'Where the Veil Is Thin' anthology edited by Alana Joli Abbott and Cerece Rennie Murphy, includes Seanan McGuire, C.S.E. Cooney, & More
'Where the Veil Is Thin' is a rather dark faerie anthology edited by Alana Joli Abbot and Cerece Rennie Murphy and featuring other names like Seanan McGuire, C.S.E. Cooney, David Bowles, Minsoo King, and many more.
The stories contained with in are far from the whimsical tales of children, but they're born of tales from around the world. Some benevolent, others.. well, some things just barely out of sight.. existing on the periphery of our world.. are best left there.
I eagerly began this collection, in part.. because I'd never read anything from Seanan McGuire, but I'd heard great things about her. The introduction at the forefront of the book.. however, from Jim C. Hines, absolutely set the atmosphere as he spoke of harmless stories we learn as children.. things like the trading of a tooth for money under our pillows in the night, then drew those ideas together with what many of us have become accustomed to reading as adults.. the risks included when we engage in a fairy bargain. And.. let's face it, that's exactly what the tooth fairy trade-off is.. a bargain.
It's funny that as I've read dark fae stories over the years and learned some of the rules, incur no debts with thanks and apologies, don't enter into bargains if you cannot fully see all the possibilities left out of the structure of wording, and never eat things provided by them.. especially across the veil in their world.. I never really sat back and connected them with those childhood experiences.
The first couple of stories were admittedly, mildly interesting perspectives on the old tales, but the anthology did indeed begin to pick up when I reached McGuire's offering.
'See A Fine Lady' was such an unorthodox story right from the start. Set in our very modern world, not just the urban space.. but literally a Target store, an employee sees a most extraordinary thing. Attempting to get closer, to convince herself she isn't crazy, things only become more bizarre. A seemingly simple decision made leads to a much more complex situation.
My favorite story in the collection is 'Or Perhaps Up' by C.S.E. Cooney. I had never heard of her before, but Wikipedia states she's best known for her fantasy poetry and short stories and has won the Rhysling Award for her poem 'The Sea King's Second Bride' and the World Fantasy Award--Collection for 'Bone Swans.
It feels almost tragic that I've never read anything penned by her before, as she writes with an ethereal mixture of hope and despair that tugs right at my heart. I seldom become so invested in a short story as I did with this one. She managed within just a few pages to make me care deeply for each of her characters and I love the world she created. This story and this author were an unexpected gem buried within the pages for me.
"We re-labeled all traditionally "family" holidays as "Feasts of the Forsaken," in which any friend estranged from blood-ties or too far distant to claim them could come celebrate with us."
Another highlight was 'Don't Let Go' by Alana Joli Abbott which delves into a side of Nordic lore I don't see often and mixing it seamlessly with Celtic legends I knew well. The story which seems to start off so lightly, progresses into a darkness with a glimpse of shadow and then small, subtle movements until you are desperately hopeful and fearful at once.
There are plenty of wonderful stories in this anthology and if you enjoy short stories, you should definitely pick it up. I have a couple of others that really stood out for me.. like 'The Loophole' by L. Penelope and 'The Seal-Woman's Tale' by Alethea Kontis. One is surprisingly sweet and the other borders on the horrible in spots, but both will leave an indelible impression on the reader.. and I loved them.
For the third and final day of 'The Hollow Gods' release celebration here at Betwixt The Sheets, the brilliant author--A.J. Vrana took some time out of her very busy schedule to grant me an interview.
Click the image to the left or use the 'Interviews' button at the top of the page to get some insight into her world!
The Lost King
The Hollow Gods
Kai found himself standing barefoot in the woods. The faint smell of smoke wafted from somewhere nearby, voices shouting, closing in. Crimson blood soaked the mud and snow around him. Gradually, Kai realized he was surrounded by death. Animal limbs and entrails were strewn across the tainted earth. Alongside them lay mangled wolves, maimed and disfigured, the hinges of their jaws ripped open in grotesque snarls of agony. As he walked amidst the carnage, the smoke grew stronger, cinders rising to the sky as the smog thickened in his lungs.
The bloody trail led into a village. It smelled of Black Hollow, but there were no roads or cars, no buildings made of brick, and no alleyways to hide in. Houses were aflame, roofs collapsing as wood turned to ash. At the mouth of the tiny settlement was a pyre, ropes encircling a black, charred mass. It was shaped like a human, the outline of the skull still visible amidst the blaze, her mouth agape—frozen in a silent, eternal cry of terror.
A shrill call drew him back towards the red-soaked earth. A raven crawled, his wing broken and his leg writhing, towards the body of a dead child. The boy was pristine—midnight hair stark against his waxy skin, parted grey lips and glassy, lifeless eyes giving him the appearance of a porcelain doll. The raven bobbed his head as he curled his talon around the boy’s swollen fingers—that one, pearl black eye gleaming before he plunged his beak into the corpse’s abdomen, tunneling his way inside. A satisfied rattle echoed from the scavenger’s bubbling throat as he devoured all he found, his slick form gradually disappearing as he burrowed into the hollowed cadaver.
The boy’s chest wall swelled, bulges pulsating under the flesh. His head lulled to the side, his jaw slackening with each undulating distention. The convulsions faded out, an eerie stillness following the possession before an arm jerked, a leg twitched—and finally, an aberrant gasp for air ripped through the boy. As if pulled by puppet strings, he flowed upright in one smooth motion, his hand twisting as the puppeteer grappled for control. Grasping the boy by his chin, the hand snapped the jaw back into place, teeth clamping together with a click...click...click. His neck jerked this way and that, snapping in and out of place before it grew accustomed to the new range of motion. Slowly, the head turned towards Kai, tilting to a near right angle—wide, pitch-black eyes boring into his soul.
THE HOLLOW GODS
Published: July 28, 2020
Publisher: The Parliament House
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Horror, Magical Realism
Age Group: New Adult / Adult
When I knew I wanted to do a three-day celebration for the launch of 'The Hollow Gods,' I asked author -- A.J. Vrana if she thought she could pin down Kai and coerce him into answering some questions for her.
I love watching interactions between writers and their creations. I find them fascinating, as the characters can be so stubborn at times, yet you get a chance to see a bit more of them than you might otherwise within the story itself. Turns out Kai is exactly as we'd think he'd be...
Be sure to keep reading for the interview with Kai and the poster giveaway below!
CHARACTER ARTIST: VALENTINA REMENAR
The Hollow Gods
Black Hollow is a town with a dark secret.
For centuries, residents have foretold the return of the Dreamwalker—an ominous figure from local folklore said to lure young women into the woods and possess them. Yet the boundary between fact and fable is blurred by a troubling statistic: occasionally, women do go missing. And after they return, they almost always end up dead.
When Kai wakes up next to the lifeless body of a recently missing girl, his memory blank, he struggles to clear his already threadbare conscience.
Miya, a floundering university student, experiences signs that she may be the Dreamwalker’s next victim. Can she trust Kai as their paths collide, or does he herald her demise?
And after losing a young patient, crestfallen oncologist, Mason, embarks on a quest to debunk the town’s superstitions, only to find his sanity tested.
A maelstrom of ancient grudges, forgotten traumas, and deadly secrets loom in the foggy forests of Black Hollow. Can three unlikely heroes put aside their fears and unite to confront a centuries-old evil? Will they uncover the truth behind the fable, or will the cycle repeat?
Kai, why don’t you clean your damn cabin?
Are you fucking kidding me? Have you tried keeping a deserted cabin in the ass-crack of the woods clean? It doesn’t even have all its windows! I’ve got raccoons raiding the pantry for peanut butter and squirrels shitting on the kitchen table. Besides, have you looked at any cleaning supplies lately? That chemical shit’s expensive, and I’m going to need some high-grade bleach to get the bloodstains out.
Do you feel remorse for literally murdering people, because frankly in your shoes, I would not. And do you ever feel remorse for literally murdering BUNNIES, because frankly in your shoes, I STILL WOULD.
I couldn’t give less of a diarrheic shit about killing bunnies. Have you seen those fuckers reproduce? They will literally destroy ecosystems. Consider me nature’s equalizer. As for the humans…come to think of it—same rules apply.
On the subject of busses—I’ve been told that the reason I hate them so much has to do with the cleaning solution used on the fabric bits of bus seats. I think this is BS and busses are actually just evil. What’s your take?
If you think my cabin’s dirty, what do you think they’re trying to cover up on buses with those cleaning solutions? Those tubular monstrosities with their satanic flatulence and bug-eyed faces (what the fuck are those headlights?!) can die in a goddamn fire. There’s no such thing as a smooth bus ride. Every bump in the road feels like a two-by-four paddling my ass, and my brain feels like a scrambled egg on a hot skillet from the rumbling and chattering. Being trapped on a moving, closed-off hellscape with no air circulation and a dozen other mouth-breathers is hard no, thanks. Definitely evil.
What would your DREAM Starbucks order be, if you could have unlimited modifiers and it was free?
Listen, I’ve never been to a Starbucks. That’s where busy people with money go when they don’t have the brain cells to function, so they can guzzle black bean juice and pretend to be sentient again. Do they have whisky? Wait—you said unlimited modifiers, right? Can I get black bean juice with whisky? Ah, fuck it, just give me the whisky.
…Also, what the fuck is a S’mores Frappuccino? Asking for a friend…
If you were going to get a tattoo, what would it be?
My hunting knife, on the inside of my forearm. That way, every time I punch someone, I can feel like I’m hitting them with my favourite pointy object.
Who does your haircut, Kai?
Half the assholes in America can’t deal with quarantine hair, but I’ve been in “cabin quarantine” since I was sixteen. After giving yourself a few bald spots with an electric shaver (stolen, of course), you get the hang of it. That, or you find a drunk barber at your nearest dive bar and dare them to give you a haircut after seven shots of tequila. Results may vary.
Kai, what did trees ever do to you? There’s no need for bodily violence against them. And please, leave the squirrels alone.
I am literally being stalked by a tree. STALKED. It’s almost like you’re blaming the victim here. Are you going to ask what I was wearing next? Tell me the trees can’t help themselves? And fuck the squirrels. Bastards shit on my table all the time.
Workout routine, because damn.
Tip one: Don’t have any money. Anything you want, you gotta fight someone for it.
Tip two: Don’t live in town. That way you gotta walk a long way to get to everyone you beat up every day.
Tip three: Get really drunk on an empty stomach, then try to find your way home. If any trees get in your way, crush ‘em with your abs.
Tip four: Get possessed by a malicious spirit. Keeps you on your toes. Nothing firms up the glutes like a bus barreling at your hallucinating ass at 40 miles an hour.
What’s a physical scar you have with the funniest backstory?
Clipped my ass on a bent nail during a back-alley hookup. 2/10. Would not recommend.
What’s your favourite band?
Something loud and screamy. Think Deftones or Chevelle.
What did you do to get that nasty cut on his hand?
Refer to workout question. I think his name was Fred. Or Jake. No—Clint? Some dumbass with unimaginative parents.
If my Kai (from Marrow Charm) and you got into a battle royale arena match, what random item would you turn into an unconventional weapon.
A raccoon. Fuckers know how to scrap, especially when there’s bologna on the line.
Boxers or briefs?
If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?
Sir, do you think you are more dummy or thicc?
Hey—I’m a complex individual, thanks. I can be equal parts both.
What’s your guilty pleasure? Like, what would you never tell anyone about that brings you true joy?
Wait—if I wouldn’t tell anyone about it, then by definition I can’t answer this question. I promise my guilty pleasure is not being covered in hamsters, though. I’m a man of simple tastes.
What’s your spirit animal?
*squints* Did Cosmopolitan send you?
What’s your ideal date?
Split a bottle of whisky. Use the empty bottle to start a bar brawl. Make out atop the comatose bodies. Grabs some ice cream after.
What do you hate most about yourself?
You mean besides the demonic possession? I don’t know, I’m a little emotionally constipated, but I can’t really afford a therapist. Maybe that’s why I keep waking up next to all those—wait, what are we talking about? Yeah, demonic possession. Next question.
What is something you appreciate about yourself?
What’s there not to appreciate?
What’s your take on the following examples of Cosmo’s weirdest sex tips?
You’ve got to be careful, or that door’s going to hit you when I open it. Also, haven’t we already established my cabin is filthy? You really shouldn’t be on your knees.
Bits? What happened to the whole package? Did the “goddess” smite it?
I know I said we’d get ice cream after the bar brawl, but my face has five orifices and only one is suitable for tongues and ice cream, thanks.
For…digestion…right? Look, if the goal is to make me think you’re food, just rub on some steak juice.
Easy there, Hannibal Lector.
A. J. Vrana is a Serbian-Canadian academic and writer from Toronto, Canada. She lives with her two rescue cats, Moonstone and Peanut Butter, who nest in her window-side bookshelf and cast judgmental stares at nearby pigeons. Her doctoral research examines the supernatural in modern Japanese and former-Yugoslavian literature and its relationship to violence.
When not toiling away at caffeine-fueled, scholarly pursuits, she enjoys jewelry-making, cupcakes, and concocting dark tales to unleash upon the world.
Title: The Skald’s Black Verse by Jordan Loyal Short
Series: The Dreadbound Ode (#1)
Publication Date: Re-Release Available August 6, 2020
Genre: Epic Grimdark Fantasy
Age Group: Adult
When a soldier’s murder sparks rebellion in the tiny village of Skolja, Brohr’s past marks him as the prime suspect. Haunted by his brother’s ghost, and drawn into a web of dark pacts and tangled loyalties, Brohr must choose between the path of vengeance set before him, and a chance to forge his own fate.
From the shadows, an all but extinct race of alien demigods have begun the end game of their millennia-spanning war, and one has chosen Brohr for his closing gambit.
But Brohr’s grandfather harbors a dark secret that will change everything.
Above it all, a dread portent looms in the sky, spelling the death of Brohr’s world. With doom spiraling toward them, Brohr must lead an unlikely rebellion, unearth disturbing family secrets, and tame the raging ghost that haunts him. Can Brohr lead his people out of darkness, or will he succumb to his own terrifying bloodlust, and destroy the very people he has sworn to save?
Don't want to wait to read it? You can buy it below on Amazon or head to the author's site and click the link to read a sample chapter right now!
Looking for ways to entertain the kids this summer and still maintain social distancing guidelines? Look no further! I've found some fun ideas to share along with the Book Scents Summer Citronella Candles!
Either use the menu at the top of the page and click on 'Bookish Creators' or click the link below!
"I'd never say it out loud, and even admitting it to myself gives me chills, but if I could have a fiddle made of my daddy's bones, I'd take it. I'd take it and play it and learn all the secrets he kept, all the sorrows he bore inside his breast."
'Ghost Wood Song' by Erica Waters is a story that unfolds in one of those beautifully, unearthly atmospheric settings. Even before we start to learn about Shady Grove, the girl named after an old bluegrass song that her late father played for her growing up, the tale comes across like an eerie dreamscape.
Early on, it's not even necessarily the family's ability to call ghosts to them, using a fiddle said to belong to their family for generations. As I was reading, I kept getting a sense of a dark misty thicket.. nestled somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. And though the music they played centered around old bluegrass numbers, my mind kept conjuring images of 'Cross Road Blues' and deals that can only end badly. My thoughts were not related to the story directly, but the writer's way with the weight of words, still injected them into the feeling I got from the book.
"My family history -- everything we've lost, all our ghosts and all our griefs -- those feel like the truest part of me, the beating heart of my music. Playing Sarah's way is like taking an ax to my deepest, most secret roots."
Shady is a deeply complex girl, shrouded in poor, rural stereotypes. She lives in a trailer at the edges of town with her mama, her brother Jesse, little sister Honey, and her stepdad.. Jim. Her mom is the traditional type.. at home taking care of Honey or worrying about having dinner on for her husband Jim, who's the typical loud, kind of mean-spirited man of the house. Jesse is rebellious, full of anger.. especially towards their stepdad, but he's extremely protective of Shady, even though he's kind of a jerk to her sometimes too. He's carrying a lot of baggage and you can really see it on him like a second skin.
It's interesting that though Waters uses the kind of stereotypes one might expect in a story like this, she doesn't rely on them. They're just a framework from which the real depth of each character grows and changes, seemingly before our eyes as we begin to see beneath the veneer. All of the characters that have any real focus in the story, are richly painted, each layer laid bare for the reader to see.
There's a love triangle between Shady, her best friend Sarah, and this 'rodeo boy' as she calls him, named Cedar. Sometimes these can become too heavy for the story or too convoluted, redirecting attention that should be on the plot to what choices are going to be made, but it's just more of a soft exploration of what she really wants. Somebody steady who steps up and puts their cards all on the table.. or someone who seems to be incredibly uncertain, warm one moment and cold the next. The result is lovely and though as often happens in these cases, Shady is a little slow to commit, what I like is that at least there's an honesty about it. She's sincere and she's open about her struggle and she tries to do her best not to drag it out any longer than she has to.
"I know how powerful grief is. I've felt it pound through my body like ocean waves, leaving me half-drowned."
When Shady's brother is accused of murder and her family is thrown into chaos, she has to dig up long buried family secrets in an attempt to save him. She has to figure out how to ferret those secrets out of the dead.
I genuinely loved this book. I absolutely fell for Shady and Cedar. I loved and hated right along side her. The secrets are deep within the roots of the family and they've grown toxic, affecting everything they touch. There are a lot of references to old bluegrass songs and poems strewn throughout the novel, effective catalysts to help nudge you in the right direction emotionally to really hear the story the author's telling. In fact, I listened to some of those songs, read some of those poems and their stories as well.. as I made my way through the carefully lined path the author offers up.
If there's anything at all that I feel Waters could have done better, it's the origin of the fiddle. It's not that how it came to be isn't good enough, quite the opposite. Rather, the origin is really good.. but to equal the power of the story she's woven here, the presentation was not as impactful as it could have been. When its story is told, it's a bit more casual than I expected. It's good.. but it could have been great.
This debut is not to be missed. Erica Waters is going to do amazing things in her writing career.. and you are going to want to be there to witness them. 'Ghost Wood Song' is easily one of the best reads of the year.
At first glance, 'From the Dark We Came' by J. Emery, had a fascinating premise for me.. and right up front I'll tell you.. there's nothing wrong with the story. The writing and story are fine, the characters sparked my interest right away, and the paranormal topic is generally something I enjoy.
Belar is a monster hunter who seems to do especially well at executing vampires, of course.. he has some tricks up his sleeves that his fellow agents don't. He has one of the best kill records in the organization.. in fact.. only one monster has ever escaped him.
He's a skilled agent who hides by day as a mild-mannered music teacher, often starting rumors about himself just so others don't get curious about his long disappearances and stir worse ones on their own. He purposely lives on the outskirts of the town to limit the visibility of his comings and goings.
One night, late returning from a city gathering.. having learned socializing with the townsfolk wherever he sets up helps him stay under their radar, he finds the monster that got away inside his home. Having already tried to kill Cassian twice, he discovers the vampire wants to hire him. Apparently, one of his own kind wants him dead and they've been using the hunter to do the job.
For me, there are components here of a great story. I love the way they begin at odds with one another, though Belar harbors prejudices regarding the vampire's kind, Cassian seems to shrug much of it off with the kind of amusement only the truly hard to kill creatures can. They both have secrets that impact the way they deal with others, things that spurred them to make the choices that put them on a trajectory toward one another.
In part because of the secrets between them, Belar struggles to tell who in his sphere is friend and who is foe and there's a chance there to really exploit that, but Emery just doesn't.
As I said before, the book was fine. It was a quick read with likeable characters. I didn't find the story particularly moving because there just isn't a lot of development done with Cassian or Belar. We're sort of tossed the bare bones of their pasts, then it's not extrapolated on.
There's even a discussion of a situation from Cassian's history that is directly tied to the reason they've both been targeted in the way they have, but the only thing really focused on is the finality of that situation. If you give it a try, you'll see it. An heirloom is brought up as a way of identifying a connection between those involved. There's a known betrayal mentioned.. and even a trial.. but none of that is followed up anywhere later in the novel.
Both Cassian and Belar have so much potential. In an almost.. crib notes explanation.. their paths have forged these magnetic characters, but the range of experience and emotion is just never shared.
If you want a quick easy read, it's still worth a look. The author could definitely grow from here and do much more with their skill. I know I'm hoping they do.
"I can't look at Elle after what she did, and if I have to fight this battle, cleanse my Brayburn blood, I have to do it away from here, where I can't hear the water whisper, where I can't feel it's pull on my heart, nevermind my body."
'Mayhem' by Estelle Laure is credited as being The Lost Boys meets Wilder girls in a supernatural feminist YA novel.
Now.. I haven't read Wilder Girls, it's on my neverending TBR list, but I have loved The Lost Boys since it was released back in 1987, which is also the year 'Mayhem' takes place. It was the summer between junior high and high school for me and I was wildly into music.. pretty boys and girls.. and parties already. Most of my friends were in bands.. or chasing the enchanting characters in the bands.. and I was on the cusp of realizing I would work in and around the entertainment industry for my whole life. In fact, that moment was just a couple short months and one journalism teacher away.
Already, I was enamored with horror and vampires.. but pretty vampires in horror were the quintessential for me. Then along came this film that shook my world. There was a tale to be told, faces I'd never seen before and immediately fell for, and the temptation of mortality. The great moral dilemma.
As fondly as I remember the film, when I read the synopsis for 'Mayhem,' I knew I had to read it.
"He and Roxy met at a bonfire. He was dancing like he was part of the fire."
"He was her true love. That, she knew from the first night they met, from the way he ran at the ocean like he was picking a fight.."
The story centers around Mayhem Brayburn, a girl who along with her mother Roxy, are on the run from a tyrannical stepfather/husband. After years of his abuse, he finally goes too far and her mother takes her and escapes toward her childhood home.
Santa Maria, California may hold all the family secrets that Mayhem has never been able to reach through Roxy, but that's all about to change. There, she meets her aunt Elle's new family, begins to discover what it really means to be a Brayburn, and why her mother remained resolute in avoiding the ancestral place for so many years.
What I love about this story is that despite Roxy's struggling hold on her will and Mayhem's festering anger and frustration, there is a uniquely beautiful mother-daughter connection between them. These women have been through hell already. The result is a sense of fragility about Roxy that Mayhem is desperate to protect. Even in the early moments of the book, her main focus is not herself. It's her mother's safety and state of mind.
Though there are tensions between Roxy and Elle, deep down the theme is the same. Love, family, and loyalty. Women who either are strong.. or trying to remember how to be.. standing together. Not tearing each other down.
"Everything comes with a price. Every victory has a trail of blood behind it. Maybe the sorrow I am dragging behind me means a victory is coming my way."
Elle's kids.. are something akin to Max's boys.. but the dynamic is very different.. and the grip Santa Maria holds on them is not what we knew of Santa Clara either. Honestly, few people in Santa Maria are exactly as they seem and there were times Laure had me guessing at things that I would only change my mind about a few pages later. I will say I didn't get nearly enough of Jason. There's a deep well of character there, you can see it in all the quiet glances and soft words. We get glimpses of it and I loved them, but I feel like it could have been a much richer experience for me.
Another interesting approach Laure took was a narrative shift between Mayhem and entries in a journal passed through the hands of Brayburn women that came before her. Heartfelt writings detailing their loves and losses along the way. Tragic decisions that led to unforeseen outcomes for many of them.. and make no mistake, there are some reckonings coming. The question is how it will all play out in the end.
"You know," she says finally, "you don't get over things like losing your one and only. You just learn to live around the loss."
I had seen another reviewer state that this book was no good. That it was just The Lost Boys flipped and basically copied directly. The idea crushed me because that's not what I got from the summary and obviously it's never what you want from a retelling. You want to see a story from a new perspective, not just a shift in the individual telling it. But they were wrong. Since I knew that was their opinion going in, I even went back and rewatched the film to make sure everything was still fresh in my mind when I got about halfway through the book.
Sure, there are a few moments here and there. The Frog brothers do indeed appear and they maintain the personalities we know, but they really just offer a sense of familiarity. There is a quote near the end of the book that is directly taken from the film, but the references are used sparingly. Locations like the cliffs, some atmospheric similarities.. those appear as well, but more like landmarks orienting you to where you are in the story.. tethering you between the two tellings.. and holding you suspended in a state that is like a memory that never was.
I can't say enough good things about this story. Give it a chance, you'll be so glad you picked it up.