GUEST BOOK REVIEW by Christa Carmen: A Mighty Word

A Mighty Word
By: Joshua Rex

Genre: Horror, Magical Realism, Speculative Fiction

Publisher: Rotary Press
Publication Date: 4.12.2021

Pages: 175

Kevin Heartstone is a past-obsessed tenth grader grieving the loss of his father, an architect and restoration specialist, and struggling with his mother’s new relationship with the owner of a demolition company. While visiting his father’s grave, Kevin encounters Jane Cardinal, a fifteen year old girl who has been dead for over a century and a half. Jane, along with her contemporaries, have recently been re-animated by the by-product of an anti-depressant produced by Still City’s leading employer—Preventative Solutions—which has been illegally dumping the waste into the decaying area neighborhoods and cemeteries. Jane will be Kevin’s link to a time for which he longs, while Kevin himself will become central in his fractured hometown’s survival, and the dilemma of reconciling its past with its present by conciliating the dead with the living.

Halloween is a two-faced entity, characterized both by long-standing traditions and a host of fun, more modern frights. While one can celebrate the night on which the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds is thinnest by visiting a cemetery to pay respects to a lost loved one, an equally viable option is to gather a group of costumed friends to shudder before the latest A24 horror film.

Joshua Rex’s A Mighty Word, like Halloween itself, encompasses the best of seemingly competing worlds. It is a celebration of things that have come before as well as an exploration of that which scares us most in the here-and-now. Death. Loss. Change. Oblivion. No longer recognizing the world around you, or your place within it. It is a novel that engages insightfully with the fear that the best of humanity has come and gone.

The story takes place in fictional Still City, a community that is keeping its last grip on life by producing and promoting an antidepressant called Plaiscene, manufactured by Preventative Solutions. When the toxic byproducts of Plaiscene seep into the ground, causing the deceased residents of Treestone and Neil Memorial Cemeteries to rise from their graves, it quickly becomes clear that the dead are far less monstrous than those in Still City intent on keeping Preventative Solutions running smoothly, no matter the fallout.

Too busy navigating an unfamiliar world after his father’s unexpected death to have bought into the Plaiscene hype, Kevin Heartstone is clear-headed (and open-minded in the way that only somewhat-different-and-subsequently-alienated-kids can truly be) when he stumbles upon the reanimated Jane Cardinal, and finds that his old-fashioned view of things aligns him closely with her and the other corpses.

Kevin and Jane’s fight for what is right is not only hard-hitting in today’s politically embittered times, but in the hands of Joshua Rex, it’s rendered hauntingly on the page. During Kevin’s solitary treks through a ghostly, near-abandoned city, he would “search the newly vacant lots for scraps of the recently demolished, finding perhaps a plaster acanthus curl from a Corinthian column, a spandrel or bracket dowel, a pane from a latticed window.” As the dead rise, they contemplate their surroundings, those spots that were once “hallowed,” that once held “rows of handsome oaks and flowerbeds bright as barrelfuls of spilled jewels.” Even death is beautiful here, and when the mayor takes drastic measures to escape culpability in Still City’s demise, his end is marked by “a volcanic spray brilliant as brimming lava… superimposed against the red and orange shell burst of twilight.”

It’s clear that Joshua’s care wasn’t for a single, or even a handful, of elements when it came to penning this novel. Characters are not sacrificed for plot; neither is language for dread-inducing suspense. Horror—sociopolitical, Gothic, and the beautiful macabre—along with captivating discourses on life coexist bewitchingly on the page.

Some of the best horror, the best stories regardless of genre, are those works which are not easily categorizable; A Mighty Word resists being put in a box much in the same way that the wise and dignified corpses who shape its narrative refuse their stuffy coffins. If Halloween is as much for tradition as it is for the newer rituals that continue to shape it, then Joshua Rex’s novel is what you should be reading this October 31st. It’s a delightful trick of horror subgenre, and an overall treat of dark fiction.

Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked won the 2018 Indie Horror Book Award for Best Debut Collection, and additional work has been published in places such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Fireside, Not All Monsters, and Behold the Undead of Dracula.

These days when I’m not writing, I keep chickens, read books like Mary, Who Wrote Frankenstein and The Gashlycrumb Tinies to my daughter, forget to pull a daily tarot card, and tinker with a dog food recipe concocted to make my beagle live forever.

Most of my work comes from gazing upon the ghosts of the past or else into the dark corners of nature, those places where whorls of bark become owl eyes and deer step through tunnels of hanging leaves and creeping briars only to disappear.

Something Borrowed, Something Blood Soaked
A young woman’s fears regarding the gruesome photos appearing on her cell phone prove justified in a ghastly and unexpected way. A chainsaw-wielding Evil Dead fan defends herself against a trio of undead intruders. A bride-to-be comes to wish that the door between the physical and spiritual worlds had stayed shut on All Hallows’ Eve. A lone passenger on a midnight train finds that the engineer has rerouted them toward a past she’d prefer to forget. A mother abandons a life she no longer recognizes as her own to walk up a mysterious staircase in the woods.

In her debut collection, Christa Carmen combines horror, charm, humor, and social critique to shape thirteen haunting, harrowing narratives of women struggling with both otherworldly and real-world problems. From grief, substance abuse, and mental health disorders, to a post-apocalyptic exodus, a seemingly sinister babysitter with unusual motivations, and a group of pesky ex-boyfriends who won’t stay dead, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked is a compelling exploration of horrors both supernatural and psychological, and an undeniable affirmation of Carmen’s flair for short fiction.

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