Book Review: The Cabin Sessions by Isobel Blackthorn

Review by: Daphne Strasert

Content Warnings: Sex, Violence, Incest, Domestic Abuse, Homophobia, Misogyny

Small town secrets, murders, and mysteries that span decades, and a bar in the woods that reeks of rotting flesh… welcome to The Cabin Sessions.

The Cabin Sessions is a dark psychological thriller by Isobel Blackthorn.

On a stormy Christmas Eve, the musicians of the town of Burton gather at The Cabin, a local bar, and take turns sharing their music. But tensions simmer beneath the surface. As the night continues and the storm roils overhead, dark secrets are revealed and old grudges assert themselves.

The Cabin Sessions doesn’t have a traditional plot. The titular Cabin Session is itself largely unimportant, more of a chance for the characters to muse about their own lives and the other townspeople. The real meat of the story is largely told through a series of flashbacks.

Blackthorn balances the major reveals of the story well, keeping dark secrets hidden until the appropriate moment. The Cabin Sessions is a slow burn story with an explosive ending. Blackthorn saved all the action until the very end.

The Cabin Sessions is foremost, a character study. Blackthorn dives into the minds of three Burton residents to tell the twisted story of murder and betrayal.

Adam is an outsider in the town of Burton. A recent transplant from the city, a gay man, and a non-believer, Adam earns the distrust of most residents. Unfamiliar with generations of scandal and gossip, he serves as the perfect vehicle to learn about the town’s shadowed history. Adam comes with his own dark past and a large part of the tension in Cabin Sessions is driven by his anxiety over the return of his abusive ex-boyfriend, Juan. The inevitable violence Juan threatens lingers over the story like the storm in Burton, filling the novel with creeping dread. Blackthorn masterfully writes inside the mind of a survivor of abuse and Adam’s fears are grounded in reality.

Philip is a Burton native, born in the town, raised in the repressive Kinsfolk religion/cult. He is a town pariah turned golden-boy. As a character, he is infuriating. A narcissistic, selfish, misogynistic, man-child. In his own mind, he can do no wrong. Nothing is ever his fault. His actions should have no consequences, and actually, should have consequences for other people. He resents all the other townsfolk, including his own family. He blames them for daring to think that he has done something, even when it was something he actually did. He is frighteningly incapable of introspection. That doesn’t make him unrealistic, however. Everyone has met someone like Philip Stone. It’s actually impressive that Blackthorn managed to get inside the mind of someone so vile without making herself sick. More impressive is the slow burn reveal of just how bad Philip really is.

Eva, Philip’s sister, is odd. Everyone in the town agrees though they don’t know exactly what’s wrong with her. Eva’s obsession with her brother borders on the deranged. Her diary accounts slowly reveal the secrets of the family’s past, including some truly shocking stories. But Eva’s remembrances contradict Philip’s, causing the reader to question which of them is wrong. Blackthorn’s use of the unreliable narrator really stands out and ratchets up the tension of the story as we wait for the reveal.

With a storm raging outside, the occupants are forced into close proximity. The heavy incense that fails to mask the stench of something rotting in the chimney is almost palpable from Blackthorn’s description. The close quarters of The Cabin add a claustrophobic element to the story and serve to heighten the tension among the characters.

The Cabin Sessions is a good fit for readers who like a literary element to their horror stories. If you are looking for excessive gore or jump scares, this isn’t the book for you. However, if you like a slow burn, atmospheric book with surprising twists, pick up a copy of The Cabin Sessions.

Book Review: Dark Carnival by Joanna Parypinski

Review By Daphne Strasert

I love secrets. Family secrets, small-town secrets, secrets of the universe… and I found all of those in Dark Carnival by Joanna Parypinski. If you like a good secret as much as I do, pick up a copy and enjoy.

Dark Carnival follows Dax Howard as he returns to his hometown of Conjunction, Nebraska after his father’s death. He had hoped to leave his home far behind when he went to college, but small towns have a way of pulling people back in, no matter how far they go.  The homecoming isn’t pleasant. Dax had not been close with his father—the town drunk—ever since his mother had disappeared years ago.

Returning to his hometown doesn’t just bring up unpleasant memories. Something is wrong in Conjunction, something more than drunken teen parties and the slow, creeping grip of meth addiction. Conjunction seems to be rotting from the inside.

Soon, Dax finds himself caught up in scandal, murder, and forces beyond his understanding. The travelling carnival that disappeared along with Dax’s mother comes back, and brings with it whispers of a cult responsible for missing teens in town.

Dark Carnival never lags for a moment. Parypinski creates twists in the story that are unexpected without seeming to be drawn from thin air. Elements introduced early on come back later with a satisfying payoff.

The characters feel real and believable. They tap into dark parts of American culture without coming across as contrived.

Throughout Dark Carnival, Dax struggles with bitter memories of his family and past. There is no clear answer to the difficulties he faces and there are no easy solutions to his new problems. Still, Dax faces them with determination. He does his best and wins admiration through that.

Dax is accompanied by Wyatt—the friend he left behind—and Wyatt’s sister Sarah—a teenager who has grown up too fast.

Wyatt reflects Dax’s own fears about life in Conjunction. He pushes and pulls at Dax’s resolve, testing his true convictions and bringing into question whether Dax has what it takes to solve the mysteries in his own life.

Sarah stands strong as a powerful female presence in the story. Her loyalty and fierce determination provide strength for Dax when he otherwise would give up.

All the while, the single-minded and vengeful Sheriff Anderson provides a backbone of unease throughout the story. His relentless pursuit of Dax creates an immediate sense of danger, even as a greater threat looms over Conjunction.

In her portrayal of Conjunction, Nebraska Parypinski paints a haunting picture of the Midwest. Dark Carnival leans heavily on American Gothic themes. It takes an unflinching look at what really plagues small towns in America. Conjunction feels as real as any place, even with the supernatural hiding in the unexplored forests and fields.

Parypinski is an incredible writer. She provides stunning imagery that brings the setting to life. She creates tension seamlessly within the scenes. She even tackles more difficult subjects (such as delusions, drug use, and violence) in ways that are accessible and believable. She creates an air of mystery and provides just enough explanation to elicit terror.

Dark Carnival suits fans of cosmic horror like H.P. Lovecraft or American gothic literature like Her Dark Inheritance (reviewed here on HorrorAddicts.net). If you enjoy small towns with dark pasts, terror-laced walks through the woods, and family tragedy, you should read Dark Carnival.

Book Review: Thrones of Blood Volume #2: Sacrifice of the Hybrid Princess by Nancy Kilpatrick

Thrones of Blood Volume #2: Sacrifice of the Hybrid Princess by Nancy Kilpatrick

Content Warning: This book contains explicit descriptions of sex, abuse, torture, rape, and incest.

While you could, theoretically, read Sacrifice of the Hybrid Princess without looking at previous works, I would recommend starting with the first book in the series. I have previously reviewed Thrones of Blood #1: Revenge of the Vampir King here at HorrorAddicts.net

Sacrifice of the Hybrid Princess is a paranormal erotic romance with elements of dark fantasy.

Nearly twenty years after the events of Revenge of the Vampir King, Moarte and Valada—King and Queen of the Vampirii—have since raised a headstrong daughter, Serene. With tensions with the sapiens spiraling out of control, Moarte and Valada must leave the vampire fortress to ensure the safety of their people.

In the meantime, their naïve and selfish daughter cannot be trusted to rule—either herself or the kingdom. Moarte and Valada have come to the conclusion that the only way to ensure the safety of their people and their daughter is to tie her to the vampire warrior Wolfsbane.

Wolfsbane was once Moarte’s second, but has spent the last twenty years in isolation and penance after losing his love and killing his sister. Now he must be tied to a woman whom he does not think he can love. Though Serene and Wolfsbane get off to the rockiest of starts, they soon come to love and appreciate each other.

Moarte and Valada, secure in the knowledge of their kingdom’s safety and their daughter’s happiness, go away to pursue their mission and kill the Sapien King—Valada’s father—who terrorizes the vampirii with endless raids.

But Serene finds out about their mission and runs to pursue them. She believes she can broker a peace between the two kingdoms. Her capture and torture at the hands of the Sapien King sets off a chain of events that could change relations between sapiens and vampirii forever.

Kilpatrick starts right in the middle of the action, immediately introducing the major conflicts. The first portion of the book focuses heavily on the relationship between Wolfsbane and Serene, as they try to navigate each other and the needs that they don’t necessarily know that they have. The latter half of the book is action heavy, bringing in the conflict with the Sapiens King and a fair bit of angst and heartache alongside. If I have any complaint, it’s that the end does not bring closure to everything (so, I’ll have to read book #3, which isn’t a real complaint anyway).

Serene is naïve, selfish, and frustrating. Her choices reflect her tendency to trust her instincts too far, to act before she thinks, and to always assume that she is correct. This is all done to the detriment of those around her. Fortunately, we get to watch her grow throughout the course of the book. Her wilder tendencies are tempered by her time with Wolfsbane and her misfortunes at the hand of the Sapien King.

Wolfsbane is the perfect foil, perhaps too controlled. He long ago gave up on his own happiness. He has been burned before by taking too long to make a decision. Serene brings light and love back into his life. He learns throughout the course of the story that leaping may only work if he hasn’t looked too long.

The world of the vampirii is immersive. Kilpatrick holds nothing back in her world building. The descriptions are vivid and the cultures well thought-through. This is a series with a take on vampires quite unlike anything else on the market.

Kilpatrick has an unfussy writing style that lets the story shine first. Her dialogue is emotional and realistic. Descriptions can be gruesome, so be aware of content warnings.

Overall, Sacrifice of the Hybrid Princess is an ambitious work and a welcome addition to the Thrones of Blood series.

Book Review: Revenge of the Vampir King by Nancy Kilpatrick

Book Review: Revenge of the Vampir King by Nancy Kilpatrick

Content Warnings: This book contains graphic descriptions of rape, domestic abuse, and torture.

Revenge of the Vampir King (Thrones of Blood Book 1) by [Kilpatrick, Nancy]In Revenge of the Vampir King, Nancy Kilpatrick blends horror, paranormal fantasy, and erotica to explore the relationship between love, tragedy, revenge, and what it means to be a family.

Through the centuries, an immortal war has raged between the Sapiens and Vampirii. The world is bitterly divided between the two races.

After a successful attack against the Sapiens, the Vampirii return with an unusual prize: Valada, the daughter of the Sapiens King.

Hell-bent on the ultimate revenge, the Vampir King Maorte devises a hellish plan of manipulation—make the princess fall in love with him and betray her father—never suspecting that he will fall into is own trap.

As dark secrets are uncovered, new alliances are formed. Valada and Moarte must learn to trust each other in order to settle old scores, bring about lasting peace, and save their kingdoms and, perhaps, themselves.

The plot is gripping, seamlessly pulling the reader along on a tense journey. The pacing is excellent, with no time to become bored. There are plenty of twists and turns, with shifting allegiances. One thing is for certain, you never know exactly what will happen next. Each new conflict feels enormous, raising the stakes ever higher.

The characters are complex. Each has a multitude of motivations. Flaws and strengths motivate each and motivations are clear and realistic. This gives the book a sense of real-world conflict. Characters aren’t evil for evil’s sake (though some are undeniably evil).

Valada, who has suffered under a lifetime of abuse, struggles to orient herself in her new position, constantly doubting her place with others, but never herself. She’s a strong heroine and saves Moarte every bit as much as he saves her.

Moarte is a man of two worlds. Though he leads the Vampirii, he is half Sapien as well. Reconciling those differences may bring him to conclusions that have profound ramifications for his life and his kingdom.

Kilpatrick forges an ambitious, unique world, fearlessly diving into fantasy world building without looking back. Revenge of the Vampir King is all the better for it. We are thrown right into the world, rather than given a hesitant introduction. The universe is immersive from the start. There is clearly a rich history, leaving plenty to discover throughout the plot and in future installments to come.

Kilpatrick’s writing flows well. There are moments of profound description and lovely prose, particularly with regards to the romance. She accomplishes the difficult feat of getting out of the way of the story itself and leaving the reader to be sucked in, as if they aren’t reading at all.

Filled with dark themes, Revenge of the Vampir King challenges the standards of romance, pushing the limits of love with blood and betrayal. If you’re looking for a book that you can’t put down, this is a sure bet.

Book Reviews: Tales from the Lake Volume 5

Tales from the Lake Volume 5
Review by Daphne Strasert

Once a year, Crystal Lake Publishing releases an anthology of the best stories the horror community has to offer. It is a pleasure each and every year, but has been getting better with time and notoriety. This year’s collection was curated by Kenneth W. Caine, pulling stories from over 750 submissions into a thoughtful and harrowing book of dark desires and hidden horror.

Though the stories in Tales from the Lake Volume 5 are not themed in the traditional sense, they form a cohesive unit. Threads connect each to the others as if the authors had conspired to give the anthology its unique flavor.

Of the many excellent contributions, some stand out to me as spectacular.

“A Dream Most Ancient and Alone” by Allison Pang features an unlikely friendship between a young girl and a mudmaid who lurks in the remnants of a nearby pond. Their relationship deepens despite the chilling nature of the creature. Pang’s novel take on the subject matter and vivid, emotional writing give the story an extra edge to make it stand out in the anthology. The ending that will make you shiver for all the right and wrong reasons.

“Twelve by Noon” by Joanna Parypinski brings true fright to the collection. The tense, terrifying tale of a group of lost teenagers and the sinister farm where their car breaks down packs all the punches of a blockbuster horror film in the short story format. Personally, I’d like to see a whole trilogy of movies based on Parypinski’s fantastic concept, hopefully with all the suspense intact.

In “Starve a Fever” by Jonah Buck, dread builds from the start and drags you along through every backwoods turn. You can’t stop reading, even as you fear you know what will happen. Buck possesses an extraordinary imagination and incredible storytelling ability.

My favorite story in the anthology, and the one that I found personally most chilling, was “The Boy” by Cory Cone. Cone’s description of a mother’s worst nightmare come to life is morose and moving. He takes the reader on a journey of madness and terror as you fear for the woman, the boy, and the outcome that you both hope for and fear. Madness lurks everywhere and love makes monsters of us all.

Tales from the Lake Volume 5 is an exploration of the lost and found. Whether losing someone before their time or keeping a loved one long past theirs, the stories explore the horror of finding what was meant to stay hidden.

Book Reviews: Fantastic Tales of Terror: History’s Darkest Secrets

With history, unless you saw it for yourself, you can’t know if a story is strictly true or if it has a darker story lurking in the shadows. History may contain any number of untold mysteries and secrets. Perhaps communist werewolves reached the moon before Apollo 11. Maybe a sinister creature actually caused the Hindenburg disaster. Who is to know? Except… maybe you.

Allow me to introduce Fantastic Tales of Terror: History’s Darkest Secrets, a horror anthology by Crystal Lake Publishing. Inside you’ll find stories of famous events and historical figures told through the grim lens of 23 spectacular horror writers. The anthology includes both established and emerging authors, guaranteeing that you’ll find an old favorite and someone new to love.

The settings extend from the prehistoric to the near-present, subjects from the pioneering inventions to mythic figures, and themes from comedic to disturbing. All, however, are incredible feats of imagination.

Though each piece is worth reading in itself, several stood out as exceptional among the rest.

“Mutter” by Jess Landry (a contestant from the Next Great Horror Writer Contest!) explains the events that led up to the Hindenburg disaster and gives a wondrous origin story for one of America’s most famous cryptids. Lanrdy’s writing, as always, overflows with vivid description and excellent characterization. She hides an amazing twist in the story and brings everything to a thought-provoking close that stuck with me long after I set the book down.

Mort Castle’s story, “Rotoscoping Toodies”, reveals a surprising past for Walt Disney and some of his most successful works. The life-like characters and interesting premise drew me in from the beginning. But the true reason this story stuck with me was the dark ending and horrifying implications.

Lastly, “Sic Olim Tyrannis” by David Wellington was my favorite inclusion. In a market saturated with zombie stories, this was a refreshing take on an old and over worn genre. Vivid descriptions brought the setting to life and Wellington managed to imbue the story with emotion despite using no dialogue.

If you love history, dark tales, or both, Fantastic Tales of Terror: History’s Darkest Secrets is an engaging and worthwhile read.

Book Review: Bad Man by Dathan Auerbach

Book Review: Bad Man by Dathan Auerbach

Ben has been searching for his missing brother, Eric, for five years. The three-year-old boy couldn’t have just vanished into thin air in the middle of a grocery store. Eric has to be somewhere. But Ben has run out of rocks to look under and life doesn’t seem to stop no matter what he does. To help support his family, he takes a job at the very store where Eric disappeared.

The night shift plays tricks on Ben’s brain, turning his days into a blur, like the Missing Person posters of Eric that have been copied so many times that the image warped into something that doesn’t even resemble him anymore. Things seem to move when no one is around. Items go missing. Others appear as if from nowhere. The building seems as if it’s trying to tell Ben something if only he could figure out what it is.

The strange occurrences renew Ben’s search, but someone doesn’t want him to find out what really happened to Eric. In small towns, someone always knows more than they say. In this case, everyone has something to hide. Even Ben.

Dathan Auerbach spins a wonderful web of intrigue and suspicion. I sat on edge through the whole book, unsure if I was going to encounter the paranormal or the darkest depths of humanity in each turn of the page.

Bad Man approaches a difficult setting, addressing poverty, abuse, mental illness, and grief in a powerful way. Auerbach doesn’t pull any punches with his descriptions and gives an unflinching account of real-life horror. The characters feel like real people. From Ben’s tenuous grasp on reality to the quiet, sinister nature of the store’s owner, there is depth to every character you meet. No one is safe from the dreadful suspicion in the book. Auerbach masterfully leads readers to conclusion after conclusion, never knowing if they are on the right track.

Bad Man leaves you feeling the way you do in a Walmart at two am. Everything feels overexposed, too brightly lit, too empty, too quiet. It isn’t the darkness that is frightening in Bad Man, it’s the blinding light that reveals that there is nothing there to see.

Auerbach’s prose is a delight to read. He includes masterful descriptions and insights throughout with lingering quotes that you’ll want to remember for yourself. The novel is artfully crafted from cover to cover, each word carefully chosen to draw you in at every turn.

Bad Man may not linger in your nightmares, but the effect is much deeper than that. It deals a slow sort of agony as you face the uncertainty of what happened to Eric and inevitable feeling that there is no happy ending for Ben. Even if Ben gets what he wants, will there ever really be an ending to his torture? The suspense lasts until the last page. It leaves a tingling feeling of dread that claws its way out of your bones and refuses to let you put it down.

Bad Man is a fantastic novel. If you are looking for a dark, atmospheric, gripping book, then make sure to pick up a copy.

Book Review: Her Dark Inheritance Meg Hafdahl

Book Review: Her Dark Inheritance by Meg Hafdahl

Don’t be alone. Not at Night. Not in Willoughby.

Willoughby, Minnesota is an idyllic small town in Middle America. It boasts one café, one motel, and a population of five-hundred-nine. But, there are more than small town secrets hiding in the shadows of the town square. Something lurks just out of sight—and out of mind—from the residents. A bloody history of accidents, violence, and murder plagues Willoughby and threatens the town even in the present.

In July 1982, someone brutally murdered three members of the Bergman family with an ax in their Willoughby home. For decades, town suspicion has fallen on the sole survivor of the bloody massacre: Caroline, the Bergman’s teenage daughter.

But Daphne Forrest knew her mother not as Caroline Bergman, but as Jane Downs-Forrest. It wasn’t until Jane’s death that Daphne found out that her mother was the suspected murderer that newspapers had dubbed The Minnesota Borden.

Daphne visits Willoughby for the first time, looking for answers to questions about the woman she thought she knew. She may not have grown up in Willoughby, but Daphne quickly finds that she shares a connection with the town that not even the residents can fathom. Willoughby wants to show her something, something that can save the town and, maybe, Daphne herself.

Thrust into memories of unfathomable violence and fear, Daphne must face her own mistakes and find a strength that her mother never had. If she wants to get out of Willoughby alive, she must face an evil that has stalked the small town since its founding.

Her Dark Inheritance follows in a glorious tradition of American ax murderers, but it’s far from the typical tale.

Meg Hafdahl creates characters real enough to climb off the page, including a monster that stalks you long after the novel’s last sentence. The town of Willoughby itself is as real as any character. Vividly described, it’s delightful and terrifying in equal measure. It embodies an abusive relationship that traps the residents in a situation where manipulation masquerades as protection and “this is for your own good” can be just as sinister as any threat. The story raises questions that strike to the core of all of us: What does it mean to be evil? What does it mean to be weak?

Hafdahl weaves an intricate tale of betrayal, murder, and small town intrigue. Her brilliant narrative style keeps you guessing from beginning to end about the next shocking twist. Whether it’s the truth about the Bergman murders or Daphne’s ultimate fate, Hafdahl keeps you at her mercy through every page.

I haven’t read a book in one sitting in a long time, but I couldn’t put down  Her Dark Inheritance. ‘One more chapter’ led to ‘one more chapter’ and ‘one more chapter’ after that. The book is labelled for Young Adults, but is just as gripping for adults. I recommend it whole-heartedly, especially for those who like to see the darker side of the American Dream.