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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.

Review: The Cabin at the End of the World

The Cabin at the End of the World

Paul Tremblay

I have enjoyed other novels by Tremblay (A Head Full of Ghosts and The Little Sleep especially), but The Cabin at the End of the World (which won the Bram Stoker award for CabinattheEndoftheWorldbest novel earlier this year) is his most artful and thought-provoking book yet. Part home-invasion, part-apocalyptic tale, Cabin is an innovative take on both genres, and I confess that the opening chapter caught me flat-footed.

The premise is simple enough: A couple, Andrew and Eric, take their young daughter, Wen, on vacation to a remote cabin in New England. A stranger approaches Wen and introduces himself as Leonard. He is physically imposing yet disarmingly friendly and immediately hits it off with Wen. It’s a slow-burn as the two of them interact, because clearly there is menace behind Leonard’s courtesy.

Part of what makes Cabin so powerful, though, is that while there is menace, there is no malice behind Leonard’s actions. He, along with three other end-times enthusiasts, believe they have been chosen to save the world from destruction. But they lack the glee of your typical doomsayers, and instead are apologetic and polite — yet firm in their conviction: One of the three occupants of the cabin — either Andrew, Eric or Wen — has to sacrifice their life to save humanity.

That’s it. Seven characters, one claustrophobic location (with the exception of occasional flashbacks and a few glimpses of the television) and brilliant characterization.

What makes this tale so unnerving is how mundane and poorly improvised everything is. Look, I’m a fan of the home invasion genre, but the criticism that it is lazy is often deserved. Typically, the perpetrators are criminal savants who devise flawless traps and morality puzzles while somehow maintaining a pathological drive to get to the people inside the house.

Tremblay’s intruders are all too human. They stumble, they bicker, they second-guess themselves, and in turn this makes them all too real. Most home invasions aren’t carried out by evil geniuses. They tend to be sloppy affairs performed by amateurs who are scared and desperate and don’t often have a plan once they get in the door.

And when we learn the tactic they use to apply pressure on Andrew and Eric it becomes even more apparent how delusional they are.

Philosophically, this is Tremblay’s most ambitious effort, and the interplay between the narrative and social commentary is well-managed. The message comes through organically, and the uncertainty of whether what is happening in the outside world is real or not is disorienting and adds to the horror.

In fact, the inability of any character, or the reader, to fully comprehend what is true (has the apocalypse really begun?) allows every character to exculpate their behavior. For Leonard and his fellow eschatologists, who periodically turn on cable news during the occupation, the catastrophic reportage of broadcast media confirms their prophetic visions. For a pragmatist like Andrew, media sensationalism is the cause of their delusions, not confirmation. And for the gullible and concussed Eric, it could all be coincidence, or it could be something else.

At the end of the day, The Cabin at the End of the World is a delightful horror novel first and social studies second, but the unsettling truth of the book is that through technology we’ve all become the occupants of a personal version of Tremblay’s cabin, so to speak. We cut ourselves off from others, consume media that confirms our worldviews and infer the motivations of others to fit our own narrative. Even Andrew, the most grounded of all the characters, falls prey to a conspiratorial line of thinking that influences his perspective of the intruders.

This brings us to the role of sacrifice and the group’s requirement that any deaths be voluntary. It’s a curious move on Tremblay’s part, and at times makes Leonard’s behavior self-contradictory. But the truth is humans are messy, and we often contradict ourselves, especially when working from incomplete information and in heated moments where we reduce our opponent’s intentions to the basest of motivations.

In the end, we only hurt ourselves or the ones close to us. At one point, Andrew and Eric share a silent, uneasy moment that says as much about our current affairs as it does about the two of them:

“We’re afraid for each other and we’re afraid of ourselves. How can we go on? At this shared thought, we turn away from the television screen and away from each other.”

A brilliant line in a brilliant novel, and a fitting epitaph for the human race should the world truly end tomorrow.

Review: Tinfoil Butterfly

Tinfoil Butterfly

Rachel Eve Moulton

This dynamic debut novel begins in motion — two strangers in a van charging throughTinfoilButterfly the barrens of South Dakota — and never lets its foot off the gas. Our narrator, Emma, leads us on a brutal and heartbreaking journey that is as delightful as it is disturbing.

Emma is on the run from her troubled past, wounded physically and spiritually, and hitches a ride with a dirtbag named Lowell. We meet her in peril, but soon learn that Emma is not as vulnerable as her circumstances suggest.

Leaving Lowell for dead by the side of the highway, she drives his van toward the Badlands as a snowstorm rolls in. Low on gas, Emma takes an off ramp in hopes of finding a rest stop, but instead rolls to a stop in front of a shuttered diner — but she is not alone.

Enter Earl, a precocious child wearing a tinfoil mask to cover scars of his own.

Emma is thrust into Earl’s nightmare home life, where they are stalked by his sadistic father. World’s collide when a figure from Emma’s past finds her in this abandoned town, bent on revenge.

Emma and Earl may be an odd couple, but both have a resourcefulness borne of abuse, and they have to fight together if either are to survive the Badlands.

This is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and an introduction to a new author I’m excited to read more from. Among new authors to watch, I would place Moulton alongside Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Friday Black).

Hopelessness reigns throughout Tinfoil Butterfly. Emma claws her way out of one crisis into another, and the only victories available to her are Pyrrhic. By the end of this deathmatch all the characters have shed blood and flesh and will wear the scars forever.

Likewise, this book will haunt the reader long after it’s been finished and placed on the shelf.

Review: Friday Black

Friday Black: Stories

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Friday Black is the most exciting debut of short fiction I’ve read since Carmen Maria Friday BlackMachado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and I would argue this is the most important work of fiction of the past year. If you’re troubled by the rise of white nationalism and right-wing terrorism, this book will in turns console, enrage and rally you.

I ground my teeth reading these stories, horrified at the injustices revealed within, particularly two inspired by George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin in 2012 but was acquitted of second-degree murder charges.

However, to say that injustices are revealed is not exactly the right term, as Adjei-Brenyah doesn’t show us anything we don’t already know. These are not quite reflections of reality either, but rather refractions, a spoon bending in a glass of water.

I would include the lead story, “The Finkelstein 5,” in my all-time top 40 short stories. In this tale, a black man, Emmanuel, navigates each moment conscious of his “Blackness.” Talking on the phone, he can dial down his “Blackness” to a 1.5 out of 10, but in person the lowest he can go is a 4.0.

At the mall, he maintains a “smooth 5.0.” When a cashier forgets to give him a receipt for his purchase, he asks her for it, knowing that the store’s security guard will ask for proof of purchase on his way out.

The degenerative effect of this constant self-monitoring and the frustration it causes screams from the opening paragraph:

“Fela, the headless girl, walked toward Emmanuel. Her neck jagged with red savagery. She was silent, but he could feel her waiting for him to do something, anything.”

In the story, a George Zimmerman-inspired character, named George, has beheaded five black children with a chainsaw outside a public library. He was acquitted because he believed he was in danger, and as his attorney argues, in America, “if you believe something, anything, then that’s all that counts.”

While en route to a job interview, Emmanuel bumps into a friend who is part of a vigilante group seeking retribution. They engage in “Naming”—attacking random white people while chanting the name of one of the murdered children. Emmanuel joins the group in the park, and, armed with a baseball bat, they find a target. As he chants the name “Fela St. John,” he allows his “Blackness” to rise to a 10.0.

What follows is an unexpected, but inevitable conclusion.

It’s no surprise that Adjei-Brenyah studied under George Saunders at Syracuse, as both men use near-future dystopias to reveal the absurdities of quotidian life that we accept as normal. From retail shops to classrooms to theme parks, Adjei-Brenyah explores the ways in which the totalitarian infects our daily lives, not with subtlety, but hyperbole.

It’s a reminder that dystopias are not imposed upon humanity—humans create them by elevating our worst tendencies (racism, vanity, consumerism, nationalism, etc.) into virtues. In fact, the oppressive environments and social customs in Adjei-Brenyah’s world are so believable that I worry it may be dismissive to refer to them as dystopias when they could well be different POVs of current reality.

The tale with the sharpest teeth is “Zimmer Land,” which concerns the inner turmoil of a black actor, Zay, working in a theme park where visitors can embrace their prejudices. His role is to walk along the sidewalk of a gated community and be confronted by the “homeowners.”

He wears a special protection suit equipped with blood packets for when he is inevitably shot in the name of law and order.

In one of the most heartbreaking passages, we see how this plays out. A patron runs from their house to confront him, asking him what he’s doing here. Zay says he lives there and asks what the patron is doing there. It’s a cyclical conversation that serves as pretense for the patron to shoot Zay in the street.

These two men asked each other the same question, and each gave the same answer. But clearly, “I live here” is only an acceptable answer for one of them.

Zay struggles with the ethics of his job, particularly when the park’s owner, Heland Zimmer, begins to allow entry to children.

Friday Black is a collection of funny, depressing, impactful stories of people trapped in impossible situations. It’s a biting look at 21st century America, and the arrival of a powerful new voice in fiction.

Review: Mira Grant, Into the Drowning Deep

I am grateful that the back cover synopsis of Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep is vague about the plot. I’m usually not a fan of creature horror, and had I known the antagonists were mythical sea beasts, I likely wouldn’t have cracked the spine.

But I’m glad I did, because I absolutely loved this book. It is a page-burning horror cruise that generates terror through both claustrophobia and infinite Drowning_Deepspace (more about that later).

It begins with found footage of a documentary film crew searching for cryptids in the ocean (horror at sea and found footage—two of my favorite things!). But is the footage real, or simply a publicity stunt?

Considering the impossibility of what appears on the film, and a conspiratorial public ready to scream “crisis actor” when confronted with visual evidence it doesn’t want to be true, it’s unclear whether or not the video is a hoax.

Seven years later, a team is assembled aboard the Melusine to retrace the path of the doomed ship and return with answers to these questions. On board are dozens of scientists, a journalist (Olivia) and armed guards—and most notably, Tory, the sister of one of the victims of the earlier voyage.

So how is Grant able to elicit both claustrophobic and infinite terror at once? The appeal of seafaring horror, for me, is that it captures the smallness we feel when confronted with the vastness of the universe. Like Bowie’s Major Tom, a threshold is crossed at which point help is not possible.

Though the safety tethers aboard the Melusine are mostly psychological to begin with—radio contact, ornamental defense shields—when they are severed, the crew aboard the Melusine comes undone.

Once the creatures have breached the deck the infinite is replaced by something equally menacing: the finite. Following the scientists as they navigate the levels of the ship (in particular Olivia’s ascent through a glorified laundry chute) is true white-knuckle reading.

Thus far, this review has been quite vague—perhaps because I don’t want to reveal the monster component. Creature features only work when there is an element of social commentary, and Grant does a wonderful job of balancing a diverse cast of humans, creatures and their interactions without falling into the traps of cliché.

The ship becomes its own floating ecosystem. Relationships begin, loved ones are lost and when the social bonds of the passengers break down, it becomes a microcosm of a society that no longer knows how to communicate with one another.

For Tory and Olivia to survive and pursue their seafaring romance on land, they’ll need to overcome not only the threats of nature and sea, but also the voyage’s corporate sponsors and the other passengers.

Grant is a gifted writer, and she knows how to draw us in and then break our hearts. She gets us to invest in her characters, and isn’t afraid to kill them off. The blood and gore are bountiful on this adventure, but it’s the characters who make this one of the best horror novels of the past few years.