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Spirits Unwrapped

Spirits UnwrappedSpirits Unwrapped by Daniel Braum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Whenever mummies are mentioned, you can be forgiven for thinking of dusty Egyptian tombs and a bandage-wrapped Boris Karloff limping out of a sarcophagus. After all, that’s how pop culture has depicted mummies for decades. However, editor Daniel Braum offers a different vision in this excellent anthology, tasking his authors with casting a wider net and delivering mummy stories that break through the tired, stale depictions. You won’t find any of the old cliches here.

Thanks to Braum’s discerning taste, there’s isn’t a bad story in the bunch. Choosing favorites is difficult, but if I had to choose three standouts they would be: “Private Grave Nine” by Karen Joy Fowler, a tale of obsession with rich depictions of characters on an archaeological dig; “Mummy Fever” by David Wellington, an absolutely charming story about a mysterious man on a museum-robbing mission in 1920s New York; and “The Hand of Annie Jones” by Casilda Ferrante, an award-worthy masterpiece about two desperate young women in 1800s Australia who engage with dangerous magic in an attempt at break free of their lives of servitude.

SPIRITS UNWRAPPED is well worth the time of any fan of horror, dark fantasy, and even science fiction, and it’s a must-read for anyone interested in mummy stories that are anything but run-of-the-mill.

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The Scariest Part: Sheila Lowe Talks About DEAD LETTERS

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author Sheila Lowe, whose latest novel in the Claudia Rose series is Dead LettersHere is the publisher’s description:

A heart-pounding hunt begins when Claudia Rose’s young niece goes missing with an archaeologist whose shady past spills into the present. The frantic search takes Claudia to Egypt, Gibraltar, and the UK, where her skills as a forensic handwriting expert of international renown are needed to help foil a deadly terrorist plot — if only she can find Monica before she becomes a casualty.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Sheila Lowe:

I do my best to bury myself deep in my characters’ heads, especially when writing about someone who is not like me. In other words, not a white female of a certain age. The scariest part of writing Dead Letters was writing from the point of view of a Gen Z eighteen-year-old girl. Yes, I was eighteen once, but that was in 1968, which makes me a Boomer. The world, and teenagers, have changed more than a bit since that time, when i-Phone were not even a distant dream in Steve Jobs’ imagination. There was no X-Box; not even a microwave oven at home, let alone big-screen TVs or Uber. My own kids are Gen X-ers — in their forties now. They don’t know much more about Gen Z than I do. Research was called for.

According to Uncle Google and Aunty YouTube, today’s teens have a very different outlook than in the “old days.” Oh, sure, the basic angst is still there — boyfriend/girlfriend stereotypes — and now, an entire gender spectrum to cause even more confusion. Or perhaps unravel it. We always fretted about our weight and how we looked, but now it’s called “body image,” and when bullies mock or criticize, they may be called out for “body shaming.”

Gen Z’ers seem less hesitant to express themselves, to ask for what they want, do what they want. In general, they are pragmatic “digital natives,” diverse and politically progressive. Still, with apologies for the cliché, becoming an adult in the twenty-first century is no piece of cake. We Boomers had the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear war to worry about, and later, the Viet Nam war and the bra burning that came with Women’s Lib. Gen Z has climate change, immigration, race and gender equity, social consciousness, ‘me too.’

So, putting aside what I knew about teenage girls from my own experience and seeing the world through Monica Bennett’s eyes was pretty scary. The niece of my main protagonist, forensic handwriting expert Claudia Rose, Monica is fulfilling a lifelong dream to visit Egypt and work on an archaeological dig, when she is kidnapped by terrorists. Up to that point, she had been fairly sheltered and innocent in a sweet way. Experiencing it in my mind, I knew without doubt that such an experience would instantly steal everything this young woman knew and held close.

Whatever might have seemed important before becomes trivial in the face of the need just to survive from moment to moment. Are they going to rape her? Torture her? What might they make her do for their cause? Only-too-recently, Monica studied about Jihadists in a high school class. She knows from an intellectual point of view what these zealots are capable of. Now, she’s going to learn about it firsthand.

Meanwhile, Claudia is traveling the globe in a desperate search for her niece. Stumbling across physical evidence that Monica was in a utility closet in a remote building in Gibraltar is not just scary, it’s terrifying. What was Monica doing in that closet, and why are there bloodspots on the floor? Is it her blood? And the biggest, scariest questions of all — where is she now? Is she still alive?

If I did my job well, my readers will identify with both Monica and Claudia, and be as scared witless as I was while writing Dead Letters. Pleasantly scared, of course.

Dead Letters: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / Bookshop / Goodreads (with giveaway)

Sheila Lowe: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / BookBub

Sheila Lowe writes stories of psychological suspense that put ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances. Like her fictional character Claudia Rose in the award-winning Forensic Handwriting series, Sheila is a real-life forensic handwriting examiner who is recognized as an expert in the court system. She also writes the Beyond the Veil paranormal suspense series and nonfiction books about handwriting and personality.

Mapping the Interior

Mapping the InteriorMapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Despite its short length, Stephen Graham Jones instantly and fully immerses you in this exceptional novella with his mastery of character, detail, and voice. I’m in awe of his abilities as a writer and have genuinely loved everything I’ve read by him. MAPPING THE INTERIOR is no exception. A story full of regret and longing, but also bravery and familial love, it takes you on a journey to places you won’t expect, filled with all the wonders and terrors that inhabit a child’s imagination. But are twelve-year-old Junior’s experiences just his imagination or something deeper and more profound, not to mention more dangerous? Only the neighbor’s dogs know, and they’re not telling. Highly recommended, and a great jumping-in point if you’re new to Jones’s work.

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The Scariest Part: Nick Kolakowski Talks About ABSOLUTE UNIT

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author Nick Kolakowski, whose latest novel is Absolute UnitHere is the publisher’s description:

Absolute Unit is a dark carnival ride through the underside of the American Dream, where hustlers and parasites fight to survive against gun-toting furries, sarcastic drug kingpins, old ladies who are startlingly good with knives, and angry ex-girlfriends. It’s a hardboiled slice of modern American horror that asks the deepest question of all: Is the human race worth saving?

Bill is a nobody, a health inspector who’s not above taking a few dollars to overlook a restaurant’s mouse problem, and hated by nearly everyone except his long-suffering girlfriend. His nephew, Trent, isn’t much better: sexually and morally confused, he’s probably the worst teenage con artist on the East Coast. But today, these two losers are going to become the most important people in the world.

That’s because Bill and Trent harbor a sentient parasite with a sarcastic sense of humor and a ravenous appetite. As the parasite figures out how to control its new human hosts, the focus of its desires grows from delicious cheeseburgers and beer to something much darker and more dangerous.

The apocalypse might come from within us…

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Nick Kolakowski:

Sometimes a book is written in a sustained rush, your mind pouring out thousands of words per day. And sometimes it’s much harder, the words slowing to a trickle over months or even years. Absolute Unit fell into the latter category; I wrote the first portion in 2015 before my mind squeezed off that particular idea tap. The flow didn’t start again until 2019.

Absolute Unit is told from the perspective of a sentient (and highly sarcastic) parasite that lives in the gut of a corpulent, corrupt health inspector named Bill. Over the course of a wild morning, Bill and his parasite friend find themselves embroiled in a crime spree involving a demented police detective, a mysterious body in a car trunk, and Bill’s sexually confused nephew Trent.

That first portion ended there. It was a complete story unto itself. But the parasite still spoke to me at idle moments; it had bigger dreams than merely spending its days in the gut of a guy who shook down convenience stores and restaurants under the guise of public health inspections. It suggested a further plot to me, a horrific one that involved conquering the world.

When I sat down to work on Absolute Unit again, the world was a far angrier place. I was a far angrier person — not just because of the political situation, but because the world seemed to be falling apart faster and faster. Climate change. Financial turmoil. Jerks who didn’t respect bike lanes. My own anger about it all scared me at moments. I decided to pour it into the story.

Now here comes the scariest part, for me at least: How could I convey that broad-based anger in a way that fused organically with the narrative? If I executed incorrectly, I risked coming across as stilted and preachy. Nobody likes pages of monologue, unless you’re an Ayn Rand fan (spoiler alert: I am not). Nobody likes it when you bring the plot to a screeching halt so that characters can make some kind of point. But a speech is exactly what I wanted a character to give, and it risked derailing the action.

In the end, I wrote and re-wrote that climactic sequence in a number of ways, trying out each for effect. The speech is as extreme as the environment around it (a burning hospital, zombie-like revenants, a SWAT team positioning outside), and I’d like to think that the combined effect is a primal scream. Once I finished a satisfactory version, I went back and wove ample foreshadowing into the preceding chapters, so the end doesn’t come completely out of left field.

I finished the book in 2019. Then 2020 hit, and suddenly, I had a new thing to frighten me: What if people thought I wrote a book about a world-conquering parasite as a metaphor for everything happening with COVID-19? Especially since the climax is in a hospital? True, books are usually written years before they actually hit bookstores, but most folks don’t know that — I feared they’d assume I’d written the thing as a pandemic killed hundreds of thousands of people. I didn’t want to be perceived as leveraging a real-life catastrophe to sell books.

But there’s nothing I can do about that. Some fears you just have to live with. There are always scary parts you can’t do anything about. But I’m grateful for how the book gave me an opportunity to externalize some of my anger. I hope it soothes some of yours, as well.

Absolute Unit: Amazon

Nick Kolakowski: Website / Twitter

Nick Kolakowski is the Derringer- and Anthony-nominated author of crime and horror thrillers, including Boise Longpig Hunting Club, Rattlesnake Rodeo, and the Love & Bullets trilogy of gonzo crime novellas. His short fiction has also appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including Lost Highways: Dark Fictions from the Road (Crystal Lake Publishing) and the infamous Tales From the Crust: An Anthology of Pizza Horror (Perpetual Motion Machine). He lives and writes in New York City.