Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Final Women by Pardeep Aujla

The Final Women by Pardeep Aujla. Highly Reccomended. Read if you like final girl support group, older heroines.

Formats: Digital

Publisher: Self-Published

Genre: Demon, Killer/Slasher, Occult

Audience: Adult/Mature

Diversity: Black main character, Latina main character, Vietnamese main character, lesbian main character

Content Warnings: Alcohol Abuse, Amputation, Bullying, Death, Drug Use/Abuse, Gore, Homophobia, Mental Illness, Racism, Self-Harm, Sexism, Suicide, Verbal/Emotional Abuse, Violence (Highlight to view)

The mass murdering Phantom of Haven Cove is dead. For the one who killed him, however, life has never been the same.

How do you return to normality after facing such a monster? How do you live when consumed by guilt, anger, fear, and denial? How do you connect with others when no one understands what you’ve been through?

But there are others... Final girls of their own Haven Cove massacres. And now, thirty years later, they must all face a new question...

What do you do when the killer returns?

I received this product for free in return for providing an honest and unbiased review. I received no other compensation. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

What happens when final girls grow up? It depends how they deal with the trauma of what happened to them the night they faced off with the masked killer, Silas Crowe. If you’re Nell James, you grow up to become a lonely and agoraphobic author who tries to turn the worst thing that ever happened to her-- watching her friends get murdered one by one--into financial gain. If you’re Josie Jedford, you numb your fear with drugs. Or you could become a paranoid survivalist like Ana Gómez who transforms her badly burned body into a living weapon. Even Cassie Phong, who seems to have the perfect life what with her wealthy husband and two children, can’t escape the PTSD she developed the night she faced off with Silas Crowe. Each woman has done her best to put the past behind them, believing Crowe to be dead once and for all. That is until Camp Haven Cove reopens and a new group of teenagers goes missing. Nell realizes that Silas Crowe never died, and never will unless she, and the other three former final girls find a way to deal with him once and for all. Now well into their forties the four final woman team up to put a stop to the killings once and for all.

Slasher heroines are almost exclusively young women: teens and twenty somethings with bare breasts and flat stomachs (they’re always conventionally attractive) enjoying the prime of their lives through sex, drugs and drinking. Any woman above the age of thirty is either a mother or a side character, and if she has a few gray hairs she’s relegated to the role of a frightful hag. But as nostalgia for horror of the 80’s and 90’s breathes new life into horror franchises, Hollywood is doing something new. Instead of rebooting and recasting their heroines, they’re allowing them to grow up from Final Girls into Final Women. Sidney Prescott (Scream), Laurie Strode (Halloween), and Sally Hardesty (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) all recently reprised their roles in their respective franchises as badass heroines over the age of forty. And as someone who will soon be saying goodbye to my thirties, it’s refreshing to see older women get their time in the slasher spotlight, and that’s one of the things I liked best about The Final Women.  Nell, Josie, Ana, and Cassie are all approaching fifty, but they all get to be the heroes of the story, and I found them much more relatable then horny, drunk teens in the woods. They’re also not written for the male gaze, which is refreshing.

Another thing I liked about the book was Aujla’s realistic depiction of PTSD. None of the women escaped Silas unscathed, they each bear their own physical and mental scars, as one would expect from anyone going up against a slasher. Nell displays avoidance of people and places that remind her of her traumatic event and might trigger a flashback. Cassie and Josie both develop substance abuse problems, alcohol and drugs respectively, a common comorbidity for people with PTSD. Ana is prone to angry outbursts and aggressive behavior and is hypervigilant. All the women struggle with nightmares and flashbacks. It’s refreshing to see a slasher actually deal with mental health and the aftermath of a traumatic event (something we’re starting to see in more recent film sequels). I genuinely cared about all the main characters, something that rarely happens in horror fiction, and I was scared to see any of them get hurt or killed. Aujla just writes them so well! It’s sweet to see these women from different walks of life bond and draw strength from each other.

The Final Women was fun in a way the best 80’s slashers are. Gory, over the top, and wickedly funny. I absolutely devoured it as I found both the story and the characters enthralling. It draws on classic horror tropes while still being wholly unique. If you’re a fan of slashers you’ll definitely want to check this one out. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

Hoodoo by Ronald Smith

Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith, Recommended. Read if you like Southern Gothics, Folk Magic, Family.

Formats: Print, audio, digital

Publisher: Clarion Books

Genre: Historic Horror, Demon, Occult, Myth and Folklore

Audience: Children

Diversity: BIPOC (Black, African American, Caribbean American)

Takes Place in: Alabama, USA

Content Warnings: Animal Death, Bullying, Child Endangerment, Death, Illness, Racism, Physical Abuse (highlight to view)

Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher was born into a family with a rich tradition of practicing folk magic: hoodoo, as most people call it. But even though his name is Hoodoo, he can't seem to cast a simple spell.        

Then a mysterious man called the Stranger comes to town, and Hoodoo starts dreaming of the dead rising from their graves. Even worse, he soon learns the Stranger is looking for a boy. Not just any boy. A boy named Hoodoo. The entire town is at risk from the Stranger’s black magic, and only Hoodoo can defeat him. He’ll just need to learn how to conjure first.        

Set amid the swamps, red soil, and sweltering heat of small town Alabama in the 1930s, Hoodoo is infused with a big dose of creepiness leavened with gentle humor.  

I really wanted to love this book. I really, really did. The cover art is dark and beautiful, the premise sounded right up my alley, the story is inspired by African-American folklore and oral traditions, the villain is genuinely creepy, the representation of Hoodoo feels authentic rather than sensationalized, and it's a historical novel with a Black main character that isn't about oppression and racism *gasp*. I was so hyped up for Hoodoo and ready to fall in love. And I will say, the ideas behind the story are great, I like the characters and I like the concept. The execution? Not so much.

Now Hoodoo  isn't a bad book by any stretch, and I think part of the issue may have been that this is a story intended for kids, and I probably would've loved it a lot more if I were a child. The other problem was that I had incredibly high expectations going in, which would be hard to live up to, and that's on me. It's also important to note that my lukewarm feelings toward the story also seem to be in the minority: other reviews I've read have all been glowing endorsements, so I'm probably just being a grumpy, nit-picking potato. I still recommend checking it out, especially for young readers who love spooky stuff, it just wasn't as amazing as I was hoping. I had a lot of issues with Hoodoo  that prevented me from enjoying the book as fully as I desired to.

For one thing, the pacing is all over the place. The villain doesn't get enough of a buildup before his big reveal, and the ending feels rushed while other scenes dragged on, especially in the beginning. Unnecessary details got more focus than I felt they deserved. It's a serious bummer when the final showdown between the villain and the hero is only a page or two long and he's defeated with so much ease. Instead of driving forward, the plot just kind of wandered around aimlessly until it got distracted by something shiny. Characters and ideas were introduced then abandoned, appearing for one or two scenes before vanishing into the plot hole from which they came, never to be heard from again. It's like Smith had written this long, epic story, but had to cut the book down to fit in a 200-page kids book, and he just randomly chose what to remove in last minute panic.

It's annoying that otherwise interesting characters are reduced to one-scene wonders, but it's even more annoying that their sole function is to drop solutions in Hoodoo 's lap any time he encounters an obstacle. This greatly minimizes the sense of danger, because every problem seems to get solved (whether for better or worse) almost immediately. Too bad the Fellowship of the Ring didn't have this kid, it'd probably cut their travel time in half, Sean Bean might still be alive, and Sauron would've been taken out with one punch. I get that Deus Ex Machina is par for the course with these kinds of stories, but at least pretend the hero might not make it by building the suspense a little, or making them really work for a solution. It's hard to feel like there's anything at stake when a random talking crow or another seemingly random character swoops in to save the day without Hoodoo having to do much on his end. I guess that's why he keeps stubbornly refusing his family's help like a jerk, because his magic causes everything to just work out with minimal effort. At least, that's what I assume it does since it's never really explained how Hoodoo's powers work other than some really vague hints.

Hoodoo can also be a pretty vexing narrator. He has a habit of defining random words and then ending his sentence with "If you didn't know". I know this is probably the most random, arbitrary nitpick, but while it was only mildly irritating the first half-dozen times, by the third chapter I could barely suppress my urge to scream and punch something every time Hoo Doo felt like he had to explain what Molasses or an Outhouse was, then end the sentence with "if you didn't know". I KNOW WHAT AN OUTHOUSE IS GET ON WITH THE STORY BEFORE I THROW YOU IN ONE. I get that the book is for kids, and they may not know what cracklin' is, but I'm pretty sure most children who are capable of reading a chapter book are also able to perform a basic Google search or use a dictionary. And that's assuming they can't just figure out a word from context. I didn't know what "Squirrel Nut Zippers" were before reading this (ironically the one thing Hoodoo didn't feel like explaining) but I was still able to discern that he was talking about a sweet and not the swing band based on the context. And then I Googled it and learned that Squirrel Nut Zippers are a vanilla flavored caramel candy mixed with[HA1]  peanuts. So now I know that random bit of trivia and that Hoodoo likes gross candy. Maybe it was an attempt by Smith to make his character sounds more "natural" when he's talking to the audience, but I felt like the narrative came to a screeching halt every time Hoodoo whipped out his annoying catchphrase. Maybe (probably) I'm just really, easily annoyed but all the "If you didn't know”s were like nails on a chalkboard and distracted me from trying to enjoy the story.

And while I'm dumping on Hoodoo, here's something else that made my hackles rise; while talking about his best friend, Bunny, he says "That's what I liked about her. She wasn't like the other girls at the schoolhouse. She did everything a boy did and some things even better." Saying a girl "isn't like other girls" isn't an empowering compliment, you just insulted her entire gender and basically told her "wow, you don't suck like all those other icky girls" in addition to implying that women who are more like men are somehow better. Seriously, don't try and compliment a woman by putting other women down, or tell her "you're not like other women, you're more like a man". Being masculine or feminine shouldn't be a compliment or an insult, and people aren't better or worse by being one or the other. Bunny is a pretty cool character and all, but I could have done without Hoodoo's sexist comments (which are never called out in the story itself).

Despite all the pacing issues, and the protagonist's exasperating habit of defining every piece of Soul Food he comes across (I KNOW what grits are, you don't have to stop the story and tell me!!!!) there was still plenty to enjoy. Namely, that we get a piece of historic fiction with a Black protagonist that isn't about racism or segregation. *gasp* Look, narratives about how poorly Black people have been treated (and are still treated) in this country are both important and necessary, and something every child should learn about. The ugliness of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, and the history of racism that still exists in this country shouldn't be glossed over, hidden, or worse, perpetuating the myth of the smiling slave and the benevolent slave owner (looking at you  A Birthday Cake for George Washington, you were published in 2016, you should know better), and I commend schools that teach kids about these issues. But, it's still problematic when all the books about Black people focus only on segregation, slavery, and sports. Or, as librarian and author Scott Woods puts it, boycotts, buses, and basketball. That's not all there is to Black culture and Black Americans!

Where are the stories where Black kids just have a fun adventure for the sake of a fun adventure? Where's the escapist fiction and epic tales with the Black hero? Where are the biographies of black scientistsinventorsartists, and entrepreneurs? I tried to think of all the books with Black protagonists I was assigned in grade school, way back in the 90s (by my white teachers, in my mostly white school, where there were literally so few BIPOC that we all knew each other), and all I could remember reading was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in fourth grade. At first, I thought I just had a faulty memory, since I'm old and forget everything. I asked two of my siblings if they could recall any African American literature from our school days. My sister said "No, but I read Beloved in High School", and my brother was pretty sure the teacher read the class "some picture book about Jackie Robinson". So yeah, segregation, slavery and sports.  Apparently making us read one depressing story by a Black author during Black History Month was just enough to alleviate my grade school's White guilt, and then they could all pat themselves on the back for being so woke.

Kids these days (Wow, I sound old) at least have the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and I'm glad for that. I would've killed to read a ghost story or a fairy tale with a Black protagonist when I was a child. And that's what made me so happy about Hoodoo. It's probably one of the few works of historical fiction (technically fantasy) I can think of that takes place in the Jim Crow south that isn't entirely focused on oppression of the book's characters. Hoodoo isn't a victim, he's the story’s hero, and he gets to fight the big, bad monster and save his loved ones. It's a fun, spooky, escapist story with a character children can admire for his intelligence and bravery rather than athletic ability, and the reader gets to learn about Southern Black culture of the time period. There's still racism lurking in the background, this is 1930's Alabama after all, as is evident when Hoodoo and Bunny have to go to the carnival on the "colored folk's" day, or when Hoodoo's aunt has to go clean for rich, White people, it's just not the focus of the story. Smith acknowledges that segregation, lynching, and other horrors were a part of life for Hoodoo and his family, and then he moves on with the plot because they're so much more than just their oppression. Then we get a story of Hoodoo fighting the forces of evil with magic, learning about his past, and being awesome. This is the book every kid who was stuck with a white-washed reading list wished they could've read growing up. Despite all my complaining, I truly hope we haven't heard the last of Hoodoo Hatcher.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Brutal Hearts by Cassie Daley


Formats: Print

Publisher: Self Published

Genre: Killer/Slasher, Monster

Audience: Y/A

Diversity: Autistic character, author is queer and autistic

Content Warnings: Cannibalism, Child Death, Death, Gore, Violence (Highlight to view)

It's 1997 and Leah just can't seem to catch a break.

A year has passed since her fiancé went missing while hiking alone on a mountain, and she can't shake the unanswered questions and nightmares Simon left behind.

On the anniversary of his disappearance, Leah and her new girlfriend Josie return to the trail where Simon disappeared with two of their best friends. Armed with incense, tarot cards, crystals, and snacks, the girls have everything they need to complete the Ritual of Closure to help Leah finally say goodbye to Simon, once and for all.

But the trails are hiding something sinister, and it's been waiting. As night falls around them, the girls find themselves in a deadly game against something vicious and wild that's made a home for itself on the mountain.

It's time to find out what really happened to Simon.

The year is 1996: Scream has just been released in theaters, the Macarena is the hottest new dance craze, and seventeen-year-old Leah is deeply in love with her high school sweetheart, Simon. The two have plans to marry after graduation, but that dream is destroyed when Simon goes missing after a hike in the nearby mountains. Volunteers scour the woods for any trace of the missing boy, but it’s like Simon has vanished without a trace.

A year later, Leah is still struggling with her grief and guilt. Her girlfriend, Josie, is doing her best to help Leah through the nightmares and sobbing fits, but nothing seems to help. In a last-ditch effort to give the poor girl some closure, Josie suggests they hike Simon and Leah’s favorite trail to say a final goodbye. Along with Leah’s two best friends, sisters Charlotte and May, the girls set off to perform a Wiccan inspired goodbye ceremony for him. But their beautiful day quickly goes south when something in the woods starts stalking them.

Brutal Hearts is short but gripping story, switching back and froth between the girls being stalked through the woods and the mystery surrounding Simon’s disappearance. I ended up finishing it in one sitting, something I never do even with novellas (ADHD makes it hard for me to focus on a book for too long unless I’m really engaged). I loved all the little nods to 90s aesthetics, from the clothing, to May’s Tamagotchi and the girls’ obsession with all things Wicca. (From Sabrina Spellman to Nancy Downs witches were huge in the 90s, inspiring a renewed interest in Wicca from teenage girls.) Although, it is hard to accept that the 90s were thirty years ago and are now officially nostalgic. Wasn’t it literally just 2000? I think Y2K caused my brain to crash and stop perceiving the passage of time.

I especially liked the addition of the playlists for each character in the back of the book. Leah’s music playlist revolves around being hurt by love. Josie likes grunge. May’s playlist is full of bubblegum pop while the more traditionally pretty and popular Charlotte prefers mainstream music. A fun flashback to 90s teen horror like Fear Street and the works of Christopher Pike (appropriate since Daley also runs the PikeCast) with a healthy dose of urban legends and campfire stories. A perfect read for a hot summer night. 

Saturday, October 1, 2022

House of Pungsu by K.P. Kulski

House of Pungsu by K.P. Kulski. Highly Recommended. Read if you like the Bloody Chamber, Korean folklore.

Formats: Print, digital

Publisher: Bizarro Pulp Press

Genre: Dark Fantasy, Ghosts/Haunting, Gothic

Audience: Adult/Mature

Diversity: Korean-American author, Korean characters

Takes Place in: Korea

Content Warnings: Child Death, Death, Sexism, Verbal/Emotional Abuse (Highlight to view)

“As sharp as broken pottery and as delicate as a peony petal, House of Pungsu is the story my spirit hungered for. K.P. Kulski shifts rice paper doors to reveal the darkest truth.”—Lee Murray, USA Today bestselling author and four-time Bram Stoker Award® winner.

No one knows what’s beyond the walls of the Joseon-era palace that never seems to decay, a sprawling complex where daughter, mother, and grandmother are the only inhabitants. Why is her bed-bound grandmother locked in her room each night, and what exactly is behind the locked doors of the palace pavilions and halls? When daughter unexpectedly begins to menstruate, she is tormented with dreams that drive her to find answers.

Following the Korean folk story of “A Tiger’s Whisker,” HOUSE OF PUNGSU is a feminist meditation on women’s inner identity and the struggle to rediscover it.

I received this product for free in return for providing an honest and unbiased review. I received no other compensation. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

House of Pungsu is a dark, feminist fairy tale about a young woman finding her own identity and power. It is the story of three women--daughter, mother, and grandmother--living in an uninhabited palace in Joseon where time stands still and nothing changes. None of the women have names and are only defined by their roles in relation to each other. Grandmother, mother, and daughter reflect the triple goddess archetype (the maiden, the mother, and the crone) or the three stages of growth. Ironic since they are trapped in a world where time doesn’t move, and the maiden is unable to become the mother. That is, until Daughter experiences her first period and time slowly begins to affect the palace again. Rain falls once more and the fruit on the trees begins to rot.


Daughter does not remember her real name or her past, only that she is someone's daughter. She is full of barely contained rebellious spirit and hope for the future, but she is bound by duty to be obedient and quiet, a "tame tiger."  "Their lives an animal within me that growls... a wild thing that wants to bite its tether yet I do nothing to free it. Instead, I stand very still, say little, and wait for the fury to subside.” Mother is bitter and pessimistic, though still hopes her daughter can one day leave the palace while still believing it impossible. It’s implied she was once the wife of an emperor and not allowed her own hopes, dreams, and aspirations beyond pleasing her husband and bearing his children. Daughter believes that grandmother is confined to her bed, just as she and mother are confined to the palace, but mother has to lock grandmother in at night, and someone locks the other side of the door. At night, growling and commotion can be heard from the bedroom. It seems grandmother is not as helpless or trapped as she seems, a wild tiger locked up for the safety of mother and daughter. 

A drawing of a woman in a hanbok serving a bowl of meat and rice to a tiger


The tiger motif is repeated throughout the book, as tigers are strongly associated with Korea and found repeatedly throughout Korean folklore. Kulski draws inspiration from one such folktale, The Tiger’s Whisker, a folktale about living with someone who suffers from PTSD. It emphasizes the diligence and patience you must have when working with someone with complex trauma. While on its surface the story seems to be a heartwarming tale of helping a loved one, Kulski notes that the burden is put on the wife to help her husband and have patience when he’s angry and abusive. The wife exists only to help her husband and is expected to suffer with him. In many versions of the tale, she is not even given her own name. And so Kulski creates her own ending, instead focusing on the wife overcoming the fear of the tiger and the husband that once held her back. She asks the question, “What would happen if you released the full ferocity of the tiger rather than tame it?”

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Anybody Home? by Michael J. Seidlinger

Anybody Home? by Michael J. Seidlinger

Formats: Digital, print

Publisher: Clash Books

Genre: Killer/Slasher

Audience: Adult/Mature

Diversity: Filipino American Author

Content Warnings: Amputation, Animal Death, Child Death, Child Endangerment, Death, Forced Captivity, Gore, Rape/Sexual Assault, Torture (Highlight to view)

A seasoned invader with multiple home invasions under their belt recounts their dark victories while offering tutelage to a new generation of ambitious home invaders eager to make their mark on the annals of criminal history. From initial canvasing to home entry, the reader is complicit in every strangling and shattered window. The fear is inescapable.

Examining the sanctuary of the home and one of the horror genre's most frightening tropes, Anybody Home? points the camera lens onto the quiet suburbs and its unsuspecting abodes, any of which are potential stages for an invader ambitious enough to make it the scene of the next big crime sensation. Who knows? Their performance just might make it to the silver screen.

I received this product for free in return for providing an honest and unbiased review. I received no other compensation. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Anybody Home is a rare example of second person narration, where the nameless narrator (who may or may not be a figment of your imagination) addresses you, the reader, throughout the story. The premise is similarly unique. The story has a villain protagonist, and you’re the villain. The narrator, a more experienced serial killer, is guiding you through your first home invasion and subsequent torture and slaying of the family, which they refer to as a “performance.” The main goal of the performance is to entertain the audience who will later relive the horrors of that night through a yet unmade film.

No one in the story is named, instead they’re faceless characters given identifiers like “Victim #1” and “Invader #2.” Victim #1 is a father and husband, and he’s terrible at both. Victim #2 is the depressed wife and mother. Victim #3 is the naïve daughter who is too young to recognize the misery and apathy that plagues her family. Victim #4 is the angsty teenage son, who hates his parents and everything else. You view the victims as little more than players in your twisted game of psychological and physical torture. They each have their stereotypical role to play, and the cameras are recording everything.

The idea of a more experienced killer teaching a newbie the ins-and-outs of a home invasion/murder spree is interesting, and the book is well written although I wish less time was spent on the set up and more was spent on the suspenseful parts, namely the stalking and torture of the family. The action doesn’t even start until about halfway in. Instead, we have to follow a step-by-step guide for stalking potential victims for the first half of the book. Maybe it’s just because I struggle with lists of instructions in general but I found this part very dull. But there’s no denying the story is well written and once you get past the less exciting first half the plot starts to pick up and things get good.  It’s incredibly suspenseful watching as the family is stalked and terrorized, knowing the invaders have planned for every eventuality but still hoping they victims might survive. Or maybe you side with the invaders. You are one of them, after all. In which case the tension comes from wondering whether you can pull off such a grand scheme, especially when one of your invaders is getting cold feet.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. The torture scenes will leave you squirming and wondering what horror will be inflicted next upon this poor unlikely family. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to read, and more uncomfortable still when you realize you’re meant to be the one gleefully carrying out the torture, animal killing, child murder, rape, and all other manner of other unpleasant things. Admittedly, I almost gave up on it when I was a third of the way through because nothing stimulating was happening (because I have a short attention span). But I’m glad I stuck it out because that ending was like a punch in the gut.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

Formats: Print, audio, digital

Publisher: Tor Nightfire

Genre: Apocalypse/Disaster, Monster

Audience: Adult/Mature

Diversity: Trans author and characters, queer characters, Native character

Takes Place in: North Eastern US

Content Warnings: Animal Death, Body Shaming, Cannibalism,  Child Death, Childbirth, Death, Drug Use/Abuse, Eating Disorder, Forced Captivity, Gore, Illness, Kidnapping, Medical Procedures, Oppression, Rape/Sexual Assault, Self-Harm, Slurs, Torture, Transphobia, Verbal/Emotional Abuse,  Violence (Highlight to view)

Y: The Last Man meets The Girl With All the Gifts in Gretchen Felker-Martin's Manhunt, an explosive post-apocalyptic novel that follows trans women and men on a grotesque journey of survival.

Beth and Fran spend their days traveling the ravaged New England coast, hunting feral men and harvesting their organs in a gruesome effort to ensure they'll never face the same fate.

Robbie lives by his gun and one hard-learned motto: other people aren't safe.

After a brutal accident entwines the three of them, this found family of survivors must navigate murderous TERFs, a sociopathic billionaire bunker brat, and awkward relationship dynamics―all while outrunning packs of feral men, and their own demons.

Manhunt is a timely, powerful response to every gender-based apocalypse story that failed to consider the existence of transgender and non-binary people, from a powerful new voice in horror.

I received this product for free in return for providing an honest and unbiased review. I received no other compensation. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Have you ever wondered what happens to trans people in sex-based apocalypses like those in Y: The Last Man or Ōoku: The Inner Chambers? Gretchen Felker-Martin sets out to answer exactly that in her post-apocalypse splatterpunk novel Manhunt.

The T-rex virus transforms anyone with high levels of testosterone—mostly cis-men—into cannibalistic, sex-crazed monsters. Emboldened by the end of the world, a group of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical “feminists”) have formed their own militia where they hunt and kill any trans women they find. It may seem like a group of militant TERFs is an exaggeration, but it feels like less of a stretch when you consider there’s already a high rate of violence against trans people. In 2021 alone, at least 56 trans and gender non-conforming people were murdered in the US. Transphobic hate crimes have quadrupled over the last five years in the UK. These fake feminists are also more fascist adjacent than they’d like to admit. As Judith Butler accurately pointed out, TERFs “have allied with rightwing attacks on gender” and “The anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times. So, the TERFs will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism.” TERFs Lily Cade and Bev Jo Von Dohre have even called for the death of trans women. The fact that trans women in Manhunt can transform into monsters if they don’t have access to anti-androgen medication gives the TERFs exactly the excuse they’ve been waiting for to go from hateful rhetoric to actually destroying that which they hate most (never mind that cis-women with PCOS or congenital adrenal hyperplasia can also transform into feral beasts).

Not only do trans women have to avoid getting killed by the monstrous men, but also running into the militant TERFs who have seized control of most of the northeast. Fran and Beth are two such transwomen trying to survive in the new world, catching feral men and harvesting their testicles for their friend Indy to extract estradiol from. After running afoul of a militant group of TERFs and almost being killed by men, Fran and Beth meet a sharp-shooting trans man named Robbie, who they take on their journey with them. The trio return to Indy’s house with their testicle trophies where they learn she’s been offered a job by a spoiled rich girl who controls a luxurious bunker. But the promises of comfort the bunker offers may hide a deadly truth.

While I personally enjoyed this book, it won’t be for everyone. It is splatterpunk, after all. That means there’s lots of brutal violence (including a cis woman having her uterus cut out of her), gross content (testicle eating), and graphic sex. Everyone in Manhunt is super horny, sometimes at wildly inappropriate times, so Beth, Fran, Indy, and Robbie do a lot of fucking. The sex is hot, sometimes gross, and other times both hot and gross, much like real sex. It was nice to have sex scenes centered around trans pleasure rather than the cis-male gaze. Of course, the graphic description of genitalia might be triggering for some people who experience gender dysphoria, so be aware of that. Speaking of hot sex, a captain in the TERF army named Ramona is sleeping with a non-binary prostitute named Feather. One reviewer claimed this is unrealistic but I have to disagree. A lot of chasers are happy to sleep with trans people but won’t do anything to defend their rights or even stand up for them. Too many people with trans partners see their relationship as a shameful secret to be kept, and Ramona is no different. She’s too much of a coward to do the right thing and just goes along with the TERF army because it’s what’s easy.

Splatterpunk is very hit or miss for me, as many extreme horror books can cross over into misogynistic violence. Manhunt manages to avoid this trap, even though most of the book’s violence is against women (as all the characters, aside from Robbie, are women). Perhaps because it’s other women committing the violence, but I didn’t get that gross feeling I usually do when reading splatterpunk authored by cis men. Even the sexual assault scene didn’t feel gratuitous and was handled well. I also loved how flawed the protagonists are. Some people mistakenly assume LGBTQIA+ characters need to be perfect for it to be considered a “good” portrayal. I believe realistic is preferable to perfect, and I like my queer characters to have character flaws who sometimes do and say problematic things. Both Beth and Fran feel very human. Beth is reckless and insecure; Fran has both passing and class privilege and can sometimes be selfish. Neither of them are bad people, just realistically flawed.

My only complaint about the book (and granted, it’s minor) is that there are so many descriptions of Indi’s fat body. The way she’s described isn’t quite fatphobic, but it did make me feel uncomfortable that there was so much focus on it. I can understand that Indy is dealing with a lot of internalized fatphobia and insecurity, so it makes sense that her character would spend a lot of time focusing on her size and the limitations that come with it. When the story is told from a third-person point of view, there’s no reason for Indy’s weight to be described in such detail, especially since no one else’s body gets that much description or scrutiny. At least she’s never described as gross or unattractive, and Indi even gets to be sexually desirable, which is rare for fat characters outside of fetish porn. It was refreshing to see fat people having passionate sex scenes just like their skinny counterparts. Like I said, it’s a minor complaint and could absolutely be my own hypersensitivity.

Reading this book is like having your brain put in a blender. It's wild, gross, horny, disgusting, tragic, and hilarious all whipped together into an extreme horror smoothie. In other words, I LOVED it. You have to be at least somewhat familiar with trans culture to fully appreciate the story, which I thought was awesome. There's also just something extremely satisfying about trans women killing fascist TERFs: not something I'd advocate in real life, but it's fun and cathartic in fiction. Unsurprisingly, this made a bunch of real-life TERFs very angry. They didn’t like being portrayed as bigoted assholes just because of their bigoted asshole-ish behavior and tried to review bomb Manhunt…which should just make you want to read it more. 

Monday, February 28, 2022

Conquer by Edward M. Erdelac

Conquer by Edward M. Erdelac. Recommended. Read if you like Sugar Hill, Shaft, The Dresden Files

Formats: Print, digital, audible

Publisher: Self Published 

Genre:  Historic Horror, Monster, Mystery, Myth and Folklore, Occult, Vampire

Audience: Adult/Mature

Diversity: Black/African-American, Hispanic, Trans, Gay

Takes Place in: Harlem New York, NY, USA

Content Warnings: Animal Death, Body Shaming, Child Abuse, Death, Drug Use/Abuse, Forced Captivity, Gore, Homophobia, Kidnapping, Necrophilia, Oppression, Pedophilia, Physical Abuse, Police Harassment, Racism, Rape/Sexual Assault, Sexual Abuse, Slurs, Transphobia (Highlight to view)

In 1976 Harlem, JOHN CONQUER, P.I. is the cat you call when your hair stands up...the supernatural brother like no other. From the pages of Occult Detective Quarterly, he's calm, he's cool, and now he's collected in CONQUER.

From Hoodoo doctors and Voodoo Queens,
The cat they call Conquer’s down on the scene!
With a dime on his shin and a pocket of tricks,
A gun in his coat and an eye for the chicks.
Uptown and Downton, Harlem to Brooklyn,
Wherever the brothers find trouble is brewin,’
If you’re swept with a broom, or your tracks have been crossed,
If your mojo is failin’ and all hope is lost,
Call the dude on St. Marks with the shelf fulla books,
‘Cause ain’t no haint or spirit, or evil-eye looks,
Conjured by devils, JAMF’s, or The Man,
Can stop the black magic Big John’s got on hand!

I received this product for free in return for providing an honest and unbiased review. I received no other compensation. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Conquer is the story of a Black mystical detective named John Conquer (a reference to John the Conqueror) and a homage to 70’s detective fiction and Blaxploitation films. It’s fun, well written, and full of creepiness, including a fetus monster haunting an abandoned subway station and a man shrunk down and boiled alive in a lava lamp. I greatly enjoyed the book, but like most Blaxploitation, it wasn’t without its problems.

It’s important to point out that Erdelac is a White author writing a Black story (something not uncommon in Blaxploitation). I usually prefer to promote “own voices” books, and stories by cishet White men are a rarity on this blog. After all, folks with privilege do not have the best track record when it comes to writing marginalized groups. As Irish author Kit de Waal said, “Don’t dip your pen in someone else’s blood”. Take American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. They’re both terrible for numerous reasons including, but not limited to: not doing enough research, using the White Savior trope, watering down their narratives to make them palatable for White audiences, cultural appropriation, speaking over marginalized voices, etc. That’s not to say White authors shouldn’t write BIPOC characters at all. Not having any diversity in your story can be equally problematic. It just needs to be done carefully and respectfully. Very, very carefully. Yes, I know that can be a fine line to walk, but if an author can research what kind of crops people were growing in 1429 to make their book more accurate, they can research American Indians and people of color. Besides, that’s what hiring sensitivity readers and using resources like Writing with Color is for. Of course, there’s also the problem of White voices being given preferential treatment by publishers and audiences over BIPOC trying to tell their own stories.

To his credit, Erdelac has done an impressive amount of research to make his book feel authentic. John Conquer wears a dime around his ankle for protection and a mojo hand (another name for a mojo bag) for luck. His name is a reference to High John de Conqueror, a Black folk hero with magical abilities. Conquer also has one of the most accurate representations of Vodou I’ve ever seen in fiction. Hollywood “voo doo” is a pet peeve of mine, so I appreciate Erdelac’s dedication to portraying the religion and loa/lwa (the powerful spirits Vodou  practitioners worship and serve) accurately. He also doesn’t try to portray an idealized version of 1970s NYC. There’s racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and cops and criminals spewing slurs. And while it’s jarring, it does make the story feel more authentic. The police are racist and homophobic and there’s tension between the many communities that make up 1970s New York. John Conquer’s Uncle Silas was disowned by his family for being gay, and when John is asked to solve his murder, he has to confront his own homophobia and transphobia. That doesn’t mean it always works, though. There were definitely a few times I side-eyed and wondered if a certain line really needed to be in there.

My favorite part of the book is Eldelac’s excellent world building. White vampires go up in smoke when exposed to sunlight, while vampires with more melanin are protected from the sun’s rays. Vampirism also halts a corpse’s decay, but all that rot catches up to them when they’re finally killed. Each culture has their own magical practices with distinct rules, and magic doesn’t cross cultural lines. For example, only Vodou practitioners can become zombies, and non-Christian vampires are immune to crosses. Conquer is especially powerful because he’s learned many different traditions and practices, but the catch is that this opens him to a wider variety of spiritual attacks. Street gangs utilize black magic to wage wars with each other. His work is clever, original, and something I could really get into. But…having White authors tell BIPOC stories still feels problematic to me when White authors are still so heavily favored by the publishing industry. I’ve reviewed books by White authors before, but because Conquer is based heavily on Blaxploitation it feels, well, more exploitative than those I’ve reviewed in the past. I’m still going to go ahead and recommend Eldelac’s work becausein the endit is well written and interesting, but I can also completely understand if some of you want to skip this one.