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:

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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: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: MY ENGLISH NAME, by R. S. Benedict

A short story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

 

MY ENGLISH NAME

A very weird story that hovers over the dividing line between science fiction and horror: the main character is an unknown creature (possibly an alien) forced to hide its true appearance under a human mask – or rather under a whole human skin.  The process by which Thomas Majors (that’s its last incarnation, and I will use that name as he does throughout the story) obtains the skins and wears them is only hinted at, mercifully so, because there is more than a whiff of creepiness in the whole business, mostly because those human disguises are subject to wear, tear and decay.

To avoid difficult questions, Thomas has elected to live in China, passing for an English expatriate and teaching in Chinese schools: there is a glaring dichotomy between this crowded, lively background where people live and move very close to each other and Thomas’ need for physical distance – not only because of his fear of discovery, but also because close contact might prove dangerous to the disguise.  This brings about a subtle streak of loneliness that I found quite touching despite my profound horror at what Thomas really is and the things he does to survive.

The chronicle of the creature’s existence as Thomas Majors is set as a sort of one-way dialogue with the only person he finally grows closer to, the man who employs him in his latest teaching gig, the one that will prove – through caring and affection – to be Thomas’ undoing in more ways than one.

I’m not certain how I feel about this story: certainly it piqued my curiosity and I did care for Thomas’ journey, mostly because of my curiosity about his origins and survival methods, but at the same time I can’t think about it without a shiver of revulsion.  Nonetheless it was intriguing…

My Rating: 

 

 

Reviews

Review: THE SKIN TRADE, by G.R.R. Martin

 

Reading, or in this case re-reading, the stories contained in the two-volume collection Dreamsongs always reminds me that G.R.R. Martin can speak in many voices, not just that of epic fantasy: The Skin Trade, a long novella or short novel depending on the point of view, is a perfect example of Martin’s wide variety of styles, mixing in this case both horror and urban fantasy in a story that’s quite compelling.

Willie Flambeaux is a collection agent, an unremarkable kind of guy saddled with asthma and a paunch, but he suddenly finds himself at the center of dreadful events as his friends are being murdered in the most savage way – as if mauled by an animal. He asks his friend Randi Wade, a private investigator, to look into the matter, even though he knows this will raise some dark ghosts from her past: twenty years before Randi’s father, a police officer, was killed by some kind of animal, so the official report went, an animal that was uncannily able to withstand being shot with the entire load of Wade Senior’s gun, and disappear.

As the two of them try to make sense of the evidence in the recent murder spree, and to overcome what looks like blindness or lack of interest from the police, we learn that Willie is a werewolf – or, as he prefers to say, a lycanthrope, and that there is a good number of these creatures in the city.  What’s even more alarming is that the victims of the ghastly murders were lycanthropes themselves, and that therefore – as the pack leader and unofficial city owner Jonathan Harmon warns Willie – there is someone or something that is hunting the hunters.

One of the most fascinating sides of this story, aside from its fast, compelling pace, is the new outlook adopted for the werewolf myth: the transformation is not dependent on the moon, as the werewolves can change at whim, and that in the shifted form they are more powerful, have more stamina and can overcome any physical problem present in their human aspect.  For example, Willie’s asthma disappears completely when he becomes a wolf, and his friend Joan – the first victim – though paralyzed as a human, was able to move and run when she changed.   Still, the lycanthropes are sensitive to silver, and that detail will prove very important in the course of the story…

Another element I enjoyed is the banter between Randi and Willie, who have known each other for a long time and despite their differences have managed to build a friendship that’s based on mutual respect and trust, even though it’s hidden under Randi’s verbal barbs and Willie’s futile but still enthusiastic attempts at seducing the investigator.  There is a slow buildup and an equally slow reveal about the creature that is killing werewolves all over the city, and the last part of the story is a breathless rush that will keep you turning the pages compulsively.

And on a side note, you can also appreciate this novella in audio format, where Randi Wade is played by Australian actress Claudia Black (a.k.a. Farscape’s Aeryn Sun), an experience I wholeheartedly recommend.

Reviews

Review: KILL CREEK, by Scott Thomas

 

Horror, like humor, is a very delicate narrative substance and even if the two find themselves at the very opposites of the writing scale, they share the need for fine balance and even finer control if one seeks to reach a believable and satisfactory result.  This is indeed the case with Scott Thomas’ Kill Creek, a story that on the surface seems to share many elements with other horror novels (a haunted house, a group of people who enter it and suffer dreadful experiences, their attempts at fighting the evil, and so on), but in the end manages to defy any prediction and to offer a unique reading experience that surpasses even the highest of expectations.  If the information I found on GoodReads about Mr. Thomas is correct, this should be his first novel, which makes it all the more extraordinary for the skill he exhibits with pace and characterization: I will certainly keep an eye on his future production, because here is a quite promising author in the genre.

A group of four horror writers, each different in personality and narrative mode, receives an invitation from Justin Wainwright, the owner of WrightWire – a site dedicated to horror in all its declinations – to spend Halloween night in the Finch House at Kill Creek, a remote Kansas location: the resulting interview with the authors will be streamed online and serve as much-needed publicity for every one of them. And the four need it because, in one way or the other, their careers are at a crossroads.

Sam McGarver, a man saddled with a dark past that has left him scarred in body and mind, is dealing with writer’s block and has accepted a teaching position to help make ends meet; T.C. Moore has become famous for her dark, no-holds-barred, sexually explicit stories, but a recent encounter with the Hollywood executives in charge of the movie from her latest novel angered and unsettled her more than she can deal with; Sebastian Cole is considered the dean of horror writers, inspiring many to follow in his footsteps, yet he feels that his career is at an end; and Daniel Slaughter made a name for himself with YA horror stories laced with a Christian message of redemption and hope, but his audience is dwindling day by day and his publisher is ready to cut him loose.   Each one of them resents Wainwright’s bold-faced summons and the certainty of deception they perceive in his manner, but the opportunity is too good to be passed over, and the group travels to Kill Creek and the house whose first owner and his lover were killed shortly before the Civil War, giving origin to the tales about the mansion being haunted.

At this point, one might expect the story to proceed over a well-traveled path, with the night bringing uncounted horrors and the people in the house not reaching the next morning alive; instead the Halloween at Finch House flows in a very mundane way, with the sole exception of the mediatic slaughter perpetrated by Wainwright on his guests, as he exploits their weaknesses without mercy to spice up the podcast he so meticulously planned.  Of course some strange occurrences manifest themselves during the night, but all of them can be attributed to the peculiar atmosphere of the house and the personal ghosts each person carries inside.  On the next morning, the group departs to scatter again toward their former lives, and that’s one of the novel’s best angles – the choice of letting them go unscathed, against all expectations. Because the true, chilling horror starts only after they leave the house behind them – or so they think….

Kill Creek is a powerful, well-crafted story that relies more on psychological horror rather than the graphic kind, even though the latter part of the novel does turn quite bloody and horrific (so be warned about that…): yet the explicit violence manages to feel less frightening than the kind visited on the soul of the victims.  A case in point is that of the character driven to kill others in a most shocking way, and yet constantly saying he’s sorry and asking for forgiveness even as he performs his bloody task, the torment of the acts he’s compelled to execute still managing to scar his mind and soul, both betrayed out of their basic gentleness by a force outside of his control.  And that force is exerted by a very peculiar entity, the house itself, that here possesses a definite personality that turns it into another character, one imbued with a profound evil that appears all the more frightening because of its lack of definite origin, not in spite of it.

No reason is given for the house’s profound need of belief in its haunted, creepy nature, yet this insatiable hunger and the way the house can sink its hooks into the victims’ minds and force them to do its bidding is a chilling, unexpected development.  The old mansion appears like a skilled manipulator, one that knows people’s most buried secrets and fears and uses them to maneuver the victims like puppets on strings: the four writers’ back-stories are beautifully interlaced with the narrative and transformed from old ghosts into present terrors that take on shape and substance, breaking the barrier between the real and the imagined, the merely feared and the concrete danger that can hurt, maim and kill.

The experience the characters undergo at the “hands” of the Kill Creek house is one that strips them of their outer defenses and forces them to confront their inner selves, and to change: one might say that they come out of it (those who do, that is…) as very different people – how different, only time will tell, because there is no real resolution to the story, as the last few paragraphs show with a quite unexpected revelation.  Even though, on hindsight, it should not have been so unexpected in consideration of the total lack of predictability that is the leitmotif of this novel.

Highly recommended.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: NEITHER FRUIT NOR FLESH, by R.J. Barker

 

Some time ago a fellow blogger mentioned the FANTASY HIVE site, a place for all things related to speculative fiction in its many forms: news about upcoming books, movies and tv shows, interviews with authors, and so on.  Amid such bounty, it stood to reason that some short stories would find their place for our enjoyment, and the very first of these stories to be published on Fantasy Hive was Neither Fruit Nor Flesh, by R.J. Barker, author of the highly acclaimed Age of Assassins, one of the best debut novels of 2017.

Unexpectedly, it was not a fantasy-themed story – which shows how wrong we are when we believe an author could possess only one kind of ‘voice’ in their narrative set of skills: Neither Fruit Nor Flesh starts as a mainstream tale, and then step by step it slides seamlessly into horror.   The unnamed main character, a young woman slightly obsessed with her appearance and even more with cleanliness and healthy living, has an accident while she’s out running: her head turns at a sudden noise, she collides with some hedge plant on her path and a thorn pierces her face near one eye.

According to the doctors who treat her, there was no damage and once the eyepatch covering the injury will come off, she will be as good as new, but she starts to obsess about the extraneous material – the filthy material – covering the thorn that might have entered her body, contaminating its carefully maintained health.  What starts at this point seems to be a journey into hell fueled by a hygiene-fixated frame of mind, one that colors the young woman’s awareness so much that it ends up affecting her perceptions of herself and the world she lives in.

That is, until the story takes a very, very unexpected turn, one that ends in a scene that is as startling as it is horrifying, despite the equally weird build-up until that moment.  Horrifying and very well done.

My thanks to Fantasy Hive for this welcome gift, that I’m sure will be only the first of many.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: RED LIGHTS, AND RAIN, by Gareth L. Powell

 

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

This turned out to be a very strange story – and I mean ‘strange’ in a very positive way, of course – one that started as something with a somber mood: the opening brings us to a small pub in the Red Lights district of Amsterdam, where a woman is waiting for someone.  The description of the rainy night and the people moving past the pub’s windows on their various errands puts the background into sharp focus and  it quickly drew me in, thanks to what I like to call “cinematic quality” in writing.

Quite soon, though, the story’s atmosphere changes, and that happens when the waiting woman fingers the gun in her pocket – a gun that’s fifty years more advanced than anything else in this time zone” – and the man she’s waiting for appears.  She’s there to kill him, and he’s aware of the fact.

I’m not going to tell you more about Red Lights, and Rain, because it’s the kind of story that begs to be read with no foreknowledge: the only thing I feel comfortable sharing is the consideration underlying the narrative – what is a monster?  Is it the creature whose only motivation is to kill, the one that is driven to spill innocent blood, or is it the one that acted as creator and sent it on the path of destruction?   In the end I found myself echoing the words of the young man managing the pub, “you are a monster”. Indeed…

 

My Rating: