Book Review -
Candy Cain Kills
by Brian McAuley

James Sabata’s BOOK REVIEW: CANDY CAIN KILLS by Brian McAuley

Oh what fun it is to DIE!

When Austin's parents drag him and his little sister Fiona to a remote cottage for Christmas, he's less than thrilled about the forced bonding exercise. 

But after learning that their holiday getaway was the site of a horrific crime, this family on the rocks will have to fight for their lives against a legendary killer... 

Because Candy Cain is slashing through the snow with a very long naughty list.



That’s a compliment, but my to-do list is seemingly never ending recently, especially as we get closer to the full announcements of the Spirited Giving Fundraiser (The Official StokerCon Pre-party). We’re also editing the anthology for Spirited Giving (Shadows in the Stacks, coming in May, 2024). I have a novella I’m slowly working on and several other projects, on top of a full-time job and a family.

So last night I said to myself, “I’ll break up Candy Cain kills over the next four days. A full week if I need to. I’m just going to read five chapters (there are 25 total).

Before I knew it, I was eight chapters in and only tapped out because I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.

Today I said, “I’ll read a bit. Maybe a chapter or two.”

And I just finished the book.


You should know I’m a sucker for anything Christmas. I might be a horror guy, but I watch all those Christmas movies most of you try desperately to avoid. I would love to write one one day. I have opinions on how they haven’t gotten some of those stories right and believe I could fix them! But that’s a tale for another day.

With that said, I also adore Christmas horror. One of my all-time favorite movies is Anna and the Apocalypse. A Christmas zombie musical? On paper that shouldn’t work, but it’s just about perfect in my eyes.

I love slashers, as evidenced by my own book Fat Camp.

And I love stories where authors show proper representation of persons with disabilities and work to show how that doesn’t stop them from being amazing characters and wonderful people.

So, to say this book was up my lane is the biggest understatement of 2024 that I’ve encountered so far.


The story is fantastic. I love everything from the feeling of going to a small town to the terrors of dealing with your family at Christmas to the horror of knowing you have to deal with them the rest of the year as well. I like how fully Candy Cain Kills embraced the mentality of small towns wanting to be left alone with their own secrets and just how far some will go to make sure it’s no one else’s business.

The struggles and relationships in this book were well crafted and every character felt real to me, even the ones we only see for a few pages.

Candy Cane Kills tread very familiar tropes, making it feel like an old friend, but hit the notes in ways that, while not entirely new, felt fresh like the brand-new snow.

The white stuff, not the bloody shit under all those bodies.


Before I read the book, I read the blurbs and so many of them talked about the creative kills and how amazing they were. And then I got a little ways in and I was like, “I guess they’re okay. Maybe I was expecting too much.”

And then all hell broke loose (in 1995, iykyk) and I was on board. I loved the escalation of the kills and the cinematic feel of many of them. Some were completely over the top (and out the window) and I just loved them even more.

I also fully appreciated the kills that were emotional kills as well. One character is simply shot a couple times and damn if that didn’t break my heart.

One aspect I thought really hit a different note than I’m used to in books like this was often giving us the final thing the victim looked at as/right before they died. There was so much storytelling in what was important to them in those final seconds.


I’m the social commentary guy. I can’t walk away and not talk themes! There's more going on here, but these are the themes I really wanted to hit... and the best way to hit them without giving everything away.

Family – We get the dynamics and conflicts of a pretty messed up (and pretty normal) family, who are forced to spend Christmas together in a place where they don’t want to spend it. Their secrets heavily affect the present, and how each copes with loss and grief throughout this story. There is a beautiful parallel between two sets of siblings, with the defining difference between them being how they relate to their sibling.

Religion – Religion plays a huge role in this book, whether it’s the way people celebrate the holiday or how their faith/lack of faith plays a role in their actions. It dictates how people view themselves as good or bad and the punishment for their own actions and the actions of others.

Love – Love plays almost as large a role, if not more so, than faith and religion do. So many of the characters in this book either do not feel worthy of love or have had love neglected from their lives, or they have to hide love. Others are looking to rekindle love. Each person’s need for that acceptance and joy affects almost every action in this story.


You’re probably sick of hearing “Representation matters!” but guess what? Brian McAuley brought representation in beautiful ways in this story while never making a single second of it feel like tokenization.

Fiona, the sister in the novella, has juvenile idiopathic arthritis, affecting her joints, making it more difficult to walk or even balance at times. McAuley really impressed me by including one phrase, “fatigue naps.” And maybe that means nothing to some of you, and that’s okay. I have spent a lot of time around people who have to take fatigue naps and that one little added detail instantly made me love McAuley’s writing.

The story’s ability to remind us of Fiona’s issues in ways that were natural to each situation was top notch and really added another layer to this story for me.

Fiona’s brother Austin is gay and struggles with his sexuality and identity. He faces some harassment from his peers, but worries more about how his best friend (and crush) will react. He also has a strained relationship with his parents who seem unaware of his orientation.

These uses of representation increase the complexity of the story and the characters while additionally challenging the stereotypes we so often see in horror, which is always nice to see.


The characters aren’t one dimensional, but several are just there (more or less) to be fodder for Candy Cain. And that’s a wonderful thing. Still, there are scenes that cut emotionally and lines that will make you laugh out loud.

If you’re into slashers and still clinging to part of that Christmas feeling, I can’t recommend this book enough.