Book Reviews

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Spook Lights – Southern Gothic Horror by Eden Royce

Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror by Eden Royce is a collection of horror short stories. Since Ms. Royce grew up with in Charleston, South Carolina she tries to capture the style known as Southern Gothic. Southern Gothic is a style which relies heavily on the spirits and magic, average people, depressed settings, and most importantly, utilizes Southern locations.

With Ms. Royce, her Southern Gothic is flavored with the Gullah culture of Charleston as well as dark witches and magic. Every story revolves around average, everyday people either caught up in extraordinary circumstances or for whom calling upon magic is not big deal. The people live in what some people would consider the outskirts of town and society. Some might even consider the people and situations to be grotesque and macabre.

I did enjoy the collection and felt it was just the right length and had a diverse group of characters. That being said, with any short story collection or anthology, I had a few favorites.

Doc Buzzard’s Coffin – First off that title is just plain cool. Someone’s coffin? Come again? Okay, let’s read this one and see where it takes us. In a nutshell, it wasn’t what I was expecting.

One of the biggest reasons why I liked this story is that it starts off with a woman and her two children putting Doc Buzzard into a coffin. It’s presented as such a normal family-bonding experience as the children argue as one would expect two twelve-year-olds do. Things are fine until a local cop shows up and inquiries as to what is going on.

The story is told through Jezebel’s point of view and we learn why burying Doc Buzzard is no big deal. What worries them most is Doc Buzzard and what will happen since his coffin is confiscated, sitting in the police station while mom is being questioned.

Through Jezebel we learn the family deeply believes in magic and this isn’t the first time Doc’s been dead. It isn’t until the end does the reader learn why Doc Buzzard was in a coffin and it is done so subtly that I had to re-read it a couple of times to make sure I understood what the reasons were.

I appreciated that as well as feeling the heat and stickiness of the setting. I also think the horror aspect of it was enough. After all it is a kid telling the story. I think because this type of thing isn’t unusual for the Jezebel and her family that’s why the horror isn’t over the top.

Homecoming – I like this one a lot because it was different. It’s probably the least horrorish of all the stories but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have scary parts.

The story centers around a couple dealing with their son being a convicted serial killer. The father believes they shouldn’t have anything to do with him because not only is their son a monster, he feels guilty for raising a monster.

On the other hand, the mother visits their son on a regular basis and believes, as most mothers probably would, she needs to stay by his side. She’s also a little delusional in that she believes he will get out of jail and return home.

Nothing in the story is really given to show they were abnormal in their parenting. They spoiled their son but unfortunately quite a few parents do that. Most of the children raised in such an environment don’t turn out to be serial killers. Perhaps there is more to that spoiling than the reader is initially led to believe?

That premise alone kept me interested. How often are stories told from the parents of a serial killer viewpoint? What do they think about the situation in private? How do they act? Do they keep up hope, like the mother, or do they have disgust and anger, like the father? I liked that dichotomy and thought it was done well in a short amount of time.

With the Turn of a Key – This story starts off with a typically unhappily married couple. The husband works six days a week and tries his best to keep his wife happy. The wife is nothing but a shrew described as having a “surgically enhanced chest”. Nothing he does will make her happy and she lets him know.

A key mysteriously turns up one day and neither of them knows where it goes to or whom it is from. The harpy of a wife accuses the husband of having an affair, projecting her own cheating ways. Where she believes he has time to have an affair when he barely has any time to sleep puzzles the husband.

Yet they keep the key. More specifically the husband leaves the key in his room. When he goes to sleep later that night, a mystery woman, who clearly is from the sea, visits him in his dreams. Naturally she says nothing and leads him under the sea up to a coral gate which the key must unlock. He hesitates that first night by not following her, but on subsequent nights follows the sea woman deeper into her world.

The ending has an interesting twist which left me wondering if what happens was a good thing or a bad thing and if so to whom?

 

One of the strengths of Spook Lights is the diversity in the situations and the people involved. These are average, ordinary people, in some cases what most would consider the “ugly” side of life. With the exception of the couple in With the Turn of a Key, everybody lives on the outskirts of town and life. This immediately draws the reader into the various worlds in Spook Lights.

Another strength is, in the stories I liked the best the horror was subtle, more psychological than anything. That doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the more graphic and overt horror, often I did, but for me personally, I like it when things are rooted in realism when it comes to horror.

Something I felt was both a strength and a weakness was the how many of the stories featured women getting revenge against men who did them wrong. A couple of stories with this theme I would have been fine with, but more it gets repetitive. Also it makes women come across as petty and incapable of just moving on.

It also felt to me some stories were incomplete and with parts of the story physically missing. I re-read quite a few pages again to make sure it wasn’t something I was not reading correctly.

Overall, on a scale of one to five pencils I would give Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror a solid three pencils.

Musings

Weekly Musing: I Have a Theme

Apparently I have a dwindling supply of stories in my arsenal. In response to this surprising shortage, I’ve been working on new material. This is good as it gives my brain a break from my novel as I let it stew but also because it allows me to explore new ideas. One plan I had was to take a look at some unfinished stories, see what might be worth is saving, and finishing them. Another plan, one that I’ve embraced, was to take a look at markets with some kind of theme.

It was this week I realized what the appeal of themed magazine issues or anthologies is to me. They’re an opportunity to test and stretch my creativity but in a way it feels like some of the work has partially been done for me. For whatever reason, it’s difficult for me to come up with short story ideas on my own. Ideas for novels are really easy. Perhaps they gum up my head so much that there isn’t any room left to dream up short stories.

Having a theme or prompt for short stories seems to activate something in my brain. Somehow, some way, I get inspired. It’s as if the creativity light bulb pops on. Maybe this harkens to my school days when I enjoyed writing essays and papers. The teacher was giving us direction and I responded well to that. So I guess it makes sense that train of thought would transfer over to creative writing. The challenge of it is far harder, though. Unlike school, I don’t have anything already studied or known.

Something I think is important for a writer is to stretch their limits and write in a different genre. For me, following genre-specific theme helps narrow down to me what to focus on. Even if the theme isn’t genre specific, for example the theme of Nature, that is still something to help get my brain thinking. I enjoy the challenge of it because I force myself to go away from what I’m comfortable with but also to see if I can come up with a twist.

Since I’m not a genius nor am I a Renaissance woman, the other appeal of themed short stories is I usually have to do some kind of research. I don’t have to go into anything hugely in depth; mostly I stick to a quick Wikipedia search and a few other places. Too much research overwhelms me and unless I’m doing a novel, there isn’t too much of a need to go into any kind of depth. For example, a recent story I wrote was for an anthology with the theme of the 1939’s World’s Fair. They were specifically looking for stories that developed the idea of what the future would look like. Although the story was (nicely) rejected, it was fun gathering research since I didn’t know anything about the World’s Fair. The great thing about the internet is the ease of access to information including images. I’m thankful for whoever digitized images from the 1939’s World’s Fair because it was those images which inspired me.

While on the subject of research for these short stories, I love seeing that marriage of various avenues come together to help me write a short story. The research leads to image searches which then allow me to brainstorm ideas. While I’m brainstorming and writing, I try to find an appropriate music playlist or two to help put me in the right frame of mind.

Another benefit of writing to a theme is if the story gets rejected for its original target, the story is now available to submit elsewhere. Instant problem solve. Plus it also means that more markets are open to me which means I have more chances of having a story picked up for publication.

I love the fun and unique challenges themed short story writing brings to me. Even if my attempt isn’t successfully executed, it’s worth the risk. Not only does it stave off boredom and complacency (ha, like that could ever happen to me but I digress), it helps flex my creative muscles in areas I normally wouldn’t think of. In a way it is a ‘safe’ risk, a way to dip one’s toes into a different pool which could possibly lead to a different artistic path. And sometimes a theme can give me an excuse to explore an emotion or different side of me I normally might be too tentative to try.