The Sacrificial Man ~ Ruth Dugdall

  • Title: The Sacrificial Man    
  • Author: Ruth Dugdall
  • Genre: Dark Fiction/Thriller
  • Format: Kindle
  • Source: Netgalley
  • Reviewed by: Mark Matthews
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  What I want to say is that suicide is my choice. No-one else is to blame. Man seeks beautiful woman for the journey of a lifetime: Will you help me to die?’

When Probation Officer Cate Austin is given her new assignment, she faces the highest-profile case of her career. Alice Mariani is charged with assisted suicide and Cate must recommend a sentence. Alice insists her story is one of misinterpreted love, forcing those around her to analyse their own lives. Who is to decide what is normal and when does loyalty turn to obsession? Investigating the loophole that lies between murder and euthanasia, Cate must now meet the woman who agreed to comply with her lover’s final request. Shocking revelations expose bitter truths that can no longer be ignored.

Review:  The story of a woman charged with murder for her role in an assisted suicide. Is this murder, or compassion?

Such is an ethical dilemma for our time, but here the implications are deeper for the woman consumed some of the dead man’s flesh.  Was this just offering a merciful helping hand or something more sinister? The question is not only if a crime was committed, but if so, is the culprit sane? and how much of a punishment does she deserve? It is up to her probation officer to recommend a sentence. The plot largely traces and reveals the motives of the characters involved.

The novel has so many secrets that get revealed. Some are subtle and made me grin at the author’s craft. At least one made my jaw completely drop to the floor

The point of view switches often from first person to third, to prose to chat messages to journal. Normally when I would see something written in this manner I would think it was too complicated and took too much work to read. Not so here. It blended together seamlessly and  I looked forward to each change of pace. It was like a multi-media experience.

The narcissism of the first person narrator is done with a cold, self aware style that you won’t soon forget, and offers flashbacks to her time as a child that is full of emotion. There was a sharp realism here that is touching, but none of it bubbled up from the suds of soap-opery moments.

I requested and was accepted this novel on Netgalley, partly because I was looking for a Gillian FLynn-like experience. (If Gillian Flynn ever goes missing, the first place one should look is my own basement.)

As I read I “The Sacrificial Man,” I first thought, ‘No, this isn’t Gillian,’ then I thought, ‘Heck yeah, this is Gillian’s twin,’ and then I found the author had a voice all of her own. Overall, this is a fantastic story, with writing that is lyrical, flowing, and eloquent, yet with an unmistakeable edge.

Die, You Bastard, Die! ~ Jan Kozlowski

  • Title: “Die, You Bastard, Die!”
  • Author: Jan Kozlowski
  • Genre: Thriller/Horror/Dark Fiction
  • Format: Kindle
  • Source: Own Copy
  • Reviewed by: Mark Matthews
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  Claire is a first-rate paramedic, with a heroic devotion to saving lives. She is also a survivor of unspeakable abuse, who has rebuilt herself entirely, as far from home as she could get.

But when her aged father is hospitalized, after a crippling fall, Claire is dragged back into a brutal nightmare of sexual depravity, and deepest betrayal. Where the only question left is, “How can I possibly survive?”

And the only answer is, “DIE, YOU BASTARD! DIE!”

Review:  Wow. How to describe this book? It blew me away. The experience reading it was powerful. Much like the title, this book makes no apologies, and after reading it, I certainly don’t need one.

It started out as a great novel with distinct, interesting characters and intense enough action scenes. I fully trusted the author and entered into her world, ready to partake in a great thriller.

What I wasn’t ready for was a hand to shoot out of the pages and suddenly put a knife to my throat, but that was basically what happened. My eyeballs started to bleed and my heart shed tears.

This is not so much horror as it is ultra-realism. The horror isn’t what is happening in the book as much as what can happen at the hands of humans. Things we want to dismiss. This is a great piece of work, not some gratuitous bit of shock horror. I didn’t ever get that feeling that the author was smirking behind the page, just happy she grossed us out. Characters under pressure had their essence squeezed out of them, and with each bit of action and dialogue these people were brought to life. The sickness that existed in their hearts never wavered, which made the story all that more terrifying. The journey of the main character was riveting, never cliche, and never certain.

But there were moments where I looked away from the pages, thinking, if this continues, I don’t know how much more I can take. The author turns up the intensity and lets you boil for a while, but always seems to gauge where the reader is at and turns the story to a place you can continue. It demanded breaks, but commanded your attention. I became like a kid covering my face with my hands but peeking thru my fingers. This book is no escapism like some horror or dark fiction, but it is a fantastic piece of art.

“When We Join Jesus In Hell” ~ Lee Thompson

  • Title: “When We Join Jesus In Hell”
  • Author: Lee Thompson
  • Genre: Dark Fiction
  • Format: Kindle
  • Source: Own copy
  • Reviewed by: Mark Matthews
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description: “WHEN WE JOIN JESUS IN HELL is as crazy as its tormented protagonist. Hard as nails.”

— Jack Ketchum

Home, he thinks, Where the heart bleeds freely.

A hell of a boxer, he earned the nickname ‘Fist’ back in the day. But during the past eight years, he’s transformed into somebody he no longer knows—a weak, pitiful, and passionless office drone.

Barely hanging onto the last thread of his self-respect, he returns home one night to discover Hell has truly crossed its threshold.

And Hell has lessons to teach him through what fragments remain.

Slivers of dark light.

Knowledge in blood.

Forgiveness, clarity and redemption in commitment

Review:  The title is enough to draw your attention, but be assured this isn’t about Christ and there’s no direct blasphemy here. Unless the title has already done such for you.  The publisher of this work, Darkfuse, has an incredible line of dark fiction, mostly novellas or shorter, easily digestible novels. Easy as in length, but they are deep and rich in content, and you will find some of the greatest dark fiction writers  in the Darkfuse line.  I can also vouch for “Nightsiders,” “Children of No One” and “The Mourning House.”  And if you join the very popular Darkfuse BookClub, they start you out with many free books and then keep sending them monthly.

It’s a great deal. And full disclosure: I have NO affilitaion with Darkfuse, besides that I am going to be published by a competitor. Well, at least I was, I may be in trouble now for writing this.

When We Join Jesus in Hell was my first Darkfuse title, and it is a novella that drips with richness, much like its cover.  An intense, very memorable and explosive read, that all takes place in real time, with real emotions, and paints a vivid picture. You take the trip through the brain of the main character, ‘Fist’ is his name, which is a great place to visit, and you’re there at the moment he comes home to find tragedy strike his family. His brain then explodes with deeper emotions, and you’re dragged along willingly as he seeks his revenge.

 Such an amazing feat to pull off the tone throughout this novel, which I am guessing was very hard to write without sounding campy or half-tongue in cheek (like the movie Sin-City, for example, which I still loved but was different). Reality in the novel was dripping and fluid. The content is horrific, sure, but the mystical and surreality of the writing is what got me hooked. (“Sur-reality’-‘ I  just made that word up.)

This story will stick with you, and I loved the end and the last lines. I’m gonna ‘extrapolate away’ and see it as a statement on masculinity and coping with the primal urges, and the battle to balance this with vulnerable emotions of hurt and sadness. The test for many men is not to just turn all these soft feelings into anger and then violence as a last resort (sorry Fist, you failed that one, but you have my sympathy.)   The story ends with an apology, and as many confused, maybe slightly emotionally handicapped husbands, there’s this need to apologize ~ but not really sure what for.

This book is a brave exploration of emotions, near experimental at times, and the experiments work. 5 of 5 stars.

We’re All Infected: On Horror and Dark Fiction

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.”H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

China Mieville is perhaps the coolest cat to ever write a sentence, and his goal is to write a novel in every genre. Not sure if this means horror is on the way, or if he has counted one of his many novels which already include plenty of horror.

Horror appears in so many great pieces of literature, yet it still seems that calling a novel a piece of horror cheapens it in some reader’s eyes. The more I swim in writer’s circles, I’m discovering some writers embrace the term Horror writer, some prefer ‘dark fiction’, and others coin their own terms. All of this with the hope that their work is properly understood. Well, whatever the term, it is my belief that horror provides perhaps the most powerful, visceral, and deeply moving ways to experience art. Not only that, but the darkest of horror writers have the finest hearts around.

Yes, in Horror, people are threatened. People get hurt. People are killed. There’s evil. There’s blood. You feel threatened by dark forces. Well, I would argue that something gets cut open in any novel, each story has something that bleeds (even if it’s just Holden Caulfield’s innocence, for example), and the hinge upon which all fiction swings is escalating conflict and the fear that the protagonist won’t get what they want.

Fiction is the drama of life with the heat turned up, and when done right, it boils out the insides of characters and reveals who they are, and better yet, transforms them into something stronger, like metal into fire. Or perhaps when the novel ends in tragedy, they aren’t strong enough to handle the flames. Horror does this wonderfully.

In this way, I think of horror as much as a literary device as a genre.  The term horror is just a marketing tool. Put a different cover on the novel American Psycho, and it would no longer be read as an illustration of our society of privilege, financial cannibalism and materialism gone mad. Instead, it’d be slasher and torture porn.

Let me set the premise for an epic horror story. One which will be the tome upon which civilizations are built, wars are fought, children are baptized, and bodies are buried:

Imagine a story where the dead are raised, where babies are slaughtered, where plagues destroy cities, and where the main character has spiritual powers but is shunned and eventually betrayed. Until the day comes when he has to carry the device of his own torture. A crown of thorns bloodies his head, his flesh is punctured by nails, and his body hangs until he dies. But wait, it’s not over, because then his very soul will have to harrow hell for 3 days, gathering the ravaged souls of those before him, and he finally ascends to a higher plane.

To commemorate this event, we all kneel in front of the same ancient torture device. Then we perform a cannibalistic ritual to honor his sacrifice in Holy Communion as solemn music plays in the background.

Yep, you got it (don’t throw stones, please) put a different cover on it, and you can market the Bible as horror.

The iconic horror writer Stephen King rewrote this story, only it was much more tame, and it starred Jon Coffee instead of Jesus Christ. Both spiritual, superior beings put to death–just texts written at different times. Scour great horror and dark fiction, you’ll find great literature.

What makes Stephen King shine is his characters, not just the horror, and when his work is at its best, the macabre highlights the internal strife of the character. Horror works best when it is a metaphor for the dark places the character is already traveling through. It isn’t easy to draw a picture of our dark psychological recesses, so you pull the insides out, put different faces on them, and give them a name. Like It, or Cujo.

The story of Cujo serves as a model for me. The huge, killer rabid St. Bernard who has trapped a woman and her young child in the tiny pinto of a car. But it’s not about a dog; it’s about alienation, isolation.

I am alone, everybody has abandoned me, and here I am suffocating in this car, alone, trapped, with the jaws of the world trying to kill my most precious child.

This is why I think horror writers have the finest hearts around. The only way a writer can scare you is to first prove they understand you. A writer must first be ultra-sensitive to the human predicament, and show they can get into the hearts and heads of humans. Otherwise, it all falls flat. I would love my daughter to marry a man with the heart of a Stephen King.

To take a step further, it is by destroying your protagonists, after giving him hopes and dreams and struggles, that can make you fully empathize with him. None of our physical lives come to happy endings. No one here gets out alive.

Of course, there are works that exist simply for sake of a bombardment of the senses. This still takes art, I would argue, even if it is horror just for horror sake. I love the Evil Dead, but I’m not going to say it has the same psychological layers, but it is incredible campfire storytelling.

Horror is seeing resurgence in TV, and not just because it scares us, but because it helps us relate. In Season one of American Horror Story, the real horror was dealing with infidelity, trust, perpetual anger and all the shattered lives caused by the ripples of hurt. The horror of all this inner-psyche drama sticks around like ghosts in your basement in a house you can never leave. You can’t just kill the past, you have to deal with it. Otherwise, the ghosts in your basement remain. They haunt your psychological dark spots, always ready to fragment your spirit, destroy your dreams and, yes, hurt your children.

Horror works best when you are watching it and realize, “Hey, that’s me; I’m living a life of fear. A life of quiet desperation–screaming in terror on the inside yet quiet on the outside”. Horror reminds us that: We are all infected. Yes, the secret of season 1 and 2 of The Walking Dead, that we are all infected  is what makes horror as a genre thrive.

We are all infected with this human experience. It’s a virus that lasts approximately 70 years, give or take a few decades, and during that time we look for meaning. And when done right, horror offers us a great peek into this unique affliction, but if not, it at least gives us some riveting drama to enjoy and makes our predicament a little more tolerable. At least for a few hundred pages or more.


 Mark Matthews is the author of STRAY and The Jade Rabbit. His third novel, ‘On the Lips of Children’, is a piece of dark fiction, horror,  nihilistic inspirational absurdity, and any other label that fits. It is coming soon from Books of the Dead Press.

He blogs at Running, Writing, and Chasing the Dragon.

Gone Girl ~ Gillian Flynn

  • Title: Gone Girl 
  • Author: Gillian Flynn
  • Genre: Fiction/Dark Fiction
  • Source: Kindle
  • Reviewed by: Mark, Guest Reviewer
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  Marriage can be a real killer.

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?

With her razor-sharp writing and trademark psychological insight, Gillian Flynn delivers a fast-paced, devilishly dark, and ingeniously plotted thriller that confirms her status as one of the hottest writers around

Review:  A book most if not all have heard of, but I never miss a chance to talk about it, so I am going to spout off on it now. This is one of the coolest novels I have ever read, or perhaps will ever read. The kind that makes you wonder how the author can walk about normal society with these kind of disturbed thoughts in her head.

Why did I love it? Such a unique and wonderful use of untrustworthy narrators. Nothing cooler than ending a chapter where a character talks to the police with the line, “and that was my fifth lie?” Huh? Well, which five were the lies?

But this is only the beginning. You’re in for a roller coaster that works on so many levels. The murder mystery by itself would make it enough, but the novel speaks to marriage and relationships’ tendencies to cling to the sickest parts of each other. The toxic ties that bind and keep us together and the resulting resentments we share like an unwanted spawn. I’m reminded of a lesser known novel, Mr. Peanut, and the phrase “Marriage is one long double homicide.”

The novel addresses the way we experience all of our existence either through the media, or by referencing back to a movie version of our reality, and if you look closer, you’ll see enough Oedipal references to write your thesis.

Real word horror. I couldn’t sleep, I kept hearing the words, “Play nice Nick.”

I’ve loved many novels where I understood why other folks don’t love them, but not this one. To me, this is an easy across the board recommendation to any reader as a must read. (of course, looking at the reviews for those fighting to be Kings and Queens of the contrarians, you’ll see otherwise.)

Six out of Five Stars, and I have set out a treasure hunt for Gillian Flynn to follow, the last clue is her meeting me at Starbucks for coffee, or she can just visit my blog and autograph (comment on) my post.

~Mark is the author of Stray and The Jade Rabbit and blogs at Running, Writing, and Chasing the Dragon