Reception by Kenzie Jennings REVIEW

***This review contains mild spoilers***

Let me start this review off by saying that–as a recently married man–I found the chapters leading up to the climax of this story to be the most accurate modern description of pre-wedding events that I have ever read. Not all horror entails the grotesque. Some of the scariest moments in life involve the mixing of one’s odd family with another, sharing completely disparate views and values, only to be forced to watch it all unfold with a smile presented across your face. That is truly terrifying, even as I have survived it.

Yet, with a glorious (gore-ious?) debut of a novel like Reception, written by Kenzie Jennings and published by Death’s Head Press, things are not entirely as they seem. Utilizing a book cover showcasing a twisted family’s idea of a home cooked dinner meant to startingly compete with the likes of both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, allow me to explain that this story has both the chilling appetite and the uproarious humor of the former and latter, respectively, without losing sight of the small moments that keep a reader enthused beyond the simple shock value trappings that many first time horror authors find difficulty in elevating their work beyond.

Ansley Boone is the black sheep of her little sister, Shay’s, side of the wedding party. She’s just come from rehab and all eyes are on her, expecting the inevitable, that she’ll make a mockery of herself and her family in front of the groom’s. All of this is good and well until Ansley discovers that her special kind of crazy had been set upon every single ear that she’d meet, adding even more tension as she slowly loses her composure, wading through the narrative already built for her sans her own participation. Her anxiety, stomach, and overall instincts battling it out as the story progressively gets worse for her, through no small fault of everyone involved.

One particular scene involved the breakfast before the ceremony. Leading up to my first “what the actual fuck” moment had Ansley already unknowingly sleeping with an engaged groomsmen. Afterward, with the women on both sides hilariously bickering about hair styles, cake decorations, make-up, et. cetera, the maid of honor’s four year old son, Bryceson, complains about a German sausage tasting nothing like a hot dog–nothing at all. My jaw dropped as the kid said this and while more and more uneasy conversations unfolded, I had to remind myself to unclench my jaw by the time the story approached the most realistically awkward beginnings of a toast by the sister of the bride, Ansley herself, in front of the entirety of the wedding.

This is when shit hit the fan.

At first, I didn’t like the main character too much. This isn’t a make or break it with me, but as time went on her snarky attitude and coarse understanding of the world allowed her honest moments with her mother and sister to shine through in spades. We aren’t meant to like her right off because she is us. She’s at times a spoiled, ungrateful, longing child and when confronted by a past which your family won’t ever seem to let you forget, you’d be a bitch, too. Ansley Boone is one of the great first person POV’s in a realm occupied by far too many mediocre attempts to comprehensively name.

Kenzie Jennings has boldly used as her debut novel to examine family intersectionality and mental trauma, mixing it with a telling of a concept that under a lesser author, could be extremely kitsch, but instead comes off as leaps and bounds above her contemporaries. I will readily await her upcoming works with wide eyes and a clenched jaw for she is something special and we need to prepare for whatever she has in store for us, her victims, next.

Bravo. Bravo.

Purchase Reception here.

Review of THE DAMNED PLACE by Chris Miller

Our wildest horrors and most terrible imaginations are nothing when compared to the evils that prevail in our everyday lives. In the real world, the sickening trend to inflict pain on those weaker than us or to stand idly by to watch these monstrosities occur is now in full force, exemplified even more by the 24-hour news cycles of today. This unabashed depravity is especially true in The Damned Place by Chris Miller, published by Black Bed Sheet Books.

Miller’s third full length novel shares only the most raw and visceral with his previous outing, The Hard Goodbye. Where that novel featured male protagonists–and one female– as they dealt with an evil man out for revenge, leading to many a gruesome end, The Damned Place matches this base setup, but adds a flare of conjoined human and supernatural madness into the mix, while also subtracting the age of each character to that of preteens.

This novel starts with a familiar set up. A band of kids in a small town piss off the wrong people in the process of discovering that the aforementioned town has a deeply disturbing history, growing closer through the chapters as they band together to defeat the evil. The Stephen King influence is undeniable, but what Miller does here is truly astonishing. He may have begun as some sort of R-rated interbred of Stranger Things and early 90’s nostalgia, but this behemoth of a book quickly evolves from that status and into one of the most well-written horror novels I have ever had the pleasure to hold in my hands.

There are actually two major stories in this book. There is the conflict between the main characters and the bullies as well as the story of an empty-bellied beast waiting to be released from another world, residing in the thin atmosphere of the woods.

The story within the story, that of detailing the origins of the eponymous damned place, was my favorite section of the book. Its lore and characterized descriptions, written in both first person POV and third person omniscience provided much leverage to tempting my heart into full on adrenaline-fueled despair, yet I couldn’t look away. I read that full section, which is a hefty chunk of the book, in one agitated sitting. I was actually saddened when this part came to its fitting end. All I know is, we will see more of this “Glutton” character and that is terrifying to imagine what it will do to enter our world.

The main plot about four friends within the twilight of their preteen years has just as much to sink your teeth into for any fan of suspense and horror. Each chapter is written in variable third person limited point of view. This is his way of having his cake and eating it, too. This could have turned out awful, but Miller strived for something greater and I think he did a bang up job implementing these perspectives, although I understand this won’t work for everyone. Miller unwaveringly moves his plot forward with every paragraph, almost to a fault, as there is hardly any time to catch a breath once the bullies come into play. The main villain is Jake Reese, more so than this Glutton monster. If the horror-lit God’s have any real influence on the reading public, they will mark that character as one of the most chilling villains to have ever been written on the page. He is equal parts fledgling serial killer and gross mismanagement of testosterone-fuled hell raiser inclinations. If I didn’t grow up in the early 90’s, I’d think of this kid as a ridiculous, over indulgent fantasy of an amateur horror author. I’ve lived it. I’ve met these monsters among men and they start young. His stooges, Bart and Chris, are either do nothing wannabees or ill-gotten, reward driven, voyeuristic playthings, respectively, in Jake’s own world of gleeful torment.

The main kids are characters that we can all relate to in certain stages of our lives. There was always the girl we all loved and there was always darkness in each of our lives. With the detailed mayhem that Miller swam in for this book, I bit the bottom of my lip on multiple occasions expecting nothing but the worst for these past reflections of myself. I truly began to care for these characters in a way so few horror books accomplish. It is easy to see that Miller knows each of these characters from his own life or through himself. I didn’t want them to die and I don’t think Miller did either, but he’d certainly do what he had to do.

Chris Miller, with The Damned Place, has written a novel that deserves to launch beyond the trappings of indie horror and into the stratosphere beside works like those by Barker, King, Hill, and more. Many years later, we will look back at this novel as a giant leap over the stepping stones so many indie authors like myself wish to climb. I wish him the best of luck in his deserved meteoric rise within Texas horror and beyond.

Buy your copy here.

The Hard Goodbye Review

Book Title: The Hard Goodbye
Author: Chris Miller
Publisher: Death’s Head Press
Page Count: 146
Buy Link: Here

As is often the case for readers of books or consumers of storytelling media at large, they have to work out the likeability of the characters in order to figure out who to root for. This isn’t exactly how crime noir works in the pantheon of literature that it has staked out for itself and this is especially difficult to expect for the main players in The Hard Goodbye, written by Chris Miller and released by Texas indie upstart and dark fiction publisher, Death’s Head Press in early 2019—Miller had previously worked with the publisher on the horror anthology And Hell Followed with his short story Behind Blue Eyes. As devious and unscrupulous character traits are to be had by all characters, except for the women (this is a common trait of most noir as well, so don’t be too hard on Chris here—woman are walking angelic breasts in these types of genre stories), it can be difficult to manage for the reader who isn’t seasoned by the genre in all its grimy and hard-edged glory. However, these and many more irredeemable qualities are the very reason to pick up this book written by the man from Winnsboro, Texas.

The main crutch of the story follows four friends—or, should I say three friends and one dirty cop—who have had a decent run with small criminal jobs that land them decent-sized rewards with minimal risk. The only problem is that they have to split everything evenly and that they all have terrible spending habits, so after a while, the itch for another job starts to fester. Jimmy is hopped up on drugs. Larry has gone in hiding with his family, or is missing. And John bought a brand new Subaru WRX. While Tony, the odd man out, has an idea. Once the crooked cop discovers from his source that an insurmountable stash of cash is hiding away in a vacant house, due to the owner of it being sent to jail recently after participating in a random bar fight, the others jump at the chance to finally nab that mythical and always dreamed about last job kind of money. This is where things start to become problematic for our characters and a sickeningly perverse spectacle for the reader. If the first chapter doesn’t warn you of what kind of book you’re reading, you’re probably already comfortable inside the minds of villains and other such nefarious people.

With each chapter being written as a POV of another character, the reader is able to put themselves in the head of all the main characters, which allows a level of discernment for who really is the good guy here and if you have to pick one, it’s probably John Savage, but with a name like that, you’re likely to have a few skeletons in your closet as well, differing from the others. Every character is twisted, some are more so than others, and even more than a few have delusions of grandeur, yet they all blend together to fit the world that Chris Miller has created in The Hard Goodbye as a crunchy smoothie-concoction of lies, blood, nudity, North Texas, and irresponsible partnerships that will surely be a guilty pleasure for the most just of us, while those who have already dived into suspenseful works like Black Wings Has My Angel, Blood on the Moon, or Take a Murder, Darling will revel in the twisted display of penmanship and unfiltered destruction of humanity at full display here. And I haven’t even mentioned the reoccurring influence of the monkey.

While the plotted surprises are few and far between due to the nature of the genre, the real oomph of the book comes from the irresistible urge to see bad men go through even worse experiences, ceremoniously ending their lives in atrocious fashion due to their own mistakes and chances taken. And for that, what Chris has written is a deepening lesson in karma that we should all dutifully process as gospel.

As one Goodreads review stated succinctly, “The only thing I like as much as this book is bacon. And believe me, I love me some bacon.” Clearly, what we love and what causes us harm are often one in the same.

About the reviewer:

Tristan Drue Rogers is a writer living in Texas. He has been featured in Open Journal of Arts & Letters, Ink & Sword Magazine, and the Herald-Banner, while his novel Brothers of Blood is available anywhere books are sold. He is a submission reader for Black Rose Writing and a Site Contributor for Genre Urban Arts.

Praise for Brothers of Blood

“This novel reminds me of what Less Than Zero would be like had it been written by Chuck Palahniuk.”

– The Platform author, Alex Bernstein

“Rogers’ talent as a writer becomes bolder and more apparent with every page, as Belle grows older and is left to her own devices. It’s a horrifically realistic picture of a fraction of today’s youth without parental influence.”

– A Taste of Home author, C. Derick Miller

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Top Image design by Sabrina Zbasnik

Brothers of Blood written by Tristan Drue Rogers