Many thanks of gratitude to the Horror Writers Association’s Facebook group, and especially the author, for making this opportunity possible. She provided a PDF file in exchange for an honest review. My opinions are my own.
“But Christa Carmen isn’t interested in silence, and her collection…isn’t looking to lead you calmly down the aisle. Your path is littered with temptations that test the strength of your mind, heart, and stomach, and over thirteen tales of death and dependency…Carmen has you questioning whether love is real or just another addiction.”
In just five pages, the tragic realities of an apocalyptic landscape of the most dire imaginable were revealed, in a very well-written and hypnotic manner. Coupled with unexpected and curious word choices, Christa Carmen’s poetic prose was dense yet fluid, disturbingly soothing and inexplicably humane. With breakneck pace and wild imagery, all that I found lacking was a little more exposition and character development.
Most likely inspired by the slasher films of the 1970’s and 80’s, with splashes of The Sixth Sense and 2002’s Panic Room, and with insight into the evils of technology, the author took a deceptively simple premise and, spinning it on its top, complicated things further with an unreliable narrator and…flashes of red.
“Her heart beat like a herd of spooked horses, but amongst the mound of books, the Kindle with its textured purple cover, the dish of rings and earrings, the bookmarks and pens and empty seltzer cans, there was no phone to be found.”
Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked
Sinister and twisted, yet in light of its brevity, the ending was very abrupt, almost like Carmen got bored with crafting her tale of newlyweds Luke and Belladonna, and their peculiar relations with her Aunt Louise. Admittedly though, there was a lot taking place beneath the surface, which drove home the point that the author didn’t merely abandon it. She crafted it precisely how she envisioned it should be, and what a lovely tale indeed.
Souls, Dark and Deep
If the last story was twisted, this one was compulsively demonic, strange, and disturbing, leaving the reader unsure about what the future held for these characters. Were Belinda’s motivations as clear cut as they seemed? Should she be trusted? Was she even telling the truth? You decide.
All Souls of Eve
Clearly inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Carmen’s spin on the iconic concept of three separate ghosts (thankfully, hers were a little different,) visiting one unlikely individual was unlike anything the collection had to offer. And aside from the former, I’d never read anything quite like it. In the end, All Souls of Eve was more AND less than what I expected. I liked it, but I wouldn’t categorize it as horror. I was anticipating a dark twist at the end. Instead, Carmen gave something else entirely.
Enter: Nicole Price. Eddie Vance. Olive Holton. Spanning fifty-two pages, this quasi slowly burning novella was the longest tale. It was also the strongest, possessing the most visual stimuli, unpredictability, suspense, tension, and conflicting moods and tone. With morbid fascination, I sat back and watched everything unfold, with a mindfulness of the councilor’s plight (cheering, cringing all the while,) and Nicole’s absence. Would her reappearance, or having a stronger presence, have created a stronger story? That’s the lingering question, for which I have no answers.
Reminiscent of Stephen King’s “Big Driver” and “The Gingerbread Girl,” it became clear that Liquid Handcuffs was none of those things. At least, not entirely. It was a tale all its own, standing tall on its distinctive merits. It’s also my favorite work so far.
Lady of The Flies
I liked Priscila Teasdale almost right away. That intrigue soon transcended love, and clashing down near the masterful, completely earned denouement, she gained my respect and sympathy. I empathized with her plight in ways I haven’t experienced from a fictional character in a very long time.
“They left me. They left me without a second thought, and all I’d wanted was a thing to call my own. My own dog. A livelihood. A fulfilling relationship with a co-worker. A friend.”
Between this one and “Liquid Handcuffs,” I can’t decide which I love more. I suppose my affinity for them is equal, but of course, for different reasons.
The Girl Who Loved Bruce Campbell
Robert Kirkman’s cult classic met Bruce Campbell’s seminal work, steeped in the ongoing opioid pandemic and plausible scientific research, this offering was intense, particularly from the halfway point to its abrupt end. It was also mysterious, and a lot of fun. Despite going in with zero preconceived notions, something felt a little lacking–be it the cliched subgenre or the personal need for a more substantial scientific theory, I’m not sure, but I was entertained.
A Fairy Plant In Grief
As one with an appreciation for unusual names and/or unique spellings, Mikhail instantly resonated. More revealing, though, was Carmen’s exquisite attention to the myriad of small details (quickly honing in on all five, possibly six, senses,) which really helped develop Mikhail’s place in the world, and her questionable mentality. In the end, I was left wanting more. So much more..
I really wanted to give this a higher rating, but 3.75 was the most I could do. Ordinarily, a short story with more questions than answers would be given less, but it’s important to remember just how MUCH Carmen conveyed in a mere two pages.
Wolves At The Door And Bears In The Forest
This was another favorite; a stand-out offering, undoubtedly. The protagonist, Molly Monteith, was likeable and loathsome in equal measure. And perhaps that adjective was too harsh, because I didn’t hate her, but some of the choices she made were truly repulsive, particularly in light of the fact that they didn’t only affect her, but also her three year old daughter. It was a poignant reminder of the debilitating, all-encompassing, and non-discriminatory nature of addiction.
Set in the same locale as “Liquid Handcuffs,” the references to Nicole, Olive, and Eddie were a nice touch.
This Our Angry Train
Wow. Wildly imaginative and atmospheric. Unpredictable and frigid. Phantasmagorical to the point of sheer madness (in the literal sense,) and an ill comprehension of reality. This was, however, more than a series of abstract images, senses, and conversations. At its core, it was the story of a young woman, Lauren, attempting a reconciliation. Was it coming-of-age, though? THAT is the question. And does it make a difference?
The One Who Answers The Door
Creepy and also atmospheric, this was the tale of Harley Quinn, her sister, Zombie-Elsa, and their comrades on All Hallows’ Eve, and the plausible consequences of peer pressure, which can be horrific in of itself.
Flowers From Amaryllis
You’re in the doctor’s office. Dr. Mendelevitch sits before you, questioning your mental state with what you, Willow, perceive as vague accusations. Imogene won’t visit you. The shadow wolf leers in the far corner (or is it closer?) of your peripheral vision. Is that a growl you just heard? A sneer directed in your general direction?
Perhaps closet yet: Amaryllis. Is she here to help, or hinder? Perhaps Dr. Mendelevitch holds the keys to unlocking your secrets. Or maybe you’ve known all along, and were too afraid to face reality. Or maybe no one knows. Do we ever truly know ourselves? Each other?
“It is easier this way, easier to subject your body to the repertoire of tortures it requires. Food is scarce and instruments of pain abound in the absence of everything else.”
So although this was a short story collection, many of the entries shared interconnections, such as time, place, even characters, allowing them to function like a very loosely related novel. At its center were recurring themes of mental illness, and perhaps most surprising of all, love; themes of angst and addiction, amongst others.
Christa Carmen’s strongest asset was the writing itself. In the hand of another, these would most likely come across as cliched concepts, a mediocre attempt at greatness. And to an extent, some of the concepts were cliche, but they were far from mediocre. Her often lyrical prose was beautiful, and consistently awe-inspiring.
I can easily see myself reading these stories again and again. I’m more curious than ever about her impressive catalogue.
”Christa Carmen is undoubtedly one of horror’s most exciting and distinctive new voices, and her debut collection absolutely proves why. From hardcore to heart-wrenching, these tales run the gamut, with each one of them taking hold of you and not letting go. <I>Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked</I> is one incredibly wild ride. Hold on tight.”