Tag Archives: book review

Trezza Azopardi’s ‘Remember Me’ – A Review

Trezza Azzopardi’s sophomore novel Remember Me may well be the most depressing book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which at least ended on a hopeful note. No such luck here. Remember Me is the story of a thieving British bag lady, whose ill-fated life is traced from her lowly birth around the outset of WWII to the final shocking revelation of how she came to be the mostly forgotten wretch and outcast she is when we first meet her in her seventies.

Our heroine is known by a variety of names throughout the course of the book depending on who you ask and where we are in the arc of her life. Known to her parents as Lilian, she loses her mentally unstable mother to an unspecified illness when she is still a very young child. Her alcoholic father, unable to cope with the little girl after the death of his wife, soon shuffles her off to her stern and emotionally distant widower grandfather’s place—where her name is changed to Patricia and her “tell-tale” flaming red hair is died dark. This is more or less the last we see of dear old Dad, and Granddad barely tolerates her presence. However, she does befriend her grandfather’s foreign boarder, Mr. Stadnik (whom it is hinted might be a displaced European Jew), a kind older man who becomes something of an emotional anchor for Lilian in her early years.

Eventually her grandfather sends her, along with Stadnik, away to his widowed sister’s failing farm. Things go alright for awhile . . . until Patricia’s aunt and Stadnik begin a romantic relationship that earns the displeasure of the local cleric, and Stadnik too abandons her, though (mercifully) not by his own choice. Young Patricia nevertheless grows into early adolescence under her aunt’s laissez-faire watch and momentarily finds love with a local boy, Joseph, who knocks her up and then splits. Yet again abandoned, in order to avoid the coming scandal Patricia leaves her aunt, her last remaining family member, for good. Pregnant, friendless and now without family, troubled, naive and uneducated, with less and less to keep her tied to reality, the poor girl is taken in by a charlatan spiritualist and his caustic and jealous female assistant, who promptly change her name to Winnie and exploit her growing mental instability, making her their star attraction. They also force her to submit to a back alley abortion and introduce her to an abhorrent client of theirs, a sleazy shoemaker with a taste for adolescent girls, and it only gets worse from here.

As Lilian/Patricia/Winnie/?’s circumstances continue to grow steadily more awful, the reader is left devastated, hoping—nay,  praying—for some kind of redemption for the protagonist after a life chock full of misfortune and heartache. That’s usually how these things go, right? Alas, gentle reader, this is not that kind of book. The closest we get to a happy ending for our girl is a final peek into her thought process at the end, a means of understanding why she has become the person she has.

I’ll level with you: this was a hard book to read. I’m a fan of horror stories of all kinds, but this to me is the most horrific sort I’ve ever encountered because it is not merely plausible, it is the kind of thing that happens all too often, frequently right under our noses. As you might expect, there’s a lesson here about the plight of the homeless, and it is deftly handled if so relentlessly depressing at times that more than once I felt compelled to stop reading. Ultimately my sense of moral obligation won out, and I am at least glad I read to the end, even if I didn’t get the relief I would’ve liked. No, this is not the sort of book you read for pleasure; you should know that going into it. But it is the kind of book that gives you perspective on a minority that exists in our everyday world but which we rarely take notice of, and that’s the point of both the book’s title and its main character’s constantly shifting name and identity. Here is a person who has floated through her entire life almost transparently (not by choice, at least not at first) like the ghosts she believes she communicates with, and like those ghosts, she clamors not to be forgotten, to not have lived her entire sad and crummy life in vain. Let’s hope she doesn’t.

Grade: B

Stephen M. Irwin’s ‘The Dead Path’ – A Review

The Dead Path was Australian author Stephen M. Irwin‘s debut novel, and as debuts go, it isn’t half bad. The book follows antiques expert and guy-who-can-see-ghosts Nicholas Close (whose physical description put me in the mind of Neil Gaiman circa Good Omens for some reason), an Australian living abroad in England when his beautiful young wife meets an accidental end and sends Nicholas into a downward spiral that leads him back to his old home town of Tallong in Southern Australia to lick his wounds. But something is very much amiss in the otherwise peaceful and languid community where Nicholas grew up, and it’s connected to both the murder of his childhood buddy Tristram and the premature death of his own father. With all this tragedy in Nicholas’s life, it’s exceedingly obvious that something horrible is residing in Tallong, and he must take it upon himself to find out exactly what.

When he begins to investigate the town’s history, Nicholas discovers that children have a history of disappearing in Tallong as far back as the town’s founding. And so, with the help of an assortment of oddball characters—his slightly clairvoyant sister, an Indian priest, the widow of Tristram’s brother, a spunky 10-year-old girl—Nicholas delves into the beating heart of Tallong’s evil: an ancient patch of woods off Carmichael Road inhabited by an evil older than the town itself.

I would love to say that the novel was a real page-turner from beginning to end. Unfortunately, I can’t quite make that claim. Despite a pretty solid (if not particularly original) premise, the story takes a bit of time to build, and the big reveal of who’s behind the child murders isn’t terribly shocking. Think Hansel and Gretel and you won’t be far off the mark. In fact, there is something quite reminiscent of the darker Grimm’s fairy tales here, updated for a modern audience. The villain is not entirely unsympathetic, but she is fairly cookie-cutter and a bit too cartoonish to be fully effective at inducing chills. That said, the final confrontation between Nicholas and the Big Bad is pretty tense. The final act of the book is when it really shifts into high gear, and it’s a nail-biter for sure.

In terms of flaws, there are some plot issues that need work, such as the fact that one of the key characters doesn’t make an appearance until late in the book and could’ve used some fleshing out so that the reader would’ve had more emotional investment in her when she winds up in peril near the end of the story. Likewise, perhaps an early scene or two of the villain in action would’ve been nice. It’s not like the mystery of her identity was all that compelling anyway, and it would’ve been better storytelling to flesh out her history over the course of the book rather than have the big info dump at the end where she explains to Nicholas where she came from and why she does what she does, a technique so cliched at this point it’s almost parody. Oh, and if you’re terrified of spiders, you may want to avoid this one as there are a lot of spiders in it. Then again, you’re reading a horror novel. Why wouldn’t you want to be frightened by an army of arachnids?

On the positive side, the writing is crisp and Irwin displays a real knack for poetic turns of phrase, especially in his descriptions of nature. Most of his central characters are pretty well delineated too. I especially liked Nicholas’s sister Suzette and wish she’d played a bigger role in the book’s final act, but at least she wasn’t killed off. She and Nicholas could even team up for a sequel. With her psychic impressions and knowledge of witchcraft and Nicholas’s ability to see ghosts (“I see dead people . . .”), they would make a kick-ass paranormal investigation team. I was also quite fond of the Indian priest Reverend Anand, though the older priest was a bit much. I think he was supposed to be likably cantankerous, but instead he just came off as racist and unpleasant. The appearance of a certain famous nature spirit at the end was a nice touch—I could see Guillermo del Toro’s influence in its description. Overall, a solid if imperfect opener for a promising writer.

Grade: B

Stephen King’s ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams – A Review

I hadn’t read any new Stephen King fiction—new for me anyway—since taking on From a Buick 8 three years ago. (I did reread The Shining at the end of last year, of course.)  I have a particular soft spot for King’s shorter fiction, so a new collection of his stories was certainly something to look forward to. Let me tell you, I don’t buy new books very often, but I shelled out the money for this thick, oddly-shaped paperback volume at my local Walmart with nary a second thought, and I’m pretty glad I did.

I’ll be honest: early into the book I had my doubts that these stories were going to offer me the chills I so expected from the king of horror. Aside from Mile 81,  a wicked little number about a man-eating car from outer space (no one does evil cars quite like Stephen King) that served as the book’s opener, the first few tales, while interesting and well-written, were not all that disturbing. Premium Harmony, Batman and Robin Have an Altercation and A Death are more meditations on mortality and human nature than horror stories proper, and The Dune and Bad Little Kid felt like decent if unremarkable Twilight Zone episodes, complete with Shyamalan-sized twist endings. Not that I mind either of those types of fables if done well, and these certainly were. It’s just that in a book titled The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, I rather hoped there would be more frights for my buck, but up till that point it had been more like The Market of Mild Thrills.

But then the book really took off, and with a couple of exceptions (Blockade Billy, about a mentally unstable baseball player, didn’t do much for me, though to be fair I am not a fan of the sport, and That Bus Is Another World, following a businessman in NYC who may or may not have witnessed an act of violence in a nearby bus while on his way to meeting, was a little too generic), the remaining stories—and a pair of poems—were quite good. Of the two poems, the first, The Bone Church, is my favorite. It’s about a group of men on an ill-fated jungle mission, and it could easily have been fleshed out into an actual story, yet it feels perfectly vital and intriguing, stark and pared down in verse. It also marks the transitional point where the book finally shifts into high gear. The other poetic composition, Tommy, concerns a young man who died of leukemia in 1969. The titular character is apparently based loosely on someone King actually knew, thus giving the poem a keen personal edge. On display here are all the telltale codes and signposts of an era King has long excelled at evoking in his fiction. The author is equally at home framing that era in lyric form. Indeed, this almost feels like it could be part of a larger cycle of 60s-themed poetry, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

The Bone Church is followed by Morality, one of the strongest stories in the collection, containing as it does one Reverend George Winston, possibly the book’s most memorable character, a man all too disturbingly normal in his monstrosity. The act for which he is willing to pay his financially struggling young nurse Nora $200,000 is truly shocking. The other standouts in this collection are Mister Yummy, in which an elderly gay man sees his death personified as an attractive young man he once encountered in a dance club, The Little Green God of Agony, featuring another questionable clergyman (one apt to remind you of that demonic minister from Poltergeist II), Cookie Jar,  in which a dark secret is buried beneath the eponymous item’s unending supply of gingersnaps, macaroons and snickerdoodles, and my favorite piece in the book, Ur, starring a very special Amazon Kindle that can access books and newspapers from multiple realities.

All in all, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams was a fascinating collection, not least of which because it demonstrates that King’s writing skills have improved immensely over the last few years. While the book is short on traditional scary stories, it shows off the author’s tremendous range as a writer, and for that reason this collection would be a good sampler for readers who may otherwise shy away from his work, as well as a nice book to give to your snooty friends who prefer literary fiction to genre work.

Grade: A

Graham Masterton’s ‘Prey’ – A Review

This book had been sitting on my shelf for some time before I finally got around to it a couple weeks ago. Ironically, I had been thinking a lot about Lovecraft’s work lately, of which I’m a huge fan. I say ironically because I was not aware of this novel’s connections to Lovecraft—specifically his short story The Dreams in the Witch House—before I picked it up. If you haven’t read that story, I’d advise doing so before reading this novel; it isn’t essential, but it is nice to compare and contrast the novel against its inspiration. You can find it here if you’re interested. I consider it one of Lovecraft’s most successful stories, personally.

Prey follows David Williams (why do modern horror novel protagonists always have such generic names?) fresh from a separation with his wife and doing his best to eek a living for himself and his young son Danny as a handyman. At the start he agrees to take on a summer gig restoring and refreshing Fortyfoot House, an old Victorian estate on the Isle of Wight—which, if you don’t know, is just off the southern coast of England. So David takes little Danny and moves into Fortyfoot House, and almost immediately he starts hearing weird noises in the attic. He soon learns from the locals that a rat-like monster called Brown Jenkin is rumored to inhabit the house. This is no big revelation. There’s a quote from The Dreams in the Witch House about Brown Jenkin at the front of the book. We’re definitely in Lovecraft’s domain here, only Masterton has transposed the “witch house” to his own British turf rather than Lovecraft’s familiar setting of New England. Whereas the Lovecraft piece takes place in the fictional setting of Arkham, Massachusetts, Masterton places his story in the very real town of Bonchurch, near Ventnor.

When meddling locals start dying off, it seems like we’re in pretty standard haunted house territory for a good chunk of the novel, though Masterton’s writing is pretty engaging so the story never feels draggy during that initial setup. It is not without problems, which we’ll get to in short order, but by and large the first half of Prey is interesting if not exactly original. If you’re a fellow Lovecraft fan, there is also the anticipation of seeing how a writer like Graham Masterton, who is inclined towards the more gruesome and visceral side of horror (Lovecraft was all about solidly establishing atmosphere first and then mindfucking his readers hard and heavy) will handle beloved Lovecraftian icons like Brown Jenkin and Keziah Mason. When Keziah—spelled Kezia in the book—and Jenkin finally do show up in the flesh in the latter half of Prey, they definitely do not disappoint. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.

Early on, Masterton also introduces a third character into the family dynamic at Fortyfoot House: a 19-year-old free spirit named Liz, whom David invites to stay for awhile since she has nowhere else to go and was planning to squat there anyway before she learned David and Danny were actually residing there for the summer. A freshly divorced 30-something, a cute teen girl with no attachments . . . I think you can see where this is going. Yep. But despite some pretty graphic descriptions of their sexual antics, it still isn’t half as creepy as the main male character’s completely extraneous romp in the woods with a 16-year-old in Simon Clark’s Darker. At least here there’s a plot-specific reason why Liz seduces David, even if it winds up being kinda gross. Anyway, this is a horror novel, and if you can’t handle a little freaky sex, you’re probably reading the wrong genre, seriously. Horror and freaky sex go together like whips and cherries . . . or something.

Besides, the book gets a whole lot more disturbing before the end, trust me. Think some of the darker elements of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and you probably won’t be far off the mark. And when Masterton’s mind is at full dark, he isn’t nearly as restrained as McCarthy. So there’s that.

But I digress. Whereas the first half of Prey feels like a decently written if rather standard haunted house novel, the second half shifts into something else entirely: something that involves time travel, kidnapped children (one of whom is quite a bit more than what she first appears to be) and the devil, who isn’t even the most powerful villain here—more like Evil Santa’s twisted little helper. There’s also an environmental message that was clearly more of an afterthought than the point of the story, which ultimately weakens whatever validity that message might’ve had. Overall, the final third of the novel, while ambitious and certainly disturbing, is a bit of a mess.

Above all, the book’s biggest problem is the main character himself, whose motivations often defy belief and leave one shaking their head a little too often. The most frustrating thing is that, every time it feels like David is about to get back on track, he goes and does something stupid again, putting not only himself but his little son in needless jeopardy once more. I’ll grant that if a story is intriguing and provocative enough, a dumb protagonist can be kinda fun. I mean, we’ve all gotten a thrill from yelling at that idiot in the stalker film who went upstairs to hide instead of running away from the house like they should’ve, haven’t we? I have anyway. Luckily for Masterton, David Williams is a lot like that—just when you think he’s finally come to his senses, he goes and does that dumb thing you knew he was going to do because that’s how the plot needs to play out, and you want to slap the crap out of him.

Still, by the end, despite all the nutty turns it’s taken, it all kinda sorta makes sense. And David may not be all that smart or noble as a character, but he does feel like an Everyman who is just trying to scrape by the best way he knows how, and who gets mixed up in something that is way beyond his ken. He’s not the protagonist I would’ve written, but he comes across as basically decent if lacking in imagination and perspective, and I know a lot of people like that myself, and even care about some of them. Ultimately what redeems Prey, however, is just the sheer madness and monstrosity of the world Masterton has created within. Whatever else he may have gotten wrong, he definitely got the horror right, which is all-important for this kind of book. I’ll tell you this: I will not soon forget the Brown Jenkin of Prey.

Grade: B-

Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ – A Review

ix-stephen-king-the-shiningThere are certain books that every true blue horror fan should read at least once: Dracula and Frankenstein, of course; Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House; Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend all come easily to mind. I wouldn’t hesitate to include The Shining in that category as well. Last month horror specialty press Cemetery Dance even put out a special edition of the novel that includes a prologue and epilogue King wrote into the original manuscript but which publishers omitted from all previous editions. Unfortunately, I do not have that edition; the one I own is the one pictured to the left, which does have a sample of the novel’s sequel Doctor Sleep at the back.

If you’re not familiar with the book’s plot (which has seen not one but two filmed adaptations, including the definitive Stanley Kubrick movie—a horror classic in its own right—and a TV miniseries in the early nineties), then you, sir or madame, must have been living under that proverbial rock for the last forty years. Given the age of the novel, spoiler warnings are off the table. Just sayin’. Very briefly, the story’s about a haunted hotel set high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, and the Torrance family who become its caretakers during the hotel’s off-season. As winter sets in, the hotel becomes more and more isolated by snowstorms, and soon the ghosts surface and begin to terrify the family of three, especially five year old Danny Torrance, whose special psychic abilities give the novel its name. It’s not a particularly original concept; however, there are some aspects that set it apart from your standard haunted house fare.

For one thing, the hotel was not built on desecrated ground . . . at least, not in the book. Kubrick actually changed this part (and several others, arguably for the worse in many cases) and used the desecrated burial ground trope, though it’s only mentioned in passing, really. Poltergeist, released two years later, used the same trope much more effectively, I think. In the book, though, it is simply a series of violent tragedies over the hotel’s long history that ultimately taints it and invests it with its spectral “life.”

For another thing, the black guy is still alive by the end, another thing Kubrick changed. It may seem like a minor point, but given the horror genre’s habit of killing off minorities—usually early in the story—I think it’s important to note that King subverted that genre standard way back in 1977, long before political correctness became a thing. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some problems with his handling of the black character. Dick Hallorann, the Overlook’s head chef, uses the ‘n’ word self-referentially and talks jive perhaps a little too often. Moreover, aside from Danny, he’s the other major character who has the shining, and he serves basically one purpose here: as Danny and Wendy’s savior, making him just this side of the Magic Negro. It’s a trope King milked for all it was worth in The Green Mile, but here he flirts with it. What ultimately redeems the Hallorann character, however, is the fact that King was clearly making a larger point with him. The chef becomes a sort of mentor to Danny, and his concern for the boy is rooted almost entirely in the psychic powers they share, as it allows him to instantly connect with little Danny in a deep way when he meets him. In other words, had it not been for Danny’s “shining” it is likely Hallorann wouldn’t have given the Torrances a second thought.

Now, Stephen King is known to not be a fan of the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation. If one has never read the book, it may seem difficult to understand why. I mean, Kubrick is a directorial genius who made what has since been recognized as one of the greatest horror films of all time. But after rereading The Shining, I can see his side of things. I’m not saying I agree with him, only that as a writer myself, I can comprehend his frustration with the way Kubrick tampered with some of the best aspects of his story. The animated topiary animal shrubs are a good example. Though to be fair, those would’ve been difficult to pull off with the special effects technology available in 1980. Still, if anyone could’ve done it without making it look cheap, it would’ve been Stanley Kubrick. Instead he replaced them with the now-famous hedge maze. It’s an artistic choice I comprehend (the maze echoes the labyrinthine nature of the hotel itself, further echoed by the interlocked patterns of the carpet), but King has a point too. For one thing, Kubrick softens Jack a bit by having him merely dislocate Danny’s arm rather than break it as he does in the book. This is relevant, because Jack is the progeny of an abusive alcoholic father himself. In part, King’s novel is about whether young parents are destined to repeat their own parents’ failures. Ever the optimist, King has Jack nearly succeed in breaking the cycle . . . if not for that pesky haunted hotel that slyly seduces him back into his old destructive habits and ultimately drives him mad.

Well, King may be an optimist at heart, but he does seem to suggest that our psyches are fragile enough that we must always be on guard against the lures of the negative patterns that sometimes guide our lives. One gets the feeling from reading The Shining that King well understood how close we all come sometimes to the brink of self-directed ruin, and that is the real horror here. The conceit of the haunted hotel is merely the frosty coating on top of what’s really cooking beneath the surface. There’s a reason the concept behind the novel works so well: beyond the actual ghosts, this is, in fact, a masterful psychological study of a man who finds himself more and more isolated from his family and ultimately from himself. In one sense Jack is the Overlook: on the outside he’s a cool and attractive customer,  but underneath he’s a man haunted by his own history, constantly on the verge of exploding like the hotel’s faulty boiler.

There’s a real sense of desperation and grittiness in the book, the sign of a writer who knew intimately the fears of poverty and failure that drive Jack, who was not so far removed from them yet himself. King was still an up-and-coming author with a young family when he wrote The Shining, and its obvious he empathized with and understood his characters, a quality he invests in Jack Torrance. And that makes it all the more tragic when Jack finally loses it and turns against his wife and son.  I could say much more about this book and its place in the canon of horror fiction, how it is one of the more important works in bridging the gap between Old World and New World supernatural literature, for example. Perhaps I’ll save that for another time. I will leave you with this instead: The Shining is the perfect winter read for fans of the genre, and if you’ve never experienced it in any form but the Kubrick film, now is the time to pick it up.

Grade: A 

Ramsey Campbell’s ‘The Hungry Moon’ – A Review

ix-ramsey-campbell-the-hungry-moonIt’s true I’ve gotten a little behind on my reviews lately, so I will try to remedy that from here on out. Which brings me to Ramsey Campbell’s The Hungry Moon. I know Campbell primarily as a short story writer, and in that field very few modern horror writers can touch him. In my review for the horror anthology Cutting Edge, I pointed out that my favorite story in the book was Campbell’s The Hands, where a freaky urban church is the source of the horror. Campbell definitely knows how to tap into the darker side of religion. That is amply demonstrated in The Hungry Moon.

The novel is set in a little British village called Moonwell, so named because it contains an ancient cave said to house a demonic being with some connection to the moon. Long ago local Druids managed to trap the creature in the cave and keep it there with magical rites performed on the same day every year, a tradition that has continued on to present day with nary a problem. Enter Godwin Mann, a young evangelical Christian from California, who has come to Moonwell to win their quaint little British pagan hearts over to his distinctly American brand of Christianity, and he does so by vowing to descend into the cave and confront once and for all whatever satanic presence is lurking down there. The problem is, the being in the cave has absolutely nothing to do with any Christian devils, but is rather something that descended to Earth from the stars many millennia ago, a monstrosity more akin to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones than to anything out of religious lore.

The book sets up Mann as a typical charismatic preacher who manages to whip the town into a religious frenzy, complete with book burning and purging of some of the more liberal elements of the town. That alone would be bad enough, but then Mann makes good on his promise and confronts the thing in the cave . . . which promptly possesses his body, escapes from its long-time prison and proceeds to take advantage of the powerful influence its evangelist host has already established over the townsfolk, mesmerizing and manipulating them for its own ends. By the time the handful of people with the good sense to steer clear of Godwin Mann’s cult realize that something is very, very wrong in Moonwell (I mean, besides the fact that an outsider has come in and turned nearly everyone into Bible-thumpers in no time flat), it’s pretty much too late. The village has been cut off from the outside world, and a permanent darkness has settled over it. With all electricity severed, the only source of light in town is now the Godwin Mann-thing, a sort of giant glowy spider with Mann’s face, and all sorts of weird-ass stuff starts coming out of the woodwork to boot.

One thing I hate with a passion is when horror authors simply substitute gross-out stuff for real horror. Luckily this is something Campbell masterfully steers clear of at every turn, going instead for the slow build-up that’s much more rewarding in the end. And as usual, Ramsey Campbell writes beautifully intricate and thoughtful sentences, which I happen to prefer over Stephen King’s short and choppy point-blank style (your mileage may vary). Campbell’s writing feels baroque and pregnant with dark possibility whereas King tends to just hit you over the head with everything, using his words like a blunt object, which, depending on the story, either works spectacularly or has a flattening effect on the writing, depriving it of much-needed nuance and emotional resonance.

The story also works as an allegory of the destructive power of religious fanaticism, with particular emphasis on the way true believers can be easily manipulated by anyone who wears the mask of a holy man and tells them what they want to hear. Campbell even manages to sprinkle the book with some well-timed humor, a difficult feat in a horror novel, especially one that deals with such a contentious topic. One scene where a couple of stand-up comic’s on-stage personas manifest as actual people in the backseat of a car was especially fun, managing to be both hilarious and creepy as all get-out at the same time. Another tricky issue here is how the author pits a stalwart English spiritual tradition against flashy Hollywood-style American evangelism, making it essentially a tale of conflicting national cultures that could easily have been offensive in the wrong hands. Personally, I’ve seen enough Pat Robertsons, Creflo Dollars and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakkers to know that Godwin Mann is actually pretty restrained as these guys go, and I’ve never been a fan of their type anyway. But it’s clear that Campbell has more in mind here than cheap shots at America. Hell, he even makes his main heroine a transplanted New Yorker just so you can be absolutely sure that this isn’t intended to be anti-Yank.

To be sure, the book is not without its flaws, the main one being that there are a lot of characters in it, and Campbell doesn’t do quite enough to keep them distinct from one another. This is particularly problematic in the early chapters, where I found myself more than once trying to sort out who was who. It does get easier as the book progresses and the various connections between the characters are slowly clarified, but they still could’ve done with more backstory, or just some general fleshing out of their personalities. The other big problem is the resolution, which is just a little too deus ex machina for my taste, not to mention that the way the monster is defeated is laughably absurd and far too wussified for such an awesome antagonist. There are also some subplots that go nowhere, including one in which the creature is planning to gain possession of nuclear weapons stored in a bunker just outside of Moonwell. Too bad this ultimately became little more than a disappointing afterthought. The idea of a Lovecraftian monster taking control of nuclear weapons is a good one.

But even with these problems, The Hungry Moon is measured, cunning and scary enough to entertain most fans of the genre, I think, particularly those who gravitate toward the Lovecraft school of horror literature. It’s not the most original of ideas perhaps, but there’s enough style and Campbellian strangeness here to make for a worthwhile read for hardcore horror buffs and especially Campbell fans.

Grade: B

‘The Book of Strange New Things’ – A Review

IX-michel-faber-the-book-of-strange-new-thingsTruth be told, I’ve actually read several books in between my last review and this one, but somehow a review just never gelled for those other books. First, there was Charles Grant’s Symphony, the first in a tetralogy in which one book each is dedicated to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. While I have a weird little anecdote about this novel’s cover design in relation to a dream I had in high school (several years before the book was published), I’ll spare you that and just say that the first volume in the series was a massive letdown, and I likely won’t be reading the rest of them. I have a general rule against reviewing anything that I would rate less than a C- because I hate being mean to writers, knowing as I do exactly how hard it is to write a novel—any novel—much less a good one. And let’s say this book just missed the mark of being review-worthy.

Then there was Barbara Kingsolver’s colossal ode to Africa The Poisonwood Bible, about the mostly all-female Price clan, headed by the firebrand Southern preacher Nathan Price, and their adventures as missionaries in the Belgian Congo against the backdrop of the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s. Here I had the opposite problem: the book was certainly worthy of a review, but I felt that any legitimate criticisms that could be leveled at it would require someone with a far more extensive and nuanced understanding of African history and culture than I happen to possess. Next I tackled the Seventh Annual Edition of Gardner Dozois’ highly regarded anthology series The Year’s Best Science Fiction. The failure here for me was in the prodigious diversity of ideas which threatened to overwhelm me (a common issue I have with good science fiction anthologies), and I will need to read it again to properly review it. Finally, I worked William Styron’s short but exemplary meditation on his own clinical depression, Darkness Visible, into my reading schedule, a text that feels holy to those of us who have suffered from the same affliction at some point in our lives, and therefore to review it was, for me, something akin to sacrilege.

Little did I know, reading all of these books was essentially laying the groundwork for reviewing a novel more in my critical wheelhouse: The Book of Strange New Things by Dutch/British author Michel Faber, a book that shares some territory with Mary Doria Russell’s multi-award-winning The Sparrow, in that both are about an idealistic Christian missionary traveling to an alien world to bring the Gospel to the natives, only to face a series of unexpected challenges upon arrival. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Whereas The Sparrow‘s central protagonist is a conservative Jesuit priest from Puerto Rico, that of The Book of Strange New Things is a liberal Protestant minister from Britain. And whereas Russell’s novel tackles the politics of sex and the emotional impact of rape, Faber’s is at heart a love story. And now I promise to stop with the comparisons and just focus on the volume credited in the headline.

From the outset Faber takes pains to establish the depth and vigor of the relationship between Peter and Beatrice Leigh, which is a good thing because he wastes little time in getting the pastor off to the planet Oasis, where USIC (the acronym is never explained, adding to the mega-corp’s highly mysterious nature throughout the story) has established a . . . colony? Base? Neither of these feel quite accurate in describing the setup USIC has created on the planet, where a handful of handpicked humans toil away in the hardscrabble environment of a world that is, impossibly, both wet and dry at the same time, incredibly humid and yet almost desert-like in its sparsity of life and geological features. A world where the nigh incessant rain comes down in rhythmic spirals. The one intelligent species here are humanoid in form, but their faces are maddeningly unfamiliar, devoid of anything even remotely face-like.

When Peter arrives, he finds several facets of this new place both unsettling and fascinating. For one thing, the USIC habitat is engineered to keep its workers satisfied and incurious about everything outside of their jobs, including what’s going on back on Earth. Or rather, especially what’s going on back on Earth. This is problematic for Peter, who initially tries to keep his promise to communicate regularly with Bea via the Shoot (basically an interplanetary email device that allows for near instantaneous communication between Earth and Oasis) but soon his work with the all too amenable Oasans—which includes mastering their bizarre, nearly impervious form of speech and helping them build a proper church in their otherwise insular and conformist community—causes him to slack off on his transmissions. Naturally, being millions of miles away both physically and mentally, Peter begins to grow apart from his wife, who is dealing with some major issues of her own back home, where civilization has fallen into complete chaos as environmental disasters caused by severe climate change have begun to take their toll. But these problems become almost abstract to Peter as he endeavors to understand what motivates the Oasans, not to mention what happened to his predecessor, the original pastor who inspired the natives to take up Christianity so passionately, and who went missing before Peter’s arrival.

Even as Peter and Bea grow apart, Peter finds himself growing closer to Grainger, the colony’s pharmacist, who is battling depression and guilt and wants to go home to visit her estranged father. Soon he develops feelings for her that further threaten his marriage, while on the tumultuous Earth, Bea has seemingly lost her faith in God. Will Peter and Bea’s love survive these setbacks? Could any marriage endure these immense psychic and spatial distances, or these ever-multiplying forms and levels of alienation? This is the central question the book asks, and it is largely left to the reader whether the question is satisfactorily answered or not. Meanwhile, there is a pastoral quality to The Book of Strange New Things, an ease and lightness in its unfolding which expertly belies the gloom gathering just off the horizon. Like the Oasans’ ovoid-bricked homes and the sterile USIC compound, the story itself is meticulously constructed to be nonthreatening, or rather to appear so. But danger lurks in unexpected places, like those challenges to love and faith that often strike us obliquely, out of the blue.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the novel is its restraint. Faber could easily have taken this in a dozen more jarring, gruesome or sensational directions. He could have made it far more confrontational to the those who put their faith in God—or science for that matter—to save us from ourselves. Instead, what he gives us is a soft sell of the very things he seems to castigate, sort of an anti-satire, a thing that comes across ultimately as fresh and original even as it polishes its familiar tropes to a glittering shine, and that is borderline miraculous. He even leaves off in a way that invites a sequel, but if one never materializes the novel will remain nothing less than a holistic and accomplished piece, a fully realized work of science fiction that should be read widely.

Grade: A

‘Dark Forces’ – A Review

IX-kirby-mccauley-dark-forcesIn the late 70s editor Kirby McCauley solicited every writer in the field he could think of for a new short horror fiction anthology he was putting together. Dark Forces was the result. When I read this book for the first time back in 1990 (a full ten years after its initial publication), I put little X’s by the stories I really enjoyed. Twelve tales wound up with these marks, a little over half of the twenty-three pieces included in this massive anthology. Now, I know what you’re thinking: twenty-three stories doesn’t sound that massive. Yes, but what other horror anthology includes Stephen King’s novella The Mist, which weighs in at 130 pages in the Signet paperback just by itself? That’s a bit over one-fifth of this 538 page tome, excluding the introductory pages.

And speaking of The Mist, for some reason it failed to get an X from me, which in retrospect seems insane. It has since become one of my favorite Stephen King stories, owing not just to the cool monsters but also to its pitch-perfect study of the fractioning and breakdown of humanity when crammed together in a pressure cooker environment. This is the kind of story King really does best. In a way, it is an extension of his early work like The Shining and Cujo. Those books deal with young families trapped at a particular location while dealing with a looming threat—the author builds on that concept here and ups the stakes considerably. Another thing I’ve always loved about this story is that it ends quite ambiguously, a rarity for King, who tends toward upbeat endings. Not here. Indeed, the 2007 Frank Darabont film based on this story ended on an even bleaker note, and I still think it’s one of the best films based on King’s horror work. Anyway, I can only assume that I was so flabbergasted and wearied after reading the Dark Forces opener that I just plum forgot to mark it, though more likely I saved the longest story for last . . . and forgot to mark it. Either way, it is a grievous error that has since been corrected. I mean, I do have my pride.

In fact, after my recent re-read, most of the stories that didn’t get an X in 1990 got one this time around, and the entire volume has been upgraded in my esteem. This stands in direct contrast to the Cutting Edge anthology, which hasn’t aged quite as well. I suspect that I simply wasn’t mature enough to appreciate these stories when I read them as a teenager. Take, for example, The Peculiar Demesne by Russell Kirk. Initially I rejected it as a throwback to the traditional ghost story with little to justify it as a modern incarnation. Moreover, I may have simply soured at the notion of reading the fiction of a well-known conservative philosopher, even if thoughtful and well-written, but such is the thinking of an adolescent. This piece is essentially a blatant Christian ghost story, but a beautifully crafted one. A person could argue that there are uncomfortable elements of colonial Africa here which may strike some readers as racist, but I feel the story artfully transcends this simplistic assessment. And whether you agree with his politics or not (I don’t), Kirk remains a fascinating figure, an Old Guard conservative from an era when conservatives were still pretty classy.

 Another story that I initially did not like but has since become one of my favorites in the collection is The Bingo Master by Joyce Carol Oates. Many would be hard-pressed to call this a horror story at all. No one dies, no monsters or psychopaths lurk in the shadows, nothing supernatural or particularly gruesome happens, though there is an act of violence in it. And yet, by the end we experience the full force of the humiliation and devastation wrought against the tale’s witty but naive middle-aged narrator, Rose Mallow Odom, who stands as one of the most well-drawn characters of any short story I’ve ever read. It is truly incredible how much personality and detail Oates packs into this piece, and because of that the finale has every bit of the force of a death or a rape. It is, in short, exactly the kind of story a teenage horror fan with a hunger for strange beings and bloodletting would shuck off as not worthy of his time. The more fool him!

Some things, however, have not changed. My favorite piece in this collection, then as now, is Robert Aickman’s Mark Ingestre: A Customer’s Tale. Although I was only passingly familiar with the Sweeney Todd legend when I first read this piece, I knew there was something special here. And yet, again, there are no monsters or murders, though there is plenty of menace and enough claustrophobic atmosphere to choke Ann Radcliffe. What really sets this story apart, however, is the deftly handled sexual weirdness. It is one of the most overtly erotic of Aickman’s stories—not to mention one of his last before his death in 1981—and it stands as a surprisingly straight-from-the-shoulder (for Aickman anyway) story. Anyway, I love these sorts of expansions on established fictive universes.

And, of course, Ramsey Campbell’s contribution, The Brood, is likewise one of the strongest pieces here. There’s something almost Lynchian about this fable of a London-based veterinarian who finds himself drawn, with the intentions of rescue, as any good animal lover would, to the distressed mewling of some infant critters in the abandoned building next door to his apartment, only to discover that they aren’t quite what he expected. Other highlights include Edward Bryant’s Dark Angel, which explores the concept of the voodoo doll in a rather shocking way, Clifford D. Simak’s The Whistling Well, where a writer camping on an abandoned Western settlement encounters something ancient and terrifying, Robert Bloch’s The Night Before Christmas, the tale of a madman’s jealousy over his wife’s infidelity with one of Bloch’s trademark punch-in-the-gut endings (complete with pun), and Lisa Tuttle’s Where the Stones Grow, proof positive that a skilled writer can make anything horrific, even rocks.

Yet even the stories I didn’t care for—Charles L. Grant’s A Garden of Blackred Roses feels  a little disjointed and half-baked, despite a strong concept which could easily have been expanded into a novel, and in Where There’s a Will, the father-son team of Richard Matheson and Richard Christian Matheson give us their take on the premature burial theme with a twist ending worthy of M. Night Shyamalan’s more middling efforts—still feel like vital inclusions here, perhaps lifted up by the sheer quality of the volume’s other material. Both of these stories were interesting experiments that didn’t quite work for me, but I certainly don’t have any regrets about having read them.

As a sampling of the horror field at a particular time in history, it is hard to imagine a more satisfying volume than this one. McCauley certainly knew good fiction when he read it. And there’s not a single vampire story in the bunch. Go figure. There’s even a short Edward Gorey cartoon and a darkly humorous Gahan Wilson entry, and oddly, neither feel out of place here. Really, all of these pieces are so fundamentally different from the others that the book stands as a pretty fine survey of the breadth of quality horror fiction being crafted in the late 70s and early 80s. As a teenager, I had specific expectations on what I wanted from my spooky stories. As a middle-aged man I am open to anything that can chill me, disturb me or just generally creep me out, which means I am in a much better position to appreciate this collection for what it truly is: an excellent reflection of all the shapes, sizes and patterns that horror can come in. Trust me on this: if you’re in the market for a single 80s-era horror anthology, this is the one to get.

Grade: A

Ann-Marie MacDonald’s ‘The Way the Crow Flies’ – A Review

IX-anne-marie-macdonald-as-the-crow-fliesAnn-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies is not a horror novel, but it certainly covered some horrific ground. Did I mention I also enjoy reading bildungsroman novels, especially ones that are fabulously written?

MacDonald’s second novel (after Fall on Your Knees) follows the life of eight-year-old Madeleine McCarthy, the daughter of Jack McCarthy, a high-ranking officer at the Royal Canadian Air Force station at Centralia, Ontario, Canada in the early sixties. Newly arrived after a long stint in Germany (where Madeleine was born), the family quickly adapts to life in a new part of the world, at least for Madeleine. Everything is off to a roaring start until she experiences unexpected trouble at school in the form of her abusive teacher Mr. March, who chooses a handful of girls to remain a few minutes after school for his personal pleasure, of which Madeleine is one. Tough subject matter to address in and of itself, but the bleakness level shifts into overdrive after Claire, an American classmate whose dad is stationed at the base for reasons known only to Madeleine’s father, is raped and murdered off-base and a beloved teenage neighbor, Ricky Froelich, becomes the state’s prime suspect, an easy scapegoat when the local authorities want to close this horrendous case quickly, and do so with the help of two of Madeleine’s classmates . . . who also happen to be members of the “after-three” club.

Is that dark enough for you? No? Well then, toss in the fact that the reason Claire’s father is stationed at the base is to smuggle a Nazi war criminal into the United States to serve as an assistant to Wernher von Braun as part of America’s plan to make sure it gets to the moon before those pesky Commies do, and that Madeleine’s father is a willing participant in this scheme, and that the teenager is the adopted son of Henry Froelich, a Jewish man who happened to be a prisoner at Mittelbau-Dora and knew the Nazi scientist who Jack secretly has holed up in a nearby town, only waiting for his order to brief Claire’s father and get the Nazi packing to the US. Jack also happens to be an important witness who could potentially vindicate Ricky’s innocence, but in doing so he would have to blow open the secret mission his own government has him participating in. Wait, even more issues come steadily down the pike with each new chapter, such as the fact that Madeleine is dealing with her burgeoning homosexuality, and her beloved older brother Mike is later sent to Vietnam. And, and . . .

If this plot seems over-complicated and a little too ‘just so’ to swallow, perhaps, but it should be noted that all of its various components were born from real-life events. Madeleine’s life is in part autobiographical, and the main plot point, the murder of Claire McCarroll, is based on the case of Steven Truscott. Of course, the Nazi war criminal being smuggled into Canada, and then into the US, is also modeled on historical precedent, namely Operation Paperclip. May be all of these events converging is one of those one-in-a-million things that sometimes do happen. It’s still pushing it, though MacDonald’s writing is so natural and self-assured that nothing ever feels forced, and the characters are sufficiently well-drawn that their respective motivations are perfectly understandable. Thus, it all feels too much like destiny about mid way through, a depressing conclusion indeed. Yet, somehow, amidst this carefully constructed fatalism, just when you think you have everything worked out and know how the story will end, the final piece is dropped into place, and it’s more shocking than you could ever have  imagined.

The Way the Crow Flies, published in 2003, was a well-deserving contender for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Lambda Literary Award, though it ultimately won neither. That’s unfortunate. It’s a beautifully written novel that bounces back and forth between the two major p.o.v. characters, Madeleine and Jack, and spans around thirty years, as the adult Madeleine deals with the fallout from her own childhood abuse as well as watching a dear friend get sent up the river for crimes she knows he didn’t commit. Meanwhile, Jack’s big secret and the guilt that results from it is taking a toll on his health, which in turn is adding more stress to Madeleine’s life, and on it goes, until things finally come to a head and both Jack and Madeleine are forced to deal with their past. MacDonald perfectly captures the tone and details of life on a Canadian air force base in 1963, and weaves the various strands of her intricate and involving tale in such a way that they feel consistent and complimentary, which by all rights they shouldn’t.

That said, the novel is not without its flaws. Mr. March, the pedophile teacher, is perhaps too clichéd and one-dimensional to be perfectly believable. There’s also the matter of conflating homosexuality with being sexually abused, and though the novel goes out of its way to disassociate the two, it ultimately reinforces the stereotype by putting the central protagonist in both categories. The story would’ve been better served by not adding this additional wrinkle to an already complicated plot. And then there’s what becomes of Madeleine’s brother Mike, which does feel gratuitous. With all the stuff Madeleine goes through, it’s understandable that she’s a mess. In fact, it’s fairly startling that she isn’t more messed up than she is.

But these are fairly minor problems in the scheme of things. For the most part Madeleine McCarthy is that rarest of literary treasures, a believable child character, and a charming one at that. Part of her ability to cope comes down to the fact that she’s always been a natural comedian even as a little girl. Indeed, she will eventually choose to go into comedy as a career. In line with that aspect of her personality, one of the things that makes eight-year-old Madeleine such a lovable and well-rounded child character is her tendency to constantly mimic her favorite Warner Brothers cartoons. This is so exceedingly spot on that I wish I’d thought of it. And the story itself is a murder mystery of the most fascinating kind: one that is viewed through the eyes of a protagonist who isn’t particularly interested in solving it, while the investigating cops here are more like antiheroes, as they just want the case resolved quickly and efficiently at the expense of good police work, resulting in a clear miscarriage of justice. With respect to the guilt or innocence of Steven Truscott, the model for Ricky Froelich in the book, I’d say it’s pretty clear where Ms. MacDonald comes down. Having now read some of the details of the Truscott case myself, I’m still on the fence, though leaning in the direction of innocence.

But one thing is perfectly clear to me: MacDonald needs to keep writing. She not only manages to address issues like sexual abuse and moral panic in a sensitive and compelling way, she shines a light on one of the darker chapters of the space race and the development of the Saturn V rocket. The ghastly twist ending is just icing on the cake.

Grade: A-

Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Dark Companions’ – A Review

IX-ramsey-campbell-dark-companionsMany horror fans would agree that Ramsey Campbell is the quintessential British modern master of the genre.  If not, they should give this book a try.  Dark Companions is one of the author’s earliest short story collections, but also one of his best.  Campbell uncommonly and artfully bridges the Old World Gothic-style tale with the modern horror terrain exemplified by Stephen King and later Clive Barker, and Dark Companions is a prime example of that.  These are mostly ghost stories of a sort, and the majority of them are a unique enough riff on that theme, but what really gives Campbell’s yarns their wallop is the absolutely superb writing on display here.  Even the less successful pieces in the collection are a worthy investment of one’s time for the sheer beauty of the sentences alone; but luckily, the majority of the tales in Dark Companions are brilliant.

The opening story in this collection, Mackintosh Willy, won the World Fantasy Award in 1980, and deservedly so. In it, a young boy’s crime against a homeless man is avenged from beyond the grave.  Other standouts are Down There, where an office building’s sub-basement  houses something monstrous, Out of Copyright, in which an anthologist of obscure dark stories finds his holy grail . . . an unwittingly releases an entropic evil into the world, Little Voices, where a priggish childless teacher finds herself haunted by the spirit of a puckish but desolate infant that tests her patience and her sanity, and The Companion, which finds its protagonist braving an abandoned fairground ride with unexpectedly creepy results.

But undoubtedly, the real star of this collection is The Pattern, about a haunted field whose evil is not bounded by time.  Rarely does a story truly shock me, but the ending of this one caught me right in my quivering heart, and I found myself only vacating my bed to void my bladder quite reluctantly, and then returning to it as quickly as I could.  Maybe it was because the main character was, like myself, an artist, or maybe it had to do with me being somewhat agoraphobic.  But I think it owed more to the fact that an evil which could freely violate the laws of physics (namely the impossibility of traveling back in time) seemed like it would hardly be constrained by something as paltry as being a mere piece of fiction, and that it could spring wholly into existence simply for the fact that I had opened the pages of Mr. Campbell’s book and read about it.  Beyond the tale’s scare factor, its title also has multiple levels of meaning, all the more so for its protagonist being a painter.

A few of these pieces left me with more questions than answers, but they were no less scary for that.  The Puppets, for example, is undeniably about a haunted Punch and Judy show (which are pretty creepy to begin with, it must be said), but the question I had at the end is, was Mr. Ince, the proprietor and operator of the show, the poltergeist behind the scenes or simply another puppet?  And perhaps that was the point.  That kind of thing is hard for veteran horror writers to pull off, much less one only about a third of the way into his career as Campbell was when he penned this.  Another such story was The Show Goes On, which had a vague and claustrophobic ending that somehow works despite the confusion.  Campbell even manages to inject some dark humor here and there, such as in Heading Home, where the title, it is gradually revealed, is quite literal.  And in Baby, an old alcoholic is relentlessly followed by the baby carriage once used by the bag lady he murdered.

Out of the twenty-one stories in Dark Companions, there were really only two that I didn’t care for, both near the back of the volume.  The big revelation at the end of Conversion, as well as the second person point-of-view (an unusual choice), felt a little too gimmicky.  And The Chimney, after a pretty solid set-up, doesn’t quite deliver on the menacing possibilities of its premise.  Even these were enjoyable enough though, and as always, Campbell’s dazzling way with words makes each story a gem to read.  These two just didn’t quite have the sparkle of the others.  But for my money, two semi-duds out of twenty-one stories makes this collection a real treasure chest for fans of British horror stories in general and Ramsey Campbell fans in particular.  If you can find it, this collection is not to be missed!

Grade: A