horror

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.

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Peter Stenson: Thirty-Seven

Whether it’s sociological interest or morbid curiosity, we are fascinated with cults. From Heaven’s Gate and Scientology to NXIVM, we alternately view their members as 37monsters, martyrs, or victims. Mason Hue, the narrator of Peter Stenson’s Thirty-Seven, is all three.

When we meet Mason he is still a teenager, but of legal age, freshly discharged from a mental institution where he lived after being part of a cult known as the Survivors. The Survivors, who ritually poisoned themselves with chemotherapy drugs to achieve a state of pure honesty, earned notoriety after going on a killing spree and committing mass suicide.

But what happens to Mason, who was 15 at the time, when you survive the Survivors?

Now living in Denver, he has a boss and sometimes-girlfriend Talley, and when she learns his secret she becomes fascinated with the movement’s beliefs. And before long, she’s as entangled in Mason’s narrative as we are.

Thirty-Seven is the early front-runner for best transgressive novel of the year, not only for the story itself (a gritty mind-fuck confessional) but for Stenson’s handling of the narrative. There are many great passages in Thirty-Seven, but perhaps none as stealthy as this one: “The stairs don’t squeak because I know where to step.”

It’s a simple line, yes, one that you breeze over at first, but at this point in the story Mason (the eponymous Thirty-Seven), is sneaking into his childhood home. In a book filled with violence and philosophy and sex and recreational cancer treatment, why does this seemingly innocuous line stand out?

Because unreliable narrators are fun to read, but difficult to write convincingly. This is the world according to Mason Hues, and time and again, he proves to be untrustworthy, confused, and more than a little dishonest (evasive, at best). At various times he is a huckster, a victim, possibly a psychopathic mastermind.

We don’t know what to make of Mason a lot of the time, but subtle touches like “The stairs don’t squeak because I know where to step” make him relatable. I’ve never joined a death cult, but, like most teenagers, I learned which steps to avoid when sneaking home late at night.

These are the dark insights that make transgressive fiction so powerful. Pure villains and monsters often lack depth. Anti-heroes can become too cool and charming. But when truly sick and disturbed characters reveal themselves to be all too logical, shit gets uncomfortable.

For me, the gold standard example of this type of line is from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, “At first I wondered why the room felt so safe. Then I realized it was because there were no windows.”

It’s a moment of familiar comfort followed by a horrific gut-punch. The muscle-memory of footsteps on the stairs reminds us that Mason isn’t well, but he’s not a madman. He’s a logical thinker, as are the others in Thirty-Seven. And that’s what makes this novel so delightfully unsettling.

Full disclosure, Stenson and I were in the same MFA program, but this is a merit-based review (it’s his second novel, and his debut, Fiend, has been translated and published internationally). Many of the elements in this book appeared in his work in the program, and his talent was ever-present. It’s great to see them come together and generate well-earned success.

For fans of transgressive fiction, put this on your summer reading list.

Review: Paperbacks from Hell

The best gift for this Halloween is Grady Hendrix’s glamorously gory Paperbacks from Paperbacks_from_HellHell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, a beautiful homage to the glory days of horror publishing.

Many of you will know Hendrix from his genre-bending novels My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Horrorstör (a wonderful IKEA-themed nightmare). If you don’t, you should make yourself familiar. His clear love of the genre and dark sense of humor is prevalent in his fiction, but even more so here.

Hendrix guides us through all aspects of horror fiction’s heyday, tracing its roots from the civil unrest of the 1960s and Gothic romances, through the domination of heavy hitters like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Clive Barker, into the eventual over-saturation of the genre.

As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I remember many of the titles and the experience of browsing through bookstores with actual “horror” sections. Forbidden to buy these extreme books, I ingested them through the cover art and back jacket, imagining what dark delights lived between the covers.

Reading Paperbacks from Hell was like revisiting those bookstores from yesteryear. While Hendrix has much to say about the history and content of these books, Paperbacks is a celebration of cover art and story concept, no matter how ridiculous, from Nazi leprechauns to vengeful insects. It is a coffee table book and artist portfolio all in one.

While Hendrix provides the narrative, his partner in this project is Will Errickson of the Too Much Horror Fiction blog, which revisits vintage scares. It is a labor of love for these two horror nerds, one that would make the 10-year-old me jealous (and the current me exhausted!).

Though he revels in the ever-more ludicrous story plots, Hendrix gives all of the entries fair consideration and validates every sub-genre (with the exception of splatterpunk). Some of the most important sections concern the Satanic Panic, which coincided with the high tide of horror fiction.

Some of my favorite parts are the mini-biographies of the cover artists and the back stories of their work. Though the cover art was sometimes the best part of these books, the artists got short shrift. It’s nice to see them getting recognition. I enjoyed learning about them.

Of course, we know how this story ends, and it is not happily ever after. Hendrix documents the various causes of death of horror publishing: over-saturation of the product; consolidation shuttered the small presses; with the introduction of cable television and VCRs, a large amount of the population just stopped reading.

Hendrix goes further, though, digging into obscure tax law and explaining how the Thor Power Tool case of 1979 changed publishing forever. Interesting stuff, but sad nevertheless.

Unlike those disposable pulps, however, Paperbacks from Hell is a timeless beauty: glossy pages, vivid graphics, embossed printing. This is a gorgeous book, one to keep and display and start awesome dinner-party conversations.

It was an emotional ride. Reading Paperbacks took me back to those early-’80s bookstores, wide-eyed and terrified, absorbing those beautiful and grotesque horror novels I was forbidden to read, but that forever influenced me nonetheless.

Review: A Head Full of Ghosts

Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts has it all: an unreliable narrator, embellishedHead_Full_of_Ghosts memories, “reality” television, mental disorders, and a guilty conscience.

If you’re a fan of dark, cerebral fiction, then you’ve heard the hype around this book (if you haven’t read it already). Well, it’s all true. This is a finely crafted narrative that tickles the brain stem without skimping on the gut-punches.

This Bram Stoker Award winner had me on my heels from the opener. We begin with Merry being interviewed for a book about her life. Fifteen years earlier, her family, in the midst of a financial and emotional crisis, starred in a television show called The Possession. The show centered on the exorcism of Merry’s older sister, Marjorie, and once production finished the family was left in tatters.

Horror is often most powerful when it is most disorienting, and already, we have multiple layers of unreliability: a first-person narrator (inherently biased), the interpersonal dynamics of an interview (subject- and observer-expectancy bias), reliance on memory, in particular childhood memories (too many to list), and the influence of post-event information (misinformation effect), to name a few.

So, whom can we trust in this tale of madness and malaise? A mysterious horror blog, The Last Final Girl, may be the most insightful source—and that’s saying something!

The blog provides an episodic breakdown of The Possession, and right or wrong, this becomes the definitive history of Merry and her family. This is the perfect book for our “post-truth” times, where all narratives have come under suspicion, including our own.

As the novel progresses, we grow attached to Merry and Marjorie, who have a complicated but loving relationship, as siblings often do. Marjorie is the trickster, the unruly adolescent whose antics unsettle her conservative father.

Merry is the impressionable kid who is confused, enchanted, and terrified by her older sis, and she tries to reconcile these emotions while making sense of what happened to her family during the filming and after.

And what are we to make of her interpretation of events?

That’s what makes A Head Full of Ghosts so unsettling. Our foundations are cracked, our institutions unreliable—even our own memories. Just contemplating this book will have you questioning your senses, and that’s what great horror is supposed to do.

Review: Universal Harvester

John Darnielle’s second novel is the literary equivalent of getting lost on a country road.universal-harvester You think you know where you’re going, but after a random turn you’re not so sure. “Yep, that water tower over there is the landmark I’m looking for,” you say to assure yourself, but then that queasy feeling gets stronger, “Didn’t I drive past that barn a half-hour ago?”

In Universal Harvester, you’re not just unsure of where you are, but whom you’re traveling with.

At first, you’re hitching a ride with Jeremy, a recognizable small-town kid without ambition or direction. He works in a local video store in the late-1990s, and Darnielle does a great job of capturing the rural America of that time.

Jeremy, in his early 20s, lives with his widowed father, and their interactions are some of my favorite moments in the novel. Sadness backdrops all their conversations, as they struggle to communicate in the way all fathers and sons do at that age. Yet, there is clear, unstated affection for one another.

Initially, Universal Harvester reads like a pre-YouTube alternate reality game (ARG) or a snuff film. Whereas today, it’s common to come across snippets of unsettling videos that serve as clues to a narrative, this wasn’t as easy in the days of dial-up.

That’s why it’s so disturbing when Video Hut customers complain of creepy vignettes recorded over the rented tapes. The deeper we (through Jeremy and his boss, Sarah Jane) dive into the footage, the more certain we are that:

  1. Solving the ARG is the novel’s ultimate destination
  2. Sarah Jane is about to become the next victim when she locates the source of the videos and mysteriously stops coming into work

Then we take an unexpected turn down one country road, and then another, and Sarah Jane has the wheel, and then Lisa, and then Jeremy again. The abrupt shifts in perspective and storyline are jarring, and the polarized responses to this novel are probably deserved, with some readers feeling misled as to what type of book this is going to be.

Fair enough. Universal Harvester reads like straight horror at first, but then makes a hard left, thereby dialing down the menace, unfortunately.

But this is still a horror novel for my money, just of a different variety. It is about the isolation of small-town America pre-broadband, the slow suffocation of a life stuck in neutral, and the knowledge that not all mysteries can be solved.

And even when they are solved, the answers are seldom as satisfying, and the motives never as clear, as they are in an ARG. “We’re not hurt,” Jeremy rationalizes as he drives away from the farmhouse in the mysterious video clips.

In Darnielle’s Midwestern malaise, this is damn-near a happy ending.

Recommended Reads: 2.2.16

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

David Denby

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also recommend Denby’s 2009 book, Snark.

 

The Sound of Time

Jeremy Essex

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Suspended in Dusk

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

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

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

We move on to the next atrocity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is horror fiction at its best.

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

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