A classic ghost tale in the Gothic tradition. The protagonist becomes obsessed with the romantic legend of a ghost said to haunt Arlen Hall, and will stop at nothing to meet the specter face-to-face. But, as the cover says, be careful what you wish for…

Speaking of covers, I know we’re not supposed to judge books by them, but simply considered as a standalone artwork, is not that cover perfect? It’s practically a story in itself.

This is a super-short book; easy to read in one sitting, but it’s still highly enjoyable all the same, and a good introduction to Painter’s dark, often ironic sense of humor. Just don’t expect a sprawling novel; this is a more of a quick sketch.

As I write this review, there’s a debate raging on Twitter about whether a traditional mystery story can have supernatural elements. (The word “traditional” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.) This book is a good example of how a story can include the supernatural, yet still be resolved in a logical and consistent manner.

My suggestion is to pick this one up along with some other short Halloween stories, and read all of them on one of these dark October evenings, when the wind is howling and the leaves are rustling, and the rain is lashing at the windows, and there are strange lights in the mist but you can’t remember the neighbors putting out any decorations yet…

This is a dark paranormal thriller. I don’t want to say too much about the plot. Just think Rosemary’s Baby meets The X-Files. It tells the story of Moire Anders, a woman who finds herself waking up in the middle of the night in the park, with no memory of how she got there. Eventually, trying to figure out what is happening leads her to uncovering a sinister conspiracy, of which she is the primary target.

Anyone who enjoys a good, creepy mystery will probably like this. There are some pretty disturbing elements, which I can’t discuss too deeply without giving away plot elements, but if you’re accustomed to stories like those I mentioned above, you probably can guess what’s coming.

In other words, this is definitely a departure in tone from Painter’s other books, which tend to be light-hearted fantasies. It’s a significant enough difference that the ebook is only available via the author’s Payhip website, and not on other sites that recommend through algorithms. (A paperback version is available through Amazon.)

I understand this decision, from the author’s perspective. One doesn’t want readers who are used to magical comedies seeing a book by the same author and being unwittingly plunged into a world of sinister scientists conducting fiendish experiments on unsuspecting and unwilling people.

At the same time, though… this is something about the modern entertainment market that bothers me. It rewards taking the safe path, putting out similar stories again and again, rather than risk-taking. Painter has decided to boldly experiment in her fiction, but the market is against her.

Therefore, we will just have to adjust the market and change the incentives. So! If you like eerie, mysterious thrillers with some strong horror elements, and in particular if you enjoyed X-Files (or better yet, the old Coast-to-Coast AM radio show), give this a spin. A quirky comedy, it most certainly ain’t, but it’s a good, creepy story all the same.

I saw this in Lydia Schoch’s weekly list of free books a while back, and I just had to give it a try. Look at that cover! How cool is that?

Well, as great as it is, the book is even better. It begins by telling the story of Lord Oisin, who fought to avenge the raiding of his town by a bandit known as Cumhil.

Fast forward a few centuries, to the 1780s, when a disillusioned British soldier returning from the war in America finds himself billeted in Cahir Mullach, the castle of Lord Oisin. And on All Hallows’ Eve, no less!

You all probably know that I love Halloween, but you may not know that I also love the American Revolutionary period and everything associated with it. The way Callahan portrays the British infantrymen here really grabbed me: Corporal Michael Snodgrass is a brave man, who witnessed many terrible things in a futile war against the rebelling colonists. Rather than the common American conception of British soldiers as sneering, inhuman, “imperial stormtroopers with muskets,” Snodgrass is depicted as a real person, with an essentially good heart turned bitter by the war, and suffering from what we in modern times would call PTSD.

The other characters are great too: from the kindly priest of the town of Baile, to the greedy, conniving landlord plotting to evict the town’s populace, to the mysterious old woman who, despite the Catholicism of the era, has not forgotten the pagan knowledge of older times.

How it all ties together, I won’t say, but it’s in the great old tradition of stories about spirits meting out justice for old wrongs. It’s true, after a certain point I knew where it was going, but that’s not a bad thing, because I enjoyed every minute of the ride. What I liked best was how the characters grew over the course of the story.

And the atmosphere! Did I mention it’s Halloween? In Ireland? It simply doesn’t get much more Halloween-y than a thick fog late at night, on some lonely trail, ghostly voices whispering in the dark, and then, suddenly, a castle, looming out of the mists!

I thought about waiting to review this book until October, but I couldn’t. It’s too good; I had to tell you all about it immediately. Buy it now, and save it for a chilly Autumn evening, and then let yourself be drawn into Callahan’s marvelous tale of the horrors of war, of ghostly vengeance, of Pagan mysteries and Christian charity, and most of all, of redemption and healing.

This short story collection came recommended to me by Lorinda J. Taylor, so I knew going in it would be good. And it lived up to my expectations. The stories are all weird, unsettling, at times disturbing, at other times very funny. In short, an excellent blend of moods.

Each story is based on a famous painting, including works by Chagall, Picasso, and others. A neat concept which leads in interesting directions, and allows for new interpretations of famous pieces.

My favorite story in the collection was probably “The Gift,” which is a classic tale of a vengeful spirit, a concept that I love. I also greatly enjoyed the story from which the collection takes its name, a disturbing blend of sci-fi and horror that evoked A.C. Flory’s Vokhtah in its detailed portrayal of an utterly alien society. “Corden’s Coral Phase” was also a highlight, with the entertaining banter between its characters gradually revealing their personalities.

The description of this collection on Goodreads says, “If you like authors such as Philip K Dick, Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury, P.G. Wodehouse, Annie Proulx and Franz Kafka, then Crow Bones is the anthology for you.”

I can definitely see the influence of Poe and Bradbury. (To be clear, I’m talking Bradbury at his best, i.e. Something Wicked This Way Comes.) I didn’t pick up the Wodehouse influence so much, maybe because the subject matter, even when it is humorous, is more off-kilter than “Plum” would usually do. But it is well-written, and to that lineup above I would add two more names that it brought to my mind: Harlan Ellison and Ambrose Bierce. It has that same dark mood that characterized their works, and frequently the sardonic edge as well.

These stories are probably not for everyone, as their grimmer elements may deter some readers. But if you like dark, weird fiction, and the fact that you’re reading this blog is a strong indication that you probably do, then you should absolutely check it out.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a sci-fi horror novella. The setting is a ship on a deep space voyage, which is temporarily knocked off course by a collision with an asteroid.

I can’t say too much more about the plot, because this is a short book, and if I say much, I’ll spoil everything. All I’ll say is if you enjoy stories like Who Goes There? or Alien, you’ll enjoy this one.

What I want to talk about instead are the setting and the characters. Especially one character, Sage, a scientist whose knowledge of chemistry becomes very important in the second half of the story. Despite her brilliance, she’s rather prickly and a little paranoid. (The latter quality ultimately serves her well.)

Nor can I blame her, because there are aspects of the society on the ship that are somewhat creepy. There is an A.I. that is designed to keep the peace among the crew members. One of the ways it does this is by deploying drones that fine people for displays of anger, including even very mild profanity.

I expected this would play a bigger part in the story, although it sort of disappears (for logical reasons) about halfway through. But I would be curious to see this aspect of society on the ship explored in more detail.

All in all, this is a good scary story that blends the science-fiction and the horror elements well and builds to a satisfying conclusion.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Normally, I’d hold off on reviewing a ghost story until October rolls around. But I read this after Lydia Schoch recommended it, and it was so good I couldn’t wait to share it with you all.

The book is about a man named Peter, a World War II veteran who is an expert on retouching photos. He is hired to fix a photo of a group of World War I soldiers which has a peculiarly smudged figure in it. In the process of what proves to be a difficult and frustrating procedure, Peter begins having disturbing dreams. As he already suffers from PTSD, flashbacks and nightmares are nothing new for Peter, but these are different. They depict scenes from the Great War, and gradually begin to turn into something very, very real.

What follows is a marvelously written story of betrayal and revenge. There are two distinct narrative voices: Peter, and the author of certain documents from World War I that he discovers. Both of them fit their respective time periods perfectly. The story is very short, but at no point feels rushed. It has a well-paced narrative arc that culminates in a very satisfying conclusion.

The book’s description says it is “a short ghost story in the M.R. James tradition,” and yes, it absolutely is. This is a perfect story to read around a campfire or on a dark, rainy night. If you enjoy ghost stories at all, this is a must-read.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

This is the third book in the “His Name Was Zach” series. Be warned, I can’t really talk about what happens in it without spoiling aspects of the first two books.

After helping to inspire a revolution against a tyrannical government, Abby, our protagonist, has retreated into the desert, living alone with only her guilt and trauma. But when the new President summons her back on a mission to scout out the zombie-ravaged American midwest, she takes it, as a chance to finally confront many of her demons.

So Abby, along with her boyfriend Hiamovi and a squad of marines, head out into The Wild, and Abby retraces the steps she took in the previous books in the series, confronting old adversaries and painful memories.

The story is structured explicitly as a quest, and that’s really what it feels like; a band of modern-day knights on an epic journey. Eventually, Abby and the others reach their objective: Chicago, which is doing surprisingly well considering it was the epicenter of the zombie outbreak, and even more when it turns out to be managed by none other than Edmund, a murderous gangster from the first book.

Edmund really is a fascinating character. Read what I said about him in my review of the first book, now imagine such a personality in charge of a whole city. He’s basically a Caesar; and not a good one. He’s much more of a Commodus than a Marcus Aurelius, right down to the gladiatorial matches.

There’s a lot more I could say about Edmund, but it would fall into spoiler territory. Maybe someday, after this series has become a best-seller and everyone has read it, I’ll come back and write a whole essay about this character and what I think he represents. (This is another strange feeling for me; I never think characters represent things. And yet, while I was reading the story, the thought came to me, unbidden, that… well, never mind!)

As noted above, the real core of the book is Abby confronting her demons, including both things that were done to her and things that she did. In that regard, the book reminded me of one of my favorite works of fiction: Knights of the Old Republic II. C’mon, it’s been a while since I brought that up; did you think I could hold off forever? As you’ve probably heard me say a thousand times, it’s a story about a veteran soldier confronting all the horrors of their past. (Or maybe you haven’t heard me say it, in which case you can do so here if you’re so inclined.) It’s a powerful theme for any epic story, and Their Names Were Many is a marvelous take on it.

Abby faces a number of terrifying enemies during her journey. Besides Edmund, you’ve got the mad preacher Isaiah, who has only gotten crazier since we last saw him. Not to mention the zombie hordes that still roam The Wild.

But none of them are the primary antagonist; not even Edmund. No, that role is played by someone else; a truly terrifying being, and Abby’s final confrontation with this… entity… is the most intense scene in the whole series. Not least because of where it takes place.

Taken as a whole, the series went in a very different direction than I expected when I first picked up His Name Was Zach, and I was really impressed by how it evolved. I thought it would be a fairly ho-hum zombie apocalypse tale, but what it became was something much bigger, much more unique, and altogether more memorable. When I first discovered the author’s blog, I remember seeing he was influenced by Tolkien. Which surprised me at first. Why would a fan of a High Fantasy epic be writing a Military Zombie-Apocalypse Dystopia? But in the end, I saw a lot of Tolkien-esque ideas throughout the series, from the smallest things to some of the major themes. Another essay, perhaps, for after these books get famous.

Although the series goes to some dark, dark places, its theme is ultimately an uplifting one, and I’m really glad I read it. I’m sure I’ll remember it for a long, long time.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is the third book in the Benjamin Oris series. I’ve reviewed the previous installments here and here. If you haven’t read those books yet, be warned that there are certain plot elements of this I can’t discuss without giving away information about the earlier books.

The Bone Elixir begins when Ben Oris learns he has inherited a hotel from his great aunt Clara. Ben, who has his hands full with raising his son and working as an orthopedic surgeon, hardly needs this; but over his holiday break, he decides to go check the place out.

The Abigael Inn is a venerable old building in western Massachusetts. As it’s closed for the season, initially the only people there are Ben, the hotel manager Mandy, and her young son, Jake. But as Ben makes the rounds of his new property, he begins to find things like hidden rooms, containing very old books of unsettling legends and fairy tales. Among these are handwritten notes and demonic drawings. There is also a mysterious room in the basement that adds to the feeling of unease.

Soon, Ben’s grandparents, Frederick and Elizabeth “El” Claxwell arrive. They are a charming couple, and delighted to meet their grandson, from whom they had been long separated due to their estrangement with Ben’s mother, Harmony. Despite Ben’s reluctance, they encourage him to keep the hotel in the family.

And Ben finds part of himself wanting to as well, since it’s certainly a picturesque old place, and once his lover Laurette arrives to spend the week with him, it becomes in many respects very pleasant.

Still, there are odd things. People in the nearby town regard the place with suspicion, particularly a local bookshop owner and the town mystic. The latter is an eccentric woman mockingly dubbed “Ana Bananas,” but nevertheless her warnings about the hotel set Ben on edge.

That’s the setup. From there, let me just say it’s a good old-fashioned Gothic horror story, full of family secrets, ghosts, long-concealed crimes, and nightmarish horrors from realms unknown and unknowable. In the tradition of any good haunted house story, it’s slower paced than the first two books, which moved at breakneck speed. This one is more of a gnawing dread that gradually builds to a crescendo.

It’s probably just because of my love for Gothic horror, but this is definitely my favorite book in the series. It reminded me of some of the best Lovecraft stories, particularly “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” It’s creepy and atmospheric and full of good lines. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Rubin has a Chandleresque gift for turning a phrase. For example: “His new role as her boss fit about as well as Spanx on a horse.” Now isn’t that a vivid image?

I recommend the entire Ben Oris series, and this book is a perfect capstone to it. That said, you don’t have to read the whole series to enjoy this one, I don’t think. Or maybe that’s just because we’re so close to October 31st, and this, in my opinion, is such a perfect Halloween read, I think everyone should give it a try. I read it in one day, because I couldn’t put it down once I started. So, if you get it at the time this post is published and your schedule allows, you should be able to finish by Halloween, and if you do, I think you’ll be in the right mood for the holiday.

[Audio version of this review available below]

It’s not easy to categorize this book into one genre. It has historical fiction, horror and psychological thriller elements. The book begins with a couple, Michelle and Tom Cleveland, moving into their new home in South Africa. For a housewarming party, they play with a Ouija board. Soon after, strange things begin to happen to Michelle, and she realizes she and her husband are being haunted by a poltergeist.

The vengeful spirit is named Estelle, a young woman who died in the aftermath of the Second Boer War. Along with her, the house is also haunted by the shades of Estelle’s father, Pieter, a Boer farmer turned soldier, and Robert, a British officer. These two ghosts are not malicious, but all three are intertwined in tragic ways due to the war.

And this is where the historical fiction part comes in: much of the book is told in flashbacks, showing Estelle’s, Pieter’s, and Robert’s experiences in life. As someone who has only very slight knowledge of this period, these passages were fascinating to me, bringing a semi-forgotten time vividly to life.

And believe you me, the Second Boer War was brutal. Did you know that’s when the term “concentration camp” originated?  After pursuing a merciless “scorched earth” policy, the British sent their captives to camps, where disease and starvation were rampant.

The book spares no detail in describing the horrors of war and its after-effects. Some passages are so poignant and disturbing they are hard to read. It’s easy to see how Estelle’s spirit came to be so bitter and vengeful.

Meanwhile, in the modern day, Michelle works to piece together the story of the three ghosts. She comes to realize that Estelle has her reasons for choosing to haunt her and her husband, as Tom has dark secrets in his own past.

I won’t spoil how it all ends up. The best way I can say it is to say it’s a story full of horror and forgiveness. Forgiveness is a major theme in the story. Though, come to think on it, I think there are some things that shouldn’t be forgiven.

Yes, that’s right; I’m very sympathetic to many of ghost-Estelle’s arguments, demonic though she may be. I won’t say any more, just that I think the reader will have to decide for themselves whether certain characters can be forgiven for their actions.

Maybe this is a good time to bring up trigger warnings. I don’t always do those, just because it’s tough to know what may be upsetting to different people, but in this case, it’s not hard to guess. Pretty much every disturbing thing you can think of happens here. It’s a book about war, and war is a brutal business, and every kind of trauma is referenced here. This is not for the faint of heart, by any stretch. If you want to know more, email or DM me.

If you’re fascinated by history, as I am, then this will be an excellent introduction to the Boer War Era. I’ve been trying to learn more about the period, which is why this is the second Boer War-based novel I’ve read this year. (Curiously, that book was also about forgiveness.) It’s an unsparing, brutal take on it, that depicts the British Empire’s attempt to seize the resources of the Transvaal as a bloodthirsty conquest. While some low-ranking British soldiers and officers, such as Robert, are portrayed sympathetically, the overall picture of people like Lord Kitchener and other high-ranking officials is very harsh.

The whole thing feels very grim and depressing. Mindless violence and cruelty perpetrated for an empire that no longer exists. Once, while researching the Boer War, I came across a song about it by a singer named John Edmond. The song title and refrain is “What In The Hell Was It For?” This echoed in my head repeatedly reading this. It really is that dark, but it’s to the author’s credit that it feels so real and immediate.

As for the supernatural horror element, I liked how it mostly lurks in the background of the story, only to periodically explode in moments of intense terror. It’s used sparingly, but packs a punch when it needs to.

A few technical notes: first, the book is told in the present tense, which may be off-putting to some readers. It felt odd to me at first, but I got used to it. Second, on the Kindle version, there were a few places where the font-size changes abruptly. I think this is due to the smaller font for the footnotes spilling over into the main text. It may also be a function of my using a very old version of the app.

There were a handful of typos. But we indie authors are all used to that sort of thing and know how hard they are to get rid of, and this is a long book, which just makes it harder. It didn’t bother me overmuch.

The last thing is a stylistic point: the dialogue is not naturalistic. It felt to me more like lines from an opera than dialogue from a novel. Now, there are certainly many different ways of handling dialogue, none of which appeals to everyone. It’s just that at times, it seemed a little too “formal” to me, if that makes sense. However, that may not be everyone’s impression, so don’t let that put you off checking it out.

This is a really moving, poignant book, and it’s clear the author did a huge amount of research for the Boer War setting, and the supernatural elements linking it with the “modern” part of the story were ingenious. You have to be in the right frame of mind for it, but if you are, I recommend it.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is military sci-fi blended with horror. It has a bit of Starship Troopers, a bit of Doom, a bit of Aliens, and is altogether an intense experience. It’s a short story, only about a 20 minute read, but is it ever action-packed.

The main character is Lyn, a mercenary who is part of a team trying to evacuate colonists from the titular planet. The planet has come under attack by creatures known as “Clickers”. Demonic, sadistic entites that are also very difficult to kill, they leave death and devestation in their wake.

Lyn tries her best to rescue as many colonists as she can, but the fight is hopeless, and soon, becomes a struggle just to survive. Lyn does, but at a heavy price. And eventually, it becomes clear the Clickers are not her only enemy.

The book is fast-paced, dark, and brutal. There are no happy endings here; more of a grim kind of satisfaction. It’s creepy, violent, and dark. Everything a good sci-fi horror story should be, in other words.