Reviews

DREADFUL COMPANY (Dr. Greta Helsing #2), by Vivian Shaw – Wyrd & Wonder 2020

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in Vivan Shaw’s Urban Fantasy series, and did not wait long to add this second volume to my reading queue: Dreadful Company proved to be an even faster and more entertaining read, adding further depth to the characters I already knew and presenting a few new ones that spiced up the mix in a very interesting way.

The story opens with Greta traveling to Paris for a symposium of supernatural medicine in the company of her vampire friend Lord Ruthven. What could have been a pleasant, if slightly boring, diversion from her work in London becomes first a puzzle when Greta finds not one but two weird critters in her room – beings that are magically summoned rather than being born – and then turns into a harrowing experience as she is kidnapped by a local vampire coven whose ruler, the dangerously capricious Corvin, intends to use her as bait to exact vengeance on Ruthven, with whom he clashed, and lost, in the past.

The situation is further complicated by some weird ghostly manifestations pointing toward a lessening of the barrier between the mundane plane and the afterworld, which require the summoning of two licensed psychopomps and the intervention of a demonic overseer in the person of Greta’s special friend Fastitocalon, who had been recuperating his health in Hell.  As it becomes clear that the critters found by Dr. Helsing and the vampire coven are tied into these “reality hiccups”, the guardian of Paris, werewolf St. Germain, joins forces with Ruthven, Varney and the rest of Greta’s friends in what turns into a mixed rescue & restoration enterprise that kept me turning the pages with highly amused enthusiasm.

Not unlike what happened in Strange Practice, Greta often cedes the limelight to the other players and while this might look somewhat odd, it also allows them to gain more substance and provides a welcome balance to the story. Still, the distressing situation in which she finds herself here puts Greta’s personality into sharper focus and we see how it’s made out of equal measures of kindness, dedication and common sense: being a prisoner does not exempt her from being a doctor first and foremost, so that she has no reservations in treating one of her captors’ wounds, or in feeling deep pity for the youngest member of the coven once she realizes that the girl has been turned without permission and then left to her own devices to face the transformation into a vampire.  If I wrote, in my review of the first book, that Greta looked less substantial than the other characters, I have come to understand that her reserved attitude hides a core of strength and cleverness that comes to light when need arises, and which in this particular circumstance leads her to take matters in her own hands without waiting for rescue to come her way.

It is of course interesting to see Lord Ruthven shaken out of his usual aplomb as he realizes that Greta is in danger at the hands of an old adversary, or to witness the blossoming closeness between Varney and the doctor – while not a fan of romantic entanglements, I’m quite curious to see how this vampire/human relationship will progress – but this time around I truly enjoyed getting to know the new characters on the scene. The overseer of the Parisian supernatural population, Alceste St. Germain, is one of my favorites: a werewolf with a penchant for historical studies, he’s gruff but hospitable – I loved seeing how he turned his house into a command center for the rescuers without batting an eyelash; the two psychopomps are a source for tongue-in-cheek humor and oblique references to horror and gothic themes, their names also an indication of the main facets of their personality – where Gervase Brightside was fun, Crepusculus Dammerung was downright hilarious.

The vampire Grisaille is an interesting study of the bloodsucker mentality from a different perspective than that offered so far by Ruthven and Varney, while the other members of the coven – particularly their vile leader Corvin – manage to appear dangerous and ludicrous at the same time: lacking the kind of moral foundations at the roots of Ruthven’s psychological makeup, for example, they seem more inclined to follow a behavioral template taken from folklore and so tend to dress with flamboyant bad taste and cover themselves with body glitter, in a pathetic – if weirdly entertaining – imitation of a certain vampire saga. Still, they are nonetheless dangerous: partly in fear and partly in devotion of their leader, they prey on hapless humans that are drained and discarded as nothing more than… food rations, and the scenes of their blood-and-drugs orgies represent the more serious and shocking side of the story.

To balance these dreadful narrative elements there are the delightful callbacks to several gothic myths, mainly that of the Phantom of the Opera, one of my all-time favorites, and the appearance of these furry critters, summoned from a different plane of reality, who are unabashedly cute and offer a few rays of light in the darkest sections of the story, without forgetting the intangible entity that Greta summons at some point and can become visible only while covered in cloth – try to imagine a helpful, cuddly ghost as an improbable but precious ally…

At the end of this second novel in the series much has changed for the main characters and they seem destined to walk some different paths than the ones they were traveling when we met them for the first time: given the entertaining mix of adventure, drama and humor that’s typical of these books I know I can look forward to the next one with great anticipation.

 

My Rating:

 

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Reviews

LOCKE & KEY – Season 1 (spoiler-free review) – Wyrd & Wonder 2020

 

Even with a lot of time on one’s hands – and recently we all have more of it than we thought possible – it’s not easy to find interesting shows or movies on the various streaming services: partly because the so-called algorithms that should learn from the users’ choices are far from perfect, and partly because the blurbs for any given offering are rarely worded in an appealing way. For these reasons I might have missed this show, based on a series of graphic novels created by Gabriel Rodriguez and Joe Hill, if not for the mention of a fellow blogger (thanks Lashaan!!), which prompted me to learn more and to take a look at this intriguing and entertaining series.

In short, after the murder of Rendell Locke his widow Nina and their three children – Tyler, Kinsey and Bode – move back to Rendell’s old hometown of Matheson and relocate in the family home, an old mansion called Keyhouse.  If younger Bode is entranced by the big house and the possibility to explore it, the teenaged Tyler and Kinsey are far less sanguine about being uprooted from everything familiar: on top of the trauma for their father’s death they are starting over in a new school and have to deal with the dynamics of a small town and the gossipy hints of a past involving Rendell and his friends – events that no one seems inclined to openly talk about.  Still, these problems go on the back burner once Bode starts finding some strangely-shaped keys all over the house, keys that exhibit weird properties and set in motion unsettling and even scary events that will require all of their wits to be handled.

Where at first this show looked like your classic teen drama, something that almost drove me to stop watching there and then, it soon became clear that there was much more to it and that’s when I became invested in the story and was able to sit down and enjoy the ride. The first element that drew my attention was the house itself and I have to compliment the show’s creators for bestowing on the Keyhouse set a fascinating blend of haunted house and treasure trove and giving it its own personality, almost turning it into a character. I was fascinated by the mystery of the appearing keys that seemed to become visible only when it was the time to manifest themselves and I was strongly reminded of those online “hidden object” games where you have to find a certain number of items, some of them plainly visible while others are disguised in the background and require a sort of… viewing gymnastics to be found.

The keys that the Locke siblings find are hidden in a similar way, and they reveal themselves slowly, masked by other items of furniture or decoration, which gives the story its game-like quality, where each new level brings the players closer to the goal.  These keys also offer the first elements of dread in the story, because where some of them are used in the conventional way, others are inserted in the body of the person wielding them, and if there is no evidence of pain in such act, it does nonetheless elicit a shiver of apprehension in the watchers: you don’t need blood and gore to experience body horror, after all…  Visuals – eerie, disturbing and sometimes downright ghastly visuals – are one of the best elements of this series, establishing its overall tone that goes from the purely magical to the dreamlike, and to the totally chilling as well.

The characters form an interesting mix, starting from the two older kids, Tyler and Kelsey, who have to deal with many difficult emotions on top of the natural transition toward adulthood: they are often at odds with each other but at the same time it’s easy to see the bonds of love and care underlying the surface animosity; I like the way they have to be more adult and responsible than their age warrants because their mother seems absent at times (and along the way we see the reason why), and they feel the need to protect her from further worries. Nina is indeed a character that annoyed me at times: if I could sympathize with her pain for the tragic loss of her husband, I could not condone her obliviousness to what was going on literally under her nose, or the fact that she often left her children to fend for themselves while she was out searching for clues on her late husbands’ past.  Bode is portrayed as a smart child, and I liked the mix of innocence and wisdom he projects, but at times he’s too… perfect, for want of a better word – not “childlike” enough, and that seems contrived rather than natural, but I want to reserve my judgement for now. And then there is Dodge, the supernatural villain of the story, trying with every means to gather all the keys in the house for some as-yet-unrevealed purpose: the actress portraying her possesses a great interpretative range and moves from friendly to deadly with terrifying speed, while appearing to have the time of her life as she’s doing it.

The story alternates between the present and the flashbacks to the past, slowly uncovering the events that changed the life of Rendell Locke – and ultimately must have driven him to leave his home – and that brought on his early demise: in the end I thought I saw some sort of parallel between what happened to him and his circle of friends and what the three siblings, and their newfound friends, are facing in the present, which lays the foundations for what will probably be the continuation of the story. Still, the mystery and the uncanny situations that involve the Locke family, while important, don’t overshadow the themes of coming-of-age and dealing with loss that are at the roots of the story, together with the strengthening under pressure of the family bonds that acts as its core subject.

This first season of Locke & Key might not be perfect, but it’s an intriguing beginning which will surely drive me to see how the story progresses in the next seasons.

 

 

My Rating:

 

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Reviews

THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE WHEEL, by R.S. Belcher – Wyrd & Wonder 2020

 

I’ve had this book in my reading queue for quite a while, and despite my curiosity to sample another work from R.S. Belcher, whose Six-Gun Tarot made a good impression on me, I kept postponing it in favor of other titles, but once I started it I made up for my endless procrastination by reading it in the short space of two days, which for me and my limited free time is something of a record.

The premise for this delightfully horrific story is that the legendary Knights Templar did not disappear with time, but remodeled themselves as guardians of the roads and highways of the world, protecting travelers from the ordinary and supernatural predators roaming in search of easy prey. The operative arm of the Brotherhood is drawn from the people who make their living on such roads – truck drivers, patrolmen, road workers – and there is also a number of affiliates or sympathizers in law enforcement who make the task of these modern knights easier.

The first Brother we meet is Jimmie Aussapile, a trucker – the kind of person one might not so easily associate with a hero: middle-aged, paunchy, balding on top but growing long, greying hair down his nape, and with a very nasty habit of chewing tobacco, which stains his teeth. And let’s not go into his dressing style… But looks can be deceptive, and Jimmie is soon revealed for a big-hearted, staunch defender of the weak as he hunts a predator with a huge number of victims on his record: to capture the monster, Aussapile ends up being late for the delivery of his cargo, thus endangering his already shaky financial situation – and with a wife and daughter depending on him, plus a new baby on the way, this is the kind of problem he hardly needs.  Still, when he picks up a ghostly hitchhiker who sets him on the trail of a long list of disappeared teenagers, Jimmie is unable to look the other way, and he will soon find himself enmeshed in a dangerous quest that might cost him much more than financial stability.

Jimmie soon joins forces with Lovina, a New Orleans police officer investigating a case of missing kids that soon reveals its connections with Aussapile’s new expedition, and with Heck, member of a biker gang loosely associated with the Brotherhood and tasked with becoming Jimmie’s squire to fight the good fight. The three of them will come face to face with an ancient evil that has been long preying on the land and established its center of power in the isolated town of Four Houses, a place people can’t leave and that doesn’t seem to exist on the maps or in the common knowledge.

The Brotherhood of the Wheel is the kind of book that makes it hard to put it down, and I begrudged every instance in which I had to do so: it’s not only fast-paced and compelling, it makes you root for the good guys to succeed, and to hate the villains with a passion – which means that the characters are indeed drawn in a compelling way. Jimmie is nothing short of adorable – that is, apart from the tobacco-chewing 😀 – because it’s clear from the start that he puts his heart and soul in what he does, and even if he’s conflicted about the possible repercussions this duty could have on his family, he knows he’s trying to make the world a better place for them and for all the families on Earth. Speaking of which, the sections devoted to Jimmie as a family man are wonderful interludes in the breathless, horror-infused narrative, and it’s thanks to them that this unlikely hero is revealed in all his humanity – as a loving husband and father, as a man who wants to strike fearful respect in the heart of the young boy dating his daughter, as an honest worker worrying for the financial future of his growing household – and giving a firm background to his dedication to the Brotherhood’s goals.

Heck and Lovina, on the other hand, are somehow both scarred by life: the former is a war vet dealing with PTSD by drinking himself into oblivion, the latter saddled by the disappearance and death of her younger sister, which gives her an added incentive in the quest that will bring the three of them together.  While I liked Lovina immediately, thanks to her intense, fearless focus on getting to the heart of the matter, despite logistical difficulties and a ghastly encounter with some evil minions, it took me some time to appreciate Heck, because his overall attitude was a good cover for the pain of his past experiences, and his teetering between nihilism and brashness was not endearing at all.  The way these unlikely allies come together, however, and grow into a formidable team, makes for quite interesting reading and shows Mr. Belcher’s skills in handling his characters.

The world-building is just as intriguing as the people inhabiting it, and it’s a fascinating mesh of mundane and uncanny, of modern urban legends and ancient tales with roots in pagan lore: the horror does not come only from the supernatural elements, although they are quite blood-chilling, but from the assumption that evil is just around the corner, that what we perceive as ordinary life might hide appalling dangers. The story starts with the chase for a sexual predator, which is an awful enough reality, and then moves to less conventional threats, passing through revisited and adapted urban myths to create a situation that keeps the readers on the proverbial edge of their seats until the resolution.

In the end, I quite enjoyed The Brotherhood of the Wheel, although I would have liked it much better if the author had not indulged in the detailed physical description of each character as it appeared on the scene, complete with the accurate list of their items of clothing; or the digressions on internet memes or again the appearance of a supposedly dead musical icon – which to me seemed totally unnecessary to the overall plot.  But these felt like mere “hiccups” anyway, and easily forgotten in the long run, to the point that I’m more than ready to sink my teeth into the second book of the series and to renew my acquaintance with Jimmie & Co.

 

My Rating:

 

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Reviews

THE INSTITUTE, by Stephen King

 

As a long-time fan of Stephen King’s works I suffered a few disappointments in the past handful of years, at times wondering if he had lost some of the… special powers that made his books so compelling in the past. Something of the old vigor seemed to have returned with the previously published book, The Outsider, although that too fell a little short of the mark, at least for me, but reading his latest creation, The Institute, I realized I was witnessing the long awaited… Return of the King  🙂        The main reason, from my point of view, is that once again Stephen King chose not to delve into supernatural horror, although he does that quite well, but to explore the kind that comes from the darkest corners of the human soul: what we, as humans, are capable of once compassion and empathy are removed, is indeed much more terrifying than any fictional vampire or clown-shaped evil entity.

The Institute starts with one of those themes King does so well, a small town background in which former cop Tim Jamieson lands after leaving his old job and starting an aimless peregrination through the country: the city of DuPray is one of those creations we often encountered – with different names – in many of Stephen King’s stories, a small community where everyone knows everyone else and the interpersonal dynamics are built on equally well-known figures like an older, world-wise sheriff; a shifty motel manager; a possibly crazy old lady who hides unexpected depths; and so on.  Despite this stagnant, somnolent tableau, one can feel the mounting dread, almost like the sound of approaching thunder, and it would be easy to imagine that whatever is going to happen, will happen here, shattering DuPray’s day-by-day sameness.

Instead we are surprised by an abrupt change of perspective (at least for a good portion of the book) as the focus moves toward twelve-year old Luke Ellis, a boy gifted with extraordinary intelligence and such a balanced disposition that he’s not isolated as many geniuses are, but rather knows how to successfully integrate his cleverness with any kind of social situation. But Luke is special in another way: he possesses some telekinetic powers – not much, just enough to move a pizza pan or to ruffle a book’s pages, but evidently enough to catch the attention of a shady governmental agency. One night a team infiltrates Luke’s house, kills both his parents and kidnaps him. When Luke wakes up from his drugged sleep he finds himself in a room that mirrors his own, apart from the missing window and the fact that the door opens on a corridor with many other similar doors and a few motivational posters depicting happy children at play.

The Institute, located in a remote area of Maine, has been in operation since the mid-fifties, acquiring gifted children in the same, merciless way as Luke was: the prisoners’ talents in telepathy or telekinesis are enhanced through injections with often unpredictable after-effects or sheer torture – like the near-drowning in the dreaded tank – and the new arrivals placed in the first section of the compound, called Front Half, are then moved to the Back Half, from which they never return.  Children are told they are serving their country and that once their stint at the Institute is over they will be returned to their families after a mind-wipe that will erase all memories of their experience – and if we readers know what bare-faced lie this is, many of the kids have already learned not to trust these adults who treat them so callously and to doubt anything they are told, despite their desperate need to believe it.

This novel offers a story in which tension builds with each new chapter, leading with page-turning intensity toward a massive showdown, and as such it’s a very satisfying read that to me brought back the excitement I used to find in older King works, but where it truly excels is in the exploration of the human soul in both its brightest and darkest sides.  The former comes from the children, who are forced to grow up very quickly in the face of the situation they find themselves in, creating bonds with each other that go beyond any consideration of gender, race or temperament: they are all victims here, aware that a ruthless machine they have no control over is using them, chewing them up and then discarding whatever remains. Deprived of their freedom and their dignity (at some point one of their captors uses the word property) they try to cling to whatever form of defiance is allowed them, while dealing with the incredible, often terrifying powers that have been wakened in them.  I admired the way Stephen King never resorts to easy sentimentalism when portraying these kids, even when they are faced with heart-wrenching circumstances or unbearable losses, which lends an incredibly powerful intensity to a key moment when one of those children chooses sacrifice for the good of others, the last thought in that young mind being “I loved having friends”.  I am not ashamed to say that the sentence made me cry, such was my connection with these wonderful characters.

On the other side of the equation, the adults managing the Institute are a case in point for what happens to one’s conscience when the perception of a supposedly worthy goal makes them stop caring for collateral damage: the abducted children are seen as a means to an end – preventing the annihilation of the human race – and as such they must be driven to serve, whether they want it or not.  If the people in the top echelon of the Institute are imbued with such blind zealotry and deal with the children with dispassionate practicality, the lower ranks are another matter: many of them actually enjoy hurting their young charges when they don’t obey orders or refuse to submit to painful and dangerous procedures. Even though it’s never expressed openly, the parallel with concentration camps guards is there for everyone to see, the dehumanizing of the victims and the unwillingness to see them as people – there is a painfully lucid reflection from Luke Ellis that paints this divide in no uncertain terms:

Luke realized he wasn’t a child at all to her. She had made some crucial separation in her mind. He was a test subject. You made it do what you wanted, and if it didn’t, you administered what the psychologists called negative reinforcement. And when the tests were over? You went down to the break room for coffee and danish and talked about your own kids (who were real kids) or bitched about politics, sports, whatever.

Once again, King paints children as both victims and heroes, and this time they don’t battle with supernatural evil but with an earthly kind of wickedness that’s even more terrifying because it’s a part of the human mindset, one that might lie dormant but can be all too easily reawakened given the right input.  The Institute is at times a hard book to read, but it’s one that compels you to think, and to think hard about what makes us human and what can rob us of that oh-so-thin veneer of compassion toward our own kind. And it’s also a story that made me delight in the return of the narrative strength I so enjoyed in the past from this author.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

SALVATION DAY, by Kali Wallace

 

Since watching the first Alien movie, I have come to equate ill-lighted, deserted ship corridors with dread and danger, and in this respect Salvation Day fits the bill in a delightfully scary way.

The background: a few centuries before the novel’s time frame, Earth was devastated by an event called the Collapse, which brought humanity on the brink of extinction. Hauling itself up by its proverbial bootstraps, the survivors decided to rebuild a better world, although only partly succeeding: the Councils are enclaves where the inhabitants can enjoy an optimal quality of life, away from the huge stretches of desert left by the Collapse; in these barren areas end up the people who either refuse to live in the Councils or are not granted citizenship, and the harsh life they lead fosters an increasing animosity toward the ruling hierarchy.

While before the Collapse a number of colony ships had left Earth in search of a new home for humanity, almost all of them disappearing without a trace, for a long time space was not a priority, and only recently mankind started to look again toward the stars, its bolder attempt being the construction of the ship House of Wisdom, a massive research vessel that should have been the first attempt to reach out again to deep space.  The dream, however, ended in nightmare when a deadly virus was released in the ship, killing everyone on board with the exception of a young child: since then, the vessel was placed in quarantine, enforced by a net of drones keeping everyone away.

As the story starts, a group of people belonging to a sect living in the deserted wastelands takes over a shuttle headed for one of the Moon cities, taking hostage a handful of graduate students, among them Jaswinder Bhattacharya, the sole survivor of the House of Wisdom. The kidnappers’ goal is to commandeer the derelict ship as a means of escape for the cult’s families, and to do that they need to deactivate the security drones using Jaswinder’s genetic imprint.  The group is led by Zahra, daughter of the man accused of releasing the deadly virus on House of Wisdom, but they all respond to their charismatic leader Adam, whose promises of a better life have inspired them all.

No plan ever survives its field deployment, however, and things start to go awfully wrong: just a handful of people manages to board House of Wisdom, half the terrorist complement and four of the hostages, and what they find contradicts any information so far released by the Councils about the deaths of the ship’s crew. There are no indications of a viral infection, most of the corpses floating in microgravity showing signs of extreme violence, while others barricaded in isolated areas seem to have died suddenly without any mark on them.  Jas knows that the official version was not the true one, but never said anything because he wanted to bury the terrible memories of the day in which he lost both his parents – still, he has no idea of the real threat facing the boarding party, and of the shocking discoveries waiting for them all on the deserted ship.

Reading the synopsis for Salvation Day, I thought it would turn out to be one of those blood-chilling thrillers where uncertainty about the situation and a hostile environment play a huge part in the story, and in some way it is – but in the end this novel is much more, especially where characters are concerned. Jas and Zahra are deeply flawed, and at first it’s not easy to create a connection with them: both scarred by traumatic events in their childhood they keep much of their inner workings bottled up, and for this reason they present to the outer world a façade that has little to do with their real personality.  It’s only as the story moves forward, and we put together the little pieces of their lives’ puzzles that we come to see them in a different light, and to understand the reasons for their actions.  The harrowing discoveries they make along the way help to create a sort of bridge between them – a tentative, unsteady one, granted – to the point that they find themselves working toward a common purpose: it’s interesting to learn they have both been led astray by lies, lies other visited upon them, lies they choose to believe because the alternative would be worse, and ultimately it’s the shared desire to expose those untruths that breaks the barriers between them.

As far as the story itself is concerned, it’s a deceptively conventional one, because the premise of the hijacking of a derelict ship does not walk the expected path, thanks to the twists and surprises disseminated through the story and enhanced by the excerpts of logs and diaries from the former doomed crew that pop up here and there building toward the final revelation – and let’s not forget the quotes from a message sent back in a probe by one of the colony ships departed before the Collapse, because it plays a vital role in the overall plot.

What’s more, in the honored tradition of science fiction narrative, Salvation Day offers much food for thought about the issues of our present, seen through the filter of the future: in this case it’s about the manipulation of truth in the name of higher goals or about the moral questions facing those who have the resources for survival, like the Councils, in respect of those who struggle in the wastelands, where it’s far too easy for desperate people to fall under the influence of any would-be dictator like the cult leader Adam.

This is a story with many layers, skillfully blended into a highly suspenseful background, and one that unfolds before your eyes not unlike a movie: I for one would appreciate seeing this turned into one, because its claustrophobic atmosphere, steeped in darkness barely illuminated by red emergency lights, from which emerge the floating corpses of the dead crew, would be very effective on screen just as it is in this well-crafted book.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: GHOSTER, by Jason Arnopp

I received this novel from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

The synopsis for Ghoster promised an interesting mix between horror and social media technology, so that it was too appealing a premise to let such a story slide by: it’s impossible not to notice how many people are absorbed, compulsively so, by their phones’ screens – on public transport, on sidewalks, even in restaurants where interaction with other tablemates has been replaced by fixed stares at those screens – and I was curious to see how the horror element would dovetail with this widespread phenomenon.

Kate Collins is a senior paramedic and she’s addicted to social media – or rather was: after her manic absorption caused her work partner some grievous damage, she decided that the best cure for her obsession would be to revert back to a basic model of phone, one where actual calls and text messaging are the only way to connect with the rest of the world.  While participating in a “techno detox” retreat, Kate meets Scott Palmer, who quickly turns out to be the man of her dreams: after less than three months, Scott asks her to move in with him, and Kate leaves her job and life in Leeds behind to relocate with Scott in Brighton.  When the day for the big move comes, however, Kate discovers that Scott’s flat is completely empty, the man does not answer her increasingly frantic messages and the only thing he left behind is his smartphone.

Needing to know what happened, Kate finds the way to unlock Scott’s phone and discovers the man seems to have built their relationship – such as it was – on a mountain of lies and things left unsaid: the Scott that comes out of his phone bears little resemblance to the one Kate fell in love with, and what’s worse, the empty apartment, where power has been disconnected, is haunted by ghostly presences that leave mysterious and disturbing scratches on the inner surface of the front door.  Kate’s downward spiral, compounded by the return of her addiction to social media, is unstoppable and each new discovery drags her deeper and deeper into what looks like a descent into madness.

Ghoster turned out to be a book whose two components – the story and the characterization – seem to be at odds with each other: while the first works well, because the need to understand what really happened remains a constant drive, the latter did not work well for me, mainly because I could not connect with Kate and found her increasingly vexing if not downright stupid.  At some point we learn that Kate has been working as a paramedic for fifteen years, so postulating that she started as early as eighteen, she must be thirty-three years old at least: however, the person we get to know in the book thinks and acts more like a thirteen year old – and I’m certain there are far more mature and responsible thirteen year olds in the world than this woman.

Kate is selfish and self-absorbed, an adult displaying all the worst traits to be found in those paint-by-the-numbers teenage characters giving YA fiction its bad reputation. Constantly complaining about the unfairness of life in general, she often looks prone to lay the blame on others, and when she admits her own failings she does so in a superficial, semi-serious way that belies the earnestness of the acknowledgment.  This frivolous approach represents one of my main contentions with Kate as a character: even in the most grim of situations, she always resorts to some pun, or pop-culture reference that has no place in that context and often made me wonder about the real “mood” the author wanted to impart to the story.  If Kate Collins was to be the embodiment of addiction to technology (or addiction at large), she does indeed display many of the symptoms – as denial of the problem, distance from the people wanting to help her, out-of-proportion reactions when faced with the naked truth – but in the end that offhand attitude, the false self-deprecatory jokes, spoil the desired effect and turn Kate into a caricature rather than a character we can believe in or relate to.

On the other hand, the story itself fares much better, because there is such a weirdly terrifying escalation in the discoveries Kate makes through the contents of Scott’s phone – not only the fact that he’s not the man she believed him to be, or that he seemed to entertain other relationships while they were dating and getting more serious, but the disturbing pictures and videos stored on the device.  And of course there are the ghosts appearing in the empty flat, which are frightening on their own and even more so when Kate finds their living pictures in the phone’s memory bank, or the weird scratches on the front door, or the definite sensation of being watched. The build-up, through false leads and shocking discoveries, takes us toward a surprise revelation that is unexpected and at the same time makes a chilling sort of sense, the kind of scenario whose deepest horror lies in its surface appearance of normality.

Sadly, the reveal takes what feels like a long time to get there – what with having to wade through the quagmire of Kate’s constant whining, foolish antics and outlandish theories – and when it happens, its intended impact has been dulled by this improbable heroine and her preposterous behavior.  Once I reached that final chapter I had the definite impression that the novel’s core concept might have started its life as a short story – a compact, imaginative, delightfully scary story on the dangers of technology addiction – and that it was later padded, quite unnecessarily in my opinion, with Kate Collins’ journey of discovery.  Which on hindsight looks somewhat wasteful…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE DEAD, Michael Swanwick

 

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The zombie theme has been played, both in written stories and on the screen, with several variations as to the origin of the phenomenon, but always with the constant that shows the walking dead roaming devastated cities and preying on the living.

This short tale, however, takes a very different approach, postulating that the formerly dead can be revived by technology and set to work in many fields – in short they are turned into obedient, indefatigable, willing slaves.  No mention is made about the way this horrifying process is achieved, but we are allowed to see how these walking corpses (free from decay, and endowed with the ability to speak and interact with the living) are integrated into many aspects of everyday life: as restaurant waiters, chauffeurs, doormen – and even into other unsavory… occupations.

The process is however costly and the acquisition of a zombie workforce reserved to those with means – at least until this story gets well underway showing us how someone has found a way to mass produce them, especially since the many conflicts still raging around the globe are providing with an almost inexhaustible supply of bodies from the refugee camps.

One of the characters in the story is terrified by the kind of future this entails, even as he signs up with the corporation that will manage this new form of slavery: a future where the living will run out of jobs, replaced by flesh automatons, a future where both the living and the dead will be helpless under the thumb of those with power.  And like that character I know that such a possibility scares me far more than any zombie apocalypse I ever watched on TV or read in a story….

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Wyrd & Wonder 2019 – Selections from BY BLOOD WE LIVE – Edited by John Joseph Adams

(image courtesy of kasana86)

 

I found this anthology on the Baen Free Library, and I was instantly captivated by the idea of a series of stories focused on the vampire myth, one of the most powerful in the horror and paranormal landscape. It was an interesting journey indeed…

 

 

Under St. Peter’s by Harry Turtledove

This is indeed the weirdest vampire story I ever encountered and, as the editor wrote in his introduction, one that carries more than a whiff of blasphemy – which stands as a warning for anyone choosing to sample it – and still it makes for a fascinating read, one that becomes bizarrely more compelling as the hints pile up and one starts to understand that they are heading without fail in that particular direction. To anticipate anything would be a huge disservice: suffice it to know – and to act as a teaser – that there is an ancient, terrible secret buried under St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome, one that’s revealed to any new Pope right after their investiture…

 

Lifeblood by Michael A. Burstein

As a counterpoint to the previous story, this one deals with the vampire threat – and the possible defenses against it – from the point of view of Jewish religion: in the legendarium surrounding vampires, the Christian cross is a powerful instrument in stopping and repelling a vampire, but what happens if the potential victim does not belong to the Christian faith?  In Lifeblood, a distraught father enters a synagogue looking for help: his son has been bitten three times by a vampire, which means that by the end of this day he will turn into one, and the man is searching frantically for a way to avoid that, while being very aware that his distance from the faith of his ancestors might prove to be the boy’s undoing.  An intriguing tale, and one that makes us think about the power of faith, no matter its origins and its precepts.

 

Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu by Norman Partridge

This is a mix between a retelling of the myth of Dracula as narrated by Bram Stoker, and a sort of… well, unhappily-ever-after focused on a Texas cowboy returning home after the events of the Stoker novel. It’s a strange tale, somehow disconnected due to its alternating between two timelines, but it’s also a poignant one about love and the deathlessness of the emotion even beyond actual death. Unconventional, but quite fascinating.

 

This Is Now by Michael Marshall Smith

There are no vampires as such in this story, but rather the suggestion of them, or at least of strange, deadly creatures held behind an electrified fence by the government since the mid-eighties: three friends, now in their forties, recall a long-ago night of thirty years prior, when they scaled the fence on a dare, on a cold, snowy night, and found more than they bargained for. Now that they are older, and probably wiser, only a night of drinking and reminiscing brings them back to that fence and the desire to see if they can try again.

 

After the Stone Age by Brian Stableford  

Interesting, but so far the weakest of the lot: the premise here is that offering oneself as a willing “blood donor” for a vampire can have positive effects for an overweight person. A weird story, and one that felt too strange by far.

 

House of the Rising Sun by Elizabeth Bear

This story proved puzzling besides being darkly fascinating: it could not have been otherwise since its background is New Orleans – a city where traditions, mystery and a touch of the uncanny always manage to create a very peculiar atmosphere. The main character is a vampire who prowls the streets not so much to sate his own thirst but rather to procure blood for his mistress, an old vampire whose extreme old age makes her incapable of feeding directly from the victims. There is a definite feel of sadness and misery in this undead man that’s quite touching, but that’s not all: from a few hints, and from the editor’s preface to the story, it would seem that the man used to be a famous singer, and the lyric quotes from older songs should be the key to the mystery. Unfortunately, my knowledge of music is sadly lacking, so I’m left with a big, unanswered question…

 

Peking Man by Robert J. Sawyer

Just imagine a story where paleontology is applied to vampires, and you will have an inkling about the core concept of this short tale, one that alternates between the discoveries of a dig in Chinese soil at the start of World War II and a series of flashbacks about a primitive tribe, probably of Neanderthals, meeting a strange creature,  tall, thin, pale, with red-rimmed eyes that somehow seemed to glow from beneath his brow ridge”, one who first douses their precious fire, throwing their night back into terrifying darkness, and then proceeds to catch them, one by one, and drink their blood…  “Fascinating” does not even start to cover my reactions to this intriguing journey.

 

Exsanguinations: A Handbook for the Educated Vampire by Anna S. Oppenhagen-Petrescu and translated from the Romanian by Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne Valente is one of those authors I have not managed to read yet, despite my growing curiosity at every enthusiastic review I see of her works, but if this short story is any example, I will certainly enjoy any of her books – if nothing else for the tongue-in-cheek humor exhibited here in a mock essay (with footnotes!!!) about vampirism allegedly written by one of the undead blood-suckers, the titular Anna Petrescu. To say more would be to spoil the utter fun this story offers: just read it  🙂

 

Lucy, In Her Splendor by Charles Coleman Finlay

Another somewhat disappointing story, made more so because it was the last of this anthology and closed it on a lukewarm note, especially after the fun that was the Valente short, which would have been a better way to end the book, in my opinion.

Reviews

Review: THE OUTSIDER, by Stephen King

Once a staunch Stephen King fan, in later years I was often disappointed by his works, finding them less engaging than I was used to in the past, and for several years I gave up on keeping updated with his new production, but for some reason the premise of The Outsider compelled me to try again, and now I’m glad I listened to my proverbial “book vibes”.  Even though this is far from a perfect story, certainly not comparable to the heights of The Stand, or Salem’s Lot, just to name a couple, which I consider the peaks of Stephen King’s career, The Outsider went a long way toward reviving my faith in this author.

The novel starts in the immediate aftermath of a brutal rape/murder perpetrated on a child: forensic evidence and some witness statements seem to point the investigators in the direction of Terry Maitland, an apparently flawless husband and father of two, beloved teacher and the coach of the city’s junior baseball team. Fueled by the gruesomeness of the act and the need to quickly secure the murderer to justice, lead detective Ralph Anderson puts aside some of the discrepancies that surfaced in the course of the investigation and arrests Maitland publicly, during one of the pivotal baseball games of the season.

While the man keeps protesting his innocence, evidence to support his claim – and which contradicts both the forensic findings and the witness statements – comes to the fore: at the time of the kidnapping and murder of the young victim, Maitland was in another city, attending a conference with some colleagues, not to mention being caught on camera by the TV crews covering the event.  Despite the doubts caused by this paradox, and the sheer impossibility of a man being present in two places at once, the justice machine moves forward without pause, the ripples caused by the following events expanding in a dramatic and unpredictable way.

Even though this story starts as a mystery/thriller, anyone who has read any previous work by Stephen King can imagine that the explanation for such an impossible occurrence resides in the realm of the supernatural, and after a while it becomes clear where the story is headed, but it hardly matters that the reader is able to picture how events will develop, because this is the classic case in which the journey is more important than the destination.  And The Outsider is indeed a compelling journey, one that makes it difficult to put the book down.

One of the narrative strengths of Mr. King’s storytelling is his ability to describe the dynamics and mindset of small communities, and here the citizens of Flint City – the place where the first part of the novel is based – are no exception: once presented with a possible target for the (quite understandable, of course) shock and rage following the heinous crime, they are more than ready to focus them on Maitland, uncaring of the fact that until the day prior to the arrest he was an upstanding and respected citizen, one to whom many of them brought their kids for baseball practice, a person they liked and trusted.  Once the mob mentality has taken over, they forget all too easily the “innocent until proven guilty” tenet, and become deaf and blind to any kind of evidence that might sow doubt about the man’s guilt, transforming the citizenry into a blood-thirsty horde not unlike those that stood at the foot of the guillotine waiting for heads to roll.

While reading these pages, especially those concerned with Maitland’s arraignment and the descriptions of the crowd surrounding the tribunal, I often thought that we don’t need to look for the supernatural or the downright horrific to feel dread, because human nature is more than enough, and sometimes it can manifest in ways that give the lie to the more nightmarish of Lovecraftian creatures. And I confess that I was more frightened by the portrayal of that maddened crow whose fear and need for retribution debased them to a nearly bestial level, than I was about the actual “monster” of the story, because I know that this latter was generated out of the author’s inventiveness, while the mob mentality is an unescapable fact of life.

Another fascinating aspect of this story comes from the dichotomy between hard facts and the uncanny, and the ability of the human mind to bridge the gap between the two: King’s characters often find themselves challenged by the weird and the unbelievable and are forced to test their mettle against something their minds refuse to consider as part of the world. In this case, as in previous stories I read, they might emerge triumphant but  are never left unscathed – the price to be paid for victory and survival is the loss of innocence, of the belief in the predictability of the universe surrounding them.

Still, as I said before, The Outsider is not a perfect story, and there are some details that kept nagging at me and prevented me from fully enjoying it or from giving it the higher rating I envisioned as I was still immersed in the narrative.  For starters, the slow, meticulous buildup of tension seems to come to an end far too quickly and far too easily: the mundane way in which evil is vanquished feels too abrupt and almost comical – a sharp contrast with everything that went on before.  Another, and stronger, issue I had concerned the portrayal of women, since their characterization made me think that the novel might have been written (or set) in the ‘60s rather than in the present.  Jeannie Anderson is one such example, her supportive demeanor toward her husband looking more the product of a “stand by your man” attitude rather than being half of an equal partnership; then there is the only woman detective in the Flint City Police Department, and her role is that of being hugely pregnant more than offering any investigative contribution.

The greatest disappointment, however, came from the character of Holly Gibney, a private investigator: hers is a peculiar personality, one saddled with psychological and behavioral problems that counterbalance a sharp, inquisitive mind, and as such she could have been a very intriguing figure in the economy of the story, but her lack of self-esteem and her inability to fully accept the acknowledgement of her value seemed geared to undermine any contribution she offered to the task force.  Which ended up being kind of annoying…

Nevertheless, I did enjoy The Outsider and I consider it a welcome return to my old “Stephen King haunts” after such a long time…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE HUNGER, by Alma Katsu

 

While the fateful journey of the Donner Party is a matter of record for American history, it’s not as well known outside of the U.S.A. so I was not familiar with this event apart from having heard it mentioned once or twice in passing, and as soon as I encountered the first reviews for Alma Katsu’s book I went in search of more information about it: what I found was a tale of hardship and horror whose reality seemed to surpass any fictional tale of the supernatural I might have read until now.

The Donner Party was a group of hopeful pioneers headed to California to start a new life in what was the new frontier for the times, the middle of the 19th Century: they set out from Missouri in the late spring of 1846, but instead of following the tried and tested trail other adventurers had successfully traveled on, they decided to attempt the newest Hastings Cutoff, named after the explorer who had first opened it.

Unfortunately, Hastings had not specified either that the cutoff would add a considerable number of miles to the trek, or that the way was more suited to men on horseback rather than oxen-driven wagons loaded with supplies, so that a series of accidents and drawbacks cost the travelers precious time – not to mention the loss of several animals and even wagons – and at the start of a particularly hard winter they were stranded and snowbound on the Sierra Nevada, as their supplies ran out and they found themselves with little shelter and no food.  The survivors who were rescued by a search party in the early spring of 1847 had had to resort to eating the flesh of their dead to keep alive.

The historical events of the Donner Party look horrific enough in their stark reality, and yet the author decided to insert a supernatural twist to the story, in the form of a disturbing presence stalking the wagons from the very start and at times grabbing some hapless victim whose remains hinted at something inhuman and terrifying at play.  While this choice added a further (and maybe unnecessary) layer of dread to an already ghastly situation, it worked as a sort of mirror for the overall darkness that progressively fell on the colonists, one that seemed to come from them rather than from the outside, a force that was freed once the people were removed from the moral and spiritual boundaries of civilization.

From the very start we see how the relationships among the 90-odd people of the caravan are subject to strain, mostly due to the different social backgrounds and mindset of the various individuals, so that they fall prey to arguments that end up dividing the group into smaller factions, at odds with each other.  Once the true adversities start piling up on them, these divergences flare up, sometimes with dramatic consequences.  George Donner’s wife Tamsen, for example, is a practitioner of natural medicine though her knowledge of herbs and remedies, and therefore the subject of mistrust that quickly turns into the belief she might be a witch, with the consequence that the Donners are shunned and treated like pariahs.  Or once the supplies start dwindling, those with more refuse to share with the less fortunate, all too easily forgetting the principles of Christian charity that everybody seemed to profess.

As the journey becomes more harrowing and takes its toll on people, animals and supplies – the crossing of the salt desert being one of the most heartbreaking segments – whatever shred of humanity the group might have held on to seems to disappear, each wagon, each individual becoming a world unto itself, focused on its own survival to the exclusion of anything, and anyone, else. And once that humanity dwindles or is silenced forever, once any residue of acceptable social behavior evaporates under the hardships, it looks far too easy for the pioneers to let go of their more enlightened habits and to fall back to more primitive patterns.  First they stop caring about appearances:

They were all starting to neglect themselves, losing the will to keep themselves clean and tidy. To remain civilized. Day by day they grew wilder, filthier, more animal.

Then there is a scene in which the starved group is forced to kill one head of cattle to have some food, and the people partaking of that flesh look more like a bunch of cavemen rather than city born and bred individuals:

 

..no laughter or songs or shared bottles of whiskey […] Now it was just the sound of ravenous eating, the smack of lips and teeth tearing flesh off bone.

 

With this particular sentence I was strongly reminded of Tolkien’s description of Gollum, about his “furtive eating and resentful remembering”, and it was a chilly comparison, one that emphasized the regression of these pioneers to a more primeval state, one that was much more horrifying than the shadowy beings haunting the group from the encroaching darkness.  And for this very reason, once the supernatural element in the story is revealed, it looks almost mundane, far less frightening than the mindless savagery consuming the group of settlers.

The Hunger is not an easy book, and certainly not an uplifting read, but despite its bleakness I could not tear myself from it: the author has a way of relaying even the most horrific of details with a blunt clarity that never slips into morbid gratification, and for this reason offers a compelling tale of the heights and pitfalls of the human soul when subjected to intolerable stress.  Like the colonists’ own, this was not an easy journey, but it taught me a great deal about humanity, and I would not have missed it for the world.

 

 

My Rating: