Reviews

LATER, by Stephen King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

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

Click on the link to read the story online

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB’S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES, by Grady Hendrix – #Wyrdandwonder

The word “vampire” in a book’s title is often enough to draw my attention, but here the connection with a book club, and the more than positive reviews from some of my fellow bloggers, made it next to impossible for me to ignore this novel. In the end, I found much more than I hoped for in Southern Book Club, because the fundamental horror of the genre is only the vehicle for the creation of a few intriguing characters and for some thought-provoking social commentary.  Will it be a perfect fit for the fantasy component of Wyrd and Wonder? I hope so,  because I think that the huge amount of weirdness of the story might make it a good candidate, even if it’s not set in some castle-dotted realm…

Patricia is your typical suburban wife (the story is set in the decade between the late ’80s and the late ’90s) with a workaholic, distant husband, two growing children and a lot of commitments – plus the recent burden of a mother-in-law whose health, both physical and mental, is declining at a rapid pace. One of the rare moments she can take for herself comes from the monthly discussions of her book club, and as the story opens she’s distressed because she had no time to read the current volume, the latest highbrow choice in what seems like a long list of intellectually worthy but uninspiring books.  The disaster of her presentation becomes the drive to create a more interesting club together with her friends Grace, Slick, Maryellen and Kitty, united in their inclination for thrillers and true crime stories. 

The quiet routine of Old Village, the suburb where Patricia and her friends reside, is however shaken by a series of apparently unrelated events: her elderly neighbor physically assaults her one evening, chewing off one earlobe, then dies in hospital not much later; the woman’s nephew, James Harris, takes residence in the now-vacant house, but has strangely nocturnal habits, no readily available ID and a lot of cash; Patricia’s mother-in-law is assaulted by a horde of rats (a truly horrible, blood-curling scene); and the close-by area of Six Mile is beset by a series of disappearances, followed by suicides, of young people believed to be under the influence of drugs.  The full picture seems to come together only when Mrs. Greene, once the caregiver for Patricia’s mother-in-law, presents her with clues that point to James Harris as a predator of a most unusual and shocking kind.  Patricia’s first attempt at calling attention to the man fails miserably, causing her a great deal of grief, and only when the danger starts encroaching on her children does she find the strength and the courage to go on the offensive again – but not alone…

There is little doubt that Harris is a vampire, no surprise there: it becomes clear from the very first time Patricia sets eyes on him as he lies comatose and shriveled, only to appear in full health the following day – that is, except for his intolerance to sunlight. And she sees him later on as he’s feeding on his latest victim, revealing all the inhumanness of his nature. But Patricia and her friends have a hard time unmasking him, for a number of reasons, all of which are guaranteed to fuel the readers’ anger, if they are so inclined: for starters, Harris has managed to insinuate himself in the social fabric of the area, his affable, pleasant demeanor gaining him easy entry in the homes on the neighbors – and let’s not forget what happens once you invite a vampire in your home… Then his early victims are all part of the black community: this is the deep South of some 30 years ago, after all, and no one seems to really care about the deaths of a number of kids from a low-income, run-down neighborhood – not the authorities, nor the otherwise “concerned” citizens – so that Harris knows he has an almost-unlimited reservoir of vulnerable prey to draw from.  Last but not least, the early charge against him comes from a group of women whose husbands are his friends and business partners and who are more than readily disposed to undermine their wives’ credibility, to silence them with scorn or violence, and to set them one against the other, to divide and isolate them.

What happens after that first, failed attempt is just as sickening as witnessing an actual vampiric assault, because that’s a scene rooted in the realm of fantasy, while the patronizing silencing of women – mothers, wives – is a sadly realistic scenario: worse, Harris also manages to infiltrate the only territory these women called their own, the book club, turning it into a male-driven society where the wives have lost their voice even in the choice of reading material.  Divide et impera: by sowing a barely concealed fear of consequences, Harris and his (more or less) unwitting cronies create an environment in which acceptance comes only from conformity, from compliance with the rules, where the barest hint at dissonance bears a heavy stigma and brings discrimination. It’s only when Harris’ greed gets the better of his carefulness and he starts targeting his neighbors’ children that Patricia finds once again her determination and enrolls her friends’ help to remove the threat to their families: where on one side this turns into a couple of prolonged, blood-chilling narrative sequences I still cringe in recollecting, on the other it showcases these women’s bravery and the power of their friendship. Not to mention the inner steel underlying their deep-seated outer politeness: “He thinks we’re what we look like on the outside: nice Southern ladies. Let me tell you something…there’s nothing nice about Southern ladies.”

These ladies are not perfect heroines however, their audacious endeavor marred by the realization that the drive to act only comes when their families are threatened, when some of them are subjected to intimidation and brutal violence aimed at ensuring their silence, a silence made easier because the victims were not part of their community.  The racial and social rift works fully in favor of Harris’ plan here, and even if ultimately the group of friends chooses to take matters into their own hands, there is a bittersweet flavor to the ending that acknowledges how theirs was just an action driven by the momentary need, and not a true change in outlook.

Still, I quite enjoyed Southern Book Club and its interesting mix of horror and social analysis and look forward to sampling more of this author’s works in the (hopefully) near future.

My Rating:

image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com
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.

===

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.

^*^

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…

^*^

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.

^*^

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…

===

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