This debut collection and much-anticipated release from Donnie Goodman boasts a killer cover by Justin T. Coons and twelve tales of terror inspired in no small part by the mass market horror paperback explosion of the 1970s and 1980s. Affectionately referred to as ‘Paperbacks From Hell’ named for the recent Grady Hendrix book of the same name that chronicles their history, these lurid covers and unashamedly gory content has inspired a whole generation of writers, and the influence on Goodman’s inaugural release is clear to see before you’ve even started reading. Everything about the book screams fast-paced, fun and gory good times and, if his ‘sneak peek’ release of the short story ‘The Old Bay King’ back in February is any indication, that is exactly what we can expect.

The Razorblades in My Head

It’s easy to see why Goodman chose to lead with this story, as it very much sets the tone for what is to follow, and more than any story in this collection demonstrates a range that few writers can boast. As a pure body horror story, it is very effective. The titular premise is surreal and unpleasant and the story gets good and disgusting, but dig a little deeper and there is more going on that first meets the eye. As fun as it is as a gross-out piece, the story is also a very relatable and slightly melancholy metaphor, one which I initially read as almost a take on PTSD, and the minds unwillingness to let go of past traumas. Horror readers just wanting a fun read will leave very happy, but genre fans wanting a little more substance over style get that here as well, and the balance between the two is perfect. An incredibly strong opener.

Third Grade

Told from the perspective of a third-grader writing a letter to his teacher, the story starts off rather sweet and endearing but gets very dark very quickly. Goodman gets a lot of mileage out of childhood innocence here, his letter writer clearly positioned as well-intentioned rather than leaning into the trope of ‘evil children and the fun of this short is how the reveal comes gradually, almost mentioned as a passing thought until the lurid details come out. Goodman nails the voice of an eight/nine-year-old, their focus all over the place, the structure of the letter messy, almost ‘stream of consciousness in style and I enjoyed the unique format and thought the overall piece, experimental as it was, worked incredibly well.

Stargazing

This one came as a bit of a surprise as it is, to begin with at least, a much more quiet and reflective story, focusing on character as opposed to the concept. Following a young woman still mourning the untimely death of her younger brother, who was taken by leukemia when he was a child, a lot of the story’s events are told through this lens of tragedy and it informs everything that happens, even when things take a more peculiar turn. The whole story has a surreal, dream-like quality to it and is more impactful for choosing to tell such a big scale story through such personal means. 

Gobble, Gobble

I love Creature Features and read any I can get my hands on. I’ve read stories featuring the unlikeliest of killer animals. Pigs, Moths, Cows, Frogs, Slugs, Jellyfish, Worms, Pikes, Cormorants, Kangaroos, I’ve read them all. I believe this was my first ever ‘Death by Turkey’ though and, for such a silly premise, Goodman actually manages to wring a surprising amount of tension out of it. Not to say it’s not as out there and as funny as the title suggests, but a genuinely creepy story about a Turkey is no mean feat.

Magic in the Hat

Reading like a ‘Tales From the Crypt’ Christmas Special, this fun and festive short follows three troublemaking boys who get some creative comeuppance when they choose the wrong house to prank. You’ll see the ending coming a mile off but the fun is in the journey with this story. Goodman seems to have a knack for characters and dialogue, especially when his leads are children, and I loved to hate the three naughty kids in this one. There is some vivid yuletide body horror in the finale and hints at a much wider story, giving you a lot to get your teeth into for such a seemingly straightforward cautionary tale.

It’s Not Always Why

“I want to know why”

This phrase comes up a lot in this story, which is far darker and more serious-minded than most in this collection. It’s an apt mantra because, until the very end, we’re kept in the dark as to exactly what is going on, and answers are not necessarily forthcoming. Fans of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (‘Resolution’ in particular) will find a lot in common between the filmmaking duos work and ‘It’s Not Always Why’. A chilling set-up and a build-up that delivers a lot, but does not offer the ‘whys’ readily, building to a vaguely defined and wholly unexpected cosmic finale. When the story starts the young protagonist has power over the reader because she seems to have an understanding of what is happening, which is not afforded to us. By the end, we’re in the same position she is; we’ve seen the forces at play, but are no closer to understanding what they are or why they are here, and that is what makes this one of the collections more disturbing offerings.

The Stranger in the Squared Circle

The longest story in the collection also happens to be my favourite. Mixing professional wrestling and classic monsters is inspired, and the result is just as enjoyable as you’d expect. Resisting the temptation to get straight into the ring, a lot of time is spent getting to know the lead character first, then setting the final confrontation into motion by building up the suspense and upping the stakes until the final showdown. The ending is perfect, and while being somewhat unexpected, it is exactly the way the story needed to end. I’d love to read more stories in this vein, which perfectly balanced the horror and the fun factor.

Toasted

A short and sweet piece of flash fiction that revels in the strange, this was another story that subverted my expectations by keeping things off-kilter and telling a strange tale that doesn’t go too big or opt for a classic twist ending. We’re never quite sure whether the protagonist is in the midst of a psychotic break or if she is genuinely experiencing something profoundly supernatural. A brisk and well-told short that sets up a lot in such a short page count and delivers a satisfying ending while still leaving plenty of things unsaid or unanswered.

Teddy

In the short story notes at the book of the book, Goodman mentions that he intends to write a longer piece of fiction in the near future and, for what it’s worth, my vote goes to an expanded adventure with Wallace and the rest of the cast of ‘Teddy’. The premise of this short has so much potential for more stories set in this world. I picture a mixture of The Warrens meets Indiana Jones, with some secret societies thrown in for good measure. If this does prove to be a one and done then it was a fun ride, with its period setting and bleak worldview.

A Bloody Heist

A high concept story that does exactly what it says on the tin (there is a heist… and I’ll not spoil how the blood comes into play). I thought the way Goodman described the action was incredible. Its very precise language and quick sentences, keeping the momentum going on a story that is almost 100% bank robbery and car chase. I flew through this one and it proves that the author is equally capable at tackling other genres (thriller in this case) as he is horror, even if the temptation to throw in something supernatural proves a little too tempting.

Hourglass

Easily the collections most overtly comedic short (and yes, I’m including the killer turkeys story in that statement). This one actually had me laughing out loud (“Are these gluten-free?”). It was a little weird to read the story notes on this story and hear that this had its origins when Goodman was working on a short film because as I was reading it I absolutely thought to myself what a great 5-10 minute short film this would make.

The Old Bay King

This was the only story I was familiar with going into the collection and remains one of my favourites. This is the kind of story the book’s design leads you to expect. It’s a love letter to the mass market horror paperback boon, in particular, the Guy N. Smith ‘Crabs’ series and it’s as much fun as these bloody stories were, with the added bonus of interesting, well-rounded characters and a worthy plot to hang things on. It is one of the longest stories of the collection, and the perfect one to end the book on, leaving us on a strong and memorable note.

Wrapping up with some story notes that cover some insightful looks into the themes and inspirations behind the stories, as well as some fun anecdotes behind their inception, the book feels over far too soon. The passion behind the stories and the personal touches that have gone into the release shine through and I was left craving more. ‘The Razorblades in my Head’ delivers on its promise of big entertainment and exuberant, blackly funny carnage, but there is also a surprising number of stories that are a little quieter, more heartfelt, and these are a welcome addition, mixed in with stories of killer turkeys and sinister snowmen. It is hard to believe that these stories come from a debut writer, as the voice behind them is so assured and distinctive and I’m excited to see what Donnie Goodman has lined up for us next.

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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