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Review: Paperbacks from Hell

The best gift for this Halloween is Grady Hendrix’s glamorously gory Paperbacks from Paperbacks_from_HellHell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, a beautiful homage to the glory days of horror publishing.

Many of you will know Hendrix from his genre-bending novels My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Horrorstör (a wonderful IKEA-themed nightmare). If you don’t, you should make yourself familiar. His clear love of the genre and dark sense of humor is prevalent in his fiction, but even more so here.

Hendrix guides us through all aspects of horror fiction’s heyday, tracing its roots from the civil unrest of the 1960s and Gothic romances, through the domination of heavy hitters like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Clive Barker, into the eventual over-saturation of the genre.

As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I remember many of the titles and the experience of browsing through bookstores with actual “horror” sections. Forbidden to buy these extreme books, I ingested them through the cover art and back jacket, imagining what dark delights lived between the covers.

Reading Paperbacks from Hell was like revisiting those bookstores from yesteryear. While Hendrix has much to say about the history and content of these books, Paperbacks is a celebration of cover art and story concept, no matter how ridiculous, from Nazi leprechauns to vengeful insects. It is a coffee table book and artist portfolio all in one.

While Hendrix provides the narrative, his partner in this project is Will Errickson of the Too Much Horror Fiction blog, which revisits vintage scares. It is a labor of love for these two horror nerds, one that would make the 10-year-old me jealous (and the current me exhausted!).

Though he revels in the ever-more ludicrous story plots, Hendrix gives all of the entries fair consideration and validates every sub-genre (with the exception of splatterpunk). Some of the most important sections concern the Satanic Panic, which coincided with the high tide of horror fiction.

Some of my favorite parts are the mini-biographies of the cover artists and the back stories of their work. Though the cover art was sometimes the best part of these books, the artists got short shrift. It’s nice to see them getting recognition. I enjoyed learning about them.

Of course, we know how this story ends, and it is not happily ever after. Hendrix documents the various causes of death of horror publishing: over-saturation of the product; consolidation shuttered the small presses; with the introduction of cable television and VCRs, a large amount of the population just stopped reading.

Hendrix goes further, though, digging into obscure tax law and explaining how the Thor Power Tool case of 1979 changed publishing forever. Interesting stuff, but sad nevertheless.

Unlike those disposable pulps, however, Paperbacks from Hell is a timeless beauty: glossy pages, vivid graphics, embossed printing. This is a gorgeous book, one to keep and display and start awesome dinner-party conversations.

It was an emotional ride. Reading Paperbacks took me back to those early-’80s bookstores, wide-eyed and terrified, absorbing those beautiful and grotesque horror novels I was forbidden to read, but that forever influenced me nonetheless.

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Review: A Head Full of Ghosts

Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts has it all: an unreliable narrator, embellishedHead_Full_of_Ghosts memories, “reality” television, mental disorders, and a guilty conscience.

If you’re a fan of dark, cerebral fiction, then you’ve heard the hype around this book (if you haven’t read it already). Well, it’s all true. This is a finely crafted narrative that tickles the brain stem without skimping on the gut-punches.

This Bram Stoker Award winner had me on my heels from the opener. We begin with Merry being interviewed for a book about her life. Fifteen years earlier, her family, in the midst of a financial and emotional crisis, starred in a television show called The Possession. The show centered on the exorcism of Merry’s older sister, Marjorie, and once production finished the family was left in tatters.

Horror is often most powerful when it is most disorienting, and already, we have multiple layers of unreliability: a first-person narrator (inherently biased), the interpersonal dynamics of an interview (subject- and observer-expectancy bias), reliance on memory, in particular childhood memories (too many to list), and the influence of post-event information (misinformation effect), to name a few.

So, whom can we trust in this tale of madness and malaise? A mysterious horror blog, The Last Final Girl, may be the most insightful source—and that’s saying something!

The blog provides an episodic breakdown of The Possession, and right or wrong, this becomes the definitive history of Merry and her family. This is the perfect book for our “post-truth” times, where all narratives have come under suspicion, including our own.

As the novel progresses, we grow attached to Merry and Marjorie, who have a complicated but loving relationship, as siblings often do. Marjorie is the trickster, the unruly adolescent whose antics unsettle her conservative father.

Merry is the impressionable kid who is confused, enchanted, and terrified by her older sis, and she tries to reconcile these emotions while making sense of what happened to her family during the filming and after.

And what are we to make of her interpretation of events?

That’s what makes A Head Full of Ghosts so unsettling. Our foundations are cracked, our institutions unreliable—even our own memories. Just contemplating this book will have you questioning your senses, and that’s what great horror is supposed to do.

Review: On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is the most terrifying thing you’ll read this HalloweenOn_Tyranny (outside of a presidential Twitter feed, that is). This is the book for this moment, and even if you’re not much on politics or nonfiction reading, please set aside the hour it will take to read this book.

That’s not too much to ask for the defense of democracy.

Saving western civilization as we know it is a tall order for such a short book, but for On Tyranny, Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, doesn’t waste space on academic masturbation. He draws lessons from the 20th century for guidance on how to defend democracy in 2017 and beyond. This book is direct, intense, and a call to action.

The result is an instruction manual with 20 tips for fighting back against tyranny, ranging from the minute (“Make eye contact and small talk”), to the macro (“Take responsibility for the face of the world”). But even the most ambitious items on this to-do list come with practical, everyday advice:

“Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future.”

Lest you think this is a partisan polemic, Snyder does not target parties, but principles. Historically, the enemies of democracy have come from all over the political spectrum. Preventing tyranny requires a multi-party system and a vigilant, informed electorate.

“Any election can be the last,” Snyder writes, “or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.”

Other advice includes protecting a free press, being wary of paramilitary groups and coded speech, and actively reading a wide variety of material—preferably on paper, not a screen. After all, interactive screens were tools of oppression in classic dystopian works by George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.

In particular, beware the mechanisms of terror management. From false flags to opportunistic dictators, real or perceived enemies at the gates have permitted internal threats to flourish. Let the Reichstag fire of 1933 be a lesson, he writes, as it is the blueprint for how would-be tyrants seize unchecked power: When the German parliament caught fire under suspicious circumstances, Hitler used the event to suspend civil liberties on an emergency basis.

Of course, these liberties were not restored once the dubious emergency was over. Liberties, once surrendered, are seldom returned without force.

“For tyrants,” Snyder writes, “the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission.”

Fear is a powerful weapon. Politicians use it to gain power, and the media use it to boost ratings and readership. And fear is what makes our most-cherished institutions vulnerable.

“Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, when it seems most difficult to do so.”

Though the tyrants have their blueprint, Snyder has offered us a brilliant playbook for combating them. The important takeaway for me is that you don’t need to wait for the next election to do something productive. Simply engaging in the world beyond your head or screen (particularly in uncomfortable places) can make a difference.

“Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen,” Snyder writes. We should meet new people, go different places, and generally be present in the three-dimensional world.

And take to heart this bullet point from Snyder—tape it to your front door, hang it on your fridge, tattoo it inside your eyelids:

“We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen.”

Review: Universal Harvester

John Darnielle’s second novel is the literary equivalent of getting lost on a country road.universal-harvester You think you know where you’re going, but after a random turn you’re not so sure. “Yep, that water tower over there is the landmark I’m looking for,” you say to assure yourself, but then that queasy feeling gets stronger, “Didn’t I drive past that barn a half-hour ago?”

In Universal Harvester, you’re not just unsure of where you are, but whom you’re traveling with.

At first, you’re hitching a ride with Jeremy, a recognizable small-town kid without ambition or direction. He works in a local video store in the late-1990s, and Darnielle does a great job of capturing the rural America of that time.

Jeremy, in his early 20s, lives with his widowed father, and their interactions are some of my favorite moments in the novel. Sadness backdrops all their conversations, as they struggle to communicate in the way all fathers and sons do at that age. Yet, there is clear, unstated affection for one another.

Initially, Universal Harvester reads like a pre-YouTube alternate reality game (ARG) or a snuff film. Whereas today, it’s common to come across snippets of unsettling videos that serve as clues to a narrative, this wasn’t as easy in the days of dial-up.

That’s why it’s so disturbing when Video Hut customers complain of creepy vignettes recorded over the rented tapes. The deeper we (through Jeremy and his boss, Sarah Jane) dive into the footage, the more certain we are that:

  1. Solving the ARG is the novel’s ultimate destination
  2. Sarah Jane is about to become the next victim when she locates the source of the videos and mysteriously stops coming into work

Then we take an unexpected turn down one country road, and then another, and Sarah Jane has the wheel, and then Lisa, and then Jeremy again. The abrupt shifts in perspective and storyline are jarring, and the polarized responses to this novel are probably deserved, with some readers feeling misled as to what type of book this is going to be.

Fair enough. Universal Harvester reads like straight horror at first, but then makes a hard left, thereby dialing down the menace, unfortunately.

But this is still a horror novel for my money, just of a different variety. It is about the isolation of small-town America pre-broadband, the slow suffocation of a life stuck in neutral, and the knowledge that not all mysteries can be solved.

And even when they are solved, the answers are seldom as satisfying, and the motives never as clear, as they are in an ARG. “We’re not hurt,” Jeremy rationalizes as he drives away from the farmhouse in the mysterious video clips.

In Darnielle’s Midwestern malaise, this is damn-near a happy ending.

Review: Forked

Forked: A New Standard for American Dining

Saru Jayaraman

Having spent nearly half of my working life in restaurants, I was excited to read Jayaraman’s defense of the AmericanForked service worker — especially since I was once employed by two of what she considers to be two of the worst employers in the biz: Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

Many of the back-of-the-house anecdotes in Forked are all too familiar to me, but Jayaraman, through her research and foundation, Restaurant Opportunities Center, augments these tales with stats and studies and facts that I, even as a fairly well-informed server/bartender/cook/dishwasher, didn’t realize. These include the history of the tipped economy and why it has lost favor in much of the world and that the federal minimum wage has remained at $2.13 an hour for nearly a quarter-century for those living off gratuities.

Jayaraman argues that the industry and its workers remain handcuffed by mid-1990s legislation put forth by Herman Cain, the National Restaurant Association, and Darden Restaurants, the largest restaurant company in the world. Darden’s flagship chain is the Olive Garden, and until 2014 it also owned Red Lobster.

Of the restaurants where I’ve worked, Darden’s were actually the nicest, which is more commentary on the sad state of the industry than a compliment to Darden. Jayaraman has an even lower opinion of their stores. In each section of Forked, she profiles a company taking the high road in its treatment of workers and a company taking the low road.

Not even unlimited cheddar bay biscuits could salvage a passing grade for Darden.

For me, the most illuminating aspect of Jayaraman’s manifesto is her discussion of sexual harassment. Now, it’s no secret (I don’t think) that restaurants are sexually charged work milieus. They are also an intersection of diverse populations. The back of the house, in my experience, was a mix of drifters, creative types, future scholars and criminals. Many of my co-workers went on to earn advanced degrees. Many of them came to work wearing house arrest anklets.

Meanwhile, the front of the house was mostly staffed by young women, some of them still in high school, who drew the salacious humor and advances of the boys’ club on the line. Some of it was naive or good-natured (I’m thinking of the potty humor and clumsy communication of teenaged boys), but some of it was creepy and misogynistic.

And all of it was inappropriate in the workplace, which is why I haven’t witnessed much of it since leaving the restaurant industry.

But even with this knowledge, Jayaraman’s research was alarming. Consider, she argues, that for millions of young women, hosting or waiting tables is their first job. “It is the industry through which they learn what is tolerable and acceptable in the workplace.”

She backs this up with data (higher rates of sexual harassment in states paying tipped workers differently from non-tipped workers) and anecdotally (women who failed to report sexual harassment in later employment because, compared to what they’d endured, “it was never as bad as it was” in restaurants.

But for all there is to recommend Forked, there is a bias that must be acknowledged. The book promotes the work of ROC, a nonprofit co-founded by Jayaraman, and lacks the outsider perspective of books like Nickel and Dimed and Fast Food Nation.

While this bias is worth keeping in mind, it doesn’t discredit her argument — her research and data are still valid, just maybe not as comprehensive as that of independent lab testing.

That only slightly tempers my enthusiasm for this book. Forked is well-written and informative, and I think it’s a must-read for American diners — especially if they’ve never known the joy of cleaning out the deep fryer.

Review: Dead by Midnight

Pamela Clare

Dead by Midnight

As 2015 comes to an end, so too does the best romantic suspense series in the genre. Beginning with 2005’s Extreme Dead by MidnightExposure, and totaling seven full-length novels and five shorter works, Clare’s I-Team has earned a rabid following and produced numerous best-sellers.

The series comes to an end (for now) with the wonderful short novel Dead by Midnight.

For the finale, Clare brings together all of the previous I-Team characters, who have the misfortune of attending a holiday party at a hotel targeted for a political attack. Though the narco-terrorists claim to want nothing more than a hostage release, the I-Team learns that they intend to leave no survivors.

Working against the clock, and with an outside assist from the FBI Hostage Rescue Team (consisting of characters from the best-selling Kaylea Cross book series), the I-Team faces the realization that they might not survive to see another year.

First off, a disclosure: I do have a connection to this author and this series. Clare is the pen name of acclaimed journalist Pamela White, and she was my editor from 2003 – 2007 at the Boulder Weekly newspaper. Also, she named one of the I-Team characters (the hunkiest one, of course, Julian Darcangelo) after me, and a few years ago I was her guest at a romance writing convention.

Regardless of these connections, I loved this book. I devoured it in three sittings. Clare’s writing style is intense and engaging, and the characters so well-developed that you’re quickly invested in their stories, even if this is your first I-Team encounter (though I would recommend starting with books one, Extreme Exposure, and two, Hard Evidence).

Clare’s specialty is hot, edgy sex scenes, and she does not disappoint in Dead by Midnight. It begins with a sex scene, and the first stiff member appears in the opening paragraph. Classic Clare. The romance is paired with equally visceral scenes of violence and heroism. Clare is the rare author who can titillate, terrify and elicit cheers from her readers in a single chapter.

Her two-plus decades as a reporter lend authenticity to the I-Team series, which centers around a team of investigative journalists. Some of the darkest elements of her tales come directly from personal experience, and this brings verisimilitude to her narratives. She also incorporates insider details to flesh out her stories, including the financial struggles and political landmines of working in the industry, the personal risk of the profession and the emotional toll of publishing power dynamics.

My favorite parts concern the I-Team’s dirtbag editor and publisher, who bear striking resemblances to our former boss, as does, fittingly, the lead villain in Dead by Midnight (“The way to his heart wasn’t through sex or money, but his ego. That’s how it was with all narcissists”).

But even if you’ve never picked up a newspaper, let alone worked in a newsroom, you’ll enjoy Dead by MidnightThis short novel is the perfect holiday read. It’s got something for everyone, and for the I-Team faithful, it is both reunion and farewell.

But only for now, I hope. Further adventures will be on the wish list of all I-Team readers in the coming years.

For the time being, finish out 2015 with this delightful read, the culmination of a decade of thrilling twists and unforgettable trysts.

Cyber Monday

If you’ve got a bibliophile on your gift list, you know they can be hard to please. Hardcore readers don’t look to the best-seller lists any more than audiophiles pay attention to the Top 40 charts. Big-name publishers are fine, but impress the bookworm in your life by going independent on Cyber Monday.

It’s also, I admit, a self-serving suggestion.

In July, my debut novel, The Red Tags, was published by Comet Press, an independent publisher in New York City. If you’re shopping for someone with a taste for psychological horror or dark crime, I recommend this novel. Of course, I’m biased, but even if The Red Tags isn’t their (or your) cup of tea, I encourage you to check out these independent publishers and authors.

Comet Press

The must-have for horror aficionados this year is the anthology Necro Files: Two Decades of Extreme Horror. Featuring heavyweights such as George R.R. Martin, Joe R. Lansdale and Brian Hodge, this is a top-flight collection of disturbed visions. Originally published in 2011, it is now available for the first as an audiobook narrated by Eric A. Shelman. Or if you’re interested in something novel-length, choose from titles by authors Brett Williams, Adam Howe and Adam Millard.

Monkey Puzzle Press

Now based in Arkansas, Monkey Puzzle Press was founded in 2007 in Boulder, Colo. MPP publishes literary fiction that is dark, quirky and emotionally revealing. I highly recommend Justice, Inc., a short story collection from Dale Bridges. Other books to consider include The Boy in the Well by Nicholas B. Morris and The Whack-Job Girls by Bonnie ZoBell.

Diversion Books

Diversion publishes quality fiction and non-fiction across a spectrum of genres. Alex Dolan’s The Euthanist is one of the best books I’ve read all year, but you will find something for anyone on your gift list. Discover authors like Rachael Michael, Deborah Chester and Grant Blackwood.

Dundurn Press

Consider a trip north of the border with one of Canada’s largest independent publishers, Dundurn. My recommendation is R.J. Harlick’s A Cold White Fear, but there are also fine thrillers from Canadian authors like Janet Kellough, Brenda Chapman and Steve Burrows.

Of course, this is but a sampling of the independent presses publishing quality literature. While the big publishers recycle the same-old names, the indies can introduce you to fresh voices. They produce books that take chances because they’re more concerned with literary merit than market share.