Tag Archives: horror

Beacon Hell

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He’s tall and rakish, with greasy black hair to his jaw, a tattoo of a panther on his neck, a missing front tooth. A grin.
“You’re Luna Stay?”
She frowns, confused by the shift to a smile. “Yes?”
He steps forward and eyes her coldly. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

2021 – Ok, so maybe not exactly a welcoming committee, with a sparkly, multi-colored sign at the local watering hole, all the residents in attendance, celebrating her return. But I guess it’ll have to do. It wasn’t Luna’s first time on the island of Lòn Haven. She had been there for a spell as a child, and, while her experience was memorable, it was relatively brief, and her exit had been fraught. Now, thirty years old, pregnant for the first time, she is not exactly eager to stick around. But she is there on a mission.

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C.J. (Carolyn Jess) Cooke – image from The University of Glasgow

1998 – Olivia Stay has just left her home in northern England, dragged her three daughters, Sapphire, Luna, and Clover. with her, and headed north on an hours-long drive to a remote island off the east coast of Scotland. She is an artist, with a commission to paint a mural on the inside of a 149-foot-tall lighthouse, which is in less-than-stellar condition. Her mysterious employer has left drawings for her of what he wants. She and the girls will be staying on the lighthouse property, in a small house, called a bothy. The lighthouse has an intriguing name.

“You’re staying at the Longing?” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Quite a history, that place.”
“I can see that,” I said, flicking through the leaflet, my eyes falling on an artist’s rendition of people being burned at the stake.
“Why’s it called the Longing?” Luna asked him.
“It’s named for the people who lost loved ones,” he said. “Sometimes they’d visit the site where the Longing was built and . . . pay their respects.”

…or something. The lost loved ones tended to be women murdered by the locals, accused of witchcraft and burned alive. The Longing was built directly over the place where the women had been kept and tortured, a broch, which is a circular castle-like structure, as much as two thousand years old. While there have been five major national bouts of witch-burnings in Scotland, the only witches likely to have been about were of the herbalist, rather than spell-casting sort. The ones with the matches provided the very human-sourced evil involved. The historical burning time of note here was 1662.

Olivia (Liv) is our first-person narrator for much of the book. Other chapters offer third-person POVs from Luna and Saffy. A second first-person account is historical. That one provides interceding chapters made up of passages from a book, left in the bothy, referred to as a grimoire. But it serves less as a source for studying the dark arts than it does as a memoir. Written by someone named Roberts, presumably an ancestor of Liv’s employer, it serves mostly as a fourth perspective, offering first-person exposition of historical events the book’s author lived through, events that inform the present.

We follow Liv as she is introduced to the island, and the local oddballs. (and wonder why she suddenly dropped everything and dragged her kids north several weeks ahead of the appointed time) But when she sees a small, almost feral-seeming white-haired child on the property, and the police do not seem to take her seriously, things get more interesting. Local lore has it that condemned witches, in league with the fae realm, created wildlings, copies of island children, who would appear out of nowhere, intent on wiping out family lines. Locals hold that any such beings must be killed ASAP. Then two of her daughters, Saffy and Clover, disappear.

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St Mary’s Lighthouse – the English lighthouse that provided inspiration for the Longing – image from Photographers Resource UK

In 2021, after twenty-two years of searching for her lost family, Luna is contacted. Her sister, Clover, has been found. But instead of being twenty-nine years old, Clover is still only seven. Is this child even her sister? Or could she be one of the wildlings Luna had heard about when she was a child on Lòn Haven? Her behavior certainly gives one cause for concern.

The story braids the four narratives, alternating Liv, Luna, Saffy, and the grimoire’s Mr Roberts, reporting of their experiences, and the times in which they are in the spotlight, offering nice chapter-ending cliff-hangers to sustain our interest from one strand to the next.

In an interview with The Nerd Daily, Cooke (who is married, with four children) was asked about her inspiration for the book.

I think it came from a range of places – I was thinking a lot (and still am) about how different it is to parent a teenager than it is to parent a baby, and yet the speed with which a baby seems to become a teenager feels like whiplash. So the story of Liv and her 15-year-old Sapphire in the book emerged from that thinking. When we moved to Scotland in 2019, I learned about the Scottish Witch Trials. I’m very interested in women’s lives, and this slice of history is very much concerned with what happened to women – and it also bears a huge relevance to the current moment. Gradually that thinking took shape. Lastly, I was invited to teach at the University of Iceland in 2019, and while I was there – and thinking a lot about the book and how I was going to incorporate all the various ideas I had – I came across 14th century spell books, which blew my mind. As I dug deeper into the history of magic and how it impacted women in particular, the story came out of the shadows.

The fraught relationship between 15yo Saffy and Liv will feel familiar, in tone, if not necessarily in the specific content of Saffy and Liv’s interaction. Cooke relied on her own teenage daughter for much of Saffy’s voice. Add to that the fact that Liv is a single mother, struggling to get by. Many of Liv’s struggles with parenting resonated, guilt versus responsibility versus coping with external limitations. Cooke offers, through the grimoire, a first-person look at the 1661/1662 witch-trial hysteria, providing a persuasive take on its causation, at least in this instance. The spell books notion gave Cooke the tool she needed for exploring the past.

I wanted everything for my children. But every single day I had to confront the glaring reality that I simply wasn’t able to provide the kind of life they deserved. And it crushed me.

There is a hint of prior, off-screen abuse in Liv’s background. This is likely a manifestation of Cooke’s experiences growing up in an abusive household in a council estate in Belfast during The Troubles. The up-front abuse here is in how power is used to protect those who have it from being held responsible for their actions, at the expense of the powerless, both past and present. And in how murderous impulses, combined with ignorance, under the mantle of religion, and official sanction, present a peril to any who do not conform, in any age.

There are elements of informational payload that help support the story. You will pick up a few bits of Scottish terminology, and even a bit of spice on magical symbology and local fairy lore. Cooke has some fun with triangles of various sorts. We get a you-are-there look at an actual historical time of madness. Cooke, in the interview from The Inside Flap, talks about how surprised she was when she moved to Scotland to find that there had been witch trials there, and that there were no memorials at all for the hundreds of people (not all were women) who had been killed.

There were parts of the book that gave me pause. I had trouble, for example, with the police releasing seven-year-old Clover to Luna, given that there was no way the two were the sisters they supposedly were in any normal time line. There seemed some contradiction in the overall take. Where does magic leave off and other factors enter into things? Could an evil-doer, for example, be stricken with an awful affliction at the hands of a spell-caster? And if so, then a scientific-ish explanation for later events seems undercut. What if that scientific-ish situation was created by magic? And round and round we go.

While not exactly a hair-raising read for me, (few are) I did find some scenes in the book pretty scary, less, maybe for the magical terror involved, but for the willingness of people to do terrible things in the name of insane beliefs, a terror we live with every day, and the fear any parent might feel when their child is in danger.

We can feel for Liv even as we might wonder at her judgment. She is clearly stressed beyond reason. And we can feel for Luna trying to solve this intricate puzzle, while taking on parental responsibility for her now-much-younger sib. The mysteries of the book will keep you turning the pages. In this fictional realm, are witches real? And if they are, did they really curse the island? And if they did, were fairy-generated wildlings a part of the plan? And if they were, was there an intent to end family lines? And what’s the deal with Clover showing up twenty-two years after vanishing?

One of life’s great joys is to begin reading a book expecting to be directed from Point A to Point Z with the familiar stops along the way, and then finding oneself in an entirely other alphabet. The Lighthouse Witches has the magic needed to make that trip possible. It is an enchanting read.

She turns her head from side to side, taking in the velvet expanse of the ocean on her left and the rocks and beach on her right. Ahead, surf furls into the bay. Something there catches her eye, and she wonders if it’s the basking shark, Basil, with his weird two fins. Something bobbing in the water. Seals, probably. Except it’s the wrong color. It’s pale.
She squints at the object. It’s about thirty feet away, moving on the waves. A cloud shifts from the moon and for a moment the light finds the object. It’s a face. A human face, its mouth open in a howl, someone in the water.

Review posted – October 8, 2021

Publication date – October 5, 2021

I received an eARC of The Lighthouse Witches from Berkley in return for casting one or two minor spells. Thanks to EK, and NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

From About the Author in the book
C. J. Cooke is an award-winning poet and novelist published in twenty-three languages. She teaches creative writing at the University of Glasgow, where she also researches the impact of motherhood on women’s writing and creative-writing interventions for mental health. Her previous novel is The Nesting.

She has been writing stories since she was seven years old.

Interviews
—– The Inside Flap Ep. 140 The Witching Hour Is Upon Us with C.J. Cooke – podcast = 1:30:00 – from about 30:00
—– The Nerd Daily – Q&A: C.J. Cooke, Author of ‘The Lighthouse Witches’ by Elise Dumpleton
—–Slider –
Episode 2 – Interview with author CJ Cooke – audio – 25:23

Wiki-ons and Other Items of Interest
—–bothy
—–Borromean Ring
—–broch
—–The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662
—–
grimoire
—–On Scottish faeries
—–St Mary’s Lighthouse
—–Cambridge University Press – The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662 – a miuch more detailed look at this abomination – by Brian P. Levack

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, Scotland, Thriller

One Horse Town

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Once, a long time ago, I’d stepped off the track close to the deep part of the forest. I remembered Sander going mad with anxiety, calling for me to come back, but I only wanted to know why nobody in the Hollow went any farther than that point. I hadn’t seen any witches, or goblins, or the Horseman. But I had heard someone, someone whispering my name, and I’d felt a touch on my shoulder, something cold as the wind that came in autumn. I’d wanted to run then, to sprint terrified back to the farm, but Sander was watching, so I’d quietly turned and stepped back on the track and the cold touch moved away from me.

Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, (there is a link to the full text of that in EXTRA STUFF) has been read by Americans since it was first published in 1819. What we remember most about it is the image of The Headless Horseman. There is some question about who this very un-pedestrian equestrian might be, a late Hessian, perhaps, whose cranium had had a close encounter with a cannonball, who was eager for revenge, and searched relentlessly for his lost noggin. Or maybe a canny wooer (one Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt) of a local lass looking to frighten the superstitious competition out of town with a bit of over-the-top theatrical horseplay. The story about the horseman had predated Brom and Ichabod vying for the hand (and property) of Katrina Van Tassel, so, was it a real ghost story or just a hugely successful prank?

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Christina Henry – image from her Goodreads page

In Christina Henry’s Horseman we are brought back to Irving’s one-horse town, Sleepy Hollow, two generations on. Brom and Katrina are grandparents now, managing their land, doing nicely with their farm. Brom remains a big man, both literally and figuratively, a powerful figure in local affairs, as well as someone still able to take on conflict kinetically when needed. Ben, our first-person narrator, Brom and Katrina’s fourteen-year-old grandchild, admires Brom completely, would like nothing more than to grow up to be as much like him as humanly possible.

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The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, l858 – image from The Smithsonian American Art museum

Ben and a friend are playing in the woods one day when they hear a group of riders pass, Brom in the lead. Ben is desperate to see what’s up, even though the group is headed to a part of the woods that is considered way too spooky to venture into, with good reason.

Just beyond the circle of men was a boy—or rather, what was left of a boy. He lay on his side, like a rag doll that’s been tossed in a corner by a careless child, one leg half-folded. A deep sadness welled up in me at the sight of him lying there, forgotten rubbish instead of a boy.
Something about this sight sent a shadow flitting through the back of my mind, the ghost of a thought, almost a memory. Then it disappeared before I could catch it… Both the head and hands seemed to have been removed inexpertly. There were ragged bits of flesh and muscle at the wrist, and I saw a protruding bit of broken spine dangling where Cristoffel’s head used to be.

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Image from ClassicBecky’s Brain Food

And the game is on. Had this bully of a teen been cut down by a violent spectre or was there a more flesh-laden killer on the loose? There is a second mystery, as well. What’s the deal with the “ghost of a thought, almost a memory” that Ben experiences while witness to the carnage? But wait, there’s more. There were mysteries left over from Washington Irving’s original story, such as was it a ghostly headless Hessian who had driven Ichabod Crane out of town, and what had actually happened to Crane after he fell off his horse and vanished?

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Image from Deviant Art – from Kanaru92

Irving makes a point of the superstitious bent of the locals in the Hollow.

…the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. – from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

A belief in the supernatural, justified or not, prompts the locals to believe the worst (including the W-word) about any they find outside the norm, as defined by their constricted minds. They see dark forces and conspiracies where none exist, well, probably. And seek to blame someone, usually someone perceived as different. I know that reminds me of mindless seekers after blame and conspiracy who roam the planet today, but maybe that’s just me. Feeding the blame-and-conspiracy machine, there is a gender identification seam that permeates as one of the characters contends with being seen one way, while feeling internally entirely other. Other is not an entirely ok thing to be in early nineteenth century small-town America.

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Image from Classic Becky Brain Food – by Jurei-Chan

Family has a lot to do with who we are, who we become, what we might be capable of, for good or ill. Ben’s love for Brom is manifest and a serious source of strength. Ben’s relationship with Katrina is more conflictual, yet with strong underpinnings. But what about other family? There is connection and help to be had in the household, with one of the staff providing a solid core of support. And what about community? Sander is clearly a bff, although not necessarily the best able to offer support in all circumstances. Ben does not seem to have much beyond that. Thus the need for Brom’s strength. Thankfully, Ben has internalized that, so has at least a chance to engage in battle without being entirely over-matched.

We trot along by Ben’s side as dangers present, whether it is obvious or not that they are perilous. Ben does get tingles about certain people, internal red flags of distrust. Are they valid or paranoid?

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Image from Deviant Art – by Ochreface

The book is not marketed as YA, but it felt like a YA title to me. Henry has written several books that take a new look at classic children’s stories, tending toward a younger readership. Most serious violence remains off screen, although we do get to see its aftermath. Profanity is absent. There is a piece in here about people, not all people, but some people, being susceptible to manipulation by an outside force encouraging the dark piece that resides deep within to come to the surface, to take over, even if only for a time. I had a problem with this, as it exempts some from having that bit. Certainly, some people are better than others, more ethical, more moral, kinder, smarter, more empathic, more honest, more responsible, but even the best of us harbors at least a sliver of darkness. This sort of not-quite black-and-white, but maybe charcoal-gray-and-white view of human potential for unpleasantness added to the YA feel. That said, there are a couple of tough physical battles and issues of sexual attraction and predation are raised, which gives it a bit more bite.

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Image from Art Abyss – by Gabriel Williams

In literature, The Woods is generally a symbol of the challenges facing young people on the cusp of adulthood. Ben’s adventures fit quite nicely into that, passing through the fires of challenge to reach maturity in a very different and interesting way. Ben, gifted with considerable horse sense, meets those trials head on. I found Ben’s playtime activities, though, a bit off for a child of fourteen, ten maybe. Perhaps Henry was looking to make the distance Ben travels from this to that seem longer than it really was.

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Image from Disney

But fret not. Though I am well past the YA demo I found this an engaging, fun, creative take on an old favorite. Ben is an appealing lead, struggling with the choices life presents, a dark horse to root for. There are adventures aplenty, head-scratcher mysteries to be solved, clues to be followed, warmth and family love to be appreciated, and a new, quite surprising interpretation of an old mystery. Is it scary? A bit. I am particularly immune to getting the creeps from books, and have a simple metric. Does anything in the book make the hair on my arms stand at attention? For what it’s worth, my pelt remained at ease. But it is clear that there is plenty of creepy material to be had in Horseman, and it is likely that many readers will get more of a frisson from those than might an old oater like me.

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Image from Sleepy Hollow wiki – from the film Headless Horseman

Horseman is a perfect read for the Halloween season. But you might not want to head off to a favorite outdoor reading spot if it is more than just a little way into the woods.

The dark silhouette seemed to unfold—no, unfurl, sinuous and soft—and I thought how can an animal stand like a man?
My breath seized inside my lungs because just for an instant I thought I saw eyes looking back at me, eyes that could not be there because no human was there, no human could possibly have eyes like that—eyes that glowed, eyes that pulled, eyes that seemed to be tugging on my soul, drawing it out through my mouth.

Review posted – October 1, 2021

Publication date – September 28, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Horseman from Berkley, via NetGalley in return for not losing my head writing a review.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Head on over and say Hi!

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

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

Items of Interest from the author
—–from her site – excerpt
—–from her site – Seven Short Stories

Items of Interest
—–Gutenberg – The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
—–Wiki on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
—–History.com – What Inspired ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? by Lesley Kennedy
—–Classic Becky’s Brain Food – Legends of the Headless Horseman – Sleepy Hollow’s topless performer was far from the first
—–One cannot possibly read the The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Horseman without recalling one of the greatest tabloid headlines of all time, of April 15, 1983, from the always-classy New York Post

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Songs/Music
—–Argent – Hold Your Head Up
—–Paul Anka – Put Your Head on My Shoulder
—–The Rollingstones – Wild Horses

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, YA and kids

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
—–Goodreads newsletter – Meet the Writers Behind Those Truly Terrifying Books
—–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

In my post-posting travels I came across a site that provides a much more inclusive, and visually appealing, list. Letterboxd shows a total of 154 film mentions (not all of which are horror films, per se) I saw 37 of those.

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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Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

book coverI will be writing, have been writing, or have already written (depending on when you see this. Time is strange here on GR) a review of Welcome to Night Vale. But until/when/after I do (or until you return from whatever time stream you are in to read this, or move ahead into another one) I can offer one definite bit of advice. Listen to a few of the Night Vale podcasts. If they float your boat, or, lacking water, elevate you at least several inches off the ground for a period of about twenty minutes, you will love this book. Proceed directly to the beginning of the actual review.

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====================================NOT ENCHANTED?
If you find the podcasts uninteresting, really, did you touch one of the pink flamingos? Something is wrong. OK, Ok, I know there are some folks who will not be enchanted by the Night Vale podcasts. This book is probably not for you. But if you go to the local library, you are sure to find something more to your liking. Hurry, go now. You might want to stop by and visit the dog park on your way. Be sure to say hi to the friendly figures in the hoods. Y’all take care now, and return directly to the section titled “Not Enchanted?”

=======================================ACTUAL REVIEW

It is a friendly desert community, where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.

Whew! I’m so glad we got rid of those people.

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A Cecil Baldwin sandwich with the authors in the role of bread

In July, 2013, Welcome to Night Vale became the most downloaded podcast on iTunes. It all began in 2012, a twice-a-month podcast that is Lake Wobegon by way of David Lynch, Lovecraft, told in the form of a community radio newscast.

It was started completely as a hobby,” Fink begins, when asked about how the podcast has gotten to this point. “Y’know, my friends and I, it was just something we enjoyed doing. Our entire goal, when we started it, was that maybe someday there’d be a few people who weren’t friends or family listening to it. We certainly had no goals beyond that, other than to enjoy making it.” – from interview in The Arcade

It is read by Cecil Baldwin who shares a first name with his fictional manifestation, Cecil Palmer, the radio broadcaster. The podcast is weird, creepy fun, rich with non-sequiturs and reasons to be afraid, many reasons. Cecil’s steady tones make it seem practically normal.

I’ve always been fascinated by conspiracy theories. And also, to a lesser extent fascinated by the Southwest desert. Fascinating things probably happen there on a regular basis. So I came up with this idea of a town in that desert where all conspiracy theories were real. – From Jackie Lyden’s 2013 NPR interview with the authors

And whether it was a result of a desire for expression in a new medium, an action taken in compliance with an order from one of the hooded figures in the dog park, or an angel in old woman Josie’s house, Fink and Craynor have committed their world to print.

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We, as readers, seem to have a soft spot for this genre. I don’t know if there is a name for the type that this fits into, storytelling-wise, but if there is a short term for “A small town where something is…off,” this book would fit in there quite nicely. (I know it is far from wonderful, but I hereby nominate the word “Oddsville” for the genre, capital of the great state of Unease. All in favor?) There is a rich tradition of such writing. Rod Serling was a fan of this trope in his Twilight Zone writing (Where is Everybody? , Monsters are Due on Maple Street, People Are Alike All Over). Stephen King has made a career in them, Derry, Castle Rock, Jerusalem’s Lot…ad infinitum. TV has mined this heavy lode as well. In addition to Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, X-files, and god-knows how many more, there are some more recent shows that indulge, including Wayward Pines, the town of Hope in The Leftovers, Haven, Eureka, Royston Vasey from The League of Gentlemen. Small towns, it would appear, are in our literary, and certainly in our entertainment DNA. So the something-off-small-town of Night Vale should feel familiar. Of course this one is a bit more unusual than your typical Oddsville offering, being rather flamboyant in its strangeness, to the point of silliness at times.

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As for the story, Jackie Fierro has been 19 for many, many years (like some of us?). She runs the town pawn shop, and will accept pretty much anything. A mysterious man in a tan jacket, gives her a slip of paper with “KING CITY” written on it. Every time she tries to get rid of the thing, or even to put it down, it keeps coming back to her, which, as you might imagine, is alarming. So she goes in search of tan-jacket man but no one in town can seem to recall seeing him. Hmmm.

Diane Crayton is a single mom to a shape-shifting fifteen-year-old son (what parent of a teenager cannot relate?). Of late she has been seeing Josh’s long absent Y-chromosome source all over town. Josh has been showing an interest in tracking down his father, despite Diane’s attempts to dissuade him. Diane and Jackie’s quests, and Josh’s too, lead them in a direction that is as obvious as an MC Escher roadmap. Does an endpoint even exist?

Diane and Jackie are certainly likeable sorts, and their tale is intriguing, with plenty of challenges to face and mysteries to solve, but the real deal with Welcome to Night Vale consists of three things, location, location, location. Fink and Cranor are trying to re-create in book form the delightfully weird experience of their podcast world. The story seems secondary. The atmosphere is rich with intense strangeness. I found most of it delightful, a dry delivery masking outrageousness. Sometimes they try too hard, generating eye-rolling that has been made mandatory by the City Council. You really, really do not want to fight city hall here, particularly on days when human sacrifice is on the calendar. But it is good, weird fun most of the time. The authors must have had some bad experiences with librarians in their youth. Literary comeuppance is had.

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The locale includes, among other things, roads that lead nowhere, mysterious lights floating above the town, black helicopters, yes those black helicopters, a faceless old woman who lives, unseen, in someone’s house, a sentient house, a diner waitress who struggles with fruit bearing tree branches growing from her body, car salesmen who offer howlingly good deals, a woman who keeps reliving her life in a perpetual loop, a sentient patch of haze, angels named Erika, people who exist but when you try to recall them, you can’t. Wait, what was I talking about? I just bet that if someone opens a nightclub in NV, they name it Studio 51. The list goes on, plenty to keep your brain engaged and your funny bone tickled.

When you partake of the Night Vale Kool Aid, you will be joining a horde that has sprung up in impressive numbers. There are fan sites galore, with artwork, fan fiction, and a host of ways in which what remains of your consciousness can be further shaved and fed to the glow-cloud. I have included some links to those in the usual place.

You have never read anything like this before. Unless, of course you are in a time loop and are living your life over and over and over. This means you, Sheila. Yes, I know you have read this book many times, all for the first time. OK, happy? But for the rest of us…

Fink and Cranor’s sense of humor is definitely not for everyone. But if you check your kitchen cabinets and find that your supply of weird is running a little low, I suggest heading over to Night Vale. They are running a special and you won’t want to miss out.

PS – more volumes are planned. Be sure to keep up with your local community newscast for further details.

Review Posted – 11/6/15

Published – 10/20/15

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

Links to the author’s, well to Night Vale’s main, Twitter and FB pages

You can download individual podcasts here

Interviews
—–Early Influences – The Arcade
——Stephen Colbert appearance, including a reading of the Community Calendar
—–Jackie Lyden’s NPR interview with the authors – Welcome to Night Vale: Watch out for the tarantulas

Some fan sites
—–The Shape from Grove Park
—–Fuck Yeah Night Vale
—–A Softer Night Vale

A Night Vale Wiki
The actual Wikipedia entry for Night Vale

A fun vid from the Idea Channel that links Night Vale to HP Lovecraft – How Does Night Vale Confront Us With the Unknown?

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Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

book cover

Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.

Detective Bill Hodges is 62, overweight, divorced and retired. He lives alone and has an uncomfortably familiar relationship with his father’s pistol. The two spend long hours together in front of the tube, taking in the sort of Maury-Povich-mind-poison that is probably grown in basement vats to be sold to post-lobotomy viewers for the price of a gazillion commercials, disposable hours of a pointless life, and a willingness to cash in one’s remnant humanity for a permanent gig as a morality-blind multi-eyed sofa spud.

Hodges had been on the job when a particularly heinous crime had been committed, but was out before he could find the evil-doer. His pre-suicidal reverie is disturbed by the non-postal-service delivery of a printed message. The nut job who did the crime taunts Hodges for his failure, and encourages him to take his suicidal contemplation a step further. Fat chance.

As far as the term hard-boiled goes, I feel pretty comfortable applying it to eggs (cooked in water until the yolk is firm). As for hard-boiled fiction, there are probably as many different definitions as there are diverse sorts of egg-layers. So I will offer no litmus test here to measure whether Mr Mercedes satisfies a certain set of definitional criteria. Is it truly hard-boiled or not? Is it truly noir-ish or not? To which I can only reply. Sorry dear, did you say something? Could you pass the bourbon, please. There are many sub-categories of the mystery genre, 14 of which are noted for your pleasure on the web site of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. And I am certain that Mr Mercedes fits nicely into one of them. But whether you prefer your mystery tales hard-boiled, soft-boiled, poached, scrambled, fried or over-easy, the one thing that counts here is the chef author. Whatever he does with and to the genre, Stephen King will take you for a ride that includes at least a bit and maybe more than a bit of a scare. And scary is scary whether the source is a haunted house, a psycho alien clown or a very sick puppy.

Said sick puppy opens this story by driving the large Mercedes of the title directly into a crowd of the hopeful and desperate at a job fair in an unnamed Midwest town, killing eight and seriously injuring over a dozen more. (King talks about the genesis of this scene here, in a video clip from TV station WABI in Maine.) Not a recreational activity most of us might indulge in, but for Brady Harstfield murdering and maiming constitutes good times. He makes ends meet as a house-calling IT guy. His second job is as an ice-cream vendor. And, while it is fun to see Brady in his white truck gig, it did feel rather forced. If you are expecting Raymond Chandler here, or Dashiell Hammett, you will have to holster your expectations. There will be no trying-to-figure-out-whodunit in this story. The looney tunes with the diminished conscience and enlarged mommy issues is presented straight away as our psycho-killer. So, more Columbo than Marlowe. The trail we follow is in how the goodies discover and find their way to the baddie.

Erstwhile Detective Hodges takes the lead. King spends some time with introductions, as Mr Mercedes is the first of a planned trilogy. So we get to know a bit about him and his partners in anti-crime. Jerome Robinson is 17, black, 6’5”, a computer whiz, within reason, and Ivy League bound. He has been doing some lawn work and occasional IT assistance for Hodges, and is the closest thing the old guy has to a friend. Holly Gibney, 44, has issues, having spent a few sessions in institutions for the very nervous. She is a cousin to the late owner of the Mercedes that was used in the carnage. Hodges met her as he looked into the death of her cuz. Her mother Charlotte is an awful human being, controlling, greedy, and incapable of seeing Holly’s better qualities. She has some, intelligence and tenacity being high on that list. This oddball trio (the Harper Road Irregulars?) work the case, without, of course, involving the police any more than absolutely necessary. I found them extremely engaging. Jerome is probably too perfect, and Holly may be a bit too twitchy, but they are fun to follow.

King shows his playfulness with the genre, whatever genre it actually is. Of course, Hodges is just a retired detective not a PI, but when Holly’s aunt, Janelle Patterson, (named, surely, for a certain author King has called “a terrible writer”) hires him he takes a step in the genre direction. (I have vowed not to make any jejune comments regarding private dicks) Janelle even buys him what she calls a Philip Marlowe fedora. Janelle is, of course, the mandatory femme fatale, but if so, she is on the light side, lacking some of the attributes normally associated with that type. Could Hodges’ Harper Road address be a nod to Ross McDonald’s Lew Harper? The baddie references several cop dramas, NYPD Blue, Homicide, and The Wire, for example. Luther and Prime Suspect are noted as well, in a disparaging way. Mentions of Wambaugh and Grisham appear, and King double dips by naming a records department cop Marlo. There are undoubtedly many more, but those are the ones that jumped out at me.

King lets us look over Brady’s shoulder as well as over Hodges’, and tosses in some third-party views as well. Parenthood comes in for a difficult time. Only Jerome, of all the major, or even secondary characters, has a decent parent-child relationship with his actual family. Of course bubby family life is not exactly a staple of detective fiction, so that fits well enough.

Madness is the doorway that writers step through when they want to introduce a bit of fantasy to an otherwise real-world scenario. And SK simply could not help himself. Mr Mercedes is most definitely a non-fantasy novel, but there are a few (really, only a few) moments when familiar King woo-woo material appears. It will be interesting to see if this is a recurring feature in his trilogy or if SK can stay on the non-fantasy wagon for the entire ride.

So what’s the bottom line here? Stephen King cranks out novels, it seems, like Hershey produces kisses. They are all tasty and appealing, but there is a definite sameness to the product. King can draw readers in. He offers engaging characters, and understands the mechanics of tension and release as well as any living writer. Put a red wrapper on it and it remains a tasty treat. Blue? Same deal. I bet if King wanted to write a historical romance it would have engaging characters, some danger, some resolution. It would pull you in and hold on like a succubus (no, not public transportation through a red-light district) or like a succubus on a private dick. Sorry, I just could not stop myself. But at least I put the offending material under a spoiler tag, so that makes it ok, right? or, in this case, a femme fatale. I thought the anti-religion musing in which the killer indulges seemed like an interesting theme to explore further, but it seemed to fade.

You will rip through Mr Mercedes faster than the posted limit. There are some scary moments as you careen through, and you will care whether this one or that one comes to a bad end. Some do, some don’t. It is probably a good thing that King is looking to write things other than straight-up horror. He has to amuse himself somehow, keep those possessed typing fingers of his out of trouble. But overall, while Mr Mercedes will get you from here to there and show you a thing or two along the way, it felt a lot more like basic transportation than a true luxury ride.

Posted – 1/3/15

Published June 3, 2014

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

Here is SK’s site and FB page

Otto Penzler has nifty description of what constitutes hard-boiled fiction

A few other King Family items I have reviewed
by Stephen King
The Shining
Doctor Sleep
Under the Dome
Duma Key
Lisey’s Story
Revival

by Joe Hill
NOS4A2
20th Century Ghosts
Heart-Shaped Box

A Gif of the UK cover is cute, but I thought it too distracting to include above

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Bird Box by Josh Malerman

book cover

Close your eyes and imagine the basso sound of voiceover icon Don LaFontaine intoning, “In a world gone mad…” and that is pretty much where Bird Box begins. Open your eyes and go mad. Kill others, yourself. Can you keep from peeking? For how long? In Josh Malerman’s post-apocalyptic, eye-opening scare-scape, something happened. An invasion? Some natural phenomenon? No one is really certain. But what has become clear is that anyone who steps outside with their eyes open goes insane, not just gibbering or confused, but violently and destructively, homicidally mad.

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From the film

In the near-future today of the story, Malorie is a young mother, with two small children in her charge. She has been training them for over four years, to hear, with a sensitivity and acuity more usually associated with flying mammals. They embark on a river journey to what she hopes is a safe haven, twenty miles away, blindfolded. Any noise could be someone, or something following them. She must rely on the skill she has rigorously drilled into the boy and girl every day to help guide them, and alert them to danger. And we must wonder if the destination she aims for will offer relief or some version of Mistah Kurtz.

Chapters alternate, mostly, between the river journey and Malorie’s back story. We follow her from when The Problem began, seeing death and destruction in first a few isolated locations, then spreading everywhere, seeing loved ones succumb, then finding a place to live, a refuge, with others, and watch as they cope, or fail.

In horror stories, it helps to have an appealing hero. I am sure most of us have seen our share of splatter films in which the demise of each obnoxious teen is met with cheers rather than with dismay. The other sort is of the Wait until Dark variety, in which our heart goes out to the Audrey Hepburn character beset by dark forces. Bird Box is the latter type. Malorie is a very sympathetic character, an everywoman trying her best under ridiculous circumstances, more the Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) of Nightmare On Elm Street or the Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) of Halloween, than the Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) of Alien, but Malorie does what she must to survive and to prepare with patience and diligence to sally forth against the unknown.

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Author image taken from Fearnet.com

Malerman was bitten by the horror bug as an early teen:

My big introduction wasTwilight Zone: the Movie, the first horror movie I ever saw. After that came Saturday Shockers and sneaking in whatever I could at a friend’s house (Faces of Death, Psycho… Blacula…Prom Night.) I was also reading a lot. There’s a great period of horror fiction history, before the novel-boom of the 70’s spearheaded by Rosemary’s Baby, The Other, and The Exorcist, in which the short story ruled the genre. That period is golden and completely bursting with ideas. I read M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Poe, Blackwood, Bierce, et al. When you first approach it, the genre, it feels infinite, but it’s not. So, come high school, I was trying to write my own scary stories, weird poems, strange tales. (from Detroit CBS Local news interview)

He likes to write with horror movie soundtracks on. And he is a musical sort as well, singing and playing in the band The High Strung. In fact, fans of Shameless, on Showtime, have already been exposed to Malerman’s work, as the writer and performer of that show’s theme song.

The dynamics of the house-full of refugees in the back story will feel familiar. Who to let in, or not, concerns over sharing limited resources, discussions over what adventuresome risks might or might not be worth taking re looking toward the future, or in trying to learn more about the cause of their situation. One might be forgiven for seeing here a societal microcosm, but I do not really think this was what Malerman was on about. He does offer a bit of a larger, thematic view though, tied to the central image of the book, which definitely adds to the heft of the story. A wondering at more existential questions

She thinks of the house as one big box. She wants out of this box. Tom and Jules, outside, are still in this box. The entire globe is shut in. The world is confined to the same cardboard box that houses the birds outside. Malorie understands that Tom is looking for a way to open the lid. He’s looking for a way out. But she wonders if there’s not a second lid above this one, then a third above that.
Boxed in, she thinks. Forever.

You really want Malorie to reach safety with the children, but there is a gauntlet to be run, and there is no certainty that any of them will make it. The dangers are human, natural and eldritch, and I mean that in a very Lovecraftian way.

You will definitely not want to put Bird Box down once you pick it up. This is a very scary, and gripping novel. If you are reading on the train, you may miss your stop. If you are reading at bedtime, you will definitely miss a few winks, and might want to sleep with the lights on after you finish.

I think some horror authors are trying to scare you, but with me, I’m as scared as the reader is of the story. I’ve always been that way, since watching the Twilight Zone movie — watching Firestarter when my parents were out, or sneaking out to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street at a friend’s house because I couldn’t watch it at my house. That makes you doubly scared — of the movie, and of the possibility of Mom finding out. (from Metrotimes interview)

A generic problem I have with the book is that the dark elements here sometimes tend to step back when they have decided advantages, failing to make the most (or worst as the case may be) of their positions. It was not obvious to me that there was some point being made by these unexpected choices. Nevertheless, Malerman takes the notion of the unseen and pushes readers to create the scariest thing of all, that which lurks in the imagination.

It is not at all dangerous to see how much fun this book is. Usually it is considered a good thing to think outside the box, but in this case it is clearly a far, far better thing that Malerman has done his thinking inside one.

Posted on GR November 19, 2013

Pub date – May 2014

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Filed under Fiction, Horror, Reviews