I love finding an author that you know when you turn to the first page and start reading, you are in good hands. Is there anything better?
Malfi is like that. From the moment I began his short story collection We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone I knew I had stumbled on something special. (And “stumbled on” really is not the right phrase, as Sadie of @mother.horror has been championing Malfi’s books for ages. I’m just a bit slow on the uptake.)
It’s not just that he’s telling a good story, though he definitely is—more on that later. There is just something so real that resonates through his work, something that makes you lose yourself within the pages when you start reading. Isn’t that why we all read? We want to forget about the background noise and just dissolve into another story for a while, one where things might be falling to pieces, but where there might be a logic, a key, something we can try to figure out before heading back to the mundane reality of our own existence.
That’s why I read, why I’ve always found solace in books. And there is something special about a book that cuts through everything like that, that puts you fully in the story.
As far as the narrative itself, there is definitely something to coming-of-age-in-small-town tales. I have a lot of love for the types of stories that depict ragtag groups of latchkey kids going about on their own and solving some kind of mystery that is far above their pay grade. There is a certain mystique to stories depicting kids in general—I think we all miss those days. And children are in a unique position for horror: they believe easily in the boogyman. Their belief makes them a vulnerable target, but it also makes them able to see clearly enough to fight back.
December Park is about the missing children of Harting Farms in the early 1990s and the mysterious figure of the Piper, whom everyone believes to be a serial killer picking off kids, though only one body has turned up. Angelo and his friends are determined to figure out what’s going on by using what they know about the town, its secret places and shortcuts, and any information they can dig up on their neighbors. Everyone is a suspect.
But this book is about so much more than the investigation. It is about the boys and their personal lives, their aspirations for the future, what they share with each other and their families and what they keep secret. It is about the divide between being a child and being an adult, how they see differently, the trust that is lost, and all the forgetting that you do along the way to adulthood. It is about small towns and the way that horrific crimes impact the people who live there. It is about trauma and how events affect people differently. It is about perception and memory.
Though the investigation into the Piper is the main plot thread, I found myself almost more interested in the characters and their lives, which I think is the key to good writing that most authors ignore. So many mystery/thriller books just seemed shoved through a tube where the plot has to go from A to B to C without letting the story develop naturally.
And I really felt a kinship with the boys—their late-night bike rides, their walkie-talkies, how they caused some mischief and chaos, how they stood up to bullies, how they alternately supported and ragged on each other. Getting to know them and watching them grow throughout the narrative is one of the highlights.
When it gets down to the horror—you won’t be disappointed. I wouldn’t consider this book heavy on action, but it has perfect narrative flow, letting tension ebb and flow and ratcheting up the suspense when necessary. By the last 200 pages, I couldn’t be torn away and had to finish. Malfi has a great descriptive voice and you can see each scene—in all the gruesome detail you could ever hope for.
This is such a phenomenal book. I can’t recommend it more highly. On my shelf, it sits beside other great horror coming-of-age stories like King’s It, McCammon’s Boy’s Life, and Simmons’s Summer of Night. I can’t wait to read more of Malfi’s work.
A short Christmas treat from one of the rising modern horror greats.
DeMeester knows she doesn’t always have to get gory or have everything dripping with blood and monster fangs to scare your pants off. Sometimes it is all in the art of suggestion, in the strange moments of “what if” and supplanting the reader’s expectations.
She fills each short scene of this story with dread, leaving the reader with the impression that at any moment, something horrible could happen. That tension of waiting, not knowing exactly when the horror will drop, is always worse than whatever comes out of the closet—at least in my opinion.
Once you know what the monster is, it’s easier to face it. But, like Ashleigh in the story, if all you have are swirling, amorphous half-memories of a horrific scene from a movie you saw when you were little, it will haunt you until you seek it out, though you might not like what you find.
This slim meditation on childhood, memory, film, and how we let the past haunt our lives. There’s a lot to think about in these few pages.
And that illustration toward the end—that was some stomach-dropping-out, nightmare-inducing stuff. But you’ll have to read it to find out exactly what I mean.
My thanks to Tall Hat Press and the Night Worms for the chance to read and review this one.
These stories and illustrations were created in homage to that classic childhood book series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. If Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell’s chilling and evocative retellings of folk tales weren’t a part of your childhood growing up, you are not only missing out, I’m pretty sure you were caged in a dungeon your whole childhood. Or maybe these stories were just American kid thing?
All I know is that those books were a rite of passage when I was growing up. The stories are definitely spooky, and there is always that one friend who swears the story is really true, it actually happened to her aunt’s brother’s girlfriend, but really it went a little like this. . .
And don’t even get me started on the illustrations. Nightmare inducing, so say the least. I had horrible visions of the one where the spider is crawling out of the girl’s face. And of course, Harold. Now, I think I’d love to get one of those prints framed on my wall, but that’s the sort of weird creepo I’ve turned out to be.
So here comes Corpse Cold, a new folk anthology of the type of horror tales that don’t really have one origin, or at least one you can pin down. These are the types of stories that nowadays pop up on r/nosleep and creepypasta forums, the type you read about late at night, the glow from your computer screen illuminating your face and making the rest of the room look even darker. It is a different type of tale from the days of my youth—there weren’t any cell phones or other technology that invaded folk tales back then. But now, there’s a whole new realm of possibility for what might be out to get you.
The stories are in definite homage to the original Schwartz tales, though I thought they lacked his style, the panache of his delivery on the punch lines especially. I hadn’t heard of most of these urban legends, so it was nice that most of the content was original to me and I had no idea where the stories were going. Overall, I would probably rate most of the stories themselves (in style and substance) at around a 3.
What really punches up the action on these is the artwork. Chad Wehrle does a fantastic job putting his original spin on something similar to the Gammell style and I can’t even tell you which image was my favorite. They are creepy, dark, and perfectly complement the stories, taking them to the next level.
Also, I wouldn’t say that this book is necessarily for adults—I think teens would also enjoy it and the reading level is fine for younger kids. (If they can handle the original, these stories are fine for them too.)
If you know someone who grew up with the Scary Stories books, this would be an awesome gift to give them a flashback to their childhood.
My thanks to Cemetery Gates for sending me a copy of this one to read and review.
This debut horror novel has it all: beaches, booze, boats, spiders, sex, despicable people whose death you root for, visceral body horror, and even a pug.
It’s obvious that Sodergren has spent a long time steeped in the horror tradition, and as a longtime follower of his Instagram, @paperbacksandpugs, I can say that this is—without a doubt—definitely the case. He knows it all, from the most obscure reference to the pop culture stalwarts. His personal love of the horror genre comes across in the style and substance of this novel, and while it feels like it could be a vintage horror paperback from the 80s paying homage to the video nasties, it is a wholly original tale.
Here’s the setup: two sisters, one boyfriend, and a new guy they just met on holiday in Thailand. They party wildly all night and wind up on a boat headed for an island that seems deserted—but as any good horror hound knows, “seems” is just another way to say that this is where things are about to get crazy.
And crazy is only the start of it.
This is a story I found myself really lost in, the type of book that as you’re reading it, the background falls away and you don’t notice time passing or people trying to talk to you, or even if your house might be burning down.
I appreciated getting to see from the perspectives of a variety of the characters. They were an interesting (and sometimes nasty—in all senses of the word!) bunch and getting into their heads gave each one room to become a more rounded and believable character. It also made me unsure of who was going to make it to the end of the book and who was toast. The characters filled horror tropes without becoming total clichés—not the easiest thing to do.
Ana, the main character, is quite brilliant. I loved how she was an average girl, not super good-looking or skinny, definitely has some bad moments in her past, tends to be insecure, and uses sarcasm to keep people away. Watching her transformation throughout the book is quite great. It’s not like she turns into Lara Croft or anything, but I felt she realistically took on the horrific events around her, adapted how she could, and badassed her way through it. I’d like to think I’d do the same, given the chance.
And the monsters—I think you’re going to like them. The opening scene alone is nightmare-inducing, but what’s worse: not knowing what’s down the dark, black hole or having to confront it face to face and try to stay alive? You’ll have to read on to find out!
I definitely recommend this horror novel to fans looking for something a little different and unique and a lot of blood-spattering, gore-infested (but still character-driven) madness—especially if they have a fondness for vintage horror films and books. There is a lot to love here, and I know this isn’t the last we’ll see from Sodergren (or his pug).
I’m glad they are reissuing Moshfegh’s first work now that her books have found a steady following! This little novella set in 1851 is quite interesting, following the perspective of a man being held for the murder of his friend as he floats back and forth between present events and the past, attempting to remember what happened leading up to his friend’s death.
This novella has shades of Eileen—Moshfegh’s breakout novel—throughout, evoking the dark and brooding atmosphere of that work along with the strange and unsettling narration that digs deep into the mind of a semi-disturbed individual.
Her writing, though sometimes a little difficult to unpack, forces the reader to fully reside in the mind of her character, however uncomfortable that place may be. You aren’t just seeing the world of the character, you are experiencing what they experience, thinking their strange, unconnected thoughts, and in a way, becoming them—it can be scary place.
This novella isn’t perfect, but I definitely saw the shadow of Moshfegh’s writing to come and as a completist, I love to see where authors have been and how their early work threads through their later work.
I’d definitely recommend this as a one-sitting type read. Though it does have chapter separations, there is a flow to the book that almost demands you to live in it, and experience it, all at once. I have a feeling it is the type of read I would see new things in if I read it again, too.
My thanks to Penguin Press for my advance copy of this one to read and review.
This review is part of the blog tour for this book! Please check out the other stops on the tour!
I am always intrigued by time travel narratives and this one has to be one of the more conceptually inventive I've read. It doesn't hurt that it is also a beautiful multitude of stories all featuring female protagonists of different backgrounds—women of color, queer women, those from all different social and geographical backgrounds—and these women make up the main fabric of this book.
So often—in real life and in fiction—the achievements of women have been overshadowed by those of men. But Mascarenhas has her pioneers (the people who invent time travel) all be women, which means their contribution can't be erased. Perhaps that is one reason so many women are drawn to time travel in the book, as there seem to be many more women than men who take up the reigns.
As with any book where you're messing about with time, there have to be rules, and the slow uncovering of how time works and what the time travelers are able to do and not do is one of the true pleasures of this book. There are several time periods and many characters at play between the chapters, but I didn't have trouble keeping the narrative threads straight at all. It felt great to see all the plot points fall into place—some just how I'd guessed and others that truly surprised me. This book is nothing if not expertly plotted and paced.
Yes, this is pitched as a murder mystery, which is definitely true, but it is also a deeply interior and psychological tale exploring the impact that time travel has on people. What can it do to your body, your mind? How might it impact your relationships with your loved ones, with yourself? When you know too much about your own future and those of the people you are close to, how do you cope? There are so many questions that the narrative not only brings up but (in my opinion, more importantly) explores.
The murder mystery segment is definitely an integral part of the forward motion of the plot, being what brings characters together, forces them out of their comfort zones, and makes things happen. But it really isn't the point of the book. I found myself much more interested in the development of the characters, their relationships, how they moved through life and through time, found each other and coped. The mystery is just something that touches all of them and starts raising those important questions.
If you like books about time travel, this one is obviously for you. But I think this feminist and literary examination of relationships, psychology, and science will appeal to many. It's going to be a book I think about for a long time. It's hard to say I've already found a book that might be a favorite of 2019 when 2018 isn't even over yet, but keep your eyes open for this one!
My thanks to Crooked Lane Books for my advance copy to read and review.
The Psychology of Time Travel publishes 2/12/19.
With brooding Gothic influences seeping in and clouding around, the highlights of this unusual story for me were the fantastic writing and the intriguing storytelling.
The strange story that jumpstarts this tale is of a woman in black, Melmoth, who appears at the corner of your eye, following, and reveals herself at your darkest, lowest moment and asks you to take her hand. Her appearance winds through all stories as the book fractures from one narrative to the next, and it seems that once you know about her, you start seeing her. (Don’t look now, but what was that, just beyond the edge of the doorway?) The themes of her vicious loneliness, witnessing, and the burdens we bear—whether self-inflicted or otherwise—are ones that resonated deeply for me and felt timely.
This is a narrative where each door you open leads to another new narrative—a houseful of narratives made up of letters, diary entries, and memories, each of the writers baring their soul, telling the worst thing they ever did, and there—always—is Melmoth lurking in the corners. Who is she? What is she? What will she do? Does she even exist?
Though the main narrative is Helen’s story, it also sets out the testimony of these other poor souls—each one as captivating as the last—leaving behind Helen as the tortured witness, Helen to be haunted by their visages, their actions, their loneliness mixing with her own, their eternal unrest binding them to her and her constant ascetic need for atonement for her own sins.
This is the type of book that leaves a lot of room for contemplating. With the repeated entreaty of the narrator directing the reader to “Look!” throughout the novel, it seems to be asking—is it enough just to look, just to be a witness, just to read the accounts of these horrors? And if it’s not, what action should be taken? What could be enough to right the world, or at the very least one’s own conscience?
I appreciated the depth of the humanity in this book. It deals with very human topics within the specter of the Gothic and supernatural. The book manages to balance on the edge of the fantastic, leaving me wondering about Melmoth the whole way through without sliding into gaudy theatrics.
Still, the book felt a little unfinished to me. Each story wasn’t the full experience, a total view of that character, their wins, their losses, their virtues, their failings. They only showed snapshots; it would take a whole novel of each to get a complete picture. And with so much room focusing on these other stories, there wasn’t as much development with the characters in Helen’s storyline as I would have liked.
Still, this is an atmospheric and wonderfully written tale, perfect for a cold winter’s night.
My thanks to William Morrow/Custom House for my copy of this book to read and review.
A new Murakami is nothing short of a gift. I’ll never understand quite what’s going on in that man’s mind, but I’m glad he gives us a chance every once in a while to peek behind the curtain. That said, I am not a fan of this newest venture.
Plotwise, I can’t say this book worked for me. It felt strongly derivative of his early Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but Killing Commendatore is a deeply watered down, white-bread substitution for that master work of genius. I won’t even go into all the ways these books are similar here, but it is pretty striking. If you’re considering reading a Murakami for the first time, put this one down and go get a copy of that. You can thank me later.
The plot winds around and around this pit behind the rented house where the unnamed narrator is staying without ever really hitting on the importance of the pit itself. I mean, I GET IT: it’s a metaphor for rebirth—he doesn’t even try to hide that one, just wait for it. I almost laughed out loud. But what does it mean? For the character? For the plot? In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Similarly, the narrative winds around and around a painting found tucked away in the attic of this house. There is all this historical background that we learn about the painting and the person who painted it, but all that strangely doesn’t seem that important. Rather it is just the image on the painting itself that is important. But I still couldn’t figure out the purpose. Or its connection to our narrator.
Yes, it’s about the journey. It’s an interruption in the narrator’s life and all of his neuroses, fears, and obstructions are getting out in the open before he can get back to normal life. But what if the journey that’s undertaken isn’t a journey at all? What if it’s metaphorical? What if it’s just a history lesson that doesn’t have any real attachment to the forward progression of the plot? What if it’s just pages and pages of nothing going nowhere only to lead back to the beginning? Is that the point? For it to go on and on and mean nothing at all in the end? Sweet Jesus, I hope not.
The most compelling parts of the narrative for me were the descriptions of painting and the portraits, especially as the main character thought about the creative process and what it meant to be a creative person. I could see the parallels to writing or dancing or playing an instrument or another creative act in this, and it felt as though Murakami was digging deep into the reason we crave creativity and where it comes from. I wish there had been more interior exploration of that.
On a character level, I found it lacking. The main character, an unnamed artist going through a divorce, is standard Murakami fare, but I found him and his lackadaisical sleeping around, record listening, and careful meal-preparing more than a little bland and lifeless. And none of it is new. It’s all just rehashing what we’ve seen from Murakami before.
The characters in the book in general tend toward misogyny and the objectification of women, which is off-putting in general, but especially when it isn’t a specific part of the plot that is purposeful, discussed, or resolved. The one female character we get to spend any real time with is a precocious young girl who is so weirdly and overly obsessed with her (lack of) breasts that they might as well be her only feature. How sad. There are other, certainly more natural, ways to go about showing the coming-of-age period for a young girl that wouldn’t involve constant conversations about breast size with a strange man three times her age. It just felt gross and like a total waste and a complete missed opportunity for an interesting development of a character, and a female character at that.
Am I just not getting it? Looking back at the description from the publisher, this book is supposed to be an homage to The Great Gatsby. Does someone want to explain THAT to me? I am not digging deep enough I guess. It’s really bumming me out that I just don’t get this book. Am I looking too hard at the plot of a book that is supposed to be idea-based? With capital “I” Ideas holding it up at all four corners rather than silly conventions like narrative structure, character, and dialogue? Perhaps. But being a fan of Murakami’s work in general, I think it’s fair for me to think this book is a failure, even if it is supposed to be about Ideas instead of a story.
The Ideas themselves felt unfinished, underdeveloped, and left floating and untethered by the end of the book. What was it all for? The surrealism/magical realism, the history lesson, the father/child conundrums, the painting, and the pit.
Maybe I need to spend more time with it. But for me, an underdeveloped plot and boring characters can’t be saved by a bit of surrealism and Ideas. Especially when we’re dealing with 700 pages.
My thanks to the publisher for my copy of this book to read and review.
I remember camping as a child. I was not much for hiking, I was one of those kids you had to prod along and try to entice with chocolates out of the trail mix and by pointing out a cool rock or flower up ahead to get me to keep walking. I mean, trudging up and up a path with no end in sight for no discernible reason other than to do it always seemed like a drag to me. Beautiful mountain vistas be damned.
But the camping part, that was where the fun kicked in. Gathering around a fire, the thick smell of burning wood, s'mores, hot drinks in tin cans, and the darkness slowly closing over everything. A darkness unlike any you can find in civilization.
No wonder we might be afraid of what’s in the woods.
In The Moor, a vast hiking and camping area called Rutmoor has long been a subject of eerie campfire stories and morbid fascination, but some of those stories are rooted in truth. People do go missing out there in the forest, and they are never seen again.
I loved the setup of the book, with the newspaper clippings and the narration from two different time periods. The main story, set in 2002, follows five boys and one adult who venture into a secluded part of Rutmoor for a summer backpacking trip. Do I need to tell you it isn’t going to end well?
The pacing was strong and at first I was a little confused about which boy was which (one is named Tom and one Tim, which doesn’t help), but it was cleared up by some good characterization. Each boy has his own traits and became familiar to me as the story progressed. I did think one way the story could have been strengthened would have been if the reader had been able to spend more equal time with all the boys. As it was, we spent a lot of time in one boy’s head, and I would have identified better with some of the other boys if we’d gotten to see through them too instead of just watching their actions, if that makes sense.
For tension and scares, I think this book does an excellent job. It reminded me a lot of The Troop, not only because of the kids on an extended camping trip and the news clippings, but because of how tension and paranoia builds throughout both, and also of the first section of The Ritual when as the friends trek through the woods they become more and more anxious and begin to lash out at each other.
This book also has an interesting villain in store, and I didn’t see it coming until far too late! I think Haysom sets everything up in just the right way—it is one that will keep you reading.
Overall, this is a great little read—perfect for your next trip out into the great wilderness.
My thanks to Unbound and the author for sending me a copy of this one to read and review.
This is my first Malfi experience and I know it won't be my last.
These are the types of stories that worm their way into your brain, leave little trails of gasoline, and then light everything on fire when you least expect it. And they aren't just interesting and inventive stories, they are immaculately written too.
One thing that I found interesting was the wide variety of narrators that are used throughout the stories. And it didn't seem to just be a writing exercise for Malfi—each story was using first, third, or even the dreaded second person very purposefully to tell the story from the perspective that would tell it most effectively.
And he really got into the minds of the characters, sometimes in only a few pages! Not only is the dialogue very natural (not the easiest or most natural thing for many writers to get across) but the way the reader hears the private thoughts of each unique characters just impressed the hell out of me. Each story is its own devil. And these beasts have teeth.
The atmosphere created in these stories is something really unique. There is this creeping sense of dread Malfi cultivates early on in the stories, even when all seems normal and fine. You just know that something isn't quite right and you want to look away, but you have to keep reading. You have to know.
A few favorites were: "The Dinner Party," "Pembroke," and "The Good Father" though some of the short conceptual ones like "Knocking," "Closing In," and "In a Pet Shop" were chillingly perfect too. It is really hard to choose. Out of the twenty stories, there were only two or three that didn't hit it out of the park for me.
Highly recommended reading. I'm off to start one of his novels—I've heard great things about December Park!
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.