Greetings from the Ether,
We all know the term “hidden gem.” Be it a film, or an artist, or even an author. There are few terms that could better describe Michelle Mellon and her debut collection “Down By the Sea,” published by HellBound Books. Mellon’s collection is remarkable in its content, and even more so in the pristine quality of prose. The author writes with beautiful, often lyrical skill, and each story eloquently crafts a narrative based in unimaginable horrors, and real-life atrocities. Leaning more towards dark fiction as a whole, rather than the cosmic horror or weird fiction we usually review, it was a breath of fresh air to read such a page-turning, original set of stories that honestly deserves far more attention than it has received. If you’re looking to catch the next big voice in dark fiction before they burst into the mainstream, Michelle Mellon and her collection are the perfect candidates.
The collection opens with a tale that cautions us not to trust that old lady in the neighborhood that everyone knows. “Crawlspace” is told through the eyes of a delinquent boy who wants nothing more than to cause mayhem and rebel against his family. These plans collide with Old Lady Ennis as she introduces our protagonist to a fate that accompanies all little boys who find a bit too much bravery in the little neighborhood. Mellon masterfully crafts the world in which the story takes place, and ensures that the dialogue and description are more than enough to keep our eyes glued to each page.
The next story is “Crash Test Dummy,” another cautionary tale but far more disturbing than the prior piece. In the vein of classic Stephen King, Mellon delivers bombs on each page as we delve deeper into the psyche of a man who justifies an atrocious act that he happened to get away with. We find disgust in the character’s thoughts and how he finds himself unaccountable for his actions. But soon, we learn as he does that revenge is a dish best served cold. The ending breaks into supernatural territory, but in the most unexpected of ways. Michelle Mellon is an expert in page-turning prose, and “Crash Test Dummy” is one of the finest examples of this talent in the collection.
In “Somebody’s Angel,” Mellon transports the readers into the mind of a mentally unstable little girl who is pregnant and living under a religious, backwoods roof. The author employs realistic dialogue and accents that leap from the page, making it impossible not to feel as though we are right there with the family. As we learn more of the protagonist’s past and what led her to commit the acts she does to her family at the end of the story, it’s difficult not to side with her. Mellon knows how to warp our perspective, how to draw the strings of our thoughts into the direction she chooses. “Somebody’s Angel” is a prime example of the plethora of techniques the author knows how to execute with ease, and we couldn’t be more happy to be along for the ride.
Next up is a flash fiction titled “Fallen Leaves,” where we follow a narrator who takes a shortcut through an alley, only to be met by something otherworldly. Another example of Michelle Mellon’s penchant for taking tropes and spinning them on their head, “Fallen Leaves” is a concise, fluid flash piece that harnesses the author’s talent in an amazing way. The story borders on weird fiction, and the concepts the author utilizes are fresh, adding a dose of something new to a story we’ve all heard before. Mellon obliterates expectations with every story, and “Fallen Leaves” is one of the best showcases of this.
“Does Your Mother Know?” thrusts us into a gruesome scenario in the first few paragraphs, nailing us right into the action. We’re treated with a serial killer as he starts the routine of killing his latest victim, a young girl. We learn our killer has done this many times, and that his hobby, so to speak, has become second nature. He makes the mistake of letting the girl ask a question, and this question is one he never expected and doesn’t know the answer to. Going into the story, it’s easy to first suspect that we have ourselves another dark crime tale, but it quickly spins into a psychological piece that only adds to the dread surrounding its already brimming atmosphere. Another fresh take on an age-old genre piece, Mellon proves her versatility and ability to put her own spice into anything she cooks.
We next find ourselves wrapped in a blanket of paranoia, “The Corner of My Eye” presenting some of the most psychologically disturbing prose in the collection. We follow our narrator as they describe the constant sensations of noticing things that change in the peripheral, small events that only they can see through the corner of their eye. Mellon succumbs us to the weight of a life that drowns in paranoia and an unstable mind. The small, strange details that the author uses are subtle, but convincing enough to strap us into our seats. We’re treated with a thrilling work of fiction that is reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and the horror is deeply ingrained into the bones of our narrator, as they welcome us to join them in a new world, a novel insight that can only be granted through paying attention to what we see in the corner of our eyes.
In the titular tale, “Down By the Sea,” we are gifted with perhaps Mellon’s best work to date. Launching the reader into a sharp, cosmic horror rollercoaster of a ride, we learn with a mourning family that sometimes old superstitions are more than they seem. Mellon hits every emotional note in “Down By the Sea,” showing us the impacts of death and how they can lead us to justify things we can’t quite explain. She illustrates the common event of passing off an older family member as crazy, or superstitious, and how these mindsets are often not as easily anchored with children. Combine this with a hereditary curse, an ancient evil within the sea, and prose so eloquent that readers will find it impossible to put the book down, and you have one of the best pieces of short fiction in recent memory. “Down By the Sea” is the magnum opus of Michelle Mellon’s debut collection, and we are positive that it will drive its watery pull into your heart and leave you with only a desire for more of the author’s beautiful writing.
We follow up with a short and (not so) sweet tale titled “Green Thumb” about an older gentlemen who is manicuring his garden in the hopes of winning the top prize in a competition. We quickly learn there is a bit more going on in the soil than we previously thought, and Mellon ensures we’re caught off guard by the end of the story. A shorter piece, the author showcases her talent for showing just enough, and never telling too much. Short fiction is harder to write than most people give credit, and Mellon’s work is an excellent example of an artist who has mastered their craft in every way, a writer who is as confident as they are talented.
In “Fear of the Darkness,” we’re treated to a spectacular story of a woman’s fear of darkness. Her husband wants to help her, despite her reluctance toward any type of treatment. At first, the paranoia and phobia itself seem irrational, solely driven by childhood fears. But as we reach closer to the shocking finale, we learn that her fears may not be so irrational after all. In a very Stephen King-esque way, Mellon takes an ordinary concept, that many people experience, and flips it on its head. Not for one moment is the story hard to follow, or lacking in its ability to keep the reader focused on every word. By the end of the story, we feel as though something has snuck up from behind, and Mellon’s delivery ensures the surprise is as rewarding as possible.
“Fountain of Youth” continues with a more weird fiction leaning theme, and is another impressive tale that stands shoulder to shoulder with “Down By the Sea.” Exploring hypnosis, PTSD, and trauma with a Ligottian scope. We find ourselves reliving a horrendous event our protagonist experienced as a child, over and over during hypnosis, as she tries to force a different outcome. Equal parts Thomas Ligotti and Philip K. Dick, the reader is launched into a frightening setting where memories cannot be trusted, and our heroine faces the possibility of losing her identity completely. Mellon handles upsetting concepts with a firm grasp of their significance and a meticulous narrative style that never ushers our minds away from the pages. “Fountain of Youth” is easily a highlight in the collection, and one of the most mind-bending, genre-blending tales we’ve read in recent memory.
“Back Seat” is a flash fiction piece that explores the realms of motherhood, often to disturbing effect. We’re offered a glance into the life of a woman whose instincts have been to run from her life, and what she left behind. Guilt swarms like locusts upon crops and we dive into the deep end of madness with her along the way. Mellon knows how to describe any event in a way that is relatable, and “Back Seat” is a great example of the authors variety and fluidity in any narrative she tackles.
In “Renasci,” Mellon brings us a more classic style of horror tale, with a young woman named Maria as she finds herself a new mother, as well as the catalyst for something much darker. In this story, Michelle Mellon eases back on the breaks and jumps back into mainstream horror, “Renasci” feeling much more atmospherically connected with the earlier works in the collection. Her prose is tight, each word stringing us along as we tightrope walk across to the finish line, already feeling saddened that the collection will soon come to an end.
We close the collection with possibly the most haunting tale yet, “Nameless,” as we follow a protagonist who knows they don’t have long in this world, her recent diagnosis ushering her to get out of town. What follows is an exploration of how the past transgressions of others can remained ingrained deep within the soil and air that we breathe. The heroine sees disturbing entities as she uncovers a past that crosses racial divide and extreme violence. The concept of people being forgotten who have every reason to be remembered. Mellon writes with a voice that is sensitive, empathetic and haunting. Her words make us question the reality we perceive as the truth and brings to us the wonder of how much we don’t know, or refuse to learn. She combines the supernatural with historical elements, and closes out a daring collection with a heartfelt goodbye in the form of a thought-provoking, deep work of fiction.
There are a few words we will say in conclusion to this review, mainly these seven: “More people need to know about this.” We strongly believe you will feel the same after finishing the collection, as Mellon writes as confidently as the Kings and Straubs of horror fiction. Her ability to execute such a wide variety of styles and to eloquently design each sentence in a way that prevents us from looking away, is a talent that should never be overlooked. This is easily one of the best collections of the year, and we hope you find it as entertaining and engrossing as we did.
Michelle Mellon has been published in several horror and science fiction anthologies. In August 2015, she and her husband relocated from San Francisco to Germany, where Ms. Mellon is a stay-at-home mom to their cat while she works on a horror story collection and writes a blog about living overseas.