Bottled Abyss by Benjamin Kane Ethridge – review by Greg Chapman

Bottled Abyss by Benjamin Kane Ethridge
Paperback: 332 pages
Publisher: Redrum Horror (June 30, 2012)
ISBN: 978-0984751952

Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Black & Orange (2010), has a new tome – Bottled Abyss – that will no doubt earn him a second bronze haunted castle statue next year.

Bottled Abyss takes on the well-worn trope of exploring the meaning of life and death and binds it to classical myth, namely the legend of the Ferryman. But instead of focussing on the myth or blatantly trying to re-invent it (although he does twist it into fresher territory), Ethridge poses the question of “if you had the power of death, how would you wield it?”
Ethridge masterfully touches on themes of grief, loss and redemption through each of the main characters, but primarily via Herman and Janet Erikson, whose marriage is in turmoil after the tragic death of their daughter Melody when she was hit by a car driven by criminals.

Since her death, Janet has resorted to drinking heavily and distanced herself from the world. The tale enters supernatural territory when Herman goes looking for their missing dog and finds it near death. A strange man with an oar-like cane saves the dog by letting it drink from an equally strange bottle. The dog coughs up a coin and a price must be paid to a gargantuan beast from the depths of the River Styx.

And so begins the cycle of a “death-for-a-death”.

The beast, known as The Fury, is probably one of the most horrific monsters I’ve ever come across in horror fiction and it was fantastic to see a creature that wasn’t your oh-so-common shambling zombie!

Temptation also plays a big part in the plot as Janet and Herman come into possession of the bottle and realise its power. A single drop of the waters from the River Styx is enough to conjure a coin from anyone and summon the beast and Janet suddenly has eyes for the man who took her daughter’s life.

Without giving too much more of the plot away, the character viewpoints are constantly shifting from Janet and Herman and their friends, married couple Evan and Faye, and we even get to go inside the heads of the people who have the misfortune of coming into the contact with the waters and face-to-face with the Fury.

This may irk some readers, but I found it enthralling as I got to know more about each character through their interactions with the bottle.

Ultimately the story is about choice as well and its repercussions, with Janet and the others falling victim themselves to the bottle’s promise of salvation and like with any Hell of any mythology, the chance of escape is unlikely.

The suspense, characterisation and plot of Bottled Abyss will definitely grab you by the throat and hold you until the final page, dragging you deep into the cold waters of the River Styx. So get yourself a copy and dive in because you won’t forget this journey anytime soon!

The Author provided a copy for review.

Review by Greg Chapman

Exotic Gothic 4, edited by Danel Olson – review by Mario Guslandi

Exotic Gothic 4 edited by Danel Olson

Publisher: PS Publishing 2012 (Postscript No 28/29)

ISBN 978-1-848633-33-9 (Hardcover)

After three volumes published by the Canadian imprint Ash-Tree Press, the successful series Exotic Gothic has now been handed down into the capable hands of the British PS Publishing.

Editor Danel Olson has assembled twenty-five stories by a distinguished group of genre experts, set in different locations, addressing a diversity of themes but sharing the character of modern gothic fiction.

For some reason (mere coincidence?) the best stories are those with a distinctive exotic flavor, while the weaker tales , in my opinion, are those located in Europe and North America.

As in any anthology, not everything will please everybody, let alone the present reviewer. Thus, I’ll take the liberty to mention only the stories which seem to me the most accomplished of the lot.

“Pig Thing” by Adam LG Nevill is a sinister, excellent tale set in the New Zealand “bush”, where a lethal creature is on the loose, while “The Lighthouse Keepers’ Club” by Kaaron Warren is the gloomy report of a young man’s challenging experience as the temporary warden of a lighthouse used as a prison for long-term inmates.

Lucy Taylor contributes “Nikishi” a vivid, splendid piece taking place in Namibia, describing how a man gets tragically acquainted with the existence of the mythical were-hyenas. Another excellent tale set in Africa is “The Fourth Horse” by Simon Kurt Unsworth, magnificently blending supernatural horror and politics, with a generous touch of eroticism to make the dish even more spicy.

Latin America provides the right environment for a couple of great stories. In Robert Hood’s beautifully crafted “Escena de un Asesinato” a Zapatist ghost takes revenge by means of a picture taken by a professional photographer and David Wellington’s “Atacama” is a fascinating tale of horror, greed and vengeance occurring among the disquieting mummies of the Atacama desert.

“Oschaert” is yet another of Paul Finch’s strong and colourful stories, where a WW1 British soldier has to endure a horror more frightening than war itself while the complex “Such A Man I Would Have Become” by E Michael Lewis is a truly gothic tale revolving around the terror brought about by an evil twin.

Fans of the new gothic who have enjoyed the first three volumes won’t be disappointed with this fourth installment, which confirms once again that horrific and weird atmospheres are not confined within the walls of Scottish castles or haunted Victorian houses but can be found anywhere in the world.

- review by Mario Guslandi


In the Footsteps of Dracula by Steven P. Unger

In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide
Author: Steven P. Unger
Publisher: World Audience Inc.
ISBN: 9781935444534 (pbk.)
Published: 2nd Edition, 2010

Steven P. Unger has been a traveler and writer from the time he learned to type with two fingers on a manual typewriter in the basement of his parents’ house in Ferndale, Michigan. He still travels, writes and types with two fingers.


Worldwide fascination with Dracula, like the bloodthirsty Count himself, will never die. Completed and comprising approximately 35,000 words and 185 photographs, In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide is the first and only book to include … pictures and descriptions, in memoir form, of every site in England and Romania that is closely related to either Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula or his historical counterpart, Prince Vlad Dracula the Impaler.

It’s not often that, as a reviewer of dark fiction, I get the chance to review a travel guide. Even less often do I enjoy reading travel guides at all. In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide is most certainly an exception.

Almost equal parts memoir, travel guide, history lesson, and an examination of fact and fiction (most particularly the Dracula myth), author Steven P. Unger weaves us effortlessly through the various styles. One minute you’re with him, standing on the fabled Borgo Pass, and the next you’re fascinated by the area’s historical links (or lack thereof) with Bram Stoker’s most famous novel.

Unger’s travels focus only on places mentioned or verified as inspiring the fictional Dracula, or those of the historical Vlad Tepes. In this way, he avoids most of the more ‘kitschy’ tourists haunts that have been created in the novel’s wake. Instead, his destinations include the less gaudy, but so much more interesting, Whitby Abbey (the real Carfax Abbey), Poienari (the real Castle Dracula), and the Reading Room of the British Museum. It is in these places that Unger discovers links between Dracula and Vlad Tepes that even Bram Stoker had no prior knowledge of.

The text is well broken up by an abundance of photographs too. Evocative images of bleak Romanian landscapes and abandoned abbeys do much to help keep you engrossed in the words. My only disappointment while reading was that all of the pictures are black and white. Sometimes I’d turn a page and just wish an image was in colour – it is a minor and selfish quibble, and does more to reflect the good choice and placement of photos than any real deficiency with the book.

Overall, the tone of the writing is never dry or overly academic. Unger sucessfully conveys his own wonder and disappointment at the places he visits, and his investigations into their legitimacy as part of Dracula folk-lore are always full of surprises.

The final section of the book, ‘Part V – Nuts and Bolts: A Practical Guide to the Dracula Trail‘, somewhat dispenses with the memoir and historical portions of the narrative. Instead, it focusses on the practicality of following Unger’s journey. This section of the book – a collection of travel tips on topics including: money, security, public transport, food and accomodation costs, and health – will prove indispensable to those who wish to visit the places that inspired Stoker’s Dracula.

I don’t plan on going anywhere far, but nevertheless, I found this book fascinating. There were so many ‘I didn’t know that!’ moments. And Unger’s own personal fascination with the history (fact or fiction) behind Dracula’s origins was certainly infectious enough to make it feel like I was there with him.

In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide is a book I very much enjoyed reading, and even if you’re not a traveller, it certainly should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the origins and ispirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Darkness On the Edge of Town by Jessie Cole

Darkness On the Edge of Town
Author: Jessie Cole
Publisher: Fourth Estate – HarperCollins
ISBN: 9780732293192 (pbk.)/9780730493853 (ebk)
Published: July, 2012

Jessie Cole was born in 1977 and grew up in an isolated valley in northern New South Wales. In 2009 she was awarded a HarperCollins Varuna Award for Manuscript Development, and her work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, and the Big Issue. Nowadays, she lives in her childhood home with her two sons.


My dad, he collects broken things…
Where other people see junk he sees potential…
My dad collects broken people too…

Vincent is nearly forty years old, with little to show for his life except his precious sixteen-year-old daughter, Gemma: sensitive, insightful and wise beyond her years.

When a stranger crashes her car outside Vincent and Gemma’s bush home, their lives take a dramatic turn. In an effort to help the stranded woman, father and daughter are drawn into a world of unexpected and life-changing consequences.

DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN is a haunting tale that beguiles the reader with its deceptively simple prose, its gripping and unrelenting tensions, and its disturbing yet tender observations.

By the time I’d finished reading Varuna Award winning Jessie Cole’s first novel, Darkness On the Edge of Town, I still really had no idea why it had been titled after a 1978 Bruce Springsteen album. Yeah, sure, there are some goings on at the edge of town, but its not really a Darkness.

Maybe it was that title, coupled with the front cover quote from Robert Drewe – ‘So frighteningly real, it grabs you and shakes you.‘ – and the lines in the back cover blurb about a ‘haunting tale‘ and ‘gripping and unrelenting tension‘ and its ‘disturbing yet tender observations‘, that had my expectations going but I didn’t find the novel particularly dark, haunting, unrelenting or disturbing.

If you can put the misdirected marketing aside though, Darkness On the Edge of Town is still a very good first novel.

Set in and around a rural town the novel opens with Vincent, late thirties, single dad, driving home from the pub. As he rounds the final bend to his house, he comes across an overturned car. Lights still shining and engine running. At the side of the road squats a girl, looking “kind of crumpled and broken“. In her arms she holds a baby. “Its body was limp, its eyes closed.

It is the appearance of this girl, Rachel, into the lives of Vincent and his sixteen year old daughter Gemma, that drives everything to come in the novel.

The story is told from the alternating first person accounts of Vincent and Gemma. Vincent’s chapters are written in a simple, almost ordinary, prose and this very much sums up the nature of Vincent himself. Unfortunately, Gemma’s voice is very similiar and I couldn’t find much to distinguish them. There is a gentle poetry to this simplicity of no-nonsense prose though, and it keeps you turning the pages.

Another thing that keeps you turning the pages is the building of various tensions. Vincent’s need to help Rachel and bring her into his house has ramifications for just about everyone in the small town. From his daughter Gemma, just turned sixteen, and how this new, damaged, house guest changes her view on her own relationships; with her father and with her potential boyfriend. Threats and jealous ravings from Vincent’s ‘current’ girlfriend Marie. The gossip that fills the town. And Vincent’s own quickness to anger, his innner turmoils questioning the morals of his decision to allow Rachel to stay at their house, and indeed, to sleep in his bed.

There’s a constant thread of the ‘threat of violence’ throughout Darkness On the Edge of Town, too. It is another one of those tensions, probably the major theme, and the author makes a concerted effort to crank it up towards the end. Unfortunate then, that I can’t say it ever really pays off. The climactic scenes seem as constrained as the rest of the prose and fail to lead to the promises of the title, the blurb, or even the story itself.

Overall, Darkness On the Edge of Town is still a well written novel. I read it quickly, and effortlessly, and at no point did I want to put it down. But it never seems to address its themes in any real depth, or at least not enough to make me really feel for any of the characters. What they go through over the course of the story you wouldn’t wish on anyone, but for me the author failed to fully convey that. Which was a shame, because after everything that happened to Vincent and Gemma and Rachel, I really did want to feel something for them.

Win Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, volumes 1 & 2

The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror volumes 1 and 2 are up for grabs in hardcover, via the publisher.

Edited by Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene, these two exquisitely handsome volumes collect 65 fantastic tales – the best from 2010 and 2011. There is simply no better primer on current local talent working in horror and fantasy genre in Australia.

Order any Ticonderoga Publications title at Indie Books Online this month, to go in the running to win the hardcover editions of both Year’s Best volumes.

All the details and links are over at Talie Helene’s blog here.


Movie Review: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Directed and co-written by Drew Goddard

Co-written and produced by Joss Whedon

Starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kanz, Jesse Williams

Here’s the integral thing you need to know about me in the context of this review: I’m not part of the cult of Joss Whedon, because I’m largely unfamiliar with Joss Whedon.

I can say “I like his work”, but when I say that, what I’m actually saying is “I like the episodes of Buffy I’ve seen” (because I haven’t seen all of them – and while I do like Buffy, I wouldn’t say I’m a massive fan of the series – I enjoy it, but I’m not passionate about it). And that’s it. I know he also did Firefly and Dollhouse, but I haven’t seen either of those, and in fact I don’t even know what they’re about. I haven’t even seen Angel. I’m sure he’s done other stuff that I don’t even know exists, which is essentially my point – I’m not an avid Joss Whedon fan; I don’t even have a solid awareness of his body of work. Yes, I am a Bad Geek, but the flipside of that is that I went into Cabin in the Woods without preconceived expectations or a pre-existing unshakeable belief that it would be good because Joss Whedon is good.

I’m pointing this out because one of the criticisms I’ve seen of positive responses to Cabin in the Woods is that people are just enthusing about it because Joss Whedon! – which, in my case, is obviously not true.

Now, on to the enthusing. BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD. Seriously, spoilery spoilers of extreme spoilerdom. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read on, it will totally ruin the experience for you. Don’t read any other reviews, either. Just go see the movie.

Cabin in the Woods is ostensibly the story of five college students who drive out to a remote, uh, cabin in the woods, to drink and smoke pot and screw, following which, gory bad things happen to them. The end.


There’s overt foreshadowing (actually, “foreshadowing” isn’t an accurate descriptor, there’s no subtlety to it, it’s just shoved in the viewer’s face because it’s not a secret, we’re meant to think we know exactly where things are at here) that all is not as it seems from the very start of the film, with technicians in an unnamed facility watching the five teens through surveillance equipment and gearing up for some nasty process to take place that they have obviously overseen many times before. We assume it involves the five’s messy demise. We’re also shown a type of forcefield around the cabin site that a bird smashes into and is electrocuted by. Got it. Can’t get in or out unless something/someone wants you to.

So even now, we think we know what’s going on, right? Yes, the five hapless teens – archetypes from horror movies gone by, including the whore, the virgin, and the jock – are in a secluded cabin and horrific things will happen to them, and as an added twist, the technicians will watch, presumably for jollies or to produce some sort of warped reality show or…something. The end. Right? Nooooooooo.

Once in the cabin, our five become overstated parodies of the archetypes they represent, and there’s all the usual male-gaze and women taking off their tops and dirty dancing and tongue-kissing stuffed wolf heads (what?) and…all that stuff. In Cabin in the Woods, though, this is intended to be ironic. Y’know, the male-gaze here isn’t really male-gaze but a commentary on the male gaze in horror films, and also the product of deliberate manipulation of the five occupants into archetypal behaviours by the technicians overseeing the cabin. And I think, largely, this irony is successful. I still don’t enjoy sitting through pervy scenes of tits and bimbos. It’s still irritating and uncomfortable. But that’s kind of the point. It’s uncomfortable but Cabin in the Woods knows it’s uncomfortable – points out that it’s uncomfortable, and then laughs at itself. And us. And we let it.

And there’s a lot of laughter in Cabin. Scares, yes. Blood, yes. Authentic laughs? Yes. That’s a hard combo to pull off – comedy in horror rarely works well. It works here. And even that is a kind of ironic parody of itself, because the comedy in Cabin is silly and obvious and cliched. But it works because it’s meant to be silly and obvious and cliched and that’s why it’s funny. And we know it’s ironic and that our laughter is ironic and how silly and pretentious that is, and how silly and pretentious we are for buying into the irony, dahhhhhling, and that’s funny too. Aren’t we all so special and hip and bored with life. Ha ha ha. We’re laughing with the movie at the movie which is laughing with us at us laughing with it at it and who’s the idiot here, really?

So, the five go into the basement (which, of course, you should never do), and find weird and wonderful things, and touch the weird and wonderful things (another thing you shouldn’t do), and read out a Latin incantation (definitely never do that), and awaken a zombie redneck torture family who attack, maim, and kill them while the technicians watch and even manipulate to ensure maximum carnage. And eventually everyone except the “virgin” is apparently dead, the watching technicians are rejoicing, and the movie should end.

But that’s where it actually really starts.

Because someone who should’ve been dead isn’t, the order of things is destroyed, and the zombie redneck torture family turn out to be just one of an array of vast subterranean horrors housed beneath the cabin and brought up by elevator based on which object the five choose and activate in the basement.

Things go nuts. The scene where the elevators are all opened and all the creatures fly out and drown everything in all the blood is fucking awesome. The cameo by Sigourney Weaver is sweet. The old Gods thing is cool. The global perspective and the variations in horror between cultures is fun. It’s all massive rapid-fire sensory overload at this point, as the movie inverts itself over and over again, with so many homages and little treasures for fans to spot and enjoy, and it’s delicious.

Sure, some of it’s a bit weak, when you reason through it in hindsight. Like, for such a sophisticated and well-established facility, they sure don’t have any strategies in place to deal with things going wrong – one brain-challenged and easily overthrown guard to deal with escapees? No one thinks to go straight to the elevator the two surviving kids have entered to escape the cabin, despite it being easy to track it as it can only be the elevator the zombie redneck torture family entered the cabin from? Why are the elevators set up to bring all the horrors up from underground and give them free access directly into the facility, anyway? Isn’t there an easier way for the old Gods to get the blood sacrifices they require – like, just shoot the archetypal victims in the head, for instance? And even the archetypes are sort of confused and conflicted – the virgin isn’t a virgin, for example. I could go on. There are silly aspects. But, y’know…

I just didn’t care.

It was that good. I’ll pass them off as deliberate silliness, or more irony/commentary/enigma/critique, or hell, just genuine errors and oversights – whatever. I don’t care. They didn’t matter, the film worked, it was fresh, it was different, it had tension, laughs, surprises, a million small gore-geeky touches (like a device that resembled Lemarchand’s configuration, held by a Cenobite-esque creature called Fornicus, FTW!), it was smart and scathing of everything including itself, the climax just kept on climaxing, there were brilliant monsters and BIG SCENES OF EPIC  BLOOD AND HORROR, and I fucking loved it.

Brilliant. Best horror movie I’ve seen in a long time. So much more than just a horror movie, actually. It raised questions – was the whole thing a critique? A parody? A joke? A puzzle? Or a serious…something? What does it mean if I liked the movie? What would it have meant if I didn’t? The actors were all flawless in their roles (at face value, you’d think that would be easy to achieve in most roles in this movie, but I don’t believe that for a moment because nothing is what it seems here), the effects were fabulous, the aesthetic was gorgeously perfect, and I came out of the cinema reeling with bliss and raving with praise.

If I had a star system to rate movies,Cabin in the Woods would score five out of five.

Maybe I’ll have to consider joining that Whedon cult, after all.

Submission Call: Award-Winning Australian Writing

Have you written a story of no more than 6,000 words or a poem of no more than 200 lines that won first place in an Australian competition between 30 June 2011 and 30 June 2012? If so, Melbourne Books wants you to submit it for consideration for the Award Winning Australian Writing 2012 edition.

Full details and submission guidelines here. Submissions close 20 August, so hurry up!