Amazing, horrific (though not strictly horror) novel about the search for information on a horror movie director’s strange daughter's last days before she killed herself by jumping down the elevator shaft of an abandoned building. The director, Stanislaus Cordova (whose films seem patterned on Dario Argento's, but that may be an imposition of mine... but, he does have a strange, beautiful, artistically-talented daughter), is a recluse whose works are so terrifying that the public can't see them anymore; they're screened only in underground tunnels or catacombs, or in high-priced bootleg copies (which parents‘ groups are trying to buy up and destroy because one of them inspired a psycho to murder children). It’s hard to even find information on the films, because they’re only discussed online in a "black board" website on a hidden part of the internet, accessible only to members who've been given the code by another member. They’re cult films in the most literal sense of that term.
Reporter Scott McGrath, who was once sued and disgraced for trying to research Cordova, re-opens his investigation when Cordova's daughter Ashley commits suicide; he’s driven partially by thinking he saw her shortly before it happened, during a dreamlike late-night walk through the park. As he follows leads he picks up a couple of sidekicks who help him, and the more they learn, the crazier and more sinister things get, and the more trouble they get into. Each lead gives them a new place to look or person to talk to, and most of the people they contact are scared or somehow broken from their contact with Cordova, or his daughter. Something about her spooked everyone, or obsessed them.
They talk to a guy who helped her escape a mental hospital, an aging actress who's become a recluse due to a plastic surgery disaster, visit a secret "Hellfire Club" type party-house, and even break into Cordova's estate for a nightmarish trip trough old movie sets full of hidden secrets about the films... which McGrath thinks may be more sinister than anyone could guess. And they also get mixed up in some pretty heavy black magic that Ashley -- who felt cursed -- was trying to weave.
This book reads like Laura with the lights out; the prose is brilliant and Pessl does an incredible job making the reader as obsessed with finding out more about Ashley and her father as the protagonists are. They’re always offscreen, remote either because they’re hiding or dead, but their presence throws a shadow across everything. I like horror novels dealing with a research process of something dark that only gets darker the more its brought into the light (such as Adam Nevill's brilliant Last Days, William H. Hallahan's Search for Joseph Tully, William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel, Peter Clines' 14, (see below) etc.), and this one is handled masterfully. The info is torturously parceled out in bits that keep you hungry for more, feeding you just enough to prolong your starvation. Even if things take a late turn in another direction (which nevertheless doesn't disappoint), most of the book is pretty intense and unnervingly scary stuff that may mess with your sleep. It weaves an atmosphere that closes in black and freezing, and I've never read anything else quite like it; it'll stay in your mind when you're away from the book. It’s a literary book, but without the pretension that often plagues those; no self-conscious moments here, and the prose never gets in the way of the story.
The design of the book adds to the sense of realism by incorporating reproductions of articles, websites, and photos. I've seen people complaining that they couldn't see things well in the e-book version; I'm never in favor of e-books to begin with, they're a plague, but even if you're of a different (*cough* wrong *cough*) bent you're going to want to get this one in hardback, both for the picture and article reproductions, but also because this is one damn nice book -- the quality of the paper and binding is top-notch, and it's a book you're definitely going to want to keep and read multiple times. Also, as the research progresses, you'll probably want to turn back and look at the "primary sources" again; I know I stared at the picture of Ashley on p. 223 dozens of times -- I don't know who the model is who did the Ashley photos but she's hauntingly gorgeous. Admit it, you wanna know more about that girl. This is a must-read and gets my highest recommendation.
Check out Pessl's website and follow her on Twitter.
The Elementals -- Michael McDowell (Avon, 1981)
This Southern-gothic horror masterpiece starts out bizarre and just keeps on runnin’. Members of the Savage family stab their mother’s corpse at her funeral, as part of an old family tradition; the Savages have a history of premature burials, and one woman who’d apparently died in childbirth revived in the tomb and ended up eating her baby’s corpse out of starvation. It’s just McDowell’s way of letting you know he has no problem with getting nasty and it sets you on edge for what’s going to come. The family members are all realistically Southern-awful to one degree or another, and anybody raised in the South will feel very familiar with these white-trash-with-money types, although they’re never stereotypical; McDowell’s characters are realistic, multi-faceted, and have more depth than a lot of real people you know.
The Savages retire for the summer to their ancestral homes on a peninsula (sometimes island, depending on the tide) on the Alabama coast, where they’re isolated with little electricity. They have three large houses, but the third is a decaying hulk that’s filling up with sand as a large dune swallows it. That house is feared and shunned, and for good reasons. Thirteen year old India (otherwise incredibly mature for her age) gets very intrigued by the house, but while poking around and peeking through the windows she sees an extremely creepy little black girl who’s laughing with a mouth full of sand. Other sinister figures appear in photos she takes of the place. The family’s black maid, Odessa Red, warns her that the things in that house are evil spirits that can take any shape, and she works voodoo to protect the family... but that gets limited results. India will have to do something highly, gruesomely creepy to get them out of the situation when the spirit-things (often made of sand) start attacking the other houses.
Extremely well-written and disturbingly spooky horror; that all of McDowell’s work is not kept in print is one of the biggest tragedies in horror literature; I’m dead serious when I say Library of America should be doing volumes on this guy. At least someone recently brought The Amulet back into print. This is one of his best and you are strongly urged to seek it out; he’s in the upper pantheon of horror writers and should not be forgotten. I’ve read this one a couple of times already and unless a truck hits me within the next few years I’m sure it won’t be my last.
14 - Peter Clines (Permuted Press, 2012)
I won't tell you much about what happens in this book because it's one of those Lost type stories where the fun comes from discovering weird events and seeing how they fall together to eventually make sense.
Basically, a guy named Matt gets a cheap apartment in an old building in L.A. and starts noticing some weird things about it. He has green mutant cockroaches with an extra leg, and they apparently don't eat anything. The light in his kitchen puts off black light no matter what kind of bulb goes into the socket. And some doors in the building are fake, while others (namely the titular 14) are padlocked and painted shut, and have obviously been so for decades. When he talks to his neighbors he learns they've noticed other strange things, and -- sneaking around behind the landlord's back -- they decide to investigate the building's weirdness further... and it's weirder than they could ever imagine, landing them in a potential Lovecraftian apocalypse.
The writing is good and the characters are well-drawn and likeable (although maybe a bit too comic-bookish, with the blue-haired artist girl, the computer geek -- the usual misfit-hero-nerd kind of deal) and the plot is good at leading the reader on by keeping the trail of little weirdnesses and discoveries coming, always leading you to another, bigger one. And they‘re everywhere! It's not as much of a horror novel as it is sci-fi, though. But, it's the Lovecraftian type of sci-fi, so there are plenty of scary things going on... but it's more of an adventure than a real scarefest. It's a bit long but does a good job keeping your interest, and it doesn't disappoint. Definitely worth checking out.
The Small Hand and Dolly - Susan Hill (Vintage, 2010, 2012)
Two short ghost-novels from the author of The Woman In Black.
The first involves a dealer in antiquarian books getting lost in the backwoods of England and ending up at a derelict old house with the overgrown remains of a garden. While wandering around this ruin he feels a small, cold hand take his, as if some little child wanted to lead him somewhere. Unnerved by the experience, he becomes rather obsessed with the place, and sometimes the small hand returns and tries to pull him into bodies of water. Eventually he learns what's causing this, and it's not pretty.
In "Dolly," a well-mannered, very self-effacing little boy and his cousin, a horribly bratty little girl, goe to stay with their aunt for the summer. The little girl wants a doll but her aunt gets her the wrong kind and the girl smashes it in a tantrum. The boy can hear it crying so he finally sneaks it into a churchyard and buries it, hoping it will find some peace. Years later their aunt dies and wills him her house, leaving the girl only the broken doll... which he decides to dig up, and things get profoundly creepy from there out.
Both short novels (about 140 pages each) are very well-written and spooky, with "Dolly" being the darker and more intensely disturbing of the two. That one will bug me for a while. “The Small Hand” would probably have been more effective as a short story instead of being novel-length; it runs out of gas a bit, plot-wise, although the strength of either story is the atmosphere and mood. Well worth picking up if you like old-school horror with a Victorian bent.
Seed - Ania Ahlborn (47North, 2012)
Jack Winter’s already having a hard time -- he has two daughters to support while being under-employed doing welding jobs, his wife’s getting fed up with him neglecting his family for a band he’s in, their car’s on its last legs -- but things are about to get a lot worse. Jack gets startled by a pair of animal eyes he sees in the road and wrecks their car. Everyone’s alright, but six-year-old Charlie starts behaving malevolently, and Jack thinks maybe she’s possessed by the thing with the animal eyes -- a thing he recognized because it used to scare him when he was a kid playing in the cemetery. Jack tries to confront this demon from his past and learns that it may have caused more tragedy than he realized because he’d blocked some things out of his memory. Meanwhile, little Charlie is having a ball chasing the family dog into traffic and spooking her mother until she’s verging on a nervous breakdown. And she’ll do worse.
The writing style isn’t bad, although some flashback scenes are very clumsily handled and feel like they were inserted at the last minute to make this book-length; they’re so awkward I think I read through a couple before I realized they were supposed to be scenes from the past and adult-Jack wasn’t just behaving childishly. Ahlborn’s got talent but it’s still in an amateurish stage here -- it’s not bad at all but I’m betting it’ll get better later if she gets a good editor. Not a must-get but still well worth reading.
The Lurkers -- Kristopher Rufty (Samhain, 2012)
This Richard-Laymon-inspired horror novel lets you know it's probably going to be just a lil' bit dumb right from the start: a woman goes to check out intruders trashing her kitchen in the middle of the night without waking her husband, calling the cops, or taking a weapon. Just like NOBODY WOULD EVER DO. They both end up massacred by evil little gnome-people called Haunchies. Yep. Haunchies. I’m not sure you want me to take your monsters seriously when you call them “Haunchies.” What was wrong with “Lurkers?” Would anybody buy this book if it was called “The Haunchies”?
Prologue over, we go into the story of Amy, an abused woman on the run from her psycho boyfriend, Piper, and things smarten up a bit and give me some hope for the rest of the book... for a while. A male friend, Gary, and his bitchy girlfriend, Wendy, set out to pick up Amy before Piper can track her down, and they meet up with two friendly metalhead couples. They're characterized pretty well even though it's fairly obvious from the start that they're only introduced into the book so there'll be more kill-scenes later. This part of the book is interesting even if it's not very horror-novelish, and the book then throws you a pretty amazing curve by getting what you thought was going to be the main character killed exactly halfway through the book. That's an audacious move and gave me even more hope for the book; Rufty's tossed some standard-horror-formula out the window and let you know that nobody's safe here, and you wonder what transgressions he's going to hit you with next.
Unfortunately, after that masterstroke, things get dumb again. The Haunchies show up, wanting to kill and eat the males and mate with the females, and soon everybody's running everywhere and unpleasant-as-possible things are happening almost constantly, with only the occasional break to find out if two of the girls might be able to form a threesome with one of the guys later, or if Piper will still be able to rape and murder all our heroes while escaping the Haunchies.
The monsters never come across as anything but silly and cartoonish, despite the mayhem they enact; I know Rufty wanted them to be pint-sized versions of the cannibal tribe from Off Season or maybe a whole bunch of those Zuni fetish dolls from Matheson's "Prey," but they come off as more like horny Ghoulies or something. Rape scenes are always repugnant (and Rufty goes there -- he'll go pretty much anywhere) but when the rapists are about two feet tall it gets a little absurd. And these characters never really grow -- you think they are, for a while, and then in the clinch they abandon their humanity (and survival instincts) to carry out petty vendettas, and it just doesn't ring true.
There's plenty of gore and nastiness so if that's enough for you to put up with too much dumbness when it comes to the plot, you may be satisfied because Rufty does a good job not holding back on that. Overall, the writing's not bad, but the style feels borrowed, mostly from Laymon -- it's got the same all-the-way-evil-and-nothing-but bad guys, the same juvenile preoccupation with sex even at inopportune moments (even while crawling through a tunnel escaping a horrible fate, one woman gets turned on almost to the point of orgasm because her breasts are dragging the ground), the same one-line paragraphs to emphasize some dramatic point, overused to the point of awkwardness. It's not a terrible book by any means, I didn't have a chore getting through it, and I'd consider another Rufty book if the plotline intrigued me, but it is pretty lunk-headed, so be forgiving if you go for it.
The paperback's cover is a reproduction of the original 1898 edition's.
Tenebrae -- Ernest G. Henham (Valancourt Books, 2013)
Originally published in 1898, this weird piece of morbidity reads like a homage to Edgar Allan Poe on ‘shrooms. The gloomy-minded narrator is an independently wealthy (via inheritance) scholar who lives in a decaying mansion with his beloved brother and his drug-addled uncle, who’s so crazy and damaged from drug and alcohol abuse that he thinks he’s the King of the Insects and concocts poisons to drink; he even convinces his nephew to sweeten his coffee with arsenic. The narrator spends his days translating manuscripts on the mysteries of death and trying to romance a neighbor girl. When he discovers she’s in love with his brother instead, he starts hating him to the point of madness and eventually murders him. The neighbor girl then marries the narrator for some strange reason. He’s still not happy, though, and his paranoia grows until he’s ranting at his wife over a game of chess and screaming at strangers about chrysanthemums. This stuff is so over the top it’s hilarious, perhaps intentionally so. He also starts seeing a giant spider, which terrifies him beyond reason since he’s even scared of the small kind.
The writing is florid -- almost feverish -- and is so drenched in Poe-ism that it almost crushes you with maniacal gloom... but it’s highly readable despite its age. It’s very much a mood piece and isn’t terrible eventful, so readers looking for a lot of action aren’t going to enjoy this much. But for students of the macabre it’ll be a fascinating artifact worth seeking out.
The Black Hope Horror: The True Story of a Haunting -- Ben Williams, Jean Williams, & John Bruce Shoemaker (William Morrow & Company, 1991)
Nonfiction that’ll make you appreciate lies, because facts are under no obligation to be interesting and I wish this book owed me something. A not-terribly-interesting old couple have a house built near Houston, Texas, and on moving in almost instantly decide the place is haunted... which makes you wonder for the rest of the book if they're not superstitious, suggestible people who are concentrating on anything that can be interpreted as "ghostly."
At first it's simple things -- sunken spots in the yard that won't stay filled, ants that show up in the kitchen, shadows that cause asthma attacks, toilets that flush by themselves, and a lot of snakes showing up on the property. They also have uncommonly bad luck with health in their family; practically everyone comes down with cancer or some other terrible disease (which unfortunately isn't that uncommon in the south, since our leaders let anybody who gives 'em a dollar dump any kind of toxic sludge anywhere).
In any case, they have more than their share of tragedy, and so many people die I couldn't keep track of how some of them were related. Other bad things happen to people who visit the house; their daughters get divorced and one becomes so crazy and hateful they litigate for custody of her daughter. Any cat they adopt dies (one after giving birth to a litter of inside-out kittens). The neighbors also have a lot of bad luck, and when the people next door dig up human bones when they try to build a swimming pool, they learn that the real estate company sold them land that had once been the Black Hope Cemetery, a graveyard for poor black people. The Williams want to sue but the lawyers set up an impossible paradox, where they'll have to prove graves are on the property, but if they dig them up to prove it they'll be arrested for grave desecration. They have a lot of nightmares, think they see ghosts, and experience more events they interpret as supernatural attacks (birds attacking the house with acorns, a woodpecker persistently hammering at a window, etc.)
It's not badly written but it's very bland, and the family is so average there's not much to characterize them or make the reader invest much in them, especially when the terrors they're subjected to are so mundane. They did have an unpleasant time there and it's sad that they had such bad luck with the health issues, but flushing toilets and aiiiieeeee-mean-birds-pelted-us-with-acorns-for-godsake! just don't make for much of a read. It's the Amityville Meh. It's fairly short, though, so "true ghost" fanatics might find it worthwhile.
Unsuspecting female swimmer at top heading to the right - check!
Toothy shark approaching from below - check!
Rip Tide - Donald D. Cheatham (Zebra, 1984)
Rip OFF is more like it. Amateurish Jaws imitation ups the number of shark attacks and adds a superstrong hurricane to the mix but still fails to distinguish itself.
This time the predator is a twenty-some foot tiger shark feeding on swimmers, boaters, and even other sharks off the coast of Florida. A male-female pair of buddy cops, Stark and Sallings, are assigned to deal with the situation, but they never really do so we follow them around through the book for no good reason. They're both obnoxious assholes, but you get the sense the author doesn't know that. Stark, the male cop, used to work in St. Louis where he was basically Dirty Harry with a bigger dick, bending a lot of rules to bring in a crazy sniper who'd killed over 100 people (sure, why stop at anything realistic?) and even targeted pregnant women (I guess to get maximum scores per bullet). Good thing Stark had some success there, because his efforts to bring in the shark are so incompetent that he even manages to lose a severed head he dug up (completely by accident) while visiting a nude beach.
Stark gets laid a lot, mostly because every woman around him is as big an asshole as he is. He and Sallings flirt a lot, he screws one of her friends (who promptly kicks him out for being an idiot), and has no trouble bedding a lady shark expert (ya gotta have a Hopper figure) who's really obnoxious and fond of saying "What does this have to do with the price of potatoes in Idaho?" over and over again. Stark and Sallings swap smartass jokes that are devoid of anything funny.
Meanwhile, the shark attacks a lot of people and the mayhem is fairly gory, so you get that much, at least. Then a huge hurricane shows up and you get more mayhem like people being killed by pebbles blowing around, etc. The shark is almost completely forgotten as this suddenly becomes a hurricane-disaster novel instead of a Jaws variation.
That would all be fine if the writing was competent, but it isn't; there are some interesting facts (Cheatham did his research, at least, or managed to trick me into thinking he did -- I didn't verify it all), but it's written like a third-grader's class project, with laborious sentences, exclamation points used outside of dialogue, clumsy plotting, and some unintentional hilarity (I loved it in chapter 18 when Stark apparently answers the telephone and starts mixing a drink without every getting out of the shower). Maybe the worst thing is, there's no payoff -- the shark's still in business at the end of the book and never even faces a credible threat. The chapters are numbered, but since there are 26 of the Cheatham, for some reason, thought it'd also be clever to assign each a letter in the military alphabet. So, the book pretty much sucks from Alpha to Zulu.
The Track of the Cat -- Walter Van Tilberg Clark (Nevada, originally 1949)
I'd wanted to read this one a long time, hearing it was one of the best horror novels ever, but written in the guise of a Western. I like both genres and am all for some cross-pollenation, so it was pretty disappointing that it turned out to be an excruciating and almost-unreadable chore to get through.
A ranch family is plagued by a big cat that's killing their cattle. An old Indian thinks it's the black panther who killed his wife and daughter, and which is not merely a cat but a talisman representing the end of the world. While the family -- intensely dysfunctional -- squabbles about the youngest brother’s fiancé, the most impetuous brother, Curt -- a brash, bullying asshole who has to impose his will on everyone and everything, including the very land itself -- becomes obsessed with killing this cat. At first he’s just fueled by stories from the old Indian (who’s clearly suffering from senile dementia) but then gets really driven when the cat kills his older brother Arthur (who -- the story goes far out of its way to establish for no particular reason - is a “dreamer”). Curt gets lost in a blizzard and ends up helpless and desperate and nearly insane, out of food, almost out of matches, so lost in the snow-covered landscape he can’t tell if he’s walking toward home or farther from it, and doesn’t even know if it’s morning or dusk.
This is basically a good short story (Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” in particular) bloated into an insufferably long novel by literary pretense; very little happens and it’s all described in excruciating, pointless detail until you need a crazed will like Curt’s to keep reading. None of the overly-melodramatic family squabbles add up to anything, they’re uninteresting, and don’t move the plot at all. We’re kept neurotically up to date on how long the Indian’s gone without eating, how much the drunken father’s been drinking, etc. and it’s all very nicely written but who gives a fuck? Clark is good with words and can draw vivid pictures, but they’re pictures of mundane events and it results in some very constipated prose. This is sort of a “Moby Dick in the West,” but a lot more happened in Moby Dick; this could have made the same point with a stronger punch at an eighth of the length. I really wanted to get into this, given its reputation, but the emperor’s got no clothes. A good idea, executed awfully.
I'm still planning on writing ya'll a horror story before Halloween, but I'm one lazy bastid and am a bit writer's blocked so we'll see how that goes. I've got a large chunk of it done but I need to finish it and then polish the hell out of it and try to ramp up the octane, because if I can't make a good run at scaring the unholy bejesus out of you and do some serious lasting psychological damage, then I'm not going to be happy. But, I'll try. In the meantime, please revisit my Halloween stories of yesteryear:
Long Tall Sally
The Damp Basements of Heaven
Up The Stairs Where The Windows Are Painted Black
and little descriptions of some real-life nightmares I've had
and blog-brother KickerOfElves's much-creepy
Men With Knives
and my buddy Proftbolt's eerie
East of Rulesville.
And if all those are too long or creepy for ya and you can't deal with more than 140 characters at a time, here are people you can follow on Twitter.