‘A Dowry of Blood’, by S.T. Gibson

Years ago, I discovered a copy of ‘Dracula’ in my local library. I remember doing virtually nothing for the rest of that day – just curled up on the sofa, engrossed in one of the most enduring tales in English literature.

I’ve loved vampire tales ever since. This was in the days before it was a trend, and what was published had to perform as a novel first, a sub-genre second. So it was that I found Anne Rice, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Fred Saberhagen and others. Adult vampires, not teen dreams.

Years later, Kim Newman published ‘Anno Dracula’, one of his super-meta books that references virtually everything in its field, fictional or historical. Dracula rubs shoulders with Oscar Wilde, Lestat and Jack the Ripper. Everything swirls together in a marvellous characterful universe.

This books feels as if it is naturally part of that world.

As the book opens, we are being addressed by the narrator as she tells her history. She is one of several ‘brides’, to a long-lived warrior vampire lord whose name she vows never to mention.

We follow the little vampire family through the streets of European cities and beyond, exploring anew what it feels like to witness the world changing around you, while remaining stuck, frozen in time exactly as you were when you changed into an almost-immortal night hunter.

The writing is beautiful. I found myself absolutely captivated, swept up in the tale as I was with the original story back in my own past. I felt the same wish for the characters to grow beyond their immortal lives, while knowing they never could. I felt traces of the different versions of the same characters (although to my knowledge, only Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has specifically tackled the Brides themselves before).

We, the reader, know who this is, of course. But it’s one perspective, and somehow a voice we’ve never heard before, despite its familiarity. I became as emotionally involved with the protagonist as I had with those well-told vampire tales gone by, and I realized all over again what was missing from the mass-marketed iterations flooding the bookshops these days.

Please do pick up this book and see for yourself. I’m already looking to buy the physical version of the ebook I have, and will absolutely be reading it again, as well as looking out for whatever this author writes in future.

A huge recommend.

‘A Dowry of Blood’ will be released on January 31 as paperback and ebook. I was kindly provided with an ebook version of this title by the author, in exchange for a fair review.

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‘The Harrowing of Doom’, by David Annandale

I wasn’t quite sure what to think going into this. I love comic books, and have read some of the most poignant and memorable tales within their pages – but my experience with prose versions of the very colourful and vivid characters has been mixed. Somehow words alone haven’t been able to do justice to what is usually a very visual experience.

Within a few pages, I knew I needn’t have worried. I find myself deep in Latveria, home and domain of scientist and magician Dr Victor von Doom, witnessing his quest to rescue the spirit of his mother from Hell. Almost like a damned soul himself, it’s a battle he (literally) fights every year, only to lose over and over. But this time will be different…

I was absolutely captivated by this book. I knew the author from some of his Warhammer fiction, but reading his little note stating his love for one of comics’ greatest villains, I can only agree – he’s more than done justice to what could well have been a pretty two-dimensional character.

The outline of the base plot is above, but threads run swiftly through the pages to depict a busy, thriving country ruled by a benevolent dictator, with everyone fighting their own battles much as we all do. From the lowest to the highest, this book expertly balances magic and science, contemporary and medieval, superstition and fact, love and duty. In a way, it reminded me of the cleverness of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, which confused and awed many critics with its skilful mix of real-world and comic-book.

No previous knowledge is really needed, and it doesn’t take much to suspend your disbelief. If someone were to point out Latveria on a map now, I think I’d just want to know more about it as a place and culture!

This story absolutely left me wanting more. I read it at increasing speed, with moments of calm thoughtfulness slowly ramping up to a crescendo of action – all beautifully described, so I never felt lost.

This is the Doom we have never seen in the movies. I love how his tale has caught the imaginations of many through the years, and I’m absolutely looking forward to future prose versions of his fantastic peers.

Definitely recommended.

Available from January 7th in paperback and electronic format. With thanks to Aconyte Books for kindly providing the review ARC.

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Farewell to This Year

It feels as if this is a moment we’ve all been working towards for so long. 2020 has been A Year unlike any other that we’ve known. Time itself has seemed tenuous and changeable, whether elastic or like wading through thick mud. Very little has been certain, day-to-day.

We’re stepping into a new calendar year with even more trepidation than usual, and (perhaps) greater awareness of the weight of what might lie ahead. But also with hope – because that is what keeps us moving on.

I rarely make New Year’s resolutions, as that’s always been a Samhain thing for me. But after some extremely fallow writing weeks, ideas have tapped on my brain to be noted and shared; maybe even looked back on next December.

Moving into 2021, I hope…

To keep rediscovering my strength. Ditto bravery. Fear and weakness can have their time, and then be overcome.

To explore my creativity. Be it fiction in places that I’ve not explored before, or new and intriguing skills. Also…

To allow myself to make mistakes. To mess up, trip up and then pick myself up. It’s all part of the journey. Blame and guilt are not helpful.

To keep speaking my truth, and digging deep when necessary to see what that means.

To allow myself to share more without shame.

To learn to love myself as I am, here and now.

To make and share my own personal magic.

To not give up.

Step, step, step…

Stay safe, friends. Thinking of you all. We’ll see each other again soon.

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‘Home Before Dark’, by Riley Sager

This was an interesting novel. Not least because I’d read and enjoyed some of the author’s work in the past (particularly his debut, ‘Final Girls’), but because I’d already seen a lot of good things from other reviewers. Riley Sager clearly has a love for the horror genre, so when I heard he was writing a haunted house tale, inspired by ‘The Amityville Horror’, I was keen to see his take on the theme.

Our primary narrator is Maggie, whose author father has recently died as the story opens. He wrote what she refers to as ‘The Book’ – and we soon begin to see excerpts from it, and to see why she is both affected and haunted by that overarching work.

Because Maggie is a grown-up version of the little girl from The Book itself, a ‘based on true events’ story of a family escaping from a lethal haunted house. She’s travelled through life with what became a best-seller hanging over her; it’s hard to meet anyone who doesn’t know her own story better than she does.

When she learns that she’s inherited that very house, she resolves to put her past demons to rest – and we’re off and running.

This was an enthralling read. We see Maggie exploring the house as an adult, seeing its effect – and that of The Book – on the nearby town, as well as the constant thread of basically trying to figure out if her father was telling the truth or not. Is the house haunted? What about the multiple deaths there over the years, the mysterious staff members and their daughters, and the previous living residents of the house itself?

Maggie’s explorations in the present day are interspersed with chapters from The Book, letting us ‘see’ what actually happened. Except her father may be an unreliable narrator. Or is that Maggie’s memory playing tricks?

Before I knew it, I had sped through the majority of the book (this one, not The Book) and was entering the end zone. Which is sadly where it lost me.

I felt very let down by ‘Home Before Dark’. The twisting plot-threads were excellent, but the multiple fake-outs were not. Everything is tied in a neat bow as the story closes, but that actually felt disappointing after so many mysteries; almost as if I’d have preferred the final door remained closed.

I’m actually reminded of the debate over ‘The Blair Witch Project’ original movie. Would you rather see the monster, or leave that to your own imagination?

Ultimately, for me, trying to figure the puzzle out was far more fun than what happened when the Scooby Doo villain’s mask was pulled off. I know some people will be happy with that, but after a kind of supernatural whodunnit, it was frustrating to be told that the reader had been mislead (in a manner of speaking) as much as the characters.

I doubt I’ll be rereading The Book again soon. But I bet it’ll make a great movie.

Available now from all physical and electronic bookshops.

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Permission to Try

A while ago, I was chatting to a friend and happened to mention that I loved horror movies, especially when I was feeling low. She looked at me in horror. ‘Why?!’ she gasped.

I honestly didn’t know how to reply, because I couldn’t quite understand the question.

I don’t know if it’s still true (I suspect it is), but when I was younger, it wasn’t ‘cool’ to be really passionately into something. Be it a hobby, interest or whatever struck your fancy in a big way, it seemed that unless that topic was currently ‘trendy’ – and therefore permissible – you could expect to get mocked for it. So you quickly learned to keep it quiet.

A classic example is Dungeons and Dragons, which was widely derided for many years after launch (despite its popularity), but is now ‘cool’ because those nerdy kids grew up and are still enjoying themselves. Thus others are finally drawn in though curiosity rather than put off by derision.

I’ve never understood why someone being really keen on a subject should have to push that down for the sake of their ‘image.’ When do we learn to mock others for things they enjoy? I think the nearest I came was having a laugh at my brother for his football-madness, but our whole family had that – I always took a book (or two) wherever I went, unless I wanted to sit with them watching two groups of men chase a ball around a field for 90 minutes. Fun for many, not for me.

I still joke with him about ‘Doing A Sport’, by the way. It’s not malicious at all, as I love seeing my nephews enjoying it as they get older. I really wouldn’t want to tell anyone what they can and cannot like! My technically-correct explanation of the Offside Rule (‘that man’s in front of that other one and he shouldn’t be’) shows how daft I am, if anything.

It’s interesting to take a step back to consider why some things are permissible and others not. So many social rules fly around gendered roles, for example: historically, women were looked down upon for reading, because they might Get Ideas. Let alone Playing a Sport (still true).

I love that we’re now starting to really dig into the irrationality of such invisible laws, which seem to originate in the schoolyard. At some point (hopefully by adulthood) an individual can stop, think to themselves ‘Hang on…’ and realize that the thing they love is for a valid reason.

I mention my ribbing of my brother and his football because he has been known to do similar to me about my Paganism. He used to call it ‘That stuff you do’, until he came to my Handfasting and saw what the Stuff was for himself. It’s not for him but he gets it, and I’m glad.

At every single such event I’ve ever attended, regular folks have approached me to tell me how lovely the ceremony was, and how they’d never realized. I do wonder what they imagine Pagan Ritual to be, but it’s always lovely to share The Stuff I Do with others in an open way, so they can see for themselves. Not with a view to recruiting at all – people can make up their own minds about that! Just demonstrating.

If people ask me for introductory information about something I love, I try to help them understand and hopefully inspire a little. It’s always a true pleasure to hear others speak on such topics. Personal passion is a wonderful thing.

I’m writing this today because allowing myself to feel deeply about certain things is something that’s been on my mind recently. What I am allowing myself to have or to do. What’s permissable – and if not, why not?

I’ve been reviewing books to share my opinion and also help authors and small publishers. Genre fiction isn’t always ‘cool’, but if I liked it, I’ll say so. It’s up to those reading the review if they pick up the book themselves or not.

I’ve been watching makeup videos on YouTube, and debating playing with colours again. The greater part of a year spent in lockdown means I’ve been making do with basic primping, but I want to remember how fun it is to dress up. I love my dark red lipstick, and will have to wear it at home for a while… but that’s ok.

What do we allow ourselves to do, or not do? Why avoid things that we love for the sake of what others think, or what we feel we ‘should’ be doing? Those awful social expectations, codes and rules…

This isn’t about anarchism or chaos. This is simply about pausing to ask ‘do I really want to do this?’ when you know the answer is Yes.

Because right now, we need to give ourself permission to enjoy what we love. Explore new languages, cultures, topics, genres, games, pastimes. What can we do to brighten the days during lockdown? Bake, read, play, craft, dress up. Even play D&D with friends across Zoom, which Himself and I will be doing tonight.

I feel as if sometimes I’m relearning what I love all over again, because the depression brings back those playground voices that tell me I can’t, shouldn’t, will look stupid, etc etc.

But what if I try?

Wintry blessings, my friends.

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‘The Last Ritual’, by S.A. Sidor

Disclaimer: I was so excited to receive this book for review! I’d seen the new Arkham Horror series as Coming Soon for most of the year, and given the popularity of Lovecraft-inspired fiction happening right now (almost as if the world’s gone mad), I was hopeful that such a dedicated selection of books from proven writers would be both true to the Mythos and also original for the 21st Century.

I’m glad to report that this book hits it out of the park on both fronts.

The story is narrated by famed artist Alden Oakes, and while we are told he is revealing horrific events from his youth, he seems at first to be more of a rich old man simply reminiscing. But soon you’re (appropriately) sucked into the tale and the momentum begins to rise…

We travel from the Old Ways of Europe to the newer – and stranger – happenings in Arkham itself. The town is as much a character as any of the humans, and it’s fascinating to see that while it’s comparatively forward-thinking (particularly with regard to women and people of colour), it’s built on a truly ancient foundation.

It’s difficult to speak about the plot without giving anything away, but suffice to say that the tale is the best sort of rollercoaster matinee adventure. By spending time with the protagonists, we become invested and genuinely caring for their wellbeing in a way that Lovecraft never really had time for. I was also relieved that the author has far more liberal views than HP himself – no racism, sexism or xenophobia here.

Initially, I felt that the book could be shorter, but I quickly realized that it’s precisely as long as it needs to be. While Alden can seem a little Wooster-like with his rank and privilege, he realizes it and tries to use it to help those other than himself. He’s a silly young man, who is forced to grow up and face the very real dangers of his home town (hopefully without pranging Father’s Rolls).

The 1920s setting is both well-researched and appropriate. Prohibition is something that everyone kind of works around; the recent war was its own kind of madness. Arkham is almost an island, tangentially affected by the wider movements of America at large but also looking far beyond, to the stars and the deepest seas, where the mysteries are strangely hypnotic, even attractive.

The characters are so well-drawn that I was casting them in my head (and missing Christopher Lee for one crucial baddie!). This would make a wonderful TV serial, akin to the recent ‘Lovecraft Country’.

I enjoyed my time in this strange land immensely, and am looking forward very much to the next titles in the series. Absolutely recommended.

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‘In Darkness, Shadows Breathe’, by Catherine Cavendish

NetGalley kindly provided a review copy of this book, but my opinions are my own.

Spooky hospitals seem to be their own trend in recent horror. From ‘The Ward‘ to ‘American Horror Story: Asylum‘, we’ve seen so many protagonists fight their way free of institutions that are supposed to be helping them. Perhaps timely in this crazy year?

This book takes the best of such tropes and combines them into a modern gothic tale that gripped me immediately with its spooky atmosphere, despite being set in a very mundane world – at least at first.

We initially follow Carol, a down-to-earth supermarket worker who’s flat-sitting in a posh apartment complex. But it’s adjacent to a hospital that was refurbished from a building with a much darker purpose… and soon this very 21st-century lady is being drawn back in time.

About halfway through, the action jumps to Nessa, a patient in the hospital undergoing a pretty intense operation. From the easy familiarity of Carol’s life, we suddenly find ourselves with a woman going through a traumatic fight with cancer. It’s a bit of a jarring leap, but we quickly find out what they have in common – besides strange dreams (memories?) of a filthy secret corridor echoing with screams.

I don’t want to give any more away, but a thread of uncertainty runs through the book as to whether our protagonists are hallucinating due to medication, going actually mad, or somehow really experiencing supernatural horrors that are tied up with the hospital’s history.

I enjoyed the start of this book. A brief prologue reminded me of Dennis Wheatley somewhat, before settling down into ultra-normality. Once we relate to the character, strange things start to happen, making it easy to ask what we would do in her situation. So far, so good.

The writing is beautiful and an absolute pleasure to read, with the transition from modern renal ward to Victorian squalor (or reality to Otherworld) being almost tangible.

However, the leap from one character to another is sudden and, for me, rather awkward. Nessa’s cancer treatments are focused on quite closely, and that’s a very different type of horror. When we see Carol again, I was left wondering what happened during the time we weren’t with her – because something certainly had.

The book demands a bit of work on the reader’s part, I think, to keep up with what’s going on in several deliberately confusing scenarios. Hospital staff don’t seem to act rationally, and the dreamlike quality of the ghostly scenes draws you along. It all seems to be heading for some sort of dramatic crescendo, as you think the characters have broken free to safety…

And then the book stops.

I don’t think this is a cliff-hanger, but it was shocking in the worst way. Nothing was resolved, I was left wondering what would happen next, and the commitment to both Carol and Nessa’s battles seemed wasted. It’s almost as if the author wanted a ‘Seven’-like twist, but couldn’t quite manage it.

I did enjoy the majority of this book, but it left me wanting more. I found myself making up ‘head-canon’ for the characters, because I genuinely did like them and I wanted more than the author gives. The final part of the novel appears to have vanished.

Do check this out if you like a bit of modern gothic on a dark winter night. Personally though, it left me feeling that the protagonists had checked out of the story early, as well as the hospital.

Available to pre-order on Amazon, for release mid-January 2021.

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‘Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire’, ed: Nicole Givens Kurtz

NetGalley kindly provided a review copy of this book, but my opinions are my own.

‘Slay’ is a vampire anthology unlike any I’ve read – and I’ve read quite a few! It focuses on black protagonists, with stories divided into sections based on which country they take place. This is neither all-white or all-UK/American, and is refreshingly contemporary.

This book arrived just as I was about to start a month of hospital treatments, so it became my companion every day. It’s a good-sized book, but I usually read a story or two at a time – because I often had to pause between each tale to think on what I’d just read!

The majority of these stories are excellent, really A+ writing for their original settings and memorable characters. These are far more than black caricatures; most protagonists have fully-realized histories, motivations, families and friendships sketched excellently over their limited pages. This book has a lovely undercurrent of community, with each tale managing to share space in both the supernatural world and that of the real.

At first, I actually began to not quite believe my eyes – was this an anthology with no ‘bad’ stories? The first third were all remarkable, and I’ve made notes of their authors to follow up.

But then I found a couple of chapters that seemed to have (oddly) missed out on an editor. The storylines seemed interesting, but I couldn’t get past the errors or writing style. This may be an issue with this being a review copy, but it was a shame nonetheless.

Stephen King once said that while novels were akin to a relationship, short stories were a loving kiss from writer to reader. These are kisses that I’ll remember fondly and gladly revisit.

Huge thanks to the editor who made this all happen, and the authors who shared their worlds with this jaded old vampire fan – and reminded me why I love this genre all over again.

Definitely recommended.

‘Slay’ is available now, from Amazon and all good booksellers.

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Wishes at Samhain

Years ago, when I was a first-year University student in London, a friend and I travelled into the city to explore. Most of the day was spent in the magical otherworld of Camden Market, but then we decided to head out to Highgate Cemetery.

We were disorganised Goths, though, and in those pre-Internet days, had no way to check times… so when we arrived, it was closed.

To this day, I have never been closer to it than this:

Years later, I’m working at home during a time when the world seems utterly crazy, and I think back to that day.

I think of those people stuck at home due to lockdown – or physical illness, social anxiety, any number of social ills. 2020 has been a year of confusion and fear. Those innocent happy days have been a pleasant memory.

I find myself wondering if/how I can recreate such times. I’m older and (possibly) a bit wiser. The world is still out there. We must tread with more awareness, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I’m pondering what I can do, if/how I can overcome the challenges of 2020.

Samhain is imminent, so this seems timely. ‘Pagan New Year’ means looking back, but also forward, for me. I feel – I hope – that I’m moving from what can I do to combine again with what do I want to do. And then how can I achieve that?

Those University days were lessons in themselves, as we tested our boundaries, away from home for the first time in a strange, new place. I feel as if we’re doing that again this year, but within the new confines of safety measures. This isn’t play; this is serious. We’re isolated for the sake of the wider community (and news reports show how difficult many people find that).

I’ve always been aware of the needs of others, often to the detriment of my own (that’s another story). Testing my own wants, putting toes into the water of ‘Yes, this is something that I genuinely would like to do’ seems revolutionary, and immensely freeing.

I’m actively battling the depression, armed with recent hospital treatment and backed my loving family and friends. I feel hopeful and determined. Even in this year like no other, steps can be taken to move forward.

I would like to go walking in the woods. To explore the secret places, down tiny roads and hidden tracks.

I would like to spend time with those past, in cemeteries or historic buildings. Perhaps the catacombs under Nottingham or the stone circles of Derbyshire Peaks.

I would like to find a decent camera to record these moments, and practice my photography to capture and share.

And back home, as the cold days draw in, I would like to explore my creativity. Maybe to design something with yarn, to actually learn to sew…

I would very much like to add more words to the beginnings of my fiction. To write, so that I can take up challenges that come my way.

I would like to not be scared to do. To be as nervous but excited as I was on that long-ago day. To see where my feet – and my mind – take me.

Let’s make our wishes on this 2020 Samhain. Apart, yet together across the technological community. A deep breath, acknowledgement of limits but still honouring our dreams.

What are We Doing?

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New Hope

So… an exciting Thing is happening regarding my mental health situation.

A while ago (pre-lockdown), my lovely Dr told me about some medical trials going on for those with ‘treatment-resistant depression.’ I appeared to meet the criteria, so she put my name forward.

This is the project – Brightmind (I keep wanting to call it Brightburn, but that’s a very different thing 😂).

I’ve had confirmation today that I’m pretty much their ideal candidate, and after the formal assessment next week (and MRI scan to check my brain), I can begin in early September.

I’ve kept this quiet until it was confirmed, and also because I should’ve started in February – but then the MRI machines became suddenly busy. The team at Nottingham University, working with QMC Hospital Nottingham, are super-keen to get working again, and their enthusiasm is really giving me hope.

Short version: this is like ECT (electro-convulsive therapy), but using magnets. So it’s not invasive at all and has shown a high rate of success. The last statistics I found showed 80% of improvement in patients, with the remainder showing no change. NO side-effects.

I’m hopeful. No guarantees, but any improvement is A Good Thing.

I will be updating on here, and possibly with videos as well. I’ve seen other folks on YouTube document such journeys, and their positive experiences have been a big factor in my going forward with this.

A Big Adventure is about to begin! Fingers – and everything else – crossed.

Also, before anyone says anything: yes, I’ve read ‘Firestarter’ and books like that. I promise to use any resulting superpowers for good. Including a clearer brain 😊

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