This is a dark, entangling, deeply unsettling sort of book. The type that digs gritty fingernails deep into your skin, your very bones, and doesn’t let go, not even after you’re finished reading.
Felicia Sullivan had me wrapped up in her story from the very beginning and from there it only gathers steam, or more like vicious black smoke, a smoke that may smell of charred human remains.
I have a deep love of horror but so often horror is given a bad rap as something shallow or schlocky or just too gory and horrible for the sake of being so. Follow Me into the Dark brings horror into the realm of the literary in a way that reminded me of one of my favorite writers, Stephen Graham Jones.
Like much of his writing, this book isn’t afraid to go to places that may be difficult to understand, to use language that might obscure the meaning, or to just straight up obfuscate the scene in a way that makes you have to feel your way out, almost like you are in the dark yourself sometimes.
Of course, this is intentional—the nonlinear structure of the novel, the slippage between the generations and the years causes a disconnect, while at the same time highlighting how patterns of behavior, pain, and illness can be passed down the line affecting family members differently as they fracture outward.
The main thrust of the plot follows Kate whose mother is dying of cancer. Her stepfather is concurrently sleeping with Gillian, who happens to be a doppelgänger of Kate and further, there is a serial killer called the Doll Collector on the loose killing girls who have similar appearance to her as well. Gillian’s stepbrother Jonah increasingly matches the description of the killer, but it couldn’t really be him, could it?
Kate begins delving into her past and her mother’s past, bringing things to the surface that she would have preferred to keep hidden. Abuse, mental illness, loss, and pain begin narrating the pages and her emotions, especially negative ones like anger and rage, start boiling over in a way she can no longer control and the lines in her own mind begin to blur.
Perhaps the answers to now lie in the past, no matter how difficult it is to face them.
As a reader, I got the feeling that I couldn’t really trust any of the narrators; there is a sense of unreliability throughout the novel, though it is built on enough trustworthy details that I just had to keep digging. I wanted to find the truth!
There is a velvety depth to the language of this book. I got lost in it, I drowned in it. I felt like I was going crazy at times—truth is not absolute in this book, the words sometimes withhold more than they reveal, but what is clear is the profound nature of personal suffering and the lengths that some will go to, however misguided by the mind or the past, to end it.
Chilling and compelling. A beautifully written debut novel.
Get your copy of Follow Me into the Dark
Find out more about the author, Felicia Sullivan
Find out more about the publisher, Feminist Press
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A month into the new year, I’m still looking back. Though I read over 100 books last year, I didn’t quite squeeze in everything I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still satisfied with my numbers. A great year. When you consider that most of the population didn’t even crack the cover of one book. . . well, I know the people reading this are the exception to that sad statistic!
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking back, as I’ve spent this January in a fierce re-read of the Harry Potter series with my boyfriend, who never had the joy of reading these magical books. How sweet, how beautiful to delve back into this world, like spending time with an old friend who you know so much about, but still has some surprises up their sleeve.
Harry Potter represents childhood and growing up for so many of us. Maybe those books were the first escape you ever learned, the first fiction you ever clung to outside of your own reality. I know the magic was strong for me.
It has definitely been a way to escape this month, into a place that is familiar, but where evil seems insurmountable and yet the light finds cracks, however small, to break through. That’s something then, when the real world outside seems only worse every day, in a way that I can’t really affect change.
Following Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all the others on their journey to their final battle has put me in mind about so many things. About my younger self and how I saw the story then: my anger and disbelief as some characters passed from its pages, my triumphant realization of figuring out things before the trio, my reveling in their magical moments, and the wistful loss when I’d shut the book and come back to myself, realizing that magic wasn’t real at all.
Books preserve things. Perhaps not so dissimilar to Riddle’s diary, books keep a record of the moments they encounter, the readers that inhabit them. While a piece of my younger self might be embedded in these books, being revealed to the light for the first time in many years, I’m preserving a new piece of myself and the current turmoil around me in the pages for the next time they awaken.
With all that in mind, I decided to do a short round-up of my top ten books of last year, though the time for top lists has been out of vogue for some weeks now. That doesn’t mean that these books are any less good than they were when everyone else was being more timely about top lists, nor that they shouldn’t be picked up and read this year.
It's also sort of a year in review for me and for this blog, as I started it at about the end of January last year.
Weirdly, I didn’t do reviews for some of these books and so plan to cover them more fully as their paperback dates approach. If I did review them, the link is there, so click away if they sound intriguing to you. I’ve also listed the dates they are due to come out in paperback, for your wallet, and perhaps so this list still seems relevant.
Of course, I still have a list of books from last year sitting in a tall stack beside my bed (it’s just sitting there, haunting me every day, threatening to crush me in my sleep) and a lot of them look like potential top books: Hagseed, Thus Bad Begins, Barkskins, The Mandibles. . . Ah, well. Another year, another stack! And next Tuesday, four more books coming out that I want to get. . .
This list is in no particular order, though it may, psychologically, be in some sort of order.
The Girls—Emma Cline
I knew this one was instantly in my top 10 the moment I began it. I read it first in March when the second (or third or fourth?) wave of advance copies were making rounds and then read it again in June when it came out. Gosh, this book really gets it. This coming-of-age story centers on a girl who wishes to become more, but finds she is stunted by society, the time period of the 1960s, her situation, and even the supposed friends she surrounds herself by. Well, how are you supposed to know when you are only 14 and experiencing life for the first time? But what happened then freezes Evie—she is more of an antihero than a portrait of perfect girlhood advancing into womanhood. Rippling sentences, superb characters, this is an excellent debut. (May 9, 2017)
Imagine Me Gone—Adam Haslett
I did not know when I was struck by this incredibly simple but ingenious cover that the book therein would be one of my favorites of the year. Yes, I admit it freely: I do sometimes buy books solely based on design alone. I’m definitely a sucker for a well-designed book—but I think publishers know that. (Three of the books on this list [though not this one] were by Mendelsund, and he’s no newb.) Haslett’s book is an intensely character involved miasma of truly thought-provoking writing. He’s dealing with heavy-hitting topics in a very internal way, depicting a mind under siege, a conflicted family, and people that effortlessly come off the pages. Not to be missed. (February 21, 2017)
An epic, sprawling, incredibly ambitious debut, this is one that will truly envelop you. For African American fiction, it was Whitehead’s Underground Railroad that got all the 2016 attention, and while that was excellent, Gyasi’s work definitely wins out in my book. The book is almost set more as interconnecting short shorts that follow one family as it branches out down the lines of slavery. Beginning with two sisters, who never even knew they were related, every other chapter tells of the next generation of one side or the other. One side tells a story of Africa, while the other side tells a story of American slavery and the two intermingle heartbreakingly, heartwarmingly, and with such exquisite storytelling, I can’t imagine what will come from Gyasi next, I can only tell you that I will read it immediately and love it. (May 2, 2017)
The Crow Girl—Erik Axl Sund
Crime fiction hitting my top list! Truly a surprise. Though I do like to muck around with crime fiction/suspense/thrillers/mystery books, generally I find them disappointing, over-plotted, too generic, and I solve them much too easily. This book, actually 3 books when it was originally published, is none of those things. Sprawling and epic, this book has an extremely realistic characters and a complex and uber-dark plot that I found way more interesting than even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series that so captivated the world. Scandi-noir is on the rise again, but be warned, it does not hold back. This book may scar you. (June 27, 2017)
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial—Maggie Nelson
I don’t read a whole lot of nonfiction (so sue me) but I try to branch out a bit here and there. This book is astonishing, incredible, and completely worth reading in every way. Nelson writes about the resolution of the murder of her aunt, Jane, and how she coped with finally finding out what really happened after growing up with a horrible mystery in her family. As a devotee of crime fiction, I was like GIVE IT HERE, but this book also has so much more to offer—an insistence on relating to why our society is so obsessed with crime and continues to be, in increasing numbers. A personal story filled with indelibly gorgeous writing, only the way Nelson could do it. Find it immediately. (April 5, 2016, paperback original)
Mongrels—Stephen Graham Jones
This guy. He somehow pumps out these literary lowbrow horror genius masterpieces and this one is no exception. A werewolf coming-of-age tale? Bet you didn’t see that coming. Werewolves have never been explained quite like this, but honestly, if they’ve made it this far in modern society, it seems like Jones has their number. One of the most original writers I have ever read, he never ceases to surprise in the most honest (and sometimes gory) ways. (January 24, 2017)
Before the Fall—Noah Hawley
A small private plane loads up, takes off, and less than 20 minutes later, crashes into the ocean, leaving only two survivors, a four-year-old boy, and a struggling artist who wasn’t really supposed to be there anyway. What this book encapsulates is the unraveling of what happened on that plane: was it an accident? A planned hit on a high-powered business man? Murder over love? What went on in the cabin of that plane and how it captivates a nation, pushing in on the private lives of the two survivors is the main thrust of the story, casting the artist in the light of hero and villain as the people around him try to create a sensational story. Does what happened even matter to the media? Or the world? Brilliantly written as well. I’d love to see a movie version of this. (June 6, 2017)
I didn’t read as much poetry this past year as I usually do, but this collection is standout for sure. Her use of the page and white space gives the reader time to really think about her use of the language, while the denser parts force the reader onward, reading through the difficulty even without grasping the meaning of every line and every word. It seems almost omniscient at times and at others, hopeful in a heartbreaking way. (No paperback date available)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories—Benjamin Hale
I love reading short story collections. I think they lay bare writers in a way that novels do not; there is no place to hide in the condensed space of a short story. While a lot of good collections came out this year, I’ve chosen this one for my top list. The stories within are consistently great and even challenging, showing a wide range of creativity, character work, and writing styles. Hale mixes humor and darkness and absurd situations. I particularly adored the title story, where a failing experimental artist makes himself the main exhibit. (May 30, 2017)
All Things Cease to Appear—Elizabeth Brundage
This book was a quiet wonder. Simply brilliant and sneakingly dark, set against a stark wintry, country landscape, it tells the story of a murder backwards. We already know who gets murdered from the first chapter but not the murderer’s identity, and then the story rewinds to the beginning. A beautiful, haunting story of more than one broken family with so many more repercussions than just whodunit, this one left me breathless. (February 7, 2017)
I am a true crime buff—I listen to all the podcasts, read all the books, and know about all the cases I can get my itchy fingers on. Serial, you can bet I’ve listened to it—twice. Making a Murderer—yep, don’t even get me started on documentarian ethics. I’ve seen The People vs. OJ Simpson and the new shows on my own hometown murder, JonBenet Ramsey.
Yes, I know about Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, how Ted Bundy stalked his victims pretending to have his arm in a sling, and all about John Wayne Gacy, who was inspiration for everyone from Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs to Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Twisty the Clown on the “Freakshow” season of American Horror Story.
I also know about the cases you’ve probably never heard of either. Ever heard of the Long Island serial killer? The vampire of Sacramento Richard Chase? How about Robert Hansen, the Butcher Baker? Don't google "death of Tim McLean" unless you're ready for a bizarre and horrifying murder on a bus in rural Canada. We're barely scratching the surface here.
I love Ann Rule, got way too into Zodiac theories with Robert Graysmith, and do what is probably considered a bit too much research on serial killers, strange murders, and crime. Sue me. I find the human condition interesting—and after all, the worst monsters are real. (Tagline via Sword and Scale, my favorite true crime pod.)
If you’re nodding your head, if you’re itching to join in, if you feel like this describes you, you’re in the right place. But interestingly, the book I’m about to describe is fiction. It’s not a true crime story at all, although it is set up to feel like one.
His Bloody Project is a novel that I’m hard pressed to really categorize. It’s got elements of crime and horror, but isn’t really either of those things entirely. It is a bit epistolary, as it is told in letters, journal entries, and other documents. What I can say for sure is that it is a psychological riddle that leaves the reader at the center, putting together the statements and pieces to make up their own mind about what really happened.
Make no mistake. You know there was a crime, and you know who committed it, though for much of the book, the details are cast in shadow. This set up left me with this pit of dread in my stomach that just grew and grew—so effective! I knew that murder was coming, I just didn’t know exactly how it would happen.
About half the book is an account by convicted murderer Roderick Macrae of how it came to be that he did what he did. The other half is autopsy reports, some reports from criminal experts who interviewed him, the trial transcripts, news clippings, and other writings that round out the details of the mysterious case.
Not sure if this will be a spoiler for some people, but what the book doesn’t give you is solid answers: the, this is why he REALLY did it—we know for sure! But that’s what makes it so realistic, so true to life. Sometimes we can’t understand people’s true intentions, the “why” we are searching for.
Even more interesting is what I felt I was able to put together, based on all the information given, and how it was given. The book is set in 1869, a time when criminal psychiatry was not nearly as advanced as it is now. There are diagnoses that were simply not available to them because they didn’t exist yet. I recognized qualities in Roderick that make me suspect who he is, who is hiding inside him.
It is also set in rural Scotland, where there was a huge bias against the farming communities of the highlands—those people who were continuing to live in the old Scottish way rather than conforming to the English way of living (and speaking). Despite Roderick’s seeming high intelligence and eloquence in his diary, everyone is exceedingly biased against him and thought he was destined to become a criminal.
It was like being at a real trial—feeling the injustice of it all, sensing that I knew some truth about Roderick, his mind, and his situation that they weren’t quite understanding or getting to, feeling that I had all the pieces there and I somehow had to put them all together!
It’s no wonder this book made the shortlist for the Man Booker this year. I love a book that makes me think and put together the narrative myself. One that has me piecing together the elements like a detective.
In the end, did Roddy even have a chance? That’s the question I’m left wondering. I’d love to chat with anyone else who has read this one! Any thoughts on Roderick? Why he did it? Who he is? Come on, true crime buffs—you know you want a piece of your own mystery to solve!
Get your copy of His Bloody Project
Find out more about the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet
Find out more about the publisher, Contraband
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“What’s the real way to make a horror movie?” (256)
You are an actor, but you’ve never been in a movie yet. All of a sudden, your agent calls: you’ve been given the chance of a lifetime, the role you’ve been waiting for, your big break. But you have to get on a plane to the Amazon right now, leaving everything behind, no time to let anyone know what’s going on, barely even time to pack a bag. You don’t know what the role is, or even what it movie is about, but you have to decide right now.
Do you go? Could you leave everything behind? Or would you wait for something with less unknowns?
We Eat Our Own is a literary psychological horror novel that also delves into political turmoil as well incorporating interesting film history throughout.
The main plot is that famed Italian horror director Ugo Velluto is filming a new experimental documentary-style film deep in the Amazon in the 1970s. Think The Blair Witch Project, but this is about 30 years before that movie was made. His American actor for the leading role of Richard, is cast late due to another actor dropping out.
The actor (only called “Richard” by the book) flies to South America, but nothing seems to be quite right—the director doesn’t really care that he is there, no one will give him a script, he can’t call home or potentially even leave, they are doing dangerous stunts that are nothing like movies in America... What is going on?
At the same time, the area of South America they are in is in dangerous political turmoil due to guerillas, drug traffickers, and even a mysterious American who runs the hotel they are all staying at. If the film doesn’t kill him, Colombia might.
Each chapter is told by a different character, some characters repeating frequently, some only being used once or twice. The book borders on experimental at times, with main actor Richard’s sections being told in second person—like my opening paragraph—which is very unusual for novels.
Even from the start, there is a sinister tone to Richard’s sections; there is always some sort of reference like: “Here’s what you don’t know…” which makes the reader uncomfortably omniscient, with this growing sense of dread that something terrible is coming, something horrible is going to happen to Richard.
The other chapters are not in second person, but they use other alienating features, like the lack of quotes around dialogue, which can make the reader lose track of who is speaking as the dialogue runs together a bit.
Interspersed throughout the main plot of the movie set, and a side plot of a few young political guerillas (that comes into play later, you’ll see!), there are transcripts from a trial that make the reader aware that everything we are experiencing in the Amazon has already happened, and Ugo is on trial for something, though we aren’t sure what.
Being a horror movie buff, what really drew me to this book in the first place was the idea that it was inspired by the cult exploitation film, Cannibal Holocaust, along with the Italian giallo tradition, a type of horror movie with crime elements, often featuring a slasher, most prevalent throughout the 70s.
I really enjoyed the chapters from the point of view of the special effects team, a husband and wife who have worked with Ugo on many of his previous films. It’s obvious that Wilson did a lot of research about special effects in horror movies to write these scenes.
There is great detail about how bodies and body parts are created out of gelatin molds and sometimes (when you are in the jungle with no resources) even butchered animals to create horror effects. I loved every second of it.
It’s a mix of schlocky horror like Cannibal Holocaust, with literary horror like Heart of Darkness, and documentary horror like The Blair Witch Project. An ambitious and experimental novel that is deeply unsettling and written to great effect.
Get your copy of We Eat Our Own
Find out more about the author, Kea Wilson
Find out more about the publisher, Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
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This is a book for times like these.
Things you thought never had a chance in the world of happening, things the whole world is watching in horror, things there’s no possible way back from, things like that are occurring.
Think 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, hell, even Hunger Games.
Then mix in Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, and American Psycho.
Is that the world we’re creating for ourselves? The world of people we are surrounded ourselves with? I wonder. For now, we still have books to turn to, books to bring creative release and to supply us with worlds to explore and provide us with understanding, escape, and some form of solace.
This is Samuel Bradbury’s story. His is not a happy one—I’ll warn you now—and he doesn’t end up in good places. His mother leaves early and he’s (barely) raised by his religious, emotionally abusive, and absent father. No one understands him and from an early age, Samuel had bad impulses, urges to kill, and he doesn’t feel a bit bad about it. He only feels he’s becoming something more.
He’s telling his story from a point later in his life, when an eager governor gets backing to create a criminal zoo—if your crime was bad enough, you are locked up for the pleasure of the paying public. To make matters worse (or better, I suppose, depending on your point of view), you can pay an extra fee to join the criminal in their cage and torture them for just a few minutes. If the criminal lasts one year in the zoo, they are released to a normal prison to live out a life sentence.
They asked for it, right? Take a human life and treat it like nothing but dirt and you deserve to be subject to the worst that humanity can offer.
The book raises so many interesting and provocative questions. From the beginning, I felt sorry for Samuel. He is mistreated and emotionally stunted and abused his whole childhood, and even suffers from a bad head injury that went without proper treatment; without a doubt that could contribute to some of his psychopathic tendencies.
But there’s also something off about him. He doesn’t seem to feel at all. And, he has a sister who was raised in the same circumstances who turned out just fine. So, it’s the age old serial killer debate: nature vs. nurture?
I think it’s a bit of both. Perhaps you could be born with a bit of wiring out of place, a tendency toward sociopathic behaviors. But those behaviors can be channeled into good. With the neglect, injury, and confusion that Samuel went through as a child, his mind shut down and turned against his humanity.
But does that mean he is unfixable? Irredeemably broken? Should he be turned into a scapegoat, forced to suffer through unspeakable torture at the hands of supposedly normal citizens who have some cross to bear, some deep wound they think will be healed if they can cut his face with a switchblade?
And that’s not even mentioning the voyeurs. Sure, we all enjoy watching movies—I’m the biggest horror fan you know. But if it were real, if you could go watch people being tortured right in front of you, would you do it?
They are still people after all. The most inhumane, monstrous acts throughout history have always been done by people. And don’t we become the monsters if we treat them with as little regard as they treated their victims?
Doesn’t that make us just as bad as the criminals?
Where is the line drawn?
It feels prescient to be reading Criminal Zoo during election week. I feel like the emotions that comes out of the people who visit the zoo in this book is the same anger, hatred, and confusion that came from many voters this week—as shown by the results of the election.
Is this who we are? Is this what it means to be American? To support hate, bigotry, racism, sexism, and divisive, angry speech? I don’t think the criminal zoo is the way. I don’t think that anger is the way. We need to come together to show the world that we are bigger than this, despite the results. Or this could be our future.
We didn’t see this coming. What will be next?
Get your copy of Criminal Zoo
out November 15, 2016
Find out more about the publisher, Rare Bird Books
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There is something truly captivating about a lost child.
Is that horrible to say?
But there’s a way that a community rallies around those stories, throws everything at finding the missing kid, and lives in every detail, whether it is whispered, shadowy gossip, or the news stories playing full-blast in every store and home.
When fourteen-year-old Tommy goes missing in the park when he should have been spending the night with his two best friends, his mother, Elizabeth, and sister, Kate, are left trying to piece together what might have happened to him. But the truth about what happened to Tommy is not as simple as it appears on the surface. And there may even be darker forces at work. . .
Paul Tremblay plays with the seemingly old story line of kid-lost-in-the-woods in a completely new and different way, bringing in his signature twist of the uncanny—is something supernatural at play or not? If you are interested in his first book, A Head Full of Ghosts, I’ve done a review of it here.
Tremblay excels at stringing readers along for the length of the narrative, building tension slowly with an ominous driving plot, while at the same time being very tight-fisted about his ghosts. As in the real world, there’s never really enough evidence to prove anything one way or the other. If you believe, you will see them, and if you don’t, you’ll find a way to shrug it off. But the oppressive atmosphere is still there.
When pages of Tommy’s diary start mysteriously appearing around the house and no one can account for how they got there, Elizabeth doesn’t know what to think. Her daughter swears she has nothing to do with it and seems scared of the whole situation. Of course she doesn’t want to think Tommy is dead, but could it be his ghost? Is someone breaking in? What is going on!?
This tactic, known in literary terms as the fantastic, is the constant struggle to decide whether what is happening can be explained rationally or can only be supernatural. Tremblay is a master of this technique, leaving not only the reader, but also the characters seesawing back and forth, trying to figure out if they are being visited by ghosts, if some type of prank is being enacted upon them, or if something more insidious is at work.
Devil’s Rock is an elusive tangle of lies, where everyone has a bit of an agenda, and as a reader, I never quite knew which characters I could fully trust. The whole book is definitely a study in grey areas; just because someone might be doing the wrong thing, they might be doing it for the right reason. Then again, they might just be trying to cover something up.
As the details come to light, the pit in my stomach only grew and grew—but that’s where Tremblay really excels as a horror writer. He has a knack for what will make us cringe in shock and horror, but immediately come back for more. The story felt so weirdly realistic too, like it could have been ripped straight from the headlines, that I felt a bit guilty at times, like I should be out looking for Tommy too, instead of sitting inside reading this book.
While the book is really told mostly from Elizabeth’s perspective, where the writing really takes off is with the kids. As in A Head Full of Ghosts, the children drive the narrative and there is a lot more going on underneath the surface with them than is originally apparent. I don't want to give any more away, but don't underestimate kids. They have deep internal and external lives that we often know nothing about.
In that way, the book is a type of coming-of-age, but instead of Holden Caulfield center stage in the moment, most of the action has already occurred. Tommy and his friends now take a back seat and we uncover them slowly, peeling away their layers of fear and walls of secrecy to find out they weren’t exactly who everyone thought they were, including Tommy.
While Ghosts was thinking a lot about representations of events through media and recollection, Devil’s Rock is much more immediate and present on the surface of an ongoing case. It means to unravel the past to get to an exact truth, no matter what that truth reveals.
A great book to get into fall, as you’re walking through the woods, wondering what might be out there, or what might be following you home.
Get your copy of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock
Find out more about the author, Paul Tremblay
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Find out more about the publisher, William Morrow (HarperCollins)
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If you want to get all science-y about it, our innate fear of creepy-crawlies, heights, tornadoes, the dark, scary lions, and just about everything else we could possibly be afraid of comes from our ancestors. Having a fear of things that could potentially kill us was (and probably still is) sensible: If you lived longer, you passed your genes on, and blah-di-blah, now you rule the world with offspring.
What’s more interesting (to me at least) is what makes us want to be scared, to search out that adrenaline rush, to crave that moment of spine-tingling, eye-widening fear, to revel in jump scares, to read horror books, watch scary movies, and, in the month of October—so close, guys—even go to haunted houses for a real in-the-flesh scare. (There’s a pretty good book that explores all this, The Science of Fear, I recommend it if you are interested in the subject.)
But why do we do that to ourselves? Why not just revel in our safe, modern world? And it’s not like there aren’t plenty of things to be afraid of nowadays. Plane crashes, cybercrime, terrorism, guns, hacking, trolling, all these things that the modern world and technology have brought upon us.
And it’s not like everyone is waiting around looking for some wacko to chase them with a chainsaw, either. Some people HATE horror movies and won’t even drive past a graveyard let alone enter a Halloween store.
There is something to be said for feeling too secure though or too bored. I find horror—probably the most polarizing of all the genres—a true form of release. Everything is laid bare and true strength emerges. People are reborn, they grow into their true selves, or they don’t make it. Shit gets real.
I don’t think there’s any other genre that goes quite as deep or as hard into the human psyche and in a day and age when so many of us spend all day quietly sitting at computers funneling energy into amorphous jobs where we might not even really see the product of our work, where is our outlet?
We need to let it go. And I say, give horror a try.
The Hatching is a brilliant, cinematic mashup of old horror meets new horror. And the first thing you must know is that it doesn’t end here. This book is the first of at least two (although I have my suspicions about a trilogy, because who doesn’t love a good trilogy) with the second book being titled Skitter, coming in May 2017.
The basic plot skips around all over the world with a large cast of characters including a Steve Jobs type on vacation in Peru, an FBI agent who comes out to investigate a strange plane crash, the President of the United States, an entomological researcher, a crime fiction writer in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, a pair of survivalists who’ve gone underground in Desperation, California, and more, if you can believe it.
The plot progresses quickly as strange swarms are spotted all over the globe, swarms of some sort of ancient, predatory insect that no one can quite identify. Anyone who has been close enough to identify this insect has not been heard from again, if you catch my drift.
That old horror that our ancestors instilled in us, that fear of things that have too many legs and skulk in corners and are potentially venomous is definitely alive and kicking here, and if you think it’s old hat because you’ve seen Arachnophobia, think again. That was nothing compared to this global phenomenon.
With this giant cast of characters—halfway through the book, new characters are still being introduced for the first time—this book goes all over the world to show how people are dealing with this crisis. And spreading it around.
That’s where the new horror kicks in—with our globalization and modernization, we make it much easier for these things to move across the globe and find new victims. Boone almost goes out of his way to show the reader how our modern world only works against us: videos of this black, consuming blob terrorize the world but don’t really give any new information. Nations that aren’t willing to share information impede and even spread along the infectious wave.
If I learned anything from this book, it’s that the only thing that will save you is isolation.
Boone is ruthless to his characters, leaving no room for error and creating an apocalyptic spread that I would honestly love to see as a movie or miniseries.
The second book should be a direct continuation, but it will be more like a post-apocalyptic book, or the second wave of the apocalypse, while this one shows the world as we know it descending into chaos and agony.
A few of the characters in this book were solely set up to take center stage in the next book, so we’ll see where the story takes them in about 7 months!
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Just look at this cover. This is it, a design that really gets a book, and not only that, but it is totally and completely captivating. The moment I saw this, I knew I had to have it, without knowing at all what it contained.
The fact that it’s engaging, cinematic (what else would you expect from the Wayward Pines creator?), mind-blowingly brilliant, layered, and still character-driven through all its action/sci-fi/thriller/horror blending just makes this perfect cover the icing on the cake.
I was reading Dark Matter last month, just after the Netflix Original Series Stranger Things craze was really gaining steam and media attention. If you haven’t dug into this eight-part series yet, drop everything, take a deep breath, and turn on Netflix. You can thank me in about eight hours.
It was almost impossible for me to not see similarities between the two narratives, to not think about them in tandem. There is something about alternate realities, worlds just beyond ours that echo ours in sinister ways, that the collective “we” of the American public (or the world?) find really captivating right now.
Trying to pin it down, I found myself thinking a lot about the alternate worlds that already exist within our world: the internet, social media, and all the multitudes of self that so easily replicate out of that. Now that we all carry around our smart phones, those worlds exist literally at our fingertips and at times, it seems like we immerse ourselves in them more frequently than we engage with the real, tangible world around us.
Every single moment is documentable, making it a recorded piece of online identity, one that is potentially viewable by anyone: friends, strangers, people in different countries who don’t speak our language or know our culture. But is that who we really are?
Or is it just the persona that we want to be, so we create and mold this online presence to our liking?
Or is it something completely separate from us, but something that just looks like us?
Or maybe it’s pieces of all of that?
Not that there’s anything wrong with the way technology has developed or with having ways to release creativity online through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, blogging, and the like—you are probably only reading this now because you found it on some social media site (and I thank you!)—but there is a bit of pervasiveness and even invasiveness that goes along with this brave new world, most of which we don’t stop to think about on a daily basis. And it can get dark—not all people are using their anonymity innocently.
Dark Matter, and Stranger Things too, consider (and prey on, because what fun is horror if you aren’t a bit scared!?) what it means to actually inhabit these other realms that lie beside our reality. But while Stranger Things is undeniably set in a very specific time period, one that precludes smart phones and check-ins and selfies, Dark Matter is very much of our time.
Sorry to be a bit cryptic concerning what this book is actually about, but honestly, it will be better if you head in a bit blind. For the short version, there’s a smart guy who chose family over career and winds up with a beautiful wife and son and a job as a teacher, even though he probably could have changed the world with his research on particle physics.
One evening, he is kidnapped, drugged, and forced inside a box. When he wakes up, he has no idea where he is, but everyone there acts like they know him. He wants to go home, but it’s not the wife he knows, and his son doesn’t seem to exist. What is going on? Who was the mysterious stranger who forced him to come here? And how can he get back to his family and his life?
This book is about defining moments and looking back at those moments where our lives branched one direction and saying, “What if? What if I’d taken the other path?” Those What Ifs are multi-faceted and easily spiral out of control, cracks on a windshield, and we can’t take them back.
But this book imagines the splintered realities as living on, moving away from us as we move away from them, imagined, dreamed, real, not real, every iteration of infinite possibilities pulsating just on the other side of our plane of existence.
What if we had access to those other planes? And what effect would our access have? This book takes the idea of the butterfly effect and interdimensional travel to greater extremes than I had ever previously imagined—it gets CRAZY.
Dark Matter at its heart is also very much about fulfillment and what that means. Having great ambition and curing cancer might bring you fame and accolades, but have you potentially wasted your time if you come home to an empty house each night, if you have no one to share your life with? Is personal fulfillment and leaving a legacy through having children, and being able to actually raise those children, more important?
I was so impressed how this sci-fi–thriller managed to be so character driven and really centered on such personal themes, digging into the main character’s head, while at the same time having a lot of external action scenes. Crouch has a very deft hand for encapsulating the internal world of his character’s and the external world that surrounds them and in a book like this, where boundaries are shifting and unclear, that attention and preciseness is appreciated.
More than anything, this is just a great story. It leaves you thinking, and that’s what a really excellent book should do—not leave you alone. And maybe you’ll think about the multiple iterations you’ve left out in cyberspace, and look at the world around you a little differently when you’re finished.
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A haunted hotel in the highlands of Scotland? Sign me up! But seriously, if you know of any, I'd like to know about them for real and I will be on the next flight out! Not that I'm looking for an excuse to go to Scotland or anything. . .
The Ballador Country House Hotel is such a great setting, I felt that it almost had to be based on something real, or at least some really great stories of a real place. Some spooky castle somewhere, shrouded in mystery, perhaps?
In any case, people go to the Ballador because they want to be scared, they want to experience nightmares. In fact, it is guaranteed depending on which room you are staying in.
But for the recent widower Victor, the dreams are nightmarishly real and the spirits of the Ballador seem to be targeting him specifically. Victor comes to the hotel because his wife made him a reservation, right before she brutally killed herself with a handgun.
His right-hand man Harry doesn't feel quite right about the situation and begins digging into the hotel's past while Victor becomes ensconced in a nightmare world that blurs the lines between good and evil, right and wrong.
This quick but fully engaging read held my interest from start to finish. I was pleased with the dialogue and the overall voice of the book, which is consistent and well-developed. Though it could use another round of proofreading for technical errors and US/UK standardization, the story is solid and I fell into the narrative quite easily.
There are definitely some Lovecraftian influences here, especially towards the end when the walls between our world and the nightmare world collapse, letting a sort of hell realm expand out into the Ballador.
Dreams can be a tricky concept to maneuver and I think McNee has done a great job navigating readers through scenes of mixed reality. I never felt confused about what was physically occurring versus what might only be happening inside Victor's mind—and that's quite a task especially as that wall turns into a fluid curtain and then disappears entirely.
This book also has an interesting underlying commentary on what ghosts are and how they haunt us. For most guests of the hotel—the amateur ghosthunters or thrill-seekers—the nightmares were brought to them by actual spirits, as in, the nightmares are visions of actual hauntings. Some guests even seem to collect these nightmares like some kind of masochistic trading cards.
This is a bit different from what we normally think of as ghosts, which are apparitions we see, sense, or otherwise get scared by while fully awake. At the Ballador, you have to be asleep for the ghosts to get you.
This difference in the state of the psyche is important to the book, because it is ruminating on how our unconscious mind rules us and what goes on within our mind when we aren't fully there. What do our unconscious thoughts, dreams, and nightmares say about us? What do we remember of what happens when we shut our eyes? What do we not remember? And what might linger on?
Most importantly, this horror novel is a rollicking good time. It has great descriptions, sometimes overly descriptive in that great pulpy way—not over-doing it or anything, but giving you all the gory details, for sure. It's a fun read with plenty of surprises and I can't guarantee you sweet dreams at the finish.
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Finally, here's what we've all been waiting for: End of Watch. If you are interested in reading my reviews of the other two books in the Bill Hodges trilogy, click the links: Mr. Mercedes or Finders Keepers.
What a way to end it—Mr. King, you keep us guessing until the end, don't you?
Maybe it's that he can't help himself, or maybe it's because he knows where to go to really scare us, or perhaps those are the same thing. Whatever the reason, this is one writer who isn't afraid to look under all the darkened beds, open all the scary closets, and let out anything that might be hiding there.
In this final chapter of the Bill Hodges trilogy, we are again confronted by Brady Hartsfield, the Mercedes Killer himself. His act of violence at the City Center that cold morning continues to haunt those affected by it. And Brady's victims are not just the ones he put in wheelchairs or otherwise crippled, they include the Finders Keepers team, especially Bill Hodges, who can't quite seem to let it go, though Brady is now incapable of even wiping himself let alone creating bombs or steering a car into a crowd of people. Hodges has been worried, though, that the monster is still in there, waiting dormant until everyone has dropped their guard. And then he'll strike.
It's not so crazy, because the nurses say that some strange things happen in Room 217—things they can't explain, like the blinds bouncing up and down, or the IV bag swinging all by itself, things that make them afraid to venture near Hartsfield. And we know nothing good resides in Room 217.
End of Watch is a much more internal book than the first two in the series. It deals with lonely people and how the depths of our minds can be a lonely place. But it also brings us back to a world King is familiar with, a world with supernatural leanings. As foreshadowed at the end of Finders Keepers, Brady appears innocuous and brain-dead (a gork, as the nurses at the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic would say) but somehow, he is capable of a form of psychokinesis. And if he has it his way, he's going to use that power to hurt people in the way he likes best: getting them to hurt themselves. No one will ever suspect a gork like him. It will be easy.
Although the book is still crime fiction, as the other two in the series, King doesn't feel the need to stay within the boundaries of genre. He pulls the reader back under the umbrella of the paranormal so easily, we almost wonder, what if this is possible? What if it could happen?
Beyond the narrative, I think King is thinking about bigger themes and how they are at play in our world—that's right: the world that you and I live in. Though End of Watch falls back on familiar territory for King in a supernatural sense, it also hits really close to home with some of the themes. The largest of these is technology and how it can be used for good or evil. The cyber world is the playground for this book, and Brady is the worst cyber-bully you've ever seen. The book ruminates, tragically and to great effect, how easy it can be to tear someone's defenses down, how we all live with insecurities and fears that if exploited can lead us down a dark path.
And King is also thinking about the proliferation of social media and how it spreads quickly and is so influential over our lives. We don't even consider how often we log on and check in, making posts and status updates. In this internal internet world we've created, sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Even suicide can be contagious. The internet can show us worlds of horror and we never even have to leave our rooms. And that is not fiction.
Hodges is old, and he's not getting any younger, but though his body is beginning to fail him, his mind is as limber as ever, as shown in End of Watch. It's easy to see him as a foil for King himself, who keeps on keeping on, writing book after great book at a rate that most authors wouldn't dream of achieving. Hodges and King also share other characteristics—Hodges turns 70 in the book, and King's 70th birthday will be next year. Though the book is far from autobiographical, I think King has put a bit of himself in his main character, and it proves that there's fight left in him yet, Don't discount the King—I think he's got plenty more stories to share.
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.