The Best Horror of the Year Volume Nine by Ellen Datlow (Ed.) - Book Review |

The Best Horror of the Year Volume Nine by Ellen Datlow (Ed.) – Review

Craft Notes:

  • Third Person Limited
  • First Person
  • Theme: Fear of the Unknown
  • Theme: Growing Up
  • Theme: Grief & Loss
  • Unreliable Narrator
  • Character Voice
  • Short Stories

With twenty-one tales of horror, varying from psychopathic killers (The Process is a Process all its Own by Peter Straub), to isolated towns that want to be left the hell alone (The Bad Hour by Christopher Golden), to a creepy arcade amusement machine (The House of Wonders by C. E. Ward) there is something for most horror fans.

As with all anthologies, there were some stories in The Best Horror of the Year Volume Nine that I enjoyed more than others, but even those that didn’t jive with my horror preferences were still brilliantly written and a joy to read. The theme of the unknown was a strong element in a lot the stories in this anthology (and is prevalent in horror in general) and I have managed to whittle the stories down to my personal top three from the anthology.

Nesters by Siobhan Carroll

A strange event has caused the land around the Mackay’s farm, and a large part of the U.S.A. to become dust filled and barren, where the rain rarely falls and survival is the best they can hope for. All except the Dubort’s place, where the land is green and lush, and the fruits grow abnormally large. The kids call it the Devil’s Garden. But Mr. Dubort has gone missing, and two government officials show up to try and get to the bottom of where he is, but Sally Mackay’s Pa is distinctly cagey, along with all the other farmers in the area.

The story is told through Sally Mackay’s point of view and is a great example of character voice done well using the third person limited perspective. Sally’s is the cynical voice of a child who has been forced to grow up fast and is resigned to taking on the role she has been dealt in life. She is trying to get to grips with the world she lives in and in many ways she copes better than the adults she is surrounded by, perhaps because they are fixated on the world they have lost.

While the adults find solace in religion—Sally’s Pa never misses a service on Sundays—Sally is cynical of what she is told here too. Her musings and ideas are almost adult in their own way:

“The service was one of the usual ones, about the end times and how the dusters were the Nesters’ fault for ignoring the Lord’s will. Inwardly Sally was having none of it. it was a pretty poor God who visited misery on folk for drinking too much and taking his name in vain now and then.”

Throughout the story there is a sense of bleak, resigned dread that builds steadily. It gathers like the dust in the story and finds its way into the nooks and crannies of your subconscious as you read.

Fury by D. B. Waters

A crime scene investigator is called to the scene of a very unusual domestic disturbance. He finds himself drawn, like a magnet, to the bizarre happenings within the house.

Fury is an interesting take on the haunted house story and is a good example of the unreliable narrator character done well. The story is written in third person limited from the point of view of the crime scene investigator. As the story moves forward, it becomes difficult to know whether what the main character sees is actually happening, whether or not he is imagining these things, or—perhaps worse—is the house itself conjuring up these images for him. There are points where his perception of time seems to warp, which echoes what is happening in the house itself.

On These Blackened Shores of Time by Brian Hodge

A father watches his son fall into a sinkhole that opened in the middle of their street. When the authorities give up on their search in the mine shafts running beneath the street, the family take it upon themselves to try to find his body, believing they might somehow find him alive.

The first person narrative, written from the perspective of the father, gives us an intimate view into the grief and helplessness the father feels when his son disappears into the hole in the road. It also heightens the horror when the father discovers what is in the dark deep beneath the street, towards the end of the story.

Fear of the Unknown

A common theme of these three short stories is the fear of the unknown. Horror fiction often relies heavily on this innate fear, but what is it about the unknown that is so terrifying?

It is linked, in part, to our fear of the dark. It represents our inability to distinguish friend from foe. Our brains form patterns based on our past experiences, and we use this to go about our daily lives. When we encounter something unknown, our brain goes into overdrive trying to make it fit to the frameworks we have already established. When we can’t find a pattern, or can’t compare it to something else we have already experienced, it is only natural that this would elicit a fear response.

A study at Toronto University found that our fear of the dark elicits a lingering, foreboding fear, rather than a full-blown panic, which is precisely the sort of response our ancestors would have needed to keep them on edge and alert so they could be ready to run from or fight against a predator. And it is also this lingering response that authors of great horror fiction play with when they write about the unknown. Their work leaves us with a sense of foreboding and unease and it plays on our innate survival instincts.


The Best Horror of the Year Volume Nine gives us plenty of amazing examples of how to create a lingering fear of the unknown when we write horror fiction, with lots of different characters, voices, and narrative structures thrown in as well. The stories themselves are brilliantly written and there is something for all horror fans in this anthology.


The Best Horror of the Year Volume Nine is available for purchase from: Amazon, The Book Depository, Waterstones and other booksellers.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts. Let me know in the comments below, or find me over on Instagram.

Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn - Review |

Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn – Review

Craft Notes:

  • Multiple Narrative
  • Third Person Limited
  • Short Chapters
  • Epistolary (in places)
  • Character Arc

I first heard of Ania Ahlborn in the highly recommended section of The Best Horror of the Year 2015 anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow so I added one of her novels to my TBR list. She cropped up again on the This Is Horror Podcast—which if you are a horror fan, I highly recommend listening to—and after hearing her talk about writing, it cemented her place on my TBR. Her novel, Within These Walls, finally worked its way to the top of my TBR and now I’m sure she will become a firm fixture on there because I loved this novel.

A has-been, true-crime author, Lucas Graham, thinks his life is going down the toilet: his wife is having an affair, his book sales are pitiful, and his relationship with his teenage daughter is becoming strained.

When he receives a letter from the notorious Jeffrey Halcomb, who is currently serving a life sentence for multiple murders and suicides, which offers Halcomb’s story exclusively to Lucas in exchange for Lucas packing up his life and moving into 101 Montlake Road, Pier Pointe, Lucas agrees. This is his chance to make his family proud and maybe get his wife back, with the money he earns from what is sure to be a bestselling story.

The only snag is that the house is the scene of a grizzly mass-suicide and murder; the place where Jeffrey Halcomb’s notoriety came to a head. Sure, there have been some horrible deaths in the house, but Lucas is a logical person, a house is just bricks and mortar (or timber and cladding, whatever tickles your pickle). That’s all. Isn’t it?

Well, this is a supernatural horror novel, so Lucas is in for a bit of a wake-up.

Notes on the Craft:

Ahlborn uses quite short chapters to break up the story which gives the novel more of a thriller pacing. At the end of each chapter, she leaves the reader with questions in mind that need answering—a hook, if you will—or she hints at a big revelation that is to come and then she will switch to a different viewpoint character so we are left on tenterhooks waiting to see what will happen.

The story is told from the past—from the viewpoint of Audra Snow, one of Halcomb’s victims—heading forwards towards the “sacrament”, and also from the present—through the eyes of Lucas Graham and his daughter Virginia—and Ahlborn somehow manages to weave these narratives together so they meet in the climax despite being set at different times.

Throughout the novel, Ahlborn weaves in news clippings and paranormal investigation reports which, again, give the reader a break from the main narratives at the most crucial moments. The news clippings fill in the gaps in the backstory of Jeffrey Halcomb and his followers, and the investigation reports give an insight into the kinds of experiences previous tenants of 101 Montlake Road have had, and these give little hints of what is in store for Lucas and his daughter.

Ahlborn writes her viewpoint characters in third person limited and deftly gives us the internal monologue of each character. She uses the same technique that David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, Bone Clocks) wonderfully describes as the “Thought Hat, and one character per chapter wears the Thought Hat, and only the character who wears the Thought Hat’s thoughts can the reader hear.”

The main character arc—more of a slope than an arc—is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: The main character, who is just about holding their life together, steps out of their comfort zone in the hopes that it will shake up the monotony and will improve their life. They begin the story nervous, but excited. Gradually, being in the house changes the character, making them paranoid, suspicious, and obsessive.

Final Thoughts:

Ahlborn’s easy to read style and thriller pacing make this the kind of book you will want to devour in one sitting, and I am sure this will become a horror classic. I loved this book so much that, upon finishing it, I immediately went out and bought her latest novel, The Devil Crept In, and I have a feeling she will be a regular on my TBR list. - The Power by Naomi Alderman Review

The Power by Naomi Alderman – Review

Craft Notes:

  • Multiple Narratives
  • Third Person Limited
  • Suspense
  • Themes: Feminism, gender roles, discrimination, power, and corruption.


All over the world women are discovering they have the power. With a flick of the fingers they can inflict terrible pain—even death. Suddenly, every man on the planet finds they’ve lost control. The day of the girls has arrived—but where will it end?

Yep. Took me about two seconds to impulsively pick up the book and take it to the till after reading that blurb.

This is the first novel I have read by Naomi Alderman and my only gripe is that I haven’t read her work sooner. Her style is easy to read, making this novel a good zipper—ie. a book that can be zipped through at an alarming speed. I finished it in about two days, give or take.

The bulk of the story is sandwiched by letters between a self-effacing social historian and author, Neil, and a fellow author, Naomi. The letters at the beginning set up the overall outcome of the novel which you might think would spoil the ending. On the contrary, this technique creates suspense and I found myself asking while reading “but how do we get from here to there?” The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, explains the idea of revealing important information to create suspense in the book Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut (Simon and Schuster, 1985):

There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean. 

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!” 

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.


Alderman achieves suspense from page one by using the technique that Hitchcock describes—and it makes for a thrilling read.

The main theme focusses on gender roles and the consequences of their subversion. There is a gradual change in gender roles throughout the book, echoed beautifully in tiny snippets of American news anchors’ chatter, where the man usually makes the interesting points—“Did you know the guy who invented the battery was inspired by looking at the bodies of electric eels?”—while the woman is there to receive his wisdom—“I did not know that, Tom, that is fascinating…And now the weather on the ones”. These are delicious little morsels that not only reflect the changes happening to the characters in the novel but also imply a wider scope of the impact of these changes.

Alderman has chosen four main narratives, three female, and one male, all written in the third person limited point of view. The inclusion of a male narrative was a brilliant decision, as we see the impacts of the changes within society through Tunde—a college-age photo journalist from Lagos—and we are able to empathise with his situation, which often drifts into the uncomfortable, and sometimes the truly horrendous. The multiple narratives also add to the suspense of the novel and made me desperate to turn the page to find out what was going on with the characters who are not in the current narrative.

Overall, Alderman’s novel takes a hard look at the differences, and similarities, between the genders and examines the ideas of the matriarchy and patriarchy. Her style is easy to read and the heightening suspense makes this novel difficult to put down.

Meatballs, Mash and Gravy: Dealing with Rejection

You’ve heard the ping. It’s in. And because your phone clearly hates you, you’ve seen the first few words as a preview.

“Unfortunately at this time…”

Your heart sinks as you fill in the rejection on your submissions spreadsheet. Are you even good enough? Maybe you should give up. Maybe you’re not cut out for this. Maybe that primary school teacher who ripped up your work was right…

Stop that right now. Get out some potatoes and get peeling. Remember every writer gets rejected multiple times. Multiple. Stephen King has been rejected. JK Rowling has been rejected. And now you’ve been rejected. Put your big girl knickers on, get out your masher, and pretend those potatoes are the faces of anyone who has ever said a negative thing about your writing or rejected you. You crush those potatoes!

And then when that’s all done, let the homely warmth of the lightly spiced meatballs and gravy give you a hug from the inside out.

Meatballs, Mash and Gravy: Dealing with Rejection |

Serves 4

Total cost (approx.): £4.66

Cost per Serving (approx.): £1.17


1 pack of around 20 swedish meatballs

Frozen peas


2 tbsp. flour

1 tbsp. butter

500ml beef stock

150ml sour cream


1kg potatoes

200ml milk

2 tbsp. butter

1 tsp. English mustard


Peel and chop the potatoes into two, three or four pieces depending on the size of the potatoes. Put in a pan of cold water so they are just covered, cover the pan with a lid and boil—the water should be bubbling but not violently—for around twenty minutes, until a fork goes into and comes out of the potato easily.

While the potatoes are boiling, make the gravy. Melt the tbsp. of butter in a large frying pan over a medium heat. When the butter has melted, add in the flour and mix it into a paste. Let it cook for around five minutes, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn.

Get your peas on now, cook them according to the packet instructions.

Pour the stock slowly into the frying pan, whisking everything as you go to stop the gravy from getting lumpy. Keep it on a medium heat and stir with a wooden spoon until it thickens. When it has thickened, tip in the sour cream and stir it to combine. When it has combined, tip all the meatballs in and let them heat through.

While the meatballs are heating through, drain the potatoes then throw them back in the pan over the heat and pour in the milk, add the butter and the English mustard. Get your potato masher and mash away until the potatoes are fluffy and creamy.

Drain your peas and serve everything in a bowl. Read a good book while you eat, I beseech you—I recommend losing yourself in the world of Harry Potter.

French Onion Soup with Welsh Rarebit Croutons: Building Suspense in a Story |

French Onion Soup with Welsh Rarebit Croutons: Building Suspense in a Story

French onion soup cooked the right way is like building up suspense in a story.

To paraphrase Hitchcock, you can show an explosion in a restaurant and, sure, it’s surprising to the audience, but if you show the bomb under the table while two men have their dinner totally unaware, that’s suspense.

Similarly, with onions you can flash fry them so they brown quickly and, yes, the end result tastes like onions. But to truly appreciate the sweet flavours of the onions, you need to slowly ratchet up the tension. You need to see the onions slowly sweat down and watch the natural sugars caramelise into a soft brown. Only this way of cooking onions produces the most satisfying French onion soup.

And what can I say of welsh rarebit? It’s essentially the best cheese on toast you will ever eat. It works so well as a crouton, you get the crunchiness of the crust but the middle melts in your mouth all gooey and cheesy and delicious. You won’t be able to have normal cheese on toast again without daydreaming about welsh rarebit.

Serves 6
Total cost (approx.): £3.23
Cost per Serving (approx.): £0.54


For the soup:
1kg onions
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock

For the croutons:

Small tiger loaf baguette or other French stick style bread
1 tsp. English mustard
3 tbsp. Guinness
1 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. Worcestershire
200g grated cheddar
2 egg yolks


Slice your onions into long strands—slice the onion in half along the root end, then slice thinly parallel to the root, this will give you long, thin, semi-circle strands—and put them in a large pan with the oil and butter over a low heat, and cover with a heavy lid.

Be patient with this bit, give those onions an hour. Go read a book, write a short story or do some household chores, whatever tickles your fancy.

When the onions have turned golden, add the chopped garlic and cook turn the heat up to medium for a couple of minutes. Then add your stock, stir and let the soup simmer gently while you prepare the welsh rarebit.

Slice the baguette into at least eighteen pieces—or more if you prefer your bread thinner, just make sure there are no holes in the dough—and lightly toast them under the grill on both sides.

Put the Guinness and English mustard in a small pan over a low heat and whisk lightly with a fork until the mustard is evenly distributed in the Guinness. Add the butter and stir until it has all melted and combined. Add the Worcestershire sauce. Tip in the cheese and stir until it has completely melted.

Take the pan off the heat and leave it to cool—you want the mixture warm so it is still pliable, but not hot so you don’t scramble the eggs—then add the egg yolks and stir until completely combined.

Spoon the mixture onto the bread then grill until golden brown.

Serve the soup in a bowl and place three welsh rarebit croutons on top. Grab a spoon and a good book and tuck in.