Dark Fuse

Final Thoughts, 2013

It’s a new year, and as much as we’re looking forward to the 2014 reading list, we have some 2013 shelf clearing left to do. Here is a round-up of books we enjoyed, but were so busy reading we didn’t have time to review.

The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty: Fully Updated and Revised

Michael B. Katz

It’s been a quarter-century since the first edition of this book was published. Some Undeserving Poorthings have changed drastically: The first edition came out at the height of the Reagan-Bush era, whereas the new edition comes on the heels of major Democratic victories in 2012.

But some things haven’t changed: The cultural obsession of equating financial poverty with moral bankruptcy.

Katz does a wonderful job of exploring the evolution of blame-the-poor politics and the invention (and ongoing reinvention) of the underclass. It’s a slippery and interesting social history, and it brings to mind Foucault’s histories of mental illness and prisons.

One of the interesting takeaways for me is the human need to compartmentalize. There is a line drawn between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Women and children tend to occupy the first category, while men almost universally fall into the latter. Politically and culturally speaking, the line drawn between the two groups is solid and severe, with those on one side garnerng support and sympathy and the others disdain and even punishment.

The trouble is that the line, in reality rather than construct, is blurry.

America’s schizophrenic attitude toward poverty shouldn’t be surprising. It’s a country that went from agriculture to industry to technology, where the Roaring ’20s gave way to the Great Depression, which segued into an unprecedented era of prosperity. Where LBJ waged a failed War on Poverty, and his successors waged a failed War on Drugs, which has ultimately amounted to a war on the impoverished.

This is an excellent read for anyone with an interest in economics, politics or social history. It may not resolve any legislative debates, but it will lend the reader more thoughtful consideration of the topic.

Dark Visions: A Collection of Modern Horror

Edited by Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson

I have a longstanding love affair with the small horror press. They’re like neighborhood Dark Visionsbookstores: Some last, the majority fail (ultimately), but most of them are amazing while they last. And like that corner bookstore, they each have their own personality, though ostensibly they are all dealing in similar content.

Enter the first installment of Dark Visions from Grey Matter Press.

They certainly know how to plunge into the darkness: the anthology series begins with an original story from Jonathan Maberry—yes, that Jonathan Maberry. Best of all, his contribution, “Mister Pockets,” takes us back to a place I know and love so well: Pine Deep.

For those unfamiliar, Pine Deep is the small town in rural Pennsylvania that was the setting for Maberry’s first three novels, including Bad Moon Rising, the bad-ass conclusion to the trilogy that any horror fan should begin reading immediately. This is a place that knows how to celebrate Halloween—and there is plenty to be afraid of here. I loved this world that Maberry created, and I was ecstatic to return.

Like all anthologies, there is a little something for everybody, and not every story will be your cup of tea. The important thing is that the quality level is high and consistent throughout, and Dark Visions is certainly a cut above your average anthology.

There is one story in particular that I would like to single out, “The Weight of Paradise” by Jeff Hemenway. This is easily the best new horror story I read this year, and perhaps of even the past few years. It is thoroughly original, dark and morally complicated, the hallmark of great horror fiction. Unless the voting is rigged, this story should win many awards and be anthologized for years to come.

There are plenty of other dark delights as well, and I’m excited for the second installment, scheduled for a summer release.

The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Amitious Dr. Abraham von Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Hospital

Thomas Doherty

Aside from having similar names, nobody will mistake this Civil War doctor for beloved Best Specimen of a Tyranttelevision dermatologist Martin van Nostrand (though his Seinfeld portrayer, Michael Richards, like the original Dr. von Norstrand, later achieved a certain level of infamy loosely related to the war between the states).

This doctor, deftly brought to life by Thomas Doherty, left behind a trail of failed business and medical practices before his appointment to superintendent of the Wisconsin Insane Hospital. What distinguishes this book from the many institutional narratives (both fictional and real) is that we get a rounded view of hospital administration. Typically, the overseers of institutions are lampooned as either sadistic villains, naïve do-gooders or bungling bureaucrats.

The reality of institutions, and their employees and residents, is much more complicated than that.

For starters, you’re working with a unique population with difficult problems—otherwise your clients wouldn’t have been institutionalized in the first place. Also consider the varying talents between workers, as well as experience, burnout, and the daily stressors of the workplace.

Want to describe a day in the life of a health care worker? Spend an overnight shift in an ER or a detox and write down your observations. Then do that almost every night for five years and go back and review your initial impressions and see how they compare with your current view.

That’s why The Best Specimen of a Tyrant shines. Von Norstrand casts a thorny shadow, and he has the complexity of Greek tragedy. This is a book for anyone with an interest in the checkered and infinitely fascinating history of mental health care.

Hell Gate

Elizabeth Massie 

In my MFA program, I was often teased for setting a majority of my stories within an Hell Gate - Elizabeth Massieamusement park or carnival of some kind. What can I say? I’m a fan of works that intersect the routine reality of the everyday with the manufactured reality of the spectacle (see Something Wicked This Way Comes, Rides of the Midway, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, etc.).

Therefore, Hell Gate combines some of my favorite themes. The story’s centerpiece is the friendship between a psychic and an orphan against the backdrop a series of grisly Coney Island murders. This will appeal to fans of historical thrillers and anyone who’s ever snuck backstage at the circus.

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Summer Horror Roundup

Though the days still blister, at night there is a welcome chill and the softest whiff of decay. It’s a beautiful smell, and within a few weeks we’ll hit full-on autumn. Though we’re excited about the fall, we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss some of the summertime horror we’ve enjoyed throughout the year.

The Hole

William Meikle

Now this is a book I can relate to: hard drinking, manual labor, mines, sinkholes, battles with subterranean evil.The Hole

Ah, to be 23 again.

From the start, this fast-paced small-town horror shudders with ominosity. (Is ominosity a word? If not, it should be.) Intense headaches and nosebleeds afflict the townsfolk, and then the earth comes out from under their feet.

Literally.

A giant sinkhole opens in a back yard (leading to a hilarious septic tank scene) and begins swallowing up the countryside like the San Andreas Fault. At first, the backwoods residents fear a natural disaster.

But then they notice the creatures rising up from the hole.

And so the horror begins…

Enjoy this quick-hit tale of small-town suspicion, working-class gumption and a long-buried secret that won’t stay dead.

Doors

Daniel Brako

Being a dorky loner, I spent most of my summers watching late-night reruns of The Twilight Zone. That certainly figured intoDoors my attraction to Doors, which concerns a psychologist working with a patient who sees doors everywhere he looks. Then, the doctor begins to see them too.

I’ve always loved the idea of another world overlapping with our own, only visible if we squint in just the right light. It has the appeal of a conspiracy theory. It’s the world, just slightly askew. All around us, invisible, with dire consequences. A world within a world. (Don’t get me started on quark theory.)

Having worked in mental health, I’ve conversed with many schizophrenics, delirious alcoholics and addicts in the throes of a psychotic break. Their storytelling has the effect of quicksand—you don’t realize how engrossed you are in their story until you’re up to your neck. They give you a plausible setting and people, then a string of plausible events occur, followed by a string of less-plausible events, then even less and less plausible, and then suddenly, boom, the narrator reveals that the gunshot was stopped by the metal plate inside his head and the rebounding bullet struck the shooter instead.

It’s a dissociative feeling. Everything seemed so normal, so sane, twisting only in slight degrees before you realize it’s all a delusion. Or is only some of it? That’s what makes it so creepy.

It’s our world, slightly askew.

That’s what I was hoping for in Doors, and it begins promising enough. The manic patient begins his tale, and I got that tingle of dissociation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. The psychologist, David Druas, buys into the narrative too quickly. I wanted more push-back from David, mainly to prolong that quicksand effect, but also for verisimilitude: No legitimate psychologist would be convinced so quickly.

At this point I realized that the novel rushed through this part to get to the pulse-pounding events that follow. That’s unfortunate. I was hoping for more of a psychological head-trip.

Meeting the book on its own terms, this is a well-conceived novel with thrilling and engaging sequences. And I can certainly except the supernatural in horror fiction. But I wish the story hewed closer to plausibility so I could longer relish that feeling of slowly being drawn in to a nightmare.

The Last Whisper in the Dark

Tom Piccirilli

Yes, we have reviewed this book already, but it’s worth repeating. This is a tremendous book by a gifted author. Put this on yourWhisper “must-read” list.

And for anyone who missed the earlier review, here you are:

There are not enough superlatives when discussing Tom Piccirilli. The man is a brilliant and diverse writer: He’s won awards for his horror, fantasy, thrillers and even poetry—bagging the prestigious Bram Stoker award on four occasions.

Previous novels, such as Shards, A Choir of Ill Children and November Mourns, have shocked and terrified, but with his new release, The Last Whisper in the Dark, Piccirilli takes us to a far more tender place.

A tender place, it turns out, just as disarming as his nightmares.

I’ll sum it up this way: I was shedding tears by page three. I think the only other book that has ever had me crying this early in the narrative is Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Piccirilli has a knack for character development and storytelling, and The Last Whisper in the Dark, a sequel to 2012’s The Last Kind Words, may be his deepest work yet.

Concerning Terrier (Terry) Rand, a young thief from a family of small-time criminals, Piccirilli has given us a protagonist as sympathetic as he is fearless. On the surface, the story is about the disappearance of Terry’s friend Chub and the ensuing search that drives him head on into gangsters, killers and a femme fatale.

But on a deeper level, this is a tale of honor and family and the clumsy way we go about expressing our feelings to the ones we love. The Rands are a proud and tragic clan, with dementia and criminality in their blood—as well as an outlaw tendency that keeps them on the fringes of society.

But their strongest trait is honor. Terry is loyal to an estranged friend who stole the only woman he ever loved. He quietly looks out for his sister, even as she rebels against him and helps desecrate their dead brother’s grave. He remains devoted to a family that can occasionally be distant and dysfunctional, but always has each other’s backs.

You can mess with Terry, but you’d best not fuck with his family.

You’ll fall in love with Terry by the end of the first chapter, and you’ll be cheering him on the rest of the novel. And when it’s done, you’ll applaud Piccirilli for this tender bit of noir literature.

Piccirilli is an established icon within the horror realm, but he has yet to crack through to the mainstream, which is unfortunate. This is a writer worthy of notice, and hopefully this book is the one that reaps him the exposure and attention he deserves.

June Recommendations

In another day we’ll be heading off to London, and around this time Transgress will publish its annual summer book preview/review. In the coming days, we’ll be dishing out smaller portions of the issue, beginning with today’s blurbs about some books you may have missed this past month.

Joyland, Stephen King

I plan on devouring this little beauty on the first leg of the transatlantic flight. As joylandyou know, we at Ensuing Chapters and Transgress Magazine are all about funhouses and noir. So, a Stephen King paperback original about a funhouse for the imprint Hard Case Crime?

Bring it.

King’s previous offering through Hard Case was The Colorado Kid, a wonderfully creepy tale about an unsolved murder in a small Maine town. Some of you may also know it as the SyFy program, Haven.

I’ve got my ticket, and I’m already chilled thinking of the horrors that await in Joyland.

Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself, Adam Rutherford

I recommend Adam Rutherford’s Creation for any fan of science writingcreation. However, my endorsement comes with a disclaimer: The electronic review copy I downloaded was corrupted and difficult to navigate. The result is that I didn’t read this book front to back, as I normally do. However, I was able to access about half of it, and what I read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Of particular interest to Transgress readers are the graphic details of surface cuts when explaining how the skin recovers from a wound. The squeamish reader might want to tag this book as horror for this reason alone.

Though I doubt there are any squeamish readers this blog.

Stylistically, Creation blends wit and storytelling with fair doses of hard science. Fans of Sam Kean, Mary Roach and Malcolm Gladwell will find much to love in its pages.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

Not since Joseph Campbell has an author had both a profound understanding oceanof mythology and the ability to present it to a general audience with such passion. I see Gaiman and Campbell as two sides of an intergenerational coin: the academic who deconstructs myths and the author who creates them.

His new novel, his first for adults since 2005’s Anansi Boys, concerns a young boy returning home–and reconsidering odd events from summers past.

 

The Hole, William Meikle

And what summer would be complete without a subterranean adventure? This twisted treat comes from one of my favorite publishers, DarkFuse, and concerns a chasm (literally, not figuratively) snaking through a rural town. What comes next promises to be delightfully morbid. I’ve got this on my to-read list and can’t wait to descend into its depths. A review will come later this summer.

Come back tomorrow for a review of The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki, illustrated by Edward Gorey.

Review: The Mourning House

Ronald Malfi, The Mourning House (Delirium Books)

Dr. Sam Hatch is a soul adrift. Since losing his wife and child a year before, mourning_househe’s tried to outrace his pain, literally, with a series of taped-together cars and sometimes his thumb. Now a transient, he squats for a night in a “vacant shell of a house” in Maryland.

Here is where the past catches up with Hatch.

Ronald Malfi’s The Mourning House (published Dec. 18 by Delirium Books as an e-book and limited edition hardcover) is a short tale of grief, obsession and the fragility of physical and mental structure. It is also a haunted house story, if there is such a thing (I’ll explain in a moment).

Malfi, whose previous novels include the IPPY-award winners Floating Staircase and Shamrock Alley, adds to this great literary tradition, and The Mourning House is a thoroughly enjoyable tale that is more of a character study than a plot-driven thriller. It hooked me with the opening chapter and kept me burning through the pages to the end.

It also got me thinking about the lure of the haunted house. Why is it such an enduring trope? There are the familiar literary explanations: the house as manifestation of the self (“The Fall of the House of Usher”); the lingering energy (aka back story) of past inhabitants (The House of the Seven Gables); the narrative tale that leaves you wondering whether the characters are occupying the house or the other way around (The Shining).

But The Mourning House is part of a lesser-discussed subgenre: the malleable or ever-shifting house. This also happens to be my favorite kind of haunted house story.

I don’t subscribe to the supernatural. I’m not afraid of ghosts, and I’ve yet to fall victim to a family curse. But “The 5 1/2 Minute Hallway” in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is one of the most terrifying passages I’ve ever read. Here, new residents of an old house discover that the interior and exterior dimensions of a hallway are incongruent. There is a geometric dissonance that disturbs the occupants (and the reader).

Malfi taps into that feeling of dissonance. Hatch isn’t visited by apparitions in The Mourning House, and there’s nothing a poltergeist could do that would torment him as severely as his own memories. What is troubling is that items around the house have moved while he was out; his closet seems to be of variable dimensions; and a curious subfloor is revealed beneath his feet.

Each morning, Hatch awakes in, essentially, a new house, and that, my friends, is the crux of great horror fiction. It tickles that spot in our lizard brains that burns for shelter. It’s why the haunted house is a timeless premise—and why I argue that there is, ironically, no such thing.

At the core of every haunted house story is a protagonist troubled long before they ever set foot in the house. The house becomes a metaphor, a hallucination, a projection of mental disturbance. The nature of the haunting reflects the nature of one’s troubles. For Hatch, the ever-shifting house is symbolic of helplessness and fragility. He was a successful doctor with a happy marriage, but in an instant it was taken from him.

Our homes are extensions of ourselves. That’s why home invasions are more traumatic than street muggings. For Hatch, it’s only natural that his haunting plays on his vulnerability. At any moment, the place where he should feel safest could shift forever. And he is helpless to do anything about it.

Malfi handles this masterfully in The Mourning House. The beginning and ending are magnificent, as is the bulk of what comes between. For the most part, the novel is well-paced, the prose solid and the action compelling. Here and there, scenes feel rushed or we get an overload of description without the emotional interiority that anchors us to the story (see chapter two).

But there’s no sense nitpicking over these few moments. Malfi is an excellent storyteller and a demon of description. This is a great piece of writing, and I recommend it for any fan of quality horror fiction or anyone who may fit that description on your holiday shopping list.

For more information, visit the Delirium Books Web site.