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I’ve just learned that I’ve been accepted as a “guest” at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival coming up this May.

I’ve very much enjoyed the HPLFF on the two occasions I attended previously, both times with my wife Lena. We planned to attend again this year, especially after we heard our friend Joe Pulver was going to attend.

The good people who are organizing the festival, Gwen and Brian Callahan, held a Kickstarter to help fund and support this year’s event. The last stretch goal, reached with two days to spare, helped pay to fly Joe over from Berlin, as well as to bring in Mike Davis of Lovecraft eZeine from Texas. We’re putting Joe up at our place while he’s in Portland, in fact, Mike Davis is staying with us for a night too. The Griffin residence will be the coolest place in Southeast Portland!

Here’s a partial list of guests, straight from the Kickstarter page:

CONFIRMED! Sandy Petersen, the creator of The Call of Cthulhu® RPG, is our guest of honor!

CONFIRMED! Clive Barker’s Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut will make it’s Pacific Northwest premiere (and only scheduled showing in this part of the country) at our festival, introduced and with Q&A by restoration director Russell Cherrington.

CONFIRMED! Robert M. Price, Editor and Lovecraft scholar will be a guest at the festival and officiating alongside Cody Goodfellow, author, at the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast.

CONFIRMED! Joe S. Pulver, author of Sin & Ashes, and Mike Davis, creator of the Lovecraft Ezine are coming to the fest, thanks to our Kickstarter backers!

CONFIRMED GUESTS! Even more guests will be here to entertain, amuse, and horrify you. So far, you could meet Nick Mamatas, Orrin Grey, Ross Lockhart, Wilum Pugmire, Mike Dubisch, Jeff Burk, Edward Morris, Keith Baker, Lee Moyer, Nick Gucker, Molly Tanzer, Richard Lupoff, Sean Branney, Thomas Phinney, and many more!

What a great list of eminent cool Lovecraftians! And me, of course.

Joe nudged me to fill out a guest application for the event. See, the festival runners choose potential guests among the many Lovecraftian filmmakers, authors, editors, publishers, scholars and assorted other talented and interesting types. Though I may lack both reputation and eloquence as compared to these other excellent folk, I’ll try to hold my own, and will compensate by wearing my red pants at least once.

Luckly I’m not at all afraid of getting up in front of a crowd. More the opposite, really – eager to jump around and spout nonsense.

More seriously, I’m not sure if this “guest” thing will involve being on one or more panels, or participating in a group reading, or what. Really looking forward to this, not just the guesting, but the chance to see many great friends, including some never before seen in the flesh!

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Just updated this chronological list of upcoming work to include the latest news from Black Static.  Of course, these dates are never definite until the publication actually happens, even more so with books than monthly periodicals.

"Nectar of Strange Lips" - Lovecraft eZine, March 2013

"The Lure of Devouring Light" - Apex Magazine, April 2013

"Diamond Dust" - The Grimscribe's Puppets anthology (Ligotti tribute, Joseph S. Pulver Sr., editor), April 2013

"Arches and Pillars" - Black Static Magazine, May 2013

"May Dawn Redeem What Night Destroys" Mighty in Sorrow anthology (Current 93 tribute, Jordan Krall editor), August 2013

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I've been given the go-ahead to announce that my story "Arches and Pillars" will appear in BLACK STATIC magazine issue #34, May 2013.
If it's unfamiliar to some of you... BLACK STATIC is a British magazine of horror and dark fantasy. Ellen Datlow called it "The most consistently excellent horror magazine published," and her BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR consistently includes several pieces from this periodical.
Wonderful first-thing-in-the-morning news! My gushing, effusive thanks to editor Andy Cox. http://ttapress.com/blackstatic
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It's been a while since any of my new writing appeared, but several items are scheduled to show up very soon.

The March issue of Lovecraft eZine, which should appear in the 2nd half of this month, will include my story "Nectar of Strange Lips."

The April issue of Apex Magazine, which will appear in the first week of April, will include my story "The Lure of Devouring Light."

The Grimscribe's Puppets, a Thomas Ligotti tribute anthology edited by Joseph S. Pulver Sr., should be published by Miskatonic River Press later in April.

I'll post more specific information, such as links to where you can read or purchase, as soon as I have it.

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Today, all I need to do is flesh out this unfinished piece that's already 13,000 words and really wants to be a novella, add an ending, and then cut the whole thing down to 6,000 or 7,000 words.

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Just received the most encouraging rejection letter. The answer is still "No," of course, so naturally there's disappointment. There's also this thrill at realizing how close I came. Some goals which not too long ago seemed very distant now seem within reach.

This is one rejection letter I'll keep.

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Too many blogs and social media... I'll admit it! Also I'm guilty of posting about fiction writing on the Hypnos feed, and ambient music on the Griffinwords blog, getting everything all mixed up.

I'm going to make a better effort to keep these things straight, though the inevitable crosstalk will occur.

My primary fiction-related blog, for both my own writing and reviews of the writing of others, will be griffinwords.wordpress.com -- posts to this blog will crosspost to griffinwords.tumblr.com and twitter.com/griffinwords

For at least a while, these will also crosspost to griffinwords.dreamwidth.org and griffinwords.livejournal.com and probably also the twitter.com/mgsoundvisions feed. Kind of a mess, I know. Still working on streamlining.

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I've just been told that my story "Nectar of Strange Lips" will appear in the March issue of Lovecraft eZine later this month! My friends Joe Pulver and Edward Morris have a collaborative tale in the same issue, too. And of course the Lovecraft eZine is always overflowing with awesome stuff.

I'll post a link when it actually appears but in case you want to check it out in advance, here you go: http://lovecraftzine.com

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Many of my friends and blog associates would probably enjoy the 2012 film, Berberian Sound Studio. It's especially delicious for fans of Giallo horror, and anyone interested in the processes and the gear of analog sound recording and mixing.

Berberian Sound Studio

It's unique in that it depicts the foley artists, sound recordists and mixing engineers at work on an Italian horror film in the 1970s (titled "The Equestrian Vortex"), focusing on the behind the scenes work and the effect it has on the crew, without showing the visuals of the film itself.

It has a weird Lynch-like quality, full of mystery and abstraction, and characters coming unglued. Also, like Lynch's films, there's a major emphasis on sound design and sonic atmosphere, which is as important here as the images. I highly recommend it.

More information:

Berberian Sound Studio on Wikipedia and Berberian Sound Studio on IMDB.com.

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Anybody interested in the kind of thing I blog about, particularly the books I review, will probably find a lot to like at Justin Steele's blog, The Arkham Digest. Justin doesn't just review books, but also does interviews and talks related matters such as video games and movies. Check it out:

THE ARKHAM DIGEST

There's also a Facebook, so you can "like" The Arkham Digest and be notified of new posts, here.

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Told at the full-tilt pace of a teen slasher pic, The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones effectively conveys the author's love and respect for the form. Divided up into very short bites, like a movie is divided into shots of a few seconds each, the story proceeds at a rapid clip, with none of the typical novel's digressions or introspection. It's something like 90% dialog, interspersed with tags almost like shorthand, describing character actions.

The slasher is probably one of the most straight-forward, accessible kinds of movies, but this book is told in an experimental style. Others have likened the format to a screenplay, but it's actually more like an overseeing narrator describing the on-screen action of a film as it happens. It's a verbal play-by-play, describing shots, character movements, what the camera (and audience) sees and notices. The narrator is well-versed in the actors, directors, references, inside jokes and tropes of slasher films.

The Last Final Girl by Stephan Graham Jones

This results in a fun, cheeky stream-of-consciousness running description, complete with winking asides from the characters and sometimes also the invisible narrator letting the reader in on any references they might've missed. Though the story takes place in the present day, these high school kids are very familiar with cultural touchstones of the 80s (the golden age of the slasher film, as well as the coming-of-age era of the author) so that lines from popular movies and other culture from my own high school years pop up all through the story.

In a sense this is less about literature, in the sense of inward reflection, and more about the kinetic energy of film told in written form. It's clever, full of attitude, crafted by a person who clearly loves, values and understands slasher films as a genre. The Last Final Girl is a good-natured, energetic gonzo tale, full of winking references, name-dropping and a non-stop barrage of self-reflexive acknowledgment that Jones is in on the joke and he's enjoying himself in the writing every bit as much as any reader.

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Starting around the middle of last year, I started finding an increasing number of outlets for my fiction. Many of the stories accepted still haven't found their way into print. Now might be a good time for a recap of what has come before, and what's coming soon.

PUBLISHED

"Remodel With Swan Parts" PUBLISHED 5/2011 in Electric Spec (free to read here).

"The Need to Desire" published by Phantasmagorium as a weekly featured story on their web site. PUBLISHED 8/2012 (Now available to read HERE).

"Montalov's Box" PUBLISHED OCT 2012 by Phantasmacore.

"High Desert, Starless Sky" PUBLISHED NOV 2012 in Carnage: After the End

UPCOMING

"Diamond Dust" >FORTHCOMING in The Grimscribe's Puppets (Thomas Ligotti tribute) editor Joseph S. Pulver Sr., publisher Miskatonic River Press.

"Nectar of Strange Lips" >FORTHCOMING in Lovecraft eZine.

"The Lure of Devouring Light" >FORTHCOMING in Apex Magazine.

"May Dawn Redeem What Night Destroys" >FORTHCOMING in Mighty In Sorrow (Current 93 tribute), editor Jordan Krall, publisher Copeland Valley Press.

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Ink is the first published novel of Damien Walters Grintalis. In the past year or so I've enjoyed a number of beautiful short stories by Grintalis, most characterized by an especially lush and vivid quality to the language. Though I'm often reluctant to take a chance on first novels, as they're so often flawed in terms of structure and pacing, her short fiction convinced me Ink would be worth a try.

ink

It's the story of Jason Harford, a young man devastated after having been left by his wife just before the novel begins. He sets out to soothe the pain of rejection, telling himself he's celebrating his newfound autonomy by doing things his controlling ex-wife never would've permitted. He gets drunk in a bar, and acquiesces to a stranger's suggestion that he should get a tattoo. The tattoo artist, a crusty and uncomfortably menacing old guy Jason calls "Sailor," asks Jason to sign a liability waiver before he proceeds. Jason starts to wonder what he's gotten himself into, but the resulting tattoo of a griffin is beautiful, exactly what he wants. It impresses his friends, even leads to a hookup with an attractive young lady named Mitch, who also happens to have a griffin tattoo.

Jason starts to think he's dodged the worst of the pain of being rejected by his wife. A cool new tattoo, more time to spend with his friends, even a cute young lady who fell into his lap, and seems really into him. Maybe things will turn out better for Jason, not worse… right?

Most readers will have guessed that the significance of Jason's tattoo goes more than skin deep. The name of the book, and the sinister nature of the tattoo artist (real name John S. Iblis) should make clear there's a price to pay, a reversal to come. The tattoo isn't quite what it seemed, and Jason hasn't seen the last of "Sailor."

Many writers whose short fiction is especially poetic or stylized often take a simpler approach when working at novel length, and that's the case here. The writing is deft and effective, with a straight-ahead style of minimal adornment, a focus on clarity. There's never any question what's happening, or why a character is doing what they are -- both frequent problems in first novels. The story is engaging from chapter one, and moves briskly through to the end without faltering or getting side-tracked.

Grintalis is certainly an emerging writer worth keeping an eye on. I'd love to see her approach the novel form using the more poetic, almost ornamented style of language of some of her short stories. In any case, Ink is a successful and most promising debut novel.

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Knock Knock, a novel by S. P. Miskowski, follows a trio of girls, from the town of Skillute in western Washington state. We're introduced to Marietta, Ethel and Beverley at age eleven, follow their lives as they grow up to womanhood, see their connections to each other evolve and shift as the events of life and adulthood affect them individually and together. The girls hear horrible rumors of what happens to women who become pregnant, and resolve that this will never happen to them.

Knock Knock

Marietta lives with her aunt Delphine, who is something like the town mystic, herbalist and fortune-teller, and has an idea of a spell the girls might perform in order to ensure they're never burdened with motherhood. They find a remote, seemingly spot in the woods to perform the ritual, despite Skillute area legend that "Miss Knocks" lives in the forest and will chase children and possibly snatch them away. The discovery of strange bones half-buried in the wild, combined with the tales of Miss Knocks, leaves the girls more frightened of the woods and their own weird, occult-like ritual, than of the fear of eventual pregnancy which drove them out there in the first place.

All three girls remember that day. The memories have a different effect on each, with the passing of time. Miskowski examines the way fear of legends affects the living, not only in terms of the actual manifest "powers" of the force of legend, but also by the way our fear shifts us, opens us up to risks, and closes off possibilities.

We revisit the trio as they age, learn more about their family backgrounds, and see how they fit into their community. The familiarity of the settings and seeming normalcy of the characters heighten the effect of disquiet and strangeness when horrific elements intrude. Miskowski's strength is in the naturalistic depiction of characters and real-life events and settings, which is not to say she lacks skill in depicting the horrific or supernatural elements. It's that vibrantly lifelike sense of observing real human beings as their lives pass from the normal to the strange that heightens the effect of fear and unease when it occurs.

Knock Knock creeps up on the reader slowly, without flashy effects or a fast pace. I was won over by Miskowski's believable characters, and the realistic depiction of a supernatural intrusion into small town life. Miskowski has announced a forthcoming series of novellas based on this place and set of characters, the first of which is Delphine Dodd. The darkly effective creepiness Knock Knock is enough to make me want to see what more she does with the Skillute milieu. Recommended, especially for readers who favor suspenseful, slow-building psychological horror.

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I first saw Paul Tremblay's name mentioned in the blogs of several other writers I enjoy, so it should be no surprise that I enjoy the fictional worlds he creates. I love the way Tremblay balances strange and playful elements against emotional realism and seriousness. These stories take chances, but never leave the reader behind in pursuit of writerly flourishes or abstractions.

In the Mean Time

The bulk of the collection is comprised of whimsical yet dark pieces existing in a sort of no-man's-land between genre fantasy, thinking person's horror and the absurdist-realist balancing act of Aimee Bender or Donald Barthelme. Think "weird fiction" in the modernist sense, rather than Weird Tales or Lovecraft. Many of these stories would be as much at home in the New Yorker as a genre periodical, though the oddity and off-kilter of Tremblay's work will certainly please readers geared toward the fantastic or the dark.

Earlier pieces address birth, childhood and youth, as in the memorable "The Teacher," where a class full of kids follow a teacher to cult-like extremes in pursuit of a difficult lesson, or "It's Against the Law to Feed the Ducks," which depicts a strange family vacation full of delusion and deception. In the middle are a few slight pieces, more like vignettes than stories, but later on the collection moves on to address post-apocalypse or "breakdown of society" scenarios, in every case without explaining what happened, or how. "We Will Never Live in the Castle," in which characters try to survive in an a disintegrating amusement park, is a highlight.

Though often weirdly troubling, Tremblay's tales are direct in the telling, emotionally honest and straightforward enough to be easily understood. By turns funny, shocking, disturbing, touching, often all the above in the space of a single story, In the Mean Time leaves me extremely impressed by Tremblay's craft and his intelligence. I highly recommended this adventurous and marvelously weird collection.

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Last week I wrote a summary of my writing and publishing activities in 2012 in which I mentioned "one other tentative acceptance." For some months, I'd kept fingers crossed, hoping that the last couple of submissions to a themed anthology would be short enough in word count to leave room for my conditionally accepted piece.

Just after I wrote that, I received word that my story's acceptance was official!

grimscribespuppets

The anthology in question is The Grimscribe's Puppets, a tribute to Thomas Ligotti, a very significant and influential 20th century writer (living, and in fact not very old, but apparently retired) of psychological horror fiction. The editor is Joseph S. Pulver Sr. and the publisher will be Miskatonic River Press, which also published Pulver's recent anthology A Season in Carcosa (link to my own earlier review).

For a writer still struggling to find outlets for stories, every acceptance is welcome, yet this one feels special for several reasons. I'm a huge fan of Ligotti's fiction, a big supporter of Pulver and his work, and the roster of writers with whom I'll be sharing a table of contents includes so much great talent. It's really flattering just to be included here, to have my story in what must certainly be one of 2013's most notable horror/weird anthologies.

My story is called "Diamond Dust," and I can't wait for it to appear. What's more, I'm excited to read the whole book. The last date I heard suggested for the release of The Grimscribe's Puppets was February, 2013. It seems likely that will be delayed, as we haven't yet seen an officially-released table of contents, and it takes time to compile, edit and proofread books, even in this age of digital media production. When I hear a more exact or certain release date, I'll mention it here.

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The past year has been a time of significant progress. I've continued to work very hard. That additional effort has helped me improve, and I've started to see the results of improvement, with a good series of story acceptances and publication starting with a burst this summer. After seeing my first story published in 2011, I had started to wonder around mid-year why I was having so much trouble seeing that second acceptance. I knew the stories were better, and had assumed I'd start to have an easier time finding homes for my stories. It was quite a relief to have a series of five acceptances over a couple of months this summer.

I'll end 2012 with a total of 118 submissions during the year. This is actually fewer than in 2011, when I was a bit looser about what I considered worthy of submission (I've since voluntarily withdrawn a handful of stories from circulation). Also, having stories accepted means fewer remain to send out, so while I hit quite a pace in the first half of the year (13 subs in April, 14 subs in May, 12 subs in June). I haven't maintained that level, not because I'm failing to resubmit stories promptly when they come back to me, but simply because the number of stories I have available to send out is smaller.

As of the end of 2012, I've had seven stories officially accepted for publication, which makes 1 acceptance/publication in 2011, and six acceptances (and three publications) in 2012:

"Montalov's Box" in Phantasmacore. PUBLISHED OCT 2012

"The Lure of Devouring Light" accepted 8/2012 by Apex Magazine. FORTHCOMING

"Nectar of Strange Lips" accepted 8/2012 by Lovecraft eZine. FORTHCOMING

"May Dawn Redeem What Night Destroys" accepted 7/2012 by Jordan Krall for the Current 93 tribute anthology Mighty In Sorrow to be published by Copeland Valley Press. FORTHCOMING

"High Desert, Starless Sky" in the post-apocalypse themed anthology Carnage: After the End PUBLISHED NOV 2012

"The Need to Desire" in Phantasmagorium as a weekly web feature. PUBLISHED AUG 2012 (Now available to read HERE).

"Remodel With Swan Parts" in Electric Spec (free to read here). PUBLISHED MAY 2011.

I have one other tentative acceptance I can't mention until the editor determines whether there's room. If that one works out, it will be a big one for me, so I'll announce it as soon as I know whether I'm in or I'm out.

I consider the past year a success overall. It's funny how this writing endeavor works -- well over a hundred rejections measured against a handful of acceptances, and that's considered a good year. That doesn't mean there wasn't a lot of frustration and disappointment. At least there was some good news in the mix to let me know I'm on the right path.

For the next year, my writing goals are similar. I want to continue to finish and submit about one new story per month. Now that I'm a big surer-handed, I might be able to spend less time spinning my wheels, or working in directions that don't pay off. I completed twelve new stories in the twelve months of 2012, so I see no reason why I couldn't do at least that many in 2013. I'd also like to mix in a few longer works, at least a novella, possibly a novel.

As for publishing goals, of course I hope for even more acceptances and publications than this year. If that happens, I'll be approaching the level where just about everything I write ends up finding a home. It would be a relief to spend less time wallowing in slush piles, possibly get some anthology invitations. But the degree to which I'm accepted by publishers is out of my control. I'll work on the writing, try to improve, and keep sending out work. I'll   worry less about things I can't control.

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Molly Tanzer's A Pretty Mouth is so much damn fun! Tanzer runs through a variety of modes, from amusement to historical drama, and from playful smut to occult mystery. Tremendously entertaining throughout, the four stories and short novel form a linked sequence examining a strange family's centuries-long history. Each installment follows a different pair of Calipash twins (the family's children always arrive in twinned pairs) in various historical eras. This thread binds the stories into an almost novelistic whole, while the shifts in time and setting gives Tanzer a chance to play around with literary influences and try out storytelling flavors.

aprettymouth

These commence with the Wodehouse-inspired lead-off, "A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the Downs," a charming, funny and inventive mashup. Tanzer doesn't just riff on Wodehouse's style or flavor. Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves actually appear, and end up mixed in a "high society meets secret society" tale with a strong Lovecraftian flavor.

"The Hour of the Tortoise" is a gothic tale about Chelone, herself a writer of gothic fiction, whose life and stories frequently intertwine. The third piece, "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins," appeared in the Historical Lovecraft anthology and was reprinted in the first Book of Cthulhu, so will be familiar to some readers of Lovecraftian anthologies.

The long novella which gives the book its title follows 17th century university boys seeking entertainment and getting into mischief. Gradually the Calipash influence exposes young Henry Milliner to a world of gradually revealed debauchery, mystery and secrecy. In the finale, the Roman era setting of "Damnatio Memoriae" shows how far back the Calipash line extends, and reveals something about the nature of the family's curse. As a self-contained story it may be the least compelling in the book, but its presence is justified as a sort of origin tale, shedding light upon the rest.

In addition to the oft-mentioned influences of Wodehouse, Edward Gorey and Aubrey Beardsley, I found much of A Pretty Mouth reminiscent of the zany-sexy-scary-funny cinema of the late Ken Russell, such as Lair of the White Worm or Salome's Last Dance. Overall, this is a crazy book -- that is, a giddy sort of crazy, where the reader sees early on it's not just random silliness, but guided by a great inventive intelligence.

In an era when most emerging authors seek only to chase the latest market trend, Tanzer does something completely, strangely different. This book's charm derives from the way she successfully strikes such a wide range of notes. It's charming, intelligent and cleverly crafted, a sure sign we're in for many fresh and memorable things from Molly Tanzer in the future. Overall, A Pretty Mouth is one of the better debut collections of recent years, and certainly one of the most distinctive.

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This is Ellen Datlow's fourth time editing Best Horror of the Year for Night Shade Books. This edition is the best so far, combining potent, ambitious longer works by genre stars with a varied sampler of up and coming names. Eighteen stories (including several novellas) follow Datlow's lengthy introduction, a wide-ranging summary of the genre year touching on noteworthy novels, anthologies, collections, periodicals, awards and events. If the tasting menu of the year's finest short fiction weren't enough to make the volume an essential overview of all things noteworthy in the horror genre, this overview tips the balance. This makes an excellent introduction to talented new writers, as well as others more established who may yet be unfamiliar to a given reader.

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For example, I knew David Nickel and Brian Hodge by name, but hadn't read their works, which turned out to constitute pleasant revelations. In Nickle's "Looker," a drunk man at a party finds a woman whose qualities go beyond the merely eye-pleasing. In "Roots and All," Hodge's character revisits a town where important childhood events occurred, some of which still echo in the present. Both stories exemplify Datlow's preference for character-driven horror, more haunting mood and troubling memory than blood and shrieking monsters. There are several more standouts:

"Blackwood's Baby," like many Laird Barron stories, takes place in rural Washington state, and expands upon Barron's personal, regional mythos. This novella tracks a 1930s expedition of diverse hunters seeking a beast of legend more dangerous than any of them anticipate. It's as powerful as any previous work by Barron, who lately can be counted upon to contribute at least one rich and potent tale to each year's best.

In Livia Llewellyn's "Omphalos," a girl caught in terrible surroundings must fight complex factors keeping her in place. Llewellyn specializes in the dark, raw-edge and harrowing. Her writing pulses with blood and seethes with emotion. Her "Engines of Desire" is among the best weird/dark collections of recent years, certainly one of the top debuts.

In John Langan's "In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos," two fallen former agents try to claw their way back to gainful employment. They're hired to grab a "Mr. White," who may be a very different order of being from what they expect. Dark yet breezily entertaining, merging the grittiness of noir and spy thriller intrigue with a Lovecraftian hint of ancient forces lurking beneath the everyday world's seeming normalcy. Langan's a skilled writer, whose work Datlow often features. At times I've thought his work needed more of an edge. This has it.

"The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine" by Peter Straub is a tour-de-force of tender yet bitter codependent romance conveyed in a disorienting balance of straight realism and twisted surrealism. In a series of encounters separated by wide gaps of time, the title characters (the much older Ballard is a mysterious "fixer" type employed by Sandrine's father) journey down the Amazon River on boats with ever-changing names. The couple, caught up in unfathomable events, exhibit a muted curiosity about their circumstances. At times they make experimental gestures seeking to understand the odd nature of the boat or its invisible crew. What knowledge they gain always seems to be lost, forgotten or clouded by the next interlude. The effect is weirdly disorienting, yet familiar. Don't we all forget lessons we've learned, ignore warning signs, and often repeat our mistakes? The growing surreality of Ballard and Sandrine's circumstances finally unfolds at least partially. Horrific and seemingly occult aspects are revealed, yet mystery remains. Straub may be the most cerebral of horror writers, and this is one of his best, boldest works.

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Urn and Willow by Scott Thomas (Dark Regions Press) is a collection of short supernatural tales. The quiet, reserved style stands in dramatic contrast to the high intensity characteristic of much recent horror fiction. Urn and Willow has the feel and the scent of the worn and tattered volumes the reader discovers on a grandparent's dusty bookshelf in childhood, strongly historical in orientation, and old-fashioned in both tone and setting. Pick up this book and read a few stories without first checking the publication date, and you might reasonably guess it had been published 75 years ago. The nostalgic quality of this collection arises not only from the date settings, but from the style of language and the very sensibility of the depicted worlds. By the end, there's no doubt: Scott Thomas is obsessed with a given era and locale.

urnwillow

These simple little stories are almost delicate in their restraint and subtlety. This antique or old-fashioned quality is not mere backdrop. Supernatural things happen -- ghosts appear, the dead walk, unexplained events manifest -- yet much of the book's purpose seems to be the careful rendering of rural New England, mostly in the early 19th century. Much as the stories focus on hauntings and supernatural mysteries, they're equally about the loving depiction of an earlier place and time. Close attention is given to details of nature, home and land. We observe interactions and customs in tiny villages and get a sense of a simple, almost puritan approach to daily living.

A few of the longer stories stood out as more modern in approach, despite settings similar to the rest. In "The Bronze-Colored Horse," one neighbor after another is victimized overnight by a terrible affliction. Investigation leads to the discovery of creatures from a surreal and terrifying dream. "The Seed of Increase Severance" likewise utilizes disturbing nightmarish imagery to tell a story that crosses multiple generations. "Miss Smallwood's Student" tells of a tutor's attempt to teach a very unusual young girl. In "The Company of Others," an occultist hires an artist to paint a landscape mural in his home, and by occult ritual summons odd creatures who then share his home. These more ambitious stories, modern in approach if not setting, hint at Thomas's ability to satisfy in a more adventurous, less conservative mode when so inclined.

The rest of the stories are unified by simplicity, brevity (most only 4-8 pages) and a throwback approach to depicting the supernatural. In these cases, the mere revelation of a disturbing event is enough. There is no twist, no gut-punch. To some readers, this is comfort food, difficult to come by these days. Scott Thomas is one of the few present-day writers serving up this sort of fare, and he does it with a deft, assured touch. This is a supernatural horror of chill and disquiet, not violence or extremity. Readers seeking the cutting-edge may find Thomas's work too subdued, but those who enjoy the restrained approach of yesteryear will find much to appreciate. The book is redolent of a slower, simpler world. With Thomas's polished and confident style, Urn and Willow vividly evokes another time and place.

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