The Tunnellers is a short, tense read that will have the reader gripped from the very first page. Told as a series of entries by Dr. Armstrong, the epistolary format works really well to drop the reader right into the action, as Armstrong tries to untangle the events that brought mining foreman Kirkwood under his care.
The story has an old-fashioned feel to it, with the initial narrator presenting a forward, then expanding on the events at the end. And the framing device works, allowing The Tunnelers to read like one of the old classics of horror, giving an element of uncertainty to the events and really putting the reader into the mind of Armstrong. Aware of his obsession, Armstrong pushes on, researching the strange creatures while forcing Kirkwood to remember the events surrounding the mining accident.
Every piece of the puzzle fits nicely into place, and the story flows along at a good pace never feeling too fast nor too slow, matching the time constraints Armstrong finds himself in.
Overall, The Tunnelers is a great story, one that can easily be read in one sitting, and which will likely leave the reader pausing outside their basement door, listening to the strange sounds below, and wondering what, really, is that noise down there?
It’s a perfectly normal day when James gets on the bus to school. But normality soon turns to tragedy, as the school bus crashes into a lake–an accident that sets a whole town into mourning, and James on a path to uncover the town’s mysterious past. In doing so, he meets Dan, a police officer searching for the truth. They piece together how the accident fits in with the other mysterious happenings that his father investigated years before.
The actual events of A Parallel Abyss are engaging, with some really creepy imagery brought to the forefront. The quarry and river become the main focus, haunted by entities determined to drag down the town’s living inhabitants.
While the plot was engaging, the technical aspects made this book difficult to get into for long. There was a lot of head-hopping. Meaning it wasn’t always clear who’s POV we were in. The plot rushes alone which for some of the novel, carried it well enough, but the fast pace meant the character development suffered. We’re thrust from one event to the other, with no real conclusion as to how they all tie in together. There were parts where the novel definitely picked up, but it felt like the threads were dropped so quick it made it hard to follow.
The ending in particular felt rushed. Sometimes, an unresolved ending really works in a novel’s favour, but that’s not the case here. The climax felt almost skipped over, with so much happening in just a few pages, and neither James nor Dan gaining closure on the previous events.
Although some of the horror elements were really strong, the pacing and characters let it down. It never really felt like we actually got to know the two main characters much, except for the very bare bones of what was needed to serve the plot, and both felt a little too passive in a lot of instances – neither were particularly engaging. I was intrigued by the town and it’s strange events, but it felt like we didn’t get to see enough of the elements that could have really strengthened the novel.
This one gets 3 stars from me. Too rushed, with a lack of focus, but a few great, eerie moments buried in there all the same.
Dead Head Reviews (DHR): Thank you for giving us your time, Laurel. Your first published book, Whispers in the Dark came out December 2018. How has the response been?
Laurel Hightower (LH): It took a little while to gain any traction, but so far the majority of the reviews have been positive, for which I’m thankful! I would always encourage people to be honest in their reviews, because I want the book to reach the correct audience, but it’s pretty nerve-racking while you’re waiting to see if what you put out there is any good.
DHR: Would you mind expanding on why it took some time to gain traction?
LH: That delay was due mostly to my inexperience. Working with an indie press, I did understand that there wasn’t much of a marketing budget, but I didn’t have any clue how to market myself, or how to get the book to the right reviewers. I noticed that a couple of the other authors who’s books came out around the same time as mine had a lot of reviews, so I started backtracking, figuring out what they were doing and following suit. I didn’t know anyone in the horror community at that time to ask, but someone in Horror Aficionados on Goodreads mentioned Ladies of Horror Fiction, and that led me to submit my request to Sci-Fi & Scary. I was lucky that Sian Plummer accepted Whispers to review, which was in March, and then it took time for that review and others to get posted and make the rounds. A lot of other lovely reviewer folks have given their time to read a rookie author and post reviews, and of course my interactions on Twitter have been invaluable.
DHR: What was the process like when researching and inquiring for agents?
LH: It’s a bewildering process, as other writers know! Looking for the right fit, who represents the genre you’re writing in, is accepting new writers, and who has the connections to get your material in front of publishers, is time consuming work. I researched a number of them, looked at who was currently in their “stable” of authors, and what they indicated they were most interested in reading. The other part of the equation is patience, which I have a hard time with. Everything in writing and publishing moves at glacial speed – it can take an agent months to get around to reading your manuscript and responding. I probably had an easier time than most, because I had my mom coaching me, and her agent actually agreed to look at my work, which I know was a huge leg up. I had no promises about his acceptance, and I still had to go through the normal query process, but he eventually took me on as his agent, which was a big deal for me.
DHR: That’s so cool that you and your mom have the same agent! You were on an episode of Ink Heist – A Podcast for Readers of Dark Fiction. Did Shane and Rich approach you for that?
LH: Yes, Shane did – I definitely had a “who, me?” moment when he tweeted me about it. He had very kindly agreed to read and review Whispers, and I was kind of waiting with baited breath to see what he thought. He ended up enjoying it and asking me to be on the show. I was their third guest and nervous as all get out, but talking to Rich and Shane is like hanging in a bar with friends. They do such a great job with that podcast.
DHR: I couldn’t agree more, and I think you did a lovely job. Have you been on other podcasts?
LH: Yes, I’ve been on one other – Boneheads Weekly is a long-running podcast run by some wonderful guys based in my hometown. We were members of the same Facebook group, and after Whispers was released they had me on to talk about it. It was a funny situation, because basically I was invited into the basement of some guys I met online, which is a nice set up for a horror story on its own. They’re awesome though, incredibly knowledgeable about books, movies, graphic novels, everything. Their shows are a lot of fun.
DHR: Oh wow, ha-ha. You have an infant, congrats by the way! When do you have time to write?
LH: My writing time is pretty strictly scheduled – most weeknights I try to write between 9 and 10, and on weekends I write during my son’s naps. It’s made me a lot more organized about my time!
DHR: That’s a nice segue into my next question. Do you have a specific spot you have to write in or are you a mobile writer?
LH: I tend to write on the couch in our living room. I don’t have problems finding a new location if we’re on vacation, but if I’m home I prefer to be there. I have trouble working in public places because of the noise factor – I can be high maintenance about silence, as my husband can attest.
DHR: Looking back on Whispers, how do you feel about it as a story?
LH: It’s interesting because by the time JournalStone signed me on, I set it aside for a long time and worked on other projects. I worried, as we approached publication that it wasn’t representative of my best work, and it seemed like all I could see were problems during the editing process. Having the story seen through the eyes of readers has brought me back to an appreciation of it. Hearing from people about the parts that resonated with them helps me to see it in new ways every day, and curbs my instinct to beat up on my own work. At this point I feel proud of it, and of my characters.
DHR: That’s awesome. I know you currently reside in Kentucky. Did you grow up there? If so, how did it influence your work?
LH: Yes, I grew up here – I moved away to go to college, but came home as so many of us do. I imagine it influenced my work most in the types of characters I created – living in California and Tennessee, I could detect a lot of regional differences in how people interacted with one another, and I’d say it comes across unconsciously in my characters. That, and all those weird regional dialect things I never realized were weird…
DHR: Not sure if you’ve ever been in my old stomping grounds, but you’d flip with the New England accents. Whispers is a stand-alone. Will the next also be one?
LH: That might depend on who picks up what work and when – my second book that I’m revising now is the first in a series that has three completed manuscripts, and half of a fourth. I ended up creating a world I didn’t want to leave, so it became a continuing series, with respect to the characters and the town, though each book is kind of like its own episode. The first one is titled Silent Key, and definitely involves ghosts again, though the character dynamics are pretty different. My protagonist is an NYPD gang squad specialist named Cam Ambrose who moves to her uncle’s ranch in Texas after her husband’s brutal murder. The other completed manuscript I have is for a standalone thriller, but who knows if any of them will ever see the light of day? I sure hope so!
DHR: Oh, wow! I really hope so too! Do you have any desire to explore Sci-Fi or dark fantasy?
LH: Not at the moment, because I don’t read enough of either to do the genre justice.
DHR: That’s fair. Who do you look up to and why?
LH: Hmm, I’m blanking on specific people – it might be more of a mindset. People that have the ability to give zero fucks, I think. I wish I could just get stuff done without giving anyone else headspace, but I’m not good at it – so the kinds of women I see who are perfectly comfortable doing what’s right for them, and not worrying about six degrees of anxiety over it, those are the ones I’d like to emulate.
DHR: You mentioned how your mother is a writer. How was that like growing up?
LH: Ha – there were pros and cons, for sure. It was cool to read all these books with my mom’s name on them, and there were cassette tape audio versions of at least one, which was neat. I grew up with the knowledge that this was something you could really do. The evidence was right in front of me. It meant I was held to higher standards from a young age in my writing, so I’m sure I benefited from that aspect. With writing as a career, and especially back then, things were always feast or famine, so it could get hairy sometimes. I don’t want to give the impression we weren’t taken care of – we always were, but the rest of my family seemed to have a higher threshold for uncertainty.
DHR: What does she think of your stories?
LH: She’s very proud – she was excited when she first learned I was working on a novel. She’s always been my first beta reader, and she beats the hell out of me on notes, but it’s always worth it.
DHR: I’m so envious of you in that position. What genre does she typically write in?
LH: Her first four were sci-fi, and the rest have been mystery/thrillers.
DHR: Does she have a story or stories that’s inspired your work?
LH: I don’t know if it inspired my work, exactly, but I always loved Satan’s Lambs. It was my favorite, plus I got a kick out of all the conservative backlash for the title.
DHR: Yea, I can imagine. I do love that title, though. I just googled the book and the cover has the same tone as Whispers, neat! Can you see yourself shaping your little boy into a writer one day?
LH: Not shaping him into it, no – if he should choose to try it, I’ll give him all my support, but I want him to do what makes him happy, always. I’m thrilled that he’s so into being read to, and will often open books and “read” them to himself or his class, so I hope he’ll be a reader. But whoever he chooses to be, I’m his cheerleader 100 percent.
DHR: Spoken like a great parent. You’ve mentioned how short stories aren’t really your forte. Could you expand on that?
LH: There is such an art to being able to craft a story arc with limited pages. Maybe it’s about stretching myself, and I haven’t been brave enough to try it, but it always seems like the ideas I get for stories involve a much longer investment. I say that now, but maybe tomorrow something cool will pop into my head.
DHR: Along the lines of something popping in your head, has a dream been the catalyst to any of your stories?
LH: Definitely for scenes in some of my books. Silent Key has a scene based on a vivid nightmare I had. When I was describing it to my friend, it creeped her out, so I decided I had to use it.
DHR: I need to read that scene as soon as possible, please, he-he. What kind of music do you tend to gravitate towards?
LH: My husband would call it depressing singer songwriter – I like a lot of ballad, low-key one-offs. Mood music, plus some high octane stuff for workouts, or rocking out in my car like I think I’m cool.
DHR: You’re super cool. While we’re on the subject, do you write or read while listening to music?
LH: Nope, can’t do it, too distracting. Sometimes I’ll listen to instrumental horror soundtracks while I’m working – Hellraiser, Candyman, It Follows – but most of the time I need total silence. I’m a joy to live with, let me tell you.
DHR: It’s better than being a loud pain in the ass like myself, I’m sure. What are your goals for the foreseeable future?
LH: I’d love to get Silent Key polished and picked up for an early 2020 release, hopefully with the thriller not far behind. I have an outline for a novella I’ll work on after that, and if there’s much interest in Silent Key I’ll be polishing, or, more likely working massive rewrites, on the sequels.
DHR: Fingers crossed! Pertaining to writing goals, do you have a bucket list?
LH: I’d love to have my work included in a Night Worms package, to have it read by John F.D. Taff or Johnathan Janz or Hunter Shea, or Caitlyn Starling or Catherine Cavendish or Josh Malerman or, well, you know, any one of these incredible horror big shots we’re so blessed to have. I’d like to get accepted to the Kentucky Book Fair, and actually see my books on the shelves in bookstores. And I want to make it to Scares that Care next year!
DHR: Those are all fantastic goals and I don’t see why they wouldn’t become a reality! I also hope to go to Scares that Care, but we’ll see how that goes. Is there anyone you would like to make a shout out to?
LH: I’m almost afraid to, because there are so many and I’m bound to forget someone, but definitely Sian Plummer and Lilyn George at Sci-Fi & Scary, Shane and Rich at Ink Heist, John Lynch, Michael Patrick Hicks, Shanannigans at Reads and Reels, Joe Lewis, James Thomas, and Chad Jennings at Bonehead Weekly. I mean, can I just shout out the whole horror family?
DHR: Absolutely! Laurel, thank you for letting me interview you! You’re always a pleasure to talk with.
You can follow Laurel on: Main Website: laurelhightower.com Twitter: @hightowerlaurel Instagram: /laurelhightower Facebook: /laurelhightowerky
Rose McFarland is, to put it bluntly, a badass. As a S.W.A.T. sniper, she knows how to use weapons and, most importantly, when to use them. But after her latest job, things start to go wrong, putting not just her at risk, not just her family, but also the whole world. She must confront her past, while dealing with her present to make sure they get out alive…no matter what.
Whispers in the Dark is Laurel Hightower’s first novel, which honestly, I was really surprised at. Because holy shit, this is good.
Right from the start, the tension in the novel is high, as Rose waits for the opportunity to take a shot at Charlie Akers, at a standoff that will change everything. Rose is everything we’ve come to love about these strong female characters, but there’s so much more to her than that. She’s not a loner; she has a family, and men she loves that love her too; as well as a cast of characters she cares deeply about, that we soon do too.
It’s hard to convey just how good this book is. There were moments I had to put my Kindle down and just…take a step back, absorbing the character development and the horror tied in so tightly throughout. The moments meant to scare really do creep in under your skin, and the moments where we get to see Rose living a happy family life make the horror all the more poignant.
One thing I really liked about it were the men in Rose’s life. The way they’re handled feels realistic and her family is a nice, refreshing portrayal of blended families. And the men really do look out for her, though at the end of the day, they all understand she’s stronger than any of them, and in the best position to protect herself and her family.
There’s no alpha male bull here, no damsel in distress or guys who feel the need to make her into one. They understand her, and aren’t constantly trying to swoop in and save her.
In the background to all this are the Whispers. The strange force that in Rose’s childhood signaled the coming of ghosts. The Whispers and the threat they present is built up throughout, as Rose tries to work out exactly what is happening, and how it ties into her and her family.
The writing is strong, the events unnerving, the characters deep, flawed, and oh so relatable.
This is horror of the highest order, with a strong, formidable main character, not a final girl, but a female horror protagonist for the 21st century. The kind of Gifted Girl many of us seem to have waited a long time for. Rose and the Whispers will get into your head and won’t let go, and I can’t think of anything more you’d want from a horror novel.
Dead Head Reviews (DHR): Thank you for your time, Ross. Your horror card game looks fantastic. Mind giving us the bullet points?
Ross Glover (RG): Sure! 1 Survives is a fast-paced game of strategy and skill. It’s every player for themselves, as you try to find an alternative way to escape the island while evading and fending off the killer’s attacks.
The backstory is that a high school boat trip goes gravely wrong when the engine dies, and the vessel drifts onto the rocky shoreline of a seemingly deserted island. The boat is damaged in the collision and the group must search for a means to repair the craft or an alternative way to escape the island.
However, all is not as it seems, as the island has one lone inhabitant, who has removed themselves from society to avoid the temptation of taking further lives of innocent victims. The disturbance has reignited a bloodlust and every soul who remains on the island is their next potential victim…
Of course, sending the killer after one of your ‘friends’ might just increase your chances of success.
Game play is a mix of set collection and ‘take that’ as you attempt to find a way to survive while thwarting your ‘school friends’ efforts to escape.
To play the game each player choses a character card and places this together with their starting location card face up in front of them.
7 cards are dealt to each player from the deck and place the remaining cards down as the ‘draw deck’.
Players then take turns to move the killer (attacking players in those locations), move themselves to other locations or collect cards to escape the island or to kill the serial killer.
If you are attacked by the killer, you must defend yourself by playing a weapon card (fight), move to another location (run) or die an unimaginable death.
If you can fight off the killer or avoid their attack by running to another location, you do not replace the card you were forced to play, reducing the number of cards in your hand, making it harder to collect the components to escape or survive other attacks.
A number of special cards can help you win the game including:
Sacrifice – push a friend in front of the killer’s blade while you run in the opposite direction. Jump scare – without warning the killer lunges from the shadows, attacking an unsuspecting player. Frenzy – the killer loses all control, attacking all players in one location.
You can escape the island by collecting parts to repair the boat or to signal for help, or if you can find what is needed to make a Molotov cocktail, perhaps you can fight back and put an end to this madness.
DHR: You had me at serial killer. Seriously, picturing me and a few writer friends of mine playing this game sounds amazing! You’re getting your funding through Kickstarter. It’s only running through the end of October. How has the campaign been going?
RG: We have had a strong start and after 3 days we are 25% funded. Of course we are hoping we carry this momentum through the campaign and see the game funded. That would be amazing!
DHR: Sounds like a good start. What is the game competition like? How about within horror-based games?
RG: The board game industry has exploded in the last few years and is continuing to grow. Kickstarter is a little busy with various game types, however the horror genre isn’t too crowded, and in particular one of the reasons for creating the game was that we weren’t aware of any horror/slasher card games that were easy to learn, quick to play and you could carry with you easily, say to take on a trip or holiday.
DHR: Now that you mention it, I can’t think of any others. What is the genesis for this game? Who wanted to create it and who helped make that idea come to fruition?
RG: So the idea came about when we were packing a bag for a vacation. We take card games with us to play usually after dinner. My son is a huge horror fan and I asked him if he was aware of any card games that we might be able to pick up to play, he said ‘no’ and that for the moment, was the end of it …. until we had a 6 hour wait for our flight home. At that point the suggestion to try and make a horror /slasher card game came to life. In a few hours we had the first playable version, made of cut up drawing paper for some hand written cards. Of course it had some kinks but it showed some promise. 12 months later and we are now on Kickstarter!
DHR: That’s really interesting that this all came down to there not being a horror game for your son to play, so you made one. I love that! Is this the first game you’ve made?
RG: This is our first venture into game design, and one of the great things has been learning the process and getting to know the communities that we have found in both gaming and horror. Really inclusive and supportive, positive and helpful.
DHR: Couldn’t agree more about the horror community. So, why a card game?
RG: The games we play when we go on holiday are usually card games, games like Uno or timeline. As mentioned we wanted to make this something you could take with you easily and keeping this a card game, rather than a board game with more components was the way to do it. It also means that the rules are kept simple and the game is easy to pick up and play.
DHR: That makes sense. Are there any expansion packs in the works?
RG: Throughout testing there have been lots of suggestions for additions, such as adding weather effects that impact locations, more special cards or additional locations. There could be an expansion that delivers some of these ideas, but of course our focus for the moment is to get the core game up and running via our Kickstarter campaign.
DHR: The logo for this game is pretty neat. On the package it reads: “Ages 9 up”. I take it the kills aren’t too graphic. Why did you choose that demographic, as opposed to an 18+ crowd?
RG: So there needs to be some parental discretion when it comes to playing 1 Survives. The theme is mature and some of the cards depict blood splatter and dark scenes, however there is nothing overly graphic in the cards themselves. However, part of the fun of this game is the narrative that we have seen players add as they play, story telling each of the killer’s moves, that is where the graphic imagery can be ‘part’ of the game, but the players are in control of that.
If this kickstarter is successful one option we have considered is producing a “Not Safe For Work” version where the images in the cards is updated with more of 18+ rated theme.
We’ve had a range of younger players play 1 Survives from 9 upwards and they have certainly enjoyed the game. The 9+ came about as this was the youngest “play tester” who had fun playing the game, however, with games safety rules within the US, we may increase this to 12+ in the final text.
DHR: I’d love to see the “Not Safe For Work” version. Also on the package, it reads “2-6 players”, how did you land on that number?
RG: Initially we had up to 8 players, however through play testing we found that the games lasted longer than intended with 8 players and reduced the chances of escape. It just didn’t feel balanced, so we tested with a max of 6 playing and this seems to work well. You do need at least 2 players to play and it plays best with between 3 and 6 players. It can be a really good party game to play with friends. Perhaps we could look at adding more characters in an expansion!
DHR: Right on. Playtime is 10 to 25 minutes long. That seems like a satisfying time frame. When you and friends tested out the game, what has been the average playtime?
RG: Number of players can impact this, and generally the higher the number the longer the game. However the average is in the middle of that range, but I’d also say that depending on the cards dealt out, the game can change considerably. It can mean a game ends quickly (possibly under 10 minutes) but it would be really unusual for this to go beyond 25 minutes, especially if you are familiar with the game play.
DHR: Was the location of this game, an island, based on a real one?
RG: That would have been great, imagine actually visiting this island! It is however purely fictional, when designing the game we had a camp crystal lake setting in mind, but I’d thought of the abandoned island in New York (North Brother Island) which was part of the inspiration. Not so far from civilization, but far enough that someone could live their un-noticed. The individual locations were those that would work as escape points, but also some classic slasher locations, such as a campground.
DHR: The folded pamphlet (covered by a map of the island and synopsis of the game on one side and the breakdown of the rules and cards on the other) is visually pleasing and easy to follow along. How long did it take to design all of that? How many drafts did you go through before landing on the final product?
RG: The original set of rules was typed up in a word doc, and we worked on that basis as we continued to refine the game balance and game play. These have been updated countless times as the game evolved and as we tested players understanding of the rules themselves. The rules and graphic design are the work of a friend (Windmill Graphics) after we spoke about what we were doing, and provided an outline of what we had in mind. We love the job that Michael has done on the box and the rules!
DHR: The artwork on the cards is also pretty great. Did you hire an artist for that?
RG: We have had two artist work on our cards and we think these are great and are in a style that really fits the theme. We had taken time to share different styles with our play testers and on social media to gauge reaction. The artist ‘paintbrush’ effect was the winner, which we were happy with as it was also our favorite.
DHR: Do we ever see what the serial killer looks like?
RG: The most you see is the killer’s partial or full silhouette. There are a couple for reasons for this. It obviously leaves the player to imagine the killer in the way that fills their fear the most. In addition, and it doesn’t give too much away to say, perhaps the island was uninhabited and you brought the killer with you!
DHR: Are you fascinated by serial killers? If so, mind naming a few you find most captivating?
RG: This is more Ryan’s (my son) fascination. Jack the Ripper (as unsolved), Jeffery Dahmer (The difference of knowing right from wrong, or just not caring) and Dennis Rader (Delusions of grandeur to a degree where he saw himself as an enlightened figure).
DHR: Your son has good taste. Ever watch the Netflix original series, Mind Hunter?
RG: It is on the list, but it’s not something that we’ve seen yet. I take it this is one you would recommend?!
DHR: If you like serial killers (strictly speaking in the psychology-focused sense) then absolutely YES! My wife and I are big fans! I have the book as well, but haven’t read it yet. Is there anything else you would like to inform people about?
RG: If anyone is visiting Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando during the month, watch out for someone wearing a 1 Survives t-shirt and say “Hi”.
DHR: Oh, neat! If one of our readers does that, I’d certainly love to know! Is there anyone you would like to make a shout out to?
RG: If any of the horror superstars out there (Robert Englund, Kane Hodder, Nick Castle, James Jude Courtney, Doug Bradley, Brad Dourif, Jennifer Tilly, John Carpenter or Jason Blum) would like to back our game or our social media, that would of course be bloody awesome 😊!
DHR: Ha, seriously! Ross, thanks again for letting me interview you. I hope to play 1 Survives, eventually. Best of luck on the Kickstarter campaign!
RG: Thank you for taking the time out to interview us!
DHR: My pleasure.
You can follow 1 Survives on:
Kickstarter Campaign:Kickstarter Campaign Main Website: 1survives.com Twitter: @1survives Instagram: /1survives
Coming October 1st 2019, through Silver Shamrock Publishing.
Midnight in the Graveyard is an anthology packed full of ghost stories: ghosts seeking closure, revenge, or just company. Each of these stories is guaranteed to send a chill down your spine.
The anthology contains some names familiar to any fan of horror. Authors who are quickly becoming some of the strongest voices in horror fiction today, and the short stories here show why. Each draws you into their world, whether it’s a town thriving on the ‘ghost trade’, an apocalyptic world where the dead roam, or a simple, small graveyard watched over by a caretaker. Characters within these pages will linger with the reader, as much as they linger in death. The stories each feel fresh and new, even when tackling old tropes, and provide new twists on one of the oldest aspects in horror.
With ghost stories, it would be easy to fall into cliché, but this anthology strays far from it. With powerful, compelling voices, and a few interesting twists, it’s hard to see where each story goes, and the reader must simply follow along, dragged in by each new tale presented.
Anyone who’s seen my reviews knows how much I love anthologies, and this one did not disappoint. It’s strong, fresh, and intriguing, sure to leave you awake at night and staring at that shadow in the corner, wondering what if…
With twenty-five different authors and twenty-five intriguing, creepy, eerie tales, this is another fantastic anthology well worth a read.
5/5 stars from me!
Buy directly from the publisher at silvershamrockpublishing.com
Dead Head Reviews (DHR): Stephanie, thank you so much for giving us your time. I just finished The Apocalyptic Mannequin (I loved it!). Where were your poems when I was younger? I read poetry growing up, but if I found your work as a kid, it would have planted a bug in me early on that would’ve demanded consumption of all dark poetry.
Stephanie M. Wytovich (SMW):It’s my pleasure, and thank you for such kind words about my work! I, too, wish I would have had more horror poetry in my life as a child, and I often think about possibly writing a collection aimed more toward children/middle grade readers. Maybe one day!
DHR: Wow! That’s a great idea. The cover seems like it is directly from a few of your poems, while at the same time, it’s a perfect representation for the entire collection. Who created the cover? Was it a love-at-first-sight sort of deal?
SMW: I’ve been working with my cover artist, Steven Archer, for the past seven years now, and he’s done the work on all of my poetry collections from Hysteria: A Collection of Madness to The Apocalyptic Mannequin. Steven and I work really well together, and he sees my visions clearer than I do sometimes. A handful of the covers we’ve done over the years have been love-at-first-sight scenarios and they’ve hardly needed any revisions done to them. Others I’ve picked out from his body of work and he’s come up with edits to better acclimate them to the themes and style of my books. The Apocalyptic Mannequin was a love-at-first-sight situation, but one of my favorite stories is in regard to Brothel. I had originally picked a painting of his that was of this beautiful, sultry woman smoking a cigarette, and when I told him I was interested in that specific piece, he told me no, and then sent it back a few days later with a cat skull painted over her face.
And honestly, that’s the kind of relationship you want with your cover artist: someone who knows your work better than you do. I’m glad we’ve become friends over the years and I respect the hell out of his work. He’s beyond talented.
DHR: It sounds like you two are very lucky to have found one another. Kind of piggybacking from the last question, why did you choose The Apocalyptic Mannequin for the title?
SMW: A few years ago, I wrote the stand-alone poem “The Apocalyptic Mannequin” and had it published in the HWA Poetry Showcase IV. I’d been searching for a new direction in my work, and the science fiction, robotic-soliloquy vibe really spoke to me because I’d never even attempted anything like that before. After that, I kept tapping into the doomsday vein and the book started to speak for itself. Plus, since the mannequin’s voice was the first I heard, I knew she was my new muse and therefore I decided it would only be right to put her in the spotlight.
DHR: Neat! Why did you publish through Raw Dawg Screaming Press?
SMW: Raw Dog Screaming Press was the first publisher who really took a chance on me when they published my debut collection Hysteria back in 2013, and since then, we’ve been working closely together ever since. Even before then, though, I admired the work they did within the genre, and I loved how they were constantly pushing boundaries and forcing their readers and writers to reinterpret the genre and its rules/expectations. When I saw that they were as passionate about poetry as I was, I knew we were going to be a great fit.
But beyond all of that, Jennifer and John are not only incredibly supportive and encouraging of my work, they’re wonderful, brilliant, kind people and we’ve grown to be great friends over the years. I couldn’t be happier working with them and I love watching the press grow and it’s a real honor to be a small part of that in any way.
DHR: Your collection consists of 90 poems. How long did it take to write all of those and at what point did you know you wanted to have them in a single book?
SMW: With poetry, I write thematically, so I’m usually always working toward a new collection, although I do write stand-alone poems for various publications here and there. This specific book, however, took me a little over two years to write.
DHR: Are these stories connected? As in, are they all part of one massive apocalypse, through the eyes of dozens of points of views? Or are they all separate accounts during different apocalypses?
SMW: These poems are all separate accounts during different visions of the apocalypse. When I pick a theme/muse/topic to write about, I like to challenge myself to interpret it as many ways as possible while also considering both what’s been done in the genre and what the genre still needs.
DHR: Do you have a favorite apocalyptic film, show, and or book(s)?
SMW: I have several! I recently wrote an article about this for Speculative Chic, which readers can check out here!
DHR: I won’t spoil the above link, but you’ve got some excellent choices. What’s scarier, life or horror fiction?
Horror fiction can be absolutely terrifying, don’t get me wrong, but at the end of the day, we’re experiencing that fear safely from a distance, and beyond that, most of the time there are rules in place for how we tackle whatever type of monster or villain we’re facing. Life isn’t like that, though. There are no rules, the pain is real, and sometimes the monster doesn’t go away/die. Hell, sometimes we’re even the monsters.
DHR: That’s a scary truth. Do you have a favorite poem in this collection? If so, what makes it stand out the most in your heart?
SMW: This is a tough one. I really like “Identification,” “Call Me Haunted,” and “Death Bed,” but I’m particularly partial to “As the Crow Flies.”
DHR: As the Crow Flies was a nice and eerie poem. Do you have a favorite apocalyptic scenario? Let’s be brutal for one moment. Let’s say you’re handed the keys to control our world’s Judgement Day. What are you going to make everyone suffer (and die) through?
SMW: Zombies. I’m definitely going with zombies—hands down! I mean, do I want the world to end? Absolutely not. But if I had to go down running around with a chainsaw and hacking up the undead, I could learn to be a little okay with it.
DHR: I’m right there with you! Count me in. I have to be honest though, if I was thrown into one of your end of the world scenarios, the chances of me surviving are slim to none. What do you think your chances are in surviving one of your own apocalyptic stories?
SMW: I’d like to think that I’d be one of the last ones standing, but between you and me, I don’t think I’m making it out either, ha! I will say that I’m definitely the type to go down swinging though!
DHR: Swing and I’ll run, hehe. A few of your poems deal with sisters of the supernatural kind. Do you have a fascination with witches?
SMW: Very much so. Spiritually speaking, I identify as pagan, and I’ve always had a fascination with the archetype of the witch in film and literature, but the identity of the witch is something that is more personal and part of my day-to-day routine these days, too.
DHR: Right on. I too have a fascination with witches. Do you plan on writing an apocalyptic novel? I feel like you’d create something incredible.
SMW: In some ways, I already have. My debut novel, The Eighth, was published by Dark Regions Press in 2016. The quick elevator pitch for it is that it’s a religious horror novel about the seven deadly sins searching for their eighth. For more on the book, you can click here.
DHR: I’ll have to add that to my TBR list. What poets influence you the most?
SMW: Oh, I could talk about this one for hours, but I’ll try to keep it brief: Nick Flynn, Zachary Schomburg, Ocean Vuong, Charles Simic, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Andrea Gibson, Helen Marshall, Theodora Goss, Rachel Wiley, Aase Berg, Julie Boxsee, Yona Harvey, Natalie Diaz, Eleanor Hooker, Megan Falley, Hieu Minh Nguyen, and the list goes on and on and on…
DHR: Would you like to make a shout out to anyone?
SMW: Absolutely! Continued love to Jennifer and John for their support and friendship; a huge thanks to Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi for her hard work and help with the marketing and publicity prior to, during, and after the release; and my forever gratitude to my family, friends, and readers.
Stephanie M. Wytovich is the Poetry Editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press, an adjunct at Western Connecticut State University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Point Park University, and a mentor with Crystal Lake Publishing. She is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and a graduate of Seton Hill University’s MFA program for Writing Popular Fiction. Her Bram Stoker Award-winning poetry collection, Brothel, earned a home with Raw Dog Screaming Press alongside Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, Mourning Jewelry, An Exorcism of Angels, Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare, and most recently, The Apocalyptic Mannequin. Her debut novel, The Eighth, is published with Dark Regions Press.
It won’t come to a surprise for many of you that Stephanie M. Wytovich is a hypnotic poet. An artisan in painting bleak imagery with words. In her shadows lies a subtle beauty. A beauty that you can appreciate for a fleeting moment before something attacks, or kills while supplying a gruesome goodbye. Throughout the 90 poems we witness our own destruction, from advanced technology, to supernatural sisterhoods, creatures that impale, and half-organic, half-manufactured humanoids. Below is my short-list of poems that I felt perfectly embodied this collection. It’s not to say I wasn’t a fan of the others, because there isn’t a single one that falls short. Everyone just has their favorites. These are mine.
Behind the Genetic Reaping
This encapsulates the tone and eeriness of the original Twilight Zone series. It displays the terrifying reality that death is our playground…and “there’s a reaper in your head.”
Greetings from the New World
A short poem that throws you in the perspective of a survivor. Of what exactly, I think I know. But then again, “they” could really be anything.
It’s in the Rain
In one page, you see a world folding and crumbling. Sinking and drowning. Beyond the dreadful scenes depicted, awaits a killer last line. A line that is bigger than this poem and beautiful collection itself. It’s a line that is us. Each. And. Every one of us. It begs to ask the question: Who is really prepared for the end of days…and who will have the last laugh?
The story of a final moment. We don’t know the who or what, or by what or who, yet, that doesn’t really matter. It’ll send a tingling sensation through your guts. For each reader, we will share the same components of what is happening, but, like any great story, each individual will walk away with a different exterior of the creature in question.
Future Mannequins on Display
This. Is. AMAZING! It spoke to me, on so many levels.
The opening sets up the end for a beautiful sucker punch to the heart. It throws you in the point of view of a thing that none of us think about too often, yet, in this specific example, is absolutely fucking terrifying. It creates sympathy for an inanimate object. This poem is my favorite in the collection.
It’s my sincerest hope that one day an artist uses Wytovich’s haunting words to turn into an illustration, preferably an oil painting. To depict the stages of the poem. To show the power of its words in colors and brutal truth. A truth that Wytovich displays with the precision of a master chess player.
When we create something to look exactly like us and do terrible things to that creation, what does that really say about how we value ourselves? Is it a question we really want an answer to?
Want to feel what its like to be a survivor during the apocalypse? This poem will be more than happy to provide that insight.
The Manufacturing of Bodies
If anything, this one speaks to what we’ve all become. What we’ve created. Not just for ourselves but for future generations.
“Please hit copy…
At the Neon Circus
I’m a sucker for dark sci-fi. When it’s executed this well, I’m all yours…forever. I beg Wytovich to show me more of this world. It’s something I can foresee occurring in our lifetime. It’s also something I’d be dying to read in novel form.
Here are some of my favorite lines from several other poems. Lines that I believe will hook and reel you into this collection, if you aren’t already.
“A reminder that we are nothing but spoiled meat.”
“…like deformed hands unable, but determined to grab.”
“…we are the chosen, we are the coven.”
“…they plucked off my limbs like petals.”
“When I make my entrance, will they marvel at my wings or will they, like they did to so many others, tear them from my back and set my corpse on fire?”
“It only took hours before my skin started to slip. I peeled it like an orange, slowly at first.”
And a word that I have never encountered, a word that Wytovich, as far as I know, created: frankenwhore. That word makes me laugh, yet at the same time, I am cautiously intrigued to see what that may look like.
Bring this book on a camping trip to read a poem or two (or four, or more) around a fire, and enjoy the gore. Just you and a friend, to read the world’s end. Let those stories loop in your mind. They’ll do it regardless of tears or time. Dare you read, alone in your room? Under no stars, sun, or moon. Soon you’ll see, why I am a fan. Of Stephanie Wytovich, and her grand plan.
I wish I discovered Wytovich sooner. It was truly a pleasure to read her latest collection. If poetry hasn’t been your cup of tea, then I would be willing to bet it will be after you’ve had a mere sip of her addictive writing style and voice.
And forgive me for my amateur poem. I am but a simple man, who needs to atone.
About The Apocalyptic Mannequin
Doomsday is here and the earth is suffering with each breath she takes. Whether it’s from the nuclear meltdown, the wrath of the Four Horsemen, a war with technology, or a consequence of our relationship with the planet, humanity is left buried and hiding, our bones exposed, our hearts beating somewhere in our freshly slit throats.
This is a collection that strips away civilization and throws readers into the lives of its survivors. The poems inside are undelivered letters, tear-soaked whispers, and unanswered prayers. They are every worry you’ve had when your electricity went out, and every pit that grew in your stomach watching the news at night. They are tragedy and trauma, but they are also grief and fear, fear of who—or what—lives inside us once everything is taken away.
These pages hold the teeth of monsters against the faded photographs of family and friends, and here, Wytovich is both plague doctor and midwife, both judge and jury, forever searching through severed limbs and exposed wires as she straddles the line evaluating what’s moral versus what’s necessary to survive.
What’s clear though, is that the world is burning and we don’t remember who we are.
So tell me: who will you become when it’s over?
What They’re Saying
“Like a doomsday clock fast-forwarding to its final self-destruction, Wytovich’s poetry will give you whiplash as you flip through page after page. The writing here is ugly yet beautiful. It reads like a disease greedily eating up vital organs. The apocalypse has arrived and it couldn’t be more intoxicating!”
—Max Booth III, author of Carnivorous Lunar Activities
“In this hauntingly sensuous new collection of poetry, you’ll long to savor every apocalyptic nightmare you have ever feared. Blooming in the beauty of destruction and the terror of delight, Stephanie M Wytovich’s poems remind us that we feel the world better, love the world better, when we recognize the ephemeral nature of everything achingly alive beyond our mannequin minds. Here, we are captive to our deepest velvet snarls, zombie songs, and radioactive wishes, at the mercy of a neon reaping. Reading this collection is like dancing through Doomsday, intoxicated by the destructive, decadent truth of desire in our very mortality. In these poems, you will find revelry in the ruins of everything you once held dear — and you will love it to the last as you watch the world unravel around you.”
—Saba Syed Razvi, author of Heliophobia and In the Crocodile Gardens
“Beautifully bleak, Stephanie M. Wytovich’s latest collection posits scenarios of the apocalypse and the horrors to come thereafter with language like fragrant hooks in your skin. Vivid, each word a weight on your tongue, these poems taste of metal and ash with a hint of spice, smoke. She reminds us the lucky ones die first, and those who remain must face the horrors of a world painted in blisters and fear. Leave it to Wytovich to show us there’s beauty in the end, just beneath all that peeling, irradiated skin.”
—Todd Keisling, author of Ugly Little Things and Devil’s Creek
“Set in a post-apocalyptic world that at times seems all too near, Wytovich’s poems conjure up frighteningly beautiful and uncomfortably prescient imagery. Populated by a cast of unsettling, compelling characters, this collection is one that stuck with me.”
—Claire C. Holland, author of I Am Not Your Final Girl
“A surreal journey through an apocalyptic wasteland, a world that is terrifyingly reminiscent of our own even as the blare of evacuation alarms drowns out the sizzle of acid rain, smiling mannequins bear witness to a hundred thousand deaths, and “the forest floor grows femurs in the light of a skeletal moon.” Stephanie M. Wytovich’s The Apocalyptic Mannequin is as unsettling as it is lovely, as grotesque as it is exquisite.”
—Christa Carmen, author of Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked
Take six women, make them read what they believe to be ‘Danish’ poetry (psst, it’s actually a demon summoning spell), and trap them in a big, remote house, and you have the brilliant, hilarious, yet sometimes very creepy, Calling Darkness.
The podcast, written by S.H. Cooper and Gemma Amor, features a fantastic cast of voice actors, who bring the various characters to life. One thing I’ve noticed with a lot of drama podcasts is how difficult it is to keep a clear idea of what’s happening, but it’s handled really well here, with the mysterious Narrator guiding the listener, drawing them to different parts of the house and revealing, very effectively, what is happening at any one time.
There’s not a single moment in ten episodes that isn’t, in some way, entertaining, whether it’s the comedy or horror aspect, and the podcast presents some horror tropes in a new fresh way, keeping the listener constantly guessing what might happen next.
The tension will keep you on the edge of your seat. The humor does exactly what humor should do in horror – gives you a momentary relief before you’re hit with something else, or gives you a chance to laugh just after you’ve jumped. Each character gets their own moments, creating a truly fantastic ensemble feel, and it’s so easy to fall in love with all of them. It doesn’t take long to really start cheering for them, to care about them, to want to see them get out alive and maybe heal old wounds along the way.
An intelligent, hilarious, and sometimes heart-breaking horror podcast, Calling Darkness shows what can really be done with the medium, to great effect. This one gets all the stars. Give it a listen, and I promise you won’t be disappointed. Not until you run out of episodes, anyway.