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Incredibly vivid, heavily detailed, brilliantly written and fast-paced, Columbine is one of the best true crime books I’ve ever read. Written like a thriller, Dave Cullen, one of the first reporters on the scene that day, covers everything to possibly know about the Columbine massacre that took place on the morning of April 20, 1999, carried out by high school students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The book covers three major events: the evolution of the attack stretching out two years, the attack itself, and the aftermath that spans over the next decade.

There is honestly way too much to dissect for a simple analysis or review. To cover all of it I’d need to write a full-length essay. In short, it’s a true crime masterpiece that hits you hard in the chest. A large portion is dedicated to the survivors of the attack. Not just those in the school but the families of the thirteen. Cullen takes you along their recovery stories, particularly Patrick Ireland’s and Valeen “Val” Schnurr’s who pop in and out of the narrative as if to lend readers their resilience when things get too heavy.

The description of the attack itself is harrowing. Cullen’s words chase you down like that junkyard owner in Stand by Me, hitting you over the head with a rock in his dirty hand. Before I picked up the book I already knew a lot about the attack, that the bulk of it ended after about 17 minutes, that Eric and Dylan ended their own lives and that there were 13 victims, and yet I was biting my nails the whole time. Subject matter aside, it’s clear that Cullen is a phenomenally talented writer. He puts you in the moment. You’re there at Columbine not only living the event but watching it unfold.

You can hear the police sirens, the blaring fire alarm honking for hours, and feel the quaking rattle of the gunshots. It’s graphic and violent, every survivor shares a bit of the story so that readers get a full picture of that day, including the image of Eric smiling as he shoots through a glass door at a teacher and the slow, agonizing death of Dave Sanders.

The thirteen victims of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold

Debunking the myths of Columbine

It’s easy to tell that Columbine started from Dave Cullen’s desire to set the record straight. Facts about the massacre have never been 100% accurate, starting from contradicting personal statements to the first blundered press conference. Rumors have taken on a life of their own, becoming facts in the eyes of the public.

The biggest myth about the attack was that had to do with the toxic atmosphere at Columbine High. If you browse the internet you’ll find many Tumblr and Reddit posts featuring “evidence” of the harassment Eric and Dylan supposedly faced at their school. Cullen addresses these claims by saying that they were largely made by those who didn’t know the boys and were projecting hateful comments onto their characters post-mortem. Friends of Eric and Dylan have repeatedly refuted these claims, that they never knew either one to suffer at the hands of bullies.

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The myth comes from our desire to give reason to such an event. Anything that would neatly wrap up the blame in a box and shape it into something acceptable. There was no obvious motive so people created one they could understand but even after all these years, the world is still bewildered. It’s just as Eric predicted:

“The majority of the audience won’t even understand my motives either. All you f***ers should die! DIE!”Passage taken from Eric Harris’s journal, The Book of God

The motive of the psychopath

Warning. I am a major nerd for psychopathology so this section is a lot of rambling.

The psychology of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold is what inspired me to pick up this book. Anyone interested in the same should definitely give it a try. There is an amazing chapter in Columbine that works at explaining not only Eric but the reason why he and Dylan were a pair because, as most true crime enthusiasts know, most killers work alone.

Page 239, “Chapter 40: Psychopath.” Easily my favorite chapter of the whole book. It explains the reason why people such as Eric grow attached to people such as Dylan and why both committed the crime.

Psychopaths crave constant stimuli. They can’t feel or experience emotion the same way as everyone else yet they crave it. They’re aware of that spark they’re missing and often seek it out elsewhere. Usually, they find it in rushes of adrenaline or in the presence of explosive individuals, and Dylan Klebold was Eric’s explosive individual. Prone to impulsive fits of rage, Dylan ran hot and cold all at once. He was packed to the brink with raw emotion which made him incredibly stimulating to someone like Eric- a textbook psychopath who struggled to feel even a flicker of anything.

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“The psychopath is in control, of course, but the hotheaded sidekick can sustain his excitement leading up to the big kill. ‘It takes heat and cold to make a tornado, ‘ Dr. Fuselier is fond of saying. Eric craved heat, but he couldn’t sustain it. Dylan was a volcano. You could never tell when he might erupt. Day after day, for more than a year, Dylan juiced Eric with erratic jolts of excitement. They played the killing out again and again: the cries, the screams, the smell of burning flesh… Eric savored the anticipation.”Columbine pg. 244

A psychopath is not the Michael Myers type of killer most of us associate with the word. Their actions are used to meet specific goals. In Eric’s case, it was fame or rather, recognition. Columbine was a performance and the public was the audience. The objective was to leave a mark on the world. Just a single glimpse at Eric’s journal “The Book of God” shows how hungry he was for recognition. Not companionship or even success, but acknowledgment of his superiority. The kid really thought himself a god.

The hard truth of it is, Eric and Dylan walked into Columbine that day with no targets in mind despite their different objectives. Eric wanted mass extermination and fame and Dylan wanted suicide.

Final verdict

The attack didn’t happen out of the blue. There is a gradual buildup as well as some concerning red flags. As it turns out, there were MANY chances to stop Columbine. At least a year before the attack, multiple complaints were filed against Eric for threatening behavior and the reported detonating of crude bombs in isolation areas. Even more shocking is how Dylan attempted to warn several people! He hinted at the attack on several occasions, warned Eric’s neighbor (a boy who Eric sent repeated death threats to) about Eric’s desire to kill, and wrote a short story for class that appeared to be a foretelling of the attack just months earlier. It was as if he was begging someone to stop them. But of course, no one did.

We’ll probably never have the full story about what happened at Columbine. There are only two people who know the truth and they both took their own lives. They robbed the world of ever knowing the truth and so now, we do our best to fill in the blanks. As I said, there is a lot covered in Columbine. It does its very best at giving you the full picture or rather the picture that Dave Cullen has discovered for himself. Even if you don’t agree with his account, Columbine is still an incredible read. 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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Rachel Roth is a writer who lives in South Florida. She has a degree in Writing Studies and a Certificate in Creative Writing, her work has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies. @WinterGreenRoth

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Book Reviews

Monastery Series 6: a Book Review

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The newest installment of Monastery is a packed bag of goodies. It’s nearly impossible to discuss everything that happens in this episode, but I’ll give it my best shot. If you thought the stakes were high before then you best buckle up. We’re about to take a ride on the craziest rollercoaster you can imagine. Let’s begin!

Plot

We pick up right where we left off in the last episode of Monastery – Cassandra helping Francis cover up George Turner’s murder (she should have a business card at this point). As their luck would have it, a group of kids discover the body the very next day. Albert hilariously describes the interview that follows as pointless cameos. Our resident gang correctly assumes that the pair had something to do with it. They narrow down their investigation to probe Francis further with little success.

We also get more insight into Cassandra in this episode as it is her 60th birthday. I am shocked to say that she tugged my heartstrings this time round, especially during the seance at Madam Witch’s. During this experience, we see Cassandra and Albert reuniting at what we assume to be heaven. For those few minutes we as readers see that despite everything, there was – is – some genuine love between the two. I thought this interaction brought yet another layer to their already complex dynamic. It goes without saying that the scene between Pop Dennis and Nana Beth during the same type of experience will bring tears out of anybody.

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However, my sympathy for Cassandra doesn’t last long. When she thinks everyone forgot her birthday, our resident grandma gets wasted. This causes her to nearly spill murderous beans at her super awkward surprise party organized by David. Our pointless return as he seemed to invite the most random Monastery residents.

Speaking of David, the poor guy is still stringing Erica along all the while pining for Nicole. Not that he is fully at fault as Erica doesn’t seem to take the hint. Must be hard not to hurt someone’s feelings when you can’t be with the one you love anyway, right? Unsurprisingly, this causes Nicole to finally confront her feelings for David properly, and the two end up having sex. Their dynamic now has more layers than a matryoshka doll since both are in relationships, not to mention the family aspect. Although considering Erica sees everything, we can assume David is newly single and in for a rude awakening.

Fred continues to be the biggest underdog in this episode. As if what happened between his girlfriend and his cousin won’t be enough of a blow, Cassandra also kicks him out of her house. The question of where he’s going to stay now remains a mystery. Perhaps this is an opening for him to leave Monastery once he inevitably finds out about their betrayal? Time will tell.

As for our investigative squad, their main quest is slightly pushed to the background. That is, until Thomas discovers a bloodied toy car. This only brings more questions as to what exactly went down the night Albert died. Their investigation is put to the biggest test yet when Rocky, everyone’s favorite dog, is taken by an unknown assailant. This person threatens the gang to drop everything, or else. The installment ends on quite an anxiety-filled note and I would like to have a word with whoever is responsible. I got my guesses and all I will say for now is that their name rhymes with Dick. 

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Overall thoughts

The sixth part of Monastery showcases once again what’s so great about this story. We got a mixture of everything – mystery, murder, fear, love, lust, heartbreak, but most of all, family. It’s arguably the biggest theme of the story and this episode showcases it perfectly. The party scene, while quite anxiety-inducing for me, was also hilarious and moved the plot while showing off different dynamics. Although I’m not gonna lie, everything that I was curious about now fades in the light of Rocky’s abduction. This is the turning point of the story for me and I’m just clutching my dog tighter thanking all the gods that I haven’t pissed off some psychopath.  5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

More from the author:

1. This episode of Monastery really focuses on the complexities of Cassandra’s character. In one of our previous talks, you mentioned that she is the hero of your story, albeit an extremely flawed one. We get a whole spectrum of emotions from her, from missing Albert to calculating George Turner’s cover-up to helping Francis to kicking out Fred – she is her own one-woman show. I guess what I’m curious about is, what’s your opinion of redemption arcs and is this something that you’re interested in doing with Cassandra or are you happy to keep her deliciously villainous yet human as she is (if you can share, that is)?

A good redemption arc is a hard thing to pull off and I often find that it hinges on convenience more than anything else – we redeem characters after they’ve done unspeakable things simply because we still love and root for them. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but redemption is not something I think about too much where somebody like Cassandra is concerned – she is who she is, a hero and a villain, a mother and a monster, both deep and shallow, and I am happy to keep her as she is for now without worrying too much about redeeming her.

2. Further to my last question, you have no qualms about writing complex characters who do messed up things, maliciously or not. Have you got to the point writing Monastery where you stopped liking a character you created or stopped rooting for them because of this? Alternatively, have you grown fonder of a character because of how you crafted the story and where they ended up?

Honestly, the nastier the characters get, the more I love them. I get an immense kick out of Thomas blackmailing David or Nicole playing mind games on the boys she likes – those are the scenes I always can’t wait to get out. I never stopped rooting for anyone, but I will say this: when I’m caught up in the moment and the words are flowing out of me, these characters can shock me sometimes. There was an instance in episode 3 in which Aunt Doris made me spit out the words, “You bitch”, as I was writing her dialogue. I couldn’t believe the things she was saying, and I was the one writing them! I live for those little moments.

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The dinner party scene was chaotic to say the least. Was your intention to make the readers anxious or to make them laugh and reminisce of their own family gatherings (hopefully without a murder revelation)? I got a bit of both, personally.

The dinner party served three big purposes for me: a) it was a bit of a breather after the intense drama of the midseason finale and its aftermath; b) it plays into the satire element of the story, as yes, family gatherings (especially in a small town) are always full of drama; and c) it was a rare opportunity to bring the whole family together, since there’s so many of them and we can’t possibly always have them in the same place at the same time. It was nice to just press pause and dig a little deeper into who they are and what makes them tick, whilst still teasing the readers about the mystery. I’m glad it awakened all those emotions in you!

Bonus question – Rocky is okay, right? Right? *pleading sad face emoji inserted*

Rocky is a series regular. All series regulars are featured in all ten episodes, and there’s four more to go. But then again, one of those regulars has been dead from the start, so…

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Book Reviews

Grayshade Review: Assassins and Intrigue

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“It’s amazing how long it can take someone to die. Or to be exact: how long it can take someone to die if you’re careless. Most people like to talk about the human body like it’s a piece of glass…breathe on it the wrong way and it’ll shatter. Not that I mind; talk like that makes my work a lot easier.” – pg 1, Grayshade by Gregory a. wilson

Grayshade is the first book in the Gray Assassin Trilogy by Gregory A. Wilson. Published in 2022 by Atthis Arts, Grayshade was a 2023 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy Finalist. Wilson also has an award-winning graphic novel (Icarus) and actual-play show (Speculate!). Speculate! features a semi-rotating cast of speculative fiction writers (including my fave Premee Mohamed) playing a variety of tabletop role-playing games. I actually got to meet Wilson when I went to GenCon in 2023, and he was energetic and kind. I bought Grayshade because of his positive energy and zest for storytelling. 

In Grayshade, the titular character is an assassin whose faith is shaken by an assassination-gone-weird. In this high fantasy world, the assassin’s guild is also a religious organization, which means doubt in his devotion puts a target on Grayshade’s back. When he is asked to undertake a mission to prove his faith, he must decide not only if he will kill for his morals, but if he will die for them as well. 

You’d be hard pressed to find a book that better emulates the feeling of playing an Assassin’s Creed video game. There are (of course) assassinations, cool gadgets, mentor figures, ethical dilemmas, political subterfuge, and a dose of will-they-won’t-they. The last half of the book in particular was very gripping and satisfying in its steady flow between scenes. The world building was interesting without being over the top. I felt like I had the information I needed to understand what was happening, and not a lot more. I appreciated this, because it helped keep the plot momentum. This included a Chekhov’s Ralaar, which I promise is a funny joke if you’ve read the book. Also, the inclusion of a nonbinary character was well executed. Yay for representation!

However, I would be remiss not to mention that the first 100 pages of Grayshade were a slog. The dialogue and inner monologue felt especially campy, which was really distracting from the rest of the story because it didn’t feel intentional for it to come across that way. I am pro-camp (Jason X is probably my favorite movie in the franchise), however it can feel awkward when it seems unintentional. This makes it hard to connect with Grayshade and only gets better with the introduction of more permanent side characters. 

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That being said, I liked Grayshade. I look forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy. Since this isn’t my genre of choice, I had my husband (an avid high fantasy fan) read Grayshade too, so as to make sure I wasn’t projecting any genre bias. He agreed with my thoughts, liking the book overall but struggling with the first part. I would recommend Grayshade if you like the vibe of the Assassin’s Creed games, high fantasy, and are looking to support indie authors. 

 Also of note, Alligator Alley Entertainment is working on a Dungeons and Dragons 5E supplement for the world of Grayshade. So definitely keep on a look out for that!

3.7 out of 5 stars (3.7 / 5)

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Book Reviews

The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem

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“Julie crawled onto the table, straddling her intern, both hands around the knife. She torqued it downward, cursing. Brad shrieked harder.” -pg 57, The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw & Richard Kadrey

The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in a duology by authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. It was published in 2023 by Tor Nightfire (like the Scourge Between Stars, which I reviewed here). I was not previously familiar with Kadrey’s work, which most notably includes the Sandman Slim series. However, I was introduced to Khaw through The Salt Grows Heavy (review here), which I absolutely adored in all its twisted, gory glory. Therefore, I was thrilled to pick-up The Dead Take the A Train, which promised similar heart in a modern cosmic horror package.

In The Dead Take the A Train, a magical fixer named Julie must hunt down eldritch monstrosities threatening the lives of those around her. To do this, she has to go up against her shitty ex, a questionable angel, finance executives, and her own sobriety. When an old friend shows up, Julie is terrified to find herself making a retirement plan that doesn’t involve getting murdered by a demon.

The Dead Take the A Train is reminiscent of N.K. Jeminsin’s The City We Became, with both featuring queer characters tackling eldritch horror plots in New York City. In the same way, the novel was reminiscent of a gorier version of Dimension 20’s Unsleeping City actual play series. However, it clearly carves out a space for itself among the droves of cosmic-horror inspired love letters to New York City. For one, it is mostly unconcerned with borough beef, which (not to sound like a curmudgeonly Midwesterner), is so refreshing. The book also has a relatively novel way the world works, which helps it stay memorable.

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Overall, I really liked The Dead Take the A Train. First off, the characters are fun and easy to root for. Julie is a mess in pretty much every aspect, but her bad decisions are understandable and she is charismatic. Her romance with her friend, Sarah, also serves to make Julie more likable. It helps that the villains are so easy to hate too. What’s not to hate about rich Wall Street assholes engaging in human sacrifice? Speaking of which, I liked the juxtaposition of corporate Wall Street and cosmic cultists. The actions taken were evil, but more importantly, they were just business.

The prose was flowery, but not quite as much as in The Salt Grows Heavy. So, if you struggled with Khaw’s other works for that reason this may be a much easier read. Personally, I enjoyed the prose in both. There is quite a bit of gore in The Dead Take the A Train, but I didn’t find it to be overwhelming. I think you could still enjoy the book if you don’t love gore, though maybe not if you have a weak stomach.

One of the largest issues I have with The Dead Take the A Train, is the lack of clarity in power levels of the various characters. Especially since all their forms of magic work in different ways, it is sometimes unclear the level of danger present. This can also sometimes create room for plot holes. For example, Julie has a friend who is tapped into anything and everything happening online. This is an absurdly powerful ability (and is used as such). But there were moments where the main conflict probably could have been avoided or solved using that power. It also felt odd that no one else in this thriving magic community felt strongly about stopping a world-ending catastrophe. Because of this, the magic underground of NYC could feel smaller than I think was intended.

Having been familiar with Khaw’s work previously, The Dead Take the A Train clearly feels like a mix of Khaw’s style with someone else’s. This could be a boon or a hindrance, depending on your view of Khaw’s distinct prose and storytelling. Either way, if you are interested in learning more about the process or the authors, check out the interview they did for SFF Addicts Podcast!

Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey on the SFF Addicts Podcast

I recommend The Dead Take the A Train, especially for those who are fans of modern urban eldritch horror. The book is an even bigger steal if you are looking for danger, gore, and queer characters. Check it out! And keep your eyes peeled for the next book in this duology. 

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[USR 4.2]

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