Book Review: Black Bubbles by Kelli Owen

Black Bubbles is a large and varied collection, tackling many different subjects and narrative types, but all with Owen’s tremendous storytelling style.”


Black Bubbles by Kelli Owen - coverAs an editor and reviewer for more than a decade, Kelli Owen developed and refined her taste in fiction. With a personal style that ranges from thriller to psychological horror to extreme horror and even a rare happy ending, she has over a dozen books in print, including the excellent Wilted Lily series, which currently consists of Wilted Lilies (Gypsy Press, 2015) and Passages (Gypsy Press, 2019), as well as her unique take on vampires, Teeth (Gypsy Press, 2018) and many more. Recently, she has also become an ever-present member of the panel on the important genre news podcast, The Horror Show with Brian Keene. Black Bubbles, Owen’s debut collection, was originally published in 2013 and has now been reprinted by Poltergeist Press, complete with foreword by Tom Monteleone and minor revisions by Owen.

In “The Tin Box”, a group of siblings come together to sort through their recently deceased grandmother’s belongings. They come across a tin box full of memories, and take a walk down memory lane, even finding innocent love letters shared between their grandmother and a grandfather who died years before. However, not all memories are good, as they discover some dark secrets in the family past. The real strength in this story is the dynamic between the siblings and how they interact, playing out like a scene any of us could have experienced. But the tension leading up to the horrifying discovery, and how they choose to deal with it, is also exceptional. Once secrets are revealed, the tone of the story turns from rose-tinted reminiscences to chilling and sobering truths.

“Shadow of Skepticism” introduces us to Katie and Chad, a couple of amateur ghost-hunters investigating a notoriously sinister and isolated cabin. Although the story is told mainly from the points of view of these two characters, there are brief intermissions, often only a short sentence, italicised and hinting at the thoughts of a malevolent presence. Through detailed descriptions of the setting as Katie and Chad explore it, Owen sets a scene that both smothers and oppresses. It isn’t long before the ghost-hunters come face-to-face with the mystery of the cabin, and the pace accelerates to a terrifying ending.

“The Worst Intentions” is a more extreme and bloody offering than the previous two. It is short and shocking in its depiction of violence, which has all happened off-page but the results are described in gory detail. The story opens with a brief interaction between two friends online, discussing an as yet unrevealed plan. As the following scene shows the repercussions of the plan, it quickly becomes apparent that these two abused women’s plan of strength and solidarity didn’t go as planned. Extreme horror or splatterpunk, whichever way you choose to describe it, you’ll need a strong stomach to process the descriptions of violence on offer here. But it is executed well and displays some of the range of Owen’s storytelling prowess.

In “Feeding the Animals”, Owen introduces us to a lone man in his car, Duncan, and goes on to tell us his heart-breaking story of loss and grief. But not before letting us know that he is a wanted man. The police suspect him of being a serial killer, someone who picks up vagrants and prostitutes during the day, and kills them at night. But he doesn’t see it this way. As far as he is concerned, he is only feeding the animals. The story features one of the genres most overused monsters, but they are not the focus of the story. Sure, when they are introduced, Owen handles it very well and, instead of treading old ground, uses them to further explore the main thrust of the story: Duncan and his tragic loss. It is more about grief than it is about jump-scares, and it is done very well.

In “Potential”, Carolyn is looking for a boy, a potential soulmate, someone with whom she can spend forever. She thinks she has found one such boy at a local community fundraiser. But, of course, things don’t go as planned and the boy in question is hiding something. But it isn’t nearly as strange as Carolyn’s secret, which is teased out throughout the story. It makes for an interesting angle on the narrator, as well as a twist on the background of the boy, and makes for a very original story.

The next story is one for the authors out there. “Brian Made Me Do It” is a flash fiction meta piece with an unnamed writer (presumably Owen herself, given the explanation in the Story Note) describing her interaction with her muse, named Brian. It is a fun little insight into the creative process, and Owen’s friendship with fellow author Brian Keene.

Another flash fiction piece, “The Rabbit” finds a young boy coming across something grotesque while out riding his bike. But it soon becomes apparent that it isn’t the first time he has seen it, and may have more to do with it than we first thought. What begins as an innocent discovery takes on sinister undertones.

“Crash and Burn” tells the story of prisoners in a facility being used as guinea pigs for drug testing. Told from the point of view of one of the scientists, we see what happens when things go very wrong. We learn very quickly that it is a zombie story, so we’re not really spoiling anything by mentioning it, and it makes for an interesting tale. The time-span of the story is only the immediate aftermath, so it has quite a quick pace. And, as the scientist tries desperately to escape, we realise the scope of the outbreak.

“Grim Circumstances” opens with Chuck making his way to his local library, where he has been spending every day for the past two weeks since walking out on his job. If anyone has ever been stuck in an unfulfilling job, wishing only to kick back and relax with a good book, then you will feel instant sympathy for Chuck, as, presumably, is Owen’s intention here. But Chuck’s peace and quiet is suddenly disturbed when people all around begin suffering injuries which should be fatal, but aren’t. Why is nobody dying? It makes for an intriguing concept, and Owen keeps us guessing until the big reveal at the end. An excellent story.

In “Family Reunion”, mountain girl Nellie is in the family way. She has lived in the mountains alone, shunned by the local townspeople, since her mother passed when she, Nellie, was only nine years old. She recalls her mother teaching her about mountain magic, rituals and spells tied closely to the earth. She also recalls breaking into the wrong shack and, after being attacked, awaking by the river, having been sexually assaulted. When she discovers she is pregnant, she tries to communicate with her mother from beyond the grave, only to summon something much worse and far more dangerous. Nellie is a wonderful character, complete and complex and utterly engaging. Owen has a knack for creating such characters.

The sole poetry piece in the collection, “Shadows in a Bowl of Soup” shows that Owen can still deliver a great story in this different style. Here she describes a woman’s attempt to poison her husband with his favourite soup. But, of course, as we’d expect from the author, things do not go as planned, with terrible consequences. Much shorter than her short stories, and more experimental in form, it is no less effective in delivering a brilliant story.

“Divorcing the Dead” is a zombie story with a twist. Frank refuses to leave the unnamed narrator, even after his own funeral has passed. At first irritating, his behaviour soon becomes menacing, especially when the narrator tries to move on in an attempt to help him move on. He forces her to take some unorthodox and unheard-of actions, taking the story in a very original direction. But, ultimately, Owen delivers an emotional and heart-breaking story, unexpectedly affecting us more than a typical zombie story would be expected to.

“Dig the Hole”: that’s the advice given to Tina by her mother when she complains about her strained marriage to confrontational and distant Ken. Tina’s mother clarifies that she doesn’t expect Tina to put Ken in the ground, just to work through her anger and frustration with the physical exertion. So, Tina digs the hole. And many, many more in the following years. It is an effective way for her to channel her feelings, but Ken’s behaviour never improves, not even with the addition of three children. It makes for a dark and emotional tale about unhappy relationships and the extent some will go to make things work. Sometimes we just have to dig a hole.

In “Spell”, protagonist Doug recounts the heart-breaking and devastating story of his children, and the mysterious illness that afflicts them all at different stages of their lives. When the unthinkable happens, Doug and wife, Amy, try desperately to pick themselves up and get on with life, trying to conceive again. But the horrible and uncaring illness seems to haunt the couple, and their children. Reading Doug’s story brought a lump to our throat and will be especially hard-hitting for parents reading it. But the true horror awaits us when our protagonist makes the dreaded discovery at the end. It’s an emotional horror story that further adds to Owen’s storytelling skills.

“How’s That Make You Feel?” takes place in a group therapy session, where Dr. Leah Hadley sits in a small room with a group of violent inmates. She even mentions it in her inner dialogue near the beginning, about how dangerous each man is individually, together they must be even worse. But she has an idea about engaging them in a group discussion about their emotions to bring about some collective breakthroughs. But her plans soon go awry. Owen has fun playing with the topic of serial killers and how they interact with each other.

The setting of “Spring Thaw” is a frozen lake in Wisconsin, where the unnamed protagonist lost a brother when he was young, unable to save him. He recalls this after he falls on the same ice, many years later, all alone. He struggles to crawl toward the shore, knowing the chance of being found before the ice thaws is remote. He recalls his brother, but also thinks about his wife and two children at home, wondering if Maria will get worried enough to raise the alarm before disaster strikes. It’s a great character study while also building tension.

“Good Enough” introduces us to Chris, dragging a body part across the floor. In the background, the television news tells the story about a serial killer, the FBI offering profile advice. But they are far from the mark, as Chris points out while assembling the body parts into a terrifying whole, in order to make a point to Terry, after a very recent and acrimonious split. Chris never felt good enough for Terry, always falling short of perfection in some way. Chris is a very dark and disturbing character, and the descriptions of the body parts are suitably gruesome. This one will make the reader shudder.

In “Mercy’s Gasp”, James struggles to come to terms with his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Sharon is deteriorating fast, but James has an ace up his sleeve. Thanks to a close encounter with death when he was six (well, technically he was dead for three and a half minutes), he knows about the existence of supernatural forces with the ability to intervene in matters of life and death. He intends on engaging these forces to try to alter Sharon’s fate, no matter the cost. It makes for an interesting story, and another indication that Owen’s imagination and inventiveness are wonderful.

It is a tongue-in-cheek title, but “Trials and Tribulations of Dr. Jekyll’s Third Cousin Twice Removed” goes into some disturbing visual descriptions. Armed with a newly acquired pharmaceutical degree, the narrator desperately tries to create a solution for his problematic back acne. Without lab animals, he is forced to experiment on himself. You can probably tell where this is going, although it is a delightfully creepy journey getting there. And the disturbing details are certainly creepy, as our intrepid scientist suffers one mishap after another, before deciding on a very dark solution. He even hints at poor cousin Henry during the course of his experiments.

Set in a world dealing with a terrifying outbreak, the setting of “Spilled Milk” seems eerily close to our world in 2020. The narrator, Joey, and his parents are hunkered down at home, trying to ride out something which isn’t the typical zombie virus, or any other virus. It seems to make those affected react with terrible rage and attack anyone nearby. After he ventures to the store for milk, all hell breaks loose and he and his mother make a desperate trip to his grandfather’s farm, complete with bunker. But, of course, tragedy soon strikes, thanks again to milk. It’s a very entertaining short story.

“Black Bubbles” also takes place in a world gripped by fear with protagonist Harold surviving in his boarded-up home, watching the news and trying to avoid everyone. Shadowy figures have appeared and begun attacking people for no known reason. No-one can tell where these shadows come from at first, and it appears that no-one is safe. As Harold discovers more about them, he has to venture outside, and deal with all the terrible things that he brings to his door. But how long can he remain in his sanctuary before he is found by those born of the black bubbles? It is quite a unique take on the monster story, with a terrifying monster invented from a place of innocence but taking on a horrific twist.

Black Bubbles is a large and varied collection, tackling many different subjects and narrative types, but all with Owen’s tremendous storytelling style. There are great visuals when called upon, and excellent character development, wonderful emotional range and an unbridled sense of creativity. Also, looking at the physical book, the inclusion of story notes to give some background to the creation of each story is a nice touch. We certainly appreciate seeing them in short story collections. It also gave us the origin behind each of the fun little doodles included after each story, which also helped Owen develop the story “Black Bubbles”. Talk about art imitating art imitating life! It seems that, much like many of the best creators out there, Kelli Owen takes inspiration from everywhere, leading to some excellent short stories.


Publisher: Poltergeist Press
Paperback: 300pp
Release Date: 10 April 2020

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1 comment

  1. They sound like fun stories. “Spring Thaw” sounds particularly scary. I think any time the setting is cold and isolating it makes the story scarier.

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