Top Ten Books I Read in 2018

If there is any sort of year-end list that actually appeals to me, it would have to be the “best books I read this year” list. I managed to whittle mine down to the top 10 (well, 11, technically) books I read in 2018. That isn’t to say these books were published in 2018; some of them were, but many of them weren’t (because I’m slow, damnit, and I can hardly keep up with everything published every year).

So here it is: my top 10 2018 books (with an honorable mention).

The order in which they appear is only the order in which I read the books; I am hardly decisive enough to put them into an actual order of preference, but I like the countdown method, so we’re starting at 10 anyway!

10. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This might have been the very first book I read at the start of 2018. I was in Belize, on my honeymoon, on a hammock on the beach, listening to the tide roll in and reading a moving and engaging literary take on the apocalypse.

9. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Sure, it might be cheating to count three books as one, but I read them all back-to-back, and it’s a continuing story through all three books. Fun fact: my short story, “We Are Turning on a Spindle,” was listed as a notable selection in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by N.K. Jemisin. I’m not even mad she didn’t choose the story for inclusion; that means N.K. Jemisin read one of my stories!

8. Revival by Stephen King

I really like what he did here. It didn’t feel like your typical Stephen King story. The characters and setting were so richly wrought, and the conceit was subtle—not really horror, at all, but entirely engaging.

7. The Historian by Elizabeth Kosova

This one had been on my to-read list for years, and what an enjoyable literary romp it was. As far as vampires go, I’m a classicist, and I do love all things Vlad the Impaler.

6. Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Riveting. Horrifying. At first I found the conceit a little silly, but the deeper down the rabbit hole you go, the more brutal everything gets. Possibly the scariest book I read this year, with an absolutely killer ending.

5. Florence & Giles by John Harding

I can see how others might find the voice grating, but I found the precocious voice of Florence utterly delightful in this atmospheric Gothic.

4. The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay really knows how to get inside your head and amp up the uncertainty in this home invasion slash apocalypse story. Fun fact: I got this one signed at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, where I awkwardly told Paul Tremblay that we were in an anthology together several years ago (and then made him sign that one, too).

3. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who else is sick of fantasies set in western European locations? Holy hell, get your hands on this book. It’s an African fantasy that will break your heart while thrilling you with the ride.

2. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife

Absolutely fascinating: a nonfiction work examining the history of zero, how the concept came to be, and how various cultures have responded to it over the years. Sometimes I realize I am SUCH a nerd.

1. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

As a lover of long-form storytelling, I’m not usually inclined to include a book of short stories on my list, even though I read several anthologies and collections this year that were utterly fantastic (honorable mentions here would have to be A World of Horror and The Five Senses of Horror, both edited by Eric J. Guignard and published by Dark Moon Books). Machado’s collection, however, is raw, powerful, surreal, and disturbing.

Honorable Mention: Fear by Bob Woodward

This book confirmed my suspicions that our president is an idiot. Thanks, Bob!


Conversation with Daniel Braum – Part 2 of 2

Today I’m talking to Daniel Braum about his short story “The Monkey Coat” from the recently released Nightscript 4 anthology edited by C.M. Muller. You can read part one of our conversation on his blog, where we discussed my story, “The Thing in the Trees.”

JP:     “The Monkey Coat” deals with duality and identity, which brought to mind, for me, Jekyll and Hyde. Whenever June tries to be with Andrew (who is referred to as a good guy), she loses time and wakes up next to Randall (the bad guy). Whether these connections were intentional or not, I’m curious: to what degree do you take inspiration from classic horror fiction, and if you do, then how do you take that inspiration and use it to create something new and fresh?

DB:     In “The Monkey Coat”, and most of my fiction, there is no direct, conscious inspiration. I intentionally added the word “conscious” because I’ve read many stories of people “doing strange things in the night”, things that are different or opposite from their “day time”. So I see how the story readily evokes Jeykll and Hyde.

One story that comes to mind with this question is “The Saga of the Alien Costume” storyline from Spider Man comics in the 1980s. In those comics when Peter Parker is wearing a new black costume he becomes stronger and the costume is seemingly the cure for all his problems.

However he becomes more violent, experiences lost time, and finds himself waking up wearing it when he had no memory putting it on. It is ultimately revealed that the costume is more than is perceived and has been affecting him. While it is a very different story and kind of story than “The Monkey Coat” I can not help but notice that the similarities are there. I can’t think of one at the moment but I am sure there are many folk tales from around the world that are also similar.

One approach to making a classic monster (or something classic) fresh is to intentionally very one of the key elements of the trope. Terry Bisson told my class that as an exercise every new author should try to write a story with a “classic” monster in it and make it their own by changing up one of the tenants in it. My attempt at doing this is the story “Resolution Seventeen” in my collection The Wish Mechanics. Especially at the time I wrote the story vampire stories were particularly tired. I tried to play with the elements of the effect of sunlight and the need for blood. When thinking these through  and exploring and pushing how they could be dramatized, I came up with something different. So while the story might still be “horror” because it is a vampire story it steered towards science fiction because of the context and the choices the characters were faced with.

Somethings that keeps stories fresh to me (both as a writer and reader) are reversals of expectations and subversions of tropes. I’m not talking about stories where there is a big  “reversal” or “water cooler moment” or reveal that has almost become a television show trope. I have been learning about the horror genre and its history to have a better idea of just what was and what is thought of as a horror story in order to know the tropes and expectations. I knew very little of this when I started writing but I feel educated myself in this way is allowing myself to write with greater awareness and control, be it in a “standard form” or an intentional subversion or exploration of the form. The film “It Follows” is one of my favorite examples of a story that plays with genre, expectation, subversion, and form. The movie on its surface looks like and appears to be structured like a teen-aged slasher or jump-scare but it pushes and subverts common expectations and norms of such a generic (or standard form of such a) movie at every turn. The Neon Demon is another of my favorite movies that plays with expectations and in doing so makes something that could have been common and generic into something fresh and original. The characters in the Neon Demon are depicted in shades of grey differing widely from where a generic story might keep the characters on a familiar arc.

JP:    This story also offers some unanswered questions about the identities of Franklin and Randall that led me to wonder whether they are somehow the same person. When you write a story where there are mysteries left open or unexplained, do you typically know the “answer” to the mystery in great detail (even if you don’t share it), or are there some things still mysterious even to you? How important is this sense of mystery in a horror story?

DB:     I really love this question. I’ve done my best to try to answer it directly without a huge tangent on Robert Aickman.

Franklin (a man June was involved with and the murder victim we are told about on the opening of the story,) and Randall (one of the men June is dating) are not intended to be literally the same actual person but they are intended to be presented as the same “kind” of person; both men that are harmful to June that she seeks to disengage from. They are both men that do not respect women, men that do not respect June, yet men that June is still drawn to. Change can be defined as being faced with the same choices (or same men) over and over and making different decisions. They were included in the story to define the June’s choices and what is at stake for her.

As to how important is a sense of mystery to a horror story the short answer is I think it is a matter of taste. I’ve noticed in what I am referring to as “traditional” or “standard form” horror stories mystery is not an essential element. A horror story will still be a horror story even if there is no sense of mystery. A vampire story will still be a vampire story if everything is known. For example in Salem’s Lot by Stephen King the reader knows that the traditional “rules” of vampire stories are in play. There is no mystery in that regard. And it is still a very, very satisfying story. At least in that way Salem’s Lot is a traditional horror story.

In contrast, Stephen King’s IT, moves away from a traditional horror story in some ways. The creature in IT, is not a named thing. It is not a monster that we know of and know the rules of how it operates such as one must kill it with sunlight or a wooden stake such as a vampire. We readers are eventually given some rules regarding the creature but I think the story operates as a good illustration of a story with the element of mystery you mention in your question. I think stories with that element of mystery still are under the umbrella of horror but are also interstitial and perhaps are closer to the weird fiction genre. I think a sense of mystery and lack of an explanation for the supernatural is a hallmark of weird fiction or at least is something more often seen in that category. While I enjoy stories with a sense of mystery and unexplained elements I don’t think it is a defining or an essential element to a horror story. Peter Straub stories often have that mystery and unexplained to them. Stephen King stories often have the rules and explanations to the supernatural. Both are horror. I don’t have a definitive answer but it is something I think about often.

Your story “A Thing in the Trees” uses that sense of mystery and the unexplained in a way that absolutely delights me.

JP:    Following in the vein of my previous question, it seems like most of the horror in this story comes from the suggestion of something horrific, rather than what is actually shown or described, with just a few visceral details that are all the more powerful because of their scarcity. How did you decide what to make explicit and what to leave up to the reader’s imagination, and how do you think this affects the type of horror that the story embodies?

DB:     Because I am relatively squeamish I’ve always shied away from the overt and graphic depictions. I also feel there is a great weight and power in leaving things suggested and to the imagination.

For a very long time I stayed away from reading stories by the great Jack Ketchum because I knew I would be uncomfortable with graphic depictions. Just as there is power in the suggestion I know there is great power in the opposite. Strangely enough, in this story I was trying to be as overt and graphic in my depictions as I dared. I think my own comfort level in what I’m comfortable writing worked out for the tone of the story.

I do think depictions do steer the kind of horror a story is categorized as. How much this matters to any given reader is a very different story.  For me and my own style and preference less is more. I know there is a wide spectrum and I’ve learned that many readers enjoy both quiet horror and the splatter genre equally. My first collection The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales was intended as literary horror so when assembling it I had this notion in mind with story selection.

I’d like to think that I decide the level of depiction in any given story is what serves the story best but I have a feeling for me it comes down to my comfort level in spending time creating the story. I have been pushing myself on this front. I’m curious to learn if the stories where I did push are perceived as being closer to horror, than literary horror or weird fiction.

JP:     I noticed that there is a degree of unreliability in the primary characters of this story. For instance, June keeps thinking she took the coat off when in fact she’s still wearing it, and at the end, Ivy “took it she imagined these things,” which leaves it somewhat open as to whether or not she merely dreamed the note from her mother. It seems to me that the only reliable thing in the story is the coat, which remains even when the people surrounding it die or disappear. The question of reliability of characters or narrators is a classic element of horror fiction, creating a sense of uncertainty over what is real. How and when do you decide whether a character is reliable, and how important was the question of reliability/unreliability to you when you were crafting this story?

DB:     The notion of reliability was of paramount importance in crafting this story.

Is it June choosing to do these things consciously (or unconsciously)? Or is it the monkey coat with some supernatural power making her do these things? Once I landed on the idea that I wanted the tension between these two notions to be the primary thrust of the story all my decisions were made to serve that.

For me, the decision to decide if a character is reliable is linked to what my aims are for the story. I think about the decision and the approach very carefully before attempting to execute any level of unreliability. It is so easy to go astray or descend into un-intended confusion. My aim in “The Monkey Coat” was to deliver a story where the source of tension is between a supernatural or psychological explanation for the strange events and behaviors.

I chose to start and end with information and details showing that the coat does remain in peoples lives after their stories end and after they disappear from the reader. In that way the story becomes more about the object. It is the object that was the constant with Grandma Estelle, with June, and perhaps will be with Ivy.

When refining and deciding on my approach for the story one of the choices I had was to make this a story about a haunted coat. Part of me desperately want to put depictions of the violent, monkey ghosts of the monkeys who died to make the coat in the story. Ultimately I felt like that would have pushed the story too definitively in the realm of the supernatural. Even if they were presented as possible hallucinations. That element was potentially too loaded in either direction and thus I did not go with it. As close as I came was the line about June thinking she sees something in the trees. I felt a better aim of the story was to play with the tension between psychological and supernatural and to keep that unexplained with elements that could go either way all the way through the end.

It was hard for me to present a story where the characters aren’t as dynamic as I am used to presenting. June does want to change and perhaps she changes for the worse or perhaps her agency has been taken from her. Ivy is depicted as more of a dynamic character as she ultimately does change her circumstances. I think there is also a horror in whether characters are dynamic or not. Whether their endeavors to change are thwarted or realized. Ending on the scene where it is revealed that Ivy still does have possession of the coat I think may have pushed the story at least on a surface level back to something that appears to have a traditional shape- the structure of a haunted object story, as it begins and ends with the object being passed along in a way. There is a horror in the notion that June has possibly / likely failed in her desire to change. And a threat that Ivy’s change might be undermined by the coat in some way.

I think that you said it in an excellent way in your question, that unreliable characters can create an uncertainty over what is real. That uncertainty in this story is essential to the story depicted and possible outcomes for the characters.

Daniel Braum’s fiction has been classified as fantasy, science fiction, and horror but he prefers the good old fashioned term of just “fiction”, which when he was growing up simply meant a story were anything could happen. His stories frequently defy category and reside in the fuzzy areas between genres, utilizing and combining genre elements to produce tales that are wholly unique. He is the author of The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales, his first collection of short stories, published as an eBook by Cemetery Dance Publications and as a trade paperback by Grey Matter Press. A illustrated, limited edition book of his stories titled Yeti, Tiger, Dragon is due out in October 2016 from Dim Shores Press. He lives in Long Island, New York and often wishes he was at Brisbane’s Punjabi Palace eating chicken tikka masala after a Thursday night reading at Avid Reader.

Nightscript 4 can be purchased direct from the publisher and at Amazon.


Haunting TV Reads PANDORA

If you checked out all the participating blogs for Coffin Hop this past Halloween, you may have stumbled upon the art blog Horror Made or its partner YouTube channel, Haunting TV. Both are run by the brilliant and talented Jeanette Andriulli, who drew, as part of her monster series, the Pumpkinhead that I won for Coffin Hop:

PumpkinheadNow the multi-talented Jeanette has chosen to spotlight PANDORA in the book excerpt series of Haunting TV, “The Spider’s Nest.” In the following video, you’ll find a chilling dramatic reading of one of my favorite scenes from the novel complete with stunning original artwork. Click, like, share… and enjoy!

An Interview with Horror Author Scott Kenemore

The Grand HotelFor today’s Coffin Hopping, I’ve got a special treat for you! Bestselling author of Zombie, Ohio; Zombie, Illinois; Zombie, Indiana; and The Zen of Zombie, Scott Kenemore, is here to talk about Halloween, zombies, and his latest book, The Grand Hotel, which is available now! Run, don’t zombie-walk, to grab yourself a copy (Trust me: I read it, and it’s amazing).

And now, the interview…

Joanna Parypinski: Hi, Scott. ‘Tis the season for horror (and Coffin Hopping!). With that in mind, what’s your favorite thing about Halloween?

Scott Kenemore: I just like the way Halloween makes me feel. October is a great time of year. I think starting school in the fall trains us to feel like that season is always “the beginning of things” for the rest of our lives, even if we’re no longer students (or teachers). And who doesn’t like hay rides, haunted houses, and ghost story telling?

JP: Agreed. Let’s talk zombies! Zombies have become extremely popular in contemporary media. What is it about them that you find most scary or compelling?

SK: I like how zombies occupy a strange spot in our brains so that they feel “friendly” and “unfriendly” at the same time. When your sister comes back as a member of the walking dead, she’s somehow your sister and not-your-sister at the same time. Zombies can be very human and relatable, but concurrently repulsive and exotic and “other.” It’s an odd and unique effect. Sigmund Freud has a great essay called “The Uncanny” about this sensation.

JP: Your Zombie series involves invasions in various Midwestern states (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana). What about these settings appeals to you? How important is setting in your writing?

SK: I like setting my zombie outbreaks in the locations where I’ve lived because I’m curious about how these places would handle the “stress test” that zombies create. Zombie, Illinois was set in many of the places on the south side of Chicago where I used to work in community development. The character of Leo Mack is based on a number of pastors I knew who managed large- to medium-sized congregations in high crime, low income neighborhoods. It was interesting for me to think about how the south side community would do in a zombie outbreak, especially compared to more affluent Chicago neighborhoods where people might be depending on security systems and police presences that wouldn’t be there anymore. A lot of films and books have already told the story of “zombies in the suburbs.” I wanted to cover some new ground.

With Zombie, Indiana, I was interested in examining the impact of zombies at the governmental level. In lots of zombie fictions, characters briefly interact with “headquarters”—or whatever remains of the government—but we never get more than a small taste of what it’s like for the people who are trying to keep order and run things. In Zombie, Indiana, I wanted to look at what it would be like for a high-level administrator when the zombies rose up. Accordingly, one of the main characters is the Governor of Indiana, and over a third of the book takes place in-and-around his “war room” at the state capitol.

With Zombie, Ohio, I was also interested in a new perspective—that of the zombie itself. In many mythologies, zombies are a virus. When I was formulating how this book was going to work, I was thinking about those real-life cases of people who contract a virus but never get ill, or don’t get ill to the same extent that others do. For example, I think it’s something like 1 in every 100,000 people who get HIV never get sick. They have HIV. They can give it to other people. But it never makes them unwell. I was interested in translating that to a zombie virus. What if there’s a guy who dies and is reanimated by the zombie virus, but unlike most zombies maintains almost all of his wits? What if he’s lost most of his memory, but wants to figure out who he was and why he died? What if he learns he was murdered, and decides to solve the mystery of who killed him and why?

JP: I think my favorite book of yours might actually be your latest non-zombie tale, The Grand Hotel, about a desk clerk who leads a group of visitors on a creepy tour of a mysterious, mouldering hotel. What was your inspiration behind this book? How did you come up with the idea?

SK: I’ve always liked collections of interconnected short stories… especially when the stories are interconnected without first seeming to be. I think the all-time best example of this is probably a novel called Betrayals by the British author Charles Palliser.

But the biggest inspiration definitely came in the form of The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie, which I read in early 2012. It’s a story cycle arising out of the oral traditions of ancient India, and tells the tale of a king who has to solve riddles contained in 25 different tales in order to reach his goal. It was first put into Sanskrit by an author named Sivadasa around the year 1100, but its oral composition probably dates concurrent to the writing of Beowulf. Yet I feel like the stories in The Tales are written with a worldliness that makes them feel like they’re from the nineteenth century, not the ninth. The narrative voice is so charming and clever, and everything is done with a wink. It’s just lovely.

I think—as with most ancient texts—The Tales is, however, hampered by the fact that it was written for an audience with a very different set of narrative expectations. I suspect if contemporary readers were given The Tales with no historical reference, there’d be a lot of “Wait…why are you telling me this again?” and “So…what does this detail have to do with the main story?”

I have probably never been as creatively galvanized by a creative work as I was by The Tales. I don’t know if The Grand Hotel is a “retelling” or “reimagining” exactly —only a couple of stories in my book are adapted directly from it—but it is, at the very least, a powerful homage.

JP: The Grand Hotel has a unique structure. When you were writing it, did it feel like writing a novel or like writing a short story collection?

SK: I think it felt more like writing a novel because each short story was something that the characters in my frame-story were listening to, thinking about, and—in some cases—searching for clues in. In this way, I felt like that same group of frame-story characters was always present, always with me.

JP: Which of the stories in The Grand Hotel is your favorite? Why?

SK: Ha! Good question.

I think editing a collection of stories is like mixing an album. (I am also a drummer.) After a while, you’ve been over the stories/songs so many times that they all start to blur together in your head. You become unable to say which one you like the most, or which one feels the most interesting.

With an album, when outsiders listen to it, they can usually tell you right away which song should be the single. I had a similar experience with the early readers for The Grand Hotel. Most of them said their favorite was a story about strange happenings aboard a space shuttle mission. It’s actually a reworking of a very old, traditional American ghost story. I just updated it, and tried to add a couple of surprising twists. But there you go. I’m glad people feel I adapted it effectively.

JP: Anything else in the works—another installment in the Zombie series, or something new?

SK: I am working on a few different things, but mostly allowing myself to take it easy for the rest of 2014. I had two books come out this year. That was a lot of work!

JP: Thanks so much for doing this interview! I hope everyone gets a copy of The Grand Hotel for an excellent Halloween read.

Thanks for joining Scott and me in today’s Coffin Hopping! Don’t forget to enter my Halloween Mad Libs Contest. Voting for the best response starts on the 28th.

Happy Coffin Hopping!

Book Review: “The Grand Hotel”

The Grand HotelScott Kenemore, king of zombie literature, has ventured into new territory with his latest novel, The Grand Hotel—and boy, does he do it in style. The author of The Zen of Zombie as well as a state-themed zombie series, which so far includes Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, has proven his skills at creating unique, engaging tales of the undead. But he debuts a new kind of story with The Grand Hotel: one with a unique form, a clever narration, and complex ideas that will stick with you long after you “check out” of this mysterious hotel.

Rarely does a book manage to pull off that quirky space between “novel” and “short story collection,” but The Grand Hotel encompasses the best of both these formats. Our narrator, the front desk clerk at the eponymous hotel, introduces us to the setting through his guided tour. We feel part of the tour group as we are led from room to room, at which point the narrator introduces a new character with an intriguing story to tell.

The interconnected stories, though different in their content, create a narrative thread invoking curiosity, questions of morality, and the supernatural. Some of the highlights include a sci-fi tale about a mission to Mars, an encounter that brings to mind Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, a brilliant mash-up reality show that combines cooking with ghost hunting, and the story of a violist and the bizarre trees from which her instrument was crafted.

At no point does the narrative drag. Each story is just as engaging, surreal, and interesting as the last, and the journey of the tour group invites the reader to wonder what the connections are between each story—an idea that is cleverly injected into the overarching narrative by means of a curious library. This is truly a story about storytelling, a narrative that explores narratives, and a must-read for anyone interested in this most noble and ancient linguistic art.

As a horror novel, The Grand Hotel delivers plenty of creepiness. Along with the perfect setting of a moldering, ancient hotel, there are ghosts, demons, dead bodies, and all manner of unnamed and unnerving occurrences to keep you spooked but thirsting for more. And the final eerie tale brings everything together in a surprising and satisfying conclusion.

Several days after finishing it, I’m still thinking about this book—and discovering clues and layers I hadn’t noticed before. I’m also interested, now, in looking into a story cycle from ancient India that partially inspired the book. Already, The Grand Hotel has become a favorite of mine.

Scott Kenemore’s The Grand Hotel is available October 14, 2014. I suggest you run, don’t walk, to grab a copy. You can find The Grand Hotel right here on Amazon!

Find more at the author’s website,

Book Review: “A Winter Haunting”

A Winter HauntingAbout a year after I read Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night, I’ve finally gotten around to picking up the sequel, A Winter Haunting. “Sequel” is a sort of interesting term for it, since I’m not sure you even need to have read Summer of Night to appreciate this psychological ghost story.

A Winter Haunting is a completely different kind of book from its predecessor. While the first book was a lengthy, raucous tale of boyhood, monsters under the bed, creatures at the school, and disbelieving adults, the second book is the quiet, internal story of a haunted man passing middle age who is trying to understand the trajectory of his own life.

Dale Stewart, the protagonist from the first book, takes center stage again here—but it is the narrator who provides most of the insight into his thoughts, his attempted suicide, his possible psychosis, and his failed love life. The narrator in question is Duane, the boy genius who dies in the first book. Here he is played as an omniscient abstraction who is able to see Dale’s life better than Dale himself.

Having decided to spend his sabbatical back in Elm Haven, the town where he grew up, Dale heads to Illinois for the winter. What’s more, he has decided to stay in the old farmhouse where Duane lived and died, in order to grieve his old friend and to provide inspiration for the novel he is writing about that summer of 1960.

That’s when the ghosts start popping up. Simmons masterfully delivers the creepiness, and he does it in a way that leaves you wondering what’s real, what’s in Dale’s head, and what’s supernatural. This, along with his beautiful prose and brilliant use of a dead narrator, provides the story an eerie, unsettling atmosphere that is perfect for a chilly winter at an abandoned farmhouse.

A much simpler, straightforward narrative than the sometimes meandering and chaotic first novel, this one still carries many layers of complexity in its themes and characters, revealing painful truths about life, aging, potential, and human connection.

It’s also peppered with classic literary references like Henry James and Beowulf, Old English, Egyptian worship, philosophy, and proof that our young dead narrator knows more about writing than even seasoned writers and academics.


Storyline: 9 out of 10 ghosts from the past

Characters: 9 out of 10 ghosts from the past

Originality: 8 out of 10 ghosts from the past

Writing Style: 10 out of 10 ghosts from the past

Scare Factor: 7 out of 10 ghosts from the past

Overall: 8 out of 10 ghosts from the past

True Horror in True Detective

Everyone’s been talking about it: Mathew McConaughey. Woody Harrelson. The King in Yellow. Carcosa. And many have been asking, even since the finale, what does it all mean?

One of the reasons this show has people buzzing (and frantically flipping through old horror novels) is because it deftly crosses genres in its brief 8-episode run. What appears to be a noir / Southern Gothic detective mystery is overlaid by a larger story of horror and modern mythology.

Hey, I'm warning you! Stay the hell back if you haven't watched yet. This post is riddled with spoilers!

Hey, I’m warning you! Stay the hell back if you haven’t watched yet. This post is riddled with spoilers!


This show is all about storytelling. Through interviews with the detectives, we get the story of a gruesome murder case that Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart solved (or thought they solved) back in ’95. The case comes back to haunt them in the present, as it seems the mysterious figure behind it all—the King in Yellow—is still at large.

On the show, he is spoken of in awed whispers, along with the word Carcosa. Everyone watching quickly realized this was a reference to a book of short stories by Robert Chambers, published in 1895. Chambers, a forerunner to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, wrote about a play called The King in Yellow that drove people mad during the second act. He also wrote of a strange lost city called Carcosa, which he nabbed from an Ambrose Bierce short story called “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” Lovecraft (as well as many others) later used both of these motifs in his writing.

the king in yellow

The connections between The King in Yellow and True Detective run much deeper than mere name-dropping. For instance, Carcosa is inhabited by people wearing skins, and the cultists behind the killings of True Detective wear animal masks. In fact, masks play an important role in Chambers’ stories (there is even one called “The Mask”). And there’s that weird line in the finale of True Detective where Errol Childress, aka the King in Yellow, tells Rust to “take off your mask!” (before he stabs him).

True Detective’s vision of Carcosa is deliciously creepy as well. Carcosa is described as having “twin suns,” “black stars,” and “strange moons.” It is a cursed place filled with dead trees. On True Detective, some of these aspects are mentioned by people who claim to know of Carcosa. Psycho-killer Errol Childress’s lair of Carcosa, which we see in the finale, is a dark tunnel system filled with those strange stick-sculptures that appear throughout the season, mimicking dead trees.

I wouldn't go in there if I were you.

I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.


If this show were your typical crime series, the ending would have given us some twist that explained everything: who was the killer, and why did he do it? We find out that scarred Errol Childress is the killer. We find out that he is truly evil and psychotic through his seedy house, the way he fluidly transitions from one accent to the next as if he doesn’t have one fixed identity, his narcissistic god-like mentality, and his eerie lair. But why would someone do these things? What is behind his cult?

Why does he love riding lawnmowers so much?

Why does he love riding lawnmowers so much?

That we are left to grapple with on our own, just like Rust and Marty. The ending of the season is reflective of the ending of classic horror tales: the broken characters, having come face-to-face with true horror, must reconcile their experiences with their lives. In many Lovecraft stories, these characters go insane or become suicidal.

The horror elements come out in more than just the ending, though. This thread of weird horror, best known in Lovecraft’s writing, explores the idea of peeling back reality and glimpsing the infinite and the incomprehensible beyond our world. Perhaps Rust’s drug-induced hallucinations are more than they seem. Perhaps he’s seeing into greater dimensions of reality, seeing the circle of time from the outside.  Carcosa, it is said, is a city outside of time. Part of the horror of Rust’s story, then, are these moments when he traverses into the infinite.

Oh god, Cthulhu is coming! Run for your life!

Oh god, Cthulhu is coming! Run for your life!

Most people who get these glimpses go insane. Rust’s character is appealing because he can have these experiences without going completely nutty.  For instance, other characters who have harrowing experiences related to the Yellow King or Carcosa start screaming or babbling manically when they speak of them. We understand their horror through their reactions to it.

This idea of seeing vs. not seeing the horror ourselves, as viewers, is an old trope used by the likes of Lovecraft. In the finale of True Detective, we are privy to a videotape of one of Childress’s crimes. We don’t see the full video, but those who watch it end up screaming in horror. This is even more disturbing than showing us what is on the tape because it is left to our imagination. It is unthinkably horrific, like many of the things Lovecraft wrote about.


The way True Detective has tapped into this mythology of the Yellow King and Carcosa is not, perhaps, the way we would expect a modern TV show to use literary allusions. Viewers expected an explanation and resolution of the Yellow King and Carcosa, but we were left feeling that, though Errol Childress is dead, these ideas that fueled his killings are not. Characters on the show declare that the King in Yellow was before and is always—out of time, eternal. It doesn’t die with the death of one man.

Maybe because the King in Yellow is actually composed of dead people.

Maybe because the King in Yellow is actually composed of dead people.

The show is accomplishing the same thing as all of the literature that has used this mythology. Chambers, Bierce, and Lovecraft are not the only ones to write about the King in Yellow and Carcosa. What they’ve done, however, is to develop a new mythology. True Detective is only one more piece in the puzzle, building on this mythology in a literary way.

This show is all about storytelling. In the last scene, Rust talks about how, as a kid, he would look up at the stars and make up stories. This is exactly what our ancestors did thousands of years ago. They made up stories, which were passed around and built upon until they became mythologies. They created a shared literature, and True Detective revels in this idea.

I’ve always been interested in mythology. My first novel, Pandora, involves Greek mythology. My current novel includes Native American mythology. These are ancient mythologies. The King in Yellow is a new mythology. We can trace it back to its beginning. We are doing, now, exactly what our ancestors did. Time, as Rustin Cohle says, is a circle. We do the same things over and over again.

True Detective is a story as ancient as stories themselves. We seemed to have entered an age where television can accomplish the same things that literature has been doing for hundreds and hundreds of years. And that is pretty damn cool.

Fictional Cartography: the Art of Mapping Imaginary Settings

Recently I taught a creative writing lesson to a group of high school students about creating and mapping fictional places. The kids loved it; they came up with some wildly imaginative places (one of them includes a military base with no doors, an inactive volcano, and an entire town fenced in by barbed wire). Then they wrote stories taking place in their towns.

I realized, as I was crafting the lesson, that there are a few different kinds of fictional places. I broke them down like this:

Type 1: Fictional towns, cities, countries, and continents that take place in another world from our own and have no connection to our reality.

Some examples of a type 1 fictional setting include Westeros from Game of Thrones and Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings. Often these kinds of places are used for fantasy novels, although I would also include the setting from Star Wars here. China Miéville also utilizes this kind of fictional setting, and he does a fantastic job of world-building in his vivid, surreal writing: check out Perdido Street Station to see what I’m talking about.

Science fiction and fantasy are notorious for using these kinds of fictional places. Thankfully, many of these books also include maps to situate the reader in the fantastical land, since we have no other reference point aside from the descriptions given by the writer. Here’s a map of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth, given so that we can see Frodo’s journey from the Shire to Mordor:

Middle Earth

Type 2: Fictional towns, cities, countries, and continents that take place in another world from our own, but which can be accessed through our reality.

In this case, the reader is introduced to the fictional land by way of the real world, usually through some magical or unusual form of transport. For instance, in The Chronicles of Narnia, we start out grounded in the real world; then we go through a wardrobe and arrive in Narnia. This technique works well to introduce readers to these purely fantastical and imaginative landscapes by taking their hands and transporting them away from their solid footing in the real world. Children’s stories often use this type of fictional setting because it is easier to grasp than a type 1, where you are thrust without context into a strange new place.

Here are two examples of type 2 fictional settings from children’s literature. The first is Neverland from Peter Pan:

NeverlandHere we begin in the real world (London), and then Peter and Wendy fly off to the fictional realm of Neverland.

Likewise, in Alice in Wonderland, we begin in the real world, and then Alice falls through a rabbit hole and winds up in Wonderland:


Type 3: Fictional towns and cities in real states/countries in the real world.

While the other two types of fictional places are largely used for speculative fiction in the science fiction and fantasy genres, this type is used more frequently by writers of all genres. Being in the real world, the cities and towns of a type 3 place must therefore abide by at least some laws of reality. Thus, writers from Stephen King to William Faulkner have all created imaginary towns in the real world.

Some writers even set multiple works in these places, creating a sort of alternate world to our own. Take, for instance, H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham, a sinister little town in Massachusetts:

“What lay behind our joint love of shadows and marvels was, no doubt, the ancient, mouldering, and subtly fearsome town in which we live—witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham, whose huddled, sagging gambrel roofs and crumbling Georgian balustrades brood out the centuries beside the darkly muttering Miskatonic.”
The Thing on the Doorstep

This eerie town, which is home to Miskatonic University (researcher of all things “weird”), appears in many of Lovecraft’s stories, from his Cthulhu mythos to the Dream Cycle. Naturally, Lovecraft needed to know where everything was in the town, if he was to write about it consistently. Maps are useful not only to help the readers, but also to help the writer keep everything straight. It’s pretty obvious that Lovecraft never intended on publishing this scrawled piece of chicken scratch:

Arkham Map LovecraftBut hey, as long as he can read his own handwriting! Thanks to computers, others have cleaned up this map and made it legible for Lovecraft fans everywhere:

Arkham Map CleanI had a blast teaching this lesson because, over the years, I’ve acquired an increasing interest in fictional cartography. Each novel I’ve written takes place in a type 3 fictional setting. Like Lovecraft, I’ve found myself sketching out these places, crafting them for my readers, my characters, and myself. This is why the towns from my two in-progress novels feel much more real to me than my first attempt with Pandora‘s Sickle Falls. Unfortunately, Sickle Falls feels half-complete because I never mapped out the town itself.

Hopefully these novels I’m working on now will be published in the future, and you can see for yourself how real the places feel. Let me transport you to Bryn Du Bluffs, West Virginia, where legends of an evil cemetery on a hill and the ancient Moon-Eyed People spook the superstitious folks in town. Let me take you to Rockhaven, Nebraska, where abandoned farms become the playground of meth-heads and an old crone guards her haunted well.

Let me take you there. These places have become real now. They’re all mapped out… and waiting for you.

Book Review: “This Book Is Full of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It)”

Book Review This Book is Full of SpidersIn 2009, the editor of popular humor/news/oddities website, David Wong, published a hodgepodge of zany supernatural misadventures in the form of John Dies at the End, which started as a serialized internet phenomenon and turned into a long, uneven, but ultimately hilarious and entertaining novel.

Enter the sequel: This Book Is Full of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It). And, unlike, the misleading title of the first book, I can assure you that, yes, this book is filled with spiders.

Dave and John, the supernatural-fighting, dimension-hopping, dick-joking duo, once again find themselves at the center of an otherworldly mystery when Dave experiences all of our own worst nightmares come to life: there is a nest of parasitic spiders that hatches from his bed, invisible to all but him and his buddy John. What do these spiders do? Well, I’m glad you asked. They inject you with a paralytic venom before climbing in your mouth, controlling your brain, and restructuring your DNA.

Since no one else can see the spiders, the people of John and Dave’s hometown, referred to as Undisclosed (for security reasons), decide it has been overrun by zombies. What follows, while still retaining the absurdist charm of the original, is a surprisingly realistic and even chilling look at how the government might deal with a zombie outbreak. A mysterious government agency shows up, blocks off the town, quarantines a bunch of non-infected people, and plans to wipe it off the face of the map.

Any potential realism ends there, as we get knee-deep in spider parasites, monsters that climb up your butthole (and push your intestines out your mouth, yummy!), guns that warp reality, drugs that stop time, and shadow people who exist in the space between moments.

The narrative here is far more coherent than John Dies at the End, and while it’s a sizable novel, it clips along at a fast pace, making it easy to breeze through in a couple of days. Whereas JDatE may leave you wanting less, Spiders actually left me wanting more. Because of the singular focus of the plot, I found myself missing the wild diversity of bizarre adventures from the first book. Still, Spiders does, in the end, work much better as a cohesive novel, and provides a more streamlined story while still being as gross, gory, and funny as you’d hope.

Plus, there’s a fantastic moment when a bunch of townspeople, in order to be seen from the air, shape themselves into a giant… well, I’ll just let you read the book to find out.

Book Review: “Hot Sinatra”

hot-sinatra-front cover6Axel Howerton is truly a master of tongue-in-cheek humor, and he delivers in spades with the hard-boiled noir comedy, Hot Sinatra. If you don’t know Howerton, you’ve clearly not spent enough time in the horror blogosphere: he is the leader of the annual Halloween extravaganza called Coffin Hop, as well as the author of the darkly comedic story, “Living Dead at Zigfreidt & Roy.”

Hot Sinatra follows old-school private investigator, Mossimo Cole, a sarcastic tough guy who’s really a bit of a teddy bear at heart. Things go south for Cole when an elderly client asks him to find his one-of-a-kind record featuring the only time Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald sang together. Turns out this record is highly sought-after, as mobsters come after Cole, delivering some serious beatings that he takes like a champ.

The love interest in this updated noir tale of revenge and jazz is a fiery redhead who also happens to be the daughter of Cole’s grumpy old client. She and her young daughter get caught up in the danger and intrigue as Cole struggles to uncover the mystery of the record, upping the stakes as he tries to save not only his own skin, but also the lives of his ladies.

A zany cast of characters comes to call, including an alcoholic Irish rockstar, a grandmother-slash-drug cartel queen, and a pair of gay henchmen who go by the names Manlove and Kickerdick. It’s through these characters that Axel’s talent really shines: he paints a canvas of believable, equally loveable and hateable characters whose lives tangle and unravel around one another. I laughed out loud at their shenanigans, and I suspect you will, too.

Axel’s prose zings with a sharp wit that seems to come effortlessly to him, and if you’ve read a couple of his works, you’ll find an amazing versatility in his writing. Axel Howerton truly makes the small press proud, delivering the kind of excellence you always hope to find when picking up a new book. Hot Sinatra is a snappy read that will keep you engaged until the last page, and then leave you wanting more. I hope we haven’t seen the last of Mossimo Cole, but even if his story is over, at least we know we haven’t seen the last of Axel Howerton. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he cooks up next.