a dark and stormy night and time for revenge of the nerd, Friday the 13th style. Teddy Bateman is Buzzy the Bee, Carville Hornets’ team mascot. He has a crush on Summer but has never had a girlfriend. This short, geeky senior is understandably angry about being the target of bullying.

He’s on the way back from a football game with the players, cheerleaders and coach that contribute to his misery. Good on him for being the one who finds the mask. It’s a pity the mask wearer usually winds up a corpse in this series. Jason himself is still a no show.

“You’re going to die”

The potential Voorhees victims in this book:

Carville Hornets (a school football team):
Coach Wardell – if you don’t play sports then you’re of no interest to Coach, unless he’s taking out his frustration on you.
Russ Johnson – linebacker star on the field and boyfriend of Belinda off the field.
Slick Chambers – top receiver and the fastest player. He’s a serial cheater and doesn’t say ‘no’ to drugs, so not even his “sexy eyebrows” will be enough to save this player.
Dave Myers – quarterback and captain of the team, who also does drugs. Dave has put a limit on the amount of times his ditzy but loyal girlfriend is allowed to tell him she loves him each day, so I’m not sure we‘re cheering him on to survive.
Billy Raymond – centre. He travelled back on the bus so, although we’re briefly introduced to him, he’s irrelevant to this story.
Tommy Bartlett – kicker. He took the bus as well. Therefore, he’s irrelevant too.

The Cheerleaders (there are ten but we’re only introduced to four):
Missy Lowe – cheerleading captain. Missy is tall and blonde. She’s enthusiastic, especially about her love for Dave (who she knits for) but we constantly reminded how dumb she is.
Summer Stone – has four older brothers and is a cynic. She’s tall, with dark hair and blue eyes. Her weakness is Slick, who has no doubt cheated on her a lot more times than she knows about.
Belinda Karras – a control freak, Belinda is short and pretty.
Arlene Kerdell – the top girl of the cheerleading pyramid, Arlene takes the bus, so we didn’t really need to learn her name.

The Locals:
The Trooper – for someone who plays a larger role in the story than I initially expected, I thought he had earned a name. I was wrong; he’s the Trooper the entire time. Although law enforcement don’t usually fare well in horror stories he does warn some randoms about the town’s history, so there’s a slim chance he’ll survive.
Tina – other than being the trooper’s wife, the only other piece of information I have about this woman is spoilery in nature. She’s unlikely to survive.
Cliff – an architect and the trooper’s best friend. His character is essentially only there to help tell Tina’s spoilery story so we may as well dig his grave now.

The Randoms:
Donny Borelli – as far as I can tell, Donny and his friend, Stu Bergman, served their purpose in this book as soon as they introduced the trooper, the cave and the vampire bats.
Mr Morrisey – bus driver. It appears they are smart enough not to take the Crystal Lake detour.

“You’re going where?

While I wasn’t invested in any character enough to hope they lived (or died) I did have to give most of the characters some credit. Other than Donny, Stu and the locals, no one actually planned on spending any time in Voorhees-land. The Carville Hornets are actually the only ones in this series so far that didn’t reserve their death day in advance.

“BEHIND YOU!”

With spelunking, strange hybrid vampire bats, cheating partners and too much time spent at the football game, this is definitely not my favourite slaughter fest of the series. The mask has once again added more magic to its repertoire, with a newly found ability to remotely operate a car, even before it’s attached to someone’s face. The introduction of the cave, especially minus a backstory, felt like a weird choice although it did provide a semi-legitimate reason for the inclusion of the vampire bats.

A series of unanswered questions relate directly to the bats, the most pressing of which is: What is their backstory and why are we not told about it?

It took quite a while for the hockey mask action to commence. This is a short book, yet it wasn’t until page 96 that someone put the mask on and the first kill by the person wearing the hockey mask didn’t happen until page 116! Even then, one of my biggest disappointments of the third book was repeated here: the hockey mask guy wasn’t even directly responsible for about half of the kills.

The Death Toll: a spider, bat and somewhere between 9 and 11 people.

The spider got squished by a car in the prologue and then I had to wait around for a while before I got to the first human kill.

Of those not killed by the person possessed by the hockey mask, three people were shot (Tina, Coach and Cliff), Slick was sucked dry by vampire bats and Teddy got roasted. The hockey mask guy was only directly responsible for four deaths (unnamed trooper, Missy, Belinda and Dave).

I think one of our two spelunkers (Donny and Stu) was dispatched via vampire bat and the other was never heard from again, but I may be wrong about these guys. It didn’t seem overly specific at the time.

Best Insult:

“You’re the world’s biggest fungus brain”

Kill of the Book: Missy, who was skewered with her own knitting needles, which were attached to the stinger on the mascot’s head.

There are some racist, sexist and homophobic comments and enough discrepancies between the text and cover image to tell me that the artist didn’t read the book. The uniforms on the cover are blue and white but in the book they’re orange and black. The kid in the hockey mask is supposed to have dark, curly hair and the blonde girl is supposed to have her hair in a whole pile of braids. The killer doesn’t wield a machete in the book, the van is supposed to be white and, as I’ve already said, the massacre takes place on a dark and stormy night.

If you are planning on reading this series you should probably read them in order. The second book follows on from the first and the events of the third book are mentioned in this one.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When the football team van swerves off the road and crashes after the big game, everyone blames Teddy, the class nerd and the team’s mascot. While his tormentors take shelter at Camp Crystal Lake, Teddy trades in his mascot suit for Jason’s hockey mask – and makes this a night his classmates will never forget.

The Roo – Alan Baxter

Spoilers Ahead!

You can blame a news article, Australian Town Terrorised By Muscular Kangaroo Attacking People and Eating Gardens, and Twitter for the existence of this book. Most of the people who egged the author on are now fictionally deceased, slaughtered by Skippy. Meanwhile, I’m waiting as patiently as humanly possible for The Asylum to film this story for me. I love The Asylum!

I was interested in reading this book mostly as a bit of a joke but also because I thought it would be pretty un-Australian of me not to, and strewth! It was a bloody good yarn! (Emphasis on the bloody!) That’s 4.5 blood soaked stars from me!

When this novella begins, Morgan Creek, a small outback town, has 400 people but won’t for much longer if Skippy, who’s gone to the dark side, has any say in the matter.

The roo’s mouth opened with a soft grunt. Its eyes glowed fiery orange. John startled, realised it wasn’t reflected streetlight, but the beast’s eyes had seemed to ignite with a kind of internal flame, bathing its face in a glow like a campfire. It grunted again, guttural.

I started making notes of all of the characters’ names and snippets of information about each of them, then quickly realised the futility of this. After all, so few were destined to survive to tell the tale.

With so many bone crunching, blood spattered, insides are now your outsides kills in this story it was difficult to choose a favourite. However I was quite partial to the visual that accompanied reading that someone’s “head burst like a ripe fruit.” While Morgan Creek remains drought affected at the end of the story its red dirt has certainly copped a drenching of the blood of its recently sliced and diced.

I was fairly certain this wasn’t the first time Skippy had gone dark and in my wanderings I found Waterborne, a Zombie Kangaroo Short Film. I hope this makes you chuckle too.

The Death Toll: 28 (26 of those can be directly attributed to the rampaging roo). This doesn’t include the people only mentioned as missing. If I didn’t witness the kill myself or stumble over the remains, I haven’t counted it.

[Because I made notes of who died as I read I’m including the list here but this is only for my benefit. Please don’t ruin it for yourself by opening this spoiler if you haven’t read the book yet! RIP: John, Jake, Kylie, Stu, Carl, Cindy, Brennan, Scott, Charlie, Michael, Matt, the two unnamed Hightower boys, Laurel, Laurel’s husband, SD, Shane, Amanda, Cassie, Rich, Mindi, three unnamed patrons at the bar, Sharon and Bill, who all died by roo. Also Gomzi, who was accidentally shot when SD died, and Pauline, who was also shot. On purpose.]

The Roo is not all splattery fun though. Real issues affecting Australians are also addressed, from the devastation that accompanies drought to domestic violence and death by suicide.

If you’re not a native Aussie you may find some of our slang incomprehensible. I had actually expected to find more slang than I did but for those of you who can’t tell the difference between ‘yeah nah’ and ‘nah yeah’, there’s a handy glossary at the end of the book.

Once Upon a Nitpick: A fair few typos have managed to sidestep the proofreading process, especially near the beginning. One character’s surname also changes between chapters 2 and 4.

Content warnings include alcoholism, bucketloads of swearing, death by suicide, domestic violence (particularly physical abuse) and racism (challenged).

There’s definitely room for a sequel. Hopefully coming soon to a Kindle near you …
🇦🇺 Drop Bears: Not So Cuddly After All
🇦🇺 Wombat and the Cubes of Doom
🇦🇺 Stone the Crows vs. The Flamin’ Galahs

P.S. Not directly related to this book but I found this by accident when I was thinking about other Aussie icons that could feature in a sequel (there definitely needs to be a sequel) … Someone has made a horror movie about drop bears and I cannot wait to see it!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Something is wrong in the small outback town of Morgan Creek.

A farmer goes missing after a blue in the pub. A teenage couple fail to show up for work. When Patrick and Sheila McDonough investigate, they discover the missing persons list is growing. Before they realise what’s happening, the residents of the remote town find themselves in a fight for their lives against a foe they would never have suspected.

And the dry red earth will run with blood.

We Are Monsters – Brian Kirk

Spoilers Ahead!

“It’s official. The Apocalypse has come to Sugar Hill.”

Alex, Eli and Angela work together in the forensics ward of Sugar Hill, which houses and treats the criminally insane. Angela is a social worker who is described by a friend as “Dr. Do Good by day and Little Miss Devil by night”. Alex Drexler is a psychiatrist whose views on treatment are diametrically opposed to those of his boss and mentor, Dr Eli Alpert, Sugar Hill’s Chief Medical Director. Eli’s approach is humanistic, with a focus on treating patients with dignity and respect. Meanwhile, Alex is in the process of trialling an experimental drug to cure schizophrenia.

Why did the mind have the capacity to create delusions? To hallucinate? To perceive the unreal? And why, so often, did such altered states appear to the perceiver as the actual reality? A world more real than this one.

When the funding for his trials is withdrawn, Alex winds up continuing his experiment. His latest subject is Sugar Hill’s newest patient, Crosby Nelson, the Apocalypse Killer. Because what could possibly go wrong when you use a mentally ill, traumatised serial killer as your guinea pig?!

More background information is provided about characters than I’m used to seeing in horror books. This took me out of the story initially although I could understand the relevance of this information later on. It’s not only the patients whose pasts haunt them and it’s not always obvious who should be a patient, especially when the workers’ own demons are revealed.

Either she is insane, or I am. Or nobody is. Or we all are. Either way, who am I to say?

The only character I really liked was Eli. I think I would have liked Crosby as well but I didn’t get much of a sense of who he was outside of his mental health and trauma histories. Fortunately it’s not necessary to love horror book characters. I enjoyed hoping Alex would get a taste of his own medicine and I couldn’t wait for a couple of other nasties to get their comeuppance.

At times it felt like a hallucinogen was wafting off the pages. I wasn’t always especially clear about what was really going on during the more trippy parts.

He was now unsure which reality had been a dream and which one was real.

If I’d encountered this sense of unease, not being able to easily discern reality, in another book I’d probably tell you it was a reason I didn’t like it. This book, though? It was like I was being given a glimpse into what life must be like all the time for some of the residents of Sugar Hill and it was scary to even contemplate living in their worlds.

While I’ve known a lot of people with various mental illnesses, my knowledge of schizophrenia and psychosis are limited to the DSM-5 and random articles and books I’ve read. Because of this I cannot comment on the accuracy of their depictions in this book but I didn’t come across anything that stood out to me as ‘there’s something wrong with this picture’ symptom wise.

Between the graphic violence (I almost DNF’ed this book when the dog died) and derogatory terms used for pretty much anyone you can think of, sometimes challenged but oftentimes not, this book isn’t going to be for everyone. If having anything uncomfortably close to your eyes makes you squeamish you may have trouble with some scenes.

Content warnings include addiction, alcoholism, child abuse, domestic violence, graphic death of a dog, homophobia, incest, mental health, mention of death by suicide, racism and sexual assault.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Flame Tree Press for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Some doctors are sicker than their patients. When a troubled psychiatrist loses funding to perform clinical trials on an experimental cure for schizophrenia, he begins testing it on his asylum’s criminally insane, triggering a series of side effects that opens the mind of his hospital’s most dangerous patient, setting his inner demons free.

Snowball – Gregory Bastianelli

Spoilers Ahead!

How to know if a Christmas horror book is for me in three easy steps:

  1. It’s a Christmas horror book!

2. Include this quote in the first chapter –

The snowman’s head rose, tilted back as its face came into view. Beneath the coal-black eyes and long crooked carrot nose was a black mouth grinning with two rows of sharp teeth.

3. Actually, I don’t need any additional information. Bah humbug!

“What was your worst winter memory?”

This Christmas Eve, during one of the worst snowstorms in New Hampshire’s history, a group of motorists are faced with the nightmares of winters past. Stranded on the highway with the snow building up around their vehicles, these strangers will learn there’s something that connects them. The past is coming back to bite them, possibly literally. Everything got screwed up at Christmastime. Featuring (amongst other creepies) snowmen, Krampus, a snowglobe and a toy maker who wants to play a game, our unwitting players have the odds stacked against them.

Lining up to freeze to death (if something worse doesn’t get them first) …

This is Toby Hodge’s final Christmas with his son, Evan, and his grandkids before he and his wife, Nell, move to Florida. A snowplow driver who’s lplowing his final stretch of highway before retirement, Toby is the first person we meet. The first person introduced in a horror story tends to either be the first victim or the main character. I was veering toward ‘hero’ until I learned he was about to retire.

In his late 40’s, Mason Drake is a parole officer. He and his wife, Joy, have been together for over 20 years. They have teenage children, Duncan and Daria. They have been arguing today. Joy got a tad too friendly with a coworker during an office Christmas party. Their arguing and Joy’s indiscretion may not bode well for them.

A trucker, Tucker Jenks had planned on visiting his sister in Cranford, New Jersey on his way to drop off electronics in Manchester before the storm. Trucker’s friend in northern New Hampshire is letting him stay with him instead, if he can make it there. He smokes a joint but he also loved his Nana, so his chances of survival are fair.

Dean Hagen flew in from Alaska after his mother called to tell him his father was in the ICU after slipping on ice and cracking his hip so he gets brownie points for that. However, he’d “been on a consulting assignment for the past two months there, winnowing out the expendable employees at a manufacturing plant.” The Christmas misery he’s dealt to others may attract some bad karma.

Graham Sawyer picked up his best friend, Clark Brooks, at Boston’s Logan airport. Graham’s wife, Natalie, had wanted Clark to take the bus instead and Graham probably should have listened to her. She’s waiting at home for him with their three daughters. Clark is a divorce attorney from Emeryville, California. They have the potential to be this story’s heroes but not all heroes survive.

Kirk Britton and his girlfriend, Sonya Tackett, are college students with one semester left before graduation. They’re on their way to Sonya’s parents’ home for the holidays. Kirk has a surprise planned for Sonya on Christmas morning but given the horror lore surrounding people who have sex, they’re probably both toast.

Shelby Wallace wasn’t supposed to be driving her two children home from their father’s but he’s drunk. Again. So Shelby is driving Luke (8) and Macey (10) home to spend Christmas with her. Shelby is comfortable in her damsel in distress routine and Macey is kinda whingey so I wasn’t overly attached to their survival. However, I liked Luke; he’s determined and willing to do what he can to be brave in really scary situations.

Werner and Francine Volkmann have been around the country in their RV visiting relatives. They planned to see grandchildren in New Hampshire for Christmas but were behind schedule, so they’re joining the other potential popsicles on the highway.

Finally, Lewis Felker spent Christmas Eve freezing outside a department store ringing his Salvation Army bell, collecting donations. Sure, he stole some of the money to finance his alcoholism but in theory all of that alcohol in his bloodstream should keep him slightly warmer than everyone else. He’s also the one who seems to figure out how dire everyone’s situation is first so maybe he has a chance after all.

I had fun reading this book. I expected more bloodshed and less background information about all of the characters although, to be fair, the relevance of the details of their worst winter memories became apparent as the story unfolded. The reasoning behind why this was happening to this specific group of people seemed a bit flimsy to me but the images of those snowmen helped distract me from most of my lingering questions.

[No, this toothy guy doesn’t line up with the descriptions in the book but I loved him and wanted to share him with you.]

“Things aren’t always what they seem to be.”

The two main questions that are still nagging me:

  1. Why is a Christmas horror story being released in January?

2. What was inside the box in Tucker’s truck?

“Will Santa still come if we’re not home in time?”

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide and alcoholism.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Flame Tree Press for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A group of motorists become stranded on a lonely stretch of highway during a Christmas Eve blizzard and fight for survival against an unnatural force in the storm. The gathered survivors realise a tenuous connection among them means it may not be a coincidence that they all ended up on this highway.

An attempt to seek help leads a few of the travellers to a house in the woods where a twisted toymaker with a mystical snow globe is hell bent on playing deadly games with a group of people just trying to get home for the holidays. 

Friday the 13th, Camp Crystal Lake #3: The Carnival – Eric Morse

Spoilers Ahead!

I’ve been waiting and waiting and Friday the 13th is finally here again!

You know what that means! It’s time to spend some quality time with Jason.

Except Jason’s a no show. Apparently he’s still enjoying his slaycation in hell because he doesn’t even make a cameo in this book.

His mask is still at Camp Crystal Lake though, ready for the next set of victims to arrive.

During the first two books we got to know the Boone family. Billy and his friends participated in Camp Crystal Lake’s Mother’s Day massacre. Then Kelly, Billy’s sister, decided it was her turn to experience all of the bloody fun she missed out on the year before. No Boone’s were harmed in the making of this book, although that may just be because there aren’t any left.

Vince Fantana’s Travelling Fun House and Carnival has come to Crystal Lake for the weekend of “the July Fourth blowout”. That probably should have been my first clue that I wasn’t going to enjoy this book as much as the first two in the series. A Crystal Lake massacre that occurs on a day other than Friday the 13th? Sacrilege!

I’m not sure what bright spark thought it was a good idea to set up a carnival on the grounds of Camp Crystal Lake, where the land is most likely still squishy with the blood of the most recent massacre. It’s a good thing sleazeball Vince surrounds his carnival with an electric fence, because that’s not a recipe for disaster or anything.

Some of the carnies who may not live to tell the tale are:

Mitch Deevers – Mitch is in his late 20’s and is the creepy chief mechanic for the carnival. He has tattoos of snakes and the names of all of his conquests on his arms.

Stump – Mitch’s rottweiler. Mitch chopped off his dog’s tail for some reason; hence the name.

Helen, AKA, Madame Xaviera – the carnival’s fortune teller.

Selena Tokar – Helen’s 17 year old daughter.

Molly Meecham – the carnival nurse and the freak show’s “Fat Lady”.

I also wouldn’t place bets on Stu, Karl, Big Joe, Peg O’Neill or Moe the clown living long enough to enjoy the midnight fireworks. I definitely wasn’t a fan of one of the carnies being referred to as a ”midget”.

Attending the carnival on this fateful night are a small group from Holloway, Massachusetts, which is only 30 miles from Crystal Lake. I mention its proximity as it’s close enough for them to have heard all about Camp Crystal Lake on the grapevine. They should know better than to tempt fate.

Our main character, who you will definitely not want to be a final girl, is Maxi (Maxine, but don’t call her that) Wagner. An only child with a troubled home life, Maxi is a shoplifter, hitchhiker and was caught smoking dope at school, which is why she’s a year older than the rest of her class. She’s angry and mean, and I’m not entirely sure why she still has any friends, given the way she treats them. She’s not a virgin so, if Horror 101 has taught us anything, she probably won’t survive.

Maxi is 17, tall, thin and beautiful, with “long legs that seemed to go all the way up to her head.” Of course, every time I imagine this potential victim running away from the killer I see this in my head:

Wendy (Wens) Denberg is 16, short and not pretty. That’s almost all that I know about her.

KC (Katherine Carter) is 16 and is sweet and polite. She’s a virgin and considers ‘sleazeball’ a swear word so you’d think she’d be safe, but going to the carnival was initially her idea so her virginity may not save her.

Greg Dillon is a senior from Hawthorn. His parents died in a car accident the day after his 13th birthday so in theory it would be cruel to kill him off. However, he has a huge crush on Maxi so his judgement is not the best. That may be his downfall.

All of these potential corpses have been attending summer school. Graham Newton, who’s 26 and British, goes to the carnival with the three girls. He’s their summer school English teacher. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Also ripe for the picking are Bernard LeBlatt (12), Nick Harris (13) and the Barfield family – James, Mrs (the poor woman doesn’t have a first name) and their three year old son, Bobby.

Liberties really are being taken with this series now. It’s Friday the 13th adjacent at best. While it was still an okay read I was disappointed overall. It takes a while for the action to begin. Early on we have our first casualty, a bug, but then we have to wait until 45% before the human carnage commences. RIP, little bug. Oh, and a rodent dies as well.

The most detailed death scenes seemed to be reserved for minor characters and I only learned of the demise of some of the main characters after the fact. The mask has retained its magical powers from the first two books; tattoos are also magic in this book.

The killer was a huge letdown for me. They couldn’t even take credit for a good portion of the kills. Instead the rides, which are essentially possessed by the invisible evil vapour that’s supposedly wafting up from the ground, and the electric fence are responsible for the most interesting ones.

From the a woman most likely wouldn’t have written this about a 17 year old schoolgirl files: “Naked, she was sitting on the edge of her bed, pressing a cold can of beer against her forehead.” When said 17 year old schoolgirl is in a bad mood it automatically means she must be getting her period. Naturally! There couldn’t be any other reason.

I’m hoping my next Friday the 13th read will be worth the wait.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Four teenagers looking for fun and thrills to break up the boredom of summer school get more than they had bargained for when they visit a traveling carnival that has pitched its tents at the old Crystal Lake campgrounds.

Halloween Carnival Volume 4 – Brian James Freeman (editor)

Yes, I know Halloween is over but when you’re into horror every day can be Halloween! I did begin this volume in early October but because I didn’t love any of the stories it’s been a bit of a slog to finish it.

Mannequin Challenge by Kealan Patrick Burke – 🎃🎃🎃

Theo is mentally preparing himself to attend the office Halloween party. As an introvert I can definitely relate to his reticence, especially considering he’s an outsider and there’s going to be a mannequin challenge. I was surprised by Theo’s response to the mannequin challenge (we certainly differ in that respect). I wish there had been an explanation, however brief, of how the mannequin challenge worked the way it did.

Death stood by the photocopy machine, a drink raised to its bony mouth.

Across the Tracks by Ray Garton – 🎃🎃🎃

Kenny, Sam and JayJay are from the wrong side of the tracks. The good candy can be found across the tracks in the affluent part of town so that’s where they are trick-or-treating. Unfortunately a bully and his minions are also there, but encountering them isn’t the weirdest thing to happen that night. The descriptions of the bullying were quite graphic and the story ended abruptly. Although I don’t mind some ambiguity, the main event takes place off page and that’s the part I wanted to be able to see. I didn’t get any of the answers I was seeking.

Since they had first encountered him in grammar school, Ed Mortimer had been a permanent part of their lives, a human animatronic Halloween yard decoration that could jump out of the dark at them at any time, all year long.

The Halloween Tree by Bev Vincent – 🎃🎃

Luke and his friends are going trick or treating tonight and for Luke this means he’ll need to face one of the scariest things in his life – the tree on the corner. Luke is convinced this particular tree is alive and scheming against him. Unfortunately I didn’t find this story scary at all.

In that moment it looked like a giant ogre, with arms upraised and outstretched, ready to wrap them up in a crushing embrace, impaling their bodies with spiny talons six feet long.

Pumpkin Eater by C.A. Suleiman – 🎃🎃🎃

Peter loves Halloween but his wife Marlene doesn’t. He chooses this night to fix his marital problems, once and for all. This was a predictable story.

She had no idea that he knew. No idea the price she would have to pay.

When the Leaves Fall by Paul Melniczek – 🎃🎃🎃

In Haverville there’s one farm that no one ever talks about. Signs surrounding the farm warn trespassers to stay away. One Halloween night, Chris and his best friend Kyle decide to find out what’s really going on at Graver’s Farm. Neither will ever be the same. This was the longest story in this collection. With the amount of build up I expected more answers than I found.

Nightfall was coming swiftly, carrying the seeds of slumber. And also the batwings of nightmare.

I’ve now read four of the five volumes in this series and this is my least favourite so far. I’m disappointed that I don’t have a favourite story in this volume. I’m also not keen to reread any of them.

Content warnings include assault, bullying, mention of suicide, sexual assault and slavery.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Hydra, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Kealan Patrick Burke, Ray Garton, Bev Vincent, C. A. Suleiman, and Paul Melniczek treat readers to some spooky tricks with a hair-raising assemblage of tales gathered together by author, editor, and master of the macabre Brian James Freeman.

THE MANNEQUIN CHALLENGE by Kealan Patrick Burke
For some, office parties are the highlight of the season. For others, they can paralyze with dread. Theo is determined not to let his anxiety stop him from attending—though maybe he’s right to be afraid.

ACROSS THE TRACKS by Ray Garton
The candy’s always better on the other side of town, even if it means crossing paths with bullies. But a rich house with an unlocked door might just be too good to be true …

THE HALLOWEEN TREE by Bev Vincent
Every town has one: a house or a field or an old tree that just gives off a bad vibe. Of course, those feelings are just silly superstition, nothing to take seriously. Right?

PUMPKIN EATER by C. A. Suleiman
Peter loves Halloween – almost as much as he hates his wife. Luckily, his favourite holiday presents an opportunity to fix his problem. After all, putting his wife in her place should be as easy as pie.

WHEN THE LEAVES FALL by Paul Melniczek
Haverville always seemed like a typical town to me: a place where people work hard, and no one ever really leaves. Until the night I went to Graver’s Farm – and discovered what Haverwille was really hiding. 

The Poor and the Haunted – Dustin McKissen

Spoilers Ahead!

It was terrifying to know nightmares didn’t wait for the sun to fade – or for sleep to come.

Jimmy and Kelly knew fear and uncertainty from a young age. Their parents fought regularly and violently, drank excessively and abused drugs. Living in poverty and neglected, Jimmy did whatever he could to protect his younger sister. When their father dies by suicide, their mother becomes increasingly abusive.

In the Lansford home, normal was not an option, and Jimmy faced two choices: Let life eat him and Kelly alive, or shoulder more of the burden than any child should.

Although he remains haunted by his childhood, Jimmy’s adult life is outwardly normal. He has a nice home, is employed and has a loving wife and children. Jimmy does everything he can to ensure his children never experience anything approximating what he and his sister did when they were children.

Things change, and not always for the better.

Jimmy’s daughter is now the same age his sister was when their father died and Jimmy’s carefully constructed world is coming undone. He begins to experience things he can’t explain as painful memories resurface.

As this book was marketed as horror I expected to encounter lots of things that go bump in the night. Although there are supernatural elements to this story that I won’t explain because that would take us into spoiler territory, the main horror I experienced was as a result of more natural (if you can call them that) occurrences.

Child abuse is its own horror and when you consider the legacy of childhood trauma, its impacts on the person who has experienced it and by association everyone who loves them, that’s true horror right there.

PTSD and survivor’s guilt are explored in this book. Because the impacts of these are so pervasive it became difficult to distinguish whether specific events in this book were supernatural in origin or a symptom of one or both of these. This could irritate me in different circumstances but here it made me feel like I was getting a glimpse of what Jimmy was experiencing. I did wonder whether some of Jimmy’s experiences were dissociative in nature; another explanation was provided but I could make the case for both possibilities.

Given some of the content of this book I expected to feel sad and hopeless overall but there was some light pushing back the shadows. Jimmy’s bond with his sister and his repeated attempts to protect her from the harshness of their lives was heartwarming. Detective Mike Carlisle, the only responsible adult in the Lansford kids’ lives, was someone I looked forward to spending time with. He modelled unconditional love and was a positive role model, particularly for Jimmy, whose life could have been vastly different without his influence.

I was left with a couple of unanswered questions. I still don’t understand why Jimmy’s daughter bit his neck. I know his sister did that to their father but I would have thought, if this was Kelly’s influence, she would have chosen a shared memory that was less violent to get her message across. Also, if Kelly had the ability to leave a handprint then couldn’t she find a way to let her brother know it was her? Cliché or not, it doesn’t seem far fetched to me that she could have written a message on a foggy bathroom mirror or something similar.

Pop culture and this book: There were plenty of references to TV series, including Friends and Stranger Things, and music, in particular Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time. (I love that song!) However, there were so many references to Stephen King’s stories that I made a list. Keep in mind that I am by no means an expert on the King-dom so I expect some references flew straight over my head. Having said that, here’s what I found:

  • Jimmy stays in hotel room 237
  • The dairy farm the family lived on for a while is owned by the Torrance family and it’s located on Torrance Road
  • The ice cream shop is called Derry’s
  • There’s mention of “the neighborhood Cujo”
  • Jimmy’s daughter watches IT.

If you read this book and find references to anything Stephen King related that I’ve missed, please feel free to let me know.

Content warnings include child abuse, death by suicide, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mention of torture of animals and self harm.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Black Rose Writing for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

As a child Jimmy Lansford and his sister Kelly suffered crushing poverty, their father’s unexplained and frightening suicide, and their mother’s constant abuse and cruelty. Having grown to be a successful adult, Jimmy must contend with the sudden re-emergence of memories from his childhood in Oklahoma and unexplainable events occurring inside his own home. Is it more than memories that haunt Jimmy? Did his parents suffer from mental illness and addiction, or were they possessed by something even worse – and has that presence arrived to take Jimmy?

The first horror novel from acclaimed author and journalist Dustin McKissen explores the nature of hauntings, the ghosts from our past that haunt our present, and the unbreakable bond between siblings who learn early on they can only rely on each other.