60 Days of Horror
I took part in an event called "Halloween Bingo" on Booklikes. The challenge was to fill as much of a bingo card as possible by reading a variety of categories. It wasn't obligatory to review each book, but I did, and I thought I'd include those reviews in a single blog post of the good, the bad (well not as good), and the downright disturbing. I'll start with the five star reads and work my way back. Have you read any of these books? If so feel free to comment and let me know if you agree with my review.
The Five Star Reads
In the Miso Soup
What's incredible about this book is the gentle build up of tension. It feels like someone playing an instrument off key, until on p.111 hell breaks loose. Audition (another book by the same author) did a similar thing to great effect. Once the violence kicks off it becomes one of the nastiest and most disturbing books I have ever read, up there with Frisk and American Psycho. But it also has some pretty huge themes running through it: humans' unexpected reactions to trauma, the insular nature of Japanese society, and boredom. Sheer existential boredom to which any distraction, however ugly, might seem like a relief.
My favourite lines -
"When the body's constrained, so is the spirit."
"[W]e always have to picture ourselves doing something before we can match the image with an action. And that was what Frank had made impossible - he'd destroyed our ability to visualise a course of action."
"Before Frank had turned up, this pub was like a symbol of Japan, self-contained, unwilling to interact with the world outside, just communing with itself in every breath - mmm, ahhh. People who've spent their lives being in that kind of bubble tend to panic in emergencies, to lose the ability to communicate, and to end up getting killed."
"That's the real reason we have horror films - they act as shock absorbers - and if they disappeared altogether it would mean losing one of the few ways we have to ease the anxiety of the imagination."
It takes a village to raise a child or banish a ghost.
The language and imagery is lush and full of so many layers it's almost like poetry.
Favourite lines -
"knees wide open as any grave."
"Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her - remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys."
"their two shadows clashed and crossed on the ceiling like black swords."
At the end of the novel, the sense of strength, hope, community and forgiveness, repays the reader for the trauma endured and a story powerful enough to make tears flow like rivers.
The language Morrison uses is evocative and uncovers the buried knowledge beneath this story of one woman and her family. Morrison says in the introduction that the story of a woman killing her child to avoid slavery is a true one while the motivations and terrible guilt are the author's projections.
Adam L.G. Nevill
I am humbled, both by the fact that Adam Nevill sent me this ARC and that I am mentioned in the acknowledgements. This is a horror author who I have long admired and whose work "The Ritual" has been made into a major film. All of this and he takes the time to thank me. I mean who am I that I warrant any thanks? I still haven't managed to process this properly.
Even without the tears I shed reading the acknowledgements I would have given five stars to this story. The hardcover book is gorgeous, a real treat, formatted and presented beautifully.
The story is dark and claustrophobic, like the caves it frequently dwells inside, yet expansive like the wild countryside of Devon that is described beautifully and evocatively within its pages. It is the land, both beneath and above the surface of Devon that is the star of the story, and that character is brought to life, warts and all.
The human characters are flawed yet strong like so many of Nevill's characters. No one here is truly good although some are truly evil. Those who serve the red queen and her white pups follow a long tradition that consumes them from within, giving strength to their rage in ways Kat (one of two heroines) comes to understand intimately. We are left questioning what Kat may become and that lends a haunting tone to the conclusion. We know that this is not over, nor will it ever be. The horror is cosmic in the Lovecraftian tradition. The official release day for this book is Halloween, 2019.
Nevill writes enduring ancient magical cults in remote places better than any modern writer. If you enjoyed The Ritual, Last Days and Apartment 16, you need to pre-order a copy of this book now.
World War Z
This one exceeded my expectations. Yes the book is sort of about zombies, but it's really about geopolitics and military strategy. It's told in the form of interviews with survivors who were in the thick of things during the Zombie War. Each story feels like history rather than fiction. It's an intensive and powerful read, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Highly recommended.
Four Star + Reads
This was the first book I finished for Halloween Bingo. As a Clive Barker fan of course it went straight to the top of my list. It was a wonderful book. I had to stay up most of the night to finish it before travelling - the book's a brick. I didn't want to pack it for the final 100 pages.
Coldheart Canyon looks at Hollywood circa 1920s and "present" 1990s. It shows how much the landscape has changed in that time and how little the people have changed. The descriptions are lush, erotic and terrifying all at the same time, especially of course when we are dealing with the fantastical monsters of Barker's imagination, spawned by The Devil's Country.
What Barker does in this book is pretty extraordinary. He juxtaposes the fictional world of Hollywood (which people believe is real) with the nightmarish reality of Coldheart Canyon (which people believe is fiction). He describes vacuous stars and entitled movie producers with a mischievous venom that suggests he has met many of these people.
There is a huge amount of dropping of famous names, although Todd Pickett the main male character is perhaps by necessity a fiction, as I imagine is the boarish movie producer who meets a violent but poetic end.
Although I read the whole collection it is the title story that intrigues me most with "In the Penal Colony" a close second. Kafka writes very strange tales. Tales that barely make sense on an intellectual level but work at a more instinctive and emotional level. "The Metamorphosis" could be a metaphor for a mental breakdown, but it is told in a much more literal way so that we can almost accept on face value that what Gregor experiences is real. It may have the best opening line of all short stories.
"When Gregor Samsa awoke from his troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug".
Gregor is a devoted son who works at a job that he doesn't enjoy, for and with people who do not respect him, to repay a debt owed by his parents. It could easily be an essay on the dehumanising effect of work, and sadly when Gregor becomes no longer productive and useful he gets in the way of his family. A great and sad tale that should be on everyone's to read list.
About half way through this novella (or short novel) I was all set to write - "To those of you who claim indie authors are not worth your time, I give you "Reception" by Kenzie Jennings. This story is tightly written and full of powerful imagery, better than many traditionally published books in the genre. Words are never wasted and Jenning's descriptions are beautiful and evocative, guiding you through the first person narrative."
Unfortunately, the second half wobbles somewhat. The narrative rambles and phrases are repeated taking us away from the action. Even so it is worthy of the four stars I've given it. Jennings handles the horror well, making this a visceral ride, psychological and murderous, full of humour (occasionally ridiculously timed). The dialogue between the sisters is full of wit, and that WTF end. Wow!
A great story, which could have been close to perfect if the second half had followed the same structure and brevity of the first.
Favourite lines -
"millipede of traffic."
"If I listened closely enough, I could almost imagine I didn't hear everyone buzzing around me, like a noisy hive. If I listened closely, I could hear the song in Delia's gaze."
Durtal is an atheist who envies the bell ringer, Carhaix's, faith. Des Hermies is a medical doctor with an interest in alchemy and homeopathy, who mourns the loss of traditional remedies and despairs at the specialism of modern medicine. Both feel they would be better suited to life in the middle ages when peasants were simple, gracious and devout.
The story is set in Paris at a time of political upheaval. Democracy, reviled by Des Hermies and Durtal, is what the working classes are fighting for in post-revolutionary France. They talk about the stupidity of the poor while at the same time elevating the old Marshall of France, Gilles de Rais and marvelling at his excesses. They even hold the Satanic Canon Docre in high esteem. Although Durtal has only meagre wealth, both men are very class conscious and their love for the bell ringer is in contrast to their feelings about the rest of Paris's poor population. They see Carhaix as exceptionally well-educated, pious and, perhaps most importantly, satisfied with his life and work.
Durtal's affair with a married woman and its effect on the writer shows how easily he idolises things at a distance and how quickly he becomes disillusioned with reality. It's an odd story, but a fascinating one. Huysmans does the sort of things writers would be hung, drawn and quartered for today, including a four page description of a painting in the first chapter. Some of my favourite passages include -
"Money attracted money, accumulating always in the same places, going by preference to the scoundrelly and the mediocre."
"On bright nights one part of the castle was thrown back into shadow, and the other, by contrast, stood forth, washed in silver and blue, as if rubbed with mercurial lusters, above the Sevre, along whose surface streaks of moonlight darted like the backs of fishes."
"[D]aydream is the only good thing in life. Everything else is vulgar and empty."
"For a man in his state of spiritual impoverishment all, save art, was but a recreation more or less boring, a diversion more or less vain."
The Ghosts of Sleath
An idyllic town plagued by darkness. A perfect woman with a terrible secret. Ash arrives to investigate paranormal phenomena at Sleath. Before he arrives in the village the sceptic encounters the first of many ghosts. Figuring out what is happening in time may be the difference between life and death.
It's a fast-paced book, full of disturbing scenes. The characters are rarely simple and the secrets stretch back for centuries. Having read this one I have ordered the prequel and the third book in the series. So yes, I definitely liked it.
I actually think this might be better than most of the old Point Horror I read as a teen. Sure Reggie/Regina is a little too perfect, but characterisation is often one of the things missing in books for younger people. She's a cross between Cinderella in the fairy tale and Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street. She kicks ass and comes back for second helpings. It's tense, exciting and frequently scary. Great stuff. I will be checking out more by Simon Holt.
This was actually pretty creepy for a YA book with the demonic dolls and psycho teen. There weren't many twists and turns but enough. The central characters were fairly well developed. What let it down was the preview of the next book at the end which I'm pretty sure hadn't been edited properly and certainly didn't encourage me to rush out and buy it.
Stephen King & Peter Straub
This was a weird one to review. I absolutely hated it at first and struggled to keep reading. The use of plural first person pronouns "we" and "us" took me out of the story and made me angry at the expulsion. Thankfully two things happened about a third of the way through. The narrative became focused more on third person and the upsetting "we"s and "us"es grew less frequent. Secondly, I started to care deeply about the characters and got swept up in the action. I noticed the things that annoyed me far less. About two thirds of the way through we met a familiar character, a "gunslinger" and I realised I was in the "Dark Tower" universe and grew more intrigued and excited. While this book is more horror than fantasy, the connection with a film I watched a few months ago made it feel lighter.
My favourite paragraph - "Exhausted, strung out, Jack cannot hold off his awareness of the world's essential fragility, its constant, unstoppable movement toward death, or the deeper awareness that in that movement lies the source of all its meaning. Do you see all this heart-stopping beauty? Look closely, because in a moment your heart will stop."
The book contains regular and excellently handled foreshadowing, which is at times sardonic yet frequently raises a chuckle (however grim).
Obsession is a book and a half. From the afterword I learned that the title was forced on the story by the publisher and Ramsey Campbell wanted "For The Rest of Their Lives". While Campbell's preferred title would have grabbed me more quickly, I do think "Obsession" suits the story, which deals with the destructive power of an obsessive idea - that having wished for and received something four children would spend the rest of their lives repaying, well at least in the case of one of the four.
<spoiler>Peter is a hero when he saves his grandmother's life, but when she moves in with him and his parents life becomes difficult for all of them. He wishes she would leave, and she does so by dying. The guilt he carries poisons his adult life and drives him to do terrible things.</spoiler>
It's powerful stuff and the clever twist makes it tragic. So much is lost and so little gained for a moment's breathing space. The maxim "Be careful what you wish for" has never been more apropos.
Three Star Reads
Sarah Rees Brennan
The Demon's Lexicon
I may have been a bit stingy with the stars on this one. I guess it could be bumped up a bit, but there are some real problems with the book. The story is good. The secrets/mystery are good. The story is nicely resolved at the end. BUT I honestly think the author chose the wrong character to narrate with. Nick is, by his nature, an emotionless character who has a limited ability with and no love of words. Although the story is about him, it would have had far more depth. warmth and feeling if Alan had told it. I was glad to see that the sequel is told from the POV of Mae (a secondary character in the first book) who has a lot more vibrancy than Nick.
I am coming to grips with the fact that books for teens and young adults don't have the same depth and layers of meaning as those designed for adults. Maybe judging this from my usual experience with books is unfair. Maybe we aren't supposed to see and understand intricately drawn characters. But if so I think YA and teen readers are missing out, because isn't that why most of us read, to understand and experience the lives of others?
I usually love Neil Gaiman's books so I didn't feel worried picking this one up after Beloved. I figured if anyone could hold their own after a masterpiece it should be him. No. Other than an interesting idea (made stronger in the film) this book held nothing for me. It was too simplistic. Maybe it's the sort of book to read to a five year old at bedtime if you want to give them nightmares, but it is not up to Gaiman's usual standard.
To me Shaun Hutson has always meant extreme horror. That isn't the case with this book, or I have become completely desensitised and I, honestly, don't think I have. I don't need extreme horror to enjoy a book of course, but sadly this one was also over-crowded with characters and while the conclusion was a surprise it didn't really make it an unforgettable read.
I hope you've discovered a few new (or previously unread) books to add to your "to be read" pile. I'll be bingo-ing again next year and if you want to join me check out booklikes.com
Finally, this is what my bingo card looked like before I started reading.