Last year I had the distinct pleasure of reading The Damned, a chilling psychological horror that immediately landed Andrew Pyper on my must-read authors list. It was thus with great excitement that I approached his newest novel The Only Child, which sounded like it would be a very different experience—which just made me even more curious.
When the story opens, we get to meet protagonist Dr. Lily Dominick, a doctor at the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center whose job involves working with some of the country’s most dangerous and disturbed criminals. Lily, however, is battling a darkness of her own. Growing up, she has always been aloof, keeping others at a distance so that few people know about the traumatic experiences in her childhood and the details surrounding her mother’s violent death. But the past has come back to haunt her now, in the form of a new client at the clinic—a man whose only identity is a patient intake number and a police report detailing his horrific crimes. In spite of herself, Lily is drawn to the stranger, even before he tells her that they have actually met before, a long time ago before she was old enough to remember. He also claims he knew her mother…and the truth behind how she died.
At first, Lily is dismissive of the client’s statements. After all, he did not look old enough for any of his wild claims to be true. But then Michael, the name the man has chosen to call himself, has an explanation for this too, declaring that he is more than two hundred years old and was in fact the inspiration for many of the monsters in classic literature. At this point, Lily is almost sure the clinic’s newest patient is just another deranged psychopath suffering from delusions of grandeur, only there are few things about her he couldn’t have known—unless he is telling the truth, of course, which should be an impossibility. Unfortunately for Lily though, she doesn’t realize Michael is the real deal until it is too late. To free herself from this real-life monster, she will need to embark on a dangerous journey over oceans and across continents to unlock the secrets of her past.
Lately, I have been reading a lot of books that make references to or are inspired by the classics. I have to say, little did I expect to find this as well in The Only Child though. In a way, it was a pleasant surprise, as who doesn’t love a little Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Pyper managed to incorporate three of the greatest gothic horror novels of the 1800s into this strange tale, and he did it in an interesting and clever way.
On the flip side of this, however, there are the lengthy sections in the middle of the book detailing how Michael inspired these classic works, told mainly via flashback chapters in the form of letters to Lily. While the ideas were generally good, I was not as pleased with their execution. At best, they were a distraction from the main mystery plot, and at worst, it sometimes felt like I was reading an entirely different book. Rather than blending seamlessly with the rest of the story, the “classic monsters” angle felt like it was tacked on like an afterthought—almost gimmicky, in a way. That said, I enjoyed the added literary atmosphere immensely, which elevated this novel beyond your usual suspense-thriller. Other than that, though? The references to Shelley, Stoker, Stevenson and their works admittedly made very little impact on the story, which was kind of a shame.
Still, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I didn’t enjoy this book, because I did. While it was not quite as mind-blowing as The Damned, the plot was addictive all the same, and I blew through the entire novel in about two sittings, a reliable sign that this was a enthralling read. At times the story seems confused as to what it wants to be (a portentously gloomy horror? Or a modern supernatural thriller?) but to its credit at no time does the pacing let up. The clues and developments come at you fast, punctuated by brief glimpses into Michael’s riveting history. While some of the plot points feel patently over the top, the possibility has crossed my mind that this is merely another one of Pyper’s nod to the classics, which would be a very clever touch if that’s the case. The characters were also genuinely compelling, if somewhat flawed, especially Michael whose presence is at once eerie and fascinating.
Overall, I thought The Only Child was a good read, if a little overambitious, resulting in a story that is not as focused as I would have liked. Still, for fans of the gothic horror tradition, it may be well worth it to take a look. I also felt this novel was an interesting direction for Pyper, one that I felt was bold and different, making me excited to read more of his future work....more
Snowed is a story about Christmas, but it is definitely not like your usual schmaltzy Christmas book. It stars Charity Jones, a sixteen-year-old biracial student with a natural talent for all things science and engineering. At her high school in a conservative county of California though, this only gets her mercilessly bullied because she is different. Thankfully, for Charity there’s one bright spot in this bleak situation: Aidan, the sweet mild-mannered teen runaway whom her family takes in as a foster child. No one know where Aidan came from, but it is clear that he is running away from something—something terrible.
Still, despite his reluctance to share much about his past, Aidan and Charity wind up hitting it off and they quickly fall in love. Things actually start looking up for Charity, but of course this respite doesn’t last. The community is shaken one day, when the body of Charity’s worst bully is found behind the bleachers, savaged and torn apart. The authorities are quick to suspect a wild animal attack, but Charity isn’t so sure. After all, unbeknownst to the rest of the school, she was actually the first one to find the victim, and there was something strange she saw at the scene…
First, I want to go into the positives of this book, and there are certainly many. Number one is diversity. Kudos to the author for doing her best to include perspectives from all walks of life, even though her approach can be pretty heavy-handed at times, almost like she was making sure to check off all the boxes on a #diversereads checklist. Having main characters that reflect and honor the lives of all people is always wonderful though, and something to be celebrated especially in the young adult genre.
I also liked how Snowed was a Christmas story for those who might be looking for something other than the usual feel-good and campy holiday-themed books that flood the market around this time of the year. Personally, I love the festive atmosphere around Christmastime, but hey, it’s also okay to have a “bah humbug” moment every now and then. If you ever feel the need to take break from the holiday madness and the constant barrage of holiday-themed music and TV hitting you from all directions, then this book is the answer. Forget the warm and fuzzy feelings, because this is one dark book that likely won’t be filling you with the holiday cheer by the time it’s over. On the other hand, how cool is it that we get a story that explores Krampus lore and presents a darker, more sinister side to the figure of Santa Claus?
And now for the things that didn’t work so well for me. The big one was the extreme-to-the-point-of-contrived stereotypes. All the horrible people at school bullying Charity are of course the jock and cheerleader types, all of them white, bible-thumping and gun-happy ignorant rednecks according to our protagonist. The irony is that Charity frequently comes off as even more judgmental and patronizing as the people she rails against. There are also very few responsible and admirable adult characters, which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to YA. Charity and her friends paint the police as a bunch of incompetent meatheads, while Charity’s parents are portrayed as a couple of dopes in denial, helpless in stopping her deranged psychopath of a brother hurt her and everyone she loves. The teachers are also apparently too busy planning their own holidays (or worrying about new charter schools opening in their county, threatening their precious hegemony) that they can’t be bothered to do anything about serious problems like bullying and death threats to their students.
In fact, the narrative tries very hard to make you think that Charity and her little “enlightened” group are the only ones capable of getting anything done. Not only was this unrealistic, it just made Charity and all her friends intensely unlikable. Furthermore, Charity also can’t help but remind readers every other chapter that she’s into science, robotics and technology (yet apparently not computer savvy enough to prevent her own email account from getting hacked). I agree we need to encourage girls and young women to enter and succeed in the STEM fields, but there’s no subtlety at all in the way the author is trying to prop up her protagonist as a poster child for the cause.
Finally, I didn’t like the romance. In my opinion, the instalove and Charity’s dramatics actually undermined a lot of what the story was trying to achieve, removing some of Aidan’s mystique. After knowing him for little more than a week, Charity professes to love Aidan so much that she can’t live without him, that she “dies every minute” they’re not together, or that losing him would be like the worst thing that’s ever happened to her (even worse than when Grandma Jones passed away!) In retrospect, the overwrought and sentimental adolescent language probably didn’t help either.
That said, overall I had a good time with Snowed. Ultimately it’s a book with some great ideas but which might be lacking in polish when it comes to execution, though it’s nonetheless impressive especially since we’re talking about a book from a small indie publishing house. Admittedly the story could have been streamlined to bring the horror aspects and Krampus plotline to the forefront while toning down the exposition and romance, but I also have to give it credit for its diverse cast of main characters and the fact that it also explores difficult topics, including a few that don’t get talked about much, like the emotional struggles that families of incarcerated teens go through (and I actually wish this had been given more attention in the book). All told, an interesting read that offers something a little different for the holidays....more
Infernal Parade by Clive Barker is a novella containing a series of short stories which, including the illustrations (by Bob Eggleton), comes in at under 100 pages and probably took me less than an hour to read. For such a slim volume though, it held a surprising amount of fascination for me. Thing is, out of context, the half dozen or so tales in here might seem a little random until you know a bit more about their history. Back in the early 2000s McFarlane Toys put out a couple lines of horror action figures which came distributed with portions of fictional pieces about them written by Barker as an added incentive. “The Infernal Parade” was one of these toy lines, inspired by a nightmarish circus filled with monstrous attractions and other gruesome curiosities. It included six figures.
Things kick off with the tale of our ringmaster, the convicted killer Tom Requiem. Hanged for his crimes, he nonetheless returns from the brink of death to head up a literal freak show spotlighting the terrifying and the tortured. From all across globe and even into the mythical realms, Tom scours through time and space for creatures to join his macabre parade, starting with the woman he murdered, Mary Slaughter the blade swallower. The two of them are next joined by Elijah, a bloodthirsty golem that killed the master who created it; the tormented members of Dr. Fetter’s family of freaks; the Sabbaticus, a monster out of the wilds of Karantica; and last but not least, Bethany Bled, the prisoner in the Iron Maiden.
These are their stories, brought together in this one handy collection. They don’t form a single overarching narrative per se, since each tale can be read as a standalone, in any order, as they were meant to accompany their individual action figures. If you think about it, it’s actually rather ingenious, because having glimpsed the actual Infernal Parade toys on comic book and game store shelves over the years, it’s not hard to see why some might be repelled by their disturbing and grotesque nature (as striking and gorgeously detailed as they are)—but if you happen to be a Clive Barker fan, a horror buff, or perhaps you are simply curious about a particular figure’s backstory, I can understand the appeal behind these shorts. The stories in here are each around 6-10 pages long, but there’s a world of imagination packed in every single one. They feel very much like creepy little fables or grisly tales you would tell around a campfire.
That said, even knowing the origins behind Infernal Parade might not not take away the clipped and disjointed feeling of this collection, though in all fairness I don’t typically do well with the super-short fiction format, so this might actually work better for others than it did for me. To their credit too, each story left me wanting more—in the good way. As intended, they feel like snippets in a character’s life story, specifically the circumstances around how they joined up with Tom Requiem and became a part of his parade. As much as I enjoyed these individual tales though, they often left me with the sense that the best is yet to come. For example, I probably had just as much fun imagining in my head everything that would happen in “the after” once this hideous crew got on the road. Where would they tour? Who or what would come out to see them? Think of the sheer potential behind all these crazy scenarios.
Bottom line: those looking for a more substantial read or something that feels more “complete” might not find it here, though if you’re a Clive Barker fan or a collector of rare fiction, it doesn’t get much cooler than this. Infernal Parade is a very special opportunity to get your hands on a unique collection of his short stories that might be tougher to find these days. Even if you’re reading Barker for the first time (like I was) I feel this book would be a wonderful introduction to his dark and distinct style....more
The first time I ever laid eyes on The Secret Life of Souls, I actually thought it would be a contemporary feel-good story about dogs. But then again, I’ve also never read a Jack Ketchum novel before, and was completely unfamiliar with his work. A quick search on Goodreads brought me to his author bio (which proudly proclaims that his first book Off Season was once scolded by the Village Voice for being “violent pornography”), prompting a swift re-evaluation of my first impression. Still, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. Short this book might have been, but sweet it wasn’t. And while it might not have been strictly horror, certain parts of it were certainly horrifying.
The story begins with an introduction to Delia Cross, her twin brother Robbie, their dad Bart, and mom Pat. Talk about your dysfunctional family! On the surface, everything looks copacetic. Delia is a talented child actor, already making a name for herself at eleven years old. In fact, she’s so successful that she’s the sole breadwinner for her entire family. Pat, a former drama student, is now living a life of stardom vicariously through her daughter, pushing Delia hard through her numerous appointments and driving them both to and from auditions and film shoots. Bart on the other hand does nothing but spends his days in the garage obsessing over his muscle car and shopping online for “great deals”, squandering his daughter’s earnings on things they don’t need. And when it comes to quiet and mild-mannered Robbie, it would appear he is happy as long as his family is happy, apparently content to let his sister take all the attention.
But underneath this picture of success is a festering bitterness, and everyone around Delia is too self-absorbed or in denial to see the truth. The only one who seems to have any clue what’s going on is Caity, the Crosses’ two-year-old Queensland Heeler. This gifted dog is also confidante and best friend to Delia, who hasn’t had a chance to make many friends her own age due to her rigorous schedule and being tutored at home. Everyone else seems to have a plan for Delia, not caring how she feels about it. Not surprisingly, all those toxic ambitions finally come to a head on the eve of Delia’s biggest gig yet when a terrible tragedy befalls her and Caity, causing the collapse of everything the Cross family had come to take for granted and leaving their future in jeopardy.
The Secret Life of Souls gave me all the feels—and they weren’t necessarily all good ones either. Believe it or not though, that’s sometimes a positive thing. After all, I would take a story that gives me raw, painful or visceral emotions over one that leaves me cold any day, and say what you want about this book, but it definitely evoked some powerful reactions. Case in point, I wasn’t even halfway through this novel when I became almost overcome by this blinding urge to go berserker mode on nearly everyone in it. In case you ever need a reminder on how much people can suck sometimes, just look to Pat and Bart Cross. I’d be even angrier at them if they weren’t so pitiful, these two clueless, selfish parents who are clearly stuck in the past. Bart is immature and irresponsible, driven by instant gratification and delusions of being a bold “risk-taker”. Pat is even worse, encompassing all the most reprehensible stereotypes of the aggressive, domineering stage mother. Meanwhile, poor Robbie is relegated to the sidelines, an already introverted child further marginalized by his oblivious, materialistic parents.
So many times while reading this book, I just wanted to yell and scream and hit something, but thankfully in the middle of all this darkness there were also many points of light. The story is told through half a dozen or so POVs, switching frequently between them so that we could get into everybody’s heads—including the dog’s. Caity and Delia’s sections were the best—and not just because they were two of only a handful of characters I didn’t want to punch repeatedly in the face. From their POVs, I could sense the pure and uncomplicated love between a girl and her dog. The two of them have a special bond, Caity loving Delia the only way a dog would, without demanding anything in return.
For that alone, I would probably recommend this book to dog lovers, with the caveat that some parts can be very difficult, very disturbing to read. This is a tragic story that’s heartbreaking at the best of times, and yet there is a beautiful, mesmerizing quality to it too, perhaps even a beacon of hope once you look past all the human evilness. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded a bit more elucidation on this point, since everything seems to go to hell in the last twenty pages, with the intended goal of the epilogue coming off as scant comfort after watching everything spiral out of control like that.
All told, The Secret Life of Souls was an eye-opening read—highly emotional and gut-wrenching, even maddening in places, but that just goes to show how deeply, effectively Ketchum and McKee have managed to draw me into their story. This was a book I simply couldn’t put down....more
Don’t you just love it whenever a horror novel lives up to its promise? No joke, I actually had to stop reading this book at night because it was getting too disturbing and creepy for me, and you know I’m not one to scare easily. If this is what I’ve been missing out on for so many years, I wish to hell I’d started reading Ania Ahlborn much sooner.
In the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon lives a ten-year-old boy named Stevie Clark. Ostracized by the other kids at school because of his speech impediment and the missing fingers on one of his hands, Stevie has no friends except for his neighbor and cousin Jude Brighton. Whether it’s watching true crime shows on TV or building a secret fort out in the woods, the two of them do everything together and have been inseparable for years.
Then one day, Jude goes missing. The entire town mobilizes to try to find the boy, but after his bloody sweatshirt is found, the whole mood of Deer Valley seems to shift. To Stevie’s frustration, no one seems to think they’ll find his cousin alive anymore. After all, the search has already been going on for three days with no luck, and the locals all know the story about Max Larsen, another boy who met a gruesome end in these woods years ago, after disappearing under similar circumstances. That story doesn’t get talked about much though, not unlike the reports going back for years about the dogs and cats that go missing from their owners’ yards. There’s a good reason why there are no veterinarians in Deer Valley.
Last year I read and was a little disappointed by the book Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay, another horror novel with “a boy goes missing in the woods” main plot. Somehow I can’t help but think The Devil Crept In is what that story should have been. Ahlborn’s take on the premise is the real deal, the way a true horror of psychological thrills and supernatural suspense should have played out. It is a creepy tale worthy of the campfire, containing all the right ingredients: a small town with a big secret, a terrifying local legend that holds more truth than meets the eye, and a young innocent boy that no one takes seriously because of his disability.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing from the start; like any good scary story, this one required a bit of setup. I would describe The Devil Crept In as a novel of three parts. Ahlborn uses the first to establish our main character, a boy who lives a troubled life. Stevie’s father walked out on his family when he was younger, and his mom remarried an abusive man who beats him while she looks the other way. Stevie also often feels frustration at his own speech disorder, unable to get his thoughts across without losing control of his words. He is the target of the worst bullying because of it, not only by the other kids but by his own older brother and some adults as well. So you can imagine how horrible it is for a someone like Stevie to lose his only friend, which means too that the entire first part of this book is taken up by his obsession with finding Jude, with the dogged determination you would expect from a ten-year-old. In my opinion, the introduction was a little too drawn out, with Stevie’s chapters becoming repetitive after a while.
Fortunately, that was probably the only point where I felt this book faltered. Ahlborn follows up with a second part that brings about the full-on creeps. The transition was a little jarring at first, as the narrative veers off into a completely different direction, starting over with a seemingly unrelated tale about a woman named Rosie. I’m not going to talk too much about her, as that would spoil the story; all I’ll say is that I quickly became riveted by the horrifying details of her tragic, disturbing life—like witnessing a bloody car wreck where you just can’t tear your eyes away. It might take some time for this part to make sense with the rest of the novel, but once it clicks into place, you’ll see how it all the pieces fit the big picture. The third and final part of The Devil Crept In is where all this magic happens, as elements from Jude’s disappearance and Rosie’s tale begin to gradually come together.
The results are eerily satisfying and really hit the spot. Note to self: no trips out to the woods anytime soon. For a straight-up entertaining and chill-you-t0-your-bones good read, I really can’t recommend this book enough. Mark my words, The Devil Crept In might be my first novel by Ania Ahlborn, but it certainly won’t be my last....more
I’m always up for a good changeling story, and Alison Littlewood is an author I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Thus when I found out about The Hidden People, I saw this book as the perfect place to start. There’s no doubt that the story is utterly atmospheric, full of the kind of beautiful, exquisite detail that slowly creeps up on you. Littlewood also writes wonderfully and has a flair for bringing a historical setting to life. And yet…I don’t know if I felt as fully engaged as I could be. This book had all the elements of a dark historical mystery or good horror tale, but lacked the pacing of one, and I think that’s where it might have missed its mark.
It is 1851 when a young Albie meets his cousin Lizzie for the first time at the Great Exhibition. It was a grand day of celebration for industry, modern technology, invention and design, but Albie only had Lizzie on his mind, and there she stayed for many, many years even though the two of them never saw each other again.
Fast forward to 1862, Albie is just sitting down to dinner with his wife Helena when his father breaks the horrible news: Lizzie, Albie’s pretty cousin that he met more than ten years ago, is dead. She was burned to death by her husband, who claimed his wife had been replaced by a changeling. Enraged and grieving, Albie takes it upon himself to visit the village where Lizzie had lived in order to pay his respects and seek justice. But upon his arrival, he is shocked and even more furious to see how deeply superstitious the people are. His cousin hasn’t even been buried yet, left in her twisted and charred state. And during the funeral, no one showed up. It appears that all the talk of magic and fairies is more than just that; the villagers actually believe that Lizzie has been fae-touched and is now anathema.
But Albie’s obsession with Lizzie means he is unable to let this injustice stand. He refuses to leave the village, even when his wife Helena comes to join him for the funeral and then tries to convince him to let it all go and return to his own life and family. After all, she reminds him, he’s only met his cousin once and that was more than a decade ago.
But apparently, Lizzie made quite an impression on Albie. The problem was, no one around him was convinced, and to be honest, neither was I. It’s unfortunate that this sets the precedent for the rest of the book, but also not surprising, considering the entire basis for Albie’s obsession rests on this one scene at the start of the book which lasts no more than seven pages. We’re told that Lizzie’s beauty, sweetness and charisma got under our protagonist’s skin and stayed with him for many years, but I never believed it. This huge disconnect made it hard for me to understand a key part of what made the main character tick, and as such it made sympathizing with him throughout the novel an uphill battle—especially when his preoccupation with Lizzie started straining his marriage.
Then there was the pacing. While I loved the dark, haunting, gothic style of The Hidden People, the story itself was very slow to build, taking away from the tensions the author was trying to convey. Littlewood’s prose is gorgeous, and she paints a detailed picture of rural village life in the mid-1800s complete with the different dialects and other cultural nuances, but the meticulous nature of her writing style also makes it difficult to stay engaged. That’s a shame because there’s really an excellent story in here, but I also can’t deny that at times I struggled with the restrained speed at which the plot unfolded.
Still, I’m happy I got to discover Alison Littlewood’s beautiful writing, and despite the book’s flaws I thought The Hidden People was worth my time. There’s a lot of good stuff in here too, a lot to counter the quibbles. If you have an interest in the time period and the subject matter, I strongly encourage you to take a look....more
Adam and Meryam are a newly engaged couple from very different backgrounds, but they have always bonded over their love of adventure. In recent years, they have even achieved moderate fame for their series of videos taken from their travels around the world. Now they are eyeing their next great challenge, an expedition to climb Turkey’s Mount Ararat after an avalanche has reportedly revealed a massive cave up high in the side of the mountain. Wasting no time, Adam and Meryam call upon an old friend to be their mountaineering guide, and together they begin a harrowing race up Ararat in order to be the first ones to discover its secrets.
However, what they end up finding in the cavern goes even beyond their wildest dreams. Within its depths, the couple discover the remains of a large ancient ship, which immediately raises the question: could this be Noah’s Ark, the great vessel that weathered the Biblical flood in the Book of Genesis? To answer this question, a full team is quickly assembled to excavate and study the find, with Meryam at its head as project manager. Included among the scientists and other experts is also a documentary crew, which is how, when a mysterious coffin is unearthed among the ruins, everything that happens next is captured on film.
Throwing caution to the wind, the coffin is pried open, revealing an ugly, desiccated corpse. It is immediately apparent to everyone present that this could not be Noah—for the body is twisted and misshapen, and the top of the creature’s skull is adorned with a pair of horns. The remains of the demon—for it is impossible not to think of it as such—puts everyone on edge, regardless of their religious beliefs. Soon, the tensions start taking their toll, with project members acting erratically and others going missing. Worse, there’s no escape, for a blizzard has swept in, leaving them all trapped on Mount Ararat with an evil force.
This is my first Christopher Golden novel, and I was not disappointed. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I’m a big fan of “snowbound horror”, which I truly believe is starting to become a bonafide subgenre of its own. The most effective stories of this type can make you shiver even while reading in the sweltering heat of summer or indoors beside a warm and cozy fire, if the author can convey the right type of atmosphere. There’s just something I find so creepy and oppressive about the isolation of wintry, sub-zero temperature settings, and happily, Ararat was no exception. Golden was able to capture the forbidding environment of the mountains, making it clear that, whatever may happen to our hapless characters, they are on their own.
I also enjoyed the novel’s premise. I think most people are familiar with the story of Noah’s Ark, but probably far fewer of us would expect it to be the topic of a horror novel. It made for a strange but suspenseful read, with just enough ambiguity to keep one guessing. Contrary to what one might think, the story is also very light on the religious themes, focusing instead on the human drama. Even without the threat of a demonic presence, trap a large group of strangers together in an inaccessible cave on the side of a mountain and inevitably you’ll see the fur start to fly. I was motivated to turn the pages simply because I wanted to see how everything would resolve, and in a way, the tensions and mistrust between the project members reminded me a lot of John Carpenter’s The Thing—all it takes is a bit of doubt and suspicion thrown into the mix, and even the strongest relationships can begin to fall apart.
Yet I do have one major complaint about this book, and that is the story’s pacing. From browsing reviews of Golden’s other works, it seems like a rather common issue among readers, and I couldn’t help but notice a lot of a similar pacing problems in Ararat. Namely, the author blew through things so fast that I barely had a chance to connect to any of the characters, and therefore many of their ultimate fates left me feeling unaffected. Character depth was also pretty much non-existent, with heavy reliance on telling rather than showing, and sometimes the difference between a good book and a great one is the effort and time it takes to develop these little details.
Still, Ararat was a solidly fun read, despite not meeting its full potential. It’s certainly no Dan Simmon’s The Terror, but these kinds of books are also satisfying in their own way, and not least because they are often guaranteed entertainment. If you’re simply in the mood to pass the time with a creepy thriller-horror novel complete with gore, violence, and a staggering body count, this book will get the job done well....more
Well, the question of whether M.R. Carey could catch lightning in a bottle twice has been answered. Not that I had doubted it much, but while The Girl with All the Gifts was met with much acclaim, I’d made sure to temper my expectations for its follow-up companion novel in the months up to its release. Given the infuriatingly vague publisher description, and with the newness of the whole idea, there were just way too many unknowns.
Thankfully, The Boy on the Bridge came through with flying colors. It might not have been quite as fresh as the original, simply because we know so much more about the world now, but the book still had plenty of surprises in store. Here’s what I can tell you: The Boy on the Bridge is something of a prequel to The Girl with All the Gifts but it can be read as a standalone (though I still highly recommend reading the books in their publication order). The world has been ravaged by the Cordyceps plague, turning much of its population into “Hungries” — effectively just another term for the walking dead. And yet, humanity still has hope that it will find a cure, sending scientists and other brilliant minds into the wild to see if they can bring back any helpful information.
The story follows one such expedition, made up of the scientists and soldiers of the Rosalind Franklin. Affectionately nicknamed Rosie, the armored tank/motor home/mobile laboratory is specifically built for many months of travel through the Hungries-infested wasteland that Britain has become. The key characters include Dr. Samrina Khan, the team epidemiologist, as well as an autistic boy named Stephen Greaves who is ostensibly accompanying her as her assistant. Though Stephen’s presence is unorthodox to say the least, none of the other scientists are about to question Dr. Khan’s insistence that the young man is special or that he can bring invaluable insights to their mission. Six soldiers are also along for the ride, charged with protecting the Rosie and her precious cargo of civilians, scientific equipment, and biological samples.
However, just a few weeks after their departure, Dr. Khan receives some life-changing news. But it’s too late to turn back now; she and her colleagues have a job to do, and the future of everyone—including the next generation—rests upon any useful data they can bring back.
If you were like me and found yourself completely in awe of the world in The Girl with All the Gifts, then you’re in for a treat. This prequel explores many aspects that were only lightly touched upon in the original book, and with the Breakdown still fresh enough on people’s minds, there’s a noticeable difference in the overall attitudes of the characters. While it would be a stretch to call this a happier book, the prevailing mood at the beginning is arguably still one of hope and measured optimism, and that despite the horrors the world has seen, humanity believes it can save itself and make everything right again. After all, this is what the Rosie was meant for, and in a strange way, the armored vehicle almost becomes a character in its own right, symbolizing that conviction.
Gradually though, the hope fades, followed by a stifling sense of desperation. Confine a group of scientists and a group of military personnel into the same claustrophobic small space for months on end, and you’re guaranteed to get some kind of friction. Throw in the pressures of their mission and the threat of Hungries and junkers, it’s a wonder that the team has survived together this long at all. While Dr. Samrina Khan and Stephen Greaves may have gotten the most attention simply based on amount of page-time, the ten other characters on board the Rosie also have their own personal background stories and fleshed-out personalities, leading to a lot of interesting dynamics. This aspect sets The Boy on the Bridge apart, enhancing the story with side-plots dealing with complicated friendships and enmities and details of secret alliances and betrayals.
Keeping in mind that all the events in The Girl with All the Gifts are still in the future, there’s also a lot the world doesn’t know yet, so the fears of the Rosie crew are understandable. If you’ve read the first book, this is where the mystery loses a bit of its grip, but it’s still easy to see how the stresses caused by the strange happenings can start to take their toll, once you put yourself in the characters’ shoes. The real shockers are all left for the end, because even though we already know that the Rosie will bring home no cure to save the world, it’s the whys and the hows of it that will ultimately be the most revealing. In fact, in some ways this makes the ending feel even darker and more unsettling, especially once the realization hits that everything we know about this world had rested on the outcome of this novel.
Whether you’re picking up The Boy on the Bridge as a newcomer or because you’re a fan of The Girl with All the Gifts, this one will be a fascinating tale guaranteed to pull you in. Highly recommended....more
So, I’ve never seen Cannibal Holocaust. Its huge cult following and legacy as a definitive film in the exploitation horror genre notwithstanding, I already know that kind of movie is not my bag, and my queasiness from viewing its Wikipedia page alone is confirmation enough of that. And yet, when I saw the description of this book I was immediately intrigued, especially by the part about the story being inspired by the true events surrounding the making of the film. If you aren’t familiar with the controversy there, when Cannibal Holocaust came out in the early 80s it achieved massive notoriety for its gruesome and violent content, but also when it came to light that there were unsavory practices on set that proved quite disturbing.
We Eat Our Own is essentially the novelized incarnation of that story. It tells of an unnamed struggling actor, only referred to as his on-screen name “Richard”, getting a call from his agent out of the blue about a once in a lifetime opportunity—an Italian art film director is in need of a new lead because his original actor quit right on the tarmac after seeing the script. This could be the big break “Richard” needs, but the catch is, he’ll need to pack up and leave right this instant. The rest of the crew are already shooting in the Amazon rainforest, and production is already behind schedule and over-budget. The plane to Bogotá leaves from the airport in six hours; just be on it.
Not long after “Richard” arrives on set though, he wonders if he’s made a mistake. The director is a nutcase, who seems to be making things up as he goes along. Many of his methods are unorthodox and unethical, especially when it comes to the treatment of animals on set as well as his attitudes towards the native extras. There is no script, not enough set materials, and hardly any safety. They’re in the middle of nowhere far from civilization, in an area made unstable by the activity of the drug cartels and M-19 guerilla fighters. The jungle itself is oppressive, the air hot and wet, the river brown and soupy and full of parasites. Despite the hours of acting classes and theater school, nothing could have prepared our main character for any of this.
For me, this book was a total surprise, but I’m still trying to decide whether it was a positive or negative one. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure what I expected beyond having glimpsed a description of the style as being “literary horror”, but it’s probably safe to say the book turned out even more artsy than I’d anticipated. The prose is innovative and ambitious, bordering almost on experimental. For instance, the author uses a number of unconventional literary devices including the second person narrative for “Richard’s” chapters, often emphasizing just how far out of his depth he is by starting the character’s sections with “Here’s what you don’t know…”, while of course empowering the reader because we are afforded the luxury of seeing the whole picture. As well, we bounce between points-of-view, making the narrative as a whole feel somewhat disjointed and choppy. Dialogue is also presented without the traditional quotation marks, and tends to run together.
The real kicker though, is that while I could grasp the overall gist of what the author was attempting to do, the unusual style sadly had the effect of alienating the reader, taking a lot away from the impact she was hoping to convey. The philosophy and social commentary also gets lost in all the muddled narratives and side plots, and the problem is compounded when none of the characters are all that likeable (though in all fairness, this is by design) or sympathetic enough for me to care about them. Wilson has created an incredible thing here, and it’s especially impressive for a debut novel…but still, something felt missing.
I’ve been pondering how to put my feelings into words, and in the end I think it amounts to this: We Eat Are Own is a book that will be more appreciated for its bold structure and its artistry, rather than for its story or ideas. While the original inspiration behind it is fascinating—and I think Cannibal Holocaust enthusiasts will get a kick out of it—I just never felt connected to the narrative on a level beyond, “Hey, this is a pretty neat premise for a book.” Fans of literary fiction will probably enjoy the thematic parallels to classics like Heart of Darkness and other works that explore the savagery and moral confusion deep within the human condition. Readers of more traditional horror on the other hand, though, are likely better off looking elsewhere....more
Paranormal horror and historical fiction collide in the rather unfortunately titled Dracula vs. Hitler, since anyone picking up this book would be rightly forgiven for mistaking this book for a campy, humorous mashup. After all, that was my initial thought after seeing the name and cover as well, but as it turns out, my first impression couldn’t be further from the truth.
Dracula vs. Hitler is actually a quite serious endeavor, reinforced with what appears to be plenty of research and painstaking attention to detail. For one thing, it is written in an epistolary style like the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, a nod to the classic work.
The story officially begins with the Editor’s Note, as the author Patrick Sheane Duncan (who is also known for his work as a film producer and director, on movies like Courage Under Fire and Mr. Holland’s Opus) recounts a recent trip deep down into the bowels of a cavernous Washington DC document warehouse (think the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark), where he was supposed to be conducting research for a new television series. Instead, he ends up finding more than he bargained for, when he chances across a thick packet of papers labeled “TOP SECRET”. Inside this classified folder are the documents making up most of this book, mainly a series of entries from the journal of one Jonathan Murray Harker dated between the months of April to June 1941, as well as a number of excerpts from a novel believed to be authored by Lucille Van Helsing writing under a pen name.
These two characters are of course the descendants of the original characters from the novel Dracula, the ending of which apparently didn’t play out the way Stoker had written them. In a letter written in 1890, Lucille’s father Abraham Van Helsing confesses to not having killed the creature as he had intended, instead stashing the body away in a state of suspended animation. Fifty odd years later, as the Nazis are wreaking death and fear across Europe, Van Helsing is now a resistance leader in Romania. Nazi atrocities are detailed in secret communiqués to Berlin written by Major Waltraud Reikel, a vile and sadistic officer of the SS. As the resistance forces flounder under Reikel’s tight hold in the area, Van Helsing is forced to consider drastic measures—like turning to the creature he put down half a century ago. As reluctant as he is to go through with the plan, deep down he knows that to fight a monster…you need a monster. Together with the English spy Jonathan Harker, grandson of original Jonathan and Mina Harker, Van Helsing prepares to go back and unearth the legendary Dracula.
So no, this book is not intended to be a cheesy crossover or a comedic piece so don’t let the title put you off (though on the other hand, if you were attracted to this book because you were expecting a humorous read, then you’ll be disappointed…seriously, they really could have gone with a more suitable title). Instead, what you’ll find is a cleverly thought out novel featuring deep characters which actually deals with some solemn themes. Despite having a strong element of escapism appeal, I also wouldn’t exactly call this a “light, fluffy” read either. The story definitely has its share of slow, dragging parts, especially towards the beginning and in the middle, and for a book called Dracula vs. Hitler, there’s actually disappointingly little showdown between the two title characters. Dracula doesn’t even enter the picture until about a hundred pages in, and the Fuhrer’s presence mainly comes into play near the very end.
Still, after a lengthy buildup, the reader’s patience is rewarded as the momentum picks up. The story takes off bigtime as the resistance unleashes their secret weapon in the form of a bloodsucking vampire, and I can’t even begin to describe the immense pleasure and satisfaction derived from watching the Nazis lose their shit. The fight scenes are suspenseful and literally explosive, and of course, once Hitler finally figure out what’s going on, he becomes obsessed with capturing Dracula for a chance at unlocking the secret of immortality. The author pulls off the rest of the novel marvelously, and there’s no doubt that the climax and conclusion are this book’s best parts.
There are other notable aspects that must be addressed though, and first and foremost is of course the character of Dracula himself. Here he is portrayed as a savior and protector of Romania, though not without some pushback from those familiar with his bloody role in “The Book” as well as his brutal history as Prince Vlad the Impaler. Dracula doesn’t actually get his own “voice” in this novel, and instead we have to rely mostly on Jonathan Harker and Lucy Van Helsing’s sections in order to get to know him. Nevertheless, I am impressed with Duncan’s handling of the classic character. In the story, the resistance often refers to Dracula as “the creature” or “the secret weapon”, but as the plot continues it becomes more and more clear that he is not a thing or a monster, but a man who is more human than anyone gives him credit for. The author has also managed to create a lot of interesting tension between Dracula, Jonathan and Lucy, even going as far as to throw a bizarre love triangle into this mix (and trust me, it is not dubious as it sounds).
All told, its questionable title notwithstanding, I’m actually not too worried because I’m sure Dracula vs. Hitler will find an audience—and I really hope it will find success too because this book really is quite a gem. Do not, and I repeat, do not be fooled into expecting “Freddy vs. Jason” or “King Kong vs. Godzilla” levels of camp with this one; it’s not that kind of book. Historical fantasy and paranormal fans should have a good time though, especially if you’re looking for an imaginative book with a dash of pulp and quirkiness....more
For those who have not yet been initiated into the strange, scary and wonderful world of the Valducan series, better strap in, because you’re in for one hell of a ride. Here you will find monsters and demons and the secret international network of warriors who hunt them, and at the center of it all is the most important tool in their arsenal—holy weapons. These are imbued with the spirits of angels, forming a deep and reverent bond with their wielders to grant them amazing supernatural powers.
Hands down, Ibenus is my favorite book in this series yet. There are so many reasons why, but most of all, thank you Seth Skorkowsky for giving me something I’ve wanted since the beginning: a Valducan story centered on a female knight! Victoria Martin is our protagonist, a former London police officer whose life falls apart following a vicious demon attack which leaves her traumatized and her partner dead. Her employers subsequently let her go, dismissing her report and claiming that the impossible things she saw was due to stress and psychological damage. Unwilling to accept this, Victoria decides to take matters into her own hands. This is how she winds up tracking down and fighting alongside the Valducans, after one of their most experienced knights saw potential in her and agrees to take her on as his student.
Allan Havlock, protector of the holy blade Ibenus, didn’t know why but agreeing to train Victoria simply felt right, like the angel in his weapon was showing him his path. Little did he know though, his new apprentice had been in contact with an internet conspiracy group led by a man named Tommy D, an amateur filmmaker who shares her desire to expose the world to the truth of monsters. On her part, Victoria thought she was doing the right thing, infiltrating the Valducans with the goal of blowing their cover wide open. However, this was before she got to know her fellow demon hunters, before she got to sympathize with their mission…and before she started to fall in love with Allan. By the time she realizes she might have made a mistake though, it may already be too late.
Ibenus is the third installment in the series, but like the previous novels it can be read as a standalone. In fact, I would even say it’s a great place to start, since it does a fine job introducing the Valducans and laying out the nitty-gritty of what they do. Unlike the previous two books, Ibenus also features a lot more team action, whereas both Dämoren and Hounacier focused mostly on their respective main characters. I think this gives the book an edge, showing the ins and outs of how a new recruit like Victoria is initiated and integrated into the complex Valducan network, as well as how this shadowy group functions like a well-oiled machine. It’s this level of detail in the world-building that makes Ibenus a wonderful jumping-on point. That being said, the stars from the earlier books also make cameo appearances, so if what you read of Matt Hollis or Malcolm Romero sounds interesting here, I strongly urge you to go back and read their backstories.
This book also offered up just the right blend of different genre elements. I am a big fan of urban fantasy tinged with horror, and the Valducan series has always scratched that itch for me. In this world there are everything from werewolves to wendigos, but these are the no-holds-barred kinds of monsters—brutal and terrifying. In Ibenus, the creatures the knights are going after are even worse. Called Mantismeres, they are giant insectoid demons that spawn doll-faced carapaced minions, which in turn lure in their unwitting victims by emitting sounds that imitate crying or giggling babies. Imagine meeting something like that in the dark.
There’s also a great plot here, involving more than just action and thrills. Skorkowsky takes the storytelling to another level in in this book, developing character relationships and using their different motivations to create tension. There’s everything from love and betrayal to hidden agendas and conflicts of interest. A new light is shone on the will of holy weapons like Ibenus, emphasizing the fact that they are fundamentally sentient beings and can be considered characters in their own right. The enmity between the Valducan and Tommy D’s gang also becomes a focal point, for while they may both fight on the same side against the demons, the two groups are driven by different forces. Yet it’s easy to understand where the “bad guys” are coming from, even if you disagree with their methods. Likewise, despite the Valducans being the “heroes” of this series, what happens in this story will lead to many questions about their motives. I really appreciated how things were never simply black and white.
All told, Ibenus is another amazing demon-gore-splattered sequel in the highly entertaining Valducan series. The author has come a long way since the first book, and the series itself has also grown from stories about lone heroes to a bigger, fuller, more epic experience involving greater consequences and higher stakes. I love it. Highly recommended....more
I think it’s incredibly awesome that The Empty Ones is a lot like punk rock but in book form—loud, fast-moving, aggressive. It does its own thing, all the while being shamelessly, wickedly unapologetic about it. Better yet, I loved that this sequel was even better, funnier, and more entertaining than the first book!
The story picks up again not long after the events of The Unnoticeables, for both timelines—because as you’d recall, we follow two major points of view in the previous volume—one in 1977 featuring a young New York punk named Carey and a second one in 2013 featuring Kaitlyn, a stuntwoman in Los Angeles. The Empty Ones is once again using this structure of going back and forth between these two points-of-view, using the battle against the monsters to link up past and present.
For Carey, 1978 has become all about seeking revenge. He and his friend Randall survived last year’s secret war against the savage cult of Unnoticeables, Empty Ones, angels and tar men, but many more of their fellow punks weren’t so lucky. Carey is determined to hunt down the immortal Empty One who killed several of his friends, tracking him all the way to London, England where the punk scene is really rockin’. As it happens, it’s also crawling with Faceless, the British punks’ own term for the strange kids with unnoticeable, forgettable faces. Carey and Randall end up meeting Meryll, a one-woman wrecking crew who is also part of an underground London punk resistance group against the monsters.
In 2013, the situation is a lot different, though the plot also revolves around the hunt for an Empty One, a B-list actor and former teen heartthrob named Marco Luis. The first book saw Carey (now an aging hobo) team up with Kaitlyn and her friend Jackie to thwart an angel, sending Marco packing. However, the monsters still won’t leave Kaitlyn alone, forcing the trio to go on the run, eating at cheap diners and staying in sleazy motels in order to keep a low profile. Finally, Kaitlyn can’t take it anymore, and decides to take the fight straight to Marco, hoping that killing him will end this once and for all. Last she heard, the psychopathic actor was filming a new show in Mexico, which means time for a road trip!
I really can’t stress how much of a blast I had with this book. It’s gory, gross and just damn great. It’s also very funny, much more so than the first book. The type of humor in this is dark and cutting, but in spite of that, I laughed out loud more times than I could count.
In my review of The Unnoticeables, I also mentioned how much I enjoyed the characters, especially Kaitlyn, but in The Empty Ones it was definitely Carey who stole the show. I just adore this nutty young punk turned nutty old hobo, whose brain is permanently tuned to sex, beer, and punk rock whether he’s 20-something or 50-something. Still, as vulgar as he is, I couldn’t help but find the guy compelling. His propensity to think with what’s between his legs rather than what’s in his head is somewhat redeemed by all the times he reacts to situations with his heart—which proves he’s really just a big ol’ softie. Brockway has created characters who aren’t just one-trick ponies, and Kaitlyn is proof of that as well, showing lots of growth in this sequel. No longer content with running and hiding, this badass stuntwoman has taken it upon herself to face her fears head-on, so that no one else would ever have to live through her terror.
Furthermore, The Empty Ones introduces a ton of new elements to the mix. The trilogy surely would not be complete without a visit to the British punk scene, and we get to check that one off with style as Carey and Randall rock and drink their way across London, fighting Faceless at a Ramones concert and evading tar men in the Underground. Meryll is also an interesting wildcard, the addition of her character changing the game completely, so there’s really no telling where things will go from here. Finally, this book expands the lore of the monsters, building upon what we know about the angels, Empty Ones, Faceless, and tar people, and how their roles are all connected. Brockway even offers us a glimpse into the horrifying, inhuman existence of an Empty One by giving us a few chapters written in the perspective of Marco, or “this thing” as he calls himself, and it is truly some downright fucked up disturbing shit.
Technically, new readers can start here since Robert Brockway does a fine job catching us up, but I do strongly recommend starting with The Unnoticeables. I’m pleased at how much I’m enjoying this series. It has a little bit of everything, a mishmash of elements from urban fantasy, metaphysical science fiction and cosmic horror. The tone can be describe as vulgar, violent, fast-paced and hilarious. Bottom line though, The Empty Ones was simply incredible, just one hell of a great read. It takes everything from the first book to a new level, and assuming things keep going this way, the third book promises to be amazing and I cannot wait to get my hands on it....more
I’ve always held a bit of a fascination for mountaineering stories, which is really ironic considering my deathly fear of heights. Certainly I’ve never harbored any desires to scale anything more extreme than a steep hill, which is why when I first picked up Sarah Lotz’s latest novel about death and danger on Everest, I thought there would be little chance of her “ruining” mountain climbing for me the way she put me off from cruising for a whole year after I read her shipbound horror-thriller Day Four. And yet, books like The White Road still have this way of sending chills down my spine, even when I’m reading them from the warm, cozy comfort of my living room couch.
Our story begins in the winter of 2006, and protagonist Simon Newman and his roommate Thierry are a couple of slackers whose ambitions amount to nothing more than throwaway barista gigs at the local coffee shop and running their clickbait website on the side. At this point, YouTube stars and listicles are just starting to become a thing, and the two friends are hoping to grow their following enough to score a sweet advertising deal of their own. The idea for their big break comes when Simon first learns of the Cwm Pot caves in Wales, where several years ago a group of spelunkers had gotten trapped and died. Their site “Journey to the Dark Side” would become an internet sensation if Simon could go down there and come back with actual never-before-seen footage of the dead bodies, Thierry insists; it is the perfect material for their morbid audience.
Unfortunately for Simon, his venture into Cwn Pot ultimately ends in disaster. But while the incident leaves him traumatized, the salvaged footage from his harrowing experience along with the ensuing media attention does propel the website into the top ranks. Eager to take their newfound popularity to the next level, Thierry proposes the idea for another attention-grabbing stunt: Now that Simon has gone deep down underground in search of corpses to film, why not go the other way this time, and do the same thing on the highest point on earth? Mount Everest is said to be the final resting place of more than 200 people; the shocking reality is that there’s very little anyone can do for those who lose their lives at such altitudes, and their remains are often unrecoverable and left where they fell, sometimes for years and years. Surely it wouldn’t be too hard for Simon to go up there and capture more footage of a couple of dead bodies, which would undoubtedly bring even more traffic to their website.
But up above 8000 feet in the Death Zone, anything can happen. And the reality is, Simon did not emerge from Cwn Pot the same person. He is a haunted man now, after the things he’d seen in its terrifying depths, and he’s brought some of that darkness with him to the world’s highest open grave. The White Road is a story divided into three distinct sections, with the first focusing on Simon’s misadventures in the tight, twisty tunnels of the Welsh caverns. This, in my opinion, was the best part of the book. I read these first fifty pages or so feeling like my heart was stuck in my throat, the fear practically choking off my breath—and I’m not even a claustrophobe. If I had to go through even a fraction what Simon did, I would never turn a single light off in my house again, soaring electricity bills be damned. Sarah Lotz’s descriptions of the oppressive darkness and unbearably cramped spaces stirred up some of my deepest fears, and I couldn’t help but put myself in the protagonist’s place, losing hope as the underground water rose higher and higher.
Compared to that, the rest of the book almost seemed tame, even in Part II when Simon jets off to Nepal to climb Mount Everest. There are certainly plenty of frights in this section, though in a much different way than Cwn Pot. Here, we get to see the cold, merciless nature of the mountain, dispassionate about the fates of those who attempt the summit. A few years ago, I became obsessed with Everest-related history and literature after reading The Abominable by Dan Simmons, which was one particularly dark rabbit hole I fell into. I found plenty of amazing true accounts of great feats accomplished by great people, but just as plentiful were the traumatizing stories of death and disaster. Most of the fatal incidents on Everest occur in the mountain’s oxygen-starved Death Zone, which not only pushes a climber’s body to their physical limits, but also threatens to push their minds to the brink of madness. This is where some of the vagueness in The White Road comes into play. Are the strange things experienced by the characters merely the symptoms of altitude sickness, or are there supernatural shenanigans afoot? It could go either way, and the ambiguity contributes much to the suspense.
But while I really enjoyed The White Road, with perhaps the exception of the first section, I thought the book failed to pack the same punch as the author’s two previous novels, The Three and Day Four. This might have something to do with the structure, since the three disparate sections can make the story feel a little disjointed, especially in the beginning of Part II when we are introduced to an incidental character through a series of journal entries. There’s also an anticlimactic resolution, along with a few plot points that seemingly went nowhere and which I felt were implemented too awkwardly to be mere red herrings. Furthermore, Simon is not a very sympathetic character, and just when you think there’s hope for him yet, he pulls a reversal that makes you hate him all over again. Still, it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy, and Lotz makes getting invested in his story worth your time.
Is it any wonder why I’m such a big fan of the author and why every new book by her automatically gets added to my must-read list? A master of the horror genre, Sarah Lotz’s talents were especially in clear evidence in this novel with its atmosphere of tangible suspense and pure, icy terror. Thoroughly entertaining and astonishingly realistic, The White Road is a gripping, high-climbing thriller which will creep its way under your skin and stay with you for a very long time (…like fingers in your heart)....more
Well, Kim Liggett sure doesn’t mess around. That was my first thought after finishing The Last Harvest, but only once I was recovered from feeling like I was thrown off a bridge thanks to that ending. This book might be published under a Young Adult imprint, but when it comes to delivering horror, it’s the real deal—no kid gloves here. To give fair warning, I would probably place this on the “older teen” spectrum, and if you don’t like unsettling themes and endings, then you may want to stay away.
If, however, knowing all that only makes you more intrigued, then read on! Personally, I knew as soon as I heard about The Last Harvest that it would be right up my alley. The book was first pitched to me as a YA horror thriller, described as Rosemary’s Baby meets Friday Night Lights. Think sprawling wheat fields, high school football, cattle ranches and satanic panic. No way could I resist.
Our story is set in rural Oklahoma, starring eighteen-year-old protagonist Clay Tate. A year ago, Clay had it all—he was the star quarterback at Midland High, and as a scion of one of the six founding families of their town, he was also a well-respected member of the Preservation Society. But all that changed the night Clay’s dad lost his mind, took the living room crucifix off the wall, and made a sudden visit to Ian Neely’s neighboring cattle ranch. Now on the first anniversary of that night, people in town still talk in hushed whispers about how the elder Tate’s body was found among the blood and viscera on the floor of the breeding barn, after committing an unspeakable act. Clay himself has become a social pariah, having quit the football team and turned down his position on the Preservation Society in order to focus on working the family farm. Clay’s mom has also not yet recovered from her husband’s death, leaving him to raise his little sisters on his own.
With the days growing cooler, Clay is determined to finish harvesting the wheat before first frost. But between the bad memories and his worries about his family, he’s been having trouble sleeping, and the visits to the doctor and school counselor haven’t really helped. Worse, he begins to see and hear things that he suspects aren’t really there, like the slaughtered golden calf he finds in the wheat field one morning, only to come back later to find that all traces of it has disappeared. Disturbing visions featuring his family and friends continue to haunt him, making Clay wonder if he is now suffering from the same mental illness that affected his dad in his final days. Was this what made his old man go crazy and accuse the Preservation Society of devil worship? Clay knows something rotten is definitely going on in the town, but there are few whom he could trust to tell the truth of what he’s seen. Evil has come to Midland, and now Clay fears for his family and for the soul of the girl he loves.
I’ve always said, the best and scariest horror stories are the ones that make you wonder what’s real and what’s not as you’re reading. What I found most impressive about The Last Harvest was how Liggett managed to lure me into a false sense of security. She’s also good at playing her cards close to her vest. When the book begins and we meet Clay Tate, we’re aware that something bad has happened to his family and that it involves his late father, but details behind the “breeding barn incident” aren’t revealed until later. For a long time, it doesn’t appear that anything too out of the ordinary has been happening in Midland. It’s a very traditional town where everyone knows each other. Much of life revolves around church, football, and the Preservation Society. Like any population, the vast majority are good kind people, but they also have their bad eggs. So at the first signs of malaise, it didn’t set off any alarm bells in my head. Also, while a young man in his late teens experiencing the classic symptoms of schizophrenia is a distressing experience indeed, again there are no clear signs that anything supernatural may be afoot.
It’s not until later on in the book that Liggett springs her trap. And that was when it hit me, I really should have been paying more attention! The author had been laying down clues since the very beginning, planting the seeds for her very own harvest, and suddenly it was all coming together. At the same time, I realized Liggett had set the story up so brilliantly that I had no idea where it was going to take me. In the end, I had to give up on trying to predict anything and simply let myself to be swept away by the plot’s many twists and turns—and believe me when I say, it was worth it.
My only issue with the book is the polarizing effect it may have on its intended audience. The horror aspects are definitely intense, going a little beyond what I would have expected for a YA novel, but at the same time the story also contains clear YA genre elements including teen romance, high school drama, and a general atmosphere of teenage angst. For adult fans of horror, this might be a turnoff or even a deal breaker, and it’s a real shame because I know plenty of horror buffs for whom this book would be perfect, except they don’t read YA.
I can also see readers divided on their thoughts of the ending, though personally, I loved it. Revealing much more about it will be spoiling, so just take my word for it when I say it is not to be missed. The Last Harvest surprised the hell out of me, and it was everything I wanted plus a lot more....more
Believe me, no one is more surprised than I am at my rating. I wanted to like Little Heaven so much, not only because it sounded so intriguing but also because I am a fan of Cutter’s The Troop. However, his newest novel simply did not appeal to me in the same way, despite it feeling like the next step for the author and the story being well put-together.
The book opens with an introduction to a trio of rough mercenaries who have reunited to stand against an evil from their past. Back in 1965, Micah Shughrue, Ebenezer Elkins, and Minerva Atwater were forced to set aside their differences (i.e. stop killing each other) in order to help a woman named Ellen Bellhaven rescue her nephew from a religious cult in New Mexico. Everything that happened during that fateful year is told in a series of flashbacks chronicling their harrowing mission into the wilderness to infiltrate Little Heaven, the cult’s compound run by a fiendishly insane megalomaniac named Amos Flesher. And yet, compared to the true terrors our three protagonists find lurking in the darkness surrounding them, even the human kind of monsters will seem like small fry.
Fast forward to fifteen years later, Micah wakes up one day to find his daughter missing, abducted in the night. When his greatest fears are confirmed, the former mercenary has no choice but to call on his one-time allies, beseeching Ebenezer and Minerva to join up with him once more for round two against the horror that has come back to haunt them.
Since I like leading with the positives, I’m going to first talk about the things I enjoyed about this book. To its credit, Little Heaven really takes the creeps and scares to a whole new level, which is extreme even for Cutter. His writing style has clearly evolved since The Troop, no longer relying solely on the “gross-out” factor to strike terror into readers’ hearts. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of blood, guts and gore in this novel, because there is (not to mention, those with a fear of snakes or creepy crawlies will have especially rough time with this one). Still, in order for a horror novel to be effective, graphic descriptions are only half the picture. The other half of it requires a bit more finesse, a way to bring the atmosphere of dread and suspense to the surface. Cutter did a great job on that front, creating an intense and all-encompassing sense of “wrongness” that never quite leaves you. The scenes in Little Heaven are especially well-written, where it feels like the squalor, degeneracy and madness are constantly closing in on you from all sides.
Now, if only I felt the same love for the character development. In theory, the protagonists should have worked better for me. Micah, Ebenezer, and Minerva are the tough-as-nails sort, killers and bounty hunters with checkered pasts. I have no problems reading about morally ambiguous characters—in fact, I enjoy them, and it’s great when their authors manage to make them sympathetic and likeable. But regretfully, I found it really hard to care about anyone in this book, which also likely dampened my enthusiasm for the story. All the characters were too thinly sketched for my tastes; they were flat, unchanging, and I just didn’t think enough attention was paid to them overall.
The term “old school horror” also seems to get tossed around a lot when discussing this book, which I’d say is pretty spot on. Good news, perhaps, for readers who enjoy the older stylings of Stephen King. Bad news on the other hand for yours truly, who has always found King’s earlier work to be excessively wordy and bloated (which is why I could never get through his books like It). As such, I was really not all that surprised when I came to experience the same ennui with Little Heaven.
Which all comes down to why I’m sure this is simply a case of “wrong book, wrong time” or “Sorry, Little Heaven, it’s not you, it’s me.” As much as I’ve enjoyed Nick Cutter in the past, sadly this one didn’t quite live up to my expectations, though of course that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. Personal taste being what it is, and with mine being more capricious than most, I hope this won’t dissuade anyone from trying the book out for themselves if the description sounds like something you might enjoy. Indeed, take everything I say here with a grain of salt since the vast majority of other reviews I’ve seen so far have been positively glowing. If the premise interests you, I highly recommend giving it a try....more
Welcome to Deadland is a zombie book, but it’s also kind of…not. The end of the world seems almost incidental in this novel pitched as Lost meets The Walking Dead, but in my opinion, its unique perspective also makes it a deeper, much stronger experience. Rest assured, readers will still get a good dose of the zombocalypse, but the predominant themes about growing up, coming out, and finding strength within yourself are what makes this one shine. If you’re in the mood to try a different sort of zombie story, you’ll definitely want to seek this one out.
The narrative focuses mainly on two major POVs: Asher, a college student from North Carolina, who with his friend Wendy have ended up in a post-apocalyptic Orlando theme park; and Rico, a drug-addicted teenager determined to see himself and his six-year-old brother Jayden to safety through a world strewn with death and destruction. In the “After”, all that matters is survival. But at least half—if not more—of the book also takes place “Before”, in the months leading up to the devastating effects of the zombie plague. With chapters alternating between the past and present, the story provides readers with plenty of backstory allowing us to follow the changes in the characters’ lives.
In the pre-apocalypse, everything changes for Asher on the night he meets Ellis at a house party. A spark immediately forms between the two of them, but there’s only one problem: Ellis already has a boyfriend. Add to that, Asher hasn’t actually told anyone he’s gay, but with the support of Ellis and his friends, he’s finally realizing he can let his secret go and be himself. For the first time in his life, Asher feels free and happy, but there’s also no denying the connection he feels with Ellis, who is already involved with someone else.
Meanwhile in another part of the state, a high school student named Rico is being arrested for drugs and disorderly conduct. As punishment, Rico’s father takes away his car privileges, but this simply becomes an invitation for the teenager to act out even further by skipping classes, dealing drugs, and going to all-night parties. Despite being a juvenile delinquent though, Rico is the hero of his younger stepbrother Jayden, and Rico loves the little boy in turn with all his heart.
Without a doubt, it’s the “Before” sections that constitute the meat of the story, which is why I described this book the way I did in my introduction. Zombie horror takes a secondary role to the trials and tribulations of real life, and just because the world has ended doesn’t mean that the past is erased. If you’re solely looking for the action and thrills of a pure zombie survival story, then this probably won’t be the book for you. There are scenes of blood, violence, gore and tension scattered here and there, but for the most part this one is a heavily character-oriented drama with the most interesting plot developments happening in the chapters before the zombie outbreak.
To keep things moving along though, Zachary Tyler Linville weaves together past and present, jumping back and forth between events that happened when the world was still fine and those that happened afterwards when everything has gone to hell. Still, while it was interesting and ambitious, I wasn’t entirely convinced this was the best structure for the novel because of the overall disruptive effect it had on the flow of the story. “Before” and “After” had a way of stepping on each other’s toes, and the plotting wasn’t quite tight enough to make me feel engaged with essentially four different storylines (pre- and post-apocalypse for both Asher and Rico). The POV switches were also distracting because I had to really make a conscious effort to remember what happened with each character when we last saw them.
Something had to give, and it was the “zombie chapters” that suffered, simply because I preferred the stronger, more compelling character development in the “Before” chapters. Framing it that way, Welcome to Deadland isn’t even a zombie book at all, but rather a narrative about human drama: family life, personal relationships, romance and sex, emotional conflicts, etc. Asher’s story almost had a “New Adult” feel to them, featuring themes like sexuality, leaving home, and college life. In the middle of it all is his relationship with Ellis, which is both a source of comfort and frustration to Asher. Much of his plotline involves Asher trying to sort out where he stands while Ellis carries on an emotional affair with him and then later becomes manipulative, playing with Asher’s feelings. Next, we flip over to Rico, whose story reads like a cautionary tale reminding us of the dangers of drug abuse among teens. The end of the world comes just as Rico hits rock bottom, and puts a whole new perspective on his life. With a young child in his care, Rico re-examines his habits and knows he has to be a better person for his little brother, so at least for him, the zombie apocalypse has a silver lining.
All told, I found Welcome to Deadland to be a welcome change from the typical run-of-the-mill zombie novel, though ironically, it was the non-zombie sections that really stood out for me. Despite the pacing problems and other minor issues like choppy writing and awkward dialogue, I really enjoyed the story overall and was amazed at huge amount of effort put into character development. That’s pretty unusual for a zombie story, and I found it very refreshing. It’ll be interesting to see what else this series has in store for our characters, because yes, Welcome to Deadland has all the trappings of a “book one”. Hopefully we’ll also learn more about how the infection started in the first place, since this was only mildly hinted at in the story. Ultimately, I rate this one 3 stars for being a solid debut effort with room to grow, and I genuinely believe Zachary Tyler Linville has a bright career in writing ahead of him....more
Oh boy, this was exactly the kind of book I needed in my life.
Not that my current to-read list is lacking by any means, being well stocked with all kinds of offerings from mind-blowing cerebral science fiction to sweeping epic fantasies. But sometimes you just gotta kick back with some giant rampaging shark action, you know?
Hence, the Meg, short for Megalodon or Carcharodon megalodon, a species of prehistoric shark that lived more than 2.6 million years ago and makes its extant cousin the Great White look like a precious little baby.
Thank all that is good and holy that these guys are extinct.
Steve Alten’s MEG series, the first book of which is soon to be adapted into a movie, follows the exciting and oftentimes terrifying underwater adventures of former US Navy deep sea diver Jonas Taylor and his family. Meg: Nightstalkers is the fifth novel of the sequence, though like all the other books it can be read perfectly fine on its own as a standalone. Being new to the series, I was grateful for the plentiful background information provided by the author which gently eased me back into this next chapter of the story. The first part technically began in the previous installment Meg: Hell’s Aquarium, and considering that it was published a little more than seven years ago, I am likely not the only reader who would appreciate all the recap details. Regardless, whether you’re a newcomer or just continuing the series, you shouldn’t have any problems at all.
The book starts off following a nightmare situation already underway, with Lizzy and Bela, the two massive Megalodon sisters, having been set loose from the marine facility owned by the Taylor and Tanaka families. They’ve been storming up the coast ever since, ultimately winding up in the Salish Sea off British Columbia. But while Jonas has his hands full trying to figure out how to recapture or kill the Megs, his son David is also dealing with some prehistoric sea monster problems of his own. After witnessing his girlfriend die in a gruesome attack, David has agreed to join the hunt for the creature responsible—a 120-foot, hundred-ton Liopleurodon which had escaped from its refuge in the Panthalassa Sea.
Because giant sharks obviously aren’t enough.
I’m not even going to try and pretend these books are anything more than they appear to be, nor will I deny the fact I read this simply out of pure guilty pleasure. The writing isn’t going to be raking in any awards. The plot is laughably absurd. The violence and gore is flagrantly gratuitous, the science lacks any kind of logic or credibility, and most of the characters are stupid arrogant blowhards with more balls than brains (plenty of shark fodder, yay!)
But man, did I have a helluva fun time with this one.
I’ll be the first to admit a weakness for the kinds of creature features made popular during the 70s and 80s, or those cheesy made-for-TV horror films featuring animals running amok or going on killing sprees. Meg: Nightstalkers felt a lot like the book version of that, and to be honest, I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to read about gigantic prehistoric sea monsters swimming around wreaking havoc on quaint seaside properties, sinking a bunch of boats, and devouring a crap ton of people.
Every once in a while I’ll find myself in a mood for an unassuming and shamelessly pulpy novel like this one, just to let loose and have fun. And I have to say, I was extremely satisfied to get my five hours of guts-splattering, blood-spewing terror and entertainment out of this book. From its fascinating intro to that explosive ending worthy of Jurassic World, I enjoyed every moment. Will it be for everyone? Probably not. But as the old saying goes, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. With books like these, what you see is what you get, which can be unbelievably refreshing and cathartic. I feel that my reading routine is made much richer by mixing in light and fun offerings on occasion, the sort of stuff that doesn’t take itself too seriously. When I get the chance to sneak them in between my longer heavier reads, they can be a real treat. After my experience with Nightstalkers, I would definitely read more MEG books. In fact, I’ve already placed a hold on the first one at my library.
So, when you’re heading out to the beach this summer, to hell with the other beach-goers who’ll probably give you and this book funny looks! Consider packing along a copy in your day bag. You’ll have a great time…even if you’ll want to stay out of the water....more
Make no mistake, Lovecraft-inspired stories are a real hot thing right now and I am gobbling it all up. This year the types of Lovecraftian fiction I’ve already read have ranged from bloody gorefests to dark comedies, and there just seems to be a style for every persuasion. And if your tastes happen to run in the direction of weird fiction and pulp noir, then Reanimatrix is sure to make you very, very happy.
Unfolding through a series of diary entries and letters, this story follows the strange lives of two main characters, Robert Peaslee and Megan Halsey. It is the 1920s, and Robert was an officer in the Great War returning to his home town of Arkham to work on the police force, handling the sensitive cases that the other cops don’t want to touch. One fateful day he meets Megan, a young heiress with a troubled past, and immediately feels drawn to her. Years later, however, Robert is called to work a crime scene by the docks where a body of a woman has been discovered, and he is shocked and heartbroken to later learn that it is none other than Megan Halsey.
Before the investigation can move forward though, her body goes missing. Robert soon becomes consumed with the case of what happened to Megan, especially once he suspects that she might not really be dead. Determined to solve the case, Robert attempts to retrace Megan’s steps, going to places she visited and reading through her diary entries in the hopes of gleaning some clues, but what he finds is way more than he bargained for.
Written in a style reminiscent of the classic hardboiled detective pulp stories, Reanimatrix is a mystery narrative interspersed with tales of the occult and supernatural. This combined with the influence of Lovecraftian themes makes for an entertaining read, though admittedly I felt the pacing stumbled a little due to the book’s unique structure. Divided into multiple parts, the story alternates between Robert and Megan’s perspective and takes a while to get started, and the mystery behind Megan’s “death” does not even come into play until well into the novel. The prose is also very thick, almost like the author is channeling the works of the time, so coupled with the extended introduction I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers might find things rough going at first.
The epistolary format also feels disorganized at times, especially with the random journal entries that feel “inserted” and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the main story. In fact, afterwards I found out that some of them were actually short stories that have appeared in other anthologies. Personally, I had mixed feelings about this. In most cases, these sections added nothing to the overarching plot and I often had to fight the temptation to skim them so that we could get back on track. That said, hardcore Lovecraft fans might appreciate these little detours a lot more than I did, and to be fair, some of the chapters were genuinely interesting, especially when they delved into the gruesome, the macabre, and even the raunchy. This book definitely isn’t for the squeamish, not to mention the handful of over-the-top explicit sex scenes that are sure to raise a few eyebrows.
To be sure though, Reanimatrix is true to the pulp tradition, and as such, there’s a strong element of sensationalism at play here. For me, the pacing was a little inconsistent and the prose a bit hard on the eyes, but I loved the atmosphere and characterization of the two main leads. Robert and Megan’s twisted tale of love and un-death is guaranteed to be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and the nod to the scary works and worlds of H.P. Lovecraft is also a clever touch. Pete Rawlik does a fine job subverting the genre while also paying loving homage with this novel of weird science, occult horror, and monstrous trappings, and if that sounds like something you would enjoy, then you’re definitely in for a special treat....more
Being a huge fan of author Sarah Lotz, naturally I just had to check out The Apartment, since she’s one half of the writing duo of S.L. Grey. While I’ve never read anything by her collaborator Louis Greenberg, I do know he’s quite an accomplished dark fantasy and horror writer as well, and together the two of them have created something truly startling here.
The book is told through the eyes of a married couple from Cape Town, South Africa. Mark Sebastian is a middle-aged English professor struggling both personally and financially after a terrible event seven years ago had shattered his first marriage. Steph is a young woman who had to put her life on hold after she got pregnant and married Mark, deciding to be a stay-at-home parent to take care of their young daughter Hayden. Despite the couple’s difficulties though, the Sebastians’ marriage was loving, happy, and idyllic—that is, until their home was violently invaded by three masked men who threatened Mark and Steph at knife point and robbed them of their already meager possessions.
Unfortunately, while the family came out of that agony physically unharmed, the psychological trauma has taken its toll. Mark and Steph are unable to return to their normal lives, due to the constant fear and paranoia. So when a friend refers them to a house-swapping website and suggests that they take a nice relaxing vacation, the two of them are intrigued by this money-saving option. Almost right away, Steph connects with the owners of a charming little apartment in Paris, a young couple who would just love to visit Cape Town and stay at the Sebastians’ place. Despite a few lingering doubts, Mark and Steph decide to take the leap and plans are swiftly made for childcare and travel. After all, who can resist the draw of the city of light and love?
However, once they arrive in Paris, their dream vacation quickly spirals out of control and becomes a living nightmare. Instead of rest and romance, they find only darkness and terror.
Before I go further, there are some quibbles I have to mention. The first and biggest discrepancy that leaped out at me was, of course, Mark and Steph’s decision to agree to a house-swap in the first place, opening their house to complete strangers after we’ve been repeatedly told how uncomfortable and traumatized they were following their home invasion. I would think that the last thing they’d want is to have more unfamiliar people coming into their private living space, sleeping in their beds, eating off their plates, handling their personal belongings, etc. (I thought maybe it was just me, but after seeing other reviews that also point out how this made no sense, I actually feel somewhat vindicated.) More of these puzzling irregularities pop up especially once the characters arrive in Paris—leaving aside the fact they’re quite possibly with the worst credit card company in the world, I also don’t think they tried anywhere near hard enough to exhaust all possible options before resigning themselves to stay in that awful, freaky apartment. If it were me, I would have found some cheap hostel or even slept on a bench at the train station before going back to that place.
Still, despite a few things that didn’t add up, I had a really enjoyable time with this novel. The tensions are thick enough that I was happy to push aside those little inconsistencies if it meant I could just sit back and let the story take me where it wanted to go. Indeed, what I appreciated most about this book was its atmosphere. There was a gradual shift from oppressive and dreadful at the beginning to downright creepy towards the end, leading the reader through several different stages of suspense and horror before letting the conclusion come crashing down on us. I was up way too late many nights reading this book, breaking the promise to myself that “I’ll go to bed once I finish this chapter” multiple times because I kept caving to the temptation to peek at the next page, getting sucked into reading another chapter, and then rinse and repeat.
A couple more comments before I go (though I doubt too many avid horror readers would be surprised by what I’m about to say): You’re probably not going to find any of the characters very likeable. Like many horror novel protagonists, I think both Mark and Steph were meant to be a little foolish, unstable and reprehensible—all by design. And like in most ghost/haunted house stories, there will also be some ambiguity, so don’t be surprised when the book ends without providing all the answers.
All told, The Apartment is a creepy little tale combining traditional horror story-telling elements with the uncertainties and struggles of a recently-married couple who probably don’t know each other as well as they think they do—and some of the shocking revelations from their alternating POV chapters really serve to emphasize that. Despite the story being riddled by little inconsistencies, my overall pleasure at reading this book was unaffected. The Apartment was a very addictive read and I had a lot of fun with it....more
I had a nice surprise when I picked up Department Zero. The book initially caught my eye as a cross-genre science fiction and fantasy adventure about infinite alternate realities, as well as a secret society of agents who have to traverse multiple worlds to clean up interstitial messes. But as if that isn’t cool enough already, Paul Crilley doubles down by tying everything into the Cthulhu mythos and giving this one a nice shot of Lovecraftian horror.
The story stars Harry Priest, a man with one hell of a tough job. He’s in what you would call “biohazard remediation”, which means he cleans up dead people for a living, usually at the site of accidents, murders, suicides, and unattended deaths where the body has had plenty of time to decompose in the stifling L.A. heat. You name it, Harry’s seen it. But still, nothing could have prepared him for his latest assignment. On what he thought was another routine call, Harry arrives to a gore-splattered abandoned motel room in the middle of nowhere, and sees something he shouldn’t have. Before long, Harry finds himself the target of savage spiders and monkey creatures and other frightening monstrosities that shouldn’t exist.
The attacks soon lead him to meet up with Havelock Graves of the Interstitial Crime Department, an agency that polices the multiverse. After being recruited into the ICD, Harry learns all about the network of interdimensional gates and their access to an infinite number of worlds in which there’s always someone, somewhere, sometime trying to break the rules of universe-hopping. Unfortunately for Harry though, Graves is determined to get back on top after his team is disgraced—and isn’t above using our protagonist as bait to draw out a Cthulhu cult that has dastardly plans to destroy the multiverse by awakening the Great Old One.
The first time I read Paul Crilley was a few years ago when I picked up his novels in the Tweed and Nightingale Adventures series, though at the time I hadn’t known he predominantly wrote Middle Grade and Young Adult titles. I was excited when I learned that he was branching into adult speculative fiction with the recent Poison City, and now Department Zero. As expected this one was a blast, combining a mix of action, adventure, and just plain weirdness. It’s also extremely fast-paced, the pages flying by as we’re shunted from one oddball situation to the next. In many ways, the plot reminded me of some crazy video game, which isn’t too surprising considering Crilley’s biography includes writing credits on five computer games (one of them being Star Wars: The Old Republic, a favorite of mine). Keep in mind too that Department Zero is a multiverse story where literally anything can happen, and indeed the author also makes the most out of this by unleashing his imagination, allowing this parade of horrors and wonders to move at full speed.
That said, at times this hectic approach feels overwhelming. The plot will continue charging on ahead even when you wish it would take a breather for a couple pages, regroup and recuperate and maybe spend a few moments getting to know our characters better. Many of them have zany personalities but then they end up being largely forgettable, and Harry himself feels roughly sketched and underdeveloped for a protagonist. He has a failed marriage, a dead-end job, a young daughter that he wishes he can spend more time with, as well as a bucketful of regrets—but I couldn’t connect emotionally to any of his problems. A part of me thinks this might have something to do with the writing style. First-person present tense can feel a bit awkward even at the best of times, and I don’t know if it was the best narrative choice for this story. There’s also the tone of the humor, which sometimes feels over-the-top and a bit forced, though at the same time Crilley also serves up some epic snark, leading to memorable dialogue and hilarious one-liners.
At the end of the day, Department Zero is a light and entertaining novel guaranteed to shake you out of your typical urban fantasy routine. While it might not be that deep, and the humor and pacing might take some getting used to, the story’s quirky premise is perhaps the foremost reason I would recommend it. Readers who enjoy a mix of genres and concepts will especially get a kick out of this snappy, imaginative adventure. If you happen to like your UF on the eccentric side, then this book will be like treating yourself to the most amazing all-you-can-eat buffet....more
Several weeks ago I received a book that I was unfamiliar with, a gorgeous hardcover with its page edges stained an ominous red. The title was Dark Debts by Karen Hall, which I quickly looked up to find out more. Turns out, what I held in my hands was a revised, new edition of an old cult classic theological horror/thriller, published again now by Simon & Schuster for its 20th anniversary.
According to an article I read though, this is not just a simple reissue, as some of the changes are pretty significant and extensive. Among them are a new major character as well as a reworked ending. The reason for these rewrites, the author explained, had much to do with how she has changed as a person in the last two decades, as well as updates to her knowledge on the Catholic faith. Since I’ve not read the original, there’s no way for me to compare the two editions, but knowing all this new information did make me even more curious. It’s a rare opportunity whenever an author gets to rework a previously published novel, and I was drawn to the themes and subjects of this book.
Gothic horror. Theological questions. Demon possession and exorcism. Mystery. Romance. Dark Debts is all of this and more. The story begins with a Jesuit priest named Father Michael Kinney testifying as a witness to a horrific crime involving a teenage boy and his two parents, appearing in court against the wishes of the church. In response, Father Michael’s superiors transfer him to rural Georgia immediately after the trial, forcing him to leave his old parish in Manhattan. Believing his exile to be a result of church politics, Father Michael is stricken when he discovers the truth about the dark, terrible secrets in his family’s past and that his transfer might in fact be no accident at all.
Meanwhile, a journalist in California receives some shocking news. Randa is informed that her friend and former lover Cam Landry, a man she had always known to be a kind and mild-mannered pacifist, is dead by suicide after robbing a liquor store and killing an employee. After promising to return Cam’s belongings to his brother in Georgia, Randa ends up meeting Jack Landry, the last surviving member of their notorious family. Everyone in town is familiar with the name Landry—the father Will was an abusive alcoholic who took out his awful anger on his wife and sons; youngest brother Ethan’s death was a suicide, though rumor has it that his father killed him; oldest brother Tallen went on a murder spree at a church during Christmas services and was then convicted and executed by the state; and their mother took her own life one year later. Now Cam is gone too, and friends close to him told Randa that he was acting strange and having bad dreams before he snapped. Jack is the only one left, and he is terrified of growing close to anyone, convinced that the Landry curse will claim him next and make him lose control.
If you enjoy experiencing the disturbing feelings of unease or creeping dread brought on by the atmosphere of old-school horror movies, then Dark Debts is for you. It is a very subtle novel, and those looking for more of the in-your-face horror elements will probably have to look elsewhere. There is a supernatural aspect to the story involving satanic cults and demonic possession, but at its heart this book reads a lot more like a slow-burn mystery-suspense rather than a straight up horror novel. There’s also a thread of romance woven in as a spark ignites between Randa and Jack, despite the latter’s reticence and fear to let anyone new into his life.
In particular, I really liked reading about the characters in this book. They are all wonderfully flawed and complicated, as evidenced by the prime example of Father Michael Kinney, a Catholic priest whose devotion to his faith often clashes with his progressive views. He has even broken his vow of chastity and is secretly carrying on a relationship with a woman in New York, and every day he fights an internal battle that challenges his relationship with God. This undoubtedly is the cause of some conflict as he is called upon to perform an exorcism, for how is he to vanquish others’ demons when he is still clearly dealing with his own?
If I had any complaints about this book at all, it would have to do with the story’s pacing. I gave a nod to the slow-burn effect, but I still felt the narrative took an inordinate amount of time to establish the two storylines (one featuring Father Michael, the other focusing on Randa and Jack) and the question of how they are related was not answered until much later. Also, I’d expected this book to be a lot more chilling and disturbing from its cover and the blurbs. While I certainly don’t mind that Dark Debts turned out to be more of a supernatural mystery with a greater emphasis on suspense than actual horror, I still can’t help the twinge of disappointment that this was not as scary as I had hoped.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this book after I was finished though, and realized that even in light of the pacing issues, Dark Debts kept me engaged from cover to cover. The research that went into it must have been tremendous. I didn’t even know until later that the downtown Atlanta fire at the Winecoff Hotel, which was central to Father Michael’s story, was in fact a real event, the deadliest hotel fire in US history claiming 119 victims back in 1946. I looked it up after finishing Dark Debts, and reading the details of the disaster sent shivers up my spine. It makes me wonder what else I might have missed.
Whether you’re new to this book, an old fan interested in seeing some of the updated changes, or just an avid reader of horror/mystery/suspense in general, I definitely recommend checking out this edition of Dark Debts if the story intrigues you. An impressive novel featuring great atmosphere, multilayered characters, and a number of complex themes surrounding the conflict of good versus evil....more
A whole generation was scared off from swimming in the ocean by the Spielberg film based on this book. Embarrassingly, I have to say my own reaction was even more extreme. It was the early 90s and I must have been about 7 when I watched Jaws for the first time on VHS, and for an entire week I refused baths because I was terrified little great whites were going to pour out of the faucets and eat my face. I was an especially wimpy kid with an overactive imagination.
Anyway, fast forward more than ten years, because that was how long it took before I finally managed to screw up the courage to watch the movie again. By then, I was in college and had forgotten much of what happened in the story, so aside from my memories of a couple horrific iconic scenes that have forever burned themselves into the hard drives of my mind, in many ways it was almost like seeing it for the first time all over again. The difference was, I was no longer a child. And chalk it up to the impatience of my twenty-something-year-old self or the fact that the movie was already more than 30 years old by that point, I realized then how needlessly I’d hyped that experience up for myself. Watching Jaws through fresh eyes, it occurred to me that the movie was actually kind of…boring.
But don’t get me wrong; I’ve certainly come to love the film now that I’m older, because I obviously wouldn’t have bothered to check out the book it was adapted from if I wasn’t such a big fan. So, why have I rambled on and on about movie in this review so far when, really, I should have been discussing the Peter Benchley novel instead? Well, it’s because a lot of things because clearer to me after I read this. Let’s face it, barring a handful of edge-of-your-seat moments in the beginning of the film and of course John Williams’ classic score, things don’t really get going until Brody, Hooper and Quint finally end up on the ocean to hunt that big damn shark. Up until that point, much of it was terribly long and terribly dry, and if I thought that about the slow burn build-up of the movie, a part of me couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to make out with the source material.
Truth is, I ended up being pleasantly surprised. The book kept me thoroughly entertained from start to finish, and not only on account of the differences from the movie. It’s clear to me now that a faithful adaptation wouldn’t have worked at all, because of the much deeper, more profound themes in the novel—which I hadn’t expected at all. Benchley must also have realized that writing a horror/suspense-thriller book about a man-eating shark wasn’t going to be easy, if nothing else because every scene on land was going to require a little something extra. After all, no ocean means no shark, and no shark means no action. In other words, boring.
So, not surprisingly, actual scenes with the shark—or “the fish”, as it was called in this book—were written with this cold and almost detached attitude, leaving readers with no illusions as to its brutal nature, and when it kills, you can bet there’s no skimping on the blood and gore.
But hey, what about when the story isn’t focused on the shark? Well, as a matter of fact, plenty of other things happen, including Mayor Vaughn’s connections to the mafia, and a torrid affair between Brody’s wife and Hooper. Ellen Brody, who was barely an afterthought in the movie, is actually a central character in the novel with a major storyline surrounding her intense longing for the affluent life she led before she got pregnant by Brody, which is why she ended up marrying him and settling in Amity. The overall feel of the book is undeniably more melancholy and mature.
On the flip side, the darker tone meant that we lost much of the bromance that made the movie so enjoyable towards the end, and the characters were all so thoroughly unappealing that more than once I ended up rooting for the shark. The finale was also nowhere near as explosive or satisfying, so ultimately, I think it’s safe to say that while the book wins in some areas, it also loses spectacularly in others.
Still, I have to say reading Peter Benchley’s Jaws was more enjoyable than I thought it would be, especially for an older book that’s so inherently associated with its popular adaptation. I’m guessing if you’re interested in checking it out, it’s because you’re like me—a fan of the movie who was really curious to see what in the novel made it in, what got changed, and what got cut. If you want to get the full picture, this is definitely a must-read....more
If you asked me what horror novels I’ve read recently that are 1) creepy, 2) fun to read, and 3) highly addictive, right away I could probably name a few of my favorites including M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts as well as Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. Now I’m happy to have another title to add to my best-of list, and this amazing book’s name is The Last Days of Jack Sparks.
As the first line in the novel’s blurb states, its protagonist Jack Sparks died while writing this book. What we’re reading now is the manuscript of his gonzo style exposé of the supernatural that he was working on right before his mysterious death, which drew plenty of attention due to the eponymous writer’s cult fame and active presence on social media. Jack Sparks was one to throw himself wholly into his research, as witnesses to his cocaine addiction after his last book Jack Sparks on Drugs can attest. Jack Sparks and the Supernatural was meant to be his comeback tour de force, reminding his fans that he still has what it takes.
Jack, however, makes no pretense at objectivity. He doesn’t put much stock in ghosts, demons, or anything of the supernatural, and makes no effort to hide his skepticism or contempt while sitting in on an exorcism in rural Italy on Halloween, laughing and tweeting out snarky remarks the whole time. But everything unravels for him after that trip though, starting with a disturbing video appearing on his YouTube channel that he doesn’t remember uploading. Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, Jack becomes obsessed with the occult and plunges deeper into his investigation, embarking on this harrowing journey that will eventually kill him.
At its heart, The Last Days of Jack Spark is a ghost story, but what amazed me was its refreshingly original premise and structure. We’re told that our protagonist’s last book is published posthumously, with much of the work undertaken by his brother Alistair who pulled together all of Jack’s research and rough drafts. The final book is also supplemented with notes, reports, and transcripts of interviews conducted with people Jack had contact with in his final days.
This additional content also reveals much about our protagonist: that he’s a bit of an asshole. Not that readers couldn’t already tell that from Jack’s own pompous, overblown narrative. Armed with a cutting sense of humor, he’s often flippant with the people he works with and disrespectful of their beliefs. He’s also a narcissist who frequently plays up his own importance in his writing, twisting the situation to make himself look good. Not surprisingly, this makes Jack one hell of an unreliable narrator. And yet, while the differing accounts give us multiple versions of a single event, we have to ask ourselves who we can trust. Most of the other characters have plenty at stake as well. Perhaps they too are out to protect themselves, like Alistair who has good reason to discredit his brother’s scathing accusations of him, or other supernatural experts who have their professional reputations on the line.
What really happened to Jack Sparks? The story will keep you guessing, with plenty of mind-bending twists and shocking revelations along the way. As the horrors begin to take their toll, Jack’s mind becomes more and more unstable, which really starts to come through in his voice. When the impossible occurs, we can’t help but wonder whether it’s real or just a result of Jack’s deteriorating sanity. In a way, that’s almost beside the point; what’s important is how effectively author Jason Arnopp has created terror out of that uncertainty. Tensions rise to a crescendo as we approach the story’s climax, where Arnopp springs on us the most brilliant surprise of all. This book featured one of the best conclusions I’ve ever read. Though we all knew Jack Sparks was going to die, the ending still managed to catch me off guard. It was horrifying, clever, and just perfect.
The Last Days of Jack Sparks is a book every horror fan should read. For two days my life was entirely consumed by this this gripping page-turner. Even now that I’m finished the book, I still can’t stop thinking or talking about it. Seriously, if you’re looking for some spine-tingling entertainment, especially for the Halloween season, run don't walk to your bookstore and check this one out right the hell now....more
A couple years ago I picked up NOS4R2. It was the first novel I’ve ever read by Joe Hill, and I enjoyed it so much afterwards that I told myself it ceA couple years ago I picked up NOS4R2. It was the first novel I’ve ever read by Joe Hill, and I enjoyed it so much afterwards that I told myself it certainly wasn’t going to be the last. And see, I’m one to hold to promises. When I found out about The Fireman, it went straight onto my reading list.
I’ll admit though, I didn’t know what to expect at first. I went into the book completely blind on purpose, having read no reviews and not even the full description. I wanted to be completely surprised, the way I was with NOS4R2, which ended up being a supernatural horror that cleverly blurred the lines between our world of reality and imagination. I think part of me believed The Fireman would be similar, but in fact, the book turned out to be less of a horror novel and more like a science fiction dystopian suspense-thriller, the kind that usually goes hand-in-hand with an impending apocalypse.
This time, it’s a pandemic caused by a deadly infection called Draco Incendia Trychophyton, though most folks know it by its more common name, Dragonscale—so called because of the swirls of black and gold that appear on the skin of its victims. But the most interesting thing about this plague is the way it behaves, first infecting its host with its spores, incubating in the body for some amount of time before causing them to burst into flames. What follows is spontaneous combustion by the millions, with cities rapidly being consumed by blazing infernos. There is no cure, and all measures to contain Dragonscale have failed. People are afraid, both the healthy and the sick. In a very short time, the world has become a ruin.
In the midst of all this is our protagonist Harper Grayson, a former school nurse who volunteers to help treat patients with Dragonscale after the hospitals become overcrowded and short-staffed. Despite adhering to the most stringent of anti-infection procedures however, Harper wakes up one day to the telltale black and gold streaks on her skin. And what’s even more troubling, this occurs just a few short weeks after she discovered she was pregnant. Believing himself to be infected as well, Harper’s husband Jakob snaps and blames her for everything, going as far as to attempt to kill her, thus forcing her to go on the run. Out in the world though, it is a dangerous place, with vigilantes gunning down those with Dragonscale in broad daylight with no fear of reprisal. Harper ends up being rescued by a mysterious stranger known as The Fireman, who brings her to a secret community of Dragonscale sufferers who appear to have learned how to keep their fiery deaths at bay. Harper finds safety with this group for a while, but of course the peace does not last.
While I don’t typically like making comparisons between books in my reviews, I feel like I have to make an exception here. And anyway, it’s not like doing so automatically means any negative connotations. In fact, for this particular case, I can’t think of a better way to pay this book a compliment. For you see, The Fireman totally reminded me of The Stand by Stephen King. You’ve got a pregnant young woman. A deaf character named Nick. A kindly old leader called Father Tom in the former, and a Mother Abigail in the latter. And oh yeah, mustn’t forget there’s also that whole end of the world thing, with the human race being ravaged by a killer plague. Later, I learned from a Wired article that these similarities and more were something Joe Hill realized himself, partway into writing his novel. Instead of running away from the parallels though, he decided to embrace them, writing what he calls his own fiery, gasoline-soaked version of his dad’s classic. When I read that, I actually thought it was kind of…well, sweet.
Granted, I’m sure there were other influences, as there are quite a few dystopian tropes on display here. A commune led by a tyrannical ideologue who just wants to see people yield and conform. Brainwashed followers to help them do it. Dissenters told to sit down and shut up, fall in line or else. The injustice of watching bad guys get the upper hand on good people. The mass hysteria and violence that occurs when you dehumanization what you fear. The ultimate quest by the characters for their promised land, a safe haven. All these themes are here, and so are the emotions they instill. Ergo I can’t help but think The Fireman feels like a story I’ve seen before, or that these characters (or their archetypes) are those I’ve met before in the past.
But you know what? That’s okay. There are plenty of dystopians out there, tales that serve to rip away civilization’s thin veneer, but this is Joe Hill and he does it better than most. I really liked the idea of Dragonscale, a very unique and very frightening plague in how it spreads, infects, and kills. We’d all like to think we would do the right thing in the face of such horror, but the author mercilessly bares the truth on such naivete. Would you help a stranger in need, if it meant risking the life of your own child? Could you live with yourself for turning away someone sick and dying, even if you knew that single act of kindness towards one individual might mean the death of thousands down the road? The Fireman makes you confront these tough questions, and yes, they should make you feel uncomfortable. I pray the world never finds itself in such dire straits, because I think Joe Hill has it right: things would get very ugly.
Honestly, my only real criticism is that I think this book could have benefited from some tighter writing, maybe shave a bunch of pages off of this hulking 700+ page monster. While it never bored me, there were still plenty of sections in the middle that consisted of nothing but talk, adding little to the story or to the characters. Any extra words would have been better served developing the main protagonist. Harper is a strong and kind-hearted person, but I also felt she had the least depth of the entire cast. All the major actions I can think of were undertaken by other characters, and her overall personality remained relatively static and bland, much of it summed up with Mary Poppins, Harry Potter, or Narnia allusions (which grated on my nerves after a while).
I also didn’t think there was anything too innovative or original about the plot, and the writing was so unsubtle I could spot all the big “twists” coming a mile away. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy this book though, because all in all it was great. However, if you’re no stranger to dystopian novels, it might just give you a sense of déjà vu. The story felt almost restrained, with none of the weird developments and mind-bending surprises I found in NOS4R2. Compared to that one, The Fireman was practically a calm, quiet stroll through the park.
When it comes to the two Joe Hill novels I’ve read so far though, each of them has its strengths in very different areas. While The Fireman is more grounded in well-established themes and ideas, I also enjoyed it for what it was, and I certainly appreciated it for its entertainment value. Not once did my enthusiasm flag even as we treaded familiar ground, thanks to the fascinating nature of the premise and the high levels of suspense kept the pages turning. I had a good time with this one, and would highly recommend....more
Here’s the deal: if you’re a fan of zombie stories or if a zombie origin tale that puts a fresh spin on the genre sounds like it might interest you, then you’re going to want to check out The Rains by Gregg Hurwitz. Double bonus for you too if you prefer books with a YA bent, as this is the author’s first book in a new series targeting teen readers.
However, if you happen to be a science/biology geek or a stickler for common sense and logic, then this book is going to make you cry.
The story begins with an introduction to the quiet and rural community of Creek’s Cause, where the peace is shattered one evening by a meteor strike. Not long afterwards, our fifteen-year-old protagonist Chance Rain and his older brother Patrick are awakened in the middle of the night by a commotion at their neighbors’ house, leading the two of them to sneak out and investigate. They arrive just in time to stop an attack on the kids by the stepmother, who appears to have been transformed into mindless raving husk by a mysterious and unknown parasite. After saving the children, Chance and Patrick find the father on top of a water tower where millions of alien spores look to have exploded from out of his bloated corpse.
Recalling what he’s learned about the Cordyceps fungus and “zombie ants”, Chance quickly deduces that these spores are what’s causing the infection, turning all of the adults—and only adults, it seems—into violent, savage hosts. But if this is indeed the way the parasite is spreading, then why aren’t those who are younger being infected?
Chance and Patrick find the answer to this once they arrive at the high school, where their science teacher Dr. Chatterjee has been sheltering the town’s children and teenagers. Chatterjee explains that the parasite appears to be affecting white matter, the paler tissue of the human brain mostly made up of nerve fibers and their myelin sheaths. And since the brains of children are not as developed as an adult's and do not have as much white matter, they are immune to the effects of the spore. This also explains why Dr. Chatterjee, who has multiple sclerosis—a demyelinating disease—is unaffected himself.
So far, this is going great. Things are getting pretty interesting. I’m liking the suspense, and the mystery behind the infectious agent is really driving things. But then, we get another bombshell. The group figures out that, at the exact moment a person turns 18, the brain will immediately become susceptible to the parasite. The exact moment. As in, right down to the minute of your birth. One second, you’re fine. But as soon as the clock ticks over, then happy birthday, you’re a zombie!
The bio nerd in me just wants to tear my hair out and scream, NOOOOOOO THAT’S NOT HOW THIS WORKS!
I do love it when zombie books use science to explain things (the Cordyceps idea is becoming a lot more common, for example, and I still can’t get enough) but let’s please try to make it more convincing. I thought that tying the parasite’s processes to brain development was ambitious and intriguing, but unfortunately the human body does not work like a clock. One does not wake up in the morning of their eighteenth birthday to find their brain suddenly and miraculously bursting with myelin. If only growing up and becoming mature was so easy.
So yes, that bothered me a lot. It might even have biased me against the rest of the book. If such a glaring oversight made it through the first few drafts, I can only assume that the prevailing attitude was “This is YA, good science and reasoning won’t matter so much.” But it does. It should. With this in mind, I soon started seeing more plot holes, inaccuracies, and logical leaps.
If things like that don’t concern you so much, then you should be fine, though for me they ultimately prevented me from calling The Rains a great book. It’s a shame too, because the plot was entertaining and fun in a way that reminded me a lot of The Faculty movie, and the characters were good, strong, and charming in the salt-of-the-earth sense. Still, generally speaking I don’t feel comfortable enough about recommending this book to just anyone; perhaps if you are a diehard zombie fiction reader or YA horror fan, you might want to take a look. However, if you’re a pickier reader like me who also predominantly reads adult speculative fiction, you might end up finding the flaws too distracting. I give this one 3 stars, and just barely....more
If Dan Simmons’ The Terror and The Fold by Peter Clines had a lovechild, I’d like to think the results would look a lot like Stranded. At first this book reads like a suspense-thriller with heavy shades of paranormal horror, but then we get a twist around the halfway point that arguably plunges it into sci-fi territory. And that’s when things starts to get really wild and interesting.
The story follows the crew of the Arctic Promise, a platform supply vessel for an oil rig in the Chukchi Sea. The main character Noah Cabot, ostensibly just a simple deckhand, also appears to be the resident whipping boy for everything that goes wrong aboard the ship, and we soon discover why: the ship’s master is William Brewster, Noah’s father-in-law from hell. The older man has never forgiven Noah for marrying his beloved daughter Abby, and has set out to make our protagonist’s life as miserable as possible by turning most of the crew against him. With few allies, Noah knows he has no other choice but to keep his head down and do the work.
But then one night, everything changes. After weathering through a particularly nasty storm, the Arctic Promise finds itself lost in a sea of fog with its navigation and communication systems down. What’s worse, once the visibility clears, the crew discovers that somehow their ship has gotten itself beset in second-year ice that stretches as far as the eye can see—an impossibility, given how they were just sailing in open water hours before. Things keep going downhill as one by one, the men on the ship are incapacitated by an unknown wasting sickness. Even Noah, who has remained relatively healthy, is not immune to some of its side effects which include the ghostly shadows that men are reporting to see in the corner of their visions. With none of the equipment on the ship working, the crew’s only hope is a mysterious structure they can barely spy in the distance, separated from them by an ocean of thick ice.
Stranded may have started with a heart-thumping opening sequence in which readers are thrown into the midst of a storm, but then the story pulls back a little as MacLeod gradually doles out the details of our maritime setting and establishes the protagonist’s situation aboard the ship. This book is like a ride that starts off slow, focusing first on the element of human drama and making us wonder why everyone on the Arctic Promise seems to have it out for Noah. As it turns out, Brewster’s grudge against him over Abby is only one half of the puzzle; the other has to do with a shocking incident that took place around a year ago while our main character was on the job. Hence the author spends a lot of time weaving the past into the present narrative, but seeing as how both points will come back to haunt Noah in a big way later on in the novel, all that measured build-up turned out to be worth it.
All the payoff is in the second half, there’s no doubt about that. The turning point drops not long after the crew discovers their ship trapped and they strike off onto the ice to investigate, and I think for many readers this will be the moment that determines whether they like this book or not. Personally speaking, I took this “make or break” plot twist in stride and ended up really enjoying myself, and even though this story is far from perfect, I thought the way the author pulled it off was pretty clever and slick. Overall this is a very entertaining tale, especially once things take off at a breakneck speed, culminating into a suspenseful climax and conclusion. I also liked the calculated progression in genres as we moved towards the grand finale; so much could have gone wrong along the way, but somehow this bizarre mash-up of thriller, mystery, horror and science fiction elements ended up working in the story’s favor.
That’s all I can say, really, without giving too much away. I’ll just close this off with a final piece of advice: try to read this in a warm place. Stranded is a good reminder humans are not meant for -40 degree temperatures; I swear I get chills just thinking about certain parts of the book (and it’s not all just because of the cold setting). The cruel atmosphere, engaging characters, and an entertaining plotline all helped make this one a fast, fun read. I’d check it out if it piques your interest....more
After chilling readers with her debut YA novel The Dead House last year, Dawn Kurtagich is back with another horror tale about two sisters trapped in a house surrounded by a haunted wood…and is it just their imagination or are the trees slowly closing in? Since I had such a good time with The Dead House, when the publisher sent me an ARC of And the Trees Crept In, I just knew I had to give this one a try.
As a girl growing up in London, Silla Daniels had always heard stories about La Baume, the blood red manor that was her mother’s childhood home. It sounded like the perfect place, like a peaceful haven nestled safely in an enchanted forest. So one night, after their abusive and alcoholic father goes a step too far, Silla decides to pack up and escape with her younger sister Nori. Their destination: La Baume, where Silla knows that Aunt Cath, Mam’s older sister, still lives.
When the two girls arrive, Cath welcomes them in with open arms. And for a while, things are wonderful. Things are safe. But then they hear whisperings that a war is coming. The women hunker down at La Baume, where the surrounding woods keep them pretty isolated so they’re used to living off the grid. Not too long afterwards though, a madness seems to come over Cath. One day, the older woman retreats to the attic and never comes down again. Even though Silla still leaves plates of food at the attic door and can hear the constant creaking of Cath’s footsteps overhead, she knows she has lost her beloved aunt forever. Three years pass with only Silla taking care of Nori and Cath, all alone and struggling to survive. La Baume is not the magical place Silla imagined; now she knows it’s cursed. The woods won’t let them leave, and she thinks she can sense someone (or something?) out there, just waiting to take Nori the moment she lets her guard down.
Honestly, I thought The Dead House was pretty weird when I read it last year, but I have to say this one is even weirder. And it’s not just the story; it’s the entire structure and style of the novel. Whereas The Dead House was written entirely in the epistolary format, And the Trees Crept In only has random sections where it tries to include snippets of notes and journal entries, and sad as I am to admit this, it didn’t work nearly as well here. I was frequently bothered by the “creative” formatting and use of font sizes and styles, and together with the disjointed prose, at times it almost felt like reading bad poetry. The only positive I can think to this is the way it shows Silla’s state of mind her slow journey to becoming completely unhinged (unreliable narrator alert!) but on the whole I thought it was needlessly showy and a little gimmicky.
Not gonna lie, but that had an extremely negative impact on my overall experience. As a character, Silla was…problematic. The writing made it very hard for me to understand her, and that also made it very hard to like her. It’s one thing to be unable to connect with your main protagonist, but because most of the book is written in Silla’s rambling narrative, it was impossible to get a good sense of any of the characters either—Nori, Cath, or Gowan, the mysterious handsome boy who just appears out of the woods one day. And speaking of Gowan, there’s also a romance arc that will feel very strange at first. Not long after he and Silla meet, the word “love” gets tossed around like candy, and it just made me want to scream because not once did this book make me feel there was anything between them.
This could have gone very badly indeed, but ultimately I think what saved this book for me was the ending. I admit that for most of the story I was confused, frustrated, and I didn’t even feel it was all that creepy. But the final reveal at the end made everything make sense! In fact, I’m still a little shocked at how well everything tied together. I can’t go into any more detail without revealing spoilers, so I’ll just say that pretty much everything I had an issue with had some sort of resolution and that went a long way in salvaging the overall experience. So much so that I thought this book deserved three stars rather than the two I was prepared to give. I still have major issues with the writing style, and my feelings about that haven’t changed. Story-wise, however, things actually turned out really interesting.
So would I recommend this book? That would depend on a few factors, I guess. Personally, the choppy writing and the style of the novel made my head hurt, but if you’re okay with the wonky use of font design, font size, “sliding text”, and other such formatting devices to portray a character’s descent into madness (after a few chapters of this, I felt pretty insane myself) it probably wouldn’t be an issue. Otherwise, choosing the audio version could be a good alternative, and I can’t help thinking I might have enjoyed this book a lot more had I done the same. In the end, I thought the story outcome made everything worth it though, even if it does take a bit of patience to see it all come together. I think readers who are fans of YA and horror will get a kick out of this, so go ahead and give And the Trees Crept In a shot if you think it sounds like something you’ll enjoy....more
Red Queen is the sequel to Alice, Christina Henry’s dark and twisted novel reimagining of the characters and worlds of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Considered to be both a retelling as well as a continuation, the first book impressed me with its portrayal of a whole different side of Lewis Carroll’s classic, and I’m pleased to report this follow-up is a very worthy conclusion to The Chronicles of Alice duology.
After spending ten years in a hospital ward for the insane, Alice is finally free. Alongside her fellow prisoner Hatcher, they’d made their way through the Old City, escaping the evil clutches of the Magician crime lords. But now they’ve come to the outskirts, a land that is supposed to be full of lushness and beauty, only to find that everything—including their hopes—has been burned to ash. But Hatcher still has to find his daughter Jenny, so the two of them decide to press on towards the mountains.
Passing through the forest though, Alice and Hatcher are waylaid by many obstacles—from a murderous goblin to a trio of monstrous giants. Worse, they eventually become separated, and Alice stumbles alone upon a village full of terrified townsfolk, who tell her about the evil queen responsible for all the bad things in this part of the land. Determined to help the villagers and save her beloved Hatcher, Alice decides to harness her newfound magic and head up the mountain, where she will confront this mysterious queen and break her wicked hold on the forest.
While darkness still permeates everything about Red Queen, the book also departs quite a bit from Alice. In spite of this, certain factors actually made me enjoy this sequel slightly more than its predecessor. First of all, it’s clear from the start that Red Queen lacks some of the in-your-face horror which was right at the surface of Alice, and overall the story is also less emotionally traumatic and disturbing. Don’t get me wrong, for I love the horror genre and all its elements, but one of my chief complaints about the first book was its extreme brutal nature and the hollowing effect it had on the characters and story. I likened this to a massive black hole sucking the life out of everything, leaving me feeling ambivalent and distant towards Alice and Hatcher. Red Queen, on the other hand, is still plenty grim and dreadful, but at least there’s room enough to let me care about the protagonists and their predicaments.
Another major difference is that Red Queen is a book mainly about Alice. Contrast that to book one, which featured a lot more of Hatcher, who played the role of her protector and was always there by her side offering his physical and mental support. However, the two of them spend much of the time apart in this sequel, and it’s Alice who does most of the rescuing, rather than the other way around. I truly enjoyed the way she stepped up in this story, taking the lead on facing off against the villain, never letting her doubts get in the way of what is right. Even after all the terrible things that have been done to her, Alice still sees the good in the world, and it’s this goodness in her that ultimately saves her life. On the whole, I also gained a better understanding of Alice and Hatcher’s relationship. It’s not romance, exactly. The two of them care for each other deeply, there’s no doubt about that. But their love is one born of pain and suffering, of surviving through terrors together. The bond between them is complex, and—paradoxically and ironically, perhaps—their separation in this book is what finally allows this intimacy to be explored.
Recent years have seen a marked increase in number of classics and fairy tale retellings, but I believe the uniqueness of Alice and now its sequel Red Queen means that these books will always stand out among the rest. This duology is certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you’re inclined towards the dark fantasy or horror genres I would definitely recommend The Chronicles of Alice, and even more so if you enjoy bleak and darkly imaginative retellings. Christina Henry has transformed this world and reshaped it to her own bold and unflinching vision. I’m really glad to have gone down this wonderfully strange and fantastic rabbit hole....more
The Suicide Motor Club by Christopher Buehlman was actually pretty awesome. Know that the only reason I didn’t rate this book higher is because I’m very picky about vampire books, owing to their particular abundance in fantasy and horror fiction. In truth, as much as I enjoyed this, I think there are better vampire titles out there, including Buehlman’s own vampire novel that was published a couple years ago, The Lesser Dead. I still remember how I felt when I read that book, the sense of fear and dread that filled me when I first encountered the novel’s group of creepy vampire children roaming and hunting in the subways. I wanted badly to experience that again with The Suicide Motor Club, but in the end it just didn’t compare.
The Suicide Motor Club opens in 1967, following a family of three as they drive down a lonely stretch of highway. All of a sudden, another car comes speeding up towards them out of nowhere, overtaking the family, making a snatch at the little boy sitting in the back with his arm hanging out the open window. Just like that, Judith Lamb’s son Glendon was gone, yanked into the other vehicle, a hot rod Camaro occupied by its gleaming-eyed driver and his pale companion. However, before Judith and her husband Robert could catch up and rescue their boy, another car comes up behind them and rams them off the road, causing them to crash.
Robert Lamb dies in the hospital soon after, but Judith survives, heartbroken knowing that Glendon is also lost to her forever. She ends up joining a convent, but two years later when she is still a novice nun, a stranger named Wicklow comes seeking her, claiming to be the leader of a group called the Bereaved. They are hunters, and the targets they hunt are the creatures in those cars that took Judith’s son, killed her husband, and almost killed Judith herself: Vampires. Wicklow tells her about a band of them known as the Suicide Motor Club, who prey on their victims by targeting them on the road, deliberately causing deadly accidents so they can swoop in and feed on the survivors. Because of her past experiences and unique position as a nun, Wicklow believes that Judith can help them. Ultimately he convinces her to join the Bereaved, appealing as well to her intense desire for vengeance.
There are a couple reason why I didn’t think this one was as good as The Lesser Dead. First of all, it’s pretty hard to out-creep creepy vampire children. Creepy vampire children are like the pinnacle of creepiness. Even the sadistic founder of the Suicide Motor Club and his ilk could hardly match that. Second, I felt a distinct aversion for the kind of…unsubtlety that made up the action in this story, like scenes of car chases, horrific crashes, and deadly explosions, etc. To be fair, this is something I should have anticipated, considering that fast cars and highways are the central focus of this novel. If that kind of action strikes your fancy, then chances are you’ll love the hell out of this book. Personally I’m just not that into this kind of bombast, so for me many of the more “exciting” sequences fell flat.
I also enjoyed the characters, even given limited opportunity to really get to know any of them. There are a lot of characters involved, including minor appearances from incidental names and faces whose presence is mainly used to illustrate the destructiveness of the vampires as they make their deadly rampage along the country’s highways. It’s a common enough device (especially in many horror and thriller-suspense novels) but to me it felt like it was slightly overdone here, overshadowing the more important primary characters. I liked Judith, but at the same time I also felt a detachment to her cause. When you consider the main story without all its tangents, the plot is actually quite simple; and at the end of the day, Judith didn’t seem to have much control over her circumstances, nor did she have the means to really influence the direction of the story and the fate of all involved. Still, I don’t deny that I generally prefer more character-driven stories, so this is most likely just a matter of taste.
Lest I start to sound too negative though, I want to emphasize again that this is not a bad book, and I actually liked it a lot! Admittedly I have high expectations when it comes to Buehlman, since I loved the two other books I’ve read by him. It’s just hard not to make comparisons to them, especially since like The Lesser Dead, this newest novel also features vampires, and I’ve even heard somewhere that The Suicide Motor Club was meant to be a quasi-prequel. Knowing that he was tackling vampires as a subject again, I’d merely hoped that the story would be more original, or that there would be something more unique about these vampires. Everything ended up being fairly standard and predictable, but I definitely wouldn’t say I was disappointed either.
Frankly, when it comes down to the enjoyment factor, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book. It might not be perfect, nor do I consider it Buehlman’s best, but he does some pretty neat things with the premise. The Suicide Motor Club also hasn’t changed my opinion of him as a talented author, who writes with such a bold, evocative style. Plus, it’s fast-paced, action-oriented, and it’ll keep you turning the pages. When you’re looking to escape with a thrilling horror novel, sometimes you just can’t ask for more....more