With Blood Like Garnets, TKO Studios has released its very first collection of prose fiction. The stories in this collection are all written by Leigh Harlen, and each horrific tales features artwork from Maria Nguyen. I’ve been very excited to check this anthology out, so let’s get into these stories — spoiler free!
“The New Flesh” – Kicking things off with a shudder and chills, this story shows the lengths that a mother will go to in order to restore a loved one. The most interesting part of the story happens at the every start, taking the reader through a typical transaction in this witch’s life. The whole story is full of half-answers and plenty of mystery, never quite giving the reader the “how” behind everything. Still, this adds to the horror of it all, especially when things go steadily and predictably wrong. The first of Nguyen’s illustrations is one of the most memorable, displaying an oddly casual scene of human flesh that has been folded like laundry.
“Lazarus Taxon” – The change in format for this story was an interesting choice, but it doesn’t quite work with some of the reveals that happen later on. I like that it is essentially a transcript of an audio recording, but it makes the points where something else is picked up in the recording seem like they fit in a different narrative device. Even so, this is still an interesting stylistic break in the collection, and Nguyen provides a scene of destruction that is vivid yet minimalistic — it’s no wonder that this image was chosen for the cover of the book.
“Where the Body Ends” – This one leads with Nguyen’s unsettling illustration, setting the tone for a story that is very much more about the mood and a sense of dread than it is about explaining the story behind this horror. This easily one of my favorite stories in the collection, because it begins in a place where the characters are relatable and likable, and then it stretches them into something we can hardly recognize — almost literally.
“FriendFone” – This felt like one of the darkly-comic Black Mirror episodes, in which a new technology and our dependency on it can lead to disaster. Much like Nguyen’s illustration for this tale, “FriendFone” is simple but effective. The protagonist is almost amusingly arrogant in some ways, which sets her up for an exceptionally long fall. On the downside, the story feels like it stops right when it really gets going.
“Blood Like Garnets” – This story is one of my favorites in the collection, and is also the tale from which the book draws its memorable title. This is a story that follows a serial killer coming upon prey that may be more than he can handle. What makes this story so memorable is the way in which Harlen is able to get into the killer’s mind, showing the reader the kinds of things that this person looks for first in a potential victim. It makes for a chilling read, but that fear turns to excitement as this becomes a story about a woman who refuses to be a victim. While the twist is telegraphed a bit early, it still makes for one hell of a satisfying read. Nguyen’s illustration for this one is perfect, showing the would-be victim huddled in the corner, an unearthly look of defiance on her face.
“Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice” – This was hands-down my favorite story in the collection, and it felt like a YA-infused nightmare. This one takes the setup of “girl goes to a new school where things are very different” and veers off into some truly unsettling directions. Much like “Blood Like Garnets,” this story presents us with characters who are fighting tooth and nail to hang onto their identities. Nguyen also lends one of the eeriest illustrations to this tale, showing us a bit of the horrific confrontation that takes place near the end of the story. It is also placed in an interesting spot within the story’s pages, tee-ing up one of the scariest moments in the whole collection.
“This House Is Not Haunted” – This story is told from the point of view of some kind of demonic entity, which gives this one perhaps the most sinister tone of the entire collection. There’s a gleeful malevolence to the narrator, and the vagaries surrounding its true nature and what exactly it does to the people it kills will leave the reader uneasy the entire time. Like a dark fairy tale, this story is oddly poetic and is one of the ones that stayed with me the most. It also features one of my favorite works from Nguyen in the collection, which wisely gives it just enough of a form to give us something to picture when the family sees it in the dark. The one thing about this story that did not work for me was when the tense shifted for one section of the story, and then back again — it was an odd choice that kind of jarred me out of the spell the story had me under.
“Karaoke” – This is another one of the stories in the collection that goes for a mood over a lot of logic. It’s never quite clear what the cause of this tale is, nor the identity of the narrator. However, the characters are still well-defined within the story. Each one of them is an archetype, but they have all become unlikely friends – like a horror-bound Breakfast Club. It really digs into the ways that teenagers can be hurtful to one another, without ever truly meaning to be. The character motivations in this story are spelled out for the reader as literally as possible, but in a way that really suits the story. Nguyen delivers one of the kookier illustrations in the book for this story. It feels like a more abstract version of what’s happening in the tale, which fits how off-putting and stressful the story is, as a whole. All in all, “Karaoke Night” is a memorable tale to leave the readers on.
Overall, these stories do an admirable job of taking set-ups and tropes that readers may be familiar with and making interesting choices with them. A few stories feel like they could have been given a bit more time to breathe, but they are all told with a confidence and cleverness that carries each one through to their shocking ends.
It should be mentioned that there were a few odd editing errors here and there in the book. For instance, typeface changed multiple times throughout the book, sometimes within the same page. There were also a few typos that seem to have made their way through. While these momentarily took me out of the book from time to time, Blood Like Garnets is still a worthy horror anthology, and well worth checking out.
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