Welcome to Rick’s Read-Along. A new series presented by Horror Oasis where I visit an author’s entire back catalogue and encourage you, the reader, to read along with me.  I will publish my thoughts on each book every two weeks, while also announcing the next book I’ll be reading. Every author selected will be someone whose back catalogue is readily available and is somebody we feel our readers will enjoy discovering along with us. I hope that you’ll all join me in sharing your thoughts.

The first author in the series will be Gemma Amor. Gemma is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated writer whose books include Dear Laura, Cruel Works of Nature, White Pines, Girl on Fire and These Wounds We Make, all of which Gemma has self-published, as well as producing her own unique and beautiful cover art. Not content with conquering the world of indie horror, Gemma is also a successful podcast writer, contributing to the No Sleep and Shadows at the Door Podcast as well as co-creating the female-centric comedy-horror audio drama, Calling Darkness. Visit her website at gemmaamorauthor.com

Next up on our readalong series is Gemma’s first short story collection, Cruel Works of Nature. I’ll be doing something a little different with this one and rather than one big write-up, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on each of the books eleven shot stories individually. As these articles are intended to encourage people to read these books along with me there will obviously be spoilers ahead, although I will strive to keep them minor and avoid spoiling major reveals or twists along the way for those who haven’t read it yet.

Foliage

This was a killer opening story and one of my favourites of the collection. What starts as a seemingly low-key exploration of grief and the loss of a loved one soon manifests as a horrific cautionary tale with one of the most vividly disturbing body-horror endings I have ever read. I really connected to Dan and empathized with what he was going through and it was a great hook to get you invested in the story. This short excels with the characters in general and even those with bit parts to play, such as the retired Sherriff, just add to the world-building that made this one such a stand-out for me. That, and it has one hell of a messed-up ending! 

Jack in the Box

This lean, mean little short is one of the books shortest, but one of the most hard-hitting. It starts off as a pretty light, humorous little tale, but damn does it go to a dark place by the end! The fact that we know where the story is going by the midway point, only makes the inevitable all the more gut-wrenching because you hope against hope that the author isn’t going to go there. She sure did though, feelings be damned!

Black Sand

What really sold me on this short wasn’t the premise (which was a fun take on a familiar set-up) but the story’s lead character. The unnamed woman who stumbles upon a horribly mutilated body whilst holidaying in Italy is set up as an intriguing character from the start when her reaction to what she finds isn’t quite what you would expect. When the culprit is slowly revealed, it is how she deals with it, both in the moment and during the aftermath, and what we learn about her along the way, that makes this story more than the sum of its parts. 

Back Alley Sue

While this didn’t end up being one of my favourites of the shorts collected here, it is by far one of the most creative, and that’s a bold statement for this collection because none of the shorts contained within lack creativity in the slightest, whether that be a new take on old tropes, or something wholly new and exciting. This surreal urban legend-inspired short had great visuals and an interesting premise, and I enjoyed that it was told from the perspective of a homeless man, as it gave a new perspective on familiar things, which is one of the more interesting themes of this story. 

Girl on Fire

This was probably my favourite short of the collection. This certainly bodes well for the final book of this read-along series, which appears to be a full-length expansion of this very story of the same name. You take to Ruby right from the start. She has such an infectiously upbeat, fun-loving attitude that it’s hard not to get swept away along with her. The good times obviously don’t last for poor Ruby, as tragedy strikes early on and things go even more downhill from there. I was really impressed how different she is by the story’s end, and what a journey she’s been on in such a short space of time, and I can’t wait to see that built upon in the novel.

Scuttlebug

Scuttlebug was my kind of short! This one was a good old-fashioned creature feature apocalypse and I loved every word of it. Like a lot of stories in this collection, it starts off relatively small, building up tension, until things get dialled up to eleven at the halfway point. The creatures in this were frightening and suitably gross and just when you think that things have got about as gooey and disgusting as they are going to, ‘that’ scene happens! You know which one I’m talking about. You have a sick mind Gemma Amor, and I love it!

The Path Through Lower Fell

I really enjoyed the comedic tone of this one, especially as the humour is derived largely from 1. The ridiculous premise and 2. The two characters painfully slow realization of what we, the reader, have been clued in on from the start. Why aren’t the cows eating the grass? Why are the cow pats pink? Is that a human skull? Why is that cow licking its lips at me? This story was hilarious, and welcome addition to the woefully underrepresented man-eating cows’ subgenre. It was great to have a few fun and silly shorts, like this and Scuttlebug, in the middle of the book to provide some well-needed respite from some of the heavier themes of the earlier stories.

His Life’s Work

This short kept me guessing until the very last minute. I had no idea where it was going, but it was a fun journey getting there. What I thought really made this story work is how we’re fed just enough information at each point in the story to give you an idea of where things are going, keeping you intrigued and invested, but refusing to show its hand entirely until the end, at which point you feel like you’re prepared for the revelation, only for it to go down a much more cosmic, surreal path than you first thought. Like a mix between From Beyond and Flatliners, this was a continuously surprising story that works thanks to a tense build-up and all-out cosmic horror finale.

Special Delivery

Like Jack in the Box, this was one of the book’s shorter entries, but what makes this one stand out for me is the pure, unapologetic levels of weird. The premise is familiar (someone is sent a mysterious, sinister package in the mail) but I can’t say I was expecting anything else that came after this initial set-up. The juxtaposition of this larger-than-life, impossible creature that plagues our two protagonists, against the peaceful suburban surroundings was so wonderfully jarring and I kind of liked that we got precisely zero answers by the story’s end.

It Sees You When You’re Sleeping

If I had to pick one short from this book that was going to haunt my nightmares, this would be the one! The story opens on Pete, mourning the loss of his long-term relationship with Mona and living with his eleven-year-old niece, Alice, who has tragically lost her parents. The opener is a heart-warming scene between the two on Christmas Eve that serves a much greater purpose in the story’s action-packed finale. I love Christmas and I especially love Christmas-themed horror stories and this one has me very concerned at what might be coming down my chimney this December!

Sketchbook

The collection wraps up with something a little different to what came before it. This tale of a young boy who finds a notebook that brings to life anything he draws in it was a little more melancholy than a lot of what preceded it, but it also has a heart-warming undercurrent of feel-good positivity to it as well, a welcome note to end an excellent collection on. It had its scary moments and it makes the most of the concept, but the heart of the story is the mother-son relationship it presents which makes this a pitch-perfect mix of big supernatural themes and real, relatable family moments. 

Overall, I loved the versatility and mix of themes and tones in Cruel Works of Nature. The author wasn’t afraid to break your heart on one page before making you laugh on the next, right before scaring the pants of you by the end. Nothing is off-limits and the stories are all the more unpredictable for it.

Please join me back here in 2 weeks, when we will be reading Gemma’s epic Folk Horror novel, White Pines. Hope to see you all then!

Richard Martin

Richard Martin

Reviewer

Richard Martin started reading horror books at a young age, starting with R L Stine’s ‘Goosebumps’ and ‘Point Horror’ series. He traumatized himself at the age of twelve when he read Stephen King’s ‘IT’, and never looked back. He is currently based in the UK, where he lives with his partner and an inappropriate amount of books. 

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