Okay, let's all just agree that I suck at coming up with blog-post titles, forgive me, and move on, shall we?
Here be another batch o' horror novels to add to your summer reading list (or not), just in time to be a month late or so. I've had very good reading luck lately and managed to get walloped with some amazing new ones that impressed me way more than usual and are sure to end up on my all-time best list (NOS4A2, Last Days, and Penpal) and re-visited a couple I'd read years ago that impressed me all over again (House Next Door and Deliverance). Read on for details...
NOS4A2 - Joe Hill (William Morrow, 2013)
Victoria "The Brat" McQueen has a special ability; she can find missing things by riding her bicycle over a rickety, bat-filled covered bridge that used to span a river near her house. The bridge itself is a lost thing; it fell in years before but reappears when she needs to get somewhere, and always opens onto the place she's looking for. She learns from another supernaturally-gifted person - a weird librarian girl named Maggie whose Scrabble tiles tell her things - that they have these abilities because they're unusually creative. But being unusually creative has some downsides; for one, Vic gets bad headaches when she rides over her bridge, and playing with the Scrabble tiles has left Maggie with a bad stutter.
But the really bad thing is that sometimes evil people are unusually creative, too, and one of those is Charlie Manx, a dapper psychopath who can drive his vintage Rolls Royce to an amusement park in his imagination, which he calls Christmasland. He kidnaps children and takes them there, where they become gleefully-evil demon-things as Manx absorbs their innocent life-force like a psychic vampire. Vic escapes an encounter with Manx but grows up troubled, ending up as a neurotic but artistically-talented fuck-up who has a kid (named Bruce Wayne) with an overweight comic-book nerd named Lou. Lou is a hapless good guy who proves unable to deal with Vic's craziness, although he always tries. And Vic is a mess but her heart's in the right place... which is something she'll unfortunately get to prove when Manx rises from the dead and kidnaps her son to take him to Christmasland. Trading her bicycle for a Triumph motorcycle she's rebuilt, Vic will stop at nothing to rescue Wayne from Christmasland, even if she has to fight the FBI and Manx's psychotic henchman, The Gasmask Man.
This is surreal horror with a lot of fantasy elements, reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and King & Straub's The Talisman, with a lot of travel back and forth between the real world and places in the imagination (which, in this solipsistic scenario, are as real as anything else... the book slyly makes a point that since all of this is a work of fiction, anyway, the "real" world parts are no more reality than the Christmasland that Manx has built in his head - it's all the product of creativity, and the craziness can be as solid as any of the rest of it). This is extremely well-written and symbol-rich (Hill keeps surprising you with the depth of things), and since there's so much going on it could get tangled up pretty easily, but Hill is a master craftsman (and unusually creative) so it never gets out of control. Even the fantastic stuff rings true. I can sometimes get irritated by horror novels that veer too much into magical-fantasy stuff, and I'm not a big fan of Christmas in general so I worried about an overload as I was going into this thing, but Hill's so good at this I was glad to play along, and there's enough grit and rough stuff to keep it from getting too sappy, even though he does have a sentimental streak. It flirts with schmaltz at times but never marries it. This is a thick sucker but it's immersive; you get lost in it and don't really mind the length, and it moves fast and never quits. I'll admit I figured out the trick that was going to end the good vs. evil battle a couple dozen pages in, but I didn't mind when it happened; even if it was no surprise, it felt right, and inevitable.
Basically, I couldn't put this down, and I doubt you'll be able to, either. Very much recommended.
And even if you usually buy e-books (and if you do, I kinda hate you just the least lil’ bit -- those things are a plague) you're going to want to pick this one up in hardback to get the most out of it. The illustrations and end-papers by Hill's comics collaborator Gabriel Rodriguez add greatly to the book, and they're best appreciated on paper. Also, I'm a sucker for deckle-edging, even if it does confuse a few Amazon patrons who think their book's "defective" because the edges are "unfinished" (are paper books really that antiquated already, or are people just becoming so sheltered from everything cool than they don't know what deckle-edging is?). There’s also a neat little riff Hill did on the “Note On The Type” section that’s only in the hardback, because it wouldn’t make much sense on an e-book. The future belongs to the paper loyalists!
Follow Joe Hill on Twitter (a lot of author's Twitter feeds are just promos for books, but I'd follow Joe even if I wasn't into his books, just because his feed's so good - dude's funny, smart, and likeable, and has a weird love of posting pictures of his fans strangling or otherwise attacking him).
Joe Hill's earlier book, Horns (which I own in hardback, paperback, and audio book yet still haven't gotten around to yet for some reason (which is probably somethin' to do with me bein' stupid), but most assuredly shall, since I loved this book and Heart-Shaped Box) has been reviewed here by Mighty Blowhole blog-brother, KickerOfElves, so go check that out here).
Last Days - Adam Nevill (St. Martin's Griffin, 2012)
The writer of one of my favorite books of the decade, The Ritual, (which I reviewed here) is back with more brilliant, must-read horror. Kyle, a director of indie documentaries, is contacted by a weird new-age company to quickly shoot a documentary about a 1970's suicide cult, The Temple of the Last Days. He's not crazy about the assignment at first -- he has less than a week to prepare for it and not much more than that to shoot it, but he's behind on his bills so he enlists his team -- cameraman Dan and a computer-loser editor known as "Finger Mouse" - to put it all together. They start in London, interviewing former cult members who got out before the final massacre. From the beginning they realize something weird and scary is happening; they hear weird noises at one cult site and see a skinny naked thing in the dark that terrifies them... but things are about to get much, much worse. Skeletal-shaped stains are scorch-marked into walls of former cult sites (and then the filmmakers' own houses) and the former cultists they interview keep ending up maimed or dead. Some unseen visitors leave disturbing artifacts behind, like blackened bones and scraps of ancient clothing.
Things become more sinister when they learn some of the dead cultists had been bitten by things with aged, rotten teeth. Kyle and Dan become horrified and paranoid, certain they've been set up by the cult, but there seems to be little way out of the situation. Mummy people break through the walls into rooms left in darkness... as Kyle finds out when a circuit breaker shorts out. What happens in pages 329 through 333 might make you afraid of the dark for a while, because it's one of the scariest written horror scenes since Danny Torrence went into room 217. Kyle finds out another filmmaker who originally started this project is completely unhinged now, and he confronts the man bankrolling it and gets sent to Belgium to view an ancient group of Bruegel's-"Triumph Of Death"-esque paintings that will explain the history of what's happening, and may predict the horrible fate in store for them all.
Nevill is a master at holding things back an parceling them out to the reader in a way that makes you actually dread learning them, and there's some very dark, creepy imagery here. I don't know if it tops The Ritual, but it equals it and that should be enough to ask of any book. Any serious reader of horror needs to familiarize yourself with this writer now. He's skilled and he gets it.
Now, you get it.
Penpal - Dathan Auerbach (1000 Vultures, 2012)
Short stories presented as childhood memories (often overlapping) fit together brilliantly and build to one episodic horror novel of amazing eeriness. Our nameless first person narrator recounts strange events where he woke up in the middle of the night deep in the woods by his house, wondering how he got there and barely able to find his way out.
Then he talks about a kindergarten project where the kids sent out letters on helium balloons, hoping to get letters back from whoever found them; instead of letters he got dozens of weird Polaroids back from some very strange stranger... and realizes later that he appears in a lot of them.
He and his mother move away from his old neighborhood and he and his friend Josh sneak back to his old abandoned house, thinking his missing cat may have gone back there; the result of that escapade is one of the most incredibly creepy things I've read in a long life of reading horror -- it's chilling and will definitely bug you.
Next, he and Josh try to map out a stream through the woods near a crazy old lady's house... and she ends up being even crazier than they'd thought.
Next, the narrator goes on a movie date with a girl that turns into a tragedy of horrible creepiness, which will also get under your skin and lodge there, freezing.
Then the last bit brings it all together and makes one hell of an impact. It's all simply but compellingly written, and Aurbach's imaginative powers and skill at plotting are very strong and impressive. It's a fast read, both because it's short (around 240 large-print pages) and because you're not going to want to put it down until you find out what happened. The old-lady story is a bit of a digression from the main flow and fits a little clumsy with the rest, but that's easy to forgive; it may be a flaw but not a fatal one. Vivid, emotional, and super-disturbing in a quiet, hard-hitting way. You won't be shaking this one off quickly. Very, very highly recommended.
Infinity House - Shane McKenzie (Gallows Press, 2012)
A couple of weed-dealing ghetto kids get ripped off by one of their would-be customers, and since they're left with no money or product to sell, they're pretty desperate. One of the brothers finds money in the yard of a creepy old house they've been warned never to visit, and need (and greed) overtake fear so they go looking for more. The place was the site of child murders committed by a crazy man and I guess that left it haunted because the brothers get trapped inside and the walls are thick with flies, the floors are deep in maggots, and wicked little zombie children are everywhere, eating -- and being eaten by -- maggots. There appears to be no escape from this vermiculated hell, and McKenzie doesn‘t balk at giving you the nasty details.
There's nothing clever about this, and it's not very intriguing because it never comes together as a story, just a lot of gruesome descriptions of everything being eaten by maggots. It's got a certain nightmare quality to it, so if spectacle is all you're looking for then there's plenty of that and it's not badly written, but if you want any kind of narrative progression or a conclusion to be led to, you'll be out of luck there. There's another story, "I Didn't Mean To Hurt You," in which a little girl sneaks out to a fair her bigoted mother wouldn't let her go to, and it ends up being a prequel to "Infinity House," and, similarly, is more spectacle than story. Trying to make this 138-page large-print pamphlet seem more like a book, they also include an interview with the author. It's interesting and Shane sounds like a guy I'd like, I just wish his descriptive skills were matched by stories instead of scenarios. Still, there's promise for the future here and if all you're after is some fast-reading gory weirdness, it's pretty good at supplying that.
Vintage paperback - it's so old that Jon Voight wasn't even a lunatic asshole yet when it came out!
Cover for Dickey's screenplay.
Deliverance - James Dickey (Dell, 1970)
It's almost impossible to top the movie version, which is about as close to perfect as movies get, but this book manages to edge it out by a wee bit. Following the lead of their rugged outdoorsman friend Lewis, businessmen Bobby, Drew, and our narrator Ed head out into the backwoods for a canoe trip down a river that's soon to be dammed and turned into a lake. Just dealing with the rapids would be challenge enough, but they run into a couple of degenerate mountain men who have strange ideas about how to have fun with city folk, and the trip becomes a nightmarish fight for survival, one that will severely test them all... especially Ed. Poets are usually awful novelists, but Dickey shows a lot of restraint and knows the story is more important than how it's being told. By all accounts (and I've heard personal ones from people who had to deal with him) Dickey was a totally insane out-of-control drunken hell-raiser, so it's doubly amazing that he keeps such phenomenal control of a story that could so easily become complete chaos. The descriptive power is amazing and he knows when to play it nuanced and when to hammer you with brutality. Reading this is essential, and it gets better with repeats, just like the film. Also worth looking for is Dickey's screenplay. He wrote it in such detail that Boorman demanded a re-write because Dickey's version didn't leave a director much to do. It's a good deal different from the filmed version, and I thumbed through it once in a library over twenty years ago and things stuck with me so much I recently tracked down a used copy.
Evocative paperback cover, although I couldn't tell you what that "X" business is about.
The House Next Door - Anne Rivers Siddons (Simon & Schuster, 1978)
Dark and highly-sinister haunted house classic that's a must-read for fans of books like The Haunting of Hill House. Our narrator, Colquit Kennedy, is vexed when a new house starts being built in the lot next door. At first she and her husband Walter are just bummed by a little loss of privacy and being deprived of a view of the woods, but their neat little Atlanta-suburban lives are about to be intruded upon much more than that, and they'll have much worse things to be upset about. The novel is basically divided into three novellas, each covering a different ill-fated family that moves into the house.
First there's rather-insufferable yuppie couple Buddy and Pie Harralson, who are building the house under the bold plans of an up-and-coming young architect named Kim Dougherty. Things start going wrong for the Harrelsons before the house is even finished; Kim falls and has a bloody miscarriage, and then some unseen animal starts mangling local animals, including the Harralson's puppy.
But at the housewarming party, worse life-ruining things are in store, and the Harralsons are soon out of the picture and the Sheehans move in -- fragile, tragic Anita, who's recovering from a series of nervous breakdowns (the most recent due to the death of their son in Vietnam) and her husband Buck, a flawed good guy who's devoted to helping Anita back to stability. But the malevolent house isn't going to help; it shows Anita a war movie with a guy burning in a helicopter crash in 'Nam, just like her son did (and no TV station was airing any such movie), and phone calls start coming, apparently from the dead son. What eventually happens with the Sheehans is almost unbearably dark, and the Kennedys realize that something, somehow, is very malignant about that new house... and it's getting worse.
Into this atmosphere of dread comes the family perhaps least suited for dealing with it -- the Greenes, a nice but brow-beaten wife, her militant asshole husband (one of the most realistically despicable humans ever captured on paper) and a little girl who's immediately struck with a terrible and humiliating intestinal disease. The Kennedys try to step in and stave them from the house but only make themselves pariahs in the effort, and doom awaits all connected with the place.
This is a novel approach to horror because the house isn't haunted because of some explicable event -- it's just born bad. And it doesn't just pile up bodies; worse, it ruins lives. The house finds out whatever's important to the people around it, then destroys that forever and basks in the misery. Very creepy with a really nasty tone to the fates of the occupants; who'd've thought that Siddons, who's mostly a romance-type author, would have it in her? The writing is very good and the characters are masterfully drawn (although a bit genteel and sometimes a little silly... but, I know people like that, so it's not really a misstep) and you actually start feeling some dread at what's going to happen to them. I read this when it first came out and I liked it, but it got even better with the re-read. Stephen King was impressed enough with this to devote a large chunk of Danse Macabre (do I have to tell you how essential that book is? DO I?!?) to it, so if my recommendation isn't strong enough for you, take his.
Cool American cover art on the left, meh what-the-hell? British cover on the right.
The Night Boat - Robert R. McCammon (Avon / Sphere, 1980)
One of McCammon's early works, this is a little like the movie Shock Waves. A diver sets off a vintage depth charge that causes a buried Nazi U-boat to surface and sail into the harbor. Inside are the mummified crewmen, who've been put under a voodoo curse to keep on living in agony unless their bodies are completely destroyed. The pain of being dried out drives them to kill people to drink their blood, and they also plan to resume their mission of sinking other ships. The fungus-covered zombies are pretty creepy and there's some good gory scenes, but overall it's just too slow, and McCammon's writing is always competent but it's not compelling enough to carry things in this case. I remember not really being crazy about this book when I read it 20-some years ago, but I liked the idea of Nazi-zombie-submariners enough to try giving it a second chance. Second time around got similar results. It's okay, just nothing special.
A young Alanis Morissette tells Orville Redenbacher what she wants for Christmas (anything but popcorn).
An Evil Streak - Andrea Newman (Pocket, 1977)
Uncle Alex (our first-person narrator) is a prissy, somewhat-deformed man who's obsessed with his niece, Gemma... or at least he's obsessed with manipulating those around him, and Gemma is a means of doing that. When she comes of age he steers her into marriage with a young doctor, but the doctor is soon at odds with control-freak Alex, and then he's just something in Alex's way. So Alex hires a handsome young actor, David, as a housekeeper. Alex has homosexual tendencies (but, like all of his sexual appetites, they're inactive and a bit warped) but that doesn't play out with David, so Alex goes for the next best thing -- he engineers an affair between David and Gemma, so he can have them both vicariously. He provides his house to do it in, secretly intercepts and reads all their letters, and even has a secret room with a two-way mirror installed so he can watch them have sex (and take pictures, make sound recordings, and afterward go in and savor the smells). He sees the whole thing as a play he's director/producing, based on the Troilus and Criseyde story, and meddles so much he even befriends David's wife (who knows about her husband's affairs but seems amused by them). When things get in a rut, Alex decides David should get Gemma pregnant... and that's a big mistake. Not really much of a horror novel, just a story of a real creep playing a game with a lot of lesser creeps, and it's not badly written prose-wise but remains very uninvolving somehow. It’s drawn out and the affair is not nearly as interesting as Alex thinks it is... and nor is he. Since he’s repugnant and vapid it’s not a lot of fun to hang out with him for 240 dense pages; after a while it starts reading like a long e-mail from a materialistic social-butterfly aunt telling you all the doings of her friends who you’ve never met. It doesn't deliver the kind of pedo-sickness the cover art implies, but I wouldn't have really wanted it to, anyway... I just wish it had delivered more of something than the blandness that it does. I almost gave up on reading it about ten times but I knew I’d never pick it up again if I did, so I stubbornly mucked through; the decent prose kept that from being too painful, but I’m still not certain it was worthwhile.
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