Damien Angelica Walters’s THE DEAD GIRLS CLUB is a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable thriller. Given how breathlessly I zoomed through the last third of the novel, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a page-turner, either. Walters’s narrative strength really shines in the flashbacks to narrator Heather Cole’s childhood, writing about girlhood and its close, intense friendships with heartfelt authenticity. The mystery that occupies Heather’s present, with its links to her past and its spooky overtones, hooked me and kept me guessing throughout. THE DEAD GIRLS CLUB is a well written and well executed thriller that stands shoulder to shoulder with Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL, Paula Hawkins’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, and Sarah Pinborough’s BEHIND HER EYES. Don’t miss it!
Rising from the ashes of the ChiZine Publications scandal, the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated and International Thriller Writers Award-nominated Chasing the Dragon is now available once again courtesy of Crossroad Press!
“A tight, focused narrative…Chasing the Dragon is unlike any other novel I’ve read, and easily one of my favorite reads [of the year]. It is definitely worth checking out if you like fantasy, horror, stories about the darker side of things (cuz heroin addiction is pretty dark) and deep, unique character work.” — Black Gate
“Chasing the Dragon moves like a bullet. As blood-soaked and thunderous as a Sergio Leone western, and grimly referential to classic pulp horror, Kaufmann turns the screws and steadily escalates the tension. A gory, thoroughly rollicking thriller–not to be missed.” — Laird Barron, author of Blood Standard and Black Mountain
Chasing the Dragon is currently available as an e-book. A new paperback edition is coming soon, but you can buy the e-book right now from:
Crossroad Press is also the publisher of my novel In the Shadow of the Axe and my collection Still Life: Nine Stories, and I’m thrilled to be working with them again to bring Chasing the Dragon back to life!
***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***
Boy did I love this episode! Not just for the obvious reasons — a haunted house, Mary Shelley, and the birth of Frankenstein is so tailor-made for me I’m surprised I don’t already subscribe to its newsletter — but also because its production values, especially the design, make it one of the most convincingly atmospheric episodes in years. There’s tons of great character work on display, from Lord Byron attempting to seduce the Doctor, to Claire Claremont’s reaction to those attempts, to Fletcher, the butler who steals every scene with his endless sighing and eye-rolling at Byron and his friends’ antics. Lili Miller as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, worried she’ll never be as good a writer as her parents, carries a lot of the episode on her shoulders and does a fine job of it. (Kudos to screenwriter Maxine Alderton for really nailing how insecure writers are about the one thing they know how to do.) And of course I love, love, love a good haunted house setup, even if I know that stories like this in Doctor Who always end with the haunting being alien rather than supernatural. (Although maybe there was a real haunting, too? Never answer that question, Doctor Who!)
The excellent character work extends to the Doctor as well, particularly in the climactic scene where she’s faced with the impossible choice of either letting Percy Shelley die prematurely, thereby altering history, or saving Shelley’s life and unleashing an army of Cybermen in the future. Ryan posits that it might be worth letting Shelley die if it saves thousands of lives in the future, and the Doctor lets loose on him in a way we haven’t seen before. Shades of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor break through as she rages at him — at everyone, really — about the choices that only she can make, that she’s forced to make, and that no one else can make for her. “Sometimes even I can’t win,” she says, and in that moment everything shows in her face, from her trauma about Gallifrey being destroyed again to the same frustration Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor felt in the 1989 serial “Ghost Light” when he realizes even he can’t handle all the small, secret manipulations he’s put in motion. This is the scene that solidifies the current TARDIS crew as never before, finally seeing the Doctor for who she really is, the angry and angst-ridden Time Lord under the friendly mask, and I suspect it is also the scene that gets the ball rolling on at least one companion leaving at season’s end.
Graham remains a joy. His search of the villa for a lavatory, only to realize they’re a few years too early for indoor toilets, is hilarious, but even more hilarious is his line at the beginning, when he’s standing in the rain at the door, “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” (To which the Doctor whispers, “Wrong writer.”) Of the companions, it better not be Graham who leaves first!
Because any story taking place at the Villa Diodati during that fateful summer is going to offer an explanation for why Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (my favorite iteration of this idea is Ken Russell’s completely insane 1987 film Gothic), I was fully expecting the Lone Cyberman to inspire Mary’s story, and indeed it does, as she refers to him at one point as a man made from many parts. However, her line about the Cyberman’s connection to future tech making him a “modern Prometheus” is just eye-rollingly bad. It tries way too hard to shoehorn Frankenstein‘s subtitle into the dialogue, and as a result it’s cringeworthy. (I also cringed when the Doctor says something like “we’re all in the same boat” to Mary Shelley. Knowing what’s coming in her and Percy’s life, it seems a little cruel to talk to her about boats!)
Speaking of the Lone Cyberman, I like his inclusion as a way to link the forthcoming finale with Captain Jack Harkness’s warning from a few episodes back, but I also felt that the episode became a little sloppy once he arrives. In trying to juggle the needs of the Mary Shelley plot with the needs of the Lone Cyberman plot, the episode trips over its own feet a little. Not terribly, mind you, but part of the problem is that after such a compelling setup, a Cyberman is so immediately recognizable that to make it a part of the “haunting” feels almost anti-climactic. For a moment, though, I thought the Cyberman was going to be revealed as the missing Percy Shelley, somehow dragged to the future, transformed, and sent back. That would have been an interesting twist!
One thing didn’t make sense to me. I get how the Cyberium could make Shelley briefly invisible and use a perception filter to turn the house into a maze all in order to protect itself, but what was the point of reanimating the skeleton hand? What was it trying to do? Certainly it wasn’t trying to scare everybody out of the house, considering it wouldn’t let them leave. It just seemed to exist for added creepiness.
And now for some Doctor Who neepery! The Doctor mentions to Byron that she knows his daughter, Ada. This is a reference to the earlier episode this season, “Spyfall, Part Two,” in which she meets computer pioneer Ada Lovelace (nee Byron) in 1834. Later, the Doctor explains to her companions that the reason they can’t follow her into danger is because she refuses to lose anyone else to Cyber-conversion. This struck me as a direct reference to what happened to Bill in the 2017 Twelfth Doctor two-parter “World Enough and Time”/”The Doctor Falls.” However, the Doctor has seen other people get turned into Cybermen as well over the years, including Danny Pink in the 2014 Twelfth Doctor episode “Death in Heaven.” (Ostensibly, the Brigadier was also turned into a Cyberman in that same episode!) Lastly, the future Cyber-War the Doctor mentions might be the same one referenced in the 1974-5 Fourth Doctor serial “Revenge of the Cybermen,” in which we learn the planet Voga helped defeat the Cybermen by identifying gold dust as their weakness and developing gold dust particle-shooting weapons with the unfortunate name of….glitterguns.
I had an itch to re-read the old WARLORD comics I enjoyed as a child and managed to find this volume on eBay, collecting the first 12 issues of author and artist Mike Grell’s sword and sorcery classic. It’s as fun as I remember, filled with monsters, swashbuckling action, and humor, although being older now it’s easy to see how dated it is. It’s full of cheesy 1970s one-liners (young readers today aren’t going to get the Joe Namath joke in the first issue, for instance) and even cheesier 1970s ideas of gender representation: the men of Skartaris wear loincloths, vests, armor, helmets, and sometimes capes, while the women wear…strategically placed straps of cloth. Still, if you’re in the mood for a fun, fast-moving sword and sorcery comic, THE WARLORD is just what the doctor ordered.
I’m thrilled to announce that after an exclusive period on Google Play, where it garnered more than 100,000 downloads, Nightfire’s inaugural audiobook horror anthology, Come Join Us By the Fire, which includes my original story “Spawning Season,” is now available for free on other platforms, including Spotify, Apple, Kobo, and Libro.fm!
***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***
I was surprised by how much I liked this episode! I really, really liked it! It takes the time to explore the companions as characters, which is something the show has desperately needed for a season and a half, while also delivering a thrilling, scary adventure. It’s also very sneaky! Much like “Fugitive of the Judoon,” this episode starts out apparently being one thing — monsters attack a hospital in 1380 Aleppo — and quickly pivots to become something much more interesting. And, in my opinion, much more frightening.
Not that the creatures attacking the hospital aren’t scary, but the episode’s real threat, Zellin, is nightmare fuel (and brilliantly played by Ian Gelder). The way his fingers detach from his hand and fly out to bury themselves in his victim’s ears in order to harvest their nightmares is creepy in the extreme. As for the companions, I enjoyed getting glimpses into their lives on Earth as well as their deepest fears: Graham’s concern that his cancer will come back (and that his wife Grace blames him for not being able to save her); Ryan’s worry that one day he’ll return home and his friends will have moved on without him; and Yaz’s…um, something to do with running away and no one caring, I think? Her fear was less clear to me than the others. We also get a reminder about the Timeless Child in the Doctor’s nightmare, which makes a hell of a lot more sense as something that would frighten the Doctor than the manifestation of the Doctor’s fear behind the door in the 2011 Eleventh Doctor episode “The God Complex,” which turned out to be…the crack in time. Yawnsville. Should have been the War Doctor sitting in that room, but whatever, it’s been nine years, I’m over it. Mostly.
Zellin’s trap of getting the Doctor to free his partner Rakaya is well executed and surprised me. I loved that the two of them are Immortals, cosmic beings whose lifetime spans eternity, and who look down on the Doctor as something tiny and insignificant. (I’m reminded of a wonderful moment in the 1983 Fifth Doctor serial “Enlightenment,” in which an Eternal discovers the Doctor is a Time Lord and says with some amusement, “A lord of time? Are there lords in such a small domain?”) It’s true that the manner by which the Doctor triumphs over these all-powerful Immortals is a extremely hand-wavey, but for better or worse I’m used to that from Doctor Who.
I thought Tahira was a good character — charismatic, strong, and able to adapt to her surroundings. (Actress Aruhan Galieva did a great job.) She would fit right in as a regular character, and indeed her presence reminded me how desperate I am for Doctor Who to feature a companion from another time period (or planet), rather than always being from contemporary Earth.
And now for some Doctor Who neepery! Ian Gelder, who plays Zellin, previously appeared as Dekker in Torchwood: Children of Earth, and also provided the voice of the Remnants in last season’s “The Ghost Monument” which is when we first heard about the Timeless Child. Ryan sees the Dregs from this season’s earlier episode “Orphan 55” in one of his nightmares. The episode bears a slight resemblance to the disastrous 2012 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Power of Three” (also written by Chris Chibnall), in which the Doctor is at first reluctant to believe the villain is a Shakri because they are “myths in Time Lord history,” an almost identical reaction to the Thirteenth Doctor learning her foe’s name is Zellin. And that’s it for the neepery!
No, I’m just kidding! There is a major moment in the episode when Zellin references, all in the same speech, the Eternals, the Guardians, and the Toymaker! The Eternals are elemental beings of enormous power but zero imagination, who are forced to use other sentient life forms, like humans, for their emotions and creativity. They only appeared on Doctor Who once, in the aforementioned Fifth Doctor serial “Enlightenment,” having stolen various ships and their crews from Earth to have a boat race through space. The Guardians are the closest thing the Doctor Who universe has to a theology. Basically, the White Guardian represents all things good and the Black Guardian represents all things bad — God and the Devil, if you will. Like the Eternals and the Immortals, they pre-date the known universe. The Guardians first appeared in the 1978 Fourth Doctor serial “The Ribos Operation,” in which the White Guardian tasks the Doctor to find the hidden segments of the Key to Time with a warning that the Black Guardian will try to stop him and take the Key for himself. Later, during the Fifth Doctor’s era, the Black Guardian manipulates companion Turlough into trying to kill the Doctor. It doesn’t work out. The Toymaker is a reference to the 1966 First Doctor serial “The Celestial Toymaker,” in which a powerful cosmic being traps the Doctor and his companions in his domain and forces them to play games for their survival. There are lots of theories about what the Toymaker is — an Eternal, a lesser Guardian — but after “Can You Hear Me?” I’m tempted to say the Toymaker is an Immortal like Zellin and Rakaya. (By the way, the Toymaker was played by Michael Gough, best known as Alfred in the 1980s-90s Batman movie series, but he also appeared on Doctor Who again as Hedin, a Time Lord, in the 1983 Fifth Doctor serial “Arc of Infinity.” Even more interesting, Gough was married to Anneke Willis, who played companion Polly Wright in the last season of the First Doctor’s tenure and the first season of the Second’s.)
I’m really enjoying how Doctor Who is embracing the show’s long history and mythology this season. I definitely felt its absence last season. Next up, a visit with Mary Shelley at the famed Villa Diodati!
I don’t have much to say about this one. “Praxeus” is a filler episode with a serviceable Doctor Who story: mysterious deaths on modern day Earth are traced to an alien virus that the Doctor must identify and cure. (Well, it’s the TARDIS that actually comes up with the cure, of course, because the TARDIS is a magical machine that can do anything, even synthesize cures off-screen). The problem, though, is that I’m so invested in this season’s main plot line that I can’t connect with a filler episode like this one. Where is Doctor Ruth? What did the Master discover that caused him to attack the Time Lords? What is the Timeless Child? When is the Master coming back? When is Captain Jack Harkness coming back? Hell, when is Doctor Ruth coming back? We’re in the back half of the season now and I don’t want any more filler.
But that’s not how a Doctor Who season is structured, unfortunately. We’re going to have to wait until the two-part season finale for any answers, and until then it’s likely to be all standalone episodes. So, taking “Praxeus” on its own merits, what did I think? I thought it was kind of meh. Okay but not great, in the same way that “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terrors” was okay but not great. Serviceable really is the word here.
Things I liked about it: Co-writers Peter McTighe and Chris Chibnall split up the companions at the start of the episode, sending them to various parts of the world, and I thought that worked really, really well. As I seem to mention a lot, it’s hard to find something interesting for all three of them to do, so when the show manages to it’s worth pointing out. I very much liked Yaz striking out on her own to discover more information and being courageous enough to follow the alien henchman through the teleportation device to his own turf. I thought Yaz and Gabriela made a good team, too. I wouldn’t mind seeing Gabriela on the show again. The mystery is creepy and interesting, and those infected by the alien virus come to a suitably gruesome, science-fictional end. There’s a nice reversal of the usual Doctor Who trope of the big emotional moment when one character sacrifices their life for the rest of them. Also, abandoned hospitals are great, creepy settings, and I think the bulk of the episode should have taken place in that abandoned hospital in Peru where they find Jamila’s body.
Things I didn’t like: The revelation that Suki Cheng is the alien who brought the virus to Earth. It didn’t make sense to me. How did she get that job at the lab in Madagascar? How long has she been working there? Her partner at the lab, Zach, seems to have known her for a long time, as if they’ve worked together for years, but the virus appears to have only just begun to spread, which means the crash couldn’t have been that long ago. There’s another environmental lecture from the Doctor, although this one is nowhere near as bad (or as long) as the one in “Orphan 55.” This time it’s about how we’re gunking up our planet with too much plastic, which, coincidentally, is what the alien virus feeds on. The reason it makes me groan is not that I’m some kind of anti-environmentalist but because it’s just sloppy writing. You have to trust your audience to get the message. You don’t need Rick Deckard to say, “Oh my God, maybe I’m the bad guy here,” at the end of Blade Runner, you need to lead him and the audience to that conclusion through the action on screen.
There’s not much in the way of Doctor Who neepery in “Praxeus,” either. When the Doctor is trying to figure out the connection between plastic and the infected birds she name-checks the Autons as a possible cause before discarding the idea. The Autons are plastic robots controlled by the Nestene Consciousness, which has power over all forms of plastic, and they date back all the way to the Third Doctor’s very first serial, “Spearhead from Space,” in 1970. Their last appearance on the show was in the Eleventh Doctor episode “The Big Bang” in 2010, which saw companion Rory briefly turned into an Auton through a turn of events we can only call timey-wimey.
This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is Gordon B. White, whose debut collection is As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions. Here is the publisher’s description:
A genderfluid witch in a small Southern town prepares for their Black Cotillion coming out party. Singing worms converge on an old woman and young boy living in a house buried deep underground. Revenge drives an angry spirit through possession after possession in the bare-knuckle boxing ring. A father and son’s canoe trip to one of the world’s “soft places” culminates in an ecstatic encounter with the Weird.
These are just a few of the fifteen stories contained in As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions, Gordon B. White’s debut collection of horror and Weird fiction.
And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Gordon B. White:
My first collection, As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions, collects thirteen stories previously published between 2013 and 2019, as well as two new ones. The published collection is actually its third or fourth iteration — different selections in different permutations were fiddled with again and again to find the right mix of breadth, depth, and cohesion. In the end, it’s far more of a curated exhibit than an archive. There is, however, a ghost in the museum.
I had always written but only began to seriously pursue publication after my father died in 2011. His sudden, vicious battle with cancer threw my world into upheaval. We had been very close and suddenly I was faced with this senseless void. As the brutal realization set in that our time is limited, my lifelong fancy for writing became a burning drive. Those were productive years in the immediate aftermath, and I can see now how I was always writing towards something that I wasn’t quite ready to reckon with.
I won’t go story by story, teasing out what I felt and when, but if each story is a snapshot of a particular mental space, I can point out a few orbs of ectoplasm. “Hair Shirt Drag” is set in a Southeastern town that’s only a few degrees off from where my father grew up. There’s even a family name or two in there, as well as an authentic bit of divination. Similarly, the Rapture lingering over “The Rising Son,” the religion vs. science vs. the void in “The Sputtering Wick of the Stars,” the cycle of birth and death in “Open Fight Night at the Dirtbag Casino” — these all have subdermal elements and hidden references to the time and the interests I shared with my father. He floats in the background, though, never coming into focus.
A few years in, however, and I became convinced I was crafting ornate but empty little puzzle boxes. I wanted to write something truer that could move me and, by extension, readers. I needed to break through the abstractions and charades, but to do that I had to find something that truly affected me. Something that wounded me.
My first stab at writing about my father’s death is the collection’s title story, “As Summer’s Mask Slips.” In it, an adult child goes back to the house where her father once lived, but finds herself followed through the woods by an uncanny presence. She ruminates on the lessons of the past and the loss of comfort, all the while stalked by something that reminds her obliquely of her pain. The woods she walks through, though, are the real woods around my father’s house. The canoe is real, the lake is real. The presence is … well, maybe.
Up until that point, “As Summer’s Mask Slips” was the most difficult piece I had written. I took the dark thoughts and struggles I had been through — that I was still going through — and toured them around the haunted house of my memory. If it wasn’t me, exactly, but the fictional character of Sarah who underwent the ordeal, well, she was the filter I needed.
In fact, when Sarah puts off the difficulty of confronting the empty house by taking a walk through the woods, she thinks: “This … is how I will confront the loss. By coming at it horizontally.” With her help, I did it, too, and for a while after I finished that story, I thought I was done. I had left the emptiness on the far bank as I pushed my craft out across the dark waters. What more could I do?
A couple of years later, I sat down with the relatively academic aim of writing a horror story which featured both non-toxic masculinity and the ecstatic possibility of an encounter with something unworldly. Although madness and despair are the usual bedfellows of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, why couldn’t joy and liberation be there instead? If we live in a finite and circumscribed world, why wouldn’t we rejoice to find those limits were illusions?
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Thinking of positive male role models and how to make sense of the void, I quickly realized I hadn’t finished writing about my father when I finished “As Summer’s Mask Slips.” No, I had ended that one with a canoe on the water, suspended above the darkness but afraid to look, and so that’s where “Birds of Passage” began — in a canoe, but this time moving into the void, but then past it. As it began to take shape, though, I was afraid. I flinched to think of pulling up those memories and drawing on the loss I still very keenly felt, but I didn’t see any other choice.
Where “As Summer’s Mask Slips” was a cipher, “Birds of Passage” was written in a first-person voice close to my own. The realistic parts are taken from a real canoe trip down a real river and a night around the fire which sent up a burning piece of paper like a phoenix. There is a real love between the father and son, and real sacrifice, too, although that part is in a fictionalized form. Nevertheless, the father in the story meets his end as bravely as my own father did.
But while my autobiography and my fiction were running neck and neck as I drafted “Birds of Passage,” I — the real me — had not made the same peace with my father’s death that I knew the narrator had to by the end. I was dreading it, drawing up the brink, yet a miracle occurred as I hit the last passage. The momentum of processing it all – reliving it all – through the writing hit, swooping beneath me like a wind and carrying me up off of the page, past the fear and sadness that had been with me for almost a decade. I felt a very real weight slip from me as I wrote the final lines about wings of fire.
I would have been proud of that story even if was never published. It was published, though, and some readers have told me that it lifts them up, too. Knowing that my father is still out there, shining in a different form, I feel a warm contentment.
And so, while the void is still out there, I now also take comfort in believing that there are little embers in all our stories. It takes patience and it takes courage to fan them into flames, but once we do, we can light the way forward.
Gordon B. White has lived in North Carolina, New York, and the Pacific Northwest. A graduate of the Clarion West Writing Workshop (2017), his fiction has appeared in venues such asPseudopod,Daily Science Fiction, and the Bram Stoker Award® winning anthology Borderlands 6. Gordon also contributes book reviews and interviews to outlets including The Outer Dark podcast, Nightmare Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and Hellnotes.
This gorgeous graphic novel adapts Neil Gaiman’s original short story of the same name, a gothic, vampiric take on the classic tale of Snow White. It’s beautifully written, unexpectedly erotic, and absolutely riveting. Gaiman takes the well-known tropes of the Snow White story and molds each of them into something new and exciting. Colleen Doran’s art, inspired by the work of turn-of-the-last-century Irish artist Harry Clarke, is breathtaking and captures the feel of the story intimately and perfectly. I adored SNOW, GLASS, APPLES, and if you like Neil Gaiman’s dark, horror-tinged fantasies, you will too.