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Mike Thorn’s ‘Shelter for the Damned’ is an Anxiety-Inducing Must-Read

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Mike Thorn’s debut novel, Shelter for the Damned, is out in digital and paperback formats, and is an absolute must-read for fans of novels like Carrie and the early catalog of John Saul.

Set against an all-too-familiar suburban backdrop, the novel centers on Mark, a teenage boy dealing with no small amount of alienation, anxiety, and pent-up rage. When he and his friends discover a mysterious shack in the middle of the woods, they decide it’ is the perfect place to hide-out and smoke.

Mark soon realizes, however, that there is a strange presence inside this shack. It is as seductive as it is hungry, and Mark is exactly the vessel it needs to sate that hunger. As his obsession grows with the feelings the shack provides him, he finds himself on a dark path to pay its even darker price.

Thorn proved himself a master storyteller in his previous short story collection Darkest Hours. In Shelter for the Damned he further underscores that talent, creating a tale that is both immediately gripping while instilling an insidious dread in his reader.

At its core, this is a character study, and one that we rarely see. Thorn forces the reader to take a good long look at the fallout of the hyper-masculine conditioning of the adolescent male, not only in the central character but also through his friends, each of whom seems to deal with it in different ways.

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Adam has a temper with unpredictable bursts of violence; Scott is fastidiously clean and helpful in an attempt to avoid punishment, and Mark, well, Mark has a smart-mouth, a mean-streak, and a tendency to fight. Still there is something different about Mark. All three entered the shack, but he is the only one that exits with this fascination and attachment.

Is there something truly unique in him? Is it his anger? His frustration in not understanding his own actions? His predilection for violent confrontations? There is no clear answer, and that feeling of chance only heightens the book’s ties to reality.

The thing that really gets under this reader’s skin is that even Mark isn’t sure why he does some things. He smarts off and says callous things without even remembering what he said or did. He acts without thinking and is stunned by the consequences. After a while, it becomes second nature to tense whenever he makes the inevitable bad choice.

I wanted him to do better. I wanted him to be better. I wanted him to resist the shack’s influence, and the tension created in that desire was palpable as the book rushed to its inevitably ambiguous conclusion.

For those who think that all of this sounds boring , let me reassure you that Thorn does all of this character work while still telling a compelling, gore-drenched, terrifying story, especially toward the end when he tiptoes over the line into something more cosmic than I was first expecting.

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Now, while I thoroughly loved this book, there were things that I thought could have used just a little more polish. I love an ambiguous ending, but I would have liked to know just a bit more about the shack’s origins. It reminded me of reading Lovecraft. There is an evil that is evil because it is evil. There is merit in this, but I would have preferred a little more fleshed-out explanation. You don’t have to tell me everything, but give me just a little more.

It also takes a little while for the full action of the story to begin. However, to this second point, once the story is underway, it does not slow down.  Think of it like a slingshot. Thorn takes his time, taking precise aim, ensuring there is just enough tension, then sends the reader hurtling toward his target.

Shelter of the Damned is published by Journalstone. You can pick up a copy by CLICKING HERE!

Fiction

Horror Pride Month: David R. Slayton, Author of ‘White Trash Warlock’

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David R. Slayton

A few months ago, I was looking for a new audiobook to dig into. Since re-entering the leaving-your-house workforce, audiobooks have helped me survive the daily commute. I wanted something that blended genres and fed my love of horror, fantasy, and gayness. As I combed through the thousands of Audible titles, I found a book called White Trash Warlock by David R. Slayton. The book concerns Adam Binder, a gay witch from Oklahoma who ends up confronting a monstrous entity attacking Denver and driving people insane.

Gayme. Set. Match. I was so in!

By the end of the book, I was in desperate need for more. Luckily for me, the second book in the trilogy, Trailer Park Trickster, was already available, and though it ended on the mother of all cliffhangers, I knew there was at least one more book, Deadbeat Druid on the way.

In the meantime, I made it my mission to track down the author to let him know just what his books meant to a gay, horror-loving, romance addict–and fellow author–in a small town in East Texas. I also immediately floated a pitch to interview him for Horror Pride Month this year, and was excited when he agreed.

As we settled in to chat, I told him again how much I appreciated the books, but I also had to ask, “Where and when did you meet Adam Binder?”

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The story did not let me down.

As it happened, Slayton had been trying to write epic fantasy which, from personal experience, I can tell you is a daunting task. As it turned out, however, he was also a fan of urban fantasy and had been formulating a story about a doctor, his wife, and their child in Denver, the city that the author calls home.

“So I had this whole plot, but what I didn’t have was a main character,” the author explained. “I sort of put it in the back of my brain and forgot all about it, and then one night I was driving through the Carolinas. The moon was full. It was hanging over the road. The trees were hanging over the road. And that Kaleo song ‘Way Down we Go’ came on the radio.  This character popped into my head, and I just start asking him questions. I said, ‘who are you?’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m just like you. I’m from Guthrie. I grew up in the woods.’ I started thinking I could merge this to that urban fantasy plot but that urban fantasy plot is still very Denver focused. Adam said, ‘Well, I could go to Denver.’”

And that’s just what he did…does…you know what I mean.

While the elements are fantastical and sometimes downright harrowing, the story of Adam Binder, a witch who has very little power in the grand scheme of things, and his mostly mundane family is rooted in a sense of reality. That truth, the realness of it all, was derived from Slayton’s own experiences. He even went so far as to name Adam’s mother after his own grandmother.

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“Her name was Tilla-Mae Wolfgang Slayton and she was everything that the name implies,” he says.

As for the fantasy, he says, he was careful where he pulled his influences from while writing the novels.

“Someone who recently interviewed me said they didn’t understand why I didn’t use American folklore and myth,” he said. “The thing about it is, when you’re talking about American mythology you’re really talking about Native American mythology. I’m a very white person. I don’t want to appropriate that. So I was looking around at what mythologies are out there and what could I draw on from my own heritage and what can I do to take something that’s really well-known and tropey and flip it on its head.”

And so he created Elves who believe themselves to be hyper-modern yet they walk and dress and talk like they’ve stepped right out of a noir movie from the 1940s. Then, he brought in the far-too-seldom-used Leprechauns, giving them the swagger of a character from Peaky Blinders. I’m not even going to explain the gnomes to you. You just have to read it for yourself. The mix and mash, push and pull, of what we know and what we expect is what keeps the reader on their toes and that brings the author a great deal of satisfaction.

As it’s Pride, of course, we had to discuss the fact that the book has a gay protagonist.  Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a comments section where anything queer is remotely mentioned knows what most of us face when we set about writing about ourselves, placing ourselves in the narrative. The homophobes come out of the woodwork hurling accusations of forcing agendas and wokeness when all we really want is to read stories where we exist.

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For Slayton, there was no question about Adam’s sexuality from the beginning. It wasn’t an agenda. It was who he was.

“It’s vital to me,” he said. “Most of my inspiration in what I write comes from seeing a gap in the market. I grew up in Guthrie in the woods. I didn’t have access to a lot. My mother was very religious so what I was allowed to read was very limited. What I could find in fantasy, whenever there was an LGBTQ character, they were either barely there or they died tragically. There was an AIDS analog or coming out was a thing.  I love seeing more of the representation spread and good representation in particular. That’s part of why I started writing White Trash Warlock. I don’t see a broke, gay witch from Oklahoma on the page. So, I thought, I’m going to write that. Since it is urban fantasy, prejudice and issues around Adam’s sexuality are present, but I didn’t want it to be the main thing in the story. Better writers than me have written about all that so I don’t want to read it.”

The formula is certainly working for Slayton. His books have captured the imagination of readers around the world. The blending of his own mixture of horror and fantasy is thrilling and compelling. For me, it gives me the same thrill of the first time I read Gaiman, Pratchett, and to an extent, even Barker.

This brings us, of course, to the final book in Slayton’s trilogy. With Deadbeat Druid on the horizon, it would have been criminal not to ask for a peek of what’s to come.

“At the end of Trailer Park Trickster, Adam is very much sent on an Odyssey,” he said. “Instead of using islands, I’m using real towns. Some of them just have a cool, creepy true crime thing connected with them; some of them just have interesting events connected to them. I’ve really enjoyed researching the history of these places. In Deadbeat Druid, you’ll get a little more of that.”

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Yes, but what about Adam Binder and his sexy but very “everything is black and white” possible boyfriend, Vic, who he inadvertently made into a Grim Reaper?!

“I play a lot of D&D so I think in those terms,” Slayton pointed out. “Adam is chaotic good, which means that he always does the right thing, even if it’s against the law. Vic is lawful good, which means he will always do the right thing but it has to follow the law. By the end of book three, they’ve both taken steps toward each other and neutral good. Not everything is black and white and not every law is bad.”

To learn more about David Slayton, visit his official website and look for his novels online and in bookstores!

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‘When it Rains’: Mark Allan Gunnells Dives into Eco-Horror and Paranoia

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When it Rains

There’s something deeply unsettling and all-too-familiar about Mark Allan Gunnells’s new novella, When it Rains. Maybe it’s just living through a pandemic for the last couple of years. Maybe it’s the very real, looming climate crisis. Either way, the author deftly cuts to the bone with a story that feels like it could have been pulled from the local news.

On a seemingly normal, sunny day, a mysterious rain begins to fall. That, on its own, isn’t so strange. What’s strange is that it doesn’t feel like rain at all. It’s a slimy, globular, oily substance. It also happens to be covering the entire world. Rather than focusing on the world’s reaction, however, the author drops us into a small, posh university campus where students and locals take shelter from the storm inside a bookstore/cafe.

As paranoia grows over what the storm might be, the small crowd turns on each other, exiling those who were caught in the rain.

It’s interesting that Gunnells sets the story sometime in the future beyond our own pandemic experiences. He rightfully gave his characters memories of the past and how things were handled. It’s also quite remarkable how throwing out a term like “self-isolating” causes a visceral, knee-jerk reaction in the reader.

The author also draws upon his encyclopedic knowledge of horror films, television series, and books to underline his character’s thoughts. References to The Mist, The Stand, and even the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” remind us that this idea is nothing new, but that doesn’t make it any less scary. Whether it’s a pack of rowdy neighbors on the street or religious zealots in a supermarket, human nature is often the most terrifying monster of all.

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But perhaps the most potent, exacting truth in Make it Rain is that humans have a remarkable propensity to be entirely right and wrong simultaneously. Our vestigial fight or flight responses can and often do lead us down paths to destruction. Is it because we are too far removed to sense the sources of real danger around us? Or because we’ve become so numb to those dangers that they feel more like a fact of life?

I’m not sure I have an answer to that question. Neither does the author, but he certainly seems to be asking someone…anyone…to let us know.

When it Rains features an interesting cast of characters, but sadly none of them are quite as filled out as they perhaps, could have been. I couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t due to a need for brevity in the storytelling or if it was a plot device in and of itself. We’re given just enough background on the players in this horror drama to seemingly put faces to the names, perhaps to give us the same glimpse into each that the group of mostly strangers have with each other.

The exception here is Vincent, the husband of Tony who works in the campus bookstore. He’s more fleshed out than any character in the book, and ultimately becomes our flawed moral compass.

As a whole, however, When it Rains is an exciting, quick read, perfect for a rainy afternoon…or maybe you should wait until it’s sunny out. Either way, you’re in for a real treat.

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You can pick up a copy of When it Rains by CLICKING HERE. The book is also available on Kindle Unlimited!

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Human Horrors Abound in ‘Cut to Care’ by Aaron Dries

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Cut to Care

Whenever I sit down to read a book by Aaron Dries, I do my best to mentally prepare for what horrors I think the author might have in store for me. It’s never worked. Not once. Not even a little. Dries is an author who zigs when I expect him to zag. He skims the surface of the obvious evil/horror, rarely using it as more than a tease, only to plunge the reader headfirst into an unexpected circumstance that’s so much worse. He is a master storyteller, and Cut to Care: A Collection of Little Hurts, his new collection of short stories is no exception.

In a way, it’s the perfect title. Each story is carefully crafted; each story cuts deep. Dries rarely writes supernatural stories. His horrors come from and live in the real world. His novella Dirty Heads is a notable exception, and here he dips his toe occasionally, often pairing supernatural thrills with body horror chills that are simultaneously compelling and disturbing.

Though I rarely do so with collections, I feel the need to break down/review each of the author’s stories here. It feels like the only way to do the work justice and to give you an idea of what you’ll find inside its covers.

Cut to Care begins with “Damage, Inc.” a story that centers on a young woman who works as a sort of living grief doll. Kaylee spends her days donning costumes and wigs to spend time with clients who have experienced profound loss. She becomes the object of their grief, eases opens their badly-healed emotional wounds, and allows them to say what they never said to find closure. The job tears at her. Every client opens her own scars, but she’s unable to give herself what she so readily and exhaustingly gives to others.

Still, she manages to stick to the treatment plan, so to speak, until she meets a wealthy family who might need her just a bit too much. Dries reaches into the very heart of grief, mining the essential horror of loss in a way that is both gripping and terrifying, leaving an ending just ambiguous enough to fully embody his subject. Some wounds never fully heal; some aren’t meant to. Some ache years after the initial hurt as a reminder and a lesson that we’ve survived.

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“Cut to Care” is what could only be considered a sort of horror parable, a simple story with a nugget of truth at its center. A young man is out for a morning run when he encounters an old man asking for change. He gives it, and smiles as he jogs away. At the next corner, he encounters a woman wrapped in a blanket without a shirt. Despite the chill of winter, he gives up his own. He has a home to go to after all. He’ll eventually be warm and there’s a certain glow he feels in giving of himself. Dries seems to be asking “Is it okay to feel good about yourself by helping others? When do we cross the line from altruism to something less honorable?” The answer, of course, is chilling in the hands of the author who crafts a somehow brutally sunny ending.

It’s hard to know what to make of “Tallow Maker, Tallow Made.” Upon first reading it, it rather jumps off the page as a skin-crawling body horror story. A second read, however, takes you much deeper. Again, we are confronted with grief as a young woman desperately tries to come to terms with her father’s hanging after it was discovered he murdered three men. Here, though, she fully succumbs to that grief, allows herself to be changed by it. It was, for me, the second most stomach-turning story in the collection. The author’s knack for description is on full display here. If you have a weak constitution, I can only suggest preparing for the best worst ride of your life.

Cut to Care comes complete with an introduction by Mick Garris!

“Nona Doesn’t Dance”… In a future where the world is covered in toxic smog, and no one has seen the stars in more years than they could count, a family packs up to visit their matriarch at the rest home where she “lives.” That’s all I can tell you plot-wise about this story. Best you find out what happens on your own. Dries spent years working in nursing homes, and this seems to draw upon those very real, sadly mundane horrors of aging and the aged.

As a child, my own grandfather existed in a nursing home for, I believe, eight years. After the first year, he didn’t remember much of anything. Looking back, I realize how performative our weekly visits to the nursing home were. We’d sit by his bed, often talking about him rather than to him as if having happy conversations in his presence somehow negated the state he was in. But the worst was that there was some expectation for him to perform, as well. A remembered name, an acknowledgement of our presence was the price we selfishly expected him to pay. I was a child dealing with undiagnosed anxiety and depression. I could hardly be expected to really know better, but looking back, the memories are bitter. This story brought all of that to the surface, lacing the fear with guilt.

“Little Balloons” explores the potential of childhood, the formation of the self, and how easily it can be lost, a complex story told simply with horror at its core. That’s all I want to say about that right now.

I want to talk about “The Acknowledged.” I want to explore its layers in a way that gives it the weight it deserves. I’m just not sure how to go about it without spoiling the whole thing. Just trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

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In “Too Old for Ice Cream,” the author deftly explores the dynamics of a family falling apart and what that kind of trauma does to the children in the home. Growing up too fast, taking on responsibilities far beyond their maturation, and worst of all, missing the freedom to just be children, to enjoy the simple pleasures life has to offer before the crushing weight of adulthood falls on their shoulders. It’s heartbreaking, sad, and yes, scary as hell.

“Love Amongst the Red Back Spiders.” Well, here we are. The story that broke me so much so that I messaged Dries after I read it to let him know that he had broken me. Acceptance of the queer community, as a whole, has gotten much better than it used to be, though we still have a very long way to go. This story takes place in a time when it was much worse. In fact, after a man’s life falls apart after being outed, he takes drastic measures in an attempt to “save himself” from his queerness only to have his life truly go to hell afterward.

This story has extra weight as lawmakers across the U.S. are desperately trying to pass laws making the identity of members of the LBGTQ+ community “illegal” in some unhinged way. Stripping away our humanity and our rights does nothing more than make us a danger to ourselves and others. The horror here sits firmly in our reality as history that could easily repeat itself. I walked away from this story broken by its underlying meanings and more determined than ever to honor those who came before us, fighting and dying to earn us what rights we have. I can only hope I can fill their shoes in my own time in some way that would make them proud.

And finally, there is “Shadow Debt.” The story seems to be an amalgamation of everything that came before it in the collection. All those fears and doubts coalesce into a singular moment, where the ripples of one decision can utterly and completely alter the course of a life. Nanette is uncomfortably living out her twilight years. Her husband has succumbed to dementia and lives in a nursing home. Her daughter’s family is growing. She’s eagerly anticipating her first great-grandchild. Then, one day, she convinces a young woman not to take her own life. It is the ultimate act of life-giving kindness. Or is it?

Dries seems to be pointing at his readership, asking us what we would have done and if we had the chance, would we do it again? Some things, ultimately, can’t be taken back. Some things, even the most charitable, only take from us. And take and take and take. The author presents us a beautifully written, genuinely scary story, that lives in the gray areas of our lives.

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As a whole, like any good collection, Cut to Care is a journey in and out of the author’s imagination. Dries proves with the work that his mastery of storytelling is not limited to the longer form. He can, and will, make your skin crawl in even the briefest of stories. If well-written horror is what you crave, you owe it to yourself to read this fantastic collection.

Look for Cut to Care: A Collection of Little Hurts this month wherever you buy books!

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