A book review by Richard Martin
Writer, Editor, Reviewer, and general championer of all things horror, to say Janine Pipes debut horror collection, ‘Twisted: Tainted Tales’ is an eagerly awaited release among the indie horror community is something of an understatement. The anticipation for this collection of seventeen horror shorts on 1 May is practically palpable on social media and as of writing, it is already the number one on Amazon’s Horror Anthologies chart, almost two weeks before its release date.
Even before the publication of Twisted: Tainted Tales, Janine has been published in several high-profile anthologies and has even been nominated for a Splatterpunk award, so I’ve been looking forward to reading this one since the cover reveal. Her reputation for extreme horror and the loving tribute to 80s VHS that is the cover makes this a book that is right up my literary street so, to do something a bit different for this review, I’ve set out some thoughts and hints at what you’re in store for on each individual short below.
Before we get into that, however, I need to mention the introduction. It sets up a wraparound story of a young junior solicitor who inadvertently stumbles upon a series of papers containing the short stories presented in this book, which she proceeds to introduce the reader to in-between each one. I thought this was a neat touch, very reminiscent of the great 80s horror anthology movies like ‘Creepshow’ or ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ and helps set the scene and really adds to the fun, retro vibe of the whole production. 80s fans may even find some of the story’s titles somewhat familiar.
In the spirit of these classic horror anthologies, this intro has gone on long enough so, on with the show!
The opening story is probably Pipes best known, having previously been published in ‘Diabolica Brittania’ and also the short that won her a coveted Splatterpunk Award nomination earlier this year. As an opening story goes, it is a bold choice, but delivers some big expectations for what’s to come. The story itself is fairly simple, but Pipe puts a unique spin on the werewolf mythos and it all wraps up in a bloody and tense showdown. What I most enjoyed about this one was the camaraderie between the group of women the story focuses on. Their easy friendship and natural back and forth felt very genuine and was a lot of fun to read. As a fellow Brit, special mention has to go to the authentic UK slang! There aren’t nearly enough ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ references and uses of the words ‘sozzled’ and ‘bugger’ in modern horror stories for my tastes…
When Doves Cry
After the 80s references and cinematic feeling bloodbath that precedes this one, I wasn’t expecting a period piece that reads almost like a fairy-tale, but that’s exactly what you get with ‘When Doves Cry’. It sets the scene of a cosy inn, replete with roaring fire and lairy patrons very well and while it didn’t feel quite as polished at ‘Footsteps’ (the notes suggest this is an early story by the author) it did feature another unique take. I had thought I knew where the story was going as we’re introduced to a vulnerable woman travelling alone who happens upon a charming man who soon invites her back to his home but, as it transpires, Pipe has a surprise lined up and the twist ending and grisly imagery of this quick short does make it linger in your mind.
I Want to Break Free
I love split narrative stories. Like an unreliable narrative, getting multiple perspectives on a story may lead you to the realisation that not everything we’re being told is necessarily true and Pipe gets good mileage out of the device with this short. It is lean and grim and throws us into an unpleasant scene from the first sentence but to say things take an unexpected turn would be an understatement and I liked how Pipe made the readers sympathies shift multiple times throughout.
This story has a great hook. A prolific serial killer is on the loose and the police are struggling to break the case. The most perplexing thing is they are finding the bodies… but where is the blood? I know what you’re thinking, but there is a surprise in store! I did not see that ending coming.
Addicted to Love
The title suggests romance but the content is anything but! This one was grubby and seedy and you may well need a shower after reading. It was also one of my favourite shorts of the book. No twist ending here, you can pretty much see the ending coming early on, and that just makes it all the more suspenseful waiting for the inevitable carnage in the last few pages.
Sweet Child O’ Mine
After some pretty graphic early stories, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine dialled things back a bit and presented a short but creepy little story that hints at sinister things to come early on. As we begin to get a clearer picture of where it is leading, Pipe resists the urge to do a big dramatic reveal and succeeds in delivering a more subtle and eerie tale, demonstrating range beyond the blood and gore that’s come before it.
I really enjoyed the build-up in ‘Tainted Love’, how it started off quite sweet and saccharine, until the protagonist starts to show signs of being… well, I won’t spoil it here, but this short was a great example of how to set a scene, present some kind of anomaly or questionable act early on, then just ratchet up the tension until we finally see what the endgame was all along. Its ending certainly lived up to the hype.
Lost in The Shadows
The nostalgic references were non-stop with ‘Lost in The Shadows’! Not a surprise for a story named after a song from ‘Lost Boys’ but it was fun to spot all the references. This was one of those stories where the reader is clued in on the twist ending before the characters realise what is going on, and I have to admit, this one got a laugh from me. Darkly funny.
It’s A Sin
This was one of the longest shorts of the book and opens with the line “What is your greatest fear?”. The story then goes onto tell a surprisingly heartfelt and grounded coming of age tale that promises a ghost story, but puts the focus squarely on its two lead characters as opposed to any supernatural goings-on. This was a very relatable story, played straight and all the better for it. The ending is a gut-punch you won’t see coming and the whole short is equal parts heart-warming and tragic.
Love Is A Battlefield
Another refreshing change of pace, this time in the form of a dystopian future set short with some heavy sci-fi inspiration. This one read like a cross between ‘The Purge’ and ‘Mad Max’ and it wears its main influence, ‘The Running Man’ (the Bachman book as opposed to the Schwarzenegger movie) on its sleeve. It is just as nihilistic as all of these as well, telling a story of a state sanctioned game offering hope to impoverished masses, and the chilling truth behind the scenes.
Running with The Devil
Did you ever have any local legends growing up? The protagonist of this short had a great one, and they can’t resist checking it out for themselves to see if it is true. This was another favourite of mine, mostly down to the fact that the lead character is so likeable and well developed. I also enjoyed the flashback at the story’s conclusion which elevated the spooky urban legend into something a lot more ominous.
You would think with seventeen stories to choose from it would be tough to pick a favourite, but no. This one! This one is my favourite, hands down. It is sick and demented and absolutely hilarious. I may have ended up with a no doubt lifelong fear of trees now, but it was totally worth it…
Schools Out Forever
Set almost entirely in an old abandoned school, this short was packed full of atmosphere. Like a lot of shorts before it, the banter between the two main characters is a big highlight and really goes a long way to keeping you engaged as the pair good naturedly trade insults, distracting enough from the fact that you just know this isn’t going to end well for either of them.
Side Note – If you only read one set of story notes in this collection, make it these ones, as they really add an extra scare factor to what you’ve just read.
Living on A Prayer
I wasn’t prepared for ‘Living on A Prayer’. After reading so many stories that were funny, gory or scary, this one took me by surprise by being a sad and touching reflection about loss, at least to begin with. Pipe can’t resist taking a turn for the more macabre by the end, and both elements work very well for such a short story.
Bones of Boarded-up Baby Bodies Behind the Bath-Panel
‘And the award for best short story title of 2021 goes to…’
This story got pretty tense. Featuring two teenage boys as the lead characters, you sense that one of them is acting… out of sorts for large portions of the story. The story’s big reveal is very well played and this is another that was so atmospheric and creepy I can imagine this one being a standout story for a lot of readers.
This one was a tough read, and reminded me a great deal of Jack Ketchum’s famous short story, ‘The Box’ but Pipe takes things in a very different and completely unexpected direction. The ending is largely ambiguous and the short is all the better for it, and I liked the escalation from quite a low key, introspective story that goes huge in scale at the end.
The collection closes with another of my favourites. Fans of Stephen Kings ‘IT’ will get a big kick out of this short about a group of preteen kids whose dares when exploring get more than a little out of hand. I won’t spoil the ending by mentioning the other book/movie it reminded me of after the midway point but think classic 80s creature feature. This was a top notch ending to the collection.
Each story boasts some thorough and often personal story notes and while I know they aren’t to everyone’s tastes, I do urge you to read these, as the insight they offer into the writing process along with some fun ‘behind the scenes’ trivia and anecdotes are interesting stories in their own right.
Overall, I had a great time with Twisted: Tainted Tales. It is a book that is meticulously designed to be pure entertainment, whether that be the glorious cover, the wraparound linking it all together, the numerous nostalgic references, or the stories themselves. There was a lot more diversity here than I was expecting, and while extreme horror or splatterpunk fans should leave well satisfied, there is more here to suit all tastes. The stories all paint a vivid picture and Pipe is very adept at setting a scene. She also has a knack for characters, finding some small things to make them immediately relatable or memorable. What really shines through though is Pipe’s passion for the genre and her enthusiasm is infectious. To use one of her English colloquialisms, I challenge anyone to read Twisted: Tainted Tales and not have a bloody good time.
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.