Fiction

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.

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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.

Recommended Reads: 2.2.16

Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Changes Lives

David Denby

When I was in high school, I wanted to write my junior project on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I chose it 9780805095852_LitUp_JK.inddbecause it was a controversial and frequently banned book, and I thought, from the title, that it might be a horror novel. I went to our school’s library and looked it up in the card catalog (here is a link if you don’t know what that is), only to find that it was already checked out.

The library had one other Vonnegut book, so I figured I’d give that one a try. That book was Cat’s Cradle, and it’s not hyperbole to say that it changed my life forever.

That’s what great books are supposed to do. Great books stay with you. They inspire you. They grow with you. I’ve read Cat’s Cradle two more times since high school, and I look forward to reading it a few more times before I die.

I may have never picked up that book — and pursued a literary life — were it not for that junior project. This is why education and youth literacy is so important — and why New Yorker staff writer and culture critic David Denby’s new book, Lit Up, is a must-read.

In something of a sequel to his Great Books, Denby returns to 10th grade English class to see what literature is being taught and how it is being received by youth whose lives are dominated by LCD screens.

I hope that somewhere, some alienated teenager has flipped to the last page of Cat’s Cradle, intoxicated by its madhouse narrative, and is reading that devastating final paragraph that begins, “If I were a younger man, I’d write a history of human stupidity…”

I also recommend Denby’s 2009 book, Snark.

 

The Sound of Time

Jeremy Essex

This book may as well have been custom made for me. It involves the graveyard shift, factory workers and aThe Sound of Time psychology student. There wasn’t much I enjoyed about working in a steel mill, but one thing I loved was the creepiness of the rusted factory.

Cleaning the warehouse evoked a unique sense of dread. I was alone, sweeping the aisles between stacks of steel coils fifteen feet high. Knowing that if one of the coils fell, it would be a long time before they found me.

Essex’s novel is less about the physical threats of factory work, but more about the ghosts allegedly haunting the place. Essex incorporates quantum physics to add another layer of creepy.

Forget ghosts. The spooky implications of quantum physics can elicit more chills than a campfire tale.

The combination of setting, science and quality storytelling make The Sound of Time a hit for horror fans.

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.

Review: Suspended in Dusk

There are 19 good reasons to read Suspended in Dusk, including contributions from new and veteran writers such as Ramsey Campbell, Karen Runge and Angela Slatter. Dusk - New CoverBut if you could only read one story in this collection, I’d direct you to Chris Limb’s “Ministry of Outrage.”

The best horror goes beyond the surface scare to uncover the darkness that lurks beneath. It’s refreshing when an author reveals something new or offers a unique perspective on something known. In “Ministry of Outrage,” Limb captures the spirit of troll-driven message boards, cyber-witch hunts and divisive political rhetoric.

Limb’s premise is startlingly simple: What if the horrific news stories we see online are fake? We’ve all wished for that to be true at some point, when confronting an atrocity so deplorable that you tell yourself it can’t be real. The ever-churning news cycle helps. Bad news disappears as quickly as it emerges. Remember the story of the stomped Pomeranian? We don’t want it to be real, and once it’s gone from the headlines, it’s easy to imagine that it never happened.

We move on to the next atrocity.

Except that sour burn in our gut remains. The venom percolates, though the snakebite is forgotten. What happens to that unresolved rage? It carries over to the next horror-show, compounding until we’re not even sure where it came from.

And when we find a deserving victim, we attack with all that self-righteous rage.

Maxwell is the narrator of Limb’s tale, and it’s his job to generate this negativity. He creates propaganda films disguised as headline news designed to enrage, and thereby control, the masses.

One such video shows protesters at the trial of an alleged child-killer. He describes the appearance of the angry mob.

“A woman’s face, contorted in anger, the light of hell burning in her eyes. The eyes. Beneath the fury there was something almost happy about them. A joy at being permitted such anger.”

That is Maxwell’s terrifying revelation. The people are already angry. It’s his job to invent a safe target at which they can direct it. Hate is not reactionary, but is rather an effect seeking a cause to justify it.

Want proof? Peruse the Facebook postings of your most partisan friends, whichever side they may support. You’ll find commentary ostensibly responding to the news of the day. But look closer. You’ll read yesterday’s anger spilling into a new vessel.

Hey, I’m no better. We’re all guilty. It’s part of being human. And that’s what makes “Ministry of Outrage” so chilling. As Maxwell’s boss explains, “Not far beneath the veneer of civilization lurk these barely human monsters.”

Spree killings. Rampage violence. Donald Trump. These are not the products of isolated events. These are not proportionate responses to reality. These are the results of aimless rage for which we seek a straw man to blame and punish.

Sartre taught us that existence precedes essence, and so it is with vindictive anger. Rage precedes reason. The time-bomb was set before its target was identified. This is as horrifying as it gets.

And this is horror fiction at its best.

I don’t mean to give short shrift to the other contributions in this anthology, such as Alan Baxter’s “Shadows of the Lonely Dead” and Anna Reith’s “Taming the Stars.” These are fabulous stories worthy of equal discussion, and you’ll find your own favorites within the pages of Suspended in Dusk.

But you may want to follow that up with some Pema Chodron.

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.

Recommended Reads: Halloween Highlights

 

Tis the high holidays of horror: Samhain, Dia de los Muertos and Guy Fawkes’ Day. Here’s a trinity of new fiction releases to get you in the spirit of the season.

Lamentation

by Joe Clifford

While I enjoy the occasional police procedural or detective tale, I find it difficult to relate to those worlds. As a writer LamentationI see the appeal of having a strong, resourceful protagonist whom you can throw into high-drama situations knowing they can believably fight their way out of it.

But as a reader, I’ve always been drawn to the blue-collar characters who stumble in over their heads.

Enter Jay Porter. He’s a menial laborer living paycheck to paycheck, burdened by stress, bills and an estranged lover and their small child. Porter lives in a remote, oppressive town, cut-off from civilization by the New England winter.

Clifford so ably captures this world that it made me uncomfortable. From the opening scene, I felt edgy, depressed. I carried the full weight of Porter’s burden as my own.

That’s some damn fine writing.

That uneasy feeling in the belly swells when Porter is called down to the police station to pick-up his drug-addled brother, who is spouting off conspiracy theories involving town elites. It is further evidence of his brother’s decline, he believes, until his brother’s business partner turns up dead.

As he wades deeper into the fog, Porter unearths a dark secret that puts the life of himself and his brother in danger. With limited funds or capable weapons, and zero well-placed connections, Porter must rely on a loyal friend and an old rival.

Lamentation is my kind of novel. There are no experts, no sharpshooters, no aces in sleeves. There is no posse to rescue the hero. Just a quartet of hard-luck locals with long odds up against the wealthy, powerful and corrupt.

Porter is not the most likable character, or self-aware, but you’ll be rooting for him throughout. I’m already excited for the sequel, December Boys, due out next summer.

 

A Cold White Fear

by R.J. Harlick

Speaking of blue-collar heroes, meet Meg Harris, star of Harlick’s series of thrillers set in remote Canada. It may beA Cold White Fear the holidays, but merry-making is not on her list. Rather Harris is stewing over a blowout fight she’d had with her husband. Now he has left, and she is certain he won’t return for a few days.

Outside, a snowstorm rages, knocking out the power. Harris is alone with just her lapdog, Shoni, and the neighbor boy from the reservation. Then comes a knock on the door. It’s two men in distress, and, well, it wouldn’t be much of a plot if she didn’t let them in!

Home invasion tales can quickly turn blasé, but Harlick infuses this time-worn trope with fresh life. She raises the stakes by revealing the complexity of the two men. One of them, who grew up on the nearby Migiskan Anishinabeg Reserve, knows Harris’ great-aunt. He’s a local. They have common connections, and the reader wants nothing more than for things to go well.

They don’t.

Harlick is brilliant at creating and sustaining tension, and she keeps us on edge throughout what is essentially a single-set play. A Cold White Fear (publishing date Nov. 7) is like a rough acid trip. You know you’re going to survive it, but you’ll have to white-knuckle it all the way.

While I recommend this book for any fan of suspense, horror or cold-weather claustrophobia, I did mark it down from a five-star rating to a four due to some plot and character turns in the latter chapters. Harris is a strong, resourceful character throughout the story. Vulnerable, yes, but self-sufficient, and I think she gets short-changed in the end.

Harris is not someone who needs rescue. She uses her wits and courage to navigate a harrowing scenario for most of the book, and the ending doesn’t read true with the rest of the narrative.

Despite that, I give A Cold White Fear a strong recommendation. Others may feel differently about the ending, and even though I wasn’t crazy about it, it was worth the ride.

This was the first Harlick book I’ve read, and I look forward to reading more Meg Harris mysteries.

 

Man Made Murder

by Z. Rider

Man Made Murder is a high-octane thriller for those who like their horror on the supernatural side. Dean Man Made MurderThibodeaux is talented, but frustrated guitarist (for the band Man Made Murder) who just wants to score some biker weed before the group begins its next tour.

There is a symmetry to what comes next. His band is changing… and then so is he. But into what? I’ll just say that Type O Negative would’ve killed for Dean’s street cred after his throwdown with the biker in a creepy old house.

Dean’s transformation sets him on a collision course with revenge-minded Carl Delacroix.

Man Made Murder is a rock and roll horror show and act I in the Blood Road Trilogy.