I've been reading a lot of short stories this year so it's been a slow year, and the only things I've piled up to make significant posts of are some horror novels, and some non-fiction things (mostly books about bad people -- outlaw bikers, degenerate rock stars, serial killers and such). The fact that I'm currently reading two nonfiction books (one on bikers on my lunch breaks at work, one on Ted Bundy at home) made me decide to do the horror novel one instead, since I could add those others to the non-fiction post, whenever I do it. And I'm still reading action novels, too (and if you like those, you should definitely be reading the excellent Glorious Trash blog, which is updated WAY more often than we are!)... I just have kind of a scant number of those piled up, and -- since I rarely post -- I like overwhelming you when I do.
And I'm about to do some overwhelmin'! Here come more horror book reviews than you probably even want! You should see the stack of books next to my scanner, it's about a yard high. I don't mind - a huge stack of books is maybe the world's most beautiful thing other than the human female.
Sorry about the white spaces -- I got a used copy that used to belong to a library and they stuck stickers all over it, the libraryin' bastards!
Simon is a film critic whose career is on the skids because of his involvement with a slanderous film magazine. He’s working at a gas station when one of his old film professors contacts him, asking if he'd like to expand his thesis into a book, since the college has gotten a publishing grant and needs material. Simon starts trying to research a silent film comedian, Tubby Thackery, whose films are apparently all lost. They’re hard to find due to being banned in their day, both because the material was blasphemous and subversive, and because riots broke out at screenings and people literally laughed themselves to death. When Simon finally tracks down a few minutes of film on an old videotape it’s more surreal, creepy, and disturbing than funny, although his girlfriend’s seven year old son thinks its hilarious and becomes obsessed with Tubby. After viewing it Simon starts to see evidence of Tubby everywhere, and picks up a crazy internet stalker called Smilemime, who slanders him and -- Simon thinks -- starts messing with his writing. Simon discovers that more of Tubby’s material is available (Smilemime somehow has Internet Movie Database reviews for all of it), and the more footage he tracks down the more disturbing it gets; people seem to have a compulsion to imitate Tubby, and Simon finds himself losing control of language and babbling nonsense. He starts seeing things like grinning faces crawling on the floor, and a lecture he’s giving turns into a surreal nightmare where he ends up doing slapstick. A church Christmas program and his birthday don’t turn out much better, and his mind starts to deteriorate under Tubby’s -- and the Internet’s -- influence. Very weird and intriguing horror; Campbell’s sometimes a tough read in the long format but this one was hard to put down, although it does get a little more difficult and out of control as Simon’s psyche starts to go. One of Campbell’s best and definitely worth seeing out if you like absurd darkness; the writing’s so strong it feels like a vivid dream. If you’re familiar with Campbell’s short stories (and you’re a horror fan it’s a travesty if you're not - pick up Dark Companions and go from there) you know that Campbell’s work has an almost “unsafe” feel to it, like he's playing around with things in your head that you'd rather he not touch; he comes up with such creepy things it’s almost like he’s overdosed you on LSD and shoved you into a particularly skeevy funhouse. Campbell knows how to find that cold damp thing you're afraid of and give you teasing little peeks at it. It's also well-known I'm a sucker for horror novels where people have to track down some terrible thing and end up regretting it (such as in Adam Nevill's Last Days or Pessl's Night Film or my own "Creak," plug-plug). Campbell's Ancient Images has a somewhat-similar plot, and I liked that one, too, although Grin of the Dark is even more effective. You'll be feeling this book for a few days after you finish it. Can you feel me grabbing you by the lapels and screaming in your face that you need to read this one? You should, because I AM!
I like this guy so much I buy the British paperbacks and the American hardbacks, both.
House of Small Shadows - Adam Nevill (Pan Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013)
An antiques appraiser named Catherine initially thinks she’s gotten a dream assignment when she’s sent to The Red House, home of the late famous taxidermist and puppeteer M. H. Mason. The house is filled with incredibly rare, immensely valuable, and mint-condition furniture, dolls, puppets, and Mason’s bizarre artwork, much of which is in the form of very disturbing recreations of World War I battle scenes using thousands of taxidermied and uniformed rats. The dream assignment soon turns into a nightmare as the already-a-bit-unbalanced Catherine is subjected to the weird behavior of her hosts, Mason’s crazy old niece and her stern, silent housekeeper, as well as surreal sights in the house, such as a room full of “sleeping” puppets, Mason’s laboratory, a nearby ghost town that’s not quite uninhabited, and a beekeeper with hives full of flies instead of bees. Things from Catherine’s own troubled past start showing up and she’s subjected to a weird “pageant” with a strange audience and a reality that shifts like a drugged nightmare. This surreal nightmarishness is both the book’s strength and weakness; it keeps things powerfully creepy and packs in a tsunami of scares, but also makes things a bit confusing and hard to stay on top of. And trying to manage it (and carry the book with mainly one character) takes away a bit of the readability found in Nevill’s The Ritual or Last Days. But, that’s only comparatively -- this is still Adam Nevill so it’s going to be more than readable enough, and he’s one of the few must-read-everything-he-writes authors working today. This one’s quite reminiscent of the subject matter and bizarre tone of Thomas Ligotti, and if you know Ligotti’s works (and every horror fan must) then you know what an amazing thing that is.
Dark Gods - T. E. D. Klein (Bantam, 1985)
Four novellas from the unfortunately-quit-writing-way-too-early Klein. In the first, “Children of the Kingdom,” weird white fleshy tapeworm-faced things from the sewers take advantage of a blackout to propagate with the women of New York City. It’s like a classier version of Humanoids From The Deep, keeping things mostly hinted at in the dark, and it’s all the more effective for that. Very creepy and unsettling. The next, “Petey,” involves some people buying an old eccentric’s house. During a house-warming party, while playing with some strange tarot cards, they learn that his house may not be all they got from him... and he may not have been living alone after all. There are some nightmarish effects here but they’re in a too-obscure story that leaves too much unexplained. In “Black Man With A Horn,” an old friend of H.P. Lovecraft’s meets a strange seat-mate (wearing an obvious disguise) on a plane, which leads him to learn of a weird monster’s existence. The monster is fairly ridiculous (I think the movie Zaat might scare Klein) and not much is done with it. But the story is engagingly told. Saving the best for last, “Nadelman’s God” is about a guy who starts receiving odd fan mail after a metal band makes lyrics from a juvenilely-blasphemous poem he'd written for his college literary journal years before. A creepy guy in Long Island takes the lyrics seriously and tries to build a god out of garbage... and apparently succeeds, because strange things start happening to Nadelman, which get increasingly dangerous and creepy. This one’s got a real sense of dread and will have you afraid to take the trash out for a while. While the collection is, overall, not the masterpiece material I’d been hoping for after reading The Ceremonies (and its larval form, “The Events at Poroth Farm”), this is still more than good enough to make you wish Klein would take up writing again. It also makes me want to go re-read The Ceremonies.
Edge of Dark Water -- Joe R. Lansdale (Mullholland Books, 2012)
This is classic Lansdale, one of his best books (and if you’re familiar with his work you know what kind of weight “best Lansdale” carries). He writes from the point of view of Sue Ellen, a white-trash girl in Depression-era Texas who’s in a bad situation even for a teenager in that time and place; her mom’s a laudanum addict who barely gets out of bed, and her stepdaddy’s a lazy criminal who keeps making incestuous moves on her. When a friend of hers, May Lynn, is fished out of the river with a sewing machine wired to her feet, Sue Ellen and her friends Jinx (a black girl whose smartassed attitude is bound to get her in trouble if she stays in Texas much longer) and Terry (a suspected “sissy” whose reputation’s going to keep his life there hellish) decide it’d be a nice gesture (and a much-needed means of escape) if they cremated her and took her ashes to Hollywood, where she’d always dreamed of going. From May Lynn’s diary they learn the location of some money her dead brother stole, and decide to recover it to finance the trip. But May Lynn’s worthless daddy and Sue Ellen’s even-more-worthless stepdad want the cash, so escaping won’t be easy. Throw an almost-supernatural homicidal tracker named Skunk (who’s so creepy most people think he’s just a legend) into the mix and you have the biggest adventure on a raft down a river since Huckleberry Finn (which this book often gets compared to, as much for the pitch-perfect narrative voice of Sue Ellen as for the river-rafting). As is usual in Lansdale there’s a lot of “yarn” to this story and it stays funny and full of local color even at its darkest (which in this case gets purty-dang in spots), and like any good yarn it never lags and holds your attention tight. Comparisons with classics are appropriate and likely intentional (Lansdale’s very well-read), but it’s also in a class by itself. Not completely a horror novel, but close enough for this blog post's purposes.
The Hollower - Mary SanGiovanni (Self-published, )
When Leisure Books folded and screwed over all of its authors, this was among the last wave of releases and ended up in a hard-to-find limbo for a while, but thanks to self-publishing, it's back! With improved cover art! So, self-publishing does have a good side, resurrecting good works that came out legitimately but were taken out of print too soon. And this was definitely worth bringing back. People in the town of Lakehaven (usually people with some vulnerability, like former drug addiction or mental illness) fall prey to an evil being that looks pretty much exactly like The Question from comics (or Rorschach if you're into Alan Moore's complete rip-off in Watchmen - by the way, nice to meet ya, I'm the one guy who thinks Alan Moore is an talentless parasite) -- trenchcoat, fedora, blank face. But don't let that make you think The Hollower isn't a unique monster -- it takes on other forms (anything from a dead relative to a huge Lovecraftian crustacean- thing) and can turn the world into a surreal nightmare, using its victims’ worst fears against them, hoping to get them to help it in its work by destroying themselves. When the victims learn that others are being haunted by this thing and they aren’t just going crazy, they band together and try to find a way to fight it. It’s a little bit It and a little bit Nightmare on Elm Street without really being derivative of either, and SanGiovanni’s writing is very strong and vivid, no matter how surreal the scenario she’s writing may be. It’s not slow, either -- the pace is frentic (toward the end sometimes almost too much so -- you have to be careful not to get lost in a barrage of nightmarish images). Good stuff, and works as a stand-alone, although it’s the first of a trilogy, which are also available (Found You and The Triumvirate).
Foresaken - Andrew Van Wey (Greywood Bay, 2011)
Disjointed mess of a horror novel in which a guy named Daniel has his life fall apart when he tries to determine the origin of a strange painting left at his college. The painting has several impossibilities about it -- it’s more photorealistic than a photo, it was apparently painted by a blind woman, things move in it, it contains elements of his past -- and it starts to drive him crazy. He was already a little crazy, anyway, suffering from migraines and claustrophobia since his brother locked him in a trunk as a kid. Plus he had an affair with one of his art students and now she won’t stop stalking him, and the family dog disappears, and his daughter is bothered by imaginary friends who mess with her stuffed bunny, and an undead blue jay keeps turning up, and he gets in trouble at work for suffering hallucinatory breakdowns while the cops think he killed the student he had the affair with. And, and, and. This novel has a couple dozen things it seems to want to be doing and tries to juggle them all and fails, sending plot threads scattering every-which-a-way. When things should be falling together they just fall apart even more, until there’s a not-all-that-unexpected 11th hour revelatory “surprise” that’s not all that surprising and renders most of what’s come before moot, anyway, and nothing ends up making much sense; you don’t really know what happened and by that point you don’t really care, either. The actual prose is plain but okay, and stays engaging most of the way through, it’s just the last third is a shambles and you get the sense Van Way didn’t even know why he wrote a lot of what he did and got stuck for an ending, so he just tagged something on and then got away with it because this is an independently-published thing instead of something that had to pass a real editor. There’s enough talent here to make the pretentious shit closure seem more tragic to the book’s potential. Better luck next time.
Doctor Sleep - Stephen King (Scribner, 2013)
You don’t have to read The Shining to enjoy this sequel, but why in the hell wouldn’t you have read The Shining? It makes me mad to even think about people who haven’t read The Shining. I’ll fight you. I’ll fight you in the street. Anyway, this novel catches up to Danny “Doc” Torrence as an adult, successfully fighting alcoholism with the help of AA (Danny’s rock bottom honestly wasn’t all that far down -- stealing $70 from a welfare mother who’d just talked him into spending a lot more than that on cocaine -- but it haunted him nonetheless). He gets jobs in hospices where he uses his gifts to help the dying pass more peacefully, and he picks up mental signals from a little girl who has the shining powers far more powerfully than he ever did. Her shining makes her the target of a gypsy psychic vampire clan called “the True Knot,” a bunch of weird-named creeps who travel the country in RV’s, hunting children with the shining so they can torture them to death and feed off their “steam.” With Danny’s help, the girl tries to face them down. It’s a different kind of book than The Shining, more action-oriented than horrific, with the focus on the good-vs.-evil psychic battle. But there are some creepy scenes (the woman from the bathtub comes back) and the story stays compelling, and King’s still on top of his game in the writing department. It’s not quite the classic that The Shining is (and it’d be unfair to even expect that) but it’s a very satisfying follow-up and rings true to being a continuation of Danny Torrence’s life.
Above is the excellent Library of America volume that contains this novel, and below is some cool paperback art.
The Shrinking Man -- Richard Matheson (Library of America, originally 1956)
If you’ve seen the excellent movie adaptation you still don’t know the half of it. Scott Carey starts out as a 6’ 2” man who goes through a mysterious mist while boating and, somehow, starts shrinking a seventh of an inch a day. Matheson wisely starts the story with Scott already less than inch tall, trapped in a basement, trying to get food and water while fighting off a spider that’s now bigger than he is; the rest is parceled out in flashbacks, because Matheson knows the really interesting part of the concept is a guy less than an inch tall, not three feet or so. That’s not sci-fi or horror, that’s just the Gary Coleman story. Since those stages are handled as vignettes, they’re interesting, too -- a child-sized Scott gets beaten up by mean kids, almost molested by a creepy man, and leaves his wife for a circus midget because only she knows what it’s like to be his size. As his old life slips away from him (he can no longer be a husband to his wife or have the authority needed to parent a child who views him as a doll, and even his cat goes from pet to predator) his new life as a tiny man brings him challenges, having to climb furniture like mountains, having to beattle the spider with a pin. And what will happen when he shrinks down to nothing? Matheson’s writing, as always, is brilliant. He flubs a few things (I don’t see how a guy one-seventh of an inch tall is still wielding a pin -- it’d be like a phone pole) but they’re not hard to forgive. A classic.
If you're getting nothing else out of this blog post, at least you get to look at a purple-half-skull-bear-dog-seal with a boy in its mouth. And you get to think about someone painting that, thinking, "This'll be scary!" Yes, if nothing else, you get that. You're welcome.
Deadly Nature - V. M. Thompson (Zebra, 1988)
After moving to a new town the Camber family start noticing strange mutations in the woods -- unidentified plants and large insects with extra legs and wings, two-headed snakes, and eventually two-headed dogs and bear-sized groundhogs. Most of the locals think nothing of this and even the Cambers shrug it off with ridiculous ease and just keep on eating watermelon-sized tomatoes from their garden as if that’s not anything they might want to be concerned about. Only their 15-year-old son, Chip, finds these mutations alarming, and he starts to investigate, sending water samples off for analysis. But every time he gets the water tested there’s some cover-up. Meanwhile things get worse -- his dog gives birth to a litter of freaks, his mom’s ominously pregnant with twins, and everybody -- including his parents and pets -- become abnormally aggressive and angry. Chip and his buddy Scott have a hard time getting any adults interested in the insane goings on, which makes this book a little absurd. It’s kind of a blend of David Seltzer’s Prophecy with a Dean R. Koontz-style government conspiracy thriller, and it never really generates much fear. It’s very overlong at 429 pages, and a lot of that is due to bloated, overdescriptive prose. I wanted, at times, to go over the book with a red pencil and write notes in the margin, like “You don’t need to write ‘crimson blood’ when blood is, by nature, crimson," or "We don’t need a ‘scant handful’ of water unless the character in question has freakishly large hands -- handfuls really don’t come in any other size.” There are enough unnecessary adjectives here for another ten terrible books, and it gets wearisome, especially when so much of what’s being described isn’t contributing to the story, anyway. I’m not sure the editors at Zebra did much of anything except say, "Yeah, that purple bear-skull thing would be a great cover painting." Still, the story’s (potentially) engaging enough that I hung with it, and I didn’t hate it... but I was in the mood for something trashy that I expected to fall far short of greatness. And so had you better be if you decide to give this a read. Extra points for the purple dog-bear-whatever on the cover, painted by someone with zero clue how skeletal anatomy works (eye sockets are much bigger than eyes, bub).
Above is a somewhat-crappy but easier-to-find collection of Sarban's novels, and below is the original paperback.
The Sound of His Horn - Sarban (1952)
The ever-popular “what if the Nazis had won the war” scenario gets crossed with “The Most Dangerous Game” and The Island of Dr. Moreau. A British Navy man escapes a P.O.W. camp in 1943 and runs into some weird variation of an electric fence, which somehow lands him a hundred years in the future. The Nazis have won and enslaved the rest of the world, and our narrator is kept at an estate where a German baron entertains his friends with hunts. Some of them are legitimate (although not all that sporting) while others are perverse sadomasochistic scenarios where women are dressed as birds and hunted for fun. Other women have been altered -- both by surgery and genetics -- to be like jungle cats, and -- also driven insane -- they kill and eat deer with metal claws to amuse their German overlords. The narrator is eventually dressed in a deer suit and sent into the woods to be hunted, but he meets a girl there (also enslaved prey) and decides to try to escape with her. The writing is pretty stiff and since this a rehash of several old plots it lacks a little excitement. It’s still held in very high regard by most, but it didn’t do much for me.
The Bedeviled - Thomas Cullinan (Avon, 1978)
Upon arriving at the house in the country they inherited from an aunt, a family starts experiencing weird changes. The 16-year-old son, Duff, becomes obsessed with a Civil War general ancestor. This General was a Satanist and remains a central figure for a local cult that keeps digging up his remains to use in rituals. Duff becomes possessed by the general and tries to molest his sister and urinates in a church. He slyly taunts his mother and keeps a diary (in another handwriting) about being the general, and even starts appearing as him. His mother (the narrator) is the only one who sees what’s going on and everyone thinks she’s the crazy one, especially after Duff passes a psychological test. Then the mother gets possessed by the general’s wife, and incest, insanity, and death start plaguing the family. It’s not a bad horror novel -- the writing is good and there are some creepy moments -- but the plotline’s a little too familiar to really stand out. And there are a lot of little things that get started up and then never really go anywhere (Duff hanging around a motorcycle gang, a housekeeper getting murdered, the husband being obsessed with writing some novel we’re never told anything about -- it just seems like a way of getting his character out of the picture so he won’t have to be dealt with). A little sloppy but worth a read.
The Blooding -- William Darrid (Bantam, 1979)
I bought this a long time ago because the cover copy made it sound like a Town That Dreaded Sundown sort of thing. Then I finally started reading it and, after an opening that’s very much like Cujo, I found out the “stalking killer” was going to be rabies. Fine, I thought, maybe it’ll be like I Drink Your Blood. Instead we get something more along the lines of Old Yeller, but driven by some of the corniest, most pretentious prose you’re ever likely to find. Darrid was apparently trying way too hard to write “the great American novel” because every scene is infused with such overbearing dramatic gravitas that it becomes self-parody. It’s one of those novels where almost everybody says something homespun and then immediately repeats it, so you can practically hear the harp music frantically swelling in the background. What’s supposed to deliver pathos is so hysterically out of place it becomes a laugh fest. My favorite is probably when the brother of Pete, who’s recently left to fight in World War II, tells his father, “Ol’ Pete, he’ll dust off the cows for you. Sure, ol’ Pete, he’ll do it.” And his father says, “Damn it, Pete isn’t here.” And the boy looks at his father and asks softly, “Ain’t he, Pa? Ain’t he?” Good lord. Anyway, if you can hack 311 pages of that kind of corn (and don’t be too quick to say you can), what you really get is the non-scary, nowhere-near-intense story of a small Kansas town during World War II. Most of the young men are off fighting the Germans and bodies are coming home, and a rabid coyote bites some cows and one boy’s pet dog, Jim Dandy (so named ‘cuz ain’t he a Jim Dandy, by gum, ain’t he?), who spreads it around, even to a few people, who don’t really do much of anything; one kills himself by leaping onto some scrap of a train the town’s dismantling as a way to help the war effort. People finally figure out there’s rabies amongst ‘em and deal with it, which isn’t very exciting, even when Darrid tries to give you a big climax with the rabid dog ridiculously jumping through the movie screen into a theater. The writing is far from incompetent or anything, it’s just so pretentious, and the folksiness is more awkward than when Stephen King gets out of control. If you get anything out of this it’ll be because of unintentional comedy.
For another review of this book (or at least half of it - he was even less impressed with it than I was or perhaps just values his time more, and I can't blame him for that), I refer you to the always-excellent Too Much Horror Fiction.
Christian Nation - Frederic C. Rich (Norton, 2013)
I doubt if it was written as such, but I count this as a horror novel, and it’s a terrifying one because everything in it rings true, knowing the people that I know. It’s an alternate history in which John McCain won the 2008 election, then promptly died, leaving Sarah Palin as president. Being a witless and willing puppet for the evangelical right who’ve always wanted (and actually required, as per Dominionist beliefs) America to become a theocracy run by religion as interpreted by right-wing extremist Christian leaders, the country is expertly and plausibly remade into a “Christian Nation,” operating under a new set of laws called “The Blessing” and whose citizens are strictly monitored by a revamped and heavily-censored version of the Internet known as “the Purity Web.” Books offensive to the Christian right (which can be pretty much anything) are pulled from bookstores and libraries and burned, homosexuality and atheism are outlawed, and states that secede rather than submit to this theocracy are quickly crushed (partially because the military has already been infiltrated by evangelicals who makes sure only their own kind get promoted). Basically, it’s what would likely happen if the Christians currently in their “Generation Joshua” movement actually got a chance to do what they are currently, in real life, saying they want to do. Hitler spelled out his plans in Mein Kampf and everyone ignored them, just like we’re ignoring things like the Dominionists, Patrick Henry College, Focus on the Family, etc. right now. It’s written in the form of a history written in secret (all things contrary to the Christian Nation being illegal to the point of imprisonment or death) by a man who was a close friend of one of the leaders of the resistance. After surviving battles and the Siege of Manhattan and years of torture in a re-education camp, he pretends to be brainwashed to survive, but finds small, secret cells for free thinkers left. You can (and should) research the things Rich talks about in here, because they're based in fact. It’s well-written and distressingly plausible, if perhaps slightly extreme, and it should be read as a warning of what could happen if we don’t take these clowns seriously. They have more influence than you’d think, and the climate is even more fertile to their ignorant horror than you might believe. I’ve met them. If you live in the South, so have you. They’re probably the reason you dread Thanksgiving dinners.
Those scratches are in the jacket design -- I haven't been clawing my books up.
Horns - Joe Hill (Willam Morrow, 2010)
When I heard the concept of this -- a guy wakes up with horns growing out of his head -- I thought it’d be too wacky, fanciful, and comical for me to be able to like it... but I’ll be damned if Joe Hill didn’t pull it off. Ignatius “Ig” Parrish wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery with horns sprouting from his head. Oddly, the people around him barely notice them and -- even odder -- they’re compelled to confess their darkest, nastiest secrets and real opinions -- or, at least, the negative sides of them. People suspect Ig of having murdered his girlfriend Merrin and Ig’s life has been tainted by that (and by the loss of her) but with the power of his horns (as well as other newfound powers, such as the ability to withstand fire or summon masses of snakes) Ig will learn the truth about what happened to Merrin. It is pretty wacky and much of it remains unexplained, but thanks to Hill’s excellent writing you’ll be willing to flow it all the slack it needs. It’s not a perfect book -- things get a little murky in the second half and started to lose me a little -- but some of it is very strong, particularly the parts with Merrin. And the bad guy is such a despicable sociopath you’ll be eager to see him get a comuppance. Nicely nuanced weirdness with a soul. Now a movie!
Eyes - Felice Picano (Dell, 1975)
I was in the mood for an old-school 70’s stalker-horror novel, and this almost delivered, falling short only in that it never really becomes a horror book. It’s still good and engrossing, anyway. A voyeur named Johanna, who liked spying on her brothers having sex with girls in the back seat of their dad’s old car, has a habit of watching people in the apartments in the next building through binoculars, then calling the guys she’s interested in. She has a good view of a guy named Stu’s apartment and starts phoning him (she’s gone as far as to buy electronic voice-changing equipment), which creeps him out... at first. But when he breaks up with his girlfriend (a shallow-idiot dancer who’s too in love with herself to leave much room for anyone else), he finds “Joan” comforting, and then alluring. He builds an image of her in his mind and even uses a girl who picks him up in a park as a proxy for sex. Johanna is a little dismayed at the relationship Stu has with “Joan,” and that only gets worse when she meets him as Johanna and they start dating. Stu has no idea that Johanna and “Joan” are the same person, so a weird love-triangle happens between two people! “Joan” becomes jealous of herself and tries to end the phone relationship, but Stu has figured out where “Joan” lives, and that leads to a confrontation that becomes just a wee bit too contrived. Not enough to ruin what’s been a well-written (if slightly overlong) book, though. From the name “Felice” I’d thought the author was female, but a little research revealed he’s a gay guy who writes mostly gay fiction, but wrote this based on some personal experience with a woman who used to call him even though he wasn’t on the market for her. Nothing seems gay about the novel, as it shows a lot of insight into male-female relationships. But I imagine relationships are pretty much basically the same regardless of the genders involved, so that’s not all that surprising. Alternate chapters are excerpts from a stalker’s-journal that Johanna keeps, giving it some psychological depth. Stays interesting throughout, even if it doesn’t ever turn into a Fatal Attraction thing like I’d expected. Well worth the read.
The Spectral Link - Thomas Ligotti (Subterranean Press, 2014)
Slim volume containing two weird short stories from the unfortunately non-prolific Ligotti; anything that leaks out of his mind is a blessing. In the first, “Metaphysica Morum,” a man is torn between rival therapists of a sort -- a fraudulent “Dr. O” in the real world and a “Dealer” in his dreams who’s trying to sell him an “all new context,” when all he really wants is oblivion. What’s surprising about this story is, who knew Ligotti had a sense of humor? It contains a letter written to the protagonist from some long-lost inbred hick family member and it’s incredibly vulgar, hilarious, sick, and completely out of Ligotti’s usual reserved, even-uptight style. I have to wonder if Ligotti isn’t making fun of Edward Lee, because it’s full of the same perverted sex, scatological humor, and ridiculously-depraved violence Lee’s built a career around. Other than this the story’s fairly standard and a bit too navel-gazey; it’s good but doesn’t amount to much. The second story, “The Small People,” is closer to a masterwork. In Ligotti’s unique hallucinatory style he tells of the “small people” who build “small towns” near towns full of “real people.” They’re not just small, they’re like dolls -- they move stiffly, their heads swivel, their faces are fixed in bland stares, and everything about them -- their prefabricated houses, their toylike cars -- seem to just be part of an act rather than an actual life. He and another boy who hates them -- which gets them labeled as bigots -- fear that the smalls are encroaching on the real world, and a lot of “real” people are actually half-smalls. It’s a well-done, surreal, creepy piece on the insane nature of bigotry (where does its paranoia stop?) and on the absurdity of all human life (is anything real or are we all just acting and doing what we’re “supposed” to) -- where is the line between real and unreal? It’s a scant book at 94 pages but it’s Ligotti we’re talking about I’ll take what I can get. This is a must-purchase, as are the rest of his works.
This is what happens when you turn a French Tickler inside out. Scary, eh? Or maybe it's just what your nasal passages look like when you've snorted a lot of cocaine, cocaine, cocaine.
The Shaft - David J. Schow (Futura, 1990)
This started life as a short story. You can find it in Schow’s collection, Black Leather Required. It’s not one of Schow’s better short stories, and blowing 20 large-print pages up into 360 small-print ones did it no favors. Schow’s prose is good, as always (albeit a bit too self-pleased 80’s hipsterish -- some of it is brilliant and clever, while some has aged like VHS and distracts you by trying too hard to out-cool the previous sentence), and it’s definitely detail-rich when it comes to the gruesome stuff; if you ever wondered what “splatterpunk” was all about, chapter 18 will define it for you better than anything else I can think of. The real problem here is the story. There’s not enough of one, and the novel meanders away from it so much I’m not sure even Schow was very interested in it. All he seems to want to write about is cocaine. The types of cocaine, what cocaine is cut with, the effects of cocaine, the lifestyle that orbits cocaine, metrosexist descriptions of coke dealers’ clothes and furniture and cars, etc. What whales are to Moby Dick, cocaine is to The Shaft. And just when you think, finally, we’ve heard all we possibly can about cocaine, some new character will take his first snort and then we start all over again. Considering I give not a paltry fucking damn about cocaine, can’t dredge up even the slightest interest, this coke-porn makes for a tedious trip. I know it was the 1980's but holy shit, dude, give it a break. You’re 80 pages into Miami Vice set decor before you even find out what “the shaft” is -- a dark, dingy ventilation shaft in a shitty Chicago-slum apartment building. And apparently it houses a monster. Or is part of a monster -- Schow is never quite clear what the nature of the monster is. Sometimes it’s a giant flesh-eating worm-thing which’ll maybe bite off your dick, or maybe get inside you and give you super-orgasms. Sometimes it’s a zombie patchworked together from pieces of previous victims. And sometimes its the building itself, whose walls bleed and suppurate when sliced, or open like mouths to swallow things. It all seems kind of tacked on and forced into this cocaine-drama that Schow obviously finds way more interesting but rightly knew would never find a market. None of the characters are all that likeable -- the closest-to-likeable is one of the first killed, leaving you with a drug-dealer-on-the-run named Cruz and a high-end hooker named Jamaica, neither of whom I really cared what happened to. As much as I like most of Schow’s prose and admire his short stories, this is just nowhere near worth its length, even with the amazing no-holds-barred gore (which is 200-proof stuff but doesn’t show up often enough). And it doesn’t generate much dread. Whenever a chapter starts with a character you haven’t met before, you know they’ll be dead by the end of it, without fail; these chapters feel like they were inserted because Schow realized, oops, this was supposed to be a horror novel. It took me over a month to get through this because I kept reading short stories (including some of Schow’s) to avoid it instead. Great writer, not-so-great book... although that’s partially because I expect better from Schow. If it were by a lesser writer I’d rate it higher. Worth reading but not something you need to knock yourself out looking for... which, incidentally, is probably the only way you’d find a copy. Or you could buy the Centipede Press special edition for over a hundred bucks, which I wouldn't advise since it's nowhere near worth it. Spend the money on a lot of better books... or cut out the middleman and spend it on cocaine instead. If that's what you're interested in, why live vicariously?
Stripper Pole at the End of the World - Eric Beetner (Evili, 2013)
Post-apocalyptic novella in which a one-armed, one-legged, steel-plate-in-her-head girl named Janet gets a job at a bar where all the strippers are missing limbs, because that’s apparently a big fetish after the apocalypse. The bar where she’s dancing gets surrounded by cannibals who want to eat everyone inside. And that’s pretty much all there is to it, to be honest, but since this is a “Schlock Zone Drive-In” book that’s supposed to be the written equivalent of a grindhouse movie (I’m thinkin’ Planet Terror particularly), that’s really all you need. Still, it’s pretty scant, even for the brevity (100 large-print, wide-margin pages) of the book, but the writing is good and there’s nonstop gory action, even if it’s a bit on the goofy side. It’s got a bit of Richard Laymon/Bryan Smith-ness to it, which is a good thing. Good splattery fun.
The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor - Robert Kirkman & Jay Bonansinga (Thomas Dunne Books, 2011)
Well-done zombie-apocalypse novel dealing with the Governor character from the Walking Dead comics, telling how he dealt with the emergence of the zombies, trying to escape to Atlanta (which turned out to be overrun by living dead) with his brother, daughter, and a friend. On the way they learn how to deal with the zombies, but then tragedy strikes and drives some of them to insanity, leading to some of the situations you’ll be familiar with if you’ve read the comic or, to a lesser extent, if you watch the show. There’s a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming... probably because it’s not all that plausible, but that’s nothing I can’t play along with, so I’ll be around for the next volume. Plenty of tense, horrifying situations with hoards of zombies, and the writing is great (which is no surprise to me, because I was a huge fan of Bonansinga’s Black Mariah -- dig a copy of that one up, you will not regret it).
The Troop - Nick Cutter (Gallery Books, 2014)
Scoutmaster Tim (who’s a doctor in day-to-day life) takes five boys camping out on Maine’s Falstaff Island. The well-characterized boys are headstrong go-getter prick Kent, smart and compassionate but helplessly nerdish Newton, hot-tempered but capable jock Ephraim, Ephraim’s loyal buddy Max, and weird, probably-psychotic Shelley. Everything’s going fine until a horribly skinny, insanely hungry man shows up, clearly very sick. Tim thinks there may be some kind of pandemic starting up, so he (and this is so implausible I’m not sure why Cutter wrote it) decides to do some surgery to look in the guy’s stomach. It turns out the guy’s infested with huge tapeworms, and they’re highly contagious, and what they do is mind-bogglingly awful; the case-study transcript between chapters 20 and 21 is extremely nasty, horrific stuff and shows you enough of an infected subject’s fate to fill the rest of the book with heavy dread. And seriously bad things happen as the kids start catching the worms (or go insane thinking they have), drenching the book with plenty of pestilent gore and loads of tension as they try to survive an increasingly bleak situation. Good writing, great characterization, and a sense of any-character-can-die-horribly-at-any-time, even-the-likeable-ones makes this worthwhile reading for horror fans, especially ones with a fear of worms.
Quiet Houses - Simon Kurt Unsworth (Dark Continents Publishing, 2011)
Short story collection linked by a common character and plot device, a ghost hunter named Richard Nakata who places an ad asking people to tell him about their paranormal experiences, and after weeding through the cranks he investigates the ones that seem the most legit. The first story is easily the strongest, a super-creepy tale about a ghostly maid who follows him home after the hotel he’s visiting closes down. She brings overbearing sadness and gloom with her, and because he was kind to her, she won’t leave him. This one packed a punch and gave me high expectations for the rest of the book... which is unfortunate because that was the only really good shot it had in it. The second story is so weak and unmemorable even skimming it didn’t bring it back to me a week later, but it was something about a thing that lures children. The third is also weak, involving a guy being chased through a field by invisible things that leave trails in the grass. Unsworth’s prose (which is always very good) makes a valiant effort to fill this with fear, but the concept is too silly and you’re left with a bunch of trails in weeds that even Count Floyd wouldn’t try to make fearsome. Next we have the restoration of an old hotel in which everything -- carpeting, paintings, faucets, everything -- has an erotic motif. Creatures come out of the paintings to haunt the halls, and it’s more goofy than scary. Next, there’s a restroom haunted by an angry restroom attendant, and it’s pretty nasty imagery-wise but doesn’t add up to much. Then Nakata and an associate experiment to see how ghosts are made and bring a last-stage terminal cancer patient into an already-haunted house to live out his last days... but since the guy’s a racist he leaves behind a hateful spirit. It’s not a bad idea but doesn’t have much impact. And the last is about a ghostly herd of cows, and, yes, it’s about as spooky as it sounds. Moo, boo. It’s not badly written and I really wanted to like it more than I did, but most of the ghost stuff lacks spookness -- it’s like they’re seeing a deer or some other naturally-occurring animal rather than something otherworldly -- and other than that first one, there’s just not much frission.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward - H. P. Lovecraft (Library of America, originally 1941)
Short novel by Lovecraft in the form of an attempt to reconstruct the strange doings of a madman who disappeared from his cell in an asylum. Charles Dexter Ward had been an antiquarian who was always searching for information about the past, and whose investigations led him to the work of an ill-regarded ancestor, Joseph Curwen. Curwen had been hunted down for unholy necromacy, and Ward finds some of his papers hidden in a wall, detailing ways to raise the long dead through their “essential salts.” Ward soon becomes very secretive as he’s apparently started experimenting with Curwen’s theories and has either raised his ancestor... or become possessed by him. It’s a bit clumsy (Lovecraft is too free with the device of having people remember vivid details of things they only got a glimpse of -- in one case a man remembers a long inventory list he saw for a couple of seconds, complete with amounts and archaic spellings) and a little long for what it is, but the structure is interesting and there is plenty of dabbling-with-the-dead creepiness. And, as always, Lovecraft does a good job of implying incredible horrors that aren’t actually revealled (such as a pit of starving “mistakes”). Slow going at times due to its obsessive construction, but worth the effort.
The Boy Who Drew Monsters - Keith Donohue (Picador, 2014)
You know you’re going to be in a little trouble right off the bad with this book when you discover the author has named the titular character “Jack Peter.” I realize I’m more juvenile than most (I even snickered when I used "titular"just now), but your mind is far too innocent and naive if you’re going to name a kid after an act that helps you avoid having one in the first place. And giving him the nickname “Jip” only makes it worse; I kept picturing a chimpanzee in overalls, riding a tricycle. Donohue would have been better off naming him Simon, because he’s essentially that kid from the old Captain Kangaroo cartoons, whose chalk drawings became real. Anyhow, the unfortunately-named boy is ten years old and in the “high functioning” end of the autism spectrum. His parents (who feel like they were characterized by someone with autism -- even by the end of the book they were cardboard and interchangeable and their only characteristic seemed to be a humorless, bossy impatience) have no idea what to do with him, and his only friend, Nick, is a little afraid of him and feels forced to play with him, but does so anyway -- that kid Nick is a saint. Nick’s parents are a couple of helpless drunks (except when they aren’t) and are even more of a substanceless cipher than “Jip’s” parents. Jip is also agoraphobic and won’t leave the house, and he hates being touched, and pretty much all he likes to do is draw. Mostly monsters. And the monsters he draws somehow become real and lurk around the frozen sand dunes around their wintery home in Maine (where 90 percent of all horror novels have been set ever since Stephen King came on the scene -- I always feel like other writers set their books there in hopes Big Steve might be more likely to read them). Unfortunately for us, lurking is pretty much all these monsters ever really do, other than giving Jip’s dad a couple of scratches. For a while, Donohue creates a subplot about victims of an old shipwreck and makes you think there might be something like The Fog going to happen, but then that’s forgotten about completely. The plot’s thin and characters you think are going to be significant (such as Miss Tiramaku, who promises to be a key to the whole thing and then just disappears from the story) are introduced, only to prove so unnecessary they could be removed from the book without leaving a scar. Speaking of Stephen King, remember The Regulators? The worst (and one of the few truly bad) book he ever wrote? This is basically the same plot and it doesn’t work here, either. The writing itself isn’t bad, although it’s a bit timid and you never get the feel of any personality from it. I never felt it was a chore to keep reading, but this is still a mess of a book. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be -- an “It’s A Good Life” solipsism nightmare where one kid’s imagination really does control the world, or a ghost story (the cover copy brings up “Turn of the Screw” but wow is that a stretch), or some kind of literary novel about the clash of reality and imagination. The scares are pretty mundane “monster comin’ to getcha” funhouse stuff that throws punches that never land. There is a kind of neat twist at the end but it’s not worth taking the whole ride to get there. It’s far from being bad enough to avoid, but it’s nothing I’d say you needed to seek out, either.
Abbot’s Keep: A Ghost Story -- Benedict Ashforth (Timack Creations, 2014)
A man named Clifford goes in search of his disreputable drunken brother Simon after a disturbing letter from him, warning Clifford not to go looking for him. Screw you, Simon, you’re not the boss of me! Clifford writes to his wife Annabelle and includes Simon’s letter, which is about a search for a missing treasure at a haunted house, Abbot’s Grange, owned by a friend of Simon’s. The search, of course, uncovers some terrible things from the past and awakens ghosts. Overall this novella isn’t bad and you can tell Ashforth is trying to re-create an M.R. James type of story, which is a worthy aim. but the style works against it here. It’s set in 1980 but everyone writes like it’s the Victorian era. And the epistolary style can be effective (who doesn’t secretly want to read other people’s mail?) but it’s done a bit clumsy here, from little things like having letters reach people in one day to bigger things like re-describing in detail trips people took together, obviously for our benefit since the person receiving the letter was there, after all. It’s also a bit unbelievable that someone in Simon’s situation would be writing this long a narrative. So, it’s amateurish, but at least the amateur isn’t without some talent, which is all too often the case nowdays when publishing is open to anybody. Not great but short enough to be worth the time.
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