TITLE: Till the Score is Paid
AUTHOR: Gemma Amor
AGE RANGE: Adult
With her signature flair of emotional horror, Amor forces readers to accept the fact that sometimes the monster lurking under the bed is, in fact, someone we known.
Unsurprisingly, Gemma Amor has done it again and has completely amazed me with how much terror and emotion she can fit into such short, tidy little stories! I first was introduced to Gemma’s work through The NoSleep Podcast, and thoroughly enjoyed an earlier collection of hers (Cruel Works of Nature), so I went into Till the Score is Paid with high hopes and was not let down in the slightest.
With many short story collections all from the same author, I whittle my review down only to my favorites, but that’s tough to do when you have 11 stories and you’ve given each and every one of them either 4.5 or 5 stars! Instead, I’m going to indulge myself a bit and talk about each one (without spoilers, of course):
→ Have You Seen My Dog?
An unsuspecting doctor is caught in a nightmare when a sick and violent man becomes convinced she has something to do with his dog’s disappearance. I wasn’t quite sure where this one was going, but it was equal parts tragic and disturbing, and kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.
→ Pure Water
A hike goes downhill after a taste of the local freshwater sources. I like to take review notes when I read, especially for short story collections so I can keep up with my immediate reactions, and my note for this story is literally just, in all caps, “SO FUCKING GROSS!” I think that covers it pretty well. ?
Justine’s abuser thinks he’s found an easy way out of punishment, but she’ll go through hell and back to make him pay. Oh, my heart — this one’s a bit tough to read at times (check the content warnings at the bottom if you’re concerned, no spoilers), but it is absolutely splendid and cathartic. It also features one of the most intriguing depictions of any sort of afterlife I’ve ever read, and made me totally want more!
→ I Am Ghost
Every Halloween, one young man becomes a prisoner in his own mind as Ghost comes out to play. This one took a premise I thought I was familiar with, and gave it a fresh new twist that I just thought was so much fun.
→ Rat Girl
Timmy just wants to make friends in his new town, but how can he befriend someone who has such a dark secret living in their basement? I think the idea of finding out that your new friend is hiding something terrible is a fear a lot of us dealt with as kids (regardless of whether it ever came true or not!), and Rat Girl does a great job of putting you back there through Timmy’s frightened, morbidly curious little brain. This one hurt my soul in the same way Ketchum’s Girl Next Door did (though on a much less gut-wrenching level, thank the gods); something about the cruelty of bullies really never stops making me ache. That said, the descriptions in this one are well worth the sorrow and the ending? Perfect.
→ My Best Friend
I tried to come up with a snappy one-liner synopsis for this one without spoiling it and just… couldn’t do it! It’s such a short installment that packs quite the punch, and it’s really, truly delightful.
→ Heart of Stone
It’s hard being a single father who’s being pushed out of the picture, so when a special occasion rolls around, you’ve really got to make sure you pick the perfect gift, right? I remember hearing this one on the NoSleep Podcast a while back and loving it so much that, when I recognized it in the collection, I even reread it just to enjoy it all over again. If you’ve got the time, I highly recommend finding S12E15 of the podcast (the free edition of the episode includes this story, and you can even find it on Spotify!) and listening while you read, because the narration adds even more to the absolutely twisted turn of events unfolding in this one.
→ Cell Block B
Imagine waking up in prison without a clue of who you are, how you got there, or why your cellmates are so terrified of the Warden. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every story in this collection, but this was absolutely one of my favorites! It’s just so warped and offers this strange sense of karmic justice to top it all off.
→ A Birthday Cake for Brian
She just wanted her son to have a happy birthday, for once… This was another NoSleep story (from the 7th anniversary episode if you’re interested) that, again, I recognized and still had to read again because you just can’t skip past any of the stories in this collection! I feel like this story would make a fantastic horror short (such as those 5-minute short films on social media) — it’s a terribly unnerving little slasher film all wrapped up in just a few pages.
→ The Strangler
They say depression is a monster. Sometimes, they mean it literally. First of all, this story is not going to go easy on you if you’re a parent — especially if you’ve struggled with mental illness weighing down your abilities to be the parent you want to be — but it is so worth it (and, small spoiler: (view spoiler)). The first-person narrative offers a brutally honest commentary on how quick we are to dismiss the pains of new mothers, and how much we minimize the fact that loving your child doesn’t mean you’re incapable of having bad days. It functions as a harrowing metaphor for how smothering those bad days can become, but offers a bit of hope and optimism, too. There’s a turning point in this story that made me instantly burst into tears because I related so strongly to it, and it was an aspect of motherhood I hadn’t realized I needed to see depicted in a story until now — so, thank you, Gemma, for spilling your own heart out on the pages like this.
When a refugee child arrives in the middle of the war, one woman becomes convinced that her household has been cursed by dark forces. This is one of the most developed stories in the collection, and frankly could have been a full novella on its own without hearing a word of complaint from me, because I loved the premise and characters so much. The setting already carries an immense, melancholy weight about it, but when you go adding in factors like this poor refugee child, the terrible circumstances befalling this woman’s home, and her uncertainty if she’ll ever see the man she loves again — it really becomes such a thick, sorrowful story. That said, the horror elements are never buried and the descriptions are downright disturbing, but the ending brings everything together in a way I never would have foreseen but could not have possibly loved any more than I already do.
As you can gather from my thoughts on these stories, this is one of the easiest 5-star reviews I’ve ever written for any short story collection. I was blown away and am so grateful to have kicked off my year with this release that I even immediately went online and ordered a copy of another title of Gemma’s (Dear Laura) just so I can submerge myself back into her twisted, perturbing, wonderful imagination as soon as possible. I wholeheartedly recommend this collection to any horror readers, whether you are a long-time lover of the genre or brand new and looking for recommendations on where to begin.
Thank you so much to Giles Press for providing me with this copy in exchange for an honest review!
mentions of animal abuse/death, mentions and flashbacks of rape, kidnapping, gratuitous violence, descriptions of suicide, self-mutilation, boddy horror, cannibalism, brief usage of ableist slurs
I wholeheartedly recommend this collection to anyone, regardless of your level of experience/interest in the horror genre or the world of short story collections!
WOULD I RECOMMEND IT? YES!
— destiny ♥
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