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Review: Slow Burn by Mike Allen

Slow Burn, the latest collection from Mike Allen, will officially be published July 16, 2024, but I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek. First off, shout out to Lasse Paldanius for the eye-catching cover art, and to Paula Arwen Owen for the interior illustrations. Owen has worked with Mythic Delirium Books before, and her pieces are always stunning – evocative of stain-glass windows and intricate cut paper shadow puppets.

The collection itself mixes fiction and poetry, with many of the pieces existing in a shared setting and some with overlapping characters. In his Acknowledgements, Allen frames it as part of an unofficial trilogy along with two of his previous collections, Aftermath of an Industrial Accident and Unseaming. It’s not necessary to read the other two to enjoy this one, however it does add another layer to the stories, as they do build on and enrich each other.

There are multiple flavors of body horror on offer in Slow Burn, along with dark fantasy, cosmic horror, and science fiction. Feather Stitch balances horror with an emotional core by centering a grandmother trying to discover the fate of her grandson who has literally gotten mixed up with a terrible monstrosity. One of the standouts in the collection, The Butcher, the Baker, also keeps the focus on the main character’s emotional journey amidst the horror. Trukos is a golem-like creature baked by a woman named Auntie Mayya for the purpose of killing her abusive husband. When Trukos subsequently kills in self-defense, Mayya orders him to kill the dead man’s widow as well in order to keep his true nature secret, but he refuses, and she banishes him. There’s a bittersweetness to the story, which is reminiscent of Frankenstein. Here too a creator turns their back on their creation, but this time for refusing to commit violence and wanting to be something more than monstrous, making for a nice inversion of the theme.

Strange Wisdoms of the Dead co-written with Charles M. Saplak has a historical-yet-timeless feel, as a man trapped on a ghost ship surrounded by corpses finds those corpses waking, leading him to doubt which is crumbling – his mind or reality. Falling Is What It Loves brings elements of both cosmic horror and science fiction, set in a world where people have “roommates”, extra dimensional beings that can see through the timestreams and also pick up signals from the humans with whom they co-habit. As Rae works through her complicated relationship with her dying father, her roommate both exacerbates the situation and helps her heal. Machine Learning is another story with a science-fictional feel as two women on a road trip are led astray by AI and find themselves in an abandoned landscape filled with eerie machines intent on doing them harm. Abhor is an effective piece of body horror where a physical therapist discovers creatures living under one of her clients’ skin and takes them into herself.

The titular story, Slow Burn, and the longest piece in the collection, Comforter, share a setting as well as common characters. As part of a larger story cycle, both have the feeling of a world extending beyond the page, but also work well as standalones. There’s a strong voice to both, bringing in elements of cosmic horror, but also grounding the characters in lives and in a world that feels lived-in and real.

Overall, Allen is a master at serving up striking imagery and evocative, atmospheric settings. He also excels at creating characters who feel fully realized, then dropping them into horrific situations, keeping the reader invested in their journeys and well-being. Slow Burn is another strong addition to the line up of Allen’s work, with plenty to offer fans of multiple genres.

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