The Ritual - Adam Nevill (St. Martin’s Griffin - 2011)
Excellent horror novel that blends everything that’s best and scariest about The Blair Witch Project, Dan Simmons’ The Terror, Stephen King’s Misery, and (believe it or not) Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. Four old college friends who are on their way to not being friends much longer take a hiking trip into some ancient forestland in Sweden, near the Norwegian border. Two of them are out of shape and in no condition for such a trek, and that becomes apparent when they’re barely able to walk from a twisted knee and severely blistered feet out in the middle of nowhere. Thinking it’s crucial to cut the trip short before they get in worse trouble, they try taking a shortcut off the trail. As you’d probably guess since you’re reading a horror novel, this turns out to be a damned bad idea. They end up lost in an area that few have seen since the Bronze Age, and a large animal has been butchered and hung up in a tree. Pressing onward, they find a creepy old house with a Satanic altar and a taxidermied goat-man in an upstairs room, an ancient burial ground that’s apparently gone undiscovered since the Viking days, and a church with lots of human and animal bones buried under it. It’s soon made clear that something or someone with very bad intentions is stalking them... but that’s only the beginning of their nightmare. Things become more horrifying and insanely desperate as it goes, and at times it seems the only happy ending possible might be a faster death for our protagonists. This book is amazing; it would be easy for so much walking in the woods to get dull, but Nevill manages to keep it intense without a letup, and his characterization is top notch, making you get so much of a feel for each character that you even worry for the fates of the ones who are assholes, just because they seem so real. Amazing atmosphere and incredible tension, this is one scary book and an absolute must-read. It’s not often I’ll read a book over 400 pages long in one sitting, but I almost managed that with this one because I didn’t want to put it down.
The Woman - Jack Ketchum & Lucky McKee (Dorchester Publishing, 2011)
Ketchum revisits the cannibal feral humans he created in Off Season and Offspring as the woman who's the lone survivor of her tribe is captured by a guy who chains her up in his basement with the premise of civilizing her. But this "civilized" guy and his family are more sick and evil than she is; she's ruthless but in an animal-instinct way, while this guy's a sociopathic sadist who's already been living an extremely transgressive lifestyle. Ketchum’s gone to the well of woman-chained-up-by-sickos horror several times now but it’s not losing any of its impact; this is one intense and well-written shockfest. By way of an epilogue there’s a related short story, “Cow,” which is equally horrific. This is the strong stuff and a must read for serious horror addicts who can handle it.
The Lamplighters - Frazer Lee (Samhain, 2011)
A young woman whose drug use has left her with few employment options takes a job on an island, tending houses for rich people who belong to a mysterious Consortium. The location of the island is kept very mysterious and she’s to have no contact with the outside world during her one-year term of employment, but the work is easy -- just light housekeeping and using utilities so the wealthy owners can maintain “resident” status and pay lower taxes. The security guards who run the island are very strict, but soon she and the other workers are bored and seek to rebel. They learn that the whole scheme is a front for something far more sinister than they expected. It’s so sinister, in fact, that the impossibility of it all becomes ridiculous and blows the tension built up in the first half in a gory-but-preposterously-so cataclysm of Hellraiser -style shenanigans. The second half of the book tries too hard and all the action becomes so busy that it loses narrative flow and gets tedious despite all the crazy stuff that’s going on. There are some good gruesome images and the writing itself isn’t bad (though not amazing, either), and there’s some good here... but a whole lot less would be a whole lot more, because in the blur of all the mayhem I just stopped caring. And that’s a shame after a pretty nice set up in the first half. If your main interest is gory chaos, though, it does deliver that.
The Ceremonies - T. E. D. Klein (Bantam Books, 1985)
Expanding his classic short story, “The Events At Poroth Farm,” into a long, detailed novel, Klein masterfully created a horror novel that must be considered one of the classics of the genre... and then he apparently called it a day because nothing’s come out since. A young English grad student, hoping to write a paper and start a course on gothic horror, rents a building on a farm so he can get away fro New York and concentrate on reading the classics. The farm couple he stays with are Mennonite types, very religious and living a simple antique lifestyle that he doesn’t fit in with very well. He’s also started a relationship with a girl who was trained to be a nun, and it’s all part of a plot engineered by an old man who is the embodiment of an ancient evil creature who is trying to give itself a rebirth. As the old man manipulates the girl into performing ancient rites, more and more hideously creepy things start happening in the farming community; dead cats return in evil form, abominations are born, earthquakes heave huge mounds out of the earth, snakes appear in hordes, and murderous old rituals appear to be on the verge of taking place again in the woods if the farmers can’t stop it. To the grad student it seems as if some of the weirdness from Arthur Machen’s “The White People” may be coming true. Very well-written and enthralling (which is a good thing since it’s 550 small-print pages), with a real sense of place, well-drawn characters, and an atmosphere of eerieness and mounting dread. No serious reader of the horror genre should pass this up, and someone should see that it’s brought back into print. And the references to classic horror lit are a bonus for serious students of this stuff, as well as drawing parallels between mythology such as Machen’s with the myth’s in the community’s Bible; it’s all fiction made “real” by belief. Serious, important horror.
The Woman In Black - Susan Hill (Godine, 1983)
A welcome throwback to Victorian-style ghost stories, this creepy little novel follows Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor sent to an isolated old house in the English marshes to get a deceased and ill-regarded old woman’s papers in order. While attending her funeral he sees a woman dressed in antique black clothes, very emaciated and withered as though in the last stages of a wasting disease. He soon feels waves of malevolence from her, and spots her again when he visits the old house. It’s surrounded by ocean fog and the road to it is under water whenever the tide comes in, so it’s cut off from the rest of the world... and, unluckily for Kipps, it’s very haunted, enough to threaten his sanity and his life. Hill’s style is believably antiquated and she has a great instinct for drawing maximum dread out of all her creepy scenes. It’s a quick read and well worth it even if you’ve seen the film adaptations.
The first image is included for archival purposes only - that's the Leisure Book edition, and Leisure turned out to be a company that rips off their writers, so you should support Bryan Smith's work by buying the Deadite Press edition pictured in the second image. And you should also buy it in paper to support my own paper-loyalty, but e-books are available, too, if you just gotta be that way...
The Killing Kind - Bryan Smith (Deadite Press, 2011)
Homicidal psychotics abound in my favorite Bryan Smith novel so far. A young female serial killer named Missy, a.k.a. Roxie, kidnaps a guy named Rob and makes him witness her sadistic thrill-killings, and finally decides she’s in love with the guy. Lucky him! Meanwhile, a mixed-up girl named Julie, who daydreams about killing and collects gory crime photos, gets attacked by a couple of escaped mental patients. One of them, Zeb, is a necrophile schizo and gets instructions from a voice in his head called Lulu. He recognizes Julie as a kindred spirit, and she, in turn, finds her ultimate best friend in Roxie/Missy, and they have a ball going after a group of college kids on vacation... some of whom are pretty twisted in their own right. Lots of gore and torture, and it’s a wee bit over the top but kept fairly realistic, which packs in plenty of tension. Smith’s not afraid to kill of major characters and just being one of the book’s good guys doesn’t mean you’ll make it out okay, and just being one of the evil ones doesn’t mean you’ll lose. But just about everyone suffers... except the reader, who has a ball if they’re into hardcore violence in the Richard Laymon tradition. Well-paced, and with strongly-crafted characters who have some depth to them; these aren’t just cardboard figures waiting around to get gruesomely murdered, and that’s what gives all the killing so much impact -- you’re not just shocked by the gore (which is strong), but because it’s happening to someone you’ve come to know. Good stuff! And there’s talk of a sequel.
The Axman Cometh - John Farris (Tor, 1989)
After an overly-confident opening statement in which he promises too much, Farris starts up a good premise that goes completely off the rails by the end, and he screws it up just like Stephen King screwed up It and Duma Beach. A girl who was the only survivor of an attack by an ax-wielding serial killer who chopped up her family (among others) gets trapped in a pitch-dark elevator during a blackout. She becomes convinced that the killer is in there with her and he wants her to give him power by drawing him. Even though it’s completely dark in the elevator, she draws other things instead, and soon her boyfriend is roaming through a fantasyland of children’s storybook animals, fighting with a plastic toy sword, Ernest Hemingway at his side. And, yes, that’s as stupid as it sounds. Apparently she has powers like that Simon kid who used to have a cartoon on Captain Kangaroo, and what she draws becomes real. The flashbacks to her younger life and the murders are good, but the rest is ludicrous, too fanciful, and unsatisfying. I’m surprised that Farris -- who’s usually a solid bet -- had such confidence in this when it’s one of his uncharacteristic duds. Good enough to be worth reading (I tried doing it in one sitting as he requested but didn’t quite manage it -- got it within a 24-hour span, anyway) but don’t get your hopes too high, because the la-la-land finale is a big letdown.
The Summer Visitors - Brooke Leimas (Signet, 1980)
Elizabeth and Anton are happily married, but then they get a visit from jet-setting cousins Christian and Leila. Christian and Leila are suave, sophisticated, and seductive, charming everyone they meet... but those they seduce don’t usually end up well, and Elizabeth and Anton begin drifting apart as they fall under the spell of this couple, who may be more than simply attractive and captivating. It’s pretty straightforward and not very hard-hitting, sometimes reading like a romance novel with a dark undercurrent more than a horror novel. It’s not very scary but it’s not bad; the writing is fine and the characterization is good, it’s just perhaps a bit too ordinary.
The Unquiet Spirit - Marguerite Steen (Doubleday, 1956)
A man goes to visit an old school friend and finds that his friend and his wife are troubled by their 8-year-old son, Dominick John, who is an intellectual genius but also a cold-hearted little sociopath. When the cat he’s had all his life is dying, the kid doesn’t wait until it’s gone to toss it in the furnace; that’s how bad he is. His intelligence is so high and his manner so diabolical that they start thinking he may be possessed. Also it’s revealed that the family has a secret history of insanity, and also an ancestor who was burned as a witch, and these become factors in dealing with the evil child. This is written in a stiff, archaic style (along the lines of a gothic romance) and while it does contain a few creepy and supernatural elements, they’re weak and not nearly as shocking as the author intended (she seems to think it’s an atrocity that anyone would marry a man whose grandfather died in an asylum!), and while the little boy is evil, he never really does much of anything (aside from the incident with the cat) except make smart-ass, condescending comments and play with an Ouija board, so instead of being any kind of real menace, he just comes across as a spoiled brat in the midst of adults too timid to cope with him. It’s not unentertaining (once you get into the groove of the off-putting style) and has its moments, but it’s not much of a horror novel.
Witch House - Evangeline Walton (DelRey, 1979, originally 1945)
Most notable for being the first novel published by Arkham House, this is unfortunately boring, tedious, and uninvolving. It may have been stronger in 1945, but I doubt by much. A mean ol’ lady named Aunt Sarai dies and leaves a will demanding that her descendents live in her old house for ten years if they want to split up her sizeable fortune. They try, but the house has supernatural activity, mostly centered on Betty-Ann, a little girl who’s terrified of it all. The family brings in Dr. Gaylord Carew, an exorcist of sorts, to stay with them and try to end the phenomena, but that doesn’t prove easy. Most of the scary stuff is limited to sightings of a black rabbit around the grounds and the chessboard getting knocked over whenever they try to play, and there’s the old falling-chandelier-almost-hits-somebody gag. What you’re left with besides that is a bunch of complicated historical family squabbles of a family who aren’t interesting enough to keep track of; these characters never gelled in my mind because the book never managed to make them different enough to make me care who they were. And since their problems aren’t very interesting, either, and the prose is stiff, the book’s a long, deadening slog even at 196 pages. By the end I was skimming just to fulfill an obligation I’d made by reading the first half of the book (plus I’ve meant to read this thing ever since I bought it as a child - if I didn‘t finish it now, I‘d never do it). It’s a sincere effort, but not a successful one.
The Harbinger - Michael T. Hinkemeyer (Pocket, 1980)
I am completely amazed that Hinkemeyer didn’t get sued by Jay Anson over this novel, because a more blatant rip-off of The Amityville Horror would be practically impossible. A family, the Dovers (mom, dad, son, daughter) move into a house on Long Island where a guy named Roland Fontane shot his parents and brothers and sisters in their sleep. As soon as the Dovers move in, strange things start happening -- flies attack a window, the husband gets obsessed with building fires in the fireplace, there are weird stains in the bathroom sink that keep reoccurring, and the wife keeps waking up at 1:25 each night, when the murders occurred. All of this troubles their family friend, a priest; I’m guessing he read the other book and knew it didn’t end well. Despite being obviously heavily derivative (this is the literary equivalent of a cover band), it’s a good read because Hinkemeyer’s not a bad writer and puts just enough originality (such as the house making everyone’s personality turn nasty, especially the young son, who becomes highly malevolent) to keep it interesting. It ends up with some magical battles, which is something in horror novels that I’m never a big fan of, but for the most part it’s decent. But it’s still so derivative that it’s main point of interest may always be that it’s an oddity. I’ve meant to read this for decades ever since a nice lady at the local used book store threw a copy into my bag as a freebie.
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