The Hollow Kind by Andy Davidson

The Hollow Kind is a horror novel about a family and the danger of inheriting seemingly cursed land. Nellie flees an abusive marriage with her son Max after finding out she has inherited her grandfather’s estate in Georgia. It is a falling down farmhouse and weirdly silent woods, once used for turpentine, and it offers hope for Nellie and Max, but the strange whispering voices and unsettling sense of ancient power suggest it is a place less safe than Nellie imagined.

The book is split between the “present” narrative of 1989 and an earlier one featuring Nellie’s grandfather and father, using the dual timelines to unfold the family secrets and the kind of gothic horror based on echoes of the past and inheritance of this terror. It is a pretty standard horror, with a few side threats from real men blurring the line between what is supernatural danger and what is very real life danger. Max is a mature-for-his-age horror child, and the relationship between Nellie and Max is a highlight of the book, especially how the book explores parent and child relationships and the complexities within them. The earlier parts of the book, with more subtle unnerving horror as you don’t really know what is going on to Nellie and Max and weird things are happening in the house, is perhaps scarier than the later more dramatic scenes, but the book does build up to a good climax that forces the family to face up to the generational horror.

Brutes by Dizz Tate

Brutes is a novel about teenage friendship and its strange wildness, as a group of thirteen-year-olds obsess over a missing girl. In swampy, theme-park-filled Florida, a group of friends—all girls, with Christian an honorary girl—are obsessed with Sammy, a preacher’s daughter. They watch her, but then she suddenly goes missing, and the group watch the town instead, with a sinister sense of hunger underneath.

Most of the chapters are told from a first person plural perspective, with the group of thirteen year olds the ‘we’ telling the story, and this really sets up the conceit of the book, the weird friendship group, the ‘brutes’ as their mothers call them, watching and wishing. The narration is very effective, showing the strange bonds and the ways in which this breaks down, as well as a dark story of trying to get more than a run-down Florida life. Some of the chapters are told from the perspective of one of the group as adults, and this works less well because they’re very fragmented and don’t quite come together with the rest, although some of these chapters work better than others.

An ambiguous book that dives into a vivid Florida and a specific group mindset, Brutes is likely to divide between people who like the style and ambiguity, and people who wanted more definitive answers about what is going on.

Home by Cailean Steed

Home is a novel about someone who escapes a cult, and then ends up going back to try and save their sister. Zoe works in a coffee shop and lives in a little flat, trying to build a life she never imagined. When a man known as the Hand of God appears in her flat, the past returns to her, the cult of the Children she escaped and their compound, Home. What the Hand of God tells her makes her know she has to return, but going back won’t be simple.

The narrative is told from a split perspective, one from ‘present’ day Zoe and one from her past in the cult, as she navigates the horrors of her past and what the cult is still doing. The story is quite slow burn, almost entirely set with the ‘Home’ of the cult, so you slowly pick up their beliefs and lies. The cult itself is very focused on gender roles and has an almost Handmaid’s Tale vibe at times, and there’s a few moments in the book that suggest why people are drawn to it, which was quite interesting, particularly as it comes from the perspective of Zoe who was born into the cult.

The book is tense without quite being a thriller, as it is more focused on character and the realities of a cult. Personally, I would’ve liked to see more of Zoe’s life outside of the cult, as most of it is through flashbacks and glimpses, and it would be really interesting to think more about the impact of it on her, but the cult and the physical location it occupies is the focus of the book. The horrors are mostly alluded to rather than shown, so though a lot of the stuff that goes on is quite heavy, through a combination of Zoe’s lack of awareness and trauma, you don’t see everything, which means the book feels a bit more subtle than using shock tactics. There are some conversion therapy type parts that are quite intense though.

Home has a gripping story that explores a pseudo-religious cult and what happens when an escapee has to go back. I enjoyed the character stuff more than the thriller element and found that the book explores some interesting things. I liked the exploration of gender within the book, particularly how the cult frames a gender binary and then there seems to be a place for Zoe outside of that, but only in what turns out to be a horrifying and manipulative way. The fact that Zoe finds queer community outside of the cult is a nice touch too.

How To Sell A Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

How to Sell a Haunted House is horror writer Grady Hendrix’s newest novel, about a woman who returns home after her parents’ death and is faced with a lot more than she bargained for. The sudden death of her parents throws Louise—she has to leave her young daughter Poppy with her ex and travel back to Charleston, where she has to deal with her estrange brother Mark, who she’s always seen as getting anything from their parents that he wanted. She wants them to sell the house and then she can get away, but first they have to deal with the house and everything in it, including their mother’s extensive puppet collection.

I love the high concept nature of Hendrix’s books, but sometimes the concept overshadows the book a bit. In the case of this one, the concept is actually a much smaller part of the book than it might seem, and the heart of the story is a creepy story of puppets, grief, and family secrets. The start sets up a fraught family situation between Louise and Mark, driven not just by their parents’ deaths but by the conflicting views of each other they hold. As the unnerving horror starts to trickle in to the plot, so do the revelations that their family has been hiding things and that not talking about things does not mean they did not happen that way.

The bizarre horror of some of the book (evil puppets mostly) sits strangely well with the deep sadness that also underpins it: the ways in which people deal with emotion, misunderstand each other, and resent things they cannot make sense of. The central puppet seems to find people when they need it, aka when they’re emotionally vulnerable and looking for something else to take control of their life, and both Louise and Mark react to events in the book by doubling down on who they think they are, haunted maybe by what they do to cope. A point later in the book after Mark and Louise have been through something horrific, shows how horror sometimes misses out the part afterwards where what someone had to do in the heat of the terrifying moment still has terrible consequences.

How to Sell a Haunted House is not at its core a haunted house book (see The Haunting of Hill House, Tell Me I’m Worthless, and the YouTube video ‘Control, Anatomy, and the Legacy of the Haunted House’ for interesting ideas about what a haunted house might be), but it is a creepy puppet book and a family grief book. It has the ridiculousness of Hendrix’s work combined with some tense emotion as two siblings work through their lives and why their family is the way it is. Some people may be disappointed that the title is seemingly purposefully misleading, but what you get instead is a look at family being more of the ‘haunted house’ than a house ever could.

The Cloisters by Katy Hays

The Cloisters is a novel about a woman who moves to New York City to work in a museum, only to find herself drawn into strange Tarot research, questions about fate, and a toxic web of relationships. Ann moves from her hometown in Washington to New York, ready to start a summer role at the Met. When a mistake leads her to end up working at The Cloisters instead, a small museum and garden focusing on medieval and Renaissance art, Ann meets Patrick and Rachel, both working at The Cloisters and intrigued by the history of Tarot. As Ann finds herself drawn into the work and into Rachel’s world, things start to spiral out of control.

This book is being marketed as very much a modern version of The Secret History, and the focus on Tarot seems perfect for that, fitting into the contemporary internet interests in astrology and Tarot that probably are liked by people who also like the dark academia genre. The premise, with a less well-off protagonist moving across the country to find academic success, sounds very much like The Secret History, but like many similar books, it lacks the actual atmosphere and ever-increasing stakes of Tartt’s novel, focusing more on Ann’s torn allegiance between Rachel and Leo, Ann’s love interest and gardener at The Cloisters. 

The novel starts promisingly, but a lot of the narrative doesn’t quite go down the dark routes it seems it might and doesn’t really linger with the questions of power and fate as much as a mystery story and some flawed characters. The revelations in the plot are neither surprising nor particularly bring tension (Ann as the narrator doesn’t really draw out any kind of sinister atmosphere and the big moments in the narrative don’t really get enough drama), but it is a decent story, particularly if you focus more on Ann’s journey from an uncertain person leaving her past behind to someone with more of a sense of purpose. The wider main characters don’t actually interact as much as you might expect, and any interesting elements between Ann and Rachel in terms of their dynamic aren’t really explored, either in terms of a Talented Mr Ripley-esque wanting to be her or any kind of sexual tension.

Though on paper The Cloisters sounds like a perfect novel for the moment, with Tarot and dark academia and a young woman trying to prove her research-worth, for me The Cloisters didn’t quite delve far enough into its characters and concepts. Plenty of fans of books like The Secret History will probably like it (and maybe if you’re more interested in Tarot than me, that side of thing will particularly appeal, as there’s a lot of interesting history and lore), but as with many books trying to be this kind of novel, this one doesn’t quite feel dark enough or build up enough atmosphere.

The Things We Do To Our Friends by Heather Darwent

The Things We Do To Our Friends is a literary thriller in a dark academia type vein, in which the protagonist is drawn into a group of students who start up a secret project. Clare is starting at the University of Edinburgh and putting her past behind her, but she’s picky with who she wants as her friends. When she meets fellow History of Art students Tabitha and Imogen, and their friends Ava and Samuel, it seems that Clare has found what she was looking for: rich, beautiful friends who live somewhere far nicer than a student house, who make up plans that grow to include Clare, like going off to France. And, it seems, their new project, which Clare will have a vital role in, but it seems they might know what she’s running from.

The blurb suggesting this book was The Secret History but set in Edinburgh drew me in, and rarely can books live up to that comparison in my opinion (except perhaps The Lessons, but that’s just because it works for me personally). This one starts with a strange prologue scene and then we’re immediately in Clare’s first person narration. As she emphasises how she doesn’t have money, has to get a bar job, and feels like an outsider, the comparisons with The Secret History seem very vivid, and I thought it was going to be very similar, but just with History of Art instead of Classics. The narrative style works to lead you in, making you aware that Clare is telling this story with hindsight, but for me, the atmosphere wasn’t quite as vivid as I’d hoped for.

The actual “project” part of the book is a bit more generic and less shocking than I would’ve liked too, and not related to the university setting or initial focus on three of the group studying History of Art. Without wanting to get into spoilers, the narrative does engage quite interestingly with possible consequences of what they get into and is fairly gripping, though I think in general the stakes tended to not feel very high for Clare and the ending wasn’t entirely satisfying for me, seeming to be more about telling you how warped she is.

I liked the Edinburgh setting, though it fell away later in the book, which didn’t really sustain the atmosphere of the start throughout. A lot of the time I felt like it was too busy trying to be like The Secret History but not quite getting the dark eccentricity of Tartt’s novel as being a selling point. I also felt like the interpersonal relationships between the group weren’t really explored as much as they could have been, perhaps because the book is more focused on the plot element of their project as it goes on. I think people who are more interested in a dark academia type thriller rather than something that pulls fully on the twisted, toxic relationships and dark actions would maybe enjoy this book more than me, though it did keep me interested.

Scream by Michael J. Seidlinger

Scream is an Object Lessons book which explores screaming, combining personal essay elements with a look at the variety of screams in the world, from fear to joy to catharsis. Seidlinger’s own music taste and growing up provide ways into some of the discussions, like alternative music and rollercoasters, and other elements focus on pop culture like Munch’s The Scream and film screams.

The Object Lessons series always interesting for such short books can combine, in different amounts, personal and analytical, with authors using their own experiences to explore the titular concept in each case. This one definitely appealed to me and it contains some of the things I expected—like the Scream films and fear—but also other elements I wouldn’t’ve guessed. I enjoyed the discussion of musical genres that use screaming, as I remember some of the 2000s fads for nu-metal and screamo and how the screaming element felt divisive, and I learnt about the different styles of scream-related singing. Scream has a lot of personal essay elements and it was very interesting to think about how these various scream-related things could say a lot about feeling out of place or alternative when growing up.

Extinction Hymns by Eric Raglin

Extinction Hymns is a collection of horror fiction that explores weirdness, extinction, and humanity. There’s a huge range of stories in the book, from a monstrous angel helping a woman with drug addiction to killing Nazis in the death metal scene with magic (and many with less extreme summaries), but there’s a common look at how we treat other people and the planet, as the title of the collection might suggest.

I really enjoyed the variety of the collection, with a lot of fresh concepts, and I never knew where the next story would take me. Some are obviously horror takes on things—like ‘A Most Bulbous Congregation’ and conversion therapy or ‘The Last of Her Kind’ and preservation of species—and I really enjoyed these, which all had different vibes but said some interesting things whilst having some horrifying imagery. Some of the other stories were more focused on weirdness, on unnerving things and strange situations. Stories like ‘Floaters’ and ‘Boning’ combine violence with sad medical concepts and leave you with things to think about.

As with any short story collection, there’s some that jump out and others which blend in more, but Extinction Hymns is a collection with variety that offers a look at some of the darker, weirder sides of life. Having already read Raglin’s ”Til the Sun Wheel Turns No More’ in Antifa Splatterpunk, I was looking forward to this book, and it didn’t disappoint.

Kerf by Gareth Farmer

Kerf is a poetry collection that explores woodworking and craft, autism, and language, often together, and is intercut with images of notebook pages and wooden crafts. Farmer’s thoughtful introduction ‘Kerf. A Brief Excursus’ sets up the book—I particularly enjoyed how the term ‘kerf’ was explored and then potential metaphors dissected. Some of my favourite poems from the collection are ‘And, Now What?’ with its repeated question and movement towards actuality, ‘Contra Expressivities’ for its thoughts and formatting, and ‘Sssssssstiiiiimye’ for the way it enacts experience and sibilance.

The collection seems to close with the longer poem ‘What’s That: Instead of Ego’ which moves through various phases to explore autism and woodworking craft hand-in-hand, though coming after this is both the ‘Glossary of Woodworking Terms and Concepts used in Kerf‘ and Further Reading. The Glossary was weirdly one of my favourite parts of the book, full of wit and offhand side notes that sit nicely alongside the linguistic cleverness and exploration of the poems that come previous. At times I became lost amongst the woodworking and theoretical terms in the collection, but I enjoyed finding my way back.

Now Go: On Grief and Studio Ghibli by Karl Thomas Smith

Now Go is another of 404 Ink’s Inklings series and this one looks at ideas of grief within the animated films of Studio Ghibli. Covering not only traditional ideas of grief and death, but also considering grief in terms of capitalism and climate crisis, Karl Thomas Smith delves into what these films might say about grief and, most importantly, how there is hope and future within grief.

From the beautiful No-Face pixel art on the cover, this is a book that is filled with love for these films, and their often complex messages hidden beneath the visual beauty that has made many of them so famous. The comparison between Totoro and No-Face in terms of their similarities and differences was very interesting, as was the discussion of the kinds of grief you see in Kiki’s Delivery Service as something more related to capitalism and society. The book gives different lenses to view these films, some of which people may have already considered and others that may be new. There’s a lot to think about from Now Go despite being in such a bitesized package, and it’s a great book for anyone who not only likes Studio Ghibli films, but likes the fact that they are varied and ambiguous.