Interview with Lee Murray – Part 2

In the previous blog post, we spoke with New Zealand writer Lee Murray about her dual win at the Bram Stoker awards this year, and her journey with Black Cranes. (Click here for the first interview in this series.) Here we cover her second award-winning book, Grotesque: Monster Stories.

  1. Grotesque: Monster Stories was your first collection, and it won a Bram Stoker for best collection. After all the books you’re famed for, why the move to short stories? What challenges did you face in comparison to publishing novels and novellas?

Not exactly a ‘move’ to short stories; I’d been writing short fiction for anthologies and magazines, and less frequently for competitions, in order to improve my writing, and gain some early credits. Short fiction is a demanding form, with every word vital for creating ambiance, character, and plot. There is the tricky balance of adhering to the theme of the submission call, while also delivering something fresh and engaging. And there is the discipline of sticking to a deadline, word count, and other constraints imposed by the market. So, while creating my novels, I was simultaneously writing short stories to dip my toe into the mechanics of the publishing industry. I didn’t occur to me to gather those works into a collection. Grotesque: Monster Stories might not have happened at all if Steve Dillon at Things in the Well hadn’t approached me for a volume not long after the release of Into the Ashes, the third book in the Taine McKenna series, when I was at a bit of a loose end regarding my own writing. Between jobs, if you like. So we selected some likely stories in my back list, identified a unifying theme and scope (monsters, horror, breadth of style and form), and highlighted some potential gaps which I set about filling with fresh material, including a Taine McKenna novella. I approached it as if I were the editor of an anthology, only in this case I was the sole contributor.

2. Your own stories in Black Cranes, as well as the ones in Grotesque, cover a lot of cultural horror – from New Zealand to China and even other places. Is this a deliberate attempt to educate through literature? What kind of research goes into building a story around traditions, rituals, and cultural events?

No. While I hope that ultimately my writing educates and informs, I think it can be dangerous to make education the focus of our writing. We have to remember that readers are discerning; they know when we’re trying to clobber them over the head with our ideals, and it’s the kind of thing that makes them put a book down. Far better to write a narrative that engages and entertains and inject your theme into the book in more subtle ways, such as through symbolism, metaphor, and character responses. Recently, I’ve been writing more at the intersection of culture and myth, exploring my Asian heritage and Māori culture of my country. “I’ve always felt a yearning for Māori stories,” I wrote in a Medium interview by my Cranes sister, Christina Sng. “There are a lot of shared values and beliefs between the Māori culture of my homeland and the Chinese culture of my heritage: a certain synergy. Both cultures are founded on the deeds of supernatural ancestors, live by a mandate to protect the natural world, are imbued with a sense of community over individual, and tell simple compelling tales which teach respect and honor.” I do a lot of secondary thorough research—online, library resources—but occasionally I’ll use interviews and other primary sources to inform my work. I also send my work out for review and sensitivity assessment before I submit it, because we can’t see our own biases. When it comes to traditional culture and beliefs, authenticity and intent are key factors, as well as ensuring the dynamic aspects of character, since none of us are homogenous; we’re all the sum of myriad influences and identities.

3. You have co-written the Path of Ra series with Dan Rabarts. Could you tell us about the experience in co-writing a book? How does each author’s writing and storytelling style sync with the other to form the final product?

Here’s what I had to say on this topic when interviewed by Claire Fitzpatrick for The Horror Tree back in 2018: “The more I learn about collaborative writing projects, the more I realise that there are a million ways to go about it. It’s always different, depending on the medium, the subject matter, and the writers in question. With Dan and me, we have a kind of Lucy and Linus van Pelt thing going on: where I am the bossy big sister, and Dan is the highly independent little brother, who likes to charge off and do his own thing. Of course, that makes me even crabbier! So, we’ll have a basic plan, and we’ll start out writing chapter about, and by Chapter Four, Dan will have Matiu racing down a dark alley, dodging explosions. Then I’ll have to come up with an explanation for the ‘diversion’, since I’m responsible for the science, writing the uptight stickler-for-rules science consult. Aargh! It’s actually a lot of fun, our real-life process mimicking the relationship you see on the page between our protagonists, Matiu and Penny. I haven’t heard of any other teams writing in quite the same way, but it seems to work for us.”

For our Path of Ra work, we chose a ‘he-said, she-said’ approach to retain very distinct voices for the dual protagonists, so we kept our editing light for that reason. When I wrote Mika (a Kiwi-NZ version of the Wizard of Oz for youth), a collaboration with Piper Mejia, author of The Better Sister and Other Stories, and Dispossessed, we also wrote the book from a basic plan using a turn-about chapter-by-chapter approach, but when the novella draft was completed, I went back and ‘smoothed’ the narrative, sanding off any identifying edges so the story appears to have been written by a single author. There are so many ways to approach collaboration, a no one way is best, but possibly the most important factor is your choice of collaborator because it really is like raising a child with someone; you have to want what’s best for the work.

Path of Ra series, co-written by Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts

4. As an editor, you work with writers across science fiction, fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, thrillers; a mix of poets and prose writers. How do you balance your roles as writer and editor?

I love a fruit salad of genres and forms, and the privilege that comes with working with other writers (and having a small part in shaping their work), so editing projects are a passion on mine. Plus, I’ve forged some incredible friendships as an anthologist; the Black Cranes sisterhood is a good example. I do have to hold myself back from becoming too much of a chipmunk, though. I’m tempted to drop the nut I’m carrying, for another enticing nut I’ve encountered on the way. I’ll get enthusiastic and jump in, taking on new projects at the expense of my own writing. It doesn’t help that I’m a slow writer, with Hemingwayesque wordcounts of just 500 words a day. I don’t typically do the ‘word vomit’ drafts that other writers speak of. I blame my inner editor, a perfectionist, who always has her lips to my ear, saying things like, “Make it lean. You don’t need that. Delete that clutter. What is that: a cliché? No, no, no.” She slows me down a lot; very annoying. So, while I set out to be a writer, and that is still my intent, I find editing easier. If I’m procrastinating, I’ll often edit instead. So, yes, getting that balance is essential and I’m not sure I’ve cracked it yet.

5. Thank you, Lee, for taking the time for this interview. A final question for readers – What and who are your own favorite books and writers for reading? Any authors who inspire your writing, or books you would recommend picking up?

Oh dear. I always find this question very hard to answer, Renata, because there are so many great books, and I don’t want to offend any of my wonderful colleagues. However, I’d be grateful if people who haven’t yet discovered them would pick up a copy of my Bram Stoker Award®-winning works Grotesque: Monster Stories and Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. Supporting my work means I can continue to write, so I’m grateful for any reader support. And if you do pick up a copy of Black Cranes and enjoy it, please look for other work by our wonderful contributors, including Geneve Flynn, Elaine Cuyegkeng, Nadia Bulkin, Grace Chan, Rena Mason, Gabriela Lee, Angela Yuriko Smith, and Christina Sng.  Please also show some love to Alma Katsu, who wrote our foreword and who has appeared on the Bram Stoker Award® finals twice in two successive years with The Deep and The Hunger. Katsu’s latest work, Red Widow, is a spy thriller, so sure to be an intriguing fast-paced read. Tori Eldridge, who lent the book so much support, has her wonderful Lily Wong series, Asian American thriller fiction with a kick-ass protagonist, and E Lily Yu, who also endorsed the collection, has her newly released fairy tale-inspired On Fragile Waves—wonderful works to discover. For more horror fiction, there is no better place to start than the Bram Stoker Award® finals list which is crammed with incredible stories from novel through to short fiction.

Happy reading! Thank you so much for having me.

Reading resources shared by Lee Murray:

~For Lee’s interview with Christina Sng: Sng, Christina (2021). How Heritage Affects the Stories We Live and the Stories We Tell: An interview with Lee Murray. 23 Feb 2021 https://magazine.interstellarflightpress.com/how-heritage-affects-the-stories-we-live-and-the-stories-we-tell-bdd381f7a620

~Interview with Claire Fitzpatrick: Fitzpatrick, Claire (2018). The Horror Tree Presents…An Interview with Lee Murray. 20 October 2018 https://horrortree.com/the-horror-tree-presentsan-interview-with-lee-murray/

~Bram Stoker awards list for horror fiction: http://www.thebramstokerawards.com/uncategorized/winners-nominees/

Interview with Lee Murray – Part 1

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows, Bram Stoker Awards). Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories. She is proud to have edited seventeen volumes of speculative fiction, including international Bram Stoker Award®-winning title Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women co-edited with Geneve Flynn. Her latest work, released May 2021, is non-fiction title, Mark My Words: Read the Submission Guidelines and Other Self-editing Tips co-authored with Angela Yuriko Smith. She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021 for her poetry collection Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud.

In the first of a two-part series, in honor of her double win at the Bram Stoker awards this year, we talk to Lee about the award-winning anthology Black Cranes.

  1. Hi Lee, first up, congratulations on your dual win at the Bram Stoker awards this year. You’ve been a five-time nominee overall and now won two awards in the same year. How does it feel to be acknowledged as one of the best in the horror writing genre around the world?

Thank you, Renata. To be honest, it feels like I’ve brought home a gold in two events in the same discipline at the Olympics. In literary circles, the Bram Stoker Awards® are the ultimate accolade for a dark fiction writer, so to win two is simply overwhelming. I can hardly believe it. Such a kind acknowledgement from my horror colleagues. Although, rather than being the ‘best’, the awards are given for ‘superior achievement’, recognition that the books selected have resonated for readers at the moment. When the pandemic was escalating, we were half-way through writing Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, a collection of tales by horror writers of Southeast Asian descent on the themes of otherness and expectation. We considered postponing the release date, but with anti-Asian sentiment on the rise, it seemed even more important to push on. In retrospect, it was a good call. People needed to read these stories in this moment. With Grotesque: Monster Stories, the pandemic might also have been a factor, although there has always been an interest in New Zealand dark fiction in overseas markets. The fact that Grotesque is a book of monster stories, might be significant, since monsters allow us to explore our fears from a safe distance. But do awards make a difference? In my case, I’m always convinced there was some kind of mistake, that people are going to find out I’m not who they think I am, and it makes me want to work harder, to write better fiction.

2. You co-edited Black Cranes – this year’s Bram Stoker winner for best anthology – with Geneve Flynn. With one editor in New Zealand, another in Australia, the publisher in the US, and the contributing writers scattered in different countries, how challenging was it to bring the book to fruition?

Being stuck at the bottom of the globe in New Zealand, I’d already had some experience as an anthologist, bringing together writers from all over the world using simple techniques like email and messaging. Then, when the pandemic erupted, it forced everyone to embrace platforms like zoom, teams, and discord, for our work and social connection, so in a way that’s been the silver lining of the pandemic; the barriers have come down when it comes to bringing together communities of creatives using technology. We’re a little less hung up on professionalism in favour of connection. By now, we’ve met everyone’s cat, seen myriad children run by half naked in the background, and have an intimate knowledge of the speaker’s weekend wardrobe. We’ve become familiar with online book launches, zoom readings and panel discussions, vlogs and pods, virtual conventions, as well as more innovative ways of promoting literary works. Zoom events with our Black Cranes contributors, for example, have served to celebrate the anthology and cement our connection. That said, it was an in- person meeting with my eventual co-editor, Geneve Flynn, and a recognition of our shared experience that prompted the book Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. We were attending a conference in Brisbane and, being conscientious Asian girls, we both turned up too early for a panel. We’d chatted online before, and were connected through various venues on social media, but we had never had a face-to-face conversation. Without even having to say it aloud, there was an instant understanding between us of why we were the only ones waiting in a lobby twenty minutes before the convention opened. We got to talking, asking ourselves where were the other horror writers of Southeast Asian descent? Other people with our experience of the Asian diaspora. People who also had grandmothers who played mah jong late into the night. Other writers like us who everyone assumed would be a bad driver. Where was the anthology comprising those writers? After the conference, we continued the dialogue, including who we might want to see in our project, looking for connections. We played with some names. We realised we’d need a venue. The only publisher that I approached with the concept was Kate Jonez at Omnium Gatherum Media USA, who jumped at the idea, even though anthologies aren’t part of Omnium’s brief. However, their focus has always been on diverse and unusual texts on dark themes, so the fit was good from that perspective. Perhaps too, Kate was influenced by the whisperings of a pandemic coming out of China and early responses to that. In any case, we’re very grateful to her for her enthusiasm and professionalism. In terms of challenges, she had the biggest task, getting books to people all over the world in the midst of a pandemic.

3. Black Cranes addresses a niche market – Southeast Asian women, and women writing horror. Did you envision the book soaring to the heights it has reached? What was your aim in creating this anthology?

It’s interesting that you should describe it as ‘addressing a niche market’. It is certainly true that growing up as a third-generation Chinese New Zealander, I never saw a book that reflected my experience, no characters who looked like me. But despite attempts to keep us out, Asian people have lived and worked here for two centuries now, with more than 15% of New Zealand’s population identifying as Asian currently. And that’s just New Zealand. The Asian diaspora affects millions of people and extends across the globe, with Asian women making up at least half of those people, so surely there should already be bookcases full of works addressing our Asian experience? Just last week, the week Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women won a Bram Stoker Award, a pair of New Zealand editors released the first anthology of Asian fiction in New Zealand, comprising works from around 70 new voices, the majority of whom are women. While I’m not included in the mix, and the work is not horror, I find it shocking that we have had to wait so long for texts of this nature. As for Black Cranes being horror, it seemed natural to me that Black Cranes would tend towards darkness, because, as Geneve Flynn said in her acceptance speech, horror is a genre that doesn’t flinch from uncomfortable themes. Horror writers don’t look away. Again, the timing with the current pandemic, and the spike in anti-Asian sentiment, may have had a lot to do with the response, which has been simply overwhelming. So, to answer your question, we wanted to give voice to our shared experience, to create a community, and open a discussion about our feelings of otherness, of being the perpetual outsider, and it seemed other people have embraced that vision. I guess Black Cranes is the literary prescription for what ails us all right now.

Lee Murray at the 2019 Bram Stoker Award banquet – Photo by Ellen Datlow

4. Black Cranes was picked up by a book club in India last year for their October 2020 book-of-the-month. You and Geneve even met the members at the book discussion, albeit virtually. How does it feel to interact personally with readers from different parts of the globe?

A writer needs readers, so any interaction with readers who have engaged with your text is wonderful. Just knowing that you have fired up the imagination of others, and perhaps incited a broader dialogue feels like a secret superpower. It explains why even those big-name authors who aren’t always accessible to the public, will offer to join book club meetings to discuss their work with readers. And readers who go the extra mile to reach out, like the book club in India, or the little girl who sent me a drawing of my first literary award, are invaluable. People who seek you out to have their book signed. Even those seemingly small interactions can make up for the sucky parts of writing, things like low pay and high barriers. Interactions from across the globe offer extra insight. How do people in other cultures and groups perceive our work? How hard was it to obtain a copy? Do similar texts exist in those countries? Is there a gap that readers are looking for that has yet to be exploited? Questions we were asked, and which surprised us, when we were invited to the Indian group included: Where is the Indian-Asian version of Black Cranes? and There are no cranes in the book; why did you call it Black Cranes?

5. Speaking of virtual discussions, you released two books at the height of the pandemic last year. And both won Bram Stoker awards. With an absence of book launches, bookstore visits, book signings, literature festivals, libraries shutting down, how did the pandemic impact you as a writer? And what does the Bram Stoker mean for you in light of the current situation versus pre-pandemic times?

My dad died in the early months of the pandemic, and the grief and added isolation affected my writing, so all I managed were a few haiku which I shared with a friend. You can read more about that in a guest post called Writing from my Bubble on poet Stephanie Wytovich’s blog, Writing from the Madhouse. I only wish Dad could have been here to see me receive these awards, because he was my first mentor, his own storytelling key to my understanding of story structure and my love of literature. From a writing standpoint, although my workplace didn’t change, I was busier than ever. Looking back, I wonder if that was an attempt to keep myself busy and avoid spiralling into depression, rather than a direct impact of the pandemic. For horror writers, whose work is typically published by small independent presses operating out of a passion for the genre, the pandemic has been especially precarious, since many smaller presses have folded and others have pushed release dates back, meaning incomes have dropped considerably, even among those of us who are doing reasonably well. Here in New Zealand, “despite the wider arts sector accounting for up to 7% of the total workforce, it receives a disproportionately small proportion of overall government spending,” writes arts lecturer Mark Harvey in a New Zealand Herald article in May. “Last year, arts, culture and heritage were given just 0.33% of the total 2020 Budget and COVID-19 Recovery package (NZ$374 million out of $112.1 billion). This was an increase on previous years, but still miniscule compared with other sectors.” The literary arts account for an even smaller slice of that pie, and horror not at all. Most of us did not qualify for emergency aid. Add to that, we have no literary agents and no publishers of horror or even of science fiction and fantasy (other than some micro-presses) here in New Zealand, proving that the barriers for writers were already high even without COVID. Given this context, for me, a horror writer from New Zealand, to receive two Bram Stoker Awards® feels like a turning point. I hope it means a new interest in New Zealand’s horror fiction community. There is still the stigma associated with horror, literature’s ugly stepsister, to overcome. One colleague on the committee of a prestigious national writers’ festival noted that now I have two Bram Stoker Awards® I might have ‘enough respectability now’ with the festival selectors to be invited to a panel. I’m delighted, of course, because any invitation to the table is a step in the right direction, but I’m also saddened because that is an especially high bar to set for genre fiction writers.

Reading resources shared by Lee Murray:

~Lee’s guest post for Writing from the Madhouse: Murray, Lee (2020). Writing from my Bubble, in Writing from the Madhouse by Stephanie Wytovich.18 May 2020. http://stephaniewytovich.blogspot.com/2020/05/writing-from-my-bubble-guest-post-from.html

~Mark Harvey’s article on arts and artists: Harvey, Mark (2021). New Zealand Herald: The Conversation. NZ Budget 2021: we need the arts to live, but artists need to earn a living. 13 May 2021. https://theconversation.com/nz-budget-2021-we-need-the-arts-to-live-but-artists-need-to-earn-a-living-160761

We continue our conversation with Lee Murray in the next blog post. Click here to join the discussion on her second Bram Stoker winner, Grotesque: Monster Stories.

A Thrilling Ride with Sudha Ramnath

When people board an aircraft, mundane day-to-day affairs occupy their minds. But when their flight gets hijacked and subsequently crash lands in an isolated place, they have to call to the forefront all their survival skills, to trek in a hostile terrain, with dwindling supplies of food, physical and mental strength. Adding to their problems is the presence of a terrorist travelling incognito among the passengers. Will they ever find a way home?

After having read the latest thriller from Sudha Ramnath, Flight or Fright (A review of the book can be found here), and being privileged to virtually meet, host, and interact with her on the Author Talk series of Did You Read Today, it was a delight to feature her in this interview by Tomes and Tales.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

From being part of a women’s drama troupe specializing in male roles, to writing plays, from living on a remote island near Madagascar to skydiving from 18,000 feet, Sudha Ramnath has quite the penchant for crafting experiences. She has written, directed and staged four English language plays in Tanzania and Kenya, along with other Indian expats. She has worked in a bank, married a man whom she calls the ‘sane’ part of her life, taught math and physics, and is a mad but loving mom to her two children. While others like her drew up grocery lists and laundry schedules, Sudha made plans to live the moments and stick by them. She made the pilgrimage to Alaska to see the Aurora Borealis, danced like there was no tomorrow at a flash mob in San Francisco, and stood on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and watched the million dollar sunset. She spent a month in the Himalayas, where she met His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When he heard that a few chapters of her latest novel dealt with Tibetan issues, he went against protocol and signed the book for her.

An interview with Sudha Ramnath about “Flight or Fright”

1) You debuted on the literary scene with “Susp’Ended”, a short story collection. How did the transition to a novel come about?

I wanted to write a full-length novel for my first publication. However, just as I began writing, my husband got a job in Kenya and we decided to move. Right around the same time, my daughter got married. So life suddenly got very hectic. I had the choice of using some short stories I had written earlier (but not published), or postpone the idea of publishing. I was so bitten by the publishing bug that I chose the first option. That’s how Susp’ended became my first book as a debut writer.

2) “Flight or Fright” is a hijack story at its core, but multilayered in its themes and narrative. How did the story come to you? 

I have traveled a lot in life. During flights, I have always been fascinated by the other passengers. I would wonder if the lady sitting next to me was a quiet homemaker or a business executive? The young man opposite – why was he so upset? The nervous-looking gentleman in the front seat – was he going for an interview? The young girl with all those newly married trappings – was she going back home to meet her parents or was she flying to be with her new husband? I guess when I got a chance to speak about my thoughts, I brought them all into the book.

3) How much of what happens in the novel is based on true events and research versus imagination and creativity? How do you strike a balance as a writer?

Most of the characters are based on people I have observed, but not their stories. For example, the nervous gentleman whom I had once seen on a flight became Mukesh Narula, the jittery entrepreneur going to meet a prospective investor. A sweet-looking lady who kept fussing to her husband about her plants and was worried if the maid would forget to water them became Gowramma, a young mom fond of plants. There must have been plenty of other passengers on other innumerable flights. But some I remember for the stories I wove around them. They became characters. 

4) The novel does not have a protagonist. Your character development is so strong that each one of them is an instrumental part of the story. Was this a conscious decision?

When the story involves a plane full of people and what happens to them, it cannot be about one or two protagonists. I am basically a storyteller. I let the story guide me. A long time ago I had understood something about myself, that I am an average person – whatever strikes me as funny, most others find funny, too; what I think is interesting, others find interesting, too. So I went for whatever interested me. 

5) You are famed for your crime stories and mysteries. Could you tell us about your writing process in creating them? How do you plot situations, keep track of minuscule details, reveal clues for the reader, and introduce twists throughout the story?

I have been a fan of thrillers right from when I was a kid. Initially, I only enjoyed the thrill they provided. But after reading for a long time I began noticing how the famous writers did it – how they laid a trail of deception for the readers to fall for, how they built the suspense, how they revealed the end, what kind of stories needed a reveal only on the last page, and how some writers kept the readers interested by weaving in small bites of suspense that got revealed in the next chapters. I have learned from great masters like Agatha Christe, Jeffrey Archer, and Jeffrey Deaver.

6) Dividing the book into two sections was a very innovative and interesting part of the narrative. The first half as chapter numbers, and the second as numbers of days, interspersed with conversations as transcripts. How did that come about? 

After the passengers were stranded I felt it made more sense to count the story by the number of days than as chapters. I agonized with them, I suffered with them, I enjoyed their escapades, I marveled at their adventures. So, the days mattered to me more than the chapters. 

7) The character of the school principal is seen to be observant and curious, a reader of her co-passengers’ personalities. It reminded me of you. As a writer, how much of your characterization is based on people you know or observe? 

Oh, Looks like you caught me! But her character is something I aspire to. Her acumen, her perspicacity, her maturity; it’s someone I want to be more than I am. But thanks a lot, because I take it as a compliment. Mostly, my characters are based on people I observe rather than people I know.

8) While your thrillers and mysteries are in a league of their own, your humorous travelogues and anecdotes bring much reading delight as well.  Any thoughts about writing books in humor and other genres?

I would love to write humor and also romance. But I am sure the romance I write will also have a twist at the end. 

9) You have written screenplays and directed and acted in theatre. Have you considered publishing them in book format for readers to gain access?

It is interesting to write screenplays. One has to bring about the story only through dialogues and action sequences. But I found it challenging and fun. My first play ‘The Dream’ was adapted from a short story of mine published in a magazine called ‘New Woman’, almost twenty years ago. I had to introduce a few new characters into the play to bring the story out coherently. I enjoyed it tremendously. I have never thought of publishing them. Now that you have asked me about it, maybe I will think about it seriously. 

10) Who are your literary influences? Any books or authors you would recommend reading?

I guess we all imbibe unconsciously from whatever we read. Strangely, I realized something only recently. There is this Facebook writers group called ‘Did You Write Today’ to which I belong. Every Friday a word is given and we write something for the prompts. Most of what I have been writing is somehow or the other influenced by what I was reading when I wrote them. I would love to write humor like PG Wodehouse, murder mysteries like Agatha Christe, courthouse dramas like Perry Mason, and thrillers like James Hadley Chase. I found this author called Ken Follet whose books are a class apart. His storytelling capabilities are amazing. I feel he has never got the popularity he deserves. I would recommend his books,  ‘The Key to Rebecca’, an edge-of-the-seat spy story, and ‘The Man from St. Petersburg’, a political thriller.

11) You’re a natural storyteller, in both speaking and writing. Tell us about any upcoming books or projects to look forward to.

I am almost finishing a novel that I am enjoying writing. Most of the days I am Yagnika, the protagonist of the story. I think like her, react like her, and feel like her. Jokes apart, it’s a story about four friends who are exceptionally intelligent. One of them is suddenly murdered, another one has to run away with a mysterious red packet, the third is chasing her, and the fourth one is absconding. I am using a different technique of alternating the present and past as chapters to make the story interesting. Suddenly I have thought of an epilogue for the story that actually ties very well with something most people can relate to. I can’t say more about it without revealing too much, so please wait and read it for a stunning twist at the end. Also, this DYWT group I spoke about earlier? I have been writing very short stories with a twist for the weekly prompts. I just realized that I have more than sixty of them, and so plan to publish them as a book. These two are what keep me busy these days. 

Flight or Fright – A Book Review

Title – Flight or Fright

Author – Sudha Ramnath

Genre – Thriller

Close on the heels of finishing a Shirley Jackson book as part of a reading project, I wondered what to pick next. Any book would pale in comparison, so I was left deciding for a few days until I heard about a virtual author meet. Eager to interact with Sudha Ramnath – who is famed for her thrillers, mysteries and crime stories – I immediately plunged into Flight or Fright to prepare for the event, and it didn’t disappoint.

The synopsis is fairly simple – a flight bound from Mumbai to Delhi is hijacked, and the reader is taken along with the passengers to extricate themselves from the situation. But Flight or Fright is more than a hijack story. Written in a multilayered format, the first half of the book devotes a chapter to each character (and there are a great many of them). Sudha’s forte lies in the little details, so we aren’t just told about a photographer, a sports coach, corporate employees, foreign tourists, and a host of other people, but there’s a background story for every single one of them, with information that’s just enough to carry the story forward – why they do what they do, who they are and how their individual personalities work through the situation. The characterization is written so well, one doesn’t even need to keep flipping to the character list to identify each one – you know exactly whom you’re reading about and how they are connected to another character. The second half of the book doesn’t have chapter numbers but numbers of days, as the plane crash lands and the stranded survivors try to find a way to reach civilization. In between, we see correspondence exchanged among the terrorists in the form of transcripts. The narrative constantly keeps you at the edge of your seat, as you wonder what happens next and navigate through conversations, hidden and overt.

Flight or Fright is action-packed, but also has a very humane side in its presentation, as the myriad characters deal with hostile terrain, internal group dynamics, dwindling resources of food, physical and mental strength, terrorists incognito among the passengers, the quest to be found accompanied by the anxiety of being found by the wrong people – the flight crash lands outside borders and they don’t even know which country they’re in; equal chances of being welcomed by a hospitable village or thrown into a military prison. Every sentence, every word finds its place in the story, and not a single one is wasted. Sudha knows exactly what she wants to tell you, revealing enough for the reader to put the pieces together and solve the jigsaw, but holding back enough to challenge you every step of the way.

Through the crux of surviving or succumbing in a hijack, we also get side stories – each small one contributing to the larger canvas. A school principal removed through unfair means finds renewed purpose in banding people together, a housewife with a penchant for gardening enjoying the lush floral landscape, a photographer clicking memories, a politician trying to bribe his way out, people who want to play the hero and those who want to do nothing and expect others to do everything for them – the beauty of the writing is that the novel has no protagonist. Sudha gives equal strength to every character – they can either contribute to getting out unscathed, or bring harm to the whole group; a wait-and-watch rendering where everyone is a suspect.

While I have read Sudha’s short stories and screenplays, this was the first novel from the author, and she proves how wonderful a storyteller she is irrespective of story length or format. And it was a marvellous opportunity to hear her story of creating stories. Not a book to be missed!

My rating: 5/5

Grotesque: Monster Stories by Lee Murray

“Generosity could be as contagious as the plague, as long as enough people were willing to be carriers”, is a quote that opens the book and sets the tone for the kind of writing one is in for. A collection of eleven tales narrated as flash fiction, short stories and novelettes, Grotesque spans the horror landscape from mythological creatures to contemporary social media addictions, as the reader travels across France, China and New Zealand, meeting everyone from Maori warriors to zombies, spirits and sea gods and gods of earthquakes and volcanoes, Leonardo Da Vinci and Tangaroa, tin soldiers and kaiju. A taut collection I came across in a horror literature forum, the book is in equal parts thrilling, dark and educative, an action and horror fest, with layers of historical references and cultural influences.

The titular story opens the collection with an archaeological find transporting us to the 16th century to reveal its secret. As we move back and forth from the 1500s to present day, fantasy elements of horror merging with historical roots made Grotesque one of my favorite stories, and a fabulous one to start the collection as it sets the pace for what lies ahead. History is followed by mythology that serves to remind and educate about the stories of lore, as Hawaiki takes us through Chinese mythology, Taiwanese history, and the Maori immigration story; as does Maui’s Hook, another monster story with its foundations in Maori mythology. I love mythological retellings in literature as they teach you so much about different cultures around the world; legends and folklore containing treasures of life stories through the ages. The kaiju story was another one of my favorites.

The New Breed is a post-apocalyptic zombie story, while Cave Fever merges science fiction with horror through a two centuries old storm that forces mankind to seek refuge underground into a claustrophobic cave existence. Selfie and Dead End Town are out-and-out horror fests. I loved Lee’s take on the millennial social media obsession with her twisted spin on selfies in the former, while addressing domestic violence in the latter. Edward’s Journal was another stunner of pure horror – an epistolary story of colonialism featuring a British soldier from India helping white settlers in New Zealand, while Heart Music takes us through the restless spirit of a fourteen-year-old dead child. Into the Clouded Sky is a novelette of adventures in New Zealand – a ride through action, thrills, and monsters all the way, and Lifeblood pits marginalized groups against each other to detract from their actual problems.

Every story offers a unique reading experience, and encourages you to read between the lines into the theme being expressed in each one. Grotesque is a splendid collection to note the range of the writer’s prowess in relaying stories across genres and themes, having relatable elements as well as something new to learn wherever in the world you might be reading the book. Lee’s dark and disturbing tales cover commonplace topics like clicking selfies, address issues like dementia and child abuse, turn the spotlight on immigrants and grave robbers – causing the reader to ponder upon who the real monsters are. Grotesque is a collection filled with monsters, but through an array of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mythology and more, Lee reminds us that we have already encountered many monsters, with many more still to be met.

In an increasingly dark and ominous world, monster stories force us to challenge our fears. ~Lee Murray

This book will delight horror fans, and is a magnificent collection for those new to the genre to explore. I would also recommend it to readers of mythology – there’s much information to be gleaned about world cultures. The Maori glossary is a wonderful touch to familiarize readers with terms and phrases in the stories, although Lee does a splendid job in explaining them through the context of the story itself. Lee’s creations are out of this world and each one surprises in its own way. There’s an aftertaste that you could read an entire novel surrounding each plot.

Lee Murray is an award-winning writer and editor with several novels and series to her credit. Grotesque is her first short story collection, which has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards this year in the category of collections.

My rating of the book: 5/5

This literary review has also appeared in the March 2021 edition of Horror Addicts under their theme of ‘Monster Madness’.

Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons – An Interview with Keith Rosson

With Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons, award-winning author Keith Rosson delves into notions of family, grief, identity, indebtedness, loss, and hope, with the surefooted merging of literary fiction and magical realism he’s explored in previous novels. In “Dunsmuir,” a newly sober husband buys a hearse to help his wife spread her sister’s ashes, while “The Lesser Horsemen” illustrates what happens when God instructs the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to go on a team-building cruise as a way of boosting their frayed morale. In “Brad Benske and the Hand of Light,” an estranged husband seeks his wife’s whereabouts through a fortuneteller after she absconds with a cult, and in “High Tide,” a grieving man ruminates on his brother’s life as a monster terrorizes their coastal town. With grace, imagination, and a brazen gallows humor, Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons merges the fantastic and the everyday, and includes a number of Rosson’s unpublished stories, as well as award-winning favorites.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

As a guest writer for Meerkat Press’ latest offering, Tomes and Tales has collaborated with the publishing house to feature this remarkable literary endeavor of a fantastic writer on its worldwide blog tour.

AN EXCERPT FROM ‘THE LESSER HORSEMEN’

“We stepped outside as knives of sunlight winked off every glassed thing on the street. The stink of exhaust enveloped us. Sewage warming in the gutters brought out the scents of the human soufflé: piss, heated blacktop, burnt plastic.

Famine hiked his jeans up—we had our trappings, each of us, our strange cosmic shortcomings that kept us tethered here, not nearly human but certainly more than ideas, and Famine’s was, obviously, his constant hunger. Not so obvious was that he could never find a fucking belt that fit him. He took off down the avenue muttering something about an all-you-can-eat bouillabaisse shop on Mississippi, the cuffs of his pants scraping the ground, arms wrinkled and red at the elbows, striding along with one hand bunching the acid-washed fabric at his waist.

War folded his cruise handout and sighed, squinting at the empty street. “We leave in three hours? Man, He’s not dicking around.”

“He’s not known for that, is He?”

“True. Guess I better go grab my gear,” he said, and then paused. He seemed poised for some comradely dig, but we were long past it. Centuries, at least. “See you on the boat,” he managed.

The Good Lord certainly had a point. I could admit that. We’d long since become fractious, four different arrows arcing toward four different targets at four different times. No harmony, no shared intention. There had been a time when that was not the case, but now? Only Death was constant.

The Good Lord was staring at me through the window, his hands cinched over his little stovepot of a belly. He raised a hand and shooed me along, the look in his eyes absolutely flat, dead as deep space.

I went home to pack.”

INTERVIEW WITH KEITH ROSSON

I interviewed author Keith Rosson as part of the release and promotional tour of his latest book. Here’s a peek into our conversation:

1) After reading The Mercy of the Tide last year, I was looking forward to your latest book. How do you strike a balance between literary fiction and experimental fiction?

I wish I knew the answer to that. As it stands now, my work is considered “genre-blurring,” i.e. “we don’t know where to file this guy’s stuff, so while we recognize he’s a decent writer, this stuff is a bit harder to sell.” I think that balance just comes from writing for so long. I greatly admire genre writers, as well as those who write literary fiction, and balancing that tightrope between the two really just comes from diligence and writing a lot.

2) Your writing spans across magical realism, fantasy, contemporary horror, and mystery. Is there a specific reader audience you target?

Oh man, if there was, I’d probably sell more books. But I’m that weird amalgam of a writer – one who’d like to be considered a “serious literary author” but also simply cannot stop writing about reincarnated medieval executioners or monsters or guys getting beaten up by, like, sentient, malevolent forests. I have no idea who my audience is, but I know some people like my books, and I’m profoundly grateful for them.

3) When your genres and themes are so vast, what are the challenges in writing a short story collection in comparison to a novel?

I’m not a prolific short story writer. For every story that I finish, there’s probably a half dozen of them where I’ve lost the thread or the idea peters out and they languish half-finished. So honestly, the challenges here were just picking the best stories and arranging them in a way that made the most sense. I have no idea if other writers experience this problem, but with a novel I can get a general idea of the thing as a whole. It starts here, ends here, and in the middle, all of this shit happens. I get that process. With a story collection, it’s like holding a bunch of different puzzle pieces and trying to fit them into something manageable and just hoping it works. It feels way more fractured, way less linear, and you’re not sure if the pieces fit or not until the thing comes out in a book.

4) Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons – What’s the story behind the title, and the book cover as well?

I grew up on punk rock and I love it. I consider punk songs to essentially be folk songs. Protest songs or homage songs, electrified. Three chords, simple structure, a clear intent. So a folk song is like this simple homage to something, right? And a trauma surgeon is someone who fixes our injuries, staunches our blood, sets our bones straight, closes our wounds so that we don’t die. A folk song for a trauma surgeon is a simple, shouted thank you to those that fix our ailments, that stitch our wounds for us. As far as the cover goes, there’s a wolf and there’s a rabbit. Their relationship seems pretty clear. There’s a lot of that kind of relationship in the book, whether its internalized or not.

5) Your narratives merge the everyday with fantastical elements. What drives you as a writer? How much of your observations and experiences make it into your stories, and where does imagination take over?

That’s an awesome question, and I wish I knew how to answer it. It’s all organic. Knowing when to insert some feeling or observation or humanity into a scene that’s otherwise fantastical or fabulist is just one of those things that I’ve gotten more comfortable with due to endless practice. But the goal – one of the goals – is to make people care about these folks. You want readers to care about these people, become invested in them. And as far as what drives me, I actually love the publishing, submitting, and editing process. The whole thing is a blast. Even the endless (and I do mean endless) rejection has had much of its sting taken out after all these years. I love books, I love libraries, I love reading. None of it has lost its allure over the years.

6) Stories like “The Lesser Horsemen” and “Homecoming” are thought-provoking and seeped in reality through fantasy. Any thoughts on writing satire, considering the very relevant topics you cover?

Honestly, I don’t really know what satire is as a genre, or how to write it. Gotta plead ignorance on this question, as I don’t know enough about the genre to offer much of a take on it.

7) Which story in the collection would you say you had the best time writing?

You know, I wrote “The Lesser Horsemen” in a notebook over a period of maybe three days, and when I sat down to type it out, it was almost a word-for-word transcription of what you’re reading in the book, with very few changes. It was maybe the purest version of “automatic writing” I’ve ever experienced as an author. Compare that with “Their Souls Climb the Room” – I worked on multiple versions of that story for six or seven years, and writing the version that you see in the collection was like pulling teeth. Speaking of pulling teeth, I also think “Baby Jill,” the story about the tooth fairy who’s beginning to question her own existence, as well as humanity’s frailty of spirit, is one of the coolest, creepiest things I’ve written. One of my favorite stories.

8) Any upcoming books for readers to look forward to?

We haven’t even officially announced it yet, but my novel All the Wound-Down World will be released by Meerkat Press in 2023. It’s set in present day and features the same setting/world and some of the same characters as The Mercy of the Tide, forty years after the events in that book took place. It’s, uh, pretty wild.

9) Any literary influences, favorite books or authors you would recommend?

Here are a bunch of books that I’veread over the past few years that have stuck with me. They’re all great:

Mad Boy by Nick Arvin

Wounds: Six Stories from the Borders of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud (stories)

Dodgers by Bill Beverly

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs (stories)

Broken River by J. Robert Lennon

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai (stories)

Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons (stories)

And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks (stories)

Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick (stories)

Growing Things by Paul Tremblay (stories)

We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

FOLK SONGS FOR TRAUMA SURGEONS by Keith Rosson

RELEASE DATE: FEB 23, 2021

GENRE: Collection / Speculative Fiction / Magical Realism / Literary

BOOK PAGE: https://meerkatpress.com/books/folksongs/

BUY LINKS: Meerkat Press |Amazon Barnes & Noble

AUTHOR LINKS: Website Twitter

GIVEAWAY LINK: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/7f291bd826/?

Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down – An Autobiography of Ida Keeling

Book title – Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down

Authors – Ida Keeling and Anita Diggs

Genre – Non-fiction, autobiography

“When I ran my first race I was 67 years old. I didn’t care whether I won or not. I didn’t care whether I survived or not. The only reason I was in it was to satisfy my daughter.”

When Ida Keeling’s daughter Cheryl asked her to accompany her for a run, she immediately thought her daughter was being stalked and decided to keep her safe on the road. Having found both her sons murdered, she “couldn’t afford to lose any more children” and promptly went ahead, with maternal instincts taking over any race preparation. She won a podium in the 5K in her age category.

‘Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down’ is the story of this formidable woman who is presently 105 years old – the track and field athlete Ida Keeling, a Masters record holder. The American of Caribbean descent walks us down memory lane of having been through two world wars, the Great Depression, the American Civil War, from hearing Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ standing in front of him, to wondering if she would ever get to see a black man in the White House, battling homelessness and joblessness, being a single mother to four children, tackling racism and sexism across two centuries, addressing the African diaspora from Jamaican to Haitian history, completing college in her forties, running in her sixties, competing internationally in her eighties, here is a woman who has literally seen, heard, and done it all.

When it comes to memoirs, there is often a tendency of writers trying too hard to come across as inspirational, by listing problems which only showcase their privileges instead. Ida offers a fresh take with her matter-of-fact narrative, dismissing her hardships as “people have been worse off”. The conversational tone feels like talking to a wise old grandmother, proffering life lessons and advice on the way without praising herself. Encouraging women to have professional careers rather than being dependent on a spouse, highlighting the importance of education, the pride in supporting her niece to become an armed forces officer, the loss of two children who were found murdered with both cases never solved because no witnesses wanted to get involved with the law, the importance of reading, the uselessness of regrets, the ease with which black people get blamed and white people go free, breaking shackles of mental slavery, training for races under the guidance of her daughter, taking care of family, aiming for the sky, writing poetry, going to the gym, the fear of being trampled in her first race, the serenity that accompanies running, the elation of having another day to do what you want to do. Over a hundred years can never be compressed into a book, and a review does even lesser justice of a life story that covers everything and still leaves you wanting more.

“The gun sounded, and I was off, putting to shame younger couch potatoes, excuse givers, or plain old slackers. I surged forward in my yellow shoes, salmon-colored shirt, and matching earrings.”

Surge forward, like Ida does! And when a 100 plus woman trained by her 60 plus daughter speaks, you listen to her wisdom. Read this wonderful book to learn about this amazing personality.

My rating – 5/5

Ida and Cheryl Keeling

The Hellbound Heart – Revisiting Some Old Horror

“No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.”

This classic line from Clive Barker’s masterpiece, that also made it to the movie, sums up the horror ride being embarked upon. Frank Cotton is in search of Lemarchand’s Configuration – a cube that promises infinite joy by theologians of the Order of the Gash once the puzzle is solved. A pleasure dome where those who have exhausted the trivial delights of the human condition might discover a fresh definition of joy, created by the craftsman Lemarchand in the form of a musical box that can be toyed with for a lifetime and never let you in. Stories, fantasies, legends – the puzzle has an aura of mystery. Lemarchand’s device comes with pragmatic and metaphysical rules to break the seal – To solve the puzzle is to travel. The box is not just the map of the road, but the road itself. Setting the right configuration summons beings that provide a surplus of the good things in life. Only, everyone’s definition of happiness is different. Frank takes up the challenge and successfully solves the puzzle and the Cenobites deliver, but not what he expected.

Rory Cotton moves into his old family home with his wife Julia. His estranged brother, Frank, has been missing for over a year, and with no one to lay claim to the family property, they decide to settle in. Rory sustains an injury while shifting boxes, and the blood from the wound brings the house alive. Frank Cotton – or whatever is left of him – has been in the house all along, trapped in his world and tortured in the dimensions of the box. He wanted to call the Cenobites here, they took him to their realm instead. The simplicity and complexity of Lemarchand’s Configuration unleashed at once – two parties meeting, which place is the right one? Who decides right and wrong? And as Julia helps him cross over into the land of the living, the reader is taken on a journey of the cube and the echo it symbolizes, as Frank navigates his duality in the lands of the living and the dead. You can’t dream agonies away. They have to be endured.

While the Hellraiser movie, and its string of sequels (nine of them!), were a gore fest of the eighties like no other (the screenplay having been written by Clive Barker himself in his vision for the big screen, his directorial debut aimed at primarily American audiences though the book is classic British horror), the book dives deeper into the origins and workings of the box, each of the Cenobites, and what exactly happens to Frank Cotton before, during, and after solving the cube. A crossword maybe, whose solution would lift the latch of the paradise garden, or a jigsaw in the completion of which lay access to Wonderland. Those who enjoy solving jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, and Rubik cubes will marvel at Barker’s twisted take on schadenfreude through a simple musical box. The Hellbound Heart is a wonderful metaphor through horror, the Cenobites symbolic of people who find joy in other’s misfortunes, lift themselves up by bringing others down, and base their happiness on the unhappiness of others. Everyone’s definition of happiness is different, and the same situation can be interpreted in markedly different ways by two people. Someone’s hell is another person’s heaven. The mending of broken hearts is a puzzle neither wit nor time has the skill to solve.

The Hellbound Heart is a beautifully written book with amazing quotes. Those who have watched the movies and could not stomach the gore can give this one a go if you enjoy good literature. Just like Stephen King, however visually overwhelming the movies might be, the writing from a master storyteller is not to be missed. The Cenobites are neither named in the original story nor movie, but Barker’s descriptions are so vivid that Pinhead, Chatterer, and Butterball have achieved distinct horror icon status through the years. The imagery and storytelling is so good! An absolute horror classic whose movie adaptation lived up to the book, even though Barker changed the narratives.

Women Writing Horror

Horror is my favorite genre in fiction and I read across all of its sub-genres including true crime, psychological horror, comedy horror, from novels to short story collections, dark poetry and anthologies. A random search for horror books throws up the usual fare from Stephen King, Joe Hill, Josh Malerman, Kealan Patrick Burke. While I have loved books by all these writers, women authors in the genre don’t show up as easily, with the exception of Shirley Jackson and Mary Shelley for their classic works. I thought back to all the books I’ve read and the ones in my to-read list and came up with this listicle of horror stories from women writers. These include translated books as well as original language ones, novellas, novels, collections, prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction by writers, translators, editors, and publishers who create terror through words. From historical fiction, science fiction, young adult, satire, to mythology, folklore, speculative fiction, re-telling of true events, and dark verses – take your pick. Since February is coming up, I compiled a list of twenty-eight women in horror – one book recommendation for each day of the month.

1) Agustina Maria Bazterrica – Tender is the Flesh

A virus has eradicated animals, and humanity turns to cannibalism for its source of meat as humans are domesticated, mass produced, and slaughtered. Translated from the Spanish, a nauseating and provocative satire that blends science fiction with horror.

2) Ally Blue – Down

An underwater, paranormal suspense fest surrounding the discovery of a rock-like sphere that causes humans to mutate and turn into horror versions of themselves.

3) Alma Katsu – The Deep

Historical fiction horror set around the events of the Titanic and its sister ship the Britannic. The maritime disaster and World War I are caught in sinister happenings in this supernatural thriller.

4) Cassandra Khaw – Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef

A novella about the dual life of a sorcerer and soldier, combining horror and comedy with Malaysian and Chinese mythology.

5) Christina Henry – The Ghost Tree

YA horror about missing people and terrifying visions of monsters dragging remains. Ghostly trees, creepy children, witches, and curses – almost like watching a horror movie.

6) Christina Sng – Dreamscapes

Horror, fantasy, and science fiction come together in this poetry collection that addresses the darkness within. Verses that serve to unsettle and terrify, proving how poetry can be more impactful than prose.

7) Elizabeth Kostova – The Historian

A historical fiction Dracula story moving across time and place with shifting narrator perspectives. A debut vampire novel that interweaves history with folklore and makes for a riveting read.

8) Fernanda Melchor – Hurricane Season

Mythology and terror from Spanish literature, with the English translation maintaining the grim, intense and graphic prose of its original source in this portrait of a Mexican village and its witch.

9) Francine Toon – Pine

A haunting tale in the Scottish highlands, filled with intrigue and eeriness, alternating between terrifying and heart wrenching, spooky and suspenseful in equal measures.

10) Gemma Amor – Dear Laura

A novella of lifelong obsession, this dark, twisted tale about penpals stands out for its brilliantly atmospheric writing.

11) Jennifer Hillier – Wonderland

Psychological thriller, amusement park, serial killer – gruesome and wicked as you set out to solve crimes.

12) Jennifer McMahon – Winter People

Historical fiction meets fantasy in this chilling story of missing people and secrets galore.

13) Joyce Carol Oates – The Doll Master

A collection of short stories that borrows its title from an obsession over dolls, and leads into an unsettling world of abominations and mystery.

14) Kaaron Warren – Into Bones Like Oil

A haunted house novella with an unconventional narrative and storyline, and an interesting take on the ghost story.

15) Kathe Koja – The Cipher

Winner of the Bram Stoker award for Best Debut Novel, the Funhole does not live up to its name. A black hole that calls out and launches a journey of obsession, darkness, and blinding terror of classic horror in spectacular prose.

16) Laura Purcell – The Silent Companions

There’s nothing like historical fiction for a dose of gothic horror. An asylum, a haunted mansion, intriguing journals, hidden secrets – a creepy ghost story that grabs the attention from beginning to end.

17) Laurel Hightower – Crossroads

An exceptional novella dealing with the horrors of heartbreak and grief, and things coming back from the dead. An emotional and devastating read that shows you just how diverse the horror genre can be.

18) Lee Murray – Grotesque

A collection of monster stories that range from mythology to legend and science fiction, offering a dip into Maori folklore and French history, zombie attacks and adventures. Packed with action and gore, the stories are a delight for monster fans.

19) Lisa Kröger – Monster, She Wrote

Why read one horror story when you can read about them all? A non-fiction horror book about women who pioneered the genres of horror and speculative fiction; writers who defied convention and crafted some stellar spooky tales. From ghost stories to psychological horror, intriguing trivia and reading recommendations, a book about books not to be missed.

20) Lucy A. Snyder – Sparks and Shadows

A dark fantasy collection of short stories, poems, and essays. Twisted tales in myriad settings, witty and diverse, horrifying, amusing and thought provoking.

21) Mariana Enriquez – Things We Lost in the Fire

A short story collection of the macabre, mixing magical realism with gothic fiction in this astonishing treat from Spanish literature, brought to us in English by translator Megan McDowell.

22) Mariko Koike – The Graveyard Apartment

Detective fiction and horror writing come together in this translation from Japanese literature of psychological horror set around a graveyard. Deborah Boehm brings this to us in English.

23) Michelle Paver – Thin Air

A historical fiction ghost story set in the Himalayas. Nature can be brutal enough, but what if it isn’t the only thing you’re battling? Subtle supernatural elements, more psychological rather than physical, can be more horrific at times.

24) Nalo Hopkinson – Skin Folk

A short story collection of magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction interweaved with horror. Storytelling at its best.

25) Samanta Schweblin – Fever Dream

Some more magical realism from Spanish literature in this surreal nightmare of an otherworldly story. Menacing, unsettling, and thoroughly absorbing in its usage of horror to explore current world issues.

26) Taeko Kono – Toddler Hunting

An exceptional collection of Japanese short stories that explore the dark side of human nature and antisocial behavior. Lucy North translates to English to bring us a startling and disquieting world.

27) Yoko Ogawa – Revenge

Another dark treat from Japanese literature in an experimental format of seemingly unrelated short stories coming together to form a larger novel. Bland settings and ordinary people up the ante of terrors lurking in everyday life.

28) Yrsa Sigurðardóttir – I Remember You

Scandinavian Nordic noir of isolation and remoteness; horror based on true events. Translated from the Icelandic, a ghost story that proffers the chills.

Three bonus books for the women who lead the way as editors and publishers:

29) Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn – Black Cranes

A collection of short stories by Asian writers, highlighting the dual themes of women in horror and Asian women writers. A smorgasbord of mythology, legend, folklore, science fiction, comedy horror, satire, dark fantasy.

30) Aiki Flinthart – Relics, Wrecks, and Ruins

A collection of science fiction and fantasy with horror to showcase the remnants of humanity and celebrate a legacy.

31) Tricia Reeks – Meerkat Press

The publishing house comes out with some very different but very good books, in equal parts weird, unique, and dark.

PS: This article also features in Horror Addicts – a publication devoted to the horror genre in all its forms, including literature and cinema. “Women Writing Horror” was published in keeping with their February theme of Women in Horror Month.

The Shadow Runner – Book Review

Title – The Shadow Runner

Author – Vishal Bahukhandi

Genre – Frame Fiction (story within a story)

Theme – Armed forces

I came across this book while looking up a book gift for a friend, and was so piqued by the title and synopsis that I bought a copy for myself, too. Written by an ex-Army officer, The Shadow Runner offers a unique reading experience – a novel set around life in the academy which turns cadets into officers.

While the tagline itself reveals a story about two boys, the book opens in the thick of battle at Kashmir where a special forces officer remembers his “brother”, immediately heightening the reader’s curiosity about why the story begins with just one of them and what could have happened to the other. The crux of the novel surrounds two boys – Virender and Govind – complete opposites of each other, with their own reasons for wanting to don the maroon beret. We are gradually led into the Indian Military Academy (IMA), with its myriad tales of military life, training, anecdotes, friends and enemies made, banter and shared experiences, camaraderie – everything young cadets go through to complete their training and earn their status as commissioned officers of the Indian Army.

Through his own experiences serving in the army in areas of high insurgent activity like Jammu and Kashmir and the North Eastern states, the author enlightens us about the preparations our officers go through in order to keep our borders safe. The academy sees all kinds of candidates – those who want to serve the country, those who have been sent there by parents who themselves didn’t get the chance to serve the country, those whose parents served and were sent to the academy by default of being army kids, those who want to start a new life, get over relationships and break ups, leave their old life behind, those discouraged by family and friends over taking up “risky” jobs, those who work hard but fail to get through, those who don’t put in the effort but happen to clear the tests – a plethora of personalities who enter the academy for various reasons, but are ultimately transformed into people who would do anything for their country.

So, each of the characters have their own back story into why they are where they are. And the past leads us to another past, culminating into the reasons for the book’s present. A story within a story within a story, such that the conclusion draws you back to the beginning. I love embedded narratives as a genre, and Major Vishal has done a splendid job with this nested story. Of particular interest as a reader, is where the title fits into the storyline, and the revelation of The Shadow Runner is truly magnificent in its tribute to the men in uniform.

A book about friendship, love, sacrifice, discipline, brotherhood, heartbreak, The Shadow Runner is definitely a book for armed force aspirants, but can be enjoyed by every kind of reader. Besides memoirs and non-fiction books about historical events featuring the armed forces, fiction books authored by officers themselves are rare. It’s so beautifully written by a debut writer, I’m glad my year began with some wonderful books and I hope to see more of Major Vishal’s literary prowess. Highly recommended for its storyline, characters, niche genre, theme, and overall writing.

My rating – 5/5