ensuing chapters

Review: My Dark Vanessa

When you find yourself audibly yelling at the characters in a book like you’re watching a horror movie, you know you’re reading something special. My Dark Vanessa, the debut novel from Kate Elizabeth Russell, enrages, amuses, perplexes and ultimately batters the reader into despair.

In this challenging and transgressive masterpiece, Vanessa Wye narrates two timelines of her life: one beginning in 2000, when she goes away to boarding school at age 15 and becomes the target of her English teacher’s advances, and 2017, when said teacher, Jacob Strane, is being investigated for sexually assaulting a different student.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the twisting plot and unsettling behavior, what stands out to me is Russell’s handling of the two voices. It’s challenging enough to believably capture the voice of a teenage character, but to also balance that with a more mature voice that is consistent with that of the child is remarkable.

That Russell pulls it off in her debut novel is astounding.

Practically every page has a line that cut into me on some emotional level, whether it was an insight into the pressures young women face; pervasive pop culture that glamorizes statutory rape; the cruel and humiliating treatment dealt to victims of sexual violence; or a personal reckoning with my own youthful behavior.

The latter is why I feel the #MeToo movement has been such a wake-up call to many men. It brought home not only the frequency of sexual harassment and assault, but also introduced many of us to the broader scope of what it is.

It’s alarming to think of how common the behaviors at the lower end of the sexual violence spectrum were in the 1980s and ’90s — and how many of them, such as leering and catcalling, were expected of young boys as part of our development.

That underlines the importance of My Dark Vanessa. It’s tough to read for both the subject matter and for the way it forces the reader to truly consider how they would react in this situation. It also provides a long-overdue response to Lolita.

Of course, Nabokov’s controversial novel is unavoidable when discussing a book like this, and Russell takes it head on. She writes in the afterward: “I imagined the novel I wished I could have discovered alongside Lolita at fourteen, how it might have felt then to read a book that told her story rather than his.”

Like Russell, I have a complicated relationship with Lolita. It’s one of my favorite novels, but at the same time it is criminally misunderstood. The trope of a “Lolita” as a girl who is sexually aggressive toward older men is a sick distortion.

It speaks volumes about our culture that a novel about raping and kidnapping a twelve-year-old girl has been twisted into a cultural archetype to mean an insatiable teenager who seduces middle-aged men against their will.

That’s exactly why My Dark Vanessa is such an important book.

Even if, like me, you read transgressive fiction quite often, this book will haunt you — not for its salacious content, but for how insidious the sexual violence pervades every interaction in the book. Russell is not aggressive in her return serve of the male gaze. She simply holds a mirror up to it — and what she reflects back is something ugly, something that demands reckoning, that refuses to be ignored.

With Lolita, it is easy to distance oneself from the villain. In My Dark Vanessa, there is no such mercy. No doubt, this is one of the most disturbing and important books I’ve ever read.

Review: Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic takes on racism, misogyny and New Imperialism with Gothic symbolism in this highly acclaimed novel.

Set in 1950s Mexico, Noemí Taboada is a young socialite with diverse and ever-changing interests — anthropology being her most recent obsession. Her traditional family, however, would rather she pursue a husband than a graduate degree.

But when a distressed letter arrives from her newlywed cousin, Catalina, Noemí strikes a deal with her father — he will grant her permission to enroll in graduate school if she serves as the family´s ambassador. While her father fears the shame of a well-publicized divorce (or that Catalina´s mysterious new husband is after the family’s fortune), Noemí is concerned for her cousin´s life. So she travels to the rural mountain village where Catalina lives at her husband’s family estate.

Enter the ominous castle — High Place.

The Doyle family are English expats who had once amassed a fortune in a Mexican silver mine, but whose exploitation of local labor and environmental resources eventually led to financial ruin. The mansion is now crumbling and overrun with mold and fungi. There is spotty electricity, little access to the outside world and seemingly no way to escape.

Extricating Catalina is not as easy as planned. Noemí has no legal recourse to take Catalina away from her husband, even if she fears her life is in danger. With only the help of a few villagers and an unlikely ally within the family, Noemí must take on both the Doyles and an ancient presence that lives within High Place.

For fans of the genre, such as me, the beloved tropes of the remote castle, dead brides, haunted legends and dream visions make for a delightful read on their own.

But Moreno-Garcia understands that the brilliance of Gothic horror lies not merely in the trappings, but in what they represent.

Probably the most obvious symbolism is the dying patriarch of the Doyle family, representing social destabilization and the end of the colonial era. But the paterfamilia has concocted a way to achieve immortality, even if it makes all of them prisoners of High Place.

It would be a horrible, oppressive fate, to waste away in a dilapidated mansion built on a crumbling ideology.

Noemí is the breath of fresh air that just might blow the whole thing down.

Fun read with social commentary and ancient curses. Well worth your time.

Review: The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky

The Broken  Earth Trilogy

N.K. Jemisin

“Just because something is horrible does not make it any less true,” the narrator of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy tells us in the closing pages of her epic tale. This would appear to be the guiding philosophy for the series, which takes an unflinching look at social injustice, environmental destruction and a global economy built on, and reliant upon, exploitation.

Dealing with reality is the only option for Jemisin’s characters, because survivors of a climate apocalypse don’t have the luxury of alternative facts.

Having reviewed the first novel in the series, The Fifth Season, I was going to discuss the second and third installments (The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky) separately, but I was so immersed in this world that I finished Sky before I could even begin to write about Gate.

To briefly summarize, the Broken Earth trilogy follows Essun, a mother with special talents who wants to improve a broken world for her young daughter. She lives in a future where Earth has become a barren, inhospitable planet prone to sudden tectonic cataclysms and unpredictable seasons.

When we first meet Essun, her husband has murdered their infant son and kidnapped their daughter, Nassun. This sends Essun on a quest to rescue her only living child. Both Essun and Nassun are “orogenes” — a race of people who can manipulate the earth’s energy to magical effect, such as quelling or generating earthquakes, or creating protective energy shields.

Orogenes are both feared by the majority (known as “stills”) and necessary to the survival of the community. Therefore, orogenes usually live only as long as they are useful, but as Jemisin writes in Gate, “being useful to others is not the same thing as being equal.”

This results in brutal treatment and ostracization. Being an orogene in the wrong neighborhood can be fatal, and those with little talent are often killed in their youth. Orogenes with advanced skills are sent to special schools akin to the church-run American Indian boarding schools of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This injustice is best encapsulated in the following passage:

“They’re afraid because we exist. There’s nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There’s nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing — so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives.”

Jemisin’s writing is moving, inspirational and tackles social issues without being didactic. She is also honest. There is no happy ending tacked on in the final pages. There is no ultimate justice.

There is no way to completely fix a broken world, even if Essun can successfully end the catastrophic “seasons.”

But beyond the social commentary is a thrilling tale of perseverance, adventure and familial bonds. The scenery is vivid and well-crafted, and the magical system is revealed with minimal exposition. I found the community-building aspects more engaging than the battle sequences, but there are no weaknesses to Jemisin’s game — evidenced by the fact that each installment in the series won the Hugo Award for Best Novel from 2016-2018.

The Broken Earth trilogy is an engrossing epic, but it is also a scathing indictment of humanity’s pathological reliance on exploitation in order to prosper. Fittingly, these novels emerged at a time of rising nationalism and white supremacist activity. Jemisin offers a concise description of the fear fueling these movements:

“There are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors… Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky.”

We have seen the deadly consequences of this in recent years. The Broken Earth trilogy may not prescribe a sure-fire remedy to this struggle, but it is a piercing battle call to keep up the fight.

Review: Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Talents

Octavia E. Butler

This book broke my heart a dozen different ways, many of which were unexpected. I anticipated the gloominess of social and racial injustice and the ugliness of weaponized patriotism.

But in this prophetic 1998 novel, that presaged 2015-2020 America by nearly two decades (in which a demagogue becomes president, campaigning on the slogan, “Make America Great Again”), the gut-punches come from unexpected directions.

There is the heartbreak of destroyed families, both physically (the murder and enslavement of non-Christian and minority communities) and personally (the ideological divide that has pushed loved ones to opposite extremes of the culture war).

There is the heartbreak of those who have been rescued from slavery and trafficking turning against the ones who saved them.

But I think what I find most heartbreaking is the cognitive dissonance that pervades society. In perhaps the most prescient aspect of the novel, when the atrocities committed by the Church of Christian America are exposed, the church’s followers deny the enslavement, rape and execution of the “heathens” within the church’s network of “reeducation camps.”

It is eerily reminiscent of the way revisionists are already trying to distort the facts of the January 6 insurrection, despite an absurd amount of video evidence provided by the perpetrators themselves. It befits a country where the only defense that 40 percent of the population can muster is to shout “fake news” over and over like pull-string talking dolls.

This was honestly one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read, and I am a connoisseur of the disturbing. Butler does not shy away from the depressing truth of human nature. She doesn’t try to tack on a happy ending or hint at a brighter future.

She presents humans as they are, not how she’d like them to be. This is a book for truth-seekers, not escapists. Nietzsche rather than Pascal.

The reality is that victory lies not in winning, but in persevering. Victory is speaking the truth when the truth has become criminal, no matter the costs.

If there is any misguided optimism in Parable of the Talents, it is the notion that we can colonize other planets for the betterment of humanity. The protagonist, Olamina, has devised a peaceful philosophy called Earthseed that she hopes to expand to other planets — despite the fact that we can’t even stop destroying our current one.

Though in Butler’s defense, that is a lot more obvious now than it was in the mid-’90s, which was a time of great optimism.

Like the members of Butler’s Church of Christian America, humans will believe what they want to believe, regardless of evidence. A beautiful lie will always be more welcome than an ugly truth.

No matter the atrocities committed in their name, having pride in a country’s mythology is always easier than building a country worth being proud of.

Review: The End of Alice

The End of Alice

A.M. Homes

I only recently stumbled upon this excellent novel, but better late than never. I wasn’t familiar with the content, but recognized A.M. Homes from writing the introduction to my copy of Evan S. Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist.

Anyone qualified for that task knows a thing or two about transgressive literature, and Homes does not disappoint. With The End of Alice, she has written a classic that demands space between Connell’s infamous novel and Lolita.

Like Lolita, we have a tale of pedophilia recounted by a perpetrator (Chappy) who reflects on his crimes from within the criminal justice system. Like Diary, the transgressions are symbolic of American culture and its sins of genocide, racism and slavery. In Connell’s novel, the narrator is a fragile white male, fearful of the changing landscape of 1960s America — and whose crime ostensibly takes place on July 4. In Alice, when the narrator meets the titular 12-year-old girl, she is dressed up as an American Indian.

Each of these novels is told by an unreliable narrator, through court testimony, diary or — in The End of Alice — prison letters. Presenting the POV of the “monster” is what makes them so controversial, but more importantly, so effective. The reader is left on their own to discern what is reality and what is fantasy — and it is a very uncomfortable place to occupy given the subject matter.

The End of Alice adds an interesting wrinkle to the narrative. Alice is off-screen for most of the novel. The main plotline is the correspondence between Chappy and an unnamed 19-year-old female admirer. Through their letters, she reveals that she wants to seduce a 12-year-old boy, and Chappy becomes something like a mentor, giving notes and encouraging her conquest.

Meanwhile, Chappy has a parole hearing coming up. Despite serving a life sentence, he is confident he will be released and even likens the hearing to an appearance on What’s My Line? (an old game show, for younger readers).

When he sits before the parole board, however, his illusions crumble. Throughout the book Chappy has described Alice as the aggressor. While he attempted to quell his desires, she pursued him, sneaking into his cabin at night.

His case file tells a different tale that is disgusting and horrifying, and the fact that he thought the parole hearing was anything more than a formality shows the extent of his mental delusions.

Having these moments of outside clarity helps increase the punch of the unreliable narrator. I liken it to the most powerful moments of Lolita, when Humbert Humbert wonders why Dolores cries herself to sleep at night.

My criticism of this novel is that it is a bit overwritten in places. Chappy’s prose rambles with alliteration and lyrical repetition to the point of distraction. It felt more like the author performing the word play than the character. At times, it reminded me of the readings in my MFA program.

But amid the excessive prose are sentences as sharp as razors. The playful language becomes the set up — to lull the reader before delivering the gut punch. And as Humbert Humbert himself said, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

This was an incredible book and is required reading for any student of transgressive media.

Review: Tender is the Flesh

Tender is the Flesh

Agustina Bazterrica

I have recently developed a preference for Impossible Burgers, a plant-based meat alternative, over ground beef. Reading Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh did not cause me to second-guess this decision.

To be clear, the novel is not simply a polemic about factory farming or a futuristic retelling of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It is a deeper critique of the entire global economy, our class structure and a food supply chain designed to minimize consumer guilt.

Tender is the Flesh takes place in a future where a virus has made animal meat lethal to humans. Animals have been eradicated, and for a while, the world went vegan out of necessity.

That didn’t last long. Craving a meat fix, consumers (I use that word intentionally) turned to the only viable meat option remaining: humans. Dubbed the “Transition,” the world’s meat counters were once again stocked with product — now referred to as “special meat.”

Marcos, our protagonist, manages a meat processing plant and is highly regarded in the field. His father had operated a renowned slaughterhouse prior to the virus, but was unable to cope with the Transition. He was “a person of integrity, that is why he went crazy.”

Marcos also struggles with the Transition, but reminds himself that he does it to pay for his father’s care in a nursing home. Marcos is also dealing with the death of his child and the resulting estrangement from his wife.

He copes by detachment:

“He wishes he could anesthetize himself and live without feeling anything. Act automatically, observe, breathe, and nothing more. See everything, understand, and not talk. But the memories are there, they remain with him.”

His attempt at dissociation fails when a supplier, hoping to make nice for a botched order, gifts him with an expensive delivery — a young female “head” who is certified First Generation Pure (FGP), the most prized and costliest grade of “special meat.”

Like all “head,” her vocal chords have been severed so that she can’t complain and when it’s time to slaughter, the butcher won’t be upset by her screaming. Marcos ties her up in the barn while he decides whether he should sell her for a tidy sum, breed her or use her for food. (In a clever bit of world-building, foodies have perfected the technique of butchering “head” piecemeal so that they always have fresh meat available.)

Tender is the Flesh is broken into two parts. The first covers a very compressed timeline where we get to know Marcos, learn of his family tragedies and bear witness to the new method of meat processing. This is gut-churning stuff, even for a hardened horror lover such as myself.

But as hardcore as this first part may be, it is the second half where the book goes to a dark place even I wasn’t expecting.

Throughout part one, Marcos tries to distance himself from the horrors of reality. He’s a vegetarian who is disgusted by the business of human meat processing. He is also troubled by the reliance on euphemisms that legitimize (and dehumanize) the whole business.

In the second half, detachment is no longer an option. The gift of the FGP forces him to reckon with reality. He names her Jasmine, even though that is a crime punishable by death. He cleans her up and moves her into the house.

Once forced to action, Marcos is both a passionate idealist and a ruthless businessman. He connives to protect Jasmine, visits an abandoned zoo and prepares for his father’s death.

This culminates in a gut punch of an ending that is a reminder that being human isn’t the compliment some people want it to be.

Tender is the Flesh is an incredible book that is beautiful, well-written and dark beyond dark. It has one of the bleakest endings of any book I’ve ever read. In other words — I loved it.

And yeah, it makes the Impossible Burgers taste even better.

Review: Grotesque

Natsuo Kirino

Grotesque

This is a book that lives up to its name. Beauty and deformity drip from every page in this transgressive thriller. It put me in mind of Flannery O’Connor, not in the aspect of prose but in the weight of oppression and despair.

There is no escape hatch for either the reader or the characters. The female leads — Yuriko, the monstrous beauty; Kazue, whose determination is greater than her social awareness; and the unnamed narrator, who is Yuriko’s older sister and self-described shadow to her sister’s light — are born into a system built for them to fail. Any path they tread is treacherous.

For Yuriko and Kazue, that path is sex work, though they arrive by different means and with different motivations. Their ends, however, are similar. They are both murdered by a client.

For the narrator, the path is a “sea of hatred” — she develops an armor of malicious wit, bitterness and resignation. She comes to relish the confused reactions people have upon learning that she and Yuriko are sisters.

Grotesque is epic in scope and haunting in execution. As with O’Connor, the writing sticks to the bone and the moral philosophy weighs on the mind long after. I can’t rave enough about this book. This is the second book of Kirino’s I’ve read — the other being the amazing Out — and I look forward to reading more.

As much as I loved Out, I think I love Grotesque more. Recency bias? Maybe, but the books deviate so much from each other in style and perspective that I don’t think that’s it. Out is a page-turner, whereas Grotesque is more like a Russian novel.

The former you can’t put down. The latter crawls under your skin, just the way I like it.

Review: Kill Creek

Scott Thomas

Kill Creek

I would categorize Kill Creek as a cozy horror novel, and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a book built for a windy night and a warm beverage. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a format-busting novel like House of Leaves, Horrorstor or Marabou Stork Nightmares. Other times I’m in the mood for a classic tale, well told, such as Kill Creek.

Scott Thomas plays the hits in his debut novel. He takes on classic themes and pays tribute to a long lineage of gothic/ghost stories: the writer protagonist with a troubled past; a house haunted by an historic injustice; curses that spread like a virus to destroy all infected; and a supernatural presence that preys on its victims’ emotional vulnerabilities.

Our protagonist is Sam McGarver, an author who has had some initial success but has hit a creative dead-end. He spends most of his time teaching at the local university and trying to keep his marriage from falling apart.

Out of the blue, he’s asked to participate in an online publicity stunt–a Halloween sleepover with three other horror authors in one of the most haunted houses in America. Reluctantly, Sam agrees.

Joining him are T.C. Moore, the take-no-shit weaver of extreme horror that likely would have been labeled splatterpunk three decades ago. Sebastian Cole, the elderly statesman/Stephen King type who has had decades of both commercial success and literary street cred. And Daniel Slaughter, who writes young-adult Christian horror with strong moral lessons.

The dynamic between the characters is intriguing, and I enjoyed the action when they were all together for the first time. For me, those were the strongest parts of the book. Unfortunately, their time together at the beginning is too short, and when they reconvene at the house for the final act, they don’t have the emotional bond that would’ve made me more invested in their outcomes.

There are some other shortcomings, such as the characters of Moore and Slaughter. Moore, at least, is an intriguing character, and I wanted more of her at centerstage. For the first half of the novel she’s a badass, but becomes more two-dimensional as the novel progresses. She more or less disappears in the final act, which is a shame.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to Slaughter’s character. He’s likeable and pitiable when we first meet him, and his affection for his daughter is endearing. There seemed to be a lot of potential there that was left unfulfilled, and I found him to be sadly unbelievable by the end.

Overall, I found Kill Creek very fun and enjoyable, and for the first half of it, I considered it a five-star read. However, the second half really dragged due to an overlong action sequence and predictable plot points.

I was discouraged near the end, but ultimately Thomas delivers a solid ending with an unexpected turn.

Kill Creek was an incredibly fun book to read. It’s a fast and furious adventure as comfortable as a campfire tale. The nights are getting cooler, and pretty soon we’ll be in Halloween season. This is the perfect book to get you in the mood.

Review: The Invited

Jennifer McMahon

The Invited

Jennifer McMahon is one of my favorite contemporary horror authors, and her latest novel, The Invited, is one of her best. This time around McMahon inverts the traditional haunted house tale. Helen and Nate have purchased a plot of land in rural Vermont, unaware that it was so cheap because it’s believed to be haunted by the ghost of Hattie Breckenridge, who had been lynched for witchcraft.

We follow Helen and Nate as they take on the task of building the house themselves, learning as they go, and confronting numerous obstacles—from unwelcoming neighbors, gun-toting spiritualists and the precocious schoolgirl, Olive, whose story, for my money, steals the show.

The Invited is as much Olive’s story as Helen’s, and together they help each other deal with recently lost parents, the distrust of distracted male counterparts and share a love of history, justice and the otherworldly.

As the house takes shape, Helen fills it with artifacts from the many tragedies of Hattie and her extended family—and that’s when the unexpected house guests begin to arrive. Rather than buying a haunted house, they build one. But it turns out it’s not the ghosts Helen and Olive need to fear.

McMahon is a must-read author for horror fans, and The Invited is one of her finest books. I highly recommend this twisted little ghost story with a heart of gold.

I was first introduced to McMahon in 2014 with The Winter People, her first true horror novel after a string of thrillers.

It was a daring time for McMahon to make that transition. The current resurgence in horror literature (in terms of mainstream acceptance) was still a few years away, and despite the greatness of the writing, it wasn’t easy getting a book like that into people’s hands.

Case in point: Gillian Flynn.

I like to say that McMahon did a reverse Flynn. Whereas Flynn wrote two fantastic horror novels, it was a thriller/mystery novel, Gone Girl, that brought her mainstream success. This is not a knock on Gone Girl, but rather a critique of marketing. (See Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix for a deeper discussion of the shift from horror to thriller in the early 1990s.)

So what had changed? Only the design of the book cover and the book’s marketing. Unlike her titular character, Flynn’s dark subject matter hadn’t gone anywhere. But to get it into the hands of more readers, it was packaged differently than her first two books.

It’s refreshing to see Jennifer McMahon take the reverse course. Her first five novels were marketed firmly in the mystery genre, complete with nursery rhyme-ish titles (Promise Not to Tell, Don’t Breathe a Word) and cover art with imperiled girls.

However, the marketing belied the content of these wonderful novels, which were not about young girls being rescued but rather girls finding their strength and courage in terrifying circumstances. Despite the mystery packaging, these novels contained McMahon’s signature blend of spooky no matter the cover art.

It’s delightful to now see her books proudly displayed in the horror section, as I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading New England ghost stories. Certainly not when they’re as well-written as The Invited.

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.