Let's start here: shock for shock's sake as a genre has kind of lost its shock value. While I'm sure all of these stories were considered in-your-faceLet's start here: shock for shock's sake as a genre has kind of lost its shock value. While I'm sure all of these stories were considered in-your-face transgressive in their initial releases (some were even banned), after a decade of torture porn in the theaters -- piles of sharp objects and body parts on the "Hostel"/"Saw" franchise model, the puke-inducing zenith of which has to be the Human Centipede Trilogy -- we have become comfortably numb to mindless, graphic horror. Splattering fluids, unfathomably unsafe sex games, torture, mutilation, necrophilia, cannibalism. . . . yawn. I mean really, wasn't all that just, like, a clip from next week's episode of "The Walking Dead"? (I kid. I enjoy TWD very much. I don't, however, take it very seriously, and still find it unreal that it's one of the most popular shows on TV.)
In some ways, this collection is an interesting reflection of its times, as it lingers on many of the subversive subcultures of the millennium years. There was a free-floating cloud of nihilism, a lot of pain and anger bubbling up as self-mutilation in the name of self-expression and mind-expansion, the brute reality of AIDS for everybody, Y2K, whatever. It's no surprise this era bred a particularly dark brand of horror story.
But these transgressions today? No longer so transgressive, and many of these stories from splatterpunk's heyday seem dated, almost quaint, even as they try so very hard to shock. The boundaries having moved, these stories now have to rely on good writing to keep the reader's interest, and there are about four, maybe five actually good stories out of nineteen:
The collection, wisely, starts off strong. George R.R. Martin's "Meathouse Man" from 1976 (!) still retains its visceral shock, maybe because the idea at its core is a still-fresh twist on the undead genre, and one that's deeply psychologically disquieting. And it's George Martin . . . we know he can write. But Horror George is not much like jolly old "kill ALL the Starks" George. I mean, some of his short pieces make the Red Wedding look like a baby shower. This is one of those.
Next up: Joe R. Lansdale's "Night They Missed the Horror Show," a hair-raising no-good-very-bad night in the Deep South story that makes "Deliverance" look like a weekend in Ibiza. But again -- established writer in his element. Sociopolitical commentary. A real, meaty story.
The others I really enjoyed, if that's what one calls it, were Bentley Little's outrageously, sneeringly cruel "Pop Star in the Ugly Bar," which still works because pop stars and audiences never change (the author's note on this one is quite interesting); Elizabeth Massie's "Abed," another unique zombie story, and possibly the most tragic (yet repulsive) piece of shock fiction ever; and Charlee Jacob's "The Spirit Wolves," which captures the modern primitive ethos in a dark fairy tale about fur and teeth.
So what's not to like? Obviously it's pointless to expect to "enjoy" this kind of extreme horror, but I do expect to find the pleasure of a well-crafted tale, one with a point, if you will. Unfortunately, many of these are just badly crafted excuses to pile shock-upon-viscera-upon-snuff-club. Also? Full of cliched characters, riddled with plot holes and without much in the way of any profound insights to ponder. And I'm not even going to touch the misogyny and sexual violence. I try not to conflate sexual politics and fiction, but even I became uncomfortably aware of a pattern. (There are, however, a few stories where the women come out on top; John Everson's "Every Last Drop" had the potential to be a clever morality play on the dangers of anonymous sex, until I noticed a fairly large logic hole. You might enjoy it if you don't pick that out.)
There's probably a cultural historian's thesis in the themes of Millennium-era Horror Fiction, but I'm too tired to write it. Basically, this collection contains a small number of really good stories, a whole lot of "meh" stories that just didn't hold together or were ridiculously predictable, some that were just violent, juvenile prurience, and some that were offensive in a purely literary sense. (One author cited Clive Barker's truly masterful story "Dread" as the inspiration for her tale. Clive should be wildly offended.)
So I didn't love it. But it was like $1.99 on Kindle, and it's a curious time capsule of millennial nihilism and hopelessness. ...more
Kate Maruyama's Harrowgate came out of left field late in the year to rock my top ten of 2013. Harrowing (pun intended) yet can't-put-it-down compelliKate Maruyama's Harrowgate came out of left field late in the year to rock my top ten of 2013. Harrowing (pun intended) yet can't-put-it-down compelling, Maruyama's debut defies genre, a unique family romance that both spooked me and pulled at my heartstrings, romantic and repellent at the same time. I'd love to say more, but you'll be glad I didn't. Harrowgate winks at some familiar tropes -- happy couple in spooky New York apartment? Check. Meddling older woman with special teas? Check. However, it unfolds in a truly unique fashion. An excellent and memorable debut novel. I look forward to much more from Maruyama!
(Edited to note that although I purchased a Kindle copy, and reviewed from that, I was also the lucky recipient of a signed First-Reads copy from the author through a Goodreads giveaway. It's one I'm happy to make room on an actual shelf for. Thanks!)...more
I liked The Black Church well enough -- great creepy premise (who doesn't love a cursed object?), and what might have been a very interesting historicI liked The Black Church well enough -- great creepy premise (who doesn't love a cursed object?), and what might have been a very interesting historical frame -- but it didn't feel fully fleshed-out somehow. Too long for a short story, but not long enough to deliver enough detail to do the premise justice. I liked it enough for a solid 3 stars; I just wish Tate had gone deeper into the history and mystery bits....more
I had never read David Levithan before, so picked up The Lover's Dictionary with no preconceptions about his writing (unless the movie version of NicI had never read David Levithan before, so picked up The Lover's Dictionary with no preconceptions about his writing (unless the movie version of Nick & Norah counts for something). Guess what? It's hilarious, moving and painfully real. This small gem of a book cleverly explores the permutations of one couple's love story -- the early jitters and fumbles, the giddy highs, the small daily thrills and irritants, and the seething lows of anger and betrayal. Anyone who has ever been in love will find some feeling of their own in here, and anyone who isn't currently in love will be reminded of all the little things they are missing. (And NOT missing.)
So, what makes The Lover's Dictionary special? Our lovers' tale is structured in the form of concise, insightful and witty dictionary definitions. This format makes for a non-linear narrative which might make people who like neat endings crazy. But the unusual construction also serves to expose many, many layers of meaning -- not only in the relationship, but in the defined words themselves. It's really a kind of poetry.
kerfuffle: From now on you are only allowed one drink at any of my office parties. One. Preferably a beer.
non-sequitur: This is what it sounds like when doves cry.
autonomy: "I want my books to have their own shelves," you said, and that's how I knew it would be okay to live together.
It might only take you an hour to read this slim book, but you are unlikely to read anything else like it soon. 5 lovely, funny, sad and whimsical stars.
As a kid, I absolutely loved this book, but for the life of (the adult) me could not remember the name. A GR trivia question brought it all back -- IAs a kid, I absolutely loved this book, but for the life of (the adult) me could not remember the name. A GR trivia question brought it all back -- I need to read this one again! It might seem a little tame by today's standards, but when I was 8-or-9 reading The Saturdays felt like having the adventures myself. A classic....more
A most excellent speculative thriller. Medical ethics, identity, and the limits (or not) of technology are all thematic touchstones that run through LA most excellent speculative thriller. Medical ethics, identity, and the limits (or not) of technology are all thematic touchstones that run through Lock In, but primarily I'd class it as a techno-thriller. Fast-paced, with fully-realized main characters and a clear speculative vision of a horrible disease (the titular "Lock In," which has swept the world, leaving millions unable to communicate from within the prisons of their bodies) and its greater social consequences, Lock In is a pretty intense book. It's not as genius, or as funny, as Redshirts, but it's a totally different kind of tale. 4.5 stars, highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a page-turning socio-political thriller with a sci-fi edge....more
Wow, this book took me a long time to read. Not in a bad way; it's just that Lindqvist's first collection of short stores, while beautifully written (Wow, this book took me a long time to read. Not in a bad way; it's just that Lindqvist's first collection of short stores, while beautifully written (and beautifully translated by Ebba Segerberg), is dense, with the majority of the dozen stories on the long side, some to good and others to not-so-great effect.
Fortunately, there were only two stories I simply didn't care for in Let the Old Dreams Die. One, "To Put My Arms Around You, to Music," Linqvist admits in his amusing afterword, nobody but the author himself likes. (So it's okay that my notes on this story consisted of "I don't get it.") The other, "Itsy-Bitsy," is short and sharp modern morality tale about a paparazzo, but its moral is kind of hamhanded, and it's just not of the emotional complexity I've come to expect from Linqvist and his characters. (Ironically, considering what I just said about long stories, I think those two are the shortest in the book.)
Overall, though, the collection is top-notch, with stories dark, surreal and moving all at once. Favorites include: "The Border," in which a middle-aged woman slowly realizes she's something other than she'd always believed (avoiding spoilers here); "Eternal/Love," about a couple who discover how to manipulate Death; "A Village in the Sky," about an apartment building gone subtly wrong and getting wronger fast; and "Tindalos," a tour-de-force portrait of one woman's anxiety which somehow morphs into a giant monster movie. These last three especially have a cosmic horror vibe that I really loved.
Finally, I'm sure people are wondering about the advertised "sequel" stories to Handling the Undead -- "Final Processing" -- and Let the Right One In -- "Let the Old Dreams Die." So how are they? Harrowing and beautiful, in that order. "Final Processing" brings us up to date on the un-pretty status of the "re-living," and is a pretty grueling read. It's also bordering on novella-length, losing some of its punch along the way. But "Let the Old Dreams Die," which closes the book, is a beautiful love story about a couple who met while working on Oskar's "kidnapping." (She was a cop; he was the station worker who punched Oskar's train ticket the last time he was seen alive. They clicked in the interview room.) The case continues to be an ongoing hobby for the pair, though the trail has long ago gone cold. I won't say any more, but the final page of this story is a little miracle, and a perfect note on which to end. (Except you should also read Lindqvist's afterword, which is funny and self effacing, as well as lending some insight to his madness.)...more
Quick and dirty review, here. I really enjoyed this, my first Clegg novel (although I do love the creepy little illustrated story Isis). I see a lot oQuick and dirty review, here. I really enjoyed this, my first Clegg novel (although I do love the creepy little illustrated story Isis). I see a lot of comparisons to Salem's Lot in the reviews here, but beyond a surface similarity involving creepy kids (among others) terrorizing a small town, I didn't get that vibe. Also take note of the cheesy stock "creepy kid" cover on this edition. It's right out of the John Saul school of the 1970s, and doesn't do much to dispel those kinds of comparisons.
Although this novel was written in the 90s, Clegg's approach is all bleak 21st century horror, and far less sentimental than King's.* Though the characters are well-drawn, and the flashbacks to their youth key to the story, there's very little romanticizing of childhood, or small town life, or of anything really, in The Children's Hour. (Okay, there is a lost first love subplot, but even that is mostly a catalyst for some seriously disturbing sh*t.) It's pretty relentlessly grim, even nihilistic at times, and comes with a vastly higher body count than any King novel I can recall.
Also, the entities that haunt The Children's Hour? Are. Not. Vampires. They are more like horrible meat puppets, vampiric in some ways, yes, but definitely not your standard-issue bloodsuckers. This menace is a lot more unsettling, unearthly, demonic. (My comparison: in an upside-down and backwards way, this book recalls Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror," and freakish Wilbur Whateley hiding that nightmarish entity in his farmhouse.)
I don't want to telegraph much more of the plot -- suffice it to say I was actually unnerved by some of the imagery in The Children's Hour. One night I left my bedside lamp burning after reading. That's one of my highest compliments. It's a good thing he's prolific, because I'll be reading more Clegg.
* For the record, I love King and his elegiac, nostalgic, sentimental side. This just isn't that. ...more
I don't want to mislead anyone, so I'll say it up front: Dark Places is no Gone Girl. Flynn really hit the perfect balance of satirical yet bracinglyI don't want to mislead anyone, so I'll say it up front: Dark Places is no Gone Girl. Flynn really hit the perfect balance of satirical yet bracingly honest characterization, snappy style and ridiculously twisty suspense in her amazingly great newest book, so don't go into this one expecting another like that one.
Not to say that I didn't enjoy Dark Places, because I really did. It too is propulsive reading, twisty and funny in its own way; but the tone is much angrier, the people much poorer, the locales much bleaker, and the crime at the center of the story much bloodier. Some scenes are exceptionally violent, and some themes will (rightly) disturb.
At the tender age of seven our protagonist, Libby Day, became the only survivor of a late-night home invasion massacre that killed her entire family. Well, Libby was the only survivor besides her sullen teenage brother Ben, the accused and convicted killer, whom she damningly testified against at the time. That was 1985.
This is the present: Now a semi-reclusive adult living on the dregs of a charitable trust in a crappy Kansas City rental, Libby has many reasons to be bitter. For starters she's just been told she's broke, and her sob story has been usurped by a hundred others, so there's no more cash rolling in. She might actually have to find a job.
But then Libby receives a letter from the Kill Club, a group of true crime and serial killer enthusiasts, and it seems her troubles might be allayed for a bit. She's offered $500 to make an appearance at their meeting, along with the promise of collectors interested in purchasing Day family "memorabilia." Little does she know, some are outspoken advocates for Ben's innocence, who claim Libby was too young to understand what had happened that night, that her testimony had been coerced. They also have theories galore about who really done it. Libby is initially furious at being lured into their delusions, but the idea has been planted in her head. What if she had been wrong? And the can of worms that is Dark Places is opened.
Libby is another of Flynn's wonderfully snarkastic antiheroes. She's selfish, spiteful, lazy, entitled and completely hilarious. Almost nobody in this book is traditionally likeable, but Flynn somehow manages to find a sympathetic core in her characters. Dark Places is primarily Libby's story in the present, but is intercut with chapters from her sad, exhausted mother's point of view, and from her her angry brother's, on the day of the murders in 1985. Ben's story is especially difficult to read, showcasing as it does the unsavory side of teenage outcasts and suburban metalheads with nothing better to do than get fucked up, have sex, and break things. (Yes, that's what disaffected teens do.) The ludicrous "Satanic Panic" that gripped America for a dozen years or so before the millennium hangs heavy over Ben's conviction -- because of course if he dyed his hair black and listened to Venom and Slayer, it stands to reason he massacred his family for Satan.
Gillian Flynn is a master craftsman of snark-laced suspense, and Dark Places a unique take on the usual thriller. I alternately cackled and winced, as I put the clues together along with Libby and her new friends, traveling across a depressed middle America to confront potential witnesses and accusers, in search of the truth of that horrible night. A truth which, by the way, you won't see coming at all.