CriminOlly thinks: Enormously varied and at times staggeringly disturbing debut horror collection. 4/5
Poking Holes is an extremely strong debut collection from Mexican America author Juan Valencia. It’s horror, but maybe definitely not the kind of horror a diet of Stephen King and Blumhouse movies has prepared the world for. Instead, this is a nightmarish mix of surrealism, satire, politics, extreme gore and psychology.
The book contains nine stories, each very different from the others. There’s body horror, Lovecraftian pastiche and Black Mirror style technology-infused psychological terror. All the stories are good, but the standouts for me were the fantastically disturbing and unhinged stream of consciousness User and elegantly crafted but soul-destroying Chatty Chump, which starts of as a cute horror tale but quickly goes somewhere much darker. Both these stories are challenging in the extreme, but also brave. Unlike many writers of extreme horror who seem to lay out humanity’s worst excesses for shits and giggles, Valencia writes his horror with precision and purpose. All the stories here have something to say, even if it isn’t always something we want to hear. Racism, privilege and abuse all get examined, but never in a way that overwhelms the stories.
The variety of the tales is impressive, but what’s even better is the fact that a consistent voice and set of themes ties the stories together. At its heart this is a book about power structures and the way they’re abused. Horror lends itself perfectly to such discussions, and Juan Valencia’s love and knowledge of the genre shines through again and again. He uses relentless suspense, mystery and our fascination with the appalling to drag his readers through the stories. That makes for a book that is compellingly readable as well as meaningful.
Make no mistake, this is a VERY disturbing book at times, and should be approached with that in mind. It’s also often excellent and memorable, as much for its sensitivity as for its extreme content.
Title: Poking Holes | Author: Juan Valencia | Publisher: Self-published | Pages: 209 | Publication date: 6th October 2022 | ASIN: B0BHG8GJDB | Source: Purchased
People are holes waiting to be filled.
People are sharp, nervous blades dancing across skin and bone.
People are hungry, desperate, empty maws waiting to be fed.
Juan Valencia’s Poking Holes is a collection of nine tales seeking to explore that emptiness, that volatile monstrosity and dangerous hunger that prevails through our encounters and self-destructions. Across bodies, across borders, across species, holes, gashes, and mouths open and let fear and anger flow free.
Content Warning: Racism, sexual assault, child abuse