Thought this would make a good graphic ghost story pick to add to my October list. I knew it had a teenage protagonist, but it really does skew very yThought this would make a good graphic ghost story pick to add to my October list. I knew it had a teenage protagonist, but it really does skew very young and felt too childish for me to properly enjoy....more
Had a go at this – a potentially atmospheric winter mystery? – but the narrative style drove me mad. The main character talks (writes?) like a child.Had a go at this – a potentially atmospheric winter mystery? – but the narrative style drove me mad. The main character talks (writes?) like a child. Another thriller bites the dust....more
1. If I give this book five stars and say it's BRILLIANT and THE BEST BOOK I HAVE READ THIS YEAR and EVERYONE SHOULD READ IT, that tells you I loved it1. If I give this book five stars and say it's BRILLIANT and THE BEST BOOK I HAVE READ THIS YEAR and EVERYONE SHOULD READ IT, that tells you I loved it, but it doesn't tell you anything about why, or whether you would feel the same.
If I describe this book as a ghost story, that tells you something about its themes, and also a little about its atmosphere: rich, evocative, gloomy, spooky, etc., etc. But it may also risk suggestions of cliche, stock imagery and cheap scares, a formulaic approach not on display here.
If I describe this book as a mystery – a murder mystery, as the blurb has it – that may pique your interest if ghost stories aren't your thing. But then it might hint at some definitive answer, and this story isn't in the business of providing neat resolutions. It is much more enigmatic than that.
If I say this book contains romantic and erotic elements, readers who balk at love stories might roll their eyes and groan. Anyone hoping for a tearjerking romance is likely to be disappointed, as the central relationship, if there even is a central relationship, is so slippery it barely exists. Anyone expecting pages and pages of wild sex scenes is likely to be disappointed too, since the sex is a minor part of the story (albeit beautifully done and very memorable).
If I describe this book as Lynchian, that might do something to communicate how dreamy and macabre it is. But the reference might easily be misunderstood, and Lynchian is, in any case, one of those descriptors that's used so often it has all but lost its meaning. There is a deep current of surrealism here, sure, but what I also want to get at by using Lynchian is how very visual and cinematic the story feels. What I mean to say it's the closest to the experience of watching a Lynch movie a book could possibly get – but also, it's not a derivative pastiche.
If I say this book experiments with form, that would cover the way it moves between truth and fiction, dreams and reality, and back and forth in time. (I have a Goodreads shelf called 'past and present', for books with split timelines; never has it been more appropriate than for The Eleventh Letter, in which past and present bleed into one another to the point of becoming indistinguishable.) But it may suggest the book is inaccessible/hard to understand/odd for the sake of it (which it isn't), or that it doesn't encourage you to read hungrily (which it does).
If I had to sum up this book in one word, I would pinpoint its genre and go for slipstream. As per that Wikipedia entry, it is a kind of fantastic or non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction. It certainly traverses the surreal, the not-entirely-real, [and] the markedly anti-real. It is perfectly encapsulated as the fiction of strangeness.
If I had to compare this book to another book, I would choose Ice by Anna Kavan. Which is ridiculous. It's absolutely nothing like Ice by Anna Kavan. But it made me FEEL the same way Ice did, and I find it equally hard to articulate its appeal. To refer back to that definition once again, cognitive dissonance is at the heart of slipstream... it is not so much a genre as a literary effect. The settings might feel far more familiar than the frozen wastelands of Ice, but that Kavanesque unreality is out in full force.
2. If you read the blurb, you will see that The Eleventh Letter is, indeed, described as A ghost story. A love story. A murder mystery.
Chris Katiwa is a Harley Street psychotherapist. He is clearly a successful man, but our first impression of him is a lonely, wistful figure, staying late at work to pack for the move to a new office, yet unable to articulate a reason for the move. A snowstorm descends, and outside, in the otherwise empty street, Chris sees a woman wearing a fur coat, looking 'dazed, as though she'd just woken up'. He invites her in; she introduces herself as Kay.
At Kay's insistence, the pair end up listening to some cassette tapes Chris has turned up during his packing. These are recordings from a case Chris was involved with thirty years earlier in Pisa, Italy, when he was brought in to interview a British woman named Louise. Suspected of involvement in the disappearance of her recently married friends Kate and John, Louise weaves a peculiar and nonsensical tale which, as Chris comments, 'sounds like a ghost story'. Yet she is insistent: this is what really happened.
There is Louise's obsession with Kate, and Chris's obsession with Louise. There are the hauntings Kate experiences at Wasing, the house she shares with John, and how Chris seems to inhabit the character of Kate when Louise recounts them. There are the dreams, the slips in time, the slips in identity, the doppelgängers. There is the uncomfortable concept of the book Kate was writing: a collection of imagined responses to letters written by the poet Jack France, her husband's father, to a lover he addressed only as 'K'. There is so much more, too.
Is Kate K? Is Kay Kate? Is Kay K? What really became of Kate and John? What of Chris's story is real? What is a dream? What is a dream within a dream?
Some of these questions will be answered. Some of them won't.
This book is many books at once, and which one you read depends on you.
3. Because this is a book from a small, independent press – and because I contributed to their Kickstarter, in part because of an extract from this book – I feel responsible for persuading people to try it, and more invested in its success, than I would otherwise. (Here is where I should mention that I received an advance copy of The Eleventh Letter from the publisher, Dodo Ink; but it was my chosen reward for backing the Kickstarter, not a review copy, and I wasn't obligated to write about it.)
Honestly, this is one of the most challenging reviews I've ever had to write. It's taken me a couple of weeks to finish it, and I still don't feel I've done the book any justice; it's so difficult to pin down. But if there's one book I've read this year that I want to persuade people to buy, it's undoubtedly this one. I'm excited to see how others will interpret it. Seek it out.
A few days ago, I read an article that proclaimed Mohsin Hamid's forthcoming Exit West, out next March, 'the first post-Brexit novel', but it looks liA few days ago, I read an article that proclaimed Mohsin Hamid's forthcoming Exit West, out next March, 'the first post-Brexit novel', but it looks like Ali Smith will be beating him to it. [I wrote this last week and have just noticed that yesterday's Guardian review by Joanna Kavenna says the same thing. Well, without mentioning Hamid's book. That'll teach me to be lazy about finishing reviews!!] Autumn, due to be published next week, is so firmly rooted in the fervent immediate aftermath of the vote that a) it already feels slightly out of date and b) you can't help but find yourself speculating about how it will read in the future. It feels like you should read it now, and quickly.
All across the country, people called each other cunts. All across the country, people felt unsafe. All across the country, people were laughing their heads off. All across the country, people felt legitimised. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked. All across the country, people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick. All across the country, people felt history at their shoulder. All across the country, people felt history meant nothing.
The language, wordplay and knowing humour here are as wonderful as one would expect from Smith; the love story at the heart of Autumn didn't quite convince me, or perhaps it wasn't left enough room to convince me. Still, the relationship between Elisabeth, a lecturer in her thirties, and Daniel, 101 years old and Elisabeth's beloved friend and neighbour since her childhood, works well as a thread that runs through a wider state-of-the-nation portrait of Britain, filled with tragicomic scenes or juxtapositions of scenes (Elisabeth struggles to get a new passport because of absurd regulations about the size of her face in the required photograph / Elisabeth repeatedly witnesses the virulence with which immigrants, non-white people and even European tourists are told to 'go back home').
This novel seems fleeting and patchworked, like something flashing past, but also like a mixtape. Is it fleeting like the transitional season of autumn itself? Is that also a part of why it focuses so hard on a fraught, still-shifting and unfinished period in current history (can you have current history?) It is, after all, part of a planned quartet, collectively entitled 'Seasonal'. It will be interesting to see where the sequence goes, and how Autumn will turn out to be connected to the others, but I think I might be more inclined to read some older Smith novels first.
Why Did You Lie? contains three plot strands. In the first, four people – strangers to each other – are dropped off at a lighthouse atop the inhospitaWhy Did You Lie? contains three plot strands. In the first, four people – strangers to each other – are dropped off at a lighthouse atop the inhospitable rocky outcrop of Thrídrangar, three of them to perform maintenance, the fourth to take photographs of this harsh environment. It's supposed to take one night, but they soon discover their stay is likely to be prolonged. In the second, a policewoman, Nína, is struggling to cope in the aftermath of her husband's attempted suicide. Having been ostracised after a dispute with a colleague, she's ordered to clear out old files from the basement, only to find a statement that suggests a connection between her husband and a suicide case from decades ago. In the third, Nói, Vala and their son Tumi have just returned from a family holiday in Florida. They're dismayed to find the American couple they house-swapped with have left their home in a state of disarray, but that isn't the end of their troubles.
The connections between these three scenarios unfolds in non-chronological order, the action taking place over the course of one week. For some time the nature of the story – the type of climax it's building to – is ambiguous. Is it a crime thriller, or are there hints of something darker, even something supernatural, lurking beneath the surface? Sigurðardóttir excels at this seamless interweaving of genres; it never seems ridiculous that there might be a malevolent ghost stalking the characters. Indeed, in settings like the unparalleled bleakness of Thrídrangar, it seems more than plausible.
Like The Undesired, Why Did You Lie? has a bleak and brutal ending that made me long to reach into the story and shuffle things around. No specific spoilers, but don't expect all of these characters to make it to the final chapters in one piece. Given that over the weekend I read another Icelandic novel that also spared its characters no mercy, I'm beginning to think this is just a feature of Icelandic fiction...
I didn't particularly like the first Sigurðardóttir I read (The Day is Dark, the fourth Thóra Guðmundsdóttir novel) but since then, I've enjoyed her books more with every one I've tried. Which just goes to show that sometimes it pays to give authors a second chance. I liked this so much I've even been inspired to give the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series another go.
This Icelandic horror story is set against the stark, evocative backdrop of the volcanic desert. In the first couple of chapters, a group of four frieThis Icelandic horror story is set against the stark, evocative backdrop of the volcanic desert. In the first couple of chapters, a group of four friends on a road trip crash their car in the middle of nowhere. So begins a tale of terror in one of the remotest, most forbidding landscapes imaginable, told alongside a journey through the histories of these four characters.
We start with Hrafn, the driver, a rich kid who's lived a wild and glamorous life but, underneath it all, is profoundly troubled. His friend Egill is a sort of cut-rate version of Hrafn: not as rich, not as deep, not as smart, he comes off as the most unpleasant of the lot, and has a tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend Anna. She's a journalist, initially introduced as a caricature – the bubbly airhead – but later revealed to be much more complex than she appears, perhaps the most interesting figure in the story. Finally, there's Vigdís, Hrafn's therapist girlfriend. Undoubtedly the heroine, she is introspective, intelligent and mature, a sort of mother to the group.
The first 85% of the book is excellent. Hrafn, Vigdís, Anna and Egill are 'rescued' by an elderly woman and her virtually mute husband. Brought to stay at a boarded-up farmhouse, they discover the strange couple barricade their doors at night. Several efforts to leave prove futile, and they always seem to be brought back to the house. It turns out the friends have taken this trip together on impulse; now they're forced to spend so much time together, tempers begin to fray, and old tensions resurface, particularly between Hrafn and Egill. Things get even more creepy when the two men and Vigdís walk to the next 'town' and encounter a completely deserted village, littered with the bones of birds. Meanwhile, Anna explores the house, finding a lavish library complete with that gothic mainstay – a hidden room, secreted behind a bookcase. This discovery is the catalyst for a wild theory about the couple, who become more and more sinister with every thwarted attempt the group make to leave.
The last 15% or so, however, is terrible. I don't say that lightly: it genuinely made me feel pissed off about the time I'd invested in the rest of the story (admittedly not much time, since I found it so compelling I read it through in a matter of hours). The narrative devolves into a series of disgusting and nonsensical images. Nothing is resolved or explained. One character is horribly mutilated for no good reason I can think of, other than to provide a suitably shocking tableau.
My problems with The Ice Lands underline the division between horror fiction and the gentler type of ghost stories and creepy supernatural tales I tend to prefer. Maybe films are a little different, but when it comes to words on a page, I don't have a taste for the kind of pointless gore on display here. I don't mind stories being left open, either, but there has to be SOME elegance to it, not just a jumble of weirdness and violence. Most of The Ice Lands is riveting: the tension builds nicely, the characters are each fleshed out effectively, the story is a real page-turner. But the ending ruins much of that, and means that overall, I can't truly recommend it. Those with a stronger stomach for horror might find it more palatable.
I was excited about this collection because, while I've enjoyed all of Hill's previous ghost stories, I've always felt they're consistently spread a lI was excited about this collection because, while I've enjoyed all of Hill's previous ghost stories, I've always felt they're consistently spread a little thin. Hill's plots feel more suited to the brevity of a short story, but they are usually padded out to novella length, something that has often served to highlight the weaknesses in otherwise wonderfully creepy tales – and, ironically, also tends to leave them feeling incomplete. The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories is a small book containing four tales, with settings ranging from Hill's usual Victorian gloom to a modern-day office.
The Travelling Bag We're on familiar ground here: in a London gentlemen's club, fog shrouding the streets outside, one man tells a story to another. The storyteller is a 'psychic private investigator', and his story is the response to his friend's question: 'Tell me, what would you say has been your most – shall we say "intriguing" case, Gilbert?' It's about a medical scientist who seeks revenge on the protégé who stole his ideas. There is a nice build-up to the denouement, and an effective sense of lingering dread.
There was, however, something about the continuity of this story I really didn't get. I am fully prepared to accept that I misunderstood it, and would appreciate someone explaining it to me if that's the case! (view spoiler)[I didn't understand how Gilbert knew Craig was responsible for Webb's death – that is to say, I didn't understand how he could have told Part One of the story. Part Two seemed to make it quite clear that although he understood the nature of the murder, he never discovered the culprit. It's also clear he is meant to be telling Part One (rather than it just being included as exposition) because there's an interlude during which it is mentioned that he and Tom have to go home for the night before the rest of the tale is told. Did I miss something? (hide spoiler)]
Boy Twenty-One Begins very strongly, as a (former?) teacher reads a news article about a stately home, Cloten Hall, being destroyed by fire. This leads her to reminisce about one of her students, Toby. She remembers him as an 'unhappy boy' with a troubled home life; he struggles to make friends, until the arrival of the mysterious new boy, Andreas. The two become inseparable, forming a friendship so intense it worries their teachers. Then Andreas disappears.
Given that it's a ghostly story, you can probably guess where it goes from there. That the story is bookended by the points of view of the teacher, Mrs Mills, and the now-adult Toby gives it a smidgen more intrigue than it might otherwise possess. Nevertheless, it is a slight tale, and rather predictable, which isn't to say that it's bad, but it was my least favourite of the four.
Alice Baker A group of office workers have been putting up with their 'cramped, dingy' conditions for a long time, promised change that never comes and modernity that never materialises. When a new girl named Alice Baker arrives, the narrator thinks she seems nice, if antisocial; one of her colleagues seems to think differently, although she refuses to explain why. But then the narrator has her own odd encounter with Alice. And when the team are at last moved to the brand new offices of lore, the strange events surrounding their enigmatic co-worker don't cease.
This story is the jewel of the collection. It's brilliant. Everything from the shabby buildings to the camaraderie of a small office to the feeling of experiencing something inexplicable, then justifying and rationalising it to yourself to the point that you barely believe it happened, is just wonderfully done. The narrator isn't named and yet she is the most believable character in the book – as eerie as the tale is, it also feels authentic, exactly as an ordinary person would tell a story about something weird happening to them.
The Front Room Inspired by a sermon (or rather an 'address') given by their pastor, Norman and Belinda vow to help those less fortunate than themselves. Since charity begins at home, they agree to take in Solange, Norman's belligerent stepmother, with whom he has always had a fraught relationship. She's installed in the front room, which is refurbished to form a self-contained flat; however, she wastes no time insinuating herself into the household, interfering, terrorising the couple's three children, and Belinda moves from anger to disgust and finally fear at her behaviour. How will it all end? More to the point, will the end really mean the end?
Of all the stories in The Travelling Bag, this feels the least typical. Had I not known, I wouldn't have guessed it was written by Hill, and it reminded me most of several entries from the Nightjar Press series of one-story chapbooks. Like 'Alice Baker', there is an ordinariness about it: the modest suburban house, the family dinners. And, as with 'Alice Baker', the realism of these details makes its eventual shift towards the uncanny even more disquieting.
Above all, the tales collected here showcase a mastery of atmospheric detail. The appeal of traditional ghost stories is a contradiction – comfort and unease at the same time – and among contemporary writers in the genre, I find Hill's work to be virtually unsurpassed in embodying this. I look forward to more next year, and for many Halloweens to come.
This new collection of E. Nesbit's Horror Stories starts – whether to get them out of the way, or to lower the reader's expectations, I'm not sure – wThis new collection of E. Nesbit's Horror Stories starts – whether to get them out of the way, or to lower the reader's expectations, I'm not sure – with three of the worst: 'Hurst of Hurstcote', 'The Ebony Frame', and 'Man-Size in Marble'. Each is narrated by a male character, none of whom really convince, and the stories also have a tedious focus on relationships and love. They certainly don't live up to the title, or the lurid cover; they might just as easily be described as romantic stories.
Then comes the fourth story, 'The Violet Car'. The difference in quality between the first three and this one is enormous, and it is a perfect combination of gloomy atmosphere, mystery and terror. There's more of the romance stuff in 'John Charrington's Wedding', but here, the characterisation of the narrator feels more assured and knowing – making for some amusing moments of pomposity – and the twist is pleasingly ghoulish. 'The Five Senses', about a scientist who invents a sense-magnifying drug, is one of the few of these stories to have a genuinely frightening premise. In 'The Head', a caddish journalist unwisely convinces a reclusive sculptor to create a life-size version of his masterpiece, a depiction of the fire that killed his wife; this is perhaps the nastiest of the tales and, not coincidentally, it is also the most entertaining.
The collection is uneven, though, and if these are the best of Nesbit's horror stories, I can't help but think there can't be much to choose from. 'The Shadow' would be a neat, spooky little tale, but it's hampered by bizarre narrative decisions (it vacillates between first person plural and singular, and two separate characters are referred to as 'the youngest of us' and 'the youngest of all'; it was only at the end I realised they weren't the same person.) The stories towards the end of the book don't offer anything particularly imaginative, and they are quite repetitive too: an introductory passage from 'The Three Drugs' is reproduced almost word-for-word in 'To the Adventurous'.
Naomi Alderman's foreword frames Nesbit's horror stories as a reflection of darker aspects of her life: 'her own biography includes an adulterous husband who got one of her dearest friends pregnant. She knew about anger, hatred and sexual jealousy... [in these] stories she lets the knowledge out that she held back so carefully in her work for children.' Seen in this light, some features of the stories – Nesbit's portrayal of men as fickle, superficial creatures, obsessed with physical beauty but consumed by hate towards women once their attraction fades; her apparent fixation with the idea of doomed love – become more interesting. And there is something inherently intriguing in the idea of a beloved children's author also writing morbid tales of horror, though of course it isn't without precedent.
Some of the stories here are enjoyable enough, with 'The Violet Car' and 'The Head' standing out as the best. The rest rarely get close to what makes a good horror story, and knowing the author's possible motivation in writing around some of these themes doesn't make them any better to read. It's not too difficult to see why they aren't widely known or read nowadays. But ghost stories are weirdly personal, I think: there's no other genre I read in which I so frequently find myself out of step with what both critics and other readers find to be effective, atmospheric, frightening, memorable. While most of these Horror Stories didn't work for me, they may well work for you.
Heard good things about this on Twitter (though the general opinion on Goodreads seems rather different!) and tried a sample but it seemed too much ofHeard good things about this on Twitter (though the general opinion on Goodreads seems rather different!) and tried a sample but it seemed too much of a typical YA novel, with nothing that compelled me to keep going. Nice cover, though. ...more
**spoiler alert** Bought a second hand copy of this on impulse after reading a piece about literary villains which ended with a list of 'Five Notable**spoiler alert** Bought a second hand copy of this on impulse after reading a piece about literary villains which ended with a list of 'Five Notable Books Featuring a Villain’s Perspective'. Three of those five books are existing favourites of mine, so I assumed this one would be a surefire hit too.
I can see why Monster Love was included on the list – the subject matter is about as disturbing as it gets. It centres on the story of a couple who see their daughter as an inconvenience and consequently imprison and starve her to death; there are also many references to and descriptions of child abuse, including sexual abuse, suffered by other characters. However, while the other books on that list (American Psycho, Crime & Punishment, The End of Alice) are told entirely from the perspective of their 'villains', Monster Love is told through a multitude of voices; the monstrous parents are just two among many.
I didn't finish the book properly because I didn't like the style of writing from the beginning. Many of the characters use language that's completely inconsistent with their context/background, and they don't sound different enough from one another for the multiple-narrators thing to really work. But I was intrigued by the premise and wondered what the ending would be, so I skim-read much of the book and particularly the last few chapters.
Monster Love turns out to be much more about the relationship between the couple, Brendan and Sherilyn, than it is about the abuse and death of their daughter. And it gets weird. Once they're both in prison (this happens earlier in the book than you might think, since their crime is known from the beginning), it turns out they can communicate with and 'visit' each other – even have sex – psychically. There's a hitch when Brendan starts falling for fellow inmate James, and 'leaves' Sherilyn (remember this is all happening via their psychic link; he does it by appearing to her in a mirror at the prison gym and then turning and walking away from her) but then he finds out James is a paedophile and all that goes out of the window. Ultimately they both commit suicide at the same time and are united in the afterlife (or something) as a single entity.
This is all ridiculous anyway, of course, but it might be a little more effective if the name of this entity wasn't 'Brendalyn' – seriously, BRENDALYN – which evokes many stupid ship names in various fandoms, but also just sounds ludicrous in and of itself. (The book closing with 'I'm walking towards the light... I AM BRENDALYN' just made me laugh. I can't imagine the author was actually going for humour, but surely it is impossible to read that with a straight face.)
So yeah, I think this is one of the strangest, most baffling books I have ever come across. ...more