The tragedy of the Donner Party is retold with a supernatural twist in The Hunger, a dark mix of historical fiction and horror. For context, in the May of 1846 a wagon train led by George Donner and James Reed set out from Independence, Missouri like so many other pioneer families hoping to settle a new life in California. Instead of following the typical route, however, the Donner Party opted to travel the new Hastings Cutoff, encountering poor terrain and other difficulties that slowed them down considerably, until they became trapped in heavy snowfall somewhere in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Many of the party died, and some of the survivors allegedly resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.
Alma Katsu’s re-imagining of this journey—while staying true to many of the real-life people, places, and events—also plays to the mystery surrounding the terrible fate of the Donner Party, injecting a speculative element in the form of supernatural horror. While one could argue that the facts are already horrific enough, the author takes the suffering, terror, and dread even further still in this Oregon Trail story from hell that makes dysentery seem like a cakewalk. The Hunger follows several characters from the group of almost 90 members in the Donner Party, including Tamsen Donner, George’s wife; James Reed, the co-leader of the group; Mary Graves, a young woman from a large family traveling with the wagon train; and Charles Stanton, a bachelor traveling with the party with no relatives. In addition, periodic interludes are provided in the form of letters written by a journalist named Edwin Bryant, who has undertaken his own journey into the wilderness to conduct research on the mystical traditions of the Native American tribes living in the area.
Many of the other families are mentioned as well, bringing the number of people involved in this book to a staggering figure. The result? Virtually limitless potential for complex character dynamics and fascinating relationships. And indeed, Katsu made sure to take full advantage of this, giving her characters interesting backgrounds full of scandal, controversies, and mischiefs. For many, starting a new life also meant leaving the old one behind along with painful, unwanted memories. Flashbacks are provided for most of the major characters, explaining their reasons for heading west. These backstories also explained many of their motivations, and gradually revealed hidden pasts. After all, secrets don’t last for long in conditions such as these, where travelers lived cheek to jowl within cramped confines, sharing spaces with multiple families.
As you can imagine, disagreements and bitter rivalries also occurred pretty often, and these clashes only intensified as the Donner Party ran into more problems. In books like The Hunger, the horror aspect usually comes at you at multiple angles. First there is the stifling terror of the unknown, and of course people fear the supernatural because it is impossible to understand. But more frightening still is the underlying darkness of human nature that reveals itself when pushed to extremes. There are two kinds of monsters in this book: the literal kind, but also the kind that good people turn into when they feel trapped or if they or their families are being threatened. Stress, paranoia, and desperation all play a part in this tale, making the horrific aspects feel even deeper, more distressing and malignant.
From the moment the mutilated body of a missing boy is found at the beginning of the book, I was wrapped up in the story’s suspense. Graphic descriptions and scenes of violence are used to create horror, but as always, I found that the most nerve-wracking aspects came not so much from what’s written on the page, but rather from what we don’t get to see and from what’s implied. The author utilized these effects to great advantage, slowly dropping hints and details here and there, all the while sowing dissent among the party with spiteful rumors, arguments, and jealousies. An atmosphere of suspense was kept up for the most part, though because of all the POV switches and number of flashbacks involved, these tensions were frequently interrupted. However, this was just a minor nitpick, and besides, considering the amount of character development we got out of it, I deemed it to be a worthy trade-off.
The Hunger would be perfect for fans of dark historical fiction, especially if you are drawn to the period of American history which saw a great number of families leave their homes in the east for the west coast. Alma Katsu does not shy away from the details of hardship and sacrifice while on the trail though, so be prepared for a harsh and unflinching look at life as a pioneer. Readers with a taste for horror will probably enjoy this even more, and those familiar with the bizarre and macabre details of the true Donner Party will no doubt appreciate the author’s attempts to spice up the episode with a supernatural twist. All in all, a standout read....more
Admittedly, I’m not so big a fan of Jane Austen or Austen-inspired fiction that I would normally pick up any book with a title that begins with “Pride and…”, but there was just something irresistible about John Kessel’s novel that called to me. Of course, the added element of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein didn’t hurt. Still, although it may draw inspiration from one of two of the most beloved novels of classic literature, it would be a disservice to simply label Pride and Prometheus as just your average literary mashup. Not only has the author succeeded in capturing the tone, spirit, and style of these two works, he’s managed to create a perfect fusion of its deeper themes as well.
Expanding upon Kessel’s 2008 Nebula Award winning novelette of the same name, the story begins with the chance meeting between an English high society woman and a young scientist from Switzerland. Mary Bennet, one of the sisters of Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, is persuaded to attend a ball by her mother, who is desperate to find marriage prospects for her two remaining unwed daughters. It is there that Mary first encounters the quiet and pensive Victor Frankenstein, who is in town with his friend Henry Clerval. Drawn to his intelligence and his shared love of the sciences and natural philosophy, Mary immediately strikes up a rapport with Frankenstein, but is disappointed when the scientist ends up standing her up for a dance, having slipped out of the party earlier without letting anyone know.
The reason for Victor Frankenstein’s reticence and hasty departure is soon made apparent with the introduction of the Creature, a monster whom the scientist had brought to life and then cast out, appalled by what he had done. But now the Creature stalks him, driven by Victor’s promise that he would fashion a bride for him. He has followed his maker to England, growing impatient. Victor knows that until he has delivered on his promise, any new relationship would be impossible because no one around him would be safe.
The first thing that jumped out at me was the writing. Kessel’s writing is absolutely gorgeous, emulating the style and manner of the original novels that inspired this tale, both of which were written in the early 19th century. As such, the language might take some getting used to, but gradually the story will ease you into the rhythm of the alternating viewpoints between Mary Bennet, Victor Frankenstein, and the Creature (who has dubbed himself Adam). I was also surprised to find that not only were the elements from both Regency Romance and Gothic Horror represented equally, they were blended perfectly. Granted, I was initially skeptical of the novel’s premise and the ambitious idea of throwing these two disparate genres together, but John Kessel managed to knock it out of the park.
As for the story and characters, my feelings are a lot more complicated—but in the good way. For the most part, Kessel stays true to the personalities of Mary, Victor, and Adam, expanding upon them in a way that feels different without abandoning the essence of what makes them who they are. His version of Mary is especially sympathetic. As the middle Bennet sister, she is plain and bookish, much like Austen’s version. However, in Pride and Prometheus, she is a much deeper and contemplative character, and her love of the natural sciences (manifested as an interest in fossils) is genuine. Beneath her social awkwardness is also a caring and spiritual heart, even if she is sometimes driven by self-interest. Just as complex are the characters of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, but because their tale closely mirrors that of Shelley’s original, I didn’t find them nearly as fascinating. Still, close to the end was a scene that filled me with so much anger and then with so much sorrow that I was almost driven to tears. All I’ll say about it is that, beyond the three main characters, there are a few others who I’ll never look at quite the same way again after reading this novel.
All in all, I adored everything about Pride and Prometheus, from the utterly engrossing struggles of its characters to the emotional themes about obsession and attachment. The book is also artfully written, and I think Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein fans will be impressed with how well Kessel has captured the original novels’ forms and styles, even if it might make it more challenging for some readers to get into the writing. If you’re familiar with both classics, there will still be plenty of surprises, many of which I loved but couldn’t elaborate on in this review because I badly want prospective readers to discover these plot developments for themselves. This book endeared itself to me and then broke my heart, but all I could think about after finishing this was how I wanted more. Truly a treasure of a novel....more
Last year, I had the pleasure of reading horror writer extraordinaire Ania Ahlborn for the very first time. I was glad I picked up The Devil Crept In, a novel about a boy who goes missing in the woods amidst a town with a terrible secret. It was legitimately one of only a handful of books to ever keep me up at night, and I vowed that I would read more Ahlborn the first chance I got.
That chance came with Apart in the Dark, an omnibus featuring a pair of the author’s horror novellas which were previously only available in digital format. Now, I’m not typically big on novellas, but I gladly made an exception in this case.
The Pretty Ones
The first story in this collection, The Pretty Ones, takes place in New York City during the sweltering summer of 1977—the year in which the Son of Sam conducted his infamous killing spree. Our protagonist is Nell Sullivan, an early twenty-something young woman employed at a call center for a major corporation. Quiet, awkward, and extremely self-conscious, Nell doesn’t feel like she fits in with the rest of the girls at work, who all seem to have perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect lives. Silently, she may seethe at their bullying and cruel jabs, imagining torturing and killing them in the worst of ways, but the truth is, Nell desperately wants to be popular. She also can’t afford to lose her job, so when her supervisor tells her to try to open up and be more social, Nell takes the advice to heart.
However, her brother Barrett, who doesn’t speak and is completely dependent on Nell to support his aspiring writing career, thinks she’s wasting her time trying to make new friends. He believes the two of them can only depend on each other, having shared a traumatic childhood growing up with an abusive mother.
More than this I don’t want to say, because wow, there were a ton of cool twists and surprises packed in this novella which only clocks in at about 140 pages. As someone who both fascinated and frustrated me, Nell was a compelling character to follow. She’s strange, timid, unwilling to stick up for herself, and admittedly, at times her thoughts and actions could also come across as unbelievably cringey. That said, her personality traits are the result of her upbringing, and the descriptions of horrible things she and her brother went through were just heartbreaking. When you consider her past, it becomes easier to understand the disturbing thoughts that go through Nell’s head, and why she is the way she is.
Truth be told though, I don’t know if I would classify this story as true Horror, as it is not frightening or creepy in the traditional sense. And while there is an element of suspense, Ahlborn doesn’t exactly utilize it in an overly dramatic or exaggerated way. Instead, the story’s climax just kind of sneaks up on you, so that when the final revelation hits, you won’t even really see it coming. That’s the only explanation I could come up with for not figuring out the ending until late in the story, as I’m usually much quicker when it comes to these things.
I Call Upon Thee
Before I continue, first let me preface this next part of my review with a little confession: I hate dolls. Ever since I was a little girl walking in on my parents watching Child’s Play, I have been afraid of them. To this day, I cannot look upon the frozen smile and glassy eyes of a doll without getting the heebie-jeebies. So as you can imagine, this next story creeped me the hell out.
I Call Upon Thee follows Maggie Olsen, a college student who was raised in Savannah, Georgia in a big gorgeous house with her two older sisters. But something happened in that house when our protagonist was a child—something dark and unnatural—that made her decide to leave the moment she graduated high school and never look back. When she was nine years old, Maggie’s middle sister Brynn took her to the nearby cemetery to see where the town’s dead children were buried, and sitting on one of the ancient forgotten graves was a box containing a porcelain doll. Feeling sad for the little girl in that grave, Maggie made a promise to be friends, visiting the cemetery daily until the summer of 2005 when Maggie brought the doll home in order to protect it from the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina.
But that wasn’t the only thing she brought home. On the day she turned twelve, Maggie used her birthday money to buy a Ouija board, which she tried playing with her best friend during a sleepover party. Life for the Olsens was never the same after that. Tragedies struck one after another, until Maggie left for college and thought the past was finally behind her, but now a frantic phone call in the middle of the night has forced her back to Savannah to confront her old home and the darkness still living inside.
If the previous novella wasn’t scary enough for me, then this one definitely made up for it in spades. Reading it sent chills up my spine. Containing all the ingredients of a classic horror tale, I Call Upon Thee plays upon our childhood fears of the dark and things that lurk under our beds or in our closets. Of the strange sounds waking you up in the dead of night. Of the quick blurry shadows that you catch just out of the corner of your eye.
Also, since this was a longer novella, there were more opportunities for character and story development. I liked how the narrative slowly unraveled, gradually revealing all the secrets and terrible things that happened in Maggie’s past. And just when I thought things couldn’t get better, I reached the end and saw the Author’s Note. Here’s a tip: if you ever read this, make sure not to skip Ahlborn’s closing comments. Reading them only made the unease I felt over this story grow, and made me appreciate it even more.
In closing, I’d just like to say how much I enjoyed Apart in the Dark. While the two novellas within may share some themes, on the whole they are quite different, each offering a distinct horror experience. Both, however, are solidly written and utterly engrossing to read. If you’re curious about the work of Ania Ahlborn, this would be an excellent place to start....more
Redemptor is another fantastic addition to the Valducan series, becoming the fourth book to be published in the sequence, though I think any of the novels can be enjoyed as a standalone. That said, while each of the first three books have featured a different protagonist, this one breaks the pattern by swinging the focus back to Matt Hollis, the demon hunter whom we first met in Dämoren. Prospective readers who wish to get the full picture may want to tackle that one first, since Redemptor contains quite a few characters and references from book one.
Our story begins approximately three years after the events of Dämoren, which saw the defeat of Tiamat’s Cult at Matt Hollis’s hands. Matt is now married to Luiza, a fellow Valducan Knight, and they even have a daughter. But still, the war on demonkind continues, as does the hunt for more sacred weapons to add to the Valducan arsenal. These sentient weapons are the only things capable of destroying a demon, and the knights who wield them are also bonded to them for life, their minds, bodies, and souls becoming one with the angelic spirit within.
Understandably, everyone is concerned when grave news emerges from South America that someone has been trying to steal holy weapons from museums across the continent. An evil buried long ago has suddenly awakened, leaving a trial of death and destruction in its wake. Now even the paladins of the Catholic Church have stepped in to join the fight, offering to put aside their differences with the Valducans in order to help stop their common foe.
So far, each book in the series has expanded upon the world-building and mythology of holy weapons, and Redemptor was no exception. We also get to find out more about the inner workings of the Valducan. In the years since Dämoren, Matt has become an important member of the order, hunting demons with a team instead of being the lone wolf he once was. A bigger cast of characters opens up the book to multiple perspectives, giving the reader a fuller and more detailed picture of the relationships between the various knights, as well as the roles they play. I especially enjoyed the sections featuring Mei and her training sessions with her master, highlighting the importance of trust and friendship among the ranks. No matter who they are or where they come from, the members of the Valducan are like one big family.
But unlike the earlier books like Dämoren or Hounacier, which mainly followed a single hunter, we don’t get to know any one character as intimately in Redemptor. It’s also a very fast-paced and action-oriented novel, so there’s not as many opportunities for in depth characterization—another reason why it might be best to start this series from the beginning if you are a newcomer, so that you can get the foundation for Matt’s character from the first book. Existing fans, however, will most likely find this one to be the most exciting and action-packed installment yet. Matt and his friends are up against the most powerful and dangerous enemy they’ve ever faced, and once this plot gets going, it doesn’t stop.
This book also introduced Felisa, a formidable female paladin of the Vatican, and she was probably my favorite character. Religion tends to be a contentious subject in sci-fi and fantasy, and often, I find that the Church or religious figures in many of these stories are set up to be scapegoats or strawmen, which to me is just lazy writing, and then there are the blatant stereotypes of the zealot. In contrast, it was a breath of fresh air to meet someone like Felisa, who is a strong, positive force—merciless when dealing with demons, but who also has boundless compassion and support to give to people like Luiza’s mother, whose faith is a beautiful and integral part of her life. I hope this won’t be the last we see of Felisa, especially since I’m very interested to see how the partnership between her people and the Valducan will play out, now that the Catholic Church is an ally.
I’m sure I sound like a broken record by now, but simply put, this is a fantastic series and perfect for readers who enjoy their urban fantasy with some darkness and grit. Redemptor was another action-packed sequel featuring compelling characters and topnotch world-building. I can’t wait to read more Valducan.
Audiobook Comments: Certain narrators who make books a better listen than a read, and R.C. Bray is definitely one of them. I’ve been an admirer of his work ever since I listened to him read The Martian, and I love that he is also the voice of the Valducan series. He’s the kind of narrator who can adapt to anything he’s reading, and once again he was excellent with Redemptor, capturing the atmosphere and mood of the story, delivering a pitch-perfect performance....more
David Moody’s One of Us Will be Dead by Morning might be the first zombie-style book I’ve ever read that doesn’t involve actual zombies. All the post-apocalyptic themes may be there along with the survival elements and violent carnage, but instead of the living dead we have the “Haters”—normally sane, rational and self-controlled people who suddenly and inexplicably turn into feral, vicious killers. It sounded like a fascinating premise, so I decided to give this book a try after learning that the original Hater trilogy was not a prerequisite, since the story covers the events of the outbreak from the perspective of a whole different group of people.
We begin this tale on Skek, a tiny remote island somewhere in the middle of the North Sea between the coasts of the UK and Denmark. A group of corporate employees are on a team building retreat run by the staff of Hazleton Adventure Experiences, an outdoor recreation company. All together there are fifteen people on the island, which has no cellular coverage and little to no supplies beyond what might be necessary for immediate use. When the mangled body of one of the corporate employees is found shattered on the rocks beneath a tall crag, a co-worker is immediately blamed for her murder, though he insists that he was only acting in self-defense when he pushed her over the edge after she savagely attacked him. With no witnesses to the event, all anyone can do is wait for the next boat to ferry everybody back to the mainland.
The boat, however, never arrives. Instead, the islanders find the remains of it broken against Skek’s rocky shore, and within its hull they find a ghastly sight. As the days go by, their numbers start to dwindle as more of the group start dying under mysterious and violent circumstances, with repeated calls for assistance over the radio going unanswered. Cut off from the rest of the world, no one has a clue what’s happening on the mainland, and soon there’s even talk of having to ration food in case help never comes. As the situation becomes increasingly desperate, a rift begins to form between the survivors who are all paranoid and fearful that anyone around them can suddenly turn into a mindless homicidal maniac.
I’ll give the book this: it’s a fun, relatively quick read, and while you’ll probably forget the names of all the characters a few days later, that’s okay! It certainly got the job done and was entertaining while it lasted. Unflinchingly gory and brutal, the story will be a real treat for fans of post-apocalyptic survival horror. The remote setting also meant a small-scale but intense thriller, where powerful emotions like fear, anxiety, and anger drove most of the plot. To give you an idea of what that was like, try to recall the worst stress you’ve ever experienced while dealing with a boss or co-worker you despise. Now imagine that office drama multiplied by an order of magnitude unfolding on a tiny barren island upon which all of you are trapped, knowing that at any moment, anyone might lose their mind and tear your esophagus out with their teeth. Drain away all hope, and the stage is set for a darkly claustrophobic and terrifying tale featuring a modern twist on a classic idea.
On the other hand, characters in novels like these tend to be weakly sketched, as I alluded to before, given how most of them are written solely as fodder for their various gruesome deaths. With the exception of a few key characters, no one was all that well developed, and my memories of those who died early are limited only to vague impressions and snippets of conversations. Like watching a paint-by-numbers slasher film, there were no surprises involved and the emotional impact was minimal whenever something disastrous or tragic occurred. It also didn’t help that the majority of characters were very unpleasant, and I was glad to see the end of many of them if for no other reason than knowing I didn’t have to read about them anymore. Still, what you see is what you get when it comes to this genre, so as long as you know what to expect, you won’t be disappointed.
For that reason, I think I would like to continue with the next book. Novels like One of Us Will be Dead by Morning are designed to scratch a certain itch for me as a horror reader; they’re like candy for the brain and occasionally the mood for a fun popcorn read like this will strike. The book also ends on a mild cliffhanger, and I’d very much like to know what will happen next. I’m definitely going to be keeping my eye out for more from David Moody.
Audiobook Comments: This book is also available as an audiobook, which I also want to say a few words about. The narrator Gerard Doyle delivered a decent performance, though because of his accent, I sometimes found him hard to understand. Still, this was just a minor issue, certainly not a deal breaking one, and overall there’s nothing that would stop me from recommending this to audiobook fans....more
While I’ve read a lot of tie-in fiction in my time, this might be one of few instances where I’ve picked up a book based on a franchise or media property that I’ve had no prior experience with. Happily, like most media tie-ins, Boneyard is completely accessible to anyone, whether or not they are familiar with the Deadlands role-playing game or have even read the previous books in the series.
For many years, Annie Pearl has been a mainstay of the Blackstone Family Circus, known for her role in growing and caring for the traveling show’s collection of unique oddities. But long before she was Mistress of Monsters, she was Grace Murphy, married to a mad scientist who conducted unspeakable experiments on his young wife. The last straw finally came when the crazed Dr. Murphy set his eyes on their daughter Adeline, prompting Annie to steal away in the middle of the night with the infant girl and their pet lynx cub in tow. After many weeks and many miles, she eventually ended up at the mercy of Nathaniel Blackstone, the kind-hearted circus owner who took in the tired mother and her sickly child. Life in the circus is not easy, however, and everyone who joins must earn their keep. Luckily for Annie, she’s a hard worker who will do anything to protect and provide for her daughter…and as it turns out, she’s pretty good at taking care of the circus creatures too. Time passes, and their menagerie of horrors grows.
But like most traveling circuses, Blackstone’s is always a knife edge between survival and starvation. To make the most out of the remaining season, they decide to steer their wagons towards The Clearing, a small town deep in the woods of Oregon where their residents are always hungry for entertainment. Word is though, one in four shows that pass through The Clearing never emerge from the wilderness again, but with the alternative to not going being the circus’s ruin, Nathaniel Blackstone judged it to be worth the risk. Ultimately, it would be a decision he would come to regret, as the crew finds itself beset by trouble soon after their arrival. Two of their members disappear into the woods after their first show, one of them being young Adeline. Together with Martin, whose girlfriend has also gone missing, Annie must brave the darkness and enter the terror-filled wilds to rescue her daughter from the monsters of the night.
These days, a lot of people still balk when they hear the term “media tie-in”, and hey, I don’t blame them. While the genre has come a long way in the last few decades, there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding books based on movies or games, because the sad truth is, a vast majority of them just aren’t that great. Thankfully though, publishers in recent years have pushed hard to try and change those perceptions, especially for their popular franchises and big-name projects. One way they’ve started to do so is by contracting well-known authors, and in this case, the makers of Deadlands have partnered up with the talented and award-winning Seanan McGuire to pen the latest novel based on the world of their Weird West RPG.
I won’t deny it; I was pretty excited when I heard, and if you’re already familiar with McGuire’s style, then you’ll probably know exactly what I’m talking about. She’s been known to write stories that are on the dark and quirky side—in other words, perfect for a Weird Western. There was also little doubt she would be bringing the full force of her creativity to the setting and atmosphere, and I was not disappointed. McGuire’s commitment to detail can be seen and felt even in the opening paragraphs, which paint a harsh but gratifying reality for those who have fully dedicated their lives to the Blackstone Family Circus. Sure, the going can get tough, but the circus takes care of its own, and Annie and Adeline find themselves surrounded by love and friendship as they travel across the miles of untamed frontier, entertaining crowds wherever their wagon wheels take them.
It is an existence that is at once idyllic and grim, much like the setting, which ultimately takes on a personality of its own. While the Deadlands RPG takes place in the American “Wild West” during the last quarter of the 19th century, it is also a world filled with monsters and other malicious entities, creating a combination of historical and horror elements which serves as the basis of the novel. Throw some mad science and steampunk into the mix, and the result is an intense and chilling supernatural fantasy further bolstered by an intriguing plotline and well-developed characters. In fact, if I only have one complaint, it was that the ending felt jarringly abrupt. Given the time and care spent building upon both Annie and Martin’s storylines, I would have expected the denouement to be handled with the same meticulous treatment. Instead, I just got the impression that the author was in a hurry to wrap things up.
Still, despite some pacing missteps, Boneyard managed to hit that elusive sweet spot between creepy horror and action entertainment. Seanan McGuire was able to charm me with her courageous protagonists and, more importantly, make me feel connected to a game world that was completely new and foreign to me. Weird West fans will eat this one right up, and I imagine readers with prior experience or more than just a passing familiarity with the Deadlands RPG will probably appreciate it even more....more
Zero Day closes out Ezekiel Boone’s The Hatching trilogy, bringing an end to the spider apocalypse—though it’s anyone’s guess which side will prevail. Since emerging from an ancient egg sac unearthed beneath Peru’s Nazca Lines, these eight-legged menaces have multiplied into the millions, swarming the globe and paralyzing all aspects of life. In the United States, President Stephanie Pilgrim has carried out the unthinkable, targeting dozens of American cities with tactical nukes, but still the threat remains. All it would take is one single spider to get past their guard, and thousands more people would die.
The time has come for a more permanent solution, and humanity’s last chance lies in a theory postulated by Dr. Melanie Guyer who believes all the spiders in the world are linked through their queens. Her hypothesis is simple: kill the queens, and without their leadership, the rest of the swarm should lose their ability to coordinate their movements and die.
However, not everyone close to the President agrees with this plan, claiming that it is too risky. More drastic measures are proposed to destroy all the spiders and not just the queens, creating a rift within the U.S. government. Meanwhile, those around the world who have managed to survive the initial waves of death are continuing to hunker down or fight, doing what they can to prevent the further spread of what has been dubbed the “Hell Spiders”.
I had a fun time with this novel, but I’m also not going to lie; I expected more from a finale. Like the two previous volumes, this final installment is told through a number of different perspectives, showing us how the spider apocalypse is unfolding around the world. That said, most of the main storyline is centered on the American East Coast, where President Pilgrim and her allies face opposition and eventual revolt from dissenters within her own cabinet. As a result, many of the other POVs are greatly diminished, leaving some of the characters with no role in the conflict resolution whatsoever.
Needless to say, I found this disappointing, especially since a few of the characters I’ve come to love were only briefly mentioned or were given perfunctory page time just to remind us that they were still around. In addition, many of the POV transitions felt awkward and ill-timed, almost like the author was struggling to find a balance, and not entirely succeeding. Instead of flowing smoothly, the narrative kept being disrupted or derailed by these frequent POV switches, some of which didn’t even feel all that necessary.
Still, these issues paled beside the one flaw I could not overlook: there simply weren’t enough spiders! This distinct lack of arachnid-fueled action, especially in the first half, was probably my biggest complaint, and unfortunately, not even the ending which saw the spiders return in full force could really make up for it. Recall in my review of Skitter, where I had praised Boone for upping the ante by making things bigger, better, and bloodier. Compared to its predecessor, however, this book felt like a giant step back. Too much of the story was focused on the human vs. human drama, when the attention should have been given to the spiders (which, in my opinion, are the real stars of the show).
For these reasons, I felt Zero Day really missed its mark in terms of offering a satisfying conclusion. Not only did it skimp on the spiders, the plot also failed to bring anything new to the table, falling back on time-worn clichés like the Hive Queen trope and the good old military coup. And yet, for all its faults, the book was a quick read and provided solid entertainment, which is what saved it from a lower rating. All things considered, it’s probably worth finishing the trilogy if you’ve already come this far, because you’ll want to find out how things end. But while I’m not sorry I read Zero Day, it’s just a shame that the series didn’t end as strongly as it started, and I personally felt it was the weakest of the three books....more
Let’s face it, guys—sharks are so hot right now. Actually, they’ve always kinda been. Ever since Spielberg made Jaws and traumatized a whole generation of moviegoers from swimming in the ocean, the ongoing popularity of books, films, TV shows about these fin-tastic fishes are proof of our obsession. I for one was thrilled when I found out about Shark Island, and literally swept aside about a hundred other books on my TBR just so I could leapfrog this one all the way to the top. My fascination for shark fic is something I can’t really explain, but if you grew up watching cheesy horror flicks and creature features like I did, I’m willing to bet this book will also tickle all the right synapses in your brain.
Our story opens on a beautiful summer day on Cape Cod. College student and aspiring photographer Naomi Cardiff and her girlfriend are sunning themselves on a boat when she notices a large herd of seals on a nearby stretch of beach. Deciding to swim towards them for some close-up shots, Naomi subsequently gets attacked by a shark, which takes off her left leg from the knee down. The incident sparks off a media frenzy and reignites the debate surrounding the seal overpopulation problem, which has been blamed for the increase of Great Whites in the area drawn to their natural prey. The solution ends up falling to a group of Woods Hole scientists who have developed an acoustic signal system that could be used to lure the seals away from the cape, and eleven months later the team is ready for its first trial run.
The result? The signal to attract the seals ends up working marvelously, as thousands of the pinnipeds flock in the wake of the scientists’ boat leading them all up to a secluded channel in Maine. What they didn’t expect, however, was how quickly the sharks would follow. Within hours, they’ve attracted more than few dozen Great Whites, and all around the boat, it’s like:
Now a journalism student, Naomi is also along for the ride, determined not to let what happened to her the previous summer keep her away from the ocean she loves. However, a powerful Nor’easter has blown in, causing torrential rain and massive storm swells. After the frenzying sharks ram and breach the hull of their boat, Naomi and the six other passengers’ only hope of survival is a rusty old watchtower situated atop a tiny piece of rock named Bald Cap. But with the water rising faster than you can say “you’re gonna need a bigger island”, how long can the survivors hold out before the seas swallow up their refuge and let the sharks in to play?
Okay, let’s see what we’ve got. Outlandish premise? Check. Rampaging sharks? Check. Lots and lots of blood and gory death? Check and double check. We’re neck-deep in pulpy, guilty-pleasure reading territory here…and quite honestly, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. In fact, I’d even hazard to say there was probably less cheese than I expected in the story—sure, Shark Island is a book that’s meant to be far-fetched fluffy fun, but I was a little surprised to find it also had plenty of substance, especially in the wonderful and diverse cast. Damn you, Chris Jameson! Damn you for writing sympathetic characters, making me actually care about them before you consign them to their watery, shark-infested graves! When I picked up this book, I expected the usual B-movie style disposable and interchangeable archetypes, but instead you gave me all of these multifaceted and well-realized characters that I genuinely felt bad for as I watched them being chomped up into bloody bits.
And yes, there was a lot of screaming, dying, and limbs getting ripped off. No one is truly safe, so you’re always going to be on the edge of your seat wondering who will be the next victim. So if you’re the kind of reader who just wants to get their gruesome shark porn fix and doesn’t give a fig about anything else, chances are you’ll also be perfectly happy with what Shark Island has to offer. The story is fast-paced and jam-packed with shark action, saving up the grisliest and most intensive heart-pounding moments for the gripping climax near the end.
In any case, if Shark Island sounds like your kind of thing, then it might just well be your perfect summer read. Speaking as someone who enjoys kicking back with the occasional pulpy horror novel about killer creatures running amok, this one seriously hit the spot. When I head up to the beaches of Cape Cod for my vacation later this summer, I’m sure I’ll be thinking of this book fondly from the safety of dry land....more
An innocent summer project undertaken by a trio of college students quickly turns into a nightmare in The Twilight Pariah, a novella which drew me in with the promise of history and horror. But while the premise itself held plenty of potential, the end result did not pack quite the punch I expected, due to the slightly underwhelming execution of the story.
Maggie, Russell, and Henry are childhood friends who have all returned to their hometown for college vacation. Having recently switched her major to Archaeology, Maggie is suddenly struck with the inspiration to dig up the old outhouse pit behind the notorious Prewitt Mansion, a property that has been abandoned for decades. With a little bit of cajoling, the two others are recruited to help her out on this amateur excavation, and together the three of them head out into the night armed with a bunch of lanterns, shovels, and buckets.
While the first couple of their dig sessions proved uneventful, one night our protagonist Henry discovers something terrifying at the bottom of the pit: an infant’s skeleton, with bony horns on its skull and the evidence of a tail. Disturbed by the find, the three of them decide to keep the baby’s remains a secret, conducting their own research into who the child might be and the reasons behind its particular deformities. At around the same time, however, there have been a string of fatal attacks reported, with the victims’ bodies looking like they have been mutilated by a wild animal. None of the three friends believe this could be a coincidence; without realizing it, they may have awakened something evil that would stop at nothing to retrieve what it lost.
Have you ever read a book that has great ideas, but no soul? This was how I felt for the most part while reading The Twilight Pariah. The writing may have played a big part in it, since I found Jeffrey Ford’s style to be a little too restricting and stilted. As a result, very few scenes of terror came across as impactful as they could have been, with even the important bits like the climax imparting virtually no suspense or emotion. I don’t know if there were supposed to be any twists or surprises in the plot, because none of them really came off feeling that way at all.
Being a novella, the disadvantage of its shorter length could also be felt when it came to character development. Henry and his friends Maggie and Russell were all lightly sketched, with very rudimentary personalities. There was also too much telling and not showing, so subsequently their relationships to each other and their loved ones (Henry with his father, Russell with Luther, etc.) felt very flat. I wish the story would have spent more time developing those deeper connections, rather than squandering precious paragraphs describing the three friends sitting around the pool smoking pot and drinking themselves into a stupor.
And yet, for all my complaints, I didn’t entirely dislike the book. I think it accomplished what it set out to do, which is to provide a quick and simple tale of creepy entertainment. It could have been a lot more though, which is where most of my disappointment stems from. While the supernatural angle was fun and the eventual explanations for what happened at the Prewitt Mansion were interesting, the horror elements—which, as I said, were some of the key reasons I was originally drawn to this book—were rather muted and didn’t do it for me. All told, The Twilight Pariah was a perfectly good treat to indulge in for an afternoon of escape, but it didn’t make much of a lasting impression....more
Here’s the thing: I like Seanan McGuire, but for some strange reason or another her books always seem to rub me the wrong way when she writes as Mira Grant. Because of this, I almost didn’t pick up Into the Drowning Deep, but in the end, I’m glad I did—the premise of a horror novel about mermaids was just too amazing for me to pass up, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have at least bit of fun with it. Still, I wish I’d enjoyed the book more, though like I said, there’s probably a precedent for some of my more conflicted sentiments, namely that some of the same issues I’ve had in the past with her characters and world-building just kept cropping up.
While Into the Drowning Deep is the start of a new story, it is also technically the follow-up to Rolling in the Deep, a novella chronicling the tragic fate of the cruise liner Atargatis which set sail for the Mariana Trench seven years ago on a mission to film a mockumentary about the existence of mermaids. Only, no one made it back alive. Every member of the Imagine Entertainment studio film crew was reported lost at sea, including the sister of Victoria “Tory” Stewart, who has now made it a personal mission to discover the truth of what happened on that doomed voyage. Tory’s only clues are the final terrified messages received from her sister, as well as some fuzzy raw footage recovered from the ship after the disaster, showing lots of panic and screaming amidst what looks to be a brutal attack. But from whom…or what?
Now, with the hopes of putting the rumors and speculation to rest once and for all, Imagine Entertainment has decided to launch a second expedition to the Mariana Trench, putting together a film crew aboard the Melusine. This time, however, they’re determined to be ready for anything. If there are mermaids lurking in the deep, they want a full science team on hand to accompany their troop of reality TV personalities, the better to record every detail of the discovery for their viewers. Heading this mission is Theodore Blackwell who is every bit Imagine’s man, there to look out for his employer’s interests. Along for the ride is his estranged wife Dr. Jillian Toth, a renowned marine biologist who has dedicated her life’s work to proving the existence of mermaids. In addition, a number of young scientists have also accepted Imagine’s invitation to join the expedition, including Tory who is a graduate student of marine acoustics, though her personal connection with a member of the Atargatis was also a factor in the decision to add her to the roster. In spite of everything, Imagine is still first and foremost in the business of entertainment, and having a cast member whose sister disappeared on the last expedition would be an irresistible hook. Tory knows she’s being used, but doesn’t care; all she wants is the truth and vengeance.
Even though Mira Grant is McGuire’s pseudonym for her horror novels, these stories often also include an element of suspense. Into the Drowning Deep appears to have been written with the tradition of Crichton or Preston & Child in mind, utilizing the typical thriller genre devices such as frequent POV asides and the essential third act twist. This is definitely a good thing, as it kept the story moving along swiftly even for this longer-than-average book. The introduction was perhaps just a tad too drawn out, which meant the story took some time to get off the ground, but once the legwork was completed and all our main players were brought together aboard the Melusine, that was when the real fun started.
Indeed, if you can get over how absurd the plot eventually becomes, you should have no problems getting into this book. Problem is though, I can only suspend my disbelief to a point before the inconsistencies and poor explanations start piling up and getting in the way of my enjoyment. I remember having the same issues with the author’s Parasite, where it seemed pretty obvious that she only did the bare amount of research before trying to pass it off in the book as realistic science. Again, I might just be overly critical because of my background in biology, but I grew increasingly frustrated at the way this book tried to fudge the scientific aspects. While it’s not a deal breaker by any means (I read sci-fi and fantasy after all, which does somewhat bolster my tolerance for authors simply making shit up), I believe that being thorough and paying high attention to the details is what ultimately separates the chaff from the wheat, and Grant probably didn’t put in as much effort as she could have to make her concepts feel as realistic and accurate as possible, which diminished the suspense quite a bit.
Then, there were the characters. I just don’t know what it is with Seanan McGuire’s protagonists when she’s writing as Mira Grant, but from George Mason in Feed to Sal in Parasite, I can’t stand any of them. Unfortunately, the characters in this book were no exception—most of them were self-centered, entitled brats who often acted out of impetuousness and self-gratification rather than logic and reason. Worse, these were all supposed to be scientists, but many of them—especially the women scientists like Tory, Dr. Toff, and the Wilson sisters—were portrayed as driven by their emotions rather than any form of rationality, which propagates an annoying stereotype. Seriously, there’s a time and place for voicing opinions on controversial topics, but in the middle of whale watching tour is not one of them, especially when you’re the guide. How dense does one have to be to lose control on the job like that, and not expect to be fired? And yes, while we’re at it, let’s just go ahead and put a personal vendetta ahead of scientific discovery, and damn the consequences of lost knowledge. Also—and here’s just a mild spoiler alert—if you’re a professional on any kind of scientific expedition, you should know that on high-risk excursions, when mission control says “Get your ass back to the surface”, you should do just that. What you shouldn’t do is throw caution to the wind, ignoring safety commands to go joyriding in your deep-sea submersible just to satisfy some personal dream. That’s how bad things happen.
But anyway, enough ranting from me. As you can see, a lot of my issues with Into the Drowning Deep fall into the “It’s not the book, it’s me” category, which probably just means I’m being too picky. Had this novel not hit upon a couple of my major pet peeves, I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more, and truth be told, there’s still plenty of entertainment value to be found. All in all, I think this is a pretty decent horror thriller if you’re willing to overlook a few flaws and certain things in the story that don’t make sense, and I would still recommend it for fans of the genre and encourage you to give it a try if the premise strikes your fancy....more
Some of my favorite horror stories involve haunted houses, because after all, a home is supposed to be a place of warmth and shelter. The idea of what was once a safe haven being invaded by malevolent spirits creates such a sense of wrongness that the terror is elevated to a whole other level. In Kill Creek, a character even ventures to explain why such stories fill us with dread, positing it’s because we never expect such awfulness to lurk so close beneath the surface of what is considered normal.
This novel is a good example of such horror, the kind that sends chills down your spine, making you wonder if anything is even safe anymore as you steal nervous glances over your shoulder to make sure you really are alone. At the center of this story is the house at Kill Creek, an old abandoned three-story that was built in the mid-1800s on a lonely road in the middle of the Kansas prairie. Lovingly constructed by its first owner, the house saw a few good years before tragedy struck, and people say it has been haunted ever since. Nobody could stand to live in it for more than a year, and gradually the house fell into disrepair until in 1975, a pair of twin sisters named Rachel and Rebecca Finch decided to buy up the property and upgrade it with some modern renovations.
Unfortunately, the new owners did nothing to improve the house’s reputation. Rachel and Rebecca were recluses and were almost never seen outside, and the whispers about Kill Creek being haunted continued. After the Finch sisters died, the house sat empty once again, its notoriety growing until it catches the attention of Justin Wainwright, founder of the horror website WrightWire which is famous for its viral videos and publicity stunts. One day, four well known horror writers receive invitations from Wainwright to spend Halloween night at the house on Kill Creek, with the promise of a large paycheck in exchange for an interview which will be livestreamed to millions. The authors are Sam McGarver, T.C. Moore, Daniel Slaughter, and Sebastian Cole, all of whom end up accepting Wainwright’s proposal because they are either in need of the money or of the publicity. However, none of them are prepared for the horrors that await them inside the old abandoned house at Kill Creek, the evil within its walls stirring once more with the arrival of new visitors.
The novel itself features a bone-chilling story, starring an interesting cast of characters representing four very different subgenres of horror fiction. Sam, the closest to being our main protagonist, is what you would call a “mainstream” author whose work appeals to the masses, his books the kind to be found everywhere from supermarket shelves to airports. After writing several bestsellers though, he has hit a writer’s block, and he agrees to the WrightWire interview in the hopes that it will buy him more time. Then there’s T.C. Moore, a self-published author who became a phenomenon after her shockingly explicit style of horror-meets-erotica quickly amassed a sizable loyal following. Furious that she has been shut out of the creative process on the movie adaptation of her novel, Moore decides to spend the night at Kill Creek in order to regain some semblance of control over her career. Daniel Slaughter on the other hand is a Young Adult author and a devout Christian, whose books often serve as an extension of his faith depicting goodness and morality triumphing over evil. However, worried that his work might be getting too dark for his audience and that he might soon be dropped by his publisher, Daniel hopes that the publicity from the WrightWire interview will help salvage his image. And finally, Sebastian Cole is our old school “classic” horror writer, whose name is practically a household word. But having been around so long, Sebastian also knows better than most that few authors can remain relevant forever, which is why he accepts Wainwright’s invitation in order to get his name out to a new generation of readers.
With that, the ingredients are all in place for an exquisite horror tale. We have an eclectic crew, whose disparate writing styles and personalities make for plenty of epic clashes and amazing dialogue, especially between Moore and Daniel. As well, it becomes apparent after a while that there’s more to Wainwright’s interview, and Sam is unwilling to believe that this whole sleepover party at Kill Creek is nothing more than a publicity stunt. All this tension is magnified in a house that feels alive, its oppressive atmosphere putting everyone on edge. When strange things start happening and our characters being seeing things that can’t be explained, we’re left with a disturbing sense of uncertainty. Are there actually supernatural shenanigans afoot? Maybe the stress of being confined in a spooky place with all these random strangers is simply getting to our authors. Or maybe it’s just Wainwright messing with their heads.
The first half of the book reads very much like your classic “haunted house” scenario: A ringmaster gathers together a dissimilar group of people for some seemingly innocent reason, bringing them into a house that is rumored to be haunted. At first, no one believes that it’s anything more than a creaky old house, but then a slow fear starts to build as the characters realize that is not the case. Later parts of the book take a drastically different turn, however, moving away from the subtle, creeping dread to an all-out violent and in-your-face kind of terror. Sam, a literature professor, outlines the four main traits common to the gothic horror tradition in the beginning of this novel, and the plot of Kill Creek almost follows this roadmap. It also feels as though each of the author characters wind up injecting a piece of themselves into this story, leaving behind the influence of their individual styles, which I thought was a clever touch.
All in all, this would be a splendid book to get you in the mood for the Halloween season. The story’s unique blend of literary horror and psychological thriller made it an addictive read, keeping me reading into the night, its creep factor levels notwithstanding. Kill Creek is for sure one of the better haunted house stories I have read in a while....more
When I Cast Your Shadow is a very different kind of story about a haunting. In it, we follow teenagers Ruby and Everett Bohnacker, twins who are still grieving for their older brother Dashiell following his tragic drug overdose. In life, Dash had been a popular, handsome, and charming young man, but underneath that perfection was also a cruel and manipulative side. Now not even death can stop him, as his devious spirit returns to the world of the living in order to coerce his siblings into helping him finish what he started.
First, Dash sets his sights on Ruby, knowing that her love for him would make her a malleable and compliant target. He invades her mind while she sleeps, convinces her to let him drown her in her dreams, which would then allow Dash to possess her waking body like a puppet. Not content with just having his little sister under his thumb though, Dash does the same thing to Everett next, using the boy’s concern for his twin as a weapon. With the ability to possess both his younger siblings, Dash proceeds to drag his family into a dangerous game, involving Ruby and Everett in his battle against some powerful dark forces in the Land of the Dead.
On paper, this book sounded awesome. The premise hinted at a possible new twist on ghosts and had the potential to be a creepy YA horror. Unfortunately though, the story ended up falling short of my expectations due to poor execution, as well as an overall sense of “strangeness” about it that just didn’t really sit well with me.
First were the unlikeable characters. Dash, whose role made him something of a trickster, was obviously meant to be unpleasant, but instead of making me feel more sympathetic towards Ruby or Everett, this only made me grow more frustrated with both of them. The twins are naïve and exasperating in their own ways. Totally blinded to Dash’s faults and unable to see him for the toxic influence he is, Ruby’s hero-worship of him made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially with the strong implications that her love for him went beyond the sisterly-brotherly type. Everett was also infuriating with his tunnel vision and complete lack of agency or ability to make any meaningful impact for most of the story, which is a shame because this was due to his character being treated like a footnote for the first half of the book.
On top of that, it was difficult to form any lasting connection with any of the characters because of how utterly bizarre and unrelatable they were. Most of what they said and did struck me as either strange, silly, or lacked common sense. Character development for Ruby and Everett wasn’t so much as non-existent as it was a complete mess, as they seemed to be always flip-flopping on their motivations or feelings. The worst was Dr. Bohnacker, who would be a loving father one moment, but in the next he would be spouting off some of the vilest, most spiteful things that not even a parent in their darkest moments of grief should ever say—especially in front of their surviving children. Speaking of which, a lot of the dialogue was also clunky and awkward, which often made me cringe and think, “No one actually talks like that.” The less said about the cloying nicknames Dash has for Ruby and Everett the better, and their annoying constant repetition.
To the novel’s credit, the plot was actually quite imaginative, though it would have been better if it hadn’t been so confusing. While I enjoyed the concept behind the Land of the Dead and thought that many of the ideas regarding the spirits and possession were creative and suitably chilling, I was disappointed in the lack of explanation into Dash’s conflict with the story’s main antagonist, Aloysius. He was just the “bad guy”, with no context to justify his endgame.
The result was this muddled narrative punctuated with brief periods of brilliance and clarity—because to be fair, the story here did have some outstanding moments. I just don’t want to make this sound like a terrible book with no redeeming qualities as that is simply not the case, though my ambivalence after finishing this novel did prevent me from giving it more than a mediocre star rating. Ultimately the story, characters, and writing all fell short of my expectations, but hopefully others drawn to this book will end up enjoying it more than I did....more
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
Each year seems to bring its crop of Peter Pan retellings, and 2017 is no exception. We’ve gotten to the point where even the versions told from Captain Hook’s point-of-view, where “Hook is good/Peter is evil” are nothing to bat an eye at. And yet, I still find myself unable to ever resist these, always searching for the one which will finally do this great villain justice.
This was what led me to Lost Boy, and I must say, Christina Henry’s portrayal may be one of the best I’ve ever read. Not surprising, really, considering this is the same author who brought us the dark and bloody Chronicles of Alice, a twisted duology inspired by the classics works of Lewis Carroll which I also happened to enjoy immensely. This time though, Henry is taking us down a different rabbit hole, into one that connects the world of our own with a magical island in another place where children never grow old. This is the home of Peter Pan, who spends his never-ending childhood stealing boys from the “Other Place” to bring back to his island paradise so that he will always have playmates to amuse him. However, Peter has a very sick sense of what constitutes “amusement”. His outward appearance of an eleven-year-old boy belies the fact that he is a master manipulator, with an infectious charm that makes all his Lost Boys love him and want to please him.
The only one who can see through all of this is Jamie, the first boy Peter ever brought to the island. They’ve been the best of friends for a long, long time—long enough that Jamie has become Peter’s favorite companion and right hand man, the one who takes care of the rest of the boys. Someone has to, after all, considering the way Peter goes through playmates like dogs go through chew toys, a fact that Jamie hates. Whether he is leading the boys into pirate raids or making them beat each other up during Battle, Peter only has his own entertainment in mind, giving no thought to whether the others got hurt, sickened, or even died. Already he is showing signs of growing bored with Charlie, the latest boy he has brought back from the Other Place. Younger and more helpless than the others, Charlie immediately becomes attached to Jamie, who steps in to become the little boy’s protector. Unfortunately, this just seems to make Peter resent Charlie even more. Not for the first time, Jamie wonders just how far Peter would go to maintain his absolute rule over the Lost Boys, though if it means harm to Charlie, he knows he will do whatever what it takes to stop his oldest friend.
And here I thought Disney’s depiction of Peter Pan was an annoying little shit. The portrayal of the Boy-Who-Wouldn’t-Grow-Up in Lost Boy on the other hand, is on an entirely different level of evil and heartlessness. While it is said that in the original play and books by J.M. Barrie, the character symbolizes the selfishness of childhood as evidenced by his thoughtlessness and cocky attitude, Christina Henry’s Peter Pan embodies of all of this plus a healthy dose of psychopathy, to the point I doubt even the Once Upon A Time version can hold a candle to hers in terms of sheer dickery. The Peter in Lost Boy is a repugnant little monster, one who relishes in manipulating the minds of young and innocent little boys so that they would worship him and leap unquestioningly to do his bidding—even if it is an order to beat each other to a bloody pulp. To Peter, the Lost Boys are nothing more than disposable and replaceable meat toys; if they get destroyed or if he grows bored with them, he’ll just go over to the Other Place and pick up another.
This in turn made it easy to root for Jamie, our protagonist who has come to realize that what used to be fun becomes no longer so if you’re forced to do it for eternity…never growing older, playing out the same “adventures” again and again. He’s also getting sick of burying his friends, the many Lost Boys who have died over the years because of Peter’s negligence (it’s all fun and games until someone gets decapitated by a cannonball). Without even being aware of it, Jamie is growing up, maturing in mind if not in body, a process which has already begun when we first meet him. What sets Lost Boy apart from similar books is the way Henry handles this transition. For Jamie, his hatred of Peter Pan isn’t a switch that just gets flipped on one day. Instead, it is like a seed which has been planted since the beginning, only it has been buried for a very long time. With every shock and revelation he receives about Peter’s true nature, it grows and grows until something finally happens that makes him reach the point of no return.
Jamie’s characterization was a huge part of what made Lost Boy such a fascinating, addictive read. However, it also led to a lot of powerful and heartbreaking moments. The protagonist’s caring attitude made me sympathize with him, but it also killed me knowing that it would eventually lead to his downfall. After all, we all know of the famous rivalry between Peter Pan and Captain Hook. That part of their story does not change with this retelling, but Christina Henry has made the journey to get there a lot more interesting and at times overwhelming and painful in its emotional intensity.
All told, Lost Boy is Hook’s tale as I have never heard it told before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d probably avoid this if you’d like hold on to your memories of Peter Pan as a cute and free-spirited young boy, but definitely pick this up if you are a fan of grim and gruesome imaginative retellings....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
In Dreamfall, a group of teenagers are signed up for an experimental study that is supposed to help treat their individual sleep disorders, which range from chronic insomnia to debilitating night terrors. However, the equipment hooked up to the teens ends up malfunctioning during the trial and the seven of them fall into comas—or at least, that’s what it looks like to the researchers overseeing the project. In reality though, they’re all dreaming, trapped in one nightmare together. Worse, they’re being hunted by their deepest fears come to life, and in this dream you’ll never wake up if you die.
Unfortunately, books like this one remind me of why most YA horror doesn’t work for me these days. As much as I wanted to like it because of its compelling blurb, Dreamfall reads like a made-for-TV movie complete with all the thriller clichés and teen drama archetypes. What makes this even more of a shame is that I sense a sincere attempt from the author to make her cast diverse, but none of it really matters in the end because most of the characters are so easily forgotten and expendable. The multi-narrator format that was intended to give us a well-rounded picture of everyone also meant the focus was diluted and no one stood out, and from there things went downhill. After all, I can’t bring myself to enjoy a story unless I first care about the people involved; without that as a basic foundation, everything else just becomes an empty experience.
Still, I don’t want to make it sound like I hated the book, because at the very least the plot was fast-paced and fun. However, apart from maybe that twist ending, Dreamfall was entirely unmemorable. It’s only been a day since I finished the book and I’ve already forgotten half the characters’ names, so I very much doubt I’ll be continuing with this series despite things finally getting interesting in the last couple chapters. There are plenty more other books I need to get to on my YA shelf....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