“Exceptional, fearless, and, much to our benefit, only getting better with every story.”
Fresh from “destroying” independent horror publishing with his last anthology (Tales from the Crust, 2019, co-edited with David James Keaton) and before the release of his forthcoming novel, Touch the Night, from Cemetery Dance, Max Booth III has surprised us with a new novella.
Similar to the much-loved Carnivorous Lunar Activities (Cinestate, 2019), the new book takes place primarily in a single location. A Texas family take refuge from a sudden and violent tornado in the only safe place they can, without the aid of a basement; the en-suite bathroom connected to the parents’ bedroom. They only have time to grab enough for a (hopefully) brief stay in the small, windowless room: Mom has the blankets to make sure everyone is comfortable, Dad has his thermos of whiskey so he can maintain his mind-numbing buzz, teenage protagonist Melissa has her phone, and little Bobby has a pile of board games. Tensions are high, for a number of reasons that are explored in due course, but how long can their isolation last?
It turns out that the tornado is more prolonged and violent than anyone could predict. Thanks to circumstances not unheard of in similar emergencies, the family become trapped in the tiny room and soon lose track of time. This inevitably leads to many strained conversations between the characters. Melissa and Bobby do what siblings do best in such situations; they wind each other up. But, not to be outdone, the parents seem to be in the midst of a particularly nasty argument. Through the inner dialogue of Melissa, we know that it is not uncommon for the overworked mother and alcoholic father to fight. But there is something different about this particular fight, something deeper. And then there is the question of what Melissa was doing at Amy’s house before she got home.
Many horror stories exist that explore the dynamic of the dysfunctional family over the course of weeks, months, years. But what Booth has done here is take a ticking time bomb and crammed it into the smallest space possible to see what will happen. We pointed out the similarity with Carnivorous Lunar Activities already and, while that book had a great deal of humour throughout, there is little on display here. What humour there is comes almost exclusively from little Bobby, endearingly amused by rude words and bodily functions and all the things that amuse innocent little boys. Booth does an excellent job at capturing the voices of all of the characters, but is to be especially commended for the work done in creating Bobby, as he is the light in a very dark story. There are some really creepy moments that reach out from the page or screen and grab the reader by the neck. And some of the imagery used later, when Melissa begins to lose her grip on reality, is quite gory and reminiscent of cosmic horror and weird horror at its best.
As it happens, and as we learn from the occasional recounts interspersed throughout by Melissa, the storm and its aftermath may be more supernatural in nature than it first appears. We learn about the discovery of her first love at school, and how their relationship is greeted by the other pupils at their school, especially by a vindictive young man who goes too far. But he didn’t reckon on the repercussions of his actions and it turns out that it could spell disaster for more than just him. As the horror ramps up and the pace quickens, Booth efficiently teases out the revelations, keeping the reader gripped. This is easily a one-sitting read.
Given the short length of the novella, it is pleasantly surprising how much Booth has managed to pack into it. Complex familial relationships, witchcraft, hallucinations, and weird horror. The narration from the point of view of a teenager struggling with her emotions and her ability to find her place in her family and the world is captured beautifully. The dialogue from each member of the family is familiar to the ear of any reader who has ever argued with a sibling or a parent, or dealt with difficult domestic situations like fighting spouses or alcoholism, and lends to the realism of the story. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by how much the author has managed to include; Booth is simply continuing to prove what so many of his peers have already stated: he is one of the best authors writing horror today. Exceptional, fearless, and, much to our benefit, only getting better with every story.
Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing
eBook: 123 (pps)
Release Date: 11 April 2020
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