Speculative

Recommended Reads: Covid-19

“He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good…”

That line, of course, is from Albert Camus’ 1947 masterpiece, The Plague, a book that has the distinction of being in my top 20 all-time reading list, yet is only my third favorite work by Camus.

Published three decades after the Spanish flu epidemic, and only a few years removed from World War II, Camus used the backdrop of the Bubonic plague to dramatize the philosophies of Existentialism and the Absurd.

This brilliant novel is back in demand and selling by the thousands. Of course, The Plague was a parable about fascism and a post-Nazi warning to future generations, which makes it doubly relevant as global instability has given rise to nationalist violence and challenges to western democracies.

Now that social distancing, if not full-on quarantine, is quotidian reality, many are returning to literature for entertainment, distraction or insights. Not to make light of the circumstances or the plight of those suffering, but since we’re isolating, we might as well make the most of it. Here are seven tales of plague, apocalypse and what happens when our delicate social networks collapse.

“Time Enough at Last,” Lynn A. Venable

Originally published in 1953, this brilliant story became an instant classic when it was adapted into the classic episode of The Twilight Zone. I remember first watching this episode as a kid, and for the first 28 minutes thinking it was a wonderful fantasy. The sole survivor of a nuclear bomb, who wants nothing more than to be left alone to his reading, finds his wish has come true!

With nobody around to bother him, and unrestricted access to the public library, he finally has the peace, solitude and, most of all, time to read all the books he’s ever wanted. To me, it was like heaven, until the final twist when our hapless hero breaks his glasses. It is still my favorite episode of the show.

I later read the source material in the collection, The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories, and the original story, though not as well-known, is as good as the adaptation. There are many other great stories in this anthology as well, including many by the great Richard Matheson.

But if you’re vibing on isolation right now, you can’t go wrong with Venable’s mid-century classic.

“Rain,” Joe Hill

I confess I’m biased, having lived in Boulder, Colorado, for the better part of 22 years, but I think this apocalyptic novella is one of Hill’s best efforts. And it’s not just because he describes a summer day in Boulder “as glorious as the first day in Eden” (though that is totally accurate).

But then, without warning, sharp needles begin raining from the sky, piercing an unexpecting populace. “A lot of healthy, vigorous children died in Boulder that day–parents all over town booted their kids outside to whoop it up on one of the last, most brilliant days of summer.”

And it only gets darker from there.

It’s a story befitting the title of its collection, Strange Weather, as this (un)natural disaster turns into a blood-soaked survival march down the Boulder-Denver turnpike.

The Troop, Nick Cutter

I finally got around to reading this highly recommended novel last year, and I was not disappointed. It was creepy, isolating and had a visceral effect on me. For starters, camping horror always gets my blood pumping. Throw in some bioengineering and evil science experiments, and you have my undivided attention.

I brought this with me on a flight to Norway, and I figured it would last me all the way to Lillehammer. I devoured it (no pun intended) before reaching my layover in Reykjavik.

I was also pleasantly surprised when I looked at the author’s photo. I wasn’t familiar with Nick Cutter, but I definitely recognized the author as Craig Davidson. In 2007, I reviewed his debut novel, The Fighter, for the Rocky Mountain News.

My review wasn’t glowing, admittedly, but the novel showed a lot of promise–and it’s stuck with me for more than a decade. He did a lot of things right in that book, but I felt it was a bit uneven overall. The Troop, however, was on point from start to finish, with consistent tone and pacing.

If you think social distancing is scary, try The Troop.

The Cabin at the End of the World, Paul Tremblay

A big part of the creep factor in Paul Tremblay’s home-invasion novel is that we never know if the alleged apocalypse is real. A group of deranged, but seemingly well-meaning (mostly) eschatologists show up at the cabin of a vacationing couple, Andrew and Eric, and their daughter Wen. The intruders have a message: In order to save the world from the end times, one of the trio has to die.

Is the apocalypse really happening? It’s hard to say. Every time they turn on the television, something bad is happening on cable news. But isn’t that true at any time? If you want to live in perpetual fear, just watch cable news.

This convinces the intruders that they are right, and further proves to Andrew that these people are crazy.

I think there are some powerful analogs to our current situation. It’s hard for most of us to gauge first-hand what’s going on, since all signifiers of normality are gone. Sure, there is the television, but that again leads to the ratings-driven cesspool of cable news.

Who can you trust? And which information do you take to heart?

And what are you willing to sacrifice?

“The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allan Poe

Covid-19 has reminded all of us that nobody is invulnerable. Actors, athletes and world leaders have all contracted the disease. Young, old, rich, poor. Nobody is immune.

That is the message of Poe’s horrific tale of a plague that induces hematidrosis–a “profuse bleeding at the pores” from which the Red Death gets its name. Symptoms come on suddenly, the pain is intense and the only mercy is that the victim is dead within a half-hour.

Knowing that death could come so sudden makes this story first-rate psychological horror, but it also becomes class warfare when the elite Prince Prospero invites his rich friends to wait out the plague in the sanctuary of his castle, leaving the poor to die in the streets.

But nobody is safe from this brutal disease, and in the end “darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

The Stand, Stephen King

Of course my all-time favorite horror novel would be on this list. I tried to include lesser-known books to mix it up, but the classics are classics for a reason. No other apocalyptic vision has disturbed me more than King’s magnum opus. As a superflu decimates the world, the facade of civility slips and human nature bares its fangs.

Those in touch with the better angels of their nature congregate in Boulder, Colorado, arming themselves to make one final stand to save humanity from itself.

The Plague, Albert Camus

Finally, we’ll let big Al have the last word. As part of the French Resistance, living in Nazi-occupied Paris, Camus experienced an existential threat most of us will never know. His allegorical plague revealed the best and worst of humanity, and it served as a reminder for how to live, whether in good health or during a pandemic:

“We should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power.”

Stay healthy and well, my friends.

Review: The Monstrous

The Monstrous

Ed. by Ellen Datlow

Funny how some words have lost their meaning over time. Take “awesome” or “sublime.” Historically, these were Monstrouswords of great consequence, usually associated with nature, not a text-message autocomplete. Living in the Rocky Mountains, I experience the truly awesome and sublime often. The top of a 14’er is the perfect intersection of unspeakable beauty and profound terror.

The point being that you should bring a more elemental perspective to Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology, The Monstrous. The “monsters” here do not conform to the creature-feature definition. Rather, these are encounters with the beautiful and the displaced. Characters confront things that shouldn’t be and must reconcile these irregulars with natural law.

Yes, there are literal monsters in this collection, but more often than not the stories in The Monstrous live in our periphery. The terror doesn’t always come from the creatures, but from the intersection of different worlds.

The essential story of this collection, in my opinion, is “Giants in the Earth” by Dale Bailey. It begins with a classic horror trope of innocent laborers unearthing something beyond their comprehension. But rather than something horrible, they encounter something emotionally overwhelming, so much so that witnesses come away with vacant expressions.

This is not terror, but fascination. This is the thrill of the unexplained. I had a strong emotional reaction to this story because it really delved into the subconscious (fittingly set, of course, in the depths of a mine). If you’ve ever cried for no reason, or been overwhelmed by the beauty of something, you’ll get it. From start to finish, “Giants in the Earth” is a deeply impacting tale.

As always, Caitlín Kiernan delivers a satisfying haunt with “The Beginning of the Year Without Summer,” a psychedelic twist of science and speculation that unnerves with its unresolved tension. Like much of her writing, it put me in the mind of Bradbury — and that’s a headspace I enjoy.

Once again, Datlow has compiled an all-star lineup of the biggest names and rising stars in horror. Familiar bylines (Kim Newman, Peter Straub, Brian Hodge, Stephen Graham Jones) make contributions, with Jones’ “Grindstone” being one of the strongest in the collection.

Among the finest tales is A.C. Wise’s “Chasing Sunset,” which puts a Lovecraftian twist on father-son conflict. It’s short and brutal and, like the rest of the collection, disturbingly fun.

But perhaps the darkest offering in the lot is Livia Llewellyn’s “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer,” a thoroughly troubling epistolary that reads like a modern re-telling of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but set in the Pacific Northwest. Llewellyn is willing to delve into the nightmare spaces even Lovecraft feared to tread.

For my money, this is the official book for Halloween 2015, a collection of shadows, scales, flesh and bone that is beautiful and unsettling all at once. You will recognize some of the monsters in here as ones you’ve faced in your darkest anxiety dreams — and others that you’ve never imagined before, but won’t be able to forget.

Review: The Fold

The Fold

Peter Clines

Peter Clines is my new favorite author in the horror universe. His previous novel, 14, was a page-burner that flipped The Foldthe haunted house tale inside-out (quite literally). For his new book, he makes origami of the space-time continuum.

The Fold begins on the last day before summer vacation. Mike Erikson is a high-school English teacher with a special talent: he never forgets anything. This is both a blessing and a curse. He’s intellectually gifted, but suffers the burden of remembering everything that has ever happened to him. At the prodding of an old friend, he audits a secretive research project in San Diego known as the Albuquerque Door.

At first, the Door — which facilitates trans-dimensional travel via a shortcut through the multiverse — is considered a breakthrough. By a simple bend in space-time (and with the help of some Victorian-era equations), the research team is able to transport objects, animals and people from one place to another.

Erikson soon detects something off with the project, though. Despite the personal rewards and social benefit that would accompany the announcement of their world-changing discovery, the scientists (who are suspicious of his investigation) keep the Door in development for years.

Oh, and there is also that seldom-discussed matter of the researcher who went through the Door, suffered a mental breakdown upon return and has been institutionalized since.

As Erikson digs deeper, he uncovers the shady history of the project and its shortcut through the multiverse. It all comes apart when a transport goes badly. The Door opens a pathway through a nightmare dimension that could destroy all others if they can’t get it shut.

That’s when this dice-roll with the universe becomes a Frankensteinian fable.

Clines is a master at developing quirky heroes in slanted realities. He doesn’t rely on gore, violence or trauma to create a sense of unease. He terrorizes with subtlety, pointing out the off-kilter among the mundane and letting it gnaw at the reader’s mind.

There is horror that sucks you down the rabbit hole through a trap door. Not Clines. He takes you there via quicksand. The dude is merciless.

The Fold incorporates many genres, from detective fiction and literary horror, to science fiction and Lovecraftian terror. Clines’ prose sweeps you through the chapters, breathing in and out of the tension without ever losing the narrative pace. I could have easily read this in one sitting, and just may have if my plane hadn’t landed in Reykjavik before I reached the end.

Though easily one of my favorite books of the year so far, The Fold does have some flaws. Erikson, on the whole, is an engaging and likeable protagonist, and for the first 200 pages or so is entirely believable. However, as we approach the climax he becomes too powerful and loses his vulnerability. It’s easy to root for the humble, nerdy English instructor. Not as much when he’s able to score women outside his area code and fend off other-worldly monsters more skillfully than the Marines.

Despite these stretches of the imagination, The Fold, is a smart thriller that uses quantum physics as a launchpad for terror. Like Lovecraft, Clines knows that the greatest threat is not the one that seeks you, but the one you stumble upon, that stares back at you when you gaze too long into the abyss.

In any dimension, the greatest threat to mankind is, well, mankind. The greatest horrors are those of our own making.

Understanding this is what makes Clines one of the best horror writers of the moment — and makes The Fold a must-read summer thriller.

Review: Get in Trouble

Kelly Link

Get in Trouble

Ordering the TOC of a short story collection is as much an art as creating the perfect mix tape. A well-crafted opener not only immerses the reader ingetintrouble its singular world and characters, but sets the tone for the remainder of the book and (please forgive the MFA speak) instructs the reader how to manage the text.

One of the finest examples I’ve read is “The Summer People,” which opens this new collection from the brilliant Kelly Link.

In this darkly beautiful fable a troubled teenager, Fran, is abandoned by her derelict, single father. Despite having the flu, Fran is tasked with caring for “The Summer People” on her own. Let’s just say that these are not the usual demanding bnb folks, and their manner of expressing their displeasure is far more sinister than writing a negative review on TripAdvisor.

What makes Fran so compelling is the way she calmly navigates between the grim earthly realm and the fantastical one that is equally familiar to her. Like many teenagers, she is suffocated by her small-town bubble and difficult home life, yet also has the mental elasticity to take the magical in stride.

In short, she is overwhelmed by her father’s alcoholism and religious fugues, yet unfazed by houseguests from the spiritual realm.

And so it goes through all the tales in Get in Trouble. All is possible and plausible in Link’s slipstream world, in which awkward teenagers are thrown to the wolves. These stories are reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, not necessarily in style, but in tone. It’s a celebration of youth, imagination and nostalgia for an age when anything was possible.

“The Summer People” reminds me why I love short stories in the first place.

Next up is “I Can See Right Through You,” a weird and hilarious romp through fame, celebrity and heartbreak. Two past-their-prime actors, who were formerly on- and off-screen lovers, have descended to the depths of shameless quasi-fame: she a television “ghost hunter” and he the star of a leaked sex tape. They cross paths at a “haunted” nudist camp (which sounds like Heart of Darkness reimagined by Chuck Palahniuk), and despite the bizarre premise, the ending is absolutely beautiful.

As are all the stories in this collection, a world of lonely, precocious youth and unlikely superheroes (and the occasional dentist) that blurs the magical with the mundane.

Link is an author who has long teetered on the brink of superstardom, cultivating a diehard following with her first three story collections. Get in Trouble, her fourth offering, should bring her the widespread literary acclaim she deserves.

Noir Noel

From hard luck to hard science, this trilogy of thrillers will dim the holiday lights of the noir fanatic in your life. Much like the three wise men, we offer gifts of the gritty, the procedural and the other-worldly.

The Forgotten Addiction

Michael Lion

Forgotten AddictionIf you’ve got someone on your shopping list who likes it fast and dirty, gift them this hard-boiled holiday treat. In the follow-up to Lion’s acclaimed debut, The Butcher’s Granddaughter, Bird is back and looking for redemption. Fans of the genre will love Lion’s furious pacing and tightly wound prose.

The setting is interesting as well: 1993 Los Angeles (a wild time in the City of Angels). No cell phones. No Google. Just Bird the snitch playing both sides of the street and trying to find the missing daughter of a man murdered right before his eyes.

The search is both exciting and existential.

The strength of The Forgotten Addiction is Lion’s ability to create tight, gritty prose, but for all the textual skill, his characters are too familiar. Bird gives everyone a bad attitude, whether or not he’s provoked. Readers will recognize the upwardly mobile prostitute who is using her income to fund her education; the tough but noble bouncer who moonlights for Bird; the befuddled psychiatrist who is outwitted by the snitch.

Some of the plot turns are too convenient, but the action (and salty interaction between characters) is worth the ride. I couldn’t stop reading from one chapter to the next, and the narrative never grows stale.

It’s also fun to go back to that time and place when the west was on fire. This is one of the season’s best releases.

 

Case Closed

Case ClosedJan Burke

For two decades, Burke has thrilled a wide audience (including Bill Clinton) with her series of novels set around journalist Irene Kelly. Over the years, fans have enjoyed her blossoming romance with detective Frank Harriman, but in Case Closed—the last of six ebook collections pairing Burke’s new short fiction with stories from her anthology, Eighteen—we meet Harriman as a bumbling rookie. In this tale, he responds to a missing persons call, all the time wondering why the other cops are treating it with such cynicism. And it only gets stranger from there. Burke’s skill for dialogue and wit shine through. The interaction between Harriman and the old lady is delightful. There is a glaring plot hole in the big reveal (I won’t spill it, but it’s safe to say even the laziest, most cynical cop would have thought to check there), but it doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the story, nor the others in the collection. It’s a wonderful introduction to Burke’s underworld.

 

Dangerous Games

edited by Jonathan Oliver

Incorporating mystery, horror and sci-fi, this eclectic anthology has something for everyone. Leading off with Dangerous Gamesheavyweight Chuck Wendig and his dark tale “Big Man,” Dangerous Games plays on the theme of, well, games of course, but also chance, circumstance and, by extension, chaos theory (sort of). Wendig sets the tone with a dark yarn about road rage—a game we’ve played at some time, and it has no winners. Other standouts include offerings from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Libby McGugan and Gary McMahon. Stories take us to the twisted future and the tortured past, but regardless of setting, each tale gnaws at the insatiable itch we have to roll the dice—and suffer the consequences.

M.K. Wren, A Gift Upon the Shore

It’s interesting reading M.K. Wren’s classic novel nearly a quarter century since its release in 1990. For one thing, a nuclearGift apocalypse sounds downright quaint and makes me eerily nostalgic for my childhood fears of nuclear annihilation.

Aside from that, A Gift Upon the Shore is timeless—and even prescient. Following a wave of destruction, two women begin building a library in coastal Oregon, dedicated to preserving the great works of literature, history, and, by extension, civilization. Unfortunately, their only neighbors are a group of fundamentalist survivors who promote the destruction of all books other than the Bible.

In 2013, libraries and bookstores are struggling, Texas school boards are editing history and I downloaded the novel, in a matter of seconds, from a Web site onto my e-reader (unthinkable in 1990).

OK, Wren isn’t exactly Nostradamus. Folks were probably declaring the death of books within hours of Guttenberg’s invention, and fundamentalists have far less sway than they did during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Even Salman Rushdie has been able to come out of hiding.

But like Wren’s protagonists, digital publishing has guaranteed that our literary history will live on, from the freedom of publishing in the medium to noble endeavors like Project Guttenberg.

A Gift Upon the Shore remains a wondrously beautiful novel, whatever the era, and one worthy of a revisit or a first look.