Reviews

MEXICAN GOTHIC, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia #wyrdandwonder

I’ve had Mexican Gothic on my TBR for some time now, and with each new work published by this prolific author I kept promising myself that I would read this one and move on toward her other novels, but you know how it goes between bookworms and their TBRs…  It’s thanks to this year’s Word & Wonder that I finally “dusted off” the book from the virtual shelf: sometimes all we need is a little push!

Noemì Taboada is a young woman living in Mexico City and flitting between social engagements and more serious academic pursuits: she’s smart and very determined under her frivolous appearance, and that’s one of the reasons her father asks her to travel toward the fairly remote area where her older cousin Catalina went to live after marrying a handsome Englishman on the heels of a whirlwind courtship. The senior Taboada received a letter from Catalina in which his niece accused her husband of poisoning her, and also spoke of ghosts and of being a virtual prisoner: Noemì will need to find out if there is any substance to these accusations – which are expressed in a way that raises some doubts about the new bride’s mental stability – and eventually provide whatever help Catalina needs.

Noemì’s arrival at High Place, the isolated mansion built by Catalina’s new family, the Doyles, is far from auspicious: the house is clearly in disrepair, the Doyles’ welcome is far from warm, and the surrounding area – once the site of a now-closed silver mine – speaks of neglect and… something more ominous.  Noemì finds herself dealing with the too-brief, heavily supervised encounters with an ailing Catalina, the strict rules imposed by the family (like total silence at dinnertime) and the disturbing vibes coming both from her cousin’s husband, Virgil, and the family patriarch Howard; what’s more, she starts suffering from vivid, nightmarish dreams featuring the house itself and encumbered by a sense of impending doom.  The only potential ally for Noemì seems to be Francis, Virgil’s younger cousin, but the boy is also too enmeshed in the family’s secrets to be entirely dependable, and any information she gathers about the Doyles and their past serves only to increase Noemì’s dread, until the situation evolves into actual, inescapable danger…

I am of two minds about Mexican Gothic: on one hand I enjoyed the slow buildup of tension and the evocative atmosphere, the almost Lovecraftian suggestions offered by the story and the unhurriedly unfolding mystery that worked well in compelling me to keep reading until far into the night; on the other hand, however, once the revelations start to come, the novel takes on a far more grisly tone that offsets the previous atmospheric horror with grotesque touches, and to me this new tone felt out of place with what had come before.

What I liked: of course Noemì – she is an engaging character, only ostensibly concerned with fashion and appearance, but in reality quite solid and fearless, holding her own against the coldly creepy members of the Doyle family. The unsettling manifestations in her dreams and the pervasive rot and decay of the house do little to wreck her determination and the only moment when she’s truly afraid comes from the realization that she might lose independence and agency, because the loss of her power of choice is the most horrific condition she can think of – and that’s the perfect measure of the person she is.

The setting is also wonderfully drawn: first High Place, the Doyles’ house, a place of rotting wallpaper, barred windows and almost no creature comforts like hot water or constant electricity – the descriptions of the shadows created by candles and oil lamps, the only reliable source of illumination, help reinforce the sense of dread that hits the reader, and of course Noemì, from the very start. The isolation and the closeness to a graveyard, which is more often than not shrouded in impenetrable mists, add to that feeling and enhance the cloying sense of dismay that stands at the roots of the unfolding events. And then there is the constant presence of the mushrooms, which play an important – and creepy – role in the economy of the story…

And lastly, the nearby village, which shows all the signs of abandonment typical of a mining town well past its better days, where people struggle to eke out what meager life they can, burdened by a past of exploitation and disregards for rights, mixed with barely disguised racial inequality: there is a scene in which Noemì enters a small shop and observes the proprietor’s broken glasses, which is quite emblematic of the villagers’ conditions.

Sadly, once the mystery surrounding High Place is revealed, the tone of carefully orchestrated apprehension turns almost abruptly into over-the-top body horror whose lack of subtlety obtained the opposite of its intentions, at least for me, because instead of being scared by the descriptions I found them bordering on the ludicrous. Even the menacing evil that came off in waves from Virgil and his father, which until that moment had engaged in leering innuendo, lost its threatening impact to turn them into something closer to maniacally laughing, mustache twirling villains that looked more caricatural than dangerous.  Not even the final portion of the novel, with its adrenaline-infused scenes and hellish battle for survival managed to offset my disappointment at the revelation of the Doyles’ century-long secrets, which I found more repugnant than shocking.

Still, I consider Mexican Gothic a mostly solid story (if I can overlook the above slip into excess…) and I am certainly not discouraged by pursuing my journey into Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s other works.

My Rating:

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Reviews

Short Story: SHARDS, by Ian Rogers – #wyrdandwonder

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Read the story online

A very creepy, quite disturbing tale made even more so by the lack of any explanation about the hows and whys of what happens.

The story starts, quite similarly to many horror movies, with a group of teenagers driving toward a secluded cabin in the woods to celebrate their upcoming graduation and to have some fun. There are many elements that are familiar to followers of the genre: the dilapidated cabin, the isolated location, and a mysterious trapdoor leading toward a dark basement… And yet, the way this story develops leads toward some quite unexpected paths, making the reader constantly wonder what’s at play here.

The very first sentence points toward a tragedy, no mystery here: we know from the start that something horrible will happen here, and that makes the cheer and fun of the outing that the group is enjoying even more poignant, particularly because it’s easy to see these people are very comfortable with each other since they grew up together and have developed a very close relationship.

If the dread of what happens in the cabin is bad enough, what the survivors have to endure afterwards is even more ghastly, because it becomes quite apparent that the evil in the cellar did not remain there, and it wants more of what it obtained. And it does not end with death…

Thoroughly chilling, and quite compelling.

My Rating:

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Short Story: I, CTHULHU, OR WHAT’S A TENTACLE-FACED THING LIKE ME DOING IN A SUNKEN CITY LIKE THIS?, by Neil Gaiman – #wyrdandwonder

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READ THE STORY ONLINE

You would think that any cosmic horror, Lovecraft-inspired story – especially one that has Cthulhu’s name in it – would be full of terror and blood-chilling elements, wouldn’t you? Well, think again, because this short offering from Neil Gaiman pokes fun at all the tropes typical of Lovecraftian imagination and turns out to be a delightfully amusing tour of many of them.

Cthulhu is dictating his memoirs to a human scribe named Whateley who, at least judging by the monster’s reactions, is clearly torn between curiosity and (in larger part) awed fear of his host, who starts by waxing poetical about his birth and the place he used to call home: of course, Cthulhu being who he (it?) is, the birth implicated the death of both parents and “home” is a place where a gibbous moon bleeds into the ocean…

Showing a particularly grumpy attitude, Cthulhu goes on by describing an eons-long party which brought him to Earth, where he proceeded to enslave, rule and consume the hapless inhabitants, until… well, no, I will let you discover by yourselves how the rest of the story goes, it’s far better to go into it with no prior knowledge. And far more fun!

Except for the part about feeding the shoggoth, that is… 😀

If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s narrative style and word choice, you – like me – will laugh out loud at the way they are employed here, turning these cosmic horror themes into a genially entertaining read.

My Rating:

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THE GULP (Tales from the Gulp #1), by Alan Baxter #wyrdandwonder

Stories’ collections can be a little tricky, sometimes, because not all of the offerings might encounter the reader’s tastes, but The Gulp did not suffer from this problem for two important reasons: the five short stories in this anthology revolve around a common element – the Australian city of Gulpepper – and the weird horror theme that permeates the collection, whose almost-Lovecraftian feel makes for a delightfully uneasy read.

Gulpepper is a pleasant seaside city on the Australian coast, but while it might be nice to pass through it, staying there carries a good number of problems: the inhabitants look friendly enough on the surface, but on closer inspection there is something… not right about them, something the casual visitors cannot put their finger on, but still proves unsettling.  The townspeople refer to the city as ‘the Gulp’, often mentioning that it has the tendency to “swallow” people, almost a warning about moving on as quickly as one can…

Unfortunately, not everyone heeds that warning, as it happens to Rich in Out of a Rim: he’s training to become a delivery van driver, and when a mechanical problem forces him and his instructor George to stay overnight in Gulpepper, Rich labels George’s warnings as an old man’s fancy – or even an attempt at hazing the newbie – and so decides to have a night on the town, while George refuses to leave the safety of the truck’s cab.  What Rich will experience cannot be labeled as horror with any certainty – although he finds himself facing some harrowing circumstances – but his exploration of Gulpepper and its inhabitants reveals the creepiness of the town and its people through a series of encounters that lay the tone and set the background for the rest of the book.

The second story, Mother in Bloom, deals with two siblings, Maddy and Zack, whose ailing mother just died: firmly set on not letting the authorities know of the woman’s demise, to avoid being consigned to social services, the two of them must find a way of disposing of the body, carrying on as normally as possible until Maddy will turn eighteen and be free to take care of Zack as her guardian.  Having a dead body in the house would be a disturbing experience for everyone, but the changes the kids’ mother’s corpse undergoes are part of the macabre tone of the story, together with Maddy and Zack’s emotional removal from the loss, due to their mother’s character which is often described as tyrannical and spiteful.  And if that’s not enough, the dreadful changes in the corpse point toward a supernatural factor that will compel the two kids (and particularly Zack) toward some truly appalling actions…

The Band Plays On sees a quartet of tourists become enthralled by a local band, Blind Eye Moon, whose performance in town encourages the four of them to stay longer than anticipated, accepting the band’s hospitality in their lavish mansion. A party fueled by alcohol and music leads to some very striking dreams that seem to hint at a dark past and whose cosmic horror quality compels one of the travelers, Patrick, to try and steer his friends away from Gulpepper and the magnetic influence of the band’s members.  But it might be already too late for that, because The Gulp has a tendency to swallow the unwary, indeed. This third story marks a definite progression toward horror, with its hints at vampiric possession and Lovecraftian elements, and it definitely enhances the sense of suffocating dread at the roots of this collection.

The fourth offering, 48 to Go, starts in a very mundane way as Dace, who works as a courier for the gangster lord Carter, is robbed of his precious cargo while trying to woo a young lady.  The only way to get back in Carter’s good graces is to refund the monetary loss, and to do so in the short time allotted by the boss – 48 hours – Dace sets his sights on robbing an elderly couple rumored to have huge sums of money hidden in their house. The man’s plan and preparations have something of a funny flavor, which carries on until the start of his undertaking, when the sheer number of setbacks and unexpected obstacles drives him to become much more than ruthless and callous.  Here the horror is all too human, and despite the lack of supernatural elements feels even more terrifying.

Rock Fisher is the final offering in this anthology and it goes back to a supernatural theme laced with a sizable dash of body horror as expert fisherman Troy comes back home with a strange “egg” which, once set in his aquarium, starts to grow and exert a compelling attraction on him, to the exclusion of any other ties to family or friends.

The Gulp offers a very intriguing – if creepy – setting for these stories, often adding other elements that remain as background detail but hint at much more and show the reader that the well of horror remains mostly untapped here. The dichotomy between the apparently normal surface and the eerie depths of the city and its people is where the uneasiness – and then the fear – comes from, trapping the reader into a compulsive immersion in these stories and the sensation to be just as imprisoned as the hapless characters depicted there. 

After discovering this author and this intriguing collection, I know I will look forward to the upcoming publication of the new collection of stories set in Gulpepper: hopefully I will be able to find my way out once more and not be swallowed by the Gulp… 😉

My Rating:

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Reviews

END OF WATCH (Bill Hodges #3), by Stephen King

While I enjoyed the two previous books in this series, where Stephen King explores the terrain of crime fiction rather than his trademark horror, I did feel that something was missing – i.e. the supernatural element for which this author is famous. It’s possible, as I surmised in my review of the previous installment, that King himself might have felt the need to go back to his narrative roots, because toward the end of Finders Keepers he prepared the ground for this return.

Brady Hartsfield, the deranged individual also known as the Mercedes Killer, has languished in a mental hospital for several years, reduced to a catatonic state by a traumatic head injury inflicted by Holly Gibney – Bill Hodges’ assistant – to stop him from detonating a bomb in a crowded auditorium.  But Brady – either thanks to some unforeseeable recuperative powers, or to seedy Dr. Babineau’s experimental therapy – has regained control of his mind, if not of his body, and shown some telekinetic abilities that allow him to set in motion a chain of terrifying events, including the ability to seize control of other people’s minds through an apparently inoffensive game console.

Hodges, now retired and managing an investigative agency with his friends Holly and Jerome, never believed that Brady was as harmless as he looked, and when a series of strange suicides targets people who survived Hartsfield’s road carnage, he is more determined than ever to get to the truth, further motivated by the discovery that his time is running out, due to a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer.

As I said, End of Watch sees the return of the supernatural elements that King’s readers have come to expect from his works and where, as it so often happens in his stories, the most innocent-looking objects can turn into powerful instruments of mayhem and devastation: in this case the Zappit – the game console from a now-failed firm that Brady’s minions are offering for free to potential victims – becomes the conduit for Hartsfield’s mind-control thanks to an unforeseen, hypnosis-inducing feature in one of the game demos.   Mr. Mercedes, the first book in the series, introduced us to this utterly despicable individual, one totally devoid of any moral compass, whose desire to emerge from anonymity is mated with a deep, unfocused rage toward the world and a desire for revenge, which is here compounded by the long years spent as a virtual vegetable in the hospital.  

As we follow Brady’s steps in extending his influence beyond the walls of his prison, carefully plotting his scheme and taking gleeful satisfaction in the first “field tests”, it’s impossible not to be affected by the sense of impending doom and by the fear that Hodges & Co. might not manage to collect all the clues into a complete picture and stop Hartsfield’s plans.  The added element of Hodges’ impending death adds a further  emotional layer to the mix, particularly where the distressed reactions of Holly and Jerome are concerned: the three of them have become as close as family, and in the case of Holly and Hodges the only family they can count on for affection and support, making their interactions quite poignant, and a necessary balance to the spreading evil orchestrated by Hartsfield.

One of the themes that can be often found in King’s novels is that of the hurt visited on young people, on the loss of the innocence that should be their armor, and End of Watch is no exception: Brady’s mind control exerted through the Zappits tends to push the teenagers who received them toward suicide, working on their insecurities and vulnerabilities. There are some heart-wrenching sequences in which we are made privy to these young people’s inner turmoil, and seeing the way in which Brady exploits them brings the true horror of this story to the surface: the supernatural element of the novel allowed him to connect with these troubled minds, but what he does to them to ensnare them in his “suicide ring” is as real as it is loathsome and for me it rekindled the all-encompassing hate I felt for this character and his utterly unredeemable inclinations.

For this reason, the sense of family that comes from Hodges & Co. feels even more important than ever, and leaves room for some character evolution that I felt was somewhat missing from the previous novel: Hodges himself has come a long way from the man we saw at the start of the series, when he was depressed and despondent – even the awareness of his approaching end does not generate any bitterness, but rather the knowledge that he’s ultimately led a good life, and that he’s leaving an important legacy through Holly and Jerome. And Holly herself – a character I have come to be very fond of – might still be battling her profound insecurities, but you can see how Hodges’ and Jerome’s support set her on a path of independence and self-assurance that can teach her to make a positive use of what others might perceive as obsessive behavior.

As a series ender, this third novel leads us through a breath-stopping chase that kept me on the edge of my seat, but what’s more important here is the sense of a closing circle, of wrapping up the events started by Brady’s road-rage killing spree in the first book: the mass murder at the job fair constantly informs the narrative throughout the series, and we are shown how it affected both individuals and the community as a whole, so it’s important to have closure in this final book,  particularly where Brady Hartsfield is concerned, because the poetic justice inherent in his end feels not only satisfying, but also quite right

The Bill Hodges trilogy was indeed a different reading experience for me, as far as Stephen King’s works are concerned, but also an intriguing one, and it helped to rekindle my interest in this author after a long hiatus. I guess more optimism for future reads is quite justified…

My Rating:

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Short Story: BABY TEETH, by Daniel Polansky

Click on the link to read the story online

I previously read a couple of short stories by Daniel Polansky, so his name on this one caught my attention just as much as the promise of a vampire-related tale, which is one of my favorite horror tropes.

Baby Teeth is the story of a vampire infestation in a small town, related by the an adult Graham reminiscing on his teenage yers: back then, his schoolmate Penny died of a mysterious illness and after the funeral Graham felt the need to go back to the funeral parlor, where he was stunned by the apparition of a pale-faced Penny, who however approaches him with a “tangled mess of canines broken glass torn aluminum dirty needles half-sharpened razor blades” before being impaled – by a stranger, named Hercules – clearly a vampire hunter.

The story goes on by depicting the strange alliance between the grumpy Hercules and Graham, whose intimate knowledge of the realms of Dungeons & Dragons predisposed him to acknowledge the supernatural with easy acceptance. Graham is the classic “nerd”, more interested in books than sports, and a couple of veiled mentions hint at some hazing by the stronger boys, but when he understands that a vampiric threat might have been claiming victims in his town for decades, he’s eager to help Hercules in his endeavors. Not that it’s an easy feat, because, in Graham’s own words, he’s not hero material, and yet we see him being quite invested in the search, even when his fears – and his feelings of inadequacy – might get the best of him.

Baby Teeth feels almost like the outline of a larger tale, and it would be easy to ask for more, but still it’s an intriguing story with a good pace and some interesting character work, confirming me that Daniel Polansky is an author to pay close attention to.

My Rating:

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DEAD SILENCE, by S.A. Barnes

Answering distress calls from space is a sure way of meeting countless forms of trouble, and Dead Silence proves this point once again with a compelling, claustrophobic story that successfully mixes science fiction and horror.

Claire Kovalik and her crew of four are nearing the end of their last tour of duty servicing Earth’s comweb relays: from now on, Verux Corporation’s maintenance will be done through automated drones and Claire – whose past history made her unfit for reassignment on any other kind of ship – is now destined to a dead-end groundside clerical job. This bleak future seems inevitable until the LINA (the maintenance ship under Claire’s lead) receives a distress signal from beyond the comweb’s farthest range: as impossible as it might seem, the call comes from the Aurora, a luxury vessel that disappeared in mysterious circumstances twenty years previously, during its maiden voyage. The discovery, together with the possibility of financial security obtained through a salvage operation, drives Claire and her crew to board the Aurora, but what they find is a nightmare scenario: frozen corpses floating in microgravity, the unmistakable signs of senseless violence, and cryptic sentences drawn in blood on the walls. What’s worse, the LINA’s crew seems increasingly affected by this gruesome scenario as they keep hearing voices or seeing other people, impossible as it looks on this ship of the dead: fighting against time to effect the repairs necessary to bring the Aurora back toward civilized space, Claire and her crew must battle with their inner demons and the inexplicable horror that influenced the passengers, driving them to murder or suicide in countless gruesome ways…

Dead Silence drew me in from the very start, mostly thanks to its split narrative alternating between a present in which Claire is trying to reconstruct what happened on the Aurora, relaying her fragmented recollections to two Verux officials, and the recent past in which the LINA crew faces the grisly mystery aboard the lost ship – there is also a third timeline, seen through brief flashbacks, in which we learn that Claire is the only survivor of a doomed colony decimated by a viral infection, and which explains the heavy psychological burden that she’s been carrying ever since.  Learning from the start that something went hideously wrong with the mission, and progressing forward toward the discovery in alternating timelines, is the factor that grabbed my interest from page one and compelled me to read on, fighting the mounting sense of dread that the story creates very skillfully.

As for Claire, she is a fascinating character because there are so many dark areas in her past that carry on in the present – including her suicidal thoughts at the prospect of being denied the freedom of space once the last repair tour will be over – and turn her into a possibly unreliable narrator, particularly when we learn that she seems to be the only survivor of the LINA as well, with no memory about what happened to her crew, except for some ghastly flashes of their deaths – provided, of course, that these are real memories and not part of the… visions that have been plaguing Claire since her childhood in the failed colony.  Claire is indeed not new at ghostly visitations, and at first, when she sees some weird images on board the Aurora, she believes them part of her psychological problems, but when her crew mates start having the same kinds of encounters – which become increasingly horrifying and realistic – it becomes clear that something else is at work here.

The descriptions of what Claire’s crew finds aboard the doomed ship are quite vivid, a frozen (literally so) tableau of what must have been the last moments for crew and passengers alike before the life support cut off, and it’s clear that some form of madness must have infected them all because there is evidence both of deadly struggles and of suicides, the latter apparently induced by some form of despair or terror. The dreadful scenario is magnified by the luxurious setting, that of a ship where no expenses were spared for the comfort and enjoyment of the wealthy passengers, and yet no level of opulence could save those people from the deadly dangers of space, which is revealed once again as a hostile environment set on killing any “trespassers”.   And whatever it is that pushed the people aboard Aurora toward violence is still present, encroaching on the minds of LINA’s crew, and further deteriorating the already tense interpersonal relationships between them as it enhances the climate of antagonism and distrust already present from the start.

I have to say that the author managed very successfully to infuse the story, from the very start, with a sense of dread and unshakable uneasiness, focusing them into a need to know what really happened, both to the Aurora and to Claire’s crew. I felt great sympathy for Claire because, despite her apparent unreliability, she comes across as an honest person, one whose life has been very difficult to say the least, but who is still capable of great feats of courage and determination in spite of the obstacles – material and psychological – on her path. 

Where the novel falters a little, in my opinion, is in the revelation of the underlying mystery of the Aurora’s disaster, because after the amazing buildup leading to it, it feels almost… mundane, for want of a better word, and while it might make sense in consideration of the background laid by the story, to me it seemed quite anti-climactic. Also, the lack of explanation about Claire’s “ability” to see ghosts was slightly disappointing, because the little clues linking back to her childhood trauma appeared to point toward something intriguing.  But these are minor problems in what proved to be a very appealing read, one that kept me awake until the small hours out of a burning need to see where the story would lead: as far as “space horror” goes, Dead Silence was a quite satisfactory find.

My Rating:

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EMPIRE OF THE VAMPIRE (Empire of the Vampire #1), by Jay Kristoff

I have learned to appreciate Jay Kristoff’s works with the SF series Illuminae Files, written together with Amie Kaufman, and later on with his dark fantasy series The Nevernight Chronicles, so you can imagine my excitement at the publication of this new book, where I was sure he would successfully combine his writing skills with one of my favorite themes in the genre – vampires. This first volume in what promises to be an amazing trilogy proved to be everything I was expecting and more, and also a fascinating read that kept me turning the pages despite the darkness permeating it – on this subject I have to acknowledge that reading The Nevernight Chronicles some time ago was a good preparation for what awaited me in Empire of the Vampire, where such darkness does not come only from the story itself, but is an integral part of its background.

The premise of the saga is that, some thirty years prior to the beginning of the story, sunlight was obliterated by daysdeath, a mysterious obscuring of the skies that turned the world into a permanently crepuscular landscape, allowing the vampires to safely come out of their hiding places and start feeding on humans, constantly encroaching on their lands and moving ever onward in what looked like an unstoppable tide.  The only true defense against vampires is represented by Silversaints, a holy order of warrior priests whose peculiar abilities allow them to battle the bloodsuckers on an almost even ground: Gabriel de Léon, the novel’s main character, is one of these Silversaints – actually the last of them – and when we meet him he’s the prisoner of a vampire queen who wants to chronicle his story before reaping her vengeance on him for all her brethren lost to his sword.

What follows is a tale told through several different timelines: the present, where Gabriel relates his story to a vampire chronicler; the far past, showing the Silversaint’s childhood and the dramatic events that brought him to the brotherhood; Gabriel’s formative years, as he learns his skills and encounters the people who most matter in his life; and the more recent times, when he embarks on a dangerous quest that might bring the end of the vampires’ reign of bloody terror.  The various timelines are not presented in a linear way, with jumps from one to another that might look erratic (and here I enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek shows of displeasure from the chronicler in his desire for a more orderly recounting) but instead create a sense of foreboding by hinting at some big tragedy that impacted Gabriel’s personality in a profound way.

De Léon is a brilliantly crafted character who breaks all the narrative “rules” required by the figure of the proverbial hero, since in his youth he’s both bold and reckless and tends to rush headlong into risky situations, more often than not making them worse; and in his maturity we can see him as cynical, world-weary and quite sarcastic of the mystique surrounding his person: 

“You weep like a child over a dead horse, but shoot an innocent woman in the back and leave God-fearing men to be slaughtered by foulbloods. […]  What kind of hero are you?”

“Who the f* told you I was a hero?”

The story of his life is also the story of an individual who, through heartache and dreadful loss, comes to a sort of found family that gives him a firm purpose in life, and a faith in the power for good he can wield agains the encroaching tide of the vampires, but it’s also the story of how certain events bring him to disillusionment and the loss of that all-encompassing faith, turning him into the “fallen hero” we meet at the start of the novel.  The older Gabriel possesses all the characteristics of a man we might despise: he drinks, he swears profusely, he does not care about the collateral damage his actions might bring about, he’s an addict – and here I digress by saying that sanctum, the substance he’s in constant need of, is something strictly linked to his nature and not a drug of choice (for want of a better definition), but I’m wary of saying more because it’s one of those details best discovered by reading the book. And yet, despite all these nasty traits, Gabriel comes across as a very relatable character, because we are able to see all the agony and grief he suffers in the course of his life and in the end we develop a bond with this man and come to care deeply for him – not least because we see how family is important to him, both the one he was born into and the one(s) he builds in the course of his life, creating ties of love and brotherhood that help him keep his humanity burning bright.

Gabriel is not alone here, however, and he’s surrounded by a number of equally well-defined characters that enrich the story and offer different points of view for the reader on this world and the way it has changed from a “normal” one since daysdeath abruptly fell on it. And of course there are the vampires: besides being the blood-craving creatures we can expect from the myth created around them, Kristoff’s vampires are particularly cruel, even sadistic, all their previous humanity burned away by their virtual immortality and the need for blood. Still, these creatures go even beyond such already ruthless limits, often showing a perverse pleasure in inflicting demeaning kinds of torture on their slaves, in an outward show of the inner hideousness that at times even translates into their appearance.

Empire of the Vampire is a grim, bloody book where hope rarely makes its appearance, where the heavily filtered sunlight struggles to battle the darkness and the coldness of the land, and yet it’s also a compelling story where courage and love, faith and determination can sometimes bring a light and make it all more tolerable.  It’s also a fascinating tale that will keep you turning the pages and leave you wanting for more once you reach the end of this first volume. And no darkness will banish my hope that the next one might not be too far down the road…

My Rating:

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LATER, by Stephen King

My years-long negative streak with Stephen King’s books seems to be definitely over: the last few books of his I read all turned out to be as engaging as the stories I used to enjoy, and Later is only the last example in my lineup of positive reads.

Even though it’s a shorter story when compared with King’s usual production, Later sports all the elements that I’ve come to expect from the Master of Horror: this novel might not be classified as his usual horror creation, since there are not many blood-chilling elements in it, and there is also a mystery/crime component added that changes a little the expected parameters, but in the end this proved to be an entertaining, page-turning read, and one I enjoyed very much.

Jamie Conklin sees dead people: not exactly ghosts as was the case for the young protagonist of Shyamalan’s movie alluded to here with a sort of tongue-in-cheek humor, but rather people newly departed and on their way to the Great Beyond. Jamie is able to see and hear them (although after a while their voice fades, as do they before disappearing forever) and to ask them questions to which the dead are compelled to reply truthfully.  Jamie’s single mother runs a literary agency and she’s able to stay afloat – barely – thanks to the best selling author of a successful series: when the man suddenly dies just as he was outlining his last novel, the one where all the mysteries hinted at in previous books would be revealed, Tia Conklin needs Jamie to contact the deceased author to get all the information he can gather on the story, so she can ghost-write it and keep the company in business and financial health.

The trouble starts when Liz Dutton, Tia’s former girlfriend and a cop with too many problems and not enough scruples, decides to use Jamie’s talent to discover where a serial bomber, who just took his own life, did hide his latest explosive package: something ancient and evil rides on the shoulders of the man and starts haunting Jamie, forcing him to resort to a harrowing ritual to get rid of the creature. That is, until the boy needs the thing’s help against Liz when the dishonorably discharged ex-cop kidnaps Jamie for one last, heinous act…

Very few authors can successfully filter the problems and inconsistencies of the world through the eyes of a child as Stephen King does: unlike other protagonists of his stories, Jamie is not shunned, bullied or otherwise made to suffer by peers or adults, but he does witness his mother’s struggles to survive in an unsettled economy and through a difficult relationship, all the while dealing with a “gift” that sets him apart from other kids, forcing him to keep secrets, and ultimately places him in danger. Jamie’s voice, as he grows up over the years from childhood to young adulthood, feels true and natural and for this reason it’s easy to connect to him and see the world through his eyes: innate resilience helps him navigate through the difficulties posed by his peculiar talent, particularly in the instances where his innocence is threatened. This is another theme dear to King, the way in which the adult world (or the supernatural) can rob children of that innocence, exposing them too early to situations that require them to grow before their time: in Jamie’s case this is compounded by Liz’s relentless focus first and greed later, so that he’s forced to come into contact with the darker aspects of the human mind, which more often than not are far more  frightening than actual supernatural horror. 

Young Jamie is able to find some balance in this very unusual existence thanks to the certainty of his mother’s love – even though he’s quite aware of her flaws both as a parent and an adult – and the guidance of old Professor Burkett, the closest thing to a father figure he can depend on: the relationship between Burkett and Jamie, both in life and after the old man’s death, reminded me somehow of the dynamic explored in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, one of the short stories from King’s If It Bleeds collection.  The somewhat cranky professor, like many of Stephen King’s memorable figures, is the one providing Jamie with a stable anchor and a perspective that helps the boy focus on the problems at hand rather than his fear, and offers a delightful dynamic between wide-eyed youth and grumpy old age that is one of the author’s trademarks.

There might be nothing new, narratively speaking, in this novel, but it does not matter much in the face of the story’s easy flow, which is carried by the constant curiosity engendered by Jamie hinting at other developments to be disclosed, indeed, later: the young protagonist keeps his audience captivated like serialized novels did in the latter part of the 19th Century, by promising further revelations yet to come.  This choice led me to wonder weather Jamie might be considered an unreliable narrator – either embellishing or changing events to suit them to the overall flavor of his story: that’s a doubt that surfaced for me once a detail of Jamie’s origin is revealed, because he himself first offers an explanation for the chain of events, only to deny its accuracy in the next page.

This detail (I will not spoil it, but if you’ve read the book you know what I am referring to) does not affect the story in any way – and I’ve kept wondering what it should mean in the overall scheme of it – but rather offers an off-key note to the ending which, in my opinion, would have stood quite well on its own without this added… baggage.  Still, Later feels like vintage King, indeed, and I would recommend it to his longtime fans – and not only them.

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: BADASS MOMS IN THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, by Rae Carson

Click on the link to read the story online

It’s been quite some time time since I read and reviewed a short story, but this one caught my interest when I saw it mentioned by fellow blogger Andreas: among the themes that never fail to catch my attention are vampires and zombies, and although I would rather not dwell on what this says about me 😀 I have to admit that in this case the mention of ‘badass moms’ did pique my interest, and I was not disappointed.

In this version of our world, the zombie apocalypse happened some ten years prior and the survivors have found ways to keep going, despite all those encroaching, mindless flesh eaters. There is one big problem though: when a woman is near childbirth something seems to act as a powerful lure for the zombies, and such is the case for Brit, whose child is ready to come into the world. As the contractions start, she and her mate Marisol run toward the ‘birthing hideout’ where they will be safe – more or less – from the ravenous hordes: a shipping container in an abandoned rail yard.

Badass Moms is a short, quick and breathless story whose value lies more in the questions it poses, like the choice of having children in a world gone mad – and bloody dangerous – and the way in which life always tries to go on no matter what. I also enjoyed the brief (too brief…) glimpses of this survivors’ enclave that seems to be composed of women only, hardened by hardships and loss but still able to tap into their humanity and compassion when the need arises: “Eyes up, knives ready” is their mantra, but it’s more a declaration of courage than a show of ruthlessness, and I liked the picture this painted.

My Rating: