Reviews

IF IT BLEEDS, by Stephen King

In recent times I have gone back to reading the works of Stephen King after a long hiatus due to a few less-than-satisfactory novels, so now I’m looking forward to seeing what I missed so far. The more recent The Institute and The Outsider seemed to mark the return of the old “King magic”, and when I saw that one of the short stories included in this volume featured the character of Holly Gibney, who also had a role in Mr. Mercedes (another happy find), I wasted no time in acquiring If It Bleeds.

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The first story in this collection is MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE and from the very first pages I could see that it was indeed a “vintage King” sort of tale.  Teenager Craig earns some pocket money by doing a few chores for eccentric neighbor Mr. Harrigan, whose habit of gifting Craig with lottery tickets finally pays with a huge win: to show his gratitude, Craig uses part of the money to buy an iPhone for Mr. Harrigan, whose initial disdain for technology quickly turns into fascination for the opportunities offered by the Web. At Harrigan’s sudden death, a sorrowful Craig decides to slip the phone into his friend’s jacket before the coffin is closed: what he would never have expected is to still be able to stay in communication with his old mentor – well, sort of, since this is a King story…

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone possesses the classic flavor of most of Stephen King’s narrative: first of all the story in set in a small town, peopled with the kind of quirky characters that are the author’s trademark; then there is the weird element of the phone calls going through even when the cellphone battery should be all but dead. Most important is of course the description of the world through the eyes of a growing teenager: King is one of the writers who can portray younger characters with both understanding and authenticity, and Craig is no exception, particularly in the poignant representation of his grief at the death of Mr. Harrigan, and the very human desire to hear the old man’s voice once again through the voicemail recording on the phone.  Last but not least is an interesting consideration on our relationship with technology and the way it’s changing us – to use old Mr. Harrigan’s own words:

Thoreau said that we don’t own things; things own us. Every new object – whether it’s a home, a car, a television, or fancy phone like that one – is something more we must carry on our backs.

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The second story, THE LIFE OF CHUCK, is a truly weird one and I struggled to understand it until the end, where everything became clear: for this reason I prefer to say as little as I can about it, since it must be appreciated first-hand.  This tale is composed of three separate parts that move backward in time and focus on the figure of Charles “Chuck” Krantz,  his too-short life and the way it affects the world.   There is a definite surreal quality to this story, and not just because it retraces time from what looks like the end of the universe to a fundamental episode in Chuck’s life.  The key to the whole scenario lies in understanding how our experiences contribute to the creation of the world around us and how they can influence it – even in ways we cannot imagine…

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IF IT BLEEDS, the longest piece in the anthology, is loosely connected to The Outsider in that it shows the existence of a creature similar to the novel’s shape-shifting predator, one thriving on the pain and anguish brought on by tragedies – and when there are none to feed on from, creating them to satisfy its hunger.  Private investigator Holly Gibney, now the head of the Finders Keepers agency, sets on a dangerous chase that might cost her her life.

My first encounter with Holly Gibney was in The Outsider and back then – before I read Mr. Mercedes, where her character appears for the first time – I was unable to truly appreciate her for lack of background information. Now that I know where she comes from and what makes her tick, I can say I enjoyed very much her personality, her constant struggle with the psychological problems afflicting her and her tenacity in overcoming them – not to mention her dogged determination in finding the creature and, if possible, freeing the world from the danger it represents, no matter the personal cost.   Where If It Bleeds is a unique blend of horror and detective work, its true strength lies in the depiction of Holly and the double struggle with the investigation on this elusive and dangerous individual on one side and with her not-so-understanding family on the other.  If nothing else, this story made it even more imperative that I read as soon as possible the other two novels following Mr. Mercedes, because I want to learn more about Holly.

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The last offering is RAT, a story imbued with a strong sensation of deja-vu, in the sense that there is a very ominous progression in the journey of struggling writer Drew Larson whose previous attempts at a full-length novel have ended in misery and depression.  One day Drew is struck by a fully-formed idea for a novel, and to be certain that no distractions will interfere with his creative processes, he retires to an isolated cabin in the mountains, where a huge storm and a dangerous bout of flu will threaten both his survival and his mental sanity.   

Anyone familiar with King’s own The Shining will feel certain that the sinister line-up of circumstances is bound to create the “perfect storm” that will have nothing to do with the one raging outside the cabin and everything to do with the man’s reactions to the dread of writer’s block.  Unlike Jack Torrance in The Shining, Larson is not besieged by his inner demons – apart, that is, from the terror of finding himself stuck again at a loss for the right words to express himself – but faces a weird encounter with the titular rat, and the possibility of  striking a fever-induced bargain with unforeseeable consequences…

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This collection represents the fourth volume in the journey of my “reconciliation” with Stephen King’s works, and the progression so far has proven to be quite positive. Let’s hope it keeps going strong 🙂

My Rating:

Reviews

THE PHLEBOTOMIST, by Chris Panatier

To call this novel ‘surprising’ would be a massive understatement: what began as a story set in a dystopian future soon turned into something else, something very unexpected – and this sudden twist ended up enhancing my enjoyment of the story, to which I happily sacrificed some sleep just to see where it would lead me in the end.

War-torn Earth of the near-future is in a sorry state indeed: after the first bomb, named Chrysalis with a notable display of gallows humor, many others fell, unleashing destruction and death. The people now living in the Grey Zones, the ones where radioactive contamination struck more heavily, are in constant need of blood to survive and, if lucky, to recover, therefore a national program of blood donations has been instituted, driven by Patriot, an organization that coordinates the distribution of blood to the needy.

Blood donation has become mandatory: according to Patriot’s newscasts, each day there is a quota to be filled so that the needy people in the Grey Zones can be saved, and every adult must contribute. To implement the scheme, wages and food distribution are linked to blood donation so, in short, citizens can either supply their quota, or go hungry.  What’s worse, the value of an individual’s blood depends on its type: the O group being at the top of the chain, since they are universal donors, and the AB negatives finding themselves at the very bottom, given the diminished demand for their blood. In other words, if type O citizens can live a moderately comfortable life, AB-negs exist on the very threshold of starvation.

Willa Wallace is a phlebotomist, working in one of the many blood-donation centers where citizens go to fulfill their “civic duty”, her only focus that of providing for her grandson Isaiah, the only surviving member of Willa’s family after her daughter died from anaemia  due to far too many blood donations. One day, however, something brings her out of her self-imposed shell: the fall of a blood-carrying drone leads her to a momentous discovery that will forever change her life, as well as her knowledge and perception of the world.

And no, I’m not going to tell you what this discovery is, because this is the huge twist I mentioned at the beginning and it’s only right and proper that you find out on your own… 😉

Plot being off-limits, I can concentrate on the characters, starting with Willa: she is a… narrative exception, in that she’s in her sixties and a grandmother, as far from “hero material” as one could imagine, which makes her transformation into a rule-breaker and a warrior quite surprising but at the same time very believable, because she gets there by degrees, arriving at such changes from the sum of her experiences, her wisdom and the care-giving core at the basis of her personality and chosen work. It’s this last element, the compulsion to keep her grandson (and later on other children) safe that transforms her from nondescript older citizen into a determined, and sometimes ruthless, fighter –  and I loved to see Willa literally take up arms and show no mercy to those who wanted to harm her own.

Grandma Willa is not the only compelling character in The Phlebotomist, though, because she is flanked by two other wonderful figures: Lock (short from her nickname “The Locksmith”), a middle-aged ex marine who fights Patriot’s influence from several underground locations, and who teams with Willa once the grim reality of their world is revealed. I loved Lock’s devil-may-care attitude in the direst of situations, and the way she always seems ready to provide a technical solution to their problems – or an explosive one. And finally there is Kathy, a teenager the two women have rescued from an appalling situation, a girl who had to grow beyond her years and is not afraid of fighting and killing, but still shows some heart-breaking frailties.  This triumvirate of women of different ages, from different walks of life, is the true heart of the story and the force that drives it to the end.

There is another character I want to mention, one who complements this very unusual group and one I felt for very strongly: Everard, one of Lock’s associates and the main caregiver for a group of orphaned children that the outlaws are trying to raise despite many difficulties.  Again I can’t say any more about his story-arc because of spoilers, except that it touched me deeply and showed in no uncertain terms how hideously cruel this world is.

The world in which this cast of characters moves is both terrible and intriguing: humanity always found ways to fracture itself into separate groups, to establish various levels of classification and worth, and here it’s the very essence of life that creates these differences – blood is blood, it’s the substance running in the veins of every human being on Earth, and yet this dystopian society has found a way of using it to create breaches inside society, sometimes pitting humans against each other, because in Willa’s world blood muggings are a dire reality.  There is no authorial comment about this situation, but it’s far too easy to extrapolate one from the story, and to have to acknowledge the sad truth that we are still unable to go past more or less artificial ways of classifying ourselves within a system of values…

Unless I’m mistaken, The Phlebotomist is its author’s debut novel: with such an impressive start I can only look forward to read more of his works soon, especially if he will choose to return to this world – the ending is an open one, and that hopefully leaves room enough for a sequel.

Highly recommended.

My Rating:

Reviews

SECRET SANTA, by Andrew Shaffer

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

Lussi Meyer is going through a rough patch: having lost her job at a publishing house some months before, she has uselessly hunted for employment for quite some time and is nearing despair. Her last chance lies in the interview she has obtained with Blackwood-Patterson, an old and somewhat stuffy publishing house specialized in high profile books, not exactly the right fit for her previous career as a horror editor, but whatever helps pay the bills will be welcome.

A bizarre (very bizarre!) set of circumstances sees Lussi not only hired but placed in the position of senior editor: the new management wants to move toward a more modern approach to publishing, and she needs to find the “next Stephen King” before the end of the year if she wants to maintain her job.  The reception Lussi gets from her new colleagues is far from warm, and she finds herself the target of some serious hazing, the latest episode being the Secret Santa gift she receives: a weird wooden doll with very disquieting features.

Not long after that, some of her co-workers become victims of freaky accidents, and Lussi comes to the conclusion that the doll is somehow involved: what she doesn’t know is that her own life might be in danger…

I enjoyed this shortish book quite a bit: for starters it’s set in the ‘80s, with many period references I found both interesting and amusing, particularly where the horror scene was concerned since it enjoyed a revival in those years, and Lussi is quite versed in the matter also thanks to her keen interest in the genre from her early youth.  Then there is the eerie background of Blackwood-Patterson, a place peopled by very peculiar characters that would not have been out of place in the Addams’ house; and last but not least the building itself, with its definite Gothic flavor, the old-fashioned look and dark interiors barely lighted by quaint, feeble lamps, and its many shadows lurking from dark corners.

Still, don’t expect to find paralyzing horror in Secret Santa, because the story is laced with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor and peppered with creepy episodes that would be perfectly at home in a parody movie of the genre, as the author delights in poking some fun at its tropes.  Lussi is the perfect example of this tone because, unlike the protagonists of those movies, who seem always destined to some gruesome and bloody end, she navigates her troubles with considerable spirit and, far from being the stereotype of the damsel in need of rescue, she keeps managing to rescue herself very well, and to help others along the way – mainly her friend and horror author Fabien Nightingale.

The element of the creepy doll is certainly the main theme of the story, and another way for the author to indulge in the dark humor running through this book: disturbing dolls are quite frequent in horror, particularly in its visual aspect, and her the doll in question is also a far cry from the kind one would find in a child’s playroom, which adds a few more layers of ghoulishness to the whole recipe.  Mix that with a gloomy, scary building that soon becomes another character in the novel, and you get an amusing page turner that will make you look at the coming holidays from a very different point of view.

Have fun… 🙂

My Rating:

Reviews

AWAKENED (Awakened #1), by James Murray & Darren Wearmouth

The theme of the abominable, blood-thirsty creature hunting humans in dark, confined spaces is one that’s been used often to promote a claustrophobic feeling of horror in the readers or viewers, one of the best examples being that of the xenomorphs in the Alien franchise. Awakened multiplies this effect by creating a veritable horde of terrifying critters haunting the bowels of New York’s subway system.

Mayor Tom Cafferty’s crowning achievement is the implementation of the Z Train track connecting the city of New York with neighboring New Jersey by digging under the Hudson River. Despite a major incident during the construction – an incident that opens the book with an adrenaline-infused, and quite ominous, prologue – the ambitious project is finally ready for inauguration, and the state of the art terminal station is packed with guests and media people, and even graced by the arrival of the President.

The expectant crowd waiting for the first train is however first mystified by its delayed arrival after loss of communication, and then shocked by the appearance of the wrecked, empty cars, gruesomely drenched in blood. The first hypothesis of a terrorist attack is strengthened by rising levels of methane gas that could kill the attending crowds in a short time, and the situation is made worse by the total lockdown imposed by Secret Service agents bent on protecting the President’s life. It soon becomes evident, however, that the attack on the train was no terrorist strike and that the so-far untapped depths under the city are home to an ages-old menace that’s been disturbed by recent human activities and is now out for blood…

Awakened is the kind of “popcorn thriller/horror” that relies heavily on plot and does not care much about characterization, and as such it could have worked very well for a total immersion in a scary, monsters-of-the-week story asking only for a modicum of suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately the authors choose to reach beyond the parameters of this kind of narrative and added further elements, like a decade-old secret organization born out of a former Nazi’s plans, or a conspiracy theory linked to this organization and involving various world governments. 

On the positive side, I enjoyed the mounting terror experienced by the people trapped in the subway station, and the escalation of the stakes building against their survival, and even though the characterization was somewhat stereotyped, it was of the kind one can expect in this kind of narrative environment: from the quiet guy turning hero to the unexpected double player who betrays the others, to the estranged wife seeking solace elsewhere – the downside is, unfortunately, that the reader is unable to bond with any of them and rarely cares about their survival or early demise. The environment of the oppressive subway tunnels is made even more disturbing by the awareness of the tons of water under which the galleries run, and together with the other elements – the monsters, the methane levels, the impossibility of using conventional weapons because of the explosive danger – makes for a compelling story that simply begs to be consumed quickly.

The negatives, however, gather more and more weight as the novel progresses: the harvesting of pregnant women by the creatures is never explained, and the scene of one of them slowly opening a victim’s shirt with a talon feels more ludicrous than scary; the monsters themselves generate a lot of unexplained questions: we are told that they are intelligent and quick learners, for example, and yet they seem little more than pack animals grunting their way toward the intended victims, while in other instances they exhibit the ability to perfectly mimic human voices to lure people toward their demise.  These are minor annoyances, still, in the face of bigger ones like the representation of the shady Foundation for Human Advancement, which for decades has been keeping the creatures at bay while blackmailing governments for funds: this truly baffled me, because no one seems to be aware of those demons’ existence, and yet politicians have been funding the organization for decades on the basis of pure… faith, for want of a better word. And let’s not go into the Nazi origins of the group, because it feels like such an overused trope, the kind that worked well in the early Bond movies and here is resurrected, complete with the required scene in which the evil guy details his dastardly plans to the heroes while gleefully twirling his mustache.

It was disappointing to see how a novel with the potential to be a good – if somewhat predictable – science fiction/horror story slowly downgraded into a clutter of ideas haphazardly thrown together with little rhyme or reason, which in the end defied its initial purpose. As Coco Chanel was fond of saying about her dressing philosophy, less is more, and it’s a pity that the writers decided to ignore this little piece of wisdom, burdening their story with so much unnecessary baggage.

My Rating:

Reviews

RING SHOUT, by P. Djèlì Clark

Ring Shout is the kind of book I jokingly call “a Tardis-like story”, one that is much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside: it’s a well-crafted mix of historical fiction and horror that kept me compulsively turning the pages, and what’s more prompted me to search for its many references to facts or details I knew nothing about, so that I ended up with a little more knowledge than I possessed before I started reading, which is always a definite plus for me.

The story is set in Georgia, in 1922: never-vanquished racism is experiencing a resurgence thanks to the 1915 first showing of D.W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation, which offered a sort of heroic aura to members of the Ku Klux Klan, whose heinous actions are here made worse by the appearance of monstrous, extra-dimensional creatures called Klu Kluxes – essentially supernatural beasts able to wear human form.  Griffith himself is portrayed as an evil sorcerer using his movie to propagate hateful, racist ideas to a wider public: while the very real writings of white suprematist Thomas Dixon reached a wide public, it was not considered wide enough, so that it was understood that a more capillary means of propagation was needed, hence the movie:

[…] books could only reach so many. That’s when D.W. Griffith took ahold of it. […] Dixon and Griffith had made a conjuring that reached more people than any book would.

Against this encroaching tide of evil, three very badass young women battle daily to keep the beasts as contained as possible: Maryse is a sort of “chosen one” heroine, able to summon a magical sword animated by the spirits of those who sold their people into slavery; Sadie is an exceptional, fearless sniper, wielding her Winchester rifle, affectionately called Winnie, with gleeful skill; and Cordelia (nicknamed Chef for her ability to cook devastating explosives) is a veteran of WWI dealing with post-war trauma. As the three engage the Ku Kluxes through guerrilla sorties – selling bootleg liquor in their free time – a new menace appears on the horizon through the ominous figure of Butcher Clyde, who rallies both Klansmen and Ku Kluxes for what might be a devastating engagement that threatens to unleash a new, pervasive form of destruction, touching both body and spirit.

As I said, I learned many new interesting facts by following the historical leads contained in this novella: even though I was aware of the existence of Griffith’s movie, I ignored both the story it portrayed and its not-so-subtle racism, just as I heard for the first time the term Ring Shout, which depicts a traditional dance brought from Africa by its enslaved people and offering strength from mixing Christian themes with reverence for one’s ancestors and the wisdom their example can offer. And another first is represented by the mention of Night Doctors, mythical figures used as a scaremongering technique by slave owners to prevent their laborers from running away.

These fascinating real-world details mix quite seamlessly with the breathless pace of the story and its horrific elements, whose Lovecraftian quality seemed to me a sort of tongue-in-cheek poke at racism, given that Lovecraft was well-known for his views on the subject, so that the presence of Cthulhu-like monsters wearing the guise of human beings can speak volumes on the effect that mindless hate and prejudice can have on people. Not to mention the further message that evil need not necessarily wear the face of a slavering monster from Hell, because it can be strengthened just as easily by witnessing injustice and choosing to do nothing about it, or worse, allowing it to prosper by supporting it wholeheartedly.

Even though set in the recent past, Ring Shout brings home in no uncertain terms the awareness that the issues of that past are still present today, unchanged and unchangeable: I like the way the author avoided the use of a preaching tone, but rather blended the more horrifying aspects of the story with some unabashed, witty banter that gifted the narrative with an easily flowing current but was nevertheless able to carry the message home quite clearly. Still, this apparent lightness never shifts attention from important themes, or the realization that now, like back then, humankind is divided by chasms that seem to get deeper with every passing day, that mindless hatred and anger are turning people into virtual monsters, driving them to forget their very humanity in the name of the oh-so-very dangerous mentality of “us and them”. 

The concept of the movie as a recruiting force (for want of a better word), as the images on screen bring the spectators’ worst instincts the surface, is one that I found profoundly disturbing: just as people at the start of the 20th Century felt legitimized in publicly supporting racism by seeing it portrayed in a widely popular movie, now, a hundred years later, their “inheritors” feel the same way because figures invested with authority give them the unspoken permission to be openly and proudly as racist as their ancestors.  Hate of the other has long been a way of mitigating one’s perceived inadequacies, as one of the characters underlines so well:

White folk earn something from that hate. Might not be wages, but knowing we on the bottom and they set above us – just as good, maybe better.

reminding us that such feelings can be a powerfully dangerous tool when wielded by the wrong person…

Despite its short number of pages, Ring Shout is a deep, and deeply engrossing story, a way to explore both factual history and the recesses of the human soul – and above all a thought-provoking book that we should not miss at any cost.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE CHILDREN OF RED PEAK, by Craig DiLouie

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

This is my third book from author Craig DiLouie – the previous ones being One of Us and Our War – and it will certainly not be my last: in The Children of Red Peak he once again takes us on the hard but compelling path of betrayed innocence and damaged youth, and does so with clarity and empathy while not sparing any kind of emotional punch.

Siblings Angela and David, and their friends Deacon, Beth and Emily are the only survivors of a terrible event that occurred fifteen years ago: they were part of the religious group called Family of the Living Spirit, and on that fateful night, as the group committed mass suicide in the belief that the end of the world was near, they barely escaped from the Californian retreat at Red Peak, from which – incomprehensibly – no bodies were ever recovered once the alerted authorities reached the area. Now grown up and separated by their different life choices, they meet after a long time for Emily’s funeral: their friend ended her life quite unexpectedly and this event forces them to connect again with a past they would rather forget.

The story alternates between the present and flashbacks to the past, where we see how the community, secluded from the world as it was, was a place of peace and comfort, of hard, honest labor and shared kindness – that is, until something changed drastically and the relocation to Red Peak brought on a downward shift that culminated in that horrific night.

The remaining four survivors have not escaped unscathed, of course: Angela is a hardened police officer in Las Vegas; her brother David is married and has two children, but he keeps apart from them preferring to drown himself in his work; Deacon is now a musician pouring all his anguish and pain into the songs he writes; and Beth has become a psychologist, but is clearly suffering from PTSD, no matter how much she denies it.  Emily’s suicide convinces them that they must go back to Red Peak, where it all happened and where something dreadfully mysterious both seemed to influence the adults and to cause their disappearance in such a fashion that no one could believe possible, not the authorities who interrogated them, nor the five youngsters themselves.  Facing once again the place where it all happened (and where, by the way, similar uncanny occurrences were recorded in the past) might bring the four of them the closure they need, and maybe offer the answers to the questions that still plague them after fifteen harrowing years.

The news have offered us examples of the tragic consequences of extreme religious beliefs carried beyond their intended original purpose – what happened in Guyana with Jim Jones’ community being a most dramatic one and an appropriate comparison with the events described in this novel – and The Children of Red Peak tries to analyze the issues that could lead a well-intentioned congregation toward a self-immolating path. True, there is an unknown, unfathomable element added here, but some of the dynamics explored before the fateful move to Red Peak are completely human, and the author shows a notable degree of compassion when he examines the adults’ behavior, particularly that of the leader Reverend Peale, a man driven by honest beliefs, and the will to establish a community where strong faith and the desire to create a safe environment far from the hurts and the dangers of the outside world, are the foundation of the Family.

As I read I often wondered if that kind of separation from the rest of the world, combined with the strong belief that the end times were at hand and that the members of the Family had to be prepared for them, did not act as a catalyst for the appalling developments after the move to Red Peak, where punishing climate, exhausting labor and poor nutrition brought everyone to a state of extreme susceptibility to Peale’s instructions and to the mysterious force dwelling in the mountain. As the children observe:

Their home had changed from a lush valley to a desert mountain, their parents had traded contentment for a forced cheerfulness […]

There is no condemnation for the adults’ actions as they prepare for the afterlife through gruesome acts of “purification” (and I can assure you I recoiled at some descriptions), but only the compassion of an observer who tries to understand how the best teachings, and the best intentions, can be led so dramatically astray and how – and this is my own consideration – a too-tight focus on the goal based solely on dogma, and not a healthy dose of reason, can make people blind to consequences.   

This lack of condemnation walks hand in hand with a lack of answers to the many questions the story lays down, leaving the ending open to interpretation, as it’s only right considering the complex issues at the core of the novel, and as I’ve come to expect from Craig DiLouie’s works, where thought-provoking ideas are posed to the readers so they can draw their own conclusions.

The Children of Red Peak has been DiLouie’s most traumatic work for me so far, but it’s also one that will instigate many considerations for a long, long time.

My Rating:

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:

 

Image by Tanantachai Sirival @ 123RF.com

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:

 

Image by Tanantachai Sirival @ 123RF.com

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:

 

Image by Tanantachai Sirival @ 123RF.com

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: