Boy do I love a good slasher. A movie with a masked guy running around knocking off teens—does it get any better than that? And, what is it about this trope that so has so captured our imagination? The blood and guts and gore, yes, but there is something about that darkened figure, silhouetted in the moonlight voyeuristically watching frolicking teens in the woods, or their neighborhood, or any other environ, his grip tightening around some instrument of death. There is something that draws us in.
It is obvious from that start that Roubique is a fan of the '80s slasher trope. I'm sure he's seen all the flicks, knows all the cliches that we love (and love to hate), and boy does he nail the cover of this book, which he created himself—am I right??
He takes on that very visual medium in book form, something that I really haven't seen that much of. There are a few: Stephen Graham Jones has taken on the genre, perhaps American Psycho counts, though it's more of a social satire, and I can think of a few others, but none that are so steeped in the '80s slasher tradition, that truly golden era, as this one. (And please do direct me to slasher books if you know of them. But before you mention it, no, Final Girls doesn't count—that is a thriller, not a horror novel, and it isn't a very good one at that).
The story has a good setup: bored, older kids at camp go on a rafting adventure and wind up at a water park that seems deserted—but someone is there, watching them, stalking them. Our heroine is a quiet, Walkman-loving girl who has a hard time making friends, but thinks she might have found a few, finally. And so the blood bath begins!
Though I have a few questions about the functionality of water parks—is it really plausible that they hook up to creeks or streams and use that water instead of a more controlled water source? And later, (SPOILER AHEAD, so skip to the next paragraph if you haven't read it) they seem to be extremely trapped in this place, but I wonder why the fences are electric in the first place—that seems dangerous. Public places like water parks shouldn't, and I'm pretty sure they don't, have electric fences. Also, they never goo looking for the entrance/exit, which seems like a no-brainer to me.
But, those kinds of inconsistencies perhaps can be overlooked as plot convenience, which is par for the course in slasher films.
Slightly more egregious is the disregard for consistency with the films and songs used in the book. Though the author does acknowledge one of these in the afterword, that was not the only instance. And I feel like if the music was going to be so integral to the plot, it should have been consistent with the real-life pieces of the book matching the setting of the book. Perhaps a bit nit-picky, but still true.
I can say that I didn't know where the plot for this book was going. I knew there would be blood, but I didn't know who or when or exactly what was going on. The book definitely hit the beats of a slasher film and that was a lot of fun to read and envision.
The writing felt amateurish and underdeveloped to me, which had the effect of pulling me out of the plot. For example, the book is written in third person with multiple POVs, but I found it difficult to follow the thread between who was thinking what sometimes, as it switches back and forth with little warning and with little indication of which character is in focus. This needed to be smoothed out throughout the book.
I have to admit that this is a fun and enjoyable pulpy little read, but in the end, it doesn't feel like a finished book to me. It needs a round of edits to help breathe a little life into it, round out the characters (especially their dialogue and the transitions between each of their thoughts), and to correct basic errors. (I have a hard time ignoring basic copy editing errors in books. So sloppy.)
My thanks to the author for generously supplying the Nightworms with copies of this one to read!
Rain is a recovering addict trying to forget her past and get her life back on track. She goes to NA meetings, has a small ragtag group of friends, and even has a job interview lined up. Despite her crappy apartment in a bad part of Brooklyn, her life isn’t looking so bad—that is until she looks through a pair of glasses she borrows from a woman on the subway and sees something . . . strange.
Things just get weirder from there and Rain doesn’t know who to turn to—her NA friends will think she’s using and she has burned all the other bridges in her life. What is she seeing? What is real and what is just shadows of her past?
While this book has a lot of interesting ideas, for me it was just too all over the place. Talk about double mumbo jumbo: there are supernatural evil beings, an alternate/dream reality, some weird stuff with time, ghosts, The author was trying to pack too many different threads into one book and I think it would have been a much more successful novel if he had really focused in on one or two elements.
There is a supernatural evil that is following Rain and she discovers (so slooowwwly) that its strength lies in her weakness, and it is connected to the son she gave up before she became a junkie. When I realized that the plot was centered around her specific past, it really started to lose steam for me. The whole “kids in peril” plotline is overused in horror (in my opinion) and it is fairly obvious when a kid is not really in peril.
I also was confused by the main villain of the novel, Doctor Nine—I didn’t fully understand his purpose. What was he trying to accomplish, exactly? And that name is never explained either. Not saying that is necessary, but maybe it would have helped. . . His evil plot never felt spelled out for me and I didn’t fully see the point of everything he and his assistant are trying to do.
And that is only the beginning of the proliferating threads—many of the characters are connected in multiple ways to each other and to other plots that I found unnecessary and unlikely. The detective probably could have had his own book, or at least a spinoff novella, but I didn’t think his whole story was crucial to the plot of this book and I felt that it the way it was slowly spun out slowed down the main thrust of the narrative.
I really got lost in all the different ideas, themes, and plot threads presented in the narrative. There is a dream world that several of the characters discuss—visiting certain places and meeting specific people (most of whom the reader never meets), but we only see brief scenes of this place and much of the setup surrounding it felt superfluous and I was underwhelmed by the reality of it when we actually arrived.
The ending was definitely a letdown as I felt that the action of the climax was all a bit more metaphorical than anything else. Time is a tricky thing to mess with and doesn’t always end up satisfying.
I’d like to thank the publisher for sending the Nightworms copies of this book to read and review.
A trip to California, a new life and a fresh start: in the pioneer days, many took the hard path of a wagon train for the chance to strike it rich and see the vistas of the West. But in 1846, the Donner Party sets out a little too late in the season and then hits one snag after another.
Soon the bad luck piling on them seems ominous, like evil is following them or somehow attached to their group—and in the mountains, the weather is starting to turn cold. But perhaps there is more to this streak of inauspicious coincidences. Is there something in the wilderness, waiting for them?
Growing up in the West, I have definitely heard all about the Donner Party and their ill-fated journey. (When it comes to cannibals, my favorite is probably Alferd Packer, but that’s a story for another time.) And though I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, I always enjoy it—like Dan Simmons’s The Abominable. So this one seemed right up my alley.
I was so on board with the tension and the buildup of this book. Katsu brilliantly weaves subtle prickles of horror, letting the reader see just enough down the trail to realize that nothing good can come from venturing onward, but never quite revealing the full extent of the horror.
I thought that Katsu did a great job with writing from the perspectives of all the characters, but I felt that by the end of the book, a few of the ones I was more interested in had faded into the background. Perhaps there were too many voices in the book.
For me, the flashbacks at the end of each section could have been a little more explanatory, especially toward the end, in explaining exactly what was going on. The information that they revealed was mostly information that I had picked up from the characters as subtext. It didn’t really need further explanation.
I expected the end of the book to have more action, to be a real culmination of all the terror, hardship, and suffering that they went through. I didn’t feel that the ending of the book paid off based on how the tension was built—I kept waiting for the true horror to drop and I felt that the book never really went there.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this one and would recommend it to anyone interested in slowburn novels or historical fiction. Even if horror is not really your thing, this book skirts the line, and has elements of romance, adventure, and history that a lot of people would enjoy.
The Nightworms would like to thank Glasstown Ent., Putnam, and the author for sending us all copies of this book to review.
Will is your average fifteen-year-old boy: he likes hanging out with his friends, thinking about girls, playing baseball, keeping away from bullies, taking care of his little sister—oh, and coming head to head with a sadistic serial killer. You know, average coming-of-age stuff. Add to that the weird things people keep seeing in the woods and this might just be the strangest (and worst) year of Will's life.
I had no idea what to expect going into this book, but I was immediately drawn to the characters—their witty banter and strong personalities gave me a bit of a Summer of Night or The Body vibe (and I am definitely not the first person to make those comparisons).
Jonathan Janz builds likable and realistic characters with believable dialogue—something that is no small feat. He really has a knack for voice and I loved the relationship between the three friends Will, Chris, and Barley. Janz has a great talent for dialogue and I'd love to read more of his books based on that alone.
The story is built in such a way that it is easy to read and compels you to keep reading—I got through it in one sitting! So carve out some time for this sucker because you're going to want to see where it goes.
There was some double mumbo jumbo going on in this book—a term I stole from Blake Snyder and think is pretty legit: we can only ask people to believe in one "magical" thing for any story. So it is pushing it to say there is a crazy escaped serial murderer who is basically on the level of Mike Myers and also something supernaturally evil potentially roaming around in the woods.
While I was skeptical at first, and it does falter a bit for me, losing parts of one thread (which, without trying to spoil anything, I thought was going to be the main point of the book) to focus on the other, all the insanity plays out pretty well and definitely held my interest throughout the book. There are surprises, twists, and plenty of action and bloodshed.
Overall, I really enjoyed this tale and Janz's strong writing held me throughout a few of the moments that might have lost me in another book. The good news is, there are plenty of other books to read by J. Janz! I will be seeking out some of his other work. (Also, I heard a rumor that there might be a sequel in the works??)
My thanks to Jonathan Janz, Sinister Grin, and Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi for gifting copies of this book to all the Night Worms to read and review!
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started reading this book!
Malerman—always inventive—has come up with a creepy, compelling, and genuinely unique tale of betrayal, adventure, and death.
Carol has died many times—but in truth she doesn’t really die, she just has a strange condition where she falls into a coma due to stressful conditions and appears to be dead for several days. She keeps her condition a secret except for a few people she is close to, but what happens when one of the people she trusts wants her dead?
We all learned to love Malerman when he blew our minds with Bird Box—still one of the most truly scary and original horror novels I’ve ever read. He has a very specific, visceral style of writing that draws in the reader so they can’t look away. I was not as big of a fan of Black Mad Wheel, but he is such an interesting voice, I am always excited to see he has a new book coming out.
And this unique voice isn’t lost in his newest novel. The book is styled as a Western and feels very much like it is set in a different time and place from the way the characters speak and interact with the world around them, to the structure of story itself.
The reader switches between a few different characters, seeing all the sides of the story almost like a movie. We see Carol’s perspective—the creepiest and my favorite—as she describes what she can see and hear from her coma and what might be lurking with her in that tenuous spot between life and death. We see Carol’s husband, Dwight, who has a scheme all his own. We see Carol’s old flame, James Moxie, who became an infamous outlaw and now is the only other person who knows her secret. We see another trailrider, the villainous and insane Smoke, who hunts Moxie, and is out to cause whatever chaos he can.
The book threw me a bit when I first started it because the voice is fairly stylistic, but once I got a handle on the lilt of the dialogue and turn of phrase, I really got into it. There are no slow points in this story since it is constantly throwing the reader back and forth between the minds of all the characters and their specific goals, whether their intentions be nefarious or righteous.
Though the style is definitely different, you can’t argue with a great plot! I loved the first chapter set at the funeral and the way all the characters were introduced. I loved the way they fit into Western stock characters (retired outlaw, damsel in distress) but as the book progressed, busted through those stereotypes too.
I would have loved to see more of Howltown (what Carol calls the place where she goes when she is in a coma) and more of her perspective. The book is a little low on women’s perspectives and Carol, her maid Farrah, and her mom, Hattie, were all such great characters. The latter two felt especially underused to me.
Overall, I loved the blended genre that Malerman created and was really impressed that this book came from the same guy who wrote his last two books—he is constantly reinventing his own writing and for that versatility alone it is worth seeking his books out.
I read this book as a part of the Night Worms conglomerate and I’d like to thank Del Rey for sending us all review copies of the book!
If you are into cults—and you are, because what red-blooded human isn’t fascinated or at least intrigued by them—this is the cult novel you’ve been looking for.
Mason Hues is anonymous. He lives in a bare studio apartment, his mattress on the floor.
But before he was Mason, he was John Doe, and before that, he was Thirty-Seven, a member of the Survivors, a cult hidden in the mountains of Colorado where he willingly took chemotherapy drugs to make himself sick because sickness bears honesty and honesty bears change, and the change that the Survivors enacted came to shock the nation.
But now he’s Mason. And even though he’s had therapy, the teachings from his time with the Survivors are still coursing through his mind, through his veins. Maybe there’s something to the Truth he was learning. Maybe he can start over, find it again.
This book—what a wake-up call! It is such a gift when you read something that really sings, that is so unique and vivid that you can’t put it down but you want to savor every second. Not many books fit that bill.
This is not a traditional horror novel, but Stenson is not a traditional writer. He does his own thing and he innovates in a way that is not only new, but courageous—and he is not afraid to get dark. His writing digs in deep to your bone—you can feel the needle biting into your skin, the poison filling your veins. The characters aren’t stagnant; they live and breathe on the page.
Though the book is dark—and stays dark—there is a musicality to the language, a lulling repetition to the style that obviously has a lot of thought put into it. It is really a beautifully crafted book hiding in the skin of something deadly. It creates an atmosphere where every time you open the pages you are in Mason’s head, in his thoughts, seeing his vision of honesty and sickness—and almost believing in it.
Similar to his previous book Fiend, this book paints a raw, honest, and chilling picture of addiction and its consequences, though while Fiend focused on a group of junkies who survived the zombie apocalypse because of their drug habit, the addiction in Thirty-Seven (while still drug-fueled) is more insidious—an addiction of the mind.
Stenson has a knack for creating characters who are on the verge: they make bad decisions, they don’t appear to be good or likable people, but somehow when you are in their mind, you can see how they got to where they are and their choices make sense. I found myself sympathetic to Mason throughout the book, though I wasn’t sure if I should be.
I definitely haven’t read anything like this in the genre, or even at all. This book may be a bit unclassifiable—it slants toward the horror aesthetic, but why put it in a box? I want to put this one in everyone’s hands—start a little Survivors cult of my own, if you’d like to think of it that way.
I recommend this. Read it. Reading bears knowledge and knowledge bears power. Therefore reading bears power. You can’t go wrong, really.
Check out the publisher, Dzanc Books
Man, there just isn't anyone writing novellas anymore, is there?
Longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel, these interesting specimens seem to get short shrift (no pun intended), at least in the publishing world. Maybe people are writing them by the boatload, but they just aren't a salable format.
Well, I am here to say, the novella is not dead—at least not the way Ahlborn is writing them.
These pieces, both around 150 to 200 pages, pack a killer punch, immersing the reader fully in the world of the main characters without all the messy and entangling structural work that a novel entails. Get right down in the dirt and make some mud, I say. Story, character, chaos—let the fun begin.
And boy, does she.
THE PRETTY ONES
This is a period piece set in New York City, 1977, during the reign of the Son of Sam, a real-life notorious serial killer who went around shooting people, mostly brown-haired women—when they caught him, he said his neighbor's dog told him to do it, no joke, look it up. Anyway, in this story, before he was caught, Nell is a stuffy sort of girl, not very stylish, held back by her brother's strict beliefs about the way girls should look and act, but Nell desperately wants to fit in and make a friend. When she decides to make a change, that's when it all goes wrong.
Of the two, this was my favorite. Don't get me wrong—they are both great—but I am such a sucker for a good period piece. I loved all the little details that made this feel like it was true to NYC of the late 70s, especially for a murderino like me, who happens to know a lot about Son of Sam. A serial killer backdrop for a story is beyond perfect; you know I'm on board from the beginning.
Nell is great character, all her motivations are laid bare on the table for the reader. She holds nothing back; it's like reading her constant mind diary. I enjoyed reading her after the introduction where the author discussed her aspirations of becoming a psychologist that eventually turned into writing instead. I was reading all the characters through this profiling lens and it was interesting to get inside Nell's (and possibly the author's?) head a little bit.
I CALL UPON THEE
Maggie got out of her family's crazy house where so much seemed to go wrong, but now when tragedy strikes, she's forced to return home and confront the shadows of her past and possibly the ones in her closet.
I wasn't surprised to read in the author's note that this story had some autobiographical bits in it—or perhaps I was just self-projecting since there were pieces that so mirrored my own experience in my middle school years. Ah well, perhaps it's a story for another day.
In any case, on the surface, this story has a lot of familiar elements (I am being vague here, but I honestly don't want to ruin it for you; the author goes to a lot of trouble to set up this story and I'm not going to be the one to just kick out that careful scaffolding) but what is unsettling is how she takes the familiar and dumps it on its head, putting the reader in unfamiliar territory—the unheimlich, if you like to get Freudian.
All in all, it is a story that is more intricate than it first appears. It has multiple time periods at work, and a lot of the revelations come late in the game, all stacked up on one another. It is a cathartic kind of read, one that would do well if you have a dark and stormy night to cozy up in bed with. Just hope the lights don't go out.
I of course, can't wait to see what's next from Ahlborn. There are not that many women writing horror and doing it well like she is. I love that, it is not only amazing to read, but highly inspiring. I would especially be interested in a short story collection. I have long held the belief that a writer who is a master of short form truly understands how to write—once you have to strip away all the fluff and are only left with the bare bones and stringiest meat of the story, you see what chops a writer really has. If these novellas are any indication, I'd say she has quite a collection of stories to share. And we'd be happy to devour them, raw beating hearts and all.
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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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.