I cannot say enough about this book. I can’t pick a favorite story from this collection. I can’t wait for more from this author. He and these stories are just that good.
“Peel Back and See” is a perfect title to encapsulate these 16 stories. In each one, the characters go deeper and deeper into whatever they’ve discovered, uncovered, or searched for. The complex horror of each takes time to come to light. The reader is taken further and further into the inner world of each character’s particular depression, self-destruction, or struggle for answers. The sheer weirdness grows and grows as you read – I’m looking at you, “Vomitus Bacchanalius.”
I also realized as I read that, for each story’s main character, the horror comes only because they went looking. This isn’t a monster-and-slasher kind of horror collection. Nobody’s car breaks down and they’re randomly attacked by some terror from the woods. No masked figure attacks strangers with a chainsaw. These characters go looking for trouble, in one way or another, and find their own doom. Some regret it immediately. Others embrace the darkness.
The horror is also, like the author’s “Shelter for the Damned,” very psychologically driven. While there are indeed gruesome monsters, they are often so terrifying because of how they relate to whatever the characters are personally afraid of. And in the era of COVID, when so many of us have been trapped in our own heads more than usual with only the internet as an escape, stories like “Havoc” and “@GorgoYama2013” as well as “Fade to White” feel a bit closer to home than they might have in the world before. These characters feel isolated from society in a way we might not have understood so well pre-pandemic.
In fact, that was a main thought which I, Lit nerd that I am, kept coming back to – these stories are like a collection Poe might have written if he lived today, like Poe in the era of COVID. The terrors are often spawned by the characters’ own doings. The monster is inside the house, so to speak. Everything happens because of whatever demons these people are already fighting, whether poverty, academic pressure, depression, grief, greed, etc. Because of their internal struggles, they “Peel Back and See” something horrible.
The author’s unique and seemingly effortless mastery of language is a joy to read. Many of the stories will leave you thinking. Many may give you the creeps. One left me forever unable to look at my daughter’s dollhouse the same again. Overall, I’m just in awe of this collection and can’t wait to be horrified by more.
The best review I can give of this book is to tell you the progression of what I thought as I read along:
“Oh, no. Another book with a young woman sorting out her faith versus an Islamic terrorist kid. Guess I know what this is going to be like.”
“Wait, time travel? Ok, I’m back in.”
“Wow, this is really detailed. I wonder how much of this history is accurate. Are these real people?”
“Holy crap. Didn’t see that coming.”
“No! That’s the end? I want the next book now!”
So, yeah. I ended up enjoying this book. A lot. I’m a big fan of GOOD historical fiction, and this book is certainly that. At the back of the book, the author explains her personal connection to these real-life characters, the extent of her research into this complex part of history, and how she traveled to Morocco to get first-hand insight into a very different part of the world from Martha’s Vineyard. I was very impressed by the detail put into fleshing out both worlds in 1657, and I can only imagine the amount of research this took. Huge kudos to R.A. Denny for that alone.
I will say that multiple times I was very annoyed by Peri’s decisions and actions. She’s smart enough to get into Harvard but is extremely naive and sometimes does things that really only serve the plot. And she has a photographic memory for no apparent reason, which is especially weird given how badly she forgets things sometimes. BUT, nearly every other character is quite interesting, and I didn’t have any problems with how Ayoub (the terrorist kid) grows up and somewhat naturally becomes a pirate. That actually worked pretty well without being stereotypical.
The writing itself is very descriptive and gets to the point without being superfluous. The dialogue must have been tricky to write given the time period, but it was believable and helps to drop you right into a different time and culture.
Overall, I recommend this to anyone who likes historical fiction. There is definitely a romance element, but that did not distract from the mystery, suspense, and well-crafted storyline that drops you into two different – but possibly connected – histories.
The box set audiobook is finally here, and I’m so excited to share it with you! My narrator (whose name goes great with mine, don’t ya think?) did an awesome job bringing this world, characters, and story to life. And that was no easy task, considering she had demons, jinn, and ancient vampires to create voices for. I’m really proud of how this turned out, and it’s been a long time in the works. It’s amazing that a story I started as catharsis for living through a super hot summer in Kansas City turned into 24 LISTENING HOURS of Fantasy storytelling.
If you want to listen to a sample or check it out for yourself, you can find the audiobook available at Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.
For a limited time, I’m offering FREE AUDIBLE CODES if you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Times are tough and stressful for everyone right now, and I’d love to offer some Fantasy/Sci-Fi escape and make your life a little more entertaining. So – first come, first served!
I hope you enjoy listening to this as much as I do!
Today I’d like to welcome Mike Thorn, author of the horror novel, Shelter for the Damned, which I recently had the privilege of reviewing.
Can you give us your quickest description of your book?
Shelter for the Damned is a coming-of-age narrative wrapped up in a pessimistic, suburban horror plot. The novel is set in a deliberately ambiguated suburban environment in the year 2003.
Any particular reason you chose 2003?
Initially, I didn’t specify the time period at all (and I still don’t, within the actual body of the narrative). However, close to publication, I had a discussion with JournalStone’s managing editor, Scarlett R. Algee, in which we noted the book’s absence of contemporary details like cellphones and social media. I was undoubtedly writing about a horror-infected version of the suburbs I remember from my own teens. So, we decided to include a page at the beginning of the book stating Suburban Somewhere, 2003 to help situate the reader.
Makes sense. I noted the lack of cellphones. What are you working on currently?
I’m currently reworking a nonfiction, academic book proposal for a project focused on two horror filmmakers. I can’t share any details about that just yet. Wish me luck!
Sounds interesting! Do you like taking a break from fiction to change things up?
Thank you! I do enjoy slipping into nonfiction/critical mode every now and then (although not as often as I used to). I think writing essays requires a very different cognitive process from writing fiction.
Certainly. What is your favorite scene you’ve written?
I’m pleased with the third act of Shelter for the Damned, which descends into hallucinatory and semi-cosmic territory. I can’t say too much without giving anything away, but I drew a lot on the kind of imagery that draws me to writers like H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.
I know exactly the portions you mean. It gets almost trippy but works perfectly for how the horror of the Shack has unfolded. I can see the Lovecraft influence for sure. What are some of your favorite classic stories that bend towards horror?
I appreciate that! In terms of Poe, my favorite story is “The Black Cat,” and my favorite Lovecraft story is probably “The Dreams in the Witch House.” I love so many classic books in the Gothic/horror realm… among my favorites are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk, Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows, Daphne du Maurier’s The Breaking Point, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Macbeth has always been my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, and I would argue that it leans hard into horror, too.
I’d worry about anyone who didn’t find MacBeth horrific. LOL. What is one bit of advice you’d like to share with writers?
Read, read, read. Avoid limiting yourself to one genre. Read the classics, but also try to keep up with new releases. Read fiction. Read theory, philosophy, autobiographies, and poetry. Push against your genre biases: distinctions between “high” and “low” art are generally just elitist fabrications. You can learn from the stuff you don’t like as much as you can learn from the stuff you do like.
I agree 100% (as an English Lit nerd myself who loves bending genres). How do you go about discovering new releases and keeping up with the thousands of books released these days?
I try to stay tapped into the small press horror world, and social media is helpful on that front. In pre-pandemic times, I liked browsing the library and local bookstores, too. You’re right, though, there are so many new releases that it can be difficult to keep afloat.
Who inspires you to write?
I take inspiration from relationships, friendships, and banal daily encounters. I’m often very stimulated by conversations with other writers.
Weirdest thing that’s inspired you?
One of my darkest horror stories, “Long Man,” was partially inspired by a prank my older brother played on me when we were kids.
Ha! Whatever works! In a perfect world where you could cast your book for a movie, who would you pick for your main characters?
It’s hard to say, since my main characters are so young! I’ll just imagine that this imaginary production budget can cover the cost of a time machine with anachronistic era-crossing capabilities. A 13 to 15-year-old Nick Stahl would be fantastic for the protagonist, Mark. A 13 to 15-year-old Katharine Isabelle would be terrific for Madeline. I really love both of those actors.
Time machines are often essential for author answers to this question. LOL. It’s funny that Madeline in my head looked exactly like your actress pick! Which is interesting because you don’t give a lot of physical description for many of your characters at all. Is that on purpose? I thought it was very effective how you describe Mark really only as he sees himself.
That’s great to hear! Thank you.
Yes, I deliberately minimize physical descriptions for my characters, because I draw liberally on the power of familiarity and memory. In Shelter for the Damned, especially, I wanted my readers to flesh out this space of “Suburban Somewhere” with their own recollections and points of reference.
Mark’s self-image is key to his psychological state, though, so it was important that I apply some description in that case.
Yes! His self-image was definitely important to the story. When you get stuck in your writing, how do you make yourself keep going?
I usually just charge ahead and remind myself that first drafts are almost always messy and imperfect.
Forcing yourself, nice. Do you work with an editor?
Once my work is accepted for publication, I work with press/magazine/anthology/podcast editors. I have a few trusted readers who I consult for my early drafts.
Do you use your personal experiences in your writing?
All my fiction is personal, but I usually write about my personal experiences in abstracted ways. The horror genre offers unique possibilities for expression through excess and metaphor.
Getting into real life issues, I was impressed by how your book deals with the topic of “masculine conditioning” in particular. The use of the 2 main fathers in particular was subtle but underscored everything happening with the boys. Was that societal issue something that was important for you to touch on?
Thanks again, Sunshine. I don’t usually set out to write with specific messages or thematic concerns in mind, but there’s no doubt that I was grappling with problems around masculine conditioning here. As I was reviewing later drafts of Shelter for the Damned, it became clear to me that the novel was saying things about addiction, suburban violence, domestic abuse, and certainly masculine conditioning. I tried my best to attribute these issues with as much gravitas and realism as possible.
While looking for a secret place to smoke cigarettes with his two best friends, troubled teenager Mark discovers a mysterious shack in a suburban field. Alienated from his parents and peers, Mark finds within the shack an escape greater than anything he has ever experienced.
But it isn’t long before the place begins revealing its strange, powerful sentience. And it wants something in exchange for the shelter it provides.
Shelter for the Damned is not only a scary, fast-paced horror novel, but also an unflinching study of suburban violence, masculine conditioning, and adolescent rage.
To sum up my thoughts on this book in one word, I’m IMPRESSED. Horror books can be predictable and all read the same after a while, and it’s rare that I come across one that stands out as being so deeply smart and psychologically complex while also being creepy and appropriately bloody. You can tell how much time and effort went into making this book as good as it could be. Though the premise and setting aren’t particularly abnormal, the author digs deep into the psyche of the main character and warps everything into a maddening descent from ordinary suburban life to a truly horrifying nightmare.
The writing itself is extremely enjoyable if you’re a nerd like me who applauds that sort of thing. The dialogue is completely believable as coming from teenage boys. Even beyond that, it feels like you’re hearing the adults speak through the ears of a teenage delinquent – the parents sound out of touch and full of hollow punishments, the teachers are bland and authoritative without much personality, and the abusive dad’s chummy charade is answered with humoring caution…for a while. The main aspect of the writing that I loved was that the descriptions don’t rely solely on visuals but also draw you in with unusual descriptions of smells, tastes, and sounds that remind you exactly of what the author means – for example, “empty, humming with the kind of drip-drop, fuzzy white silence saved especially for public restrooms.”
Again, this is a psychological kind of horror story. There are bursts of action that are quite graphic, but the slow internal buildup was the part that was even more frightening, to me. The toxic masculinity of the father figures is frightening in how subtly and believably it breaks these boys. I was never sure quite what to think of Mark, and that works great to pull you along, especially considering Mark isn’t sure what to think of himself as he untangles whatever the Shack is doing to him. And there’s something wonderfully creepy about using an unexplainable building as a source of evil. I loved the way it all starts as “a gust of heat sighed from inside, breathed into his skin, massaged his muscles and coiled his bones.”
I highly, highly recommend this one if you’re a lover of language who also likes a good horror story.