Monthly Archives: August 2021

The Slasher Story Goes Meta

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“You sure you should be working around kids?” Jade asks. “Or even around, you know, living people?”
“Tried the morgue in Boise,” he says. “There was . . . an incident. Ask your dad about it sometime, he was there.”
Jade waits for him to guffaw or chuckle, because this has to be a joke, doesn’t it?

“Can’t I just like horror because it’s great? Does there have to be some big explanation?”

Before you sit down to read Stephen Graham Jones’s most recent novel (well, this week, anyway. The man produces King-ian, Asimov-ian volumes of work), My Heart is a Chainsaw, you might want to prepare a large bowl of popcorn, not that microwave crap, actual popcorn, kernels from a jar or bag into a pot with pre-heated oil, and a lid ready to pop over the top, to keep your kitchen floor from getting covered with flying bits. If you’re like me, there will be a second burner dedicated to melting a slab of butter. Once the popping stops, pour some or all of this heavenly treat into a large bowl. (Well it does not have to be too large as you are probably reading alone.) then drip the melted butter across the top, mix it up a bit. Open up a shaker of popcorn salt and apply. This calls for an oversize cold-drink for help in washing it down. It really should be a Friday or Saturday night. And why go to all this trouble for a book? Because Stephen Graham Jones is taking you to the movies.

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Cutting edge author, Stephen Graham Jones, on his way to work – image from 5280 Magazine – Photo by Aaron Colussi

You may or may not have been around in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, or some of the other decades noted here, but videos of the films made back then have been available for a long time and formed a major part of Jones’s cinematic education as a young person. His life was considerably enriched from seeing a lot of horror movies, slasher films in particular. He loves them.

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Adrienne King as Alice Hardy in Friday the 13th – image from movieactors.com

In this book, SGJ offers up an introductory class on the genre, or sub-genre. (Can’t say how closely it might mimic the course he taught on the subject in his day gig as a college professor. But I would love to see the syllabus for that.) in the form of chapters titled Slasher 101. These remind us, for example, that the slasher is always driven by revenge. His rage is not mindless. That there is usually a significant gap between the commission of the crime that is being avenged and the execution of that mission. That there is always a “final girl,” the purest of heart, who ultimately (usually) either escapes or bests the baddie, for the moment, anyway. In his 2015 novel, Aquarium, David Vann does something similar, calling attention to the structural girders being put in place as he places them, in his case for the literary novel form. Reads like these are always extra fun.

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Courtney Cox as Gale Weathers – in Scream – image from Den of Geek

As Jones walks us through the stages in a slasher film, he echoes the tropes in the novel through his lead, Jade Daniels, a damaged seventeen-year-old Native girl who has seen and caused a huge amount of trouble. She seems to be in conflict with the world more or less constantly, but she is not a bad kid. She does janitorial work for the county. She is smart, resourceful, and a huge fan of horror, particularly slasher films, toting with her Jones’s encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. She is maybe a bit too obsessed with this stuff. I mean, if your only tool is a hammer, every challenge begins to look like a nail. But what if you have, by pure chance, made yourself the perfect tool for this very prominent, thin piece of metal sticking straight up out of your town. A bloated tourist body floats to the top of the lake and blood starts flowing like the elevator at the Overlook. Jade knows, or at least thinks she knows, what’s coming.

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JLC at Laurie Strode in Halloween – you don’t get to choose your family – image from Den of Geek

She writes reports (the twelve Slasher 101 chapters) for a favorite teacher, one Mister Holmes (Grady, (which reminded me of Delbert Grady of The Shining fame) not Sherlock), each one explaining one or more of the tropes of horror films. Each trope is summoned into being in the real world, of course, making this very meta.

Metafiction is a form of fiction which emphasises its own constructedness in a way that continually reminds the audience to be aware they are reading or viewing a fictional work. – definition from Wiki

Jade lives in Proofrock, Idaho, proud possessor of several of the elements native to slasher flicks. Teenagers, of course. A lake (Indian Lake) with its own historical spook, Stacey Graves, bent on avenging wrongs done to her family,

Stacey Stacey Stacey Graves
Born to put you in your grave
You see her in the dark of night
And once you do you’re lost from sight
Look for water, look for blood
Look for footprints in the mud
You never see her walk on grass
Don’t slow down, she’ll get your–

a camp on the lake with its own sanguinary history, and LOL name, Camp Blood, as least that’s what everyone in town calls it. Fifty years ago it earned that designation with extreme prejudice.

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Robert Englund as Freddie Krueger – from Nightmare 3 – What a Rush! – image from Screen Rant

There is not a lot going on in Proofrock, (which MUST BE a reference to T.S. Eliot’s first published poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which, according to Wiki, is a dramatic interior monologue of an urban man, stricken with feelings of isolation and an incapability for decisive action that is said “to epitomize frustration and impotence of the modern individual” and “represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment.”) Jade provides that inner take here. She certainly experiences isolation, and endures frustration and impotence, not to mention personal abuse. Jade is both wishing for the slasher to be real and for him not to be real. Great, if it is. You were right all along. Take a bow. On the other hand, you are likely to be killed. Hmmm, decisions, decisions. She is actually eager for the inevitable bloodbath to begin, finding this strangely exciting. Well, maybe not so strange for a kid with suicidal impulses. She’s got her reasons.

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Jane Levy (yes, that Zoe) as Mia Allen in Evil Dead 2013 – Image from Screenrant

Jade is a Cassandra (another slasher film trope) trying to tell everyone that dire days lie ahead, but no one believes her. The new wrinkle in Proofrock, Idaho is the arrival of The Founders, a group of billionaire families who managed to have some of the national forest on the other side of the lake made un-national, and have begun building an enclave, Terra Nova. Yachts and smuggler boats have begun to appear on the lake, homes are being erected. And the daughter of the alpha male of that crowd befriends Jade. Letha Mondragon (are we meant to think or Arthur Pendragon here?) fits right in with Jade’s narrative. She is the supreme final girl. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, it was coined by Carol J. Clover in 1992.

The original meaning of “final girl”, as described by Clover in 1992, is quite narrow. Clover studied slasher films from the 1970s and 1980s (which is considered the golden age of the genre) and defined the final girl as a female who is the sole survivor of the group of people (usually youths) who are chased by a villain, and who gets a final confrontation with the villain (whether she kills him herself or she is saved at the last minute by someone else, such as a police officer), and who has such a “privilege” because of her implied moral superiority (for example, she is the only one who refuses sex, drugs, or other such behaviors, unlike her friends). – from Wiki

Think Alice Hardy in Friday the 13th, Laurie Strode in Halloween, Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street and on and on and on.

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Sigourney as Ripley in Alien – Get away from her, you bitch! – image from Yahoo! Entertainment

The good-girl element of the final girl trope eased over time, offering more kick-ass than kiss-ass, with final girls like Ripley in the Alien series, or Jamie Lee Curtis sticking it to Jason in Halloween. Jade spots Letha as the final girl of the upcoming carnival of blood. She is a really good person, and an actual model, with unbelievable skin. She is athletic, morally strong, and seems to have been sent over from central casting. She is also unbelievably hot, and Jade has a bit of a crush on her. Nevertheless, Jade determines to do everything in her power to see to it that Letha has the weapons and knowledge she needs to go to battle in the inevitable final bloodbath, aka The Body Dump.

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Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – image from BitchMedia

But we know, or at least suspect, since the slasher film story is usually told from the perspective of the final girl, that maybe Letha is not the one.

I wanted to push back against the notion of the final girl being a supermodel, valedictorian, or babysitter. Since the 1970s, they’ve all been Jennifer Love Hewitt types. For many girls and women, that’s an impossible ideal. The book’s main character, Jade, has dealt with feelings of inadequacy her whole life. Also, most of the victims are rich and entitled white guys, not 17-year-old cheerleaders. – from the 5280 interview

The mystery is who (or what) is perpetrating mayhem, and why. That satisfies the need, or, certainly, a desire, for a mystery. Slasher movie bloodlettings are acts of revenge. Ok. So, what is it that is being revenged, why, and by whom? The how is where movie directors and novelist get to come up with creative ways to pare back, sometimes waaaaay back, the character list.

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Heather Langengkamp as Nancy Thompson in Friday the 13th – image from StopButton

Jones always keeps an eye on social content, payload that arrives with the story. It, or at least some of it, usually has to do with Native people and their relationship with the white world in which they are embedded. Very real-world stuff. No Magic Indians need apply. The presenting issue here is gentrification, an invasion by the Uber-rich into a very working class area, upsetting everything, taking public land for private use, trying to buy their way into acceptance, while toting along a significant shortage of moral concern. There is also the existence of racist elements in the town and the Native people getting the lesser end of things economically.

When people in Proofrock can direct their binoculars across the water to see how the rich and famous live, that’s only going to make them suddenly aware of how they’re not living, with their swayed-in fences, their roofs that should have been re-shingled two winters ago, their packed-dirt driveways, their last decade’s hemlines and shoulder pads, because fashion takes a while to make the climb to eight thousand feet.

Secondary characters run a gamut. Some are cannon fodder, of course, but there is a nice collection of understandable town characters. Jade’s teacher, Holmes, is wonderfully understanding, and has plenty of quirk (and anger) to support it. The town sheriff is a remarkably understanding sort, with a soft spot for Jade. He may not understand, or accept what she tells him (she is a Cassandra, after all, and there is the very real possibility that he might be hiding something) but he seems to be quite well-intentioned. Her father is a horror, and his bff may be even worse. There is sympathy for Jade in surprising places. They know something we do not. The Founders are mostly cardboard cutouts, which is fine. And then there is Letha (last name not Weapon). While presented as impossibly perfect, she is the one member of that clan given a closer look. Is she or isn’t she what Jade sees her to be, a paragon of final girlhood?

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Jennifer Love Hewitt as Julie James in I Know What You Did Last Summer – image from ScreenRant

Throughout the novel, there is a pervasive sense of humor. The quote at the top of the review is a prime example of that. There is more. Not sayin’ you’re gonna shoot your beverage of choice out your nose, but there is plenty here that will make you smile.

…if you don’t have those staged resets, those laughs, then horror just becomes the flat screech, and that’s no fun. – from the GQ interview

GRIPES
Not much. The deus was messing with his ex, machina, a bit too much for my taste. I could not fathom why Jade was not more curious when a stranger’s cell phone falls into her hands. And I was not entirely thrilled with the last bit of the ending. (But then, SGJ has written a sequel, so, maybe put a hold on that.) But these are minor concerns. My Heart is a Chainsaw is both a jaw-dropping, brilliant homage to the slasher genre, and a bonafide member of the club.

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Sharni Vinson as Erin Harson in You’re Next – image from Wicked Horror

So, when you read this, takes notes, consider all that is going on. There will be a test. Pass/Fail. Pass, and you gain three college credits toward your degree. Fail? Well, trust me, you really, really do not want to fail.

She’s everything Jade always wished she could have been, had she not grown up where she did, how she did, with who she did.
It’s going to be epic, the final battle, the final girl against slasher high noon.
Unless Jade’s just making it all up, she reminds herself.

Review posted – August 27, 2021

Publication date – August 31, 2021

I received an eARE of My Heart is a Chainsaw from Saga Press of Simon & Schuster in return for a fair review and some extra-strength fishing-hooks. Thanks to S&S, and NetGalley for facilitating.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interviews
—–GQ – 8/26/21 – Horror Writer Stephen Graham Jones’s New Nightmare by Colin Groundwater
—–Locus Magazine – 9/9/21 – Stephen Graham Jones: Slasher Cycle
—–Nightmare Magazine – April 2017 (Issue 55) Interview: Stephen Graham Jones by Lisa Morton
—–Nuovo Magazine – Stephen Graham Jones Battles Stereotypes and Serial Killers in His Breakout Novel by James Grainger – about The Only good Indians but still interesting for Jones’s take on the world
—–Vol, 1 Brooklyn – MORNING BITES: STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES INTERVIEWED, VIC GODARD, FRED THOMAS’S MUSIC, BILL GUNN, AND MORE – August 11, 2021
—–5280 Magazine – August 2021 – Colorado Horror Writer Stephen Graham Jones Is Back With a Killer Follow-Up by Philip Clapham

The horror genre is full of books and movies that make a political statement, like the films Dawn of the Dead and The Purge. Which is scarier: real-life terrors or fictional ones?
I think for the last four or five years, we’ve seen people doing reprehensible things and then not being punished for them. The slasher genre is basically a justice fantasy. But the bad thing about living in a slasher world where wrongs are punished is that they’re punished brutally. You might catch a machete to the head.

—–Bull – Stephen Graham Jones by David Tromblay

Before The Only Good Indians, I’d done two slasher novels, I guess—Demon Theory, The Last Final Girl—but I hadn’t said even close to all I wanted to say in and with and around the slasher. So, I committed to the slasher. I wrote this one, then another, and another. But I also wrote a haunted house novel. Oh, and a slasher novella, I guess. And I guess a ghost novella. I just love all the parts of horror, but the slasher, the slasher’s really special for me. I like the sense of justice in it. I like how bad deeds are punished. That’s not the world we live in, but, while reading a slasher, we can pretend for a little bit…

—–Montana Press Monthly – April 2020 Rez Gothic: Stephen Graham Jones by Jay MacDonald – not specific to this book, but good on SGJ
—–Colorado Public Radio – Ten Stories Novelist Stephen Graham Jones Says Will Make You Afraid Of The Dark by Stephanie Wolf –
10 stories Jones says are great gateway reads into the horror fiction genre:
• “The Black Cat” by Edgar Alan Poe
• “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs
• “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft
• “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
• “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
• “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby
• “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
• “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler
• “The Jaunt” by Stephen King
• “The Night They Missed the Horror Show” by Joe R. Lansdale

My reviews of (sadly, only two) previous books by Jones
—–Mongrels
—–The Only Good Indians

The List
I started keeping track of the names of the mentioned flicks once I had read a bit, so my number is probably not close to the actual total, but even with not beginning from the beginning I came up with 93, the list that follows. I have seen, maybe, 23, enough to be able to follow along without feeling that I was missing out on too much. Not all are slasher films, but all 93 are horror of one sort or another. If I made any mistakes in entering the titles please let me know and I will make the needed repairs.

Alien
Alien 3
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
Alone in the Dark
April Fools Day
Bay of Blood – from 1971 – a possible grandfather of the slasher genre
Black Christmas
Blue Steel
Burial Ground
The Burning
The Cabin in the Woods
Camp Blood
Candy Man
Child’s Play
Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things
Cold Prey
Cold Prey 2
Cold Prey 3
The Craft
Cropsy
Cry Wolf
Curtains
Cutting Class
Dead & Buried
Dead Calm
Deep Star Six, Leviathan
Demons
Donkey Punch
The Dorm that Dripped Blood
Evil Dead
The Exorcist
Exorcist III
Fatal Attraction
Final Destination
Final Destinations
Fire in the Sky
Friday the Thirteenth
Friday the Thirteenth Part II
Friday the 13th Part III
Friday the Thirteenth – The final chapter
Ghost Ship
Girls Nite Out
Grizzly, 1976
Halloween
Halloween III
Hannibal Lecter
Happy Birthday to Me
Hell Raiser
High Tension
The Hitcher
Home Sweet Home
I Know What You Did Last Summer
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
Jason Takes Manhattan
Jaws
Just Before Dawn
Kristy
The Land that Time Forgot
Last House on the left
Lord of Illusions
Mausoleum
Mortuary
Mother’s Day
My Bloody Valentine
New Nightmare
The Night of the Hunter
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Poltergeist 2
Popcorn
The Prey
Prom night II
Prophecy
Prowler
Reeker
Ringu
Road House – 1988
Rosemary’s Baby
Scream
Scream 2
Slaughter High
The Shining
The Silence of the Lambs
Sleepaway Camp II
SS Lazarus
Stage Fright
Terminator
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Triangle
Trick or Treat 1986
Twisted Nightmare
Virus
Wishmaster

Articles on Final Girls
The Final Girl is a trope that has come in for some criticism over the years. Below are several articles that address this, and the changes that have taken place in how Final Girls are portrayed from the 1970s to the present. If you know some good pieces on this subject, I would be happy to add them to this list.

—–NY Times – October 22, 2015 – In Horror Films, the ‘Final Girl’ Is a Survivor to the Core by Erik Piepenburg
—–Wiki – Final Girl
—–Cinema de Merde – Is the Final Girl an Excuse?
—–Pretty Scary – Gender Roles within Scary Movies by Alex Boles
—–Ax Wound – Teenie Kill & The Final Girl by Hannah D. Forman

Clover argues we shouldn’t just ask ourselves: “Does this film depict violence against women?” but rather, “Why does it do so? From whose point of view? Creating sympathy with whom? And what final message?” The answers to these questions no doubt are complex and reveal much about how we view the sexes, the double standards that underlie our behaviors and social mores we are brought up to follow.

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Filed under Horror, Reviews

True-Crime Family

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My parents named me Dahlia, after the Black Dahlia—that actress whose body was cleaved in half, left in grass as sharp as scalpels, a permanent smile sliced onto her face—and when I first learned her story at four years old I assumed a knife would one day carve me up.

I’m not looking for evil. I’m looking for answers.

You know straight away that this one will be told with tongue firmly attached to cheek. The four siblings are all named after famous murder victims. The Lighthouse family has seen quite a few lives dashed on the rocks, well, not personally, or well, maybe personally. That is the crux of the mystery. There is a never-caught serial murderer on the island, The Blackburn Killer, responsible, so people think, for the murders of seven women over two decades. The family is gathered on this wind-swept, rocky isle when father dies, mostly unlamented, a heart attack,

”Dad’s heart was a real bastard about it. took him out in two seconds flat. Pushed him face down in his venison stew…Mom had to wipe the meat off his cheeks before the paramedics came. It’s poetic really. Dad hunted so many deer in his lifetime, and in the end, he died on top of one. Seems almost…intentional, doesn’t it? Like his heart knew what he’d been up to and murdered him for it.”

summoning the now-grown children (well, three out of four, anyway, as the fourth had left a note ten years back announcing he was leaving for good) back from their definitely-NOT-on-this island homes for his funeral and burial. But when the caretaker of the considerable grounds digs up dad’s assigned plot, he is surprised to find that it is already occupied. The missing brother, Andy, gone ten years, has been found. Oh, dear.

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Megan Collins – image from Wheaton College

The whole thing stems from the title, which is not how I usually do my books at all. The title usually comes last, and I agonize over it. But I was working on something else, and I was trying to title that, and I asked my husband for some suggestions. And I said I want something that speaks to the family aspect of the book and he just threw out, “I don’t know, The Family Plot?” And I was like, no, that doesn’t work for this, but that is amazing as a title…that just rattled around in my head for a few days, until it was like a burst, that came to me, of a family that came together to bury one family member, only to find another member of the family in that grave. So then from there I thought well, what family would it be most interesting to see in that kind of story? It would be really interesting to see someone who, a family who was so interested in true crime that they built a library. And now they’re in the center of true crime story. – from the World of the Write interview

Interested understates it a bit, as the Lighthouse family, stemming from mom, is obsessed with true crime, so much so that the kids, who were home-schooled, studied famous murders. In place of the usual book reports they were charged with producing murder reports. There is a room in their large, creepy home, that is designated the Victim Room, as it holds the considerable collection of books and reports the family has amassed on the most notorious serial killers, and greatest murders, solved and unsolved, of all time. No wonder the locals refer to it as Murder Mansion.

Our docent in this odd place is Dahlia, 26, returned (Dead leaves skitter around my feet as if welcoming me home – Yikes!) from the mainland where she has been living since she moved out at age 19, obsessed with finding her lost twin, Andy (named for Lizzie Borden’s father).

The trust fund is how I manage the way I do—jobless, hunched over my laptop, scouring photos of any crowd on social media, looking for crinkly eyes, for the cowlick on the back of Andy’s head.

She has always felt that she and Andy had a special twins bond and that, if he were dead, she would know it. Her older sibs have been holed up in New York City since they fled the island, as soon as they could. Charlie (named for the Lindbergh baby) is an actor who appears in off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and nowhere-at-all-near-Broadway productions, when he can get cast, and when he is sober. Tate (named for Sharon Tate) has an on-line following of 57,000 for her site @Die-orama, on which she produces miniature reproductions of famous crimes. We all do what we’ve gotta do to cope with what came before in our lives. Am I wrong? Tate continues coping by making a diorama of the finding of her brother’s body. Charlie plans to turn the house into a temporary display, The Lighthouse Memorial Museum, to show the Blackburn island residents that the Lighthouses are actual people, not some homicidal, Addams family knockoff. Even Mom (Lorraine) Lighthouse deflects actual emotional dealing into consistently failed attempts to bake cookies, a running joke.

I just went and threw everything into it that I am obsessed with and that I love. I love true crime. Threw that in. I love secluded, dark little islands. Threw that in. I love mini things, so I had this diorama thing. I love these creepy mansions, so I had that. I went wild with all the things that excite me in the hope that if I am excited about them, hopefully it makes a good story, and other people will be into it. But yes, atmosphere, definitely tons of atmosphere… – from the World of the Write interview

There is a fun supporting cast. A mysterious local girl (Ruby Decker) used to spy on the Lighthouse manse at night when Andy was still around. The local detective on the case is Elijah Kraft, who just happens to be the son of the detective who was in charge of the Blackburn Killer investigation back in the day. He had always been convinced that Daniel Lighthouse (the recently deceased dad) was the killer and junior seems determined to pin Andy’s killing on him as well. At the very least, pin it on some member of the family. We see him mostly while sparring with Dahlia. Fitz, the lifelong caretaker, does not always make it to the ferry for his nightly trip back to the mainland. Why is that? Greta, a friend, runs a café below Dahlia’s apartment, and shares the Lighthouse obsession with true crime, if not the family history. She stands in for the more typically obsessed true-crime aficionados in the world.

I’ve never written plays, but it kinda felt like writing a play sometimes, thinking of like almost every scene in the book takes place in the house except for a few of them, so there is a kind of claustrophobic sense. And so the house really felt like a set to me that I was moving the characters around and now they’re the living room and what’s happening in there, and now they’re in the room that they call the victim room because it has all their books about true crime. – from the World of the Write interview

She also gives us a taste of backwater mentality, and eagerness to believe the worst of people who are different. And the separation from humanity of many true-crime enthusiasts, fixated on details of murders to the exclusion of pain and suffering, the human experience of those personally impacted.

Dahlia is an honest broker, well, mostly. She truly wants to find out who killed her beloved brother, and who the Blackburn Killer might be, even if it turns out to be family. There are twists aplenty, and swaths of atmospherics. Collins clearly had a lot of fun writing this book and it comes across.

I did have one gripe. Are we really expected to believe that a family would construct an entire home-schooling curriculum around murders? It was a bit much to swallow. But if you are willing to suspend belief, and, yes, your honor, I confess to doing just that, The Family Plot is a delicious bit of mystery fluff, a fun, roller-coaster ride of a yarn. If you pick up The Family Plot looking for a very entertaining Summer read, you will be dead on.

…the fact that their bodies were returned to our shore, spit onto sand instead of carried to another coast, is proof that the ocean wants us here, contained to Blackburn Island.

Review posted – August 20, 2021

Publication date – August 17, 2021

I received an ARE of The Family Plot in return for crucial intel on an unsolved case. Thanks to Maudee at Atria.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, GR, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–World of the Write Review – – video – 30:09 – by Kerry Schafer – if you have to choose only interview to check out, it would be this one.
—–Player FM – A murderous chat with CT Author Megan Collins! – Renee DeNino – Audio – 16:30
—–Dead Darlings – Interview with Megan Collins, Author of Behind The Red Door by Susan Bernhard – 8/6/20 – this interview was done long before The Family Plot came along, but still has some interesting intel, such as

My instincts as a storyteller are to begin as close to the inciting incident as possible. By the end of the first chapter, I want some sort of bomb—big or small—to have been dropped on my characters, so that the reader has a sense of the stakes right away.

—–Megan Collins: Author of The Winter Sister – also done before Collins’ latest book, but of value nonetheless

Items of Interest from the author
—–Crime Reads – What Scares a Thriller Writer – 8/4/20
—–Collins’ site – links to 22 other pieces

The book site for The Family Plot lists gothic among its genres. It felt like it was close to that on reading, but not quite, so I resorted to this scorecard, which I used a bit more grandly in my review of While You Sleep. So, is it or isn’t it?

Gothic Novel Scorecard

Ticking off the gothic criteria
1 – setting – old mansion – check – secret passages – yep, and more
2 – atmosphere of mystery or suspense – you betcha
3 – ancient prophecy or legend – nothing supernatural here
4 – omens, portents, visions – well, portents maybe (no good tents, though)
5 – supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events – the deaths on the island – Andy’s demise
6 – high, overwrought emotion – for sure
7 – woman in distress – Dahlia – yep
8 – Women threatened by powerful, tyrannical male – murder vics, presumably – there is no living tyrannical male in this telling – and while The Blackburn Killer is assumed to be male, there is no certainty of the killer’s gender for most of the book.

Frequent Gothic Elements
Wind – always
Rain – don’t really recall, so if it was there, it was not particularly memorable
Doors on rusty hinges – I don’t think so, but maybe
Eerie sounds – not really
Character strapped in a room – no
Approaching footsteps – yep
Ruins of buildings – not really

It may not tick off ALL the boxes that define Gothic novels, but it marks enough of them to matter. It is clear that while Collins worked from her notions and was not trying to craft a classic gothic novel, The Family Plot is certainly gothic enough to count.

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The Burning Times

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The wind slammed against the Harding-era transmission tower, ripping a heavy electrical line from its brittle iron hook. It was 6:15 A.M. The 143-pound, 115-kilovolt braided aluminum wire—known as a jumper cable—fell through the air. A piece of the rusted hook fell with it. The energized line produced a huge bolt of electricity, reaching temperatures up to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit and zapping the steel tower like lightning as it charred the pillar black. Droplets of molten metal sprayed into the dry grass. That’s all it took.

…this was how the fire spread so quickly: It wasn’t a single unbroken front but a hail of embers.

Welcome to the new normal.

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sign – may you find paradise to be all its name implies – Image from KQED

In November 2018, one hundred fifty miles north of San Francisco, the town of Paradise became the epicenter of what would be called The Camp Fire. It was the most destructive wildfire in California history. (The Dixie Fire that was raging at the time this review was prepared had not yet been controlled, so we do not yet know if it was even worse.) The Camp Fire does not even make the top ten list for the most acres destroyed by fire. That dubious honor goes to the August Complex fire of 2020, which burned over a million acres. The Camp Fire destroyed only 153,336 acres. But in other metrics it leads the way. Almost 19,000 structures were destroyed. The property loss was over $10 billion, (I have seen a report indicating that the cost exceeded $16 billion) about 10 percent larger than the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the former title holder. Most importantly, the official death toll from the Camp Fire was 85, an undercount of at least fifty according to the author’s tally of wrongful death suits lodged against PG&E, and her knowledge of deaths that did not fit into the very restrictive official definition. In looking at lists of the worst wildfires ever, concentrated as it is in the last few years, and with no likelihood that conditions will improve any time soon, it is a certainty that we, as a planet, the USA as a nation, and California in particular are living in a powderkeg and giving off sparks.

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Lizzy Johnson – Image from her site

Johnson had been the fire reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle prior to the Camp Fire. (She has since moved on to the Washington Post)

…this book is the product of more than five hundred interviews and nearly five years of full-time wildfire coverage. I even enrolled in a professional firefighting academy to better understand fire…It’s the product of coming to love a community that I embedded in: spending hours strolling across Paradise on my evening walks, buying ice cream sandwiches from the Holiday Market, eating more containers of green curry from Sophia’s Thai than I can count. The people whose lives I’ve chronicled in this book offered me unfettered access to their day-to-day lives without any expectations. They were not compensated for their time. – from Acknowledgments

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Burned vehicles during Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. on Thursday, November 8, 2018 – image and text from SF Gate

She even stayed with some of them. Johnson provides a wealth of detail. Not just two dimensional, or even three, but adding time into the mix to make for four. We get personal histories of people who were impacted by the fire, specifically in how they came to be there, and the history of the place from before the 1850 goldrush. This includes some history on the Native American Konkow tribe, with lore that addresses the challenges of coping with wildfire. She also looks at PG&E’s history of poor line maintenance, and the legal system’s history of failing to make them pay for their malfeasance or force them to adequately change their ways.

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Timeline – from the National Institute for Standards and Technology

As for the structure of the book, I was reminded of The Longest Day, an epic 1962 war film that told, from a variety of perspectives, the story of the D-Day invasion of Europe in World War II. By knitting the diverse experiences together we get a sense of the overall event that would have been impossible in a more linear Boy-Meets-War type narrative. Paradise is a lot like that. We jump from the desperate bus-driver to the town manager to the maintenance man at the hospital to the pilot trying to dump flame retardant on the blaze, to the people on their off-road vehicles trying to find a location in which to shelter that had no combustible foliage, to the police chief, to the town manager, to the fire chiefs, to a woman who gave birth by Caesarian section that very day, and winds up being driven around by a stranger, trying to find her husband and a way out. and on. But somehow, the book never felt disjointed. Each person is given sufficient detail. We get to know them some, not too much, but enough to care. And we track their progress over that terrible day. I found it helpful while reading to have a browser tab open to a Google map of Paradise so I could follow each person on their fraught peregrinations. Johnson tracks the progress of the fire, from its ignition by the downed power line at 6:15 am on November 8, 2018, step by step. She tracks her residents through that day to where they are now, in August 2020.

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Fire tornado explainer – from the San Francisco Chronicle

Johnson’s focus is on the personal. There is a reason for that.

Early in her fire reporting, Johnson noticed that many fire stories—hers included—sounded similar; they often relied on the same beats, the same kinds of quotes, the same tropes. (A woman who left her wedding ring at home, for example, only for it to burn.) Johnson began to wonder if disaster fatigue happened when stories felt predictable. So she changed her approach to make the fire secondary, a “supporting character” in a more surprising and nuanced human story—and readers paid attention. Too often, she said, coverage tries to hit people over the head with a “climate change caused this” moral. “I’m now thinking more like, What does climate change feel like? If we changed the model, maybe people will listen more, and we can do more work with our storytelling. – from the Columbia Journalism Review interview

One can only hope.

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The Camp Fire burns in the hills on November 10, 2018 near Big Bend, California. Fueled by high winds and low humidity the Camp Fire ripped through the town of Paradise – image from SF Gate

Simple human error accounts for some of the carnage. A public emergency warning system failed to reach half the residents because it had never been tested locally, and a systems flaw had not been detected. And our old bugaboo of inadequate communication and coordination among the responsible emergency authorities was not helpful. In the larger context, it is the myopic focus on immediate financial or political motives that has created much of this problem. For example, a Code Red system for alerting people of an emergency is privately owned, requiring people to subscribe. Only 11% did.

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from the Camp Fire – image from Cal Fire

Maybe, after a four-lane road had been paved on the western edge of town several years before, cutting two lanes from the Skyway, providing extra parking for downtown businesses and removing the “expressway” feel of the road, ignoring pleas that this would be a deadly choice the next time a major fire hit, might, just might have been an incredibly bad, short-term decision with deadly long-term consequences. Someone in Paradise should be nominated for the Larry Vaughn Award for exceptional short-sightedness in the face of mortal peril.

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NASA shot of the fire

The experience of reading this book was unlike that of anything else I have read in recent memory. The closest I can think of is Five Days at Memorial, several years back. How quickly, how easily our civilization can be overwhelmed, our safety completely compromised.

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Evacuating the hospital – image from The Daily Mail

There were moments when I had to step away from reading, and just breathe, because the specifics of the fire were so upsetting. The stories Johnson tells are heart-wrenching, and often horrifying. It was like reading a real-life end-times, zombie-apocalypse novel. Someone hiding from the flames under a vehicle, pokes a hole in a tire just to get breathable air. After a victim of the fire is lifted from a flat surface, a layer of molten flesh remained. Just writing these words brings a sob.

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A Cal Fire pilot maneuver’s an S2-T tanker to make a drop on the Walbridge fire at sunset near Healdsburg, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. – Image from the Press Democrat – photo credit Kent Porter – What it would have looked like had planes not been called back due to 70 mph winds and horrific down and updrafts

Another part of the experience was learning new things, many of them dire, like the fact that trees were becoming so hot that the water and sap inside them heated to a point where they basically exploded. Things like the temperature becoming so high that metallic elements in the ground solidified into shards, and propane tanks became missiles and major sources of shrapnel. AT&T’s landlines melted. Internet service cut out as communications hardware on towers was destroyed. Things like the underground pipes carrying the town’s water becoming so hot that they melted, leaching carcinogenic materials into the water supply. (Repair/replace cost $50 million.) Things like the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from this one fire matched the output of the entire state’s factories and traffic in a week. Things like the incineration of so many structures created clouds of toxic sub-2.5 micron particles that lodge in the lungs of any breathing thing. There are plenty more things to be learned here, not all of them quite so extreme. But all of them worth knowing. She looks at the topography, and how that impacts wind currents, the changes in the local flora, the psychology of disaster response. The scientific explanations in the book were clear and informative

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Firefighter Jose Corona monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire burns – image and text from SF Gate

It is easy to engage with the folks Johnson profiles, and root for them to survive. It helps that we can presume that all of the primary actors here make it out, else Johnson would not have been able to interview them, and we would not be reading their stories. But she succeeds in showing us what global warming means on the ground, to actual human beings, over 125 of whom are no longer with us, and many of whom have been scarred, physically and or emotionally, for life.

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shot from the fire – image from The Daily Mail

There is very little mention of political party here. Local representation is heavily Republican. Everyone burns at the same temperature, but maybe voting for the party of climate change denial while living in a tinderbox might be seen as somehow ironic, if not feckless and arrogant. Trump popped by for a photo op and a chance to blame Californians for the fire, claiming that they should have been raking out the leaves in the woods. (The largest wildland property owner in California is the federal government, by the way. The state is in charge of about 3% of it.) The town voted for him in 2016, but by 2020 had seen quite enough orange light and switched, at least at the presidential level.

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Sheriffs yell to drivers to evacuate the area off of Pentz Road during the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 – image and text from SF Gate

As this book and countless other reports make clear, we have a wildfire problem. Serious research into the causes, both global and local, has been done. More is ongoing, and there will, for sure, be more ahead. Even more than has already been done, public policies will have to be crafted to encourage, and where possible, mandate best practices, and enforce restrictions on private and public use of land in the wildland-urban interface. There are many facets to this, from power line protection, roadway construction, widening, or even closing, development requirements, such as mandating fire-safe materials for new construction, and supporting retrofitting older buildings. Communications among first responders has been improved, but much remains to be done. Total deregulation, allowing property owners to do whatever they want with their property can very concretely endanger the property and lives of all those around them. We have an obligation to each other to not be totally indifferent about the safety of our communities and neighbors. Common sense regulation should be implemented. In the wider view, gaining new knowledge of areas that are likely to burn should inform policy on where new development is allowed at all, where further development should be halted, and where rebuilding burned areas is ill-advised. ( Between 1970 and 1999, 94 percent of the roughly three thousand houses destroyed by wildfires in California had been rebuilt in the same spot—and often burned down a second or third time.) Your freedom to do whatever the frack you want ends where my charred skin begins. Insurance companies, with the most to lose financially, have already made getting fire insurance tougher, if it is available at all, in fire-prone communities.

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Cars escape the Camp Fire as they drive south on Pentz Road in Paradise, California, on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 – image and text from SF Gate

I love this book. It is among my favorites for the year. I have much praise to offer and very few gripes. While I understand that the author’s intent was to make global warming on-the-street real, and appreciate that she has succeeded in doing just that, I would have liked a bit more on the long-term medical impact of wildfires, and the politics of the local public officials, particularly their views on global warming.

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A bulldozer dislodged abandoned vehicles from a blocked roadway after the fire. The scene suggests that a burnover, a dangerous event where fire cuts evacuees off from escape routes, took place. There were at least 19 over the course of the fire. – image and text from National Institute for Standards and Technology

This book is mind-blowing and heart-breaking, one of the best books of 2021, it will grab you by the heart while filling your brain with new important information. Massive fires are the new normal and Johnson shows us all what that means to real people on the unbearably hot ground. This is a must-read!

California had always burned—as much as 5.5 to 19 million acres annually in prehistoric times, or up to 19 percent of the state’s land. Flames were typical of the changing seasons as rainstorms and blizzards. The same swath of hillside blackened by the Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire of 1991 had also burned in 1923, 1970, and 1980. But residents were quick to forget the past, and amnesia was part of California’s identity. The state legislature left it up to local governments to protect their constituents, and thus development continued, and more and more homes became kindling. – from the NIST report

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Paradise Lost – image from National Geographic

Review posted – August 13, 2021

Publication date – August 17, 2021

I first learned of this book from MC at GoodReads, who directed me to Cai, who got in touch with Crown. They sent me an ARE in return for a fair review. My thanks to you all.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages. An old site of hers is still up.

Interviews
—–MUST READ !!! – Colombia Journalism Review – Spring 2020 – The Heat Reporter by Lauren Markham
—–This American Life – Boulder v. Hill – Johnson is interviewed in one segment – audio – the transcript
—–Longform –- 1/9/2019 – Episode 325: Lizzie Johnson – audio – 55:41
—– Paradise: One town’s struggle to survive an American wildfire by Holly Quan and Dan Mitchinson – Audio – 4 min

Items of Interest from the author
—–Muck Rack – links to eight stand-alone articles written by Johnson
—–SFGate – 12/8/2017 – Ojai, flames, horses – and a cowboy who rides in to the rescue
—–SFGate – June 24, 2018 – Wildfire forces thousands to evacuate in Lake County
—–SFGate – July 2, 2018 – County Fire ‘growing a lot faster’ than past blazes, spreads glow and ash over Bay Area
—– San Francisco Chronicle – 11/13/2018 – The unprecedented devastation of the Camp Fire
—–San Francisco Chronicle – 12/5/2018 – 150 Minutes of Hell
—–Finding Kyle – a California Journalism Award winner about an eighteen-year-old’s suicide
—–Crown Publishing Group – Journalist Lizzie Johnson explains why wildfires are so prevalent – 1:36

Items of Interest
====================News
—– PBS News Hour – Paradise Rebuilds a Year After the Camp Fire – Video – 2:47
—–The Daily Mail – 10/22/19 – 911 operator reveals she told locals NOT to evacuate their homes at the start of the California Paradise fire that killed 85 people – because firefighters didn’t think that the flames would cross the canyon
—–The Guardian – 7/31/21 – In the shadow of Paradise, nearby residents make uneasy peace with fire by Dani Anguiano
—–The Guardian – 8/2/21 – Wildfire fighters advance against biggest US blaze amid dire warnings by Gabrielle Canon –state of the Bootleg Fire when the article was posted
—– The Guardian – 8/12/21 – ‘The fire moved around it’: success story in Oregon fuels calls for prescribed burns by Maanvi Singh

====================Background
—– Konkow Valley Band of Maidu Indians – History of the Konkow Indian Tribe
—–Wiki – Adventist Health Feather River – hospital referenced in the book
—–Cal Fire home page
—–Top 20 Largest California Wildfires
—–National Institute of Standards and Technology – New Timeline of Deadliest California Wildfire Could Guide Lifesaving Research and Action
“The Camp Fire was the costliest disaster worldwide in 2018 and, having caused 85 deaths and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings, it became both the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, two records the fire still holds today.” – Article was posted 2/8/21.
—–NIST Technical Note 2135 – A Case Study of the Camp Fire – Fire Progression Timeline – In addition to the analysis, there is a fabulous acronym list in here

The Camp Fire consumed 153 336 acres and destroyed 18 804 structures in the towns of Paradise, Magalia, and Concow—equivalent to three times the losses of the 2017 Tubbs Fire (5636 structures) or six times the losses of the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire (2900 structures). Eighty-five percent of the structures in the Town of Paradise were destroyed. In addition to the destroyed structures, the Camp Fire damaged a total of 754 structures. The fire resulted in 5 documented major firefighter injuries and 85 civilian fatalities. Afterwards, 3266 missing persons were located. The fire was declared 100 % contained on November 25, 2018, after burning for 18 days. Initial estimates suggested the Camp Fire would be the most destructive fire in California history at a cost of $11 billion to $13 billion in losses and $3 billion for debris clean up. A more recent assessment determined that the Camp Fire was the costliest natural disaster worldwide in 2018, with overall losses of $16.6 billion. – from the NIST report

====================Videos
—–Frontline – Fire in Paradise
—–A different link to the same video – 54:17
—–Rebuilding Paradise – documentary by Ron Howard – 90 minutes

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