mystery

Review: The Winter People

The Winter People

Jennifer McMahon

What is it about New England that inspires isolated, small-town horror tales in which the Winter Peopleblood runs as cold as the weather? I’m not sure what it is exactly, but having spent many a wintry a night in Maine, I am familiar with that feeling.

And I can’t get enough of it.

Jennifer McMahon captures that frostbite feeling perfectly in The Winter People, a heartbreaker of haunted legends and legacies, curses and karma, and, more than anything, unendurable loss.

The Winter People has a dual narrative—a modern-day mystery in which a teenager, Ruthie, is forced to take charge of her little sis when their mother goes missing. While searching for her mother, she stumbles upon the diary of Sara Harrison Shea, who lived in the house in 1908.

The diary does not have a happy ending. Both Sara and her daughter died in 1908, but the journal entries suggest that death is not exactly the end of the story.

The Winter People is well-written and bursting with heart. There are mysteries at every turn, and reminders that grief can be deadly. Or worse. In one of the book’s most haunting devices, Ruthie discovers that her mother has nailed shut her closet from the outside. For what purpose? Let your imagination go wild with that one.

The soul of the book, though, is the “sleepers.” Ruthie learns of a spell that will raise the dead for seven days’ duration, after which they are gone forever. It’s a universal temptation. Wouldn’t it be great to say a proper goodbye to a loved one who died suddenly? To hold a lover’s hand just a little longer? To actually say the things we think to say only after it’s too late?

Or would it be a daily torment, watching the minutes and hours crumble to dust?

But there is always a price. Like a modern retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw,” there are consequences for disrupting the dead, and The Winter People reminds that despair can drive even the most sensible among us to dangerous depths.

That’s what makes this novel so endearing. And so heartbreaking.

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Review: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

Valerie Martin’s new novel, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, is a bit like a star-studded variety show. It’s got a little bit of everything: maritime mystery, historical figures, 06book "The Ghost of the Mary Celeste" by Valerie Martin.supernatural subterfuge and… Sherlock Holmes?

The oddest part about the above description is that this book is more fact than fantasy.

Martin is a prize-winning master of historical fiction (Mary Reilly, Property), and this time around, she takes on the legendary ghost ship Mary Celeste, which was discovered abandoned, though still seaworthy, in 1872, her crew never to be seen again. This true-life mystery caught the attention of Martin, as well as another author (a young Arthur Conan Doyle published a fictionalized account of the ghost ship).

The terror is subtle in this novel. Martin makes use of found documents—journals, diaries, articles—to blend the factual with the fantastic. She meanders through time, takes on the social norms and issues of the day, and makes use of historical record real and imagined. She thrills us, certainly, but unfortunately leaves us with a tangled knot of loose ends.

There is no doubting the quality of the writing. Martin is a master storyteller, and her opening chapter is as harrowing as anything I’ve read this year. She places us in the heart of the Mary Celeste as it sails toward its destiny. Her words, like the storm, encroach, terrorize and ultimately consume, and after finishing the first chapter, I had to set the book aside for a while.

With equal skill, Martin details the lives of those left behind following the tragedy. There is heartbreak, romance and more tragedy on land. Every scene, every line of dialogue, every description is near perfect.

This is, however, a challenging book, not in content but in structure. I’m usually a fan of difficult reads—I take it as a sign of respect when an author, such as Martin, asks more of her readership than passive engagement. The narrative shifts through time, location and point of view. Indeed, there is a clever chronology, as the shipwreck segues to the survivor story segues to Doyle’s voyage segues to spiritualism. However, though they’re all linked by the Mary Celeste, the narratives feel more like vignettes. I found myself invested in each storyline, only to have it pulled out from under me with every new section. Nothing felt complete. As much as the writing drew me in, the shifting narrative pushed me away in equal measure.

This is just one reader’s opinion. Martin’s body of work speaks for itself. She is a gifted writer and storyteller, an astute chronicler of history with a great imagination. To any reader looking for a challenge, I say go for it. Get yourself a copy and enjoy the ride. For me, though, the novel is a bit like the Mary Celeste—seaworthy, but somehow I got lost along the way.

Review: Best American

The Best American series has designed such a unique identity that I can recognize a volume through the thickest wrapping paper. The symmetry of the books is soothing, Best American Science 2013and they look dynamite aligned on the shelves. A friend recently stared in awe of their arrangement on my bookcase (thanks OCD).

But it’s the content that really makes Best American stand out.

My three favorite editions are the science, essay and mystery writing editions, with lots of love for the sports, short stories and nonrequired reading, but that’s part of what makes the series so successful: everybody has a favorite, but is usually willing to take a gander at the others.

So when I see a Best American beneath the tree, I’m not worried about which one it is. I know I’ll enjoy it no matter what.

Here is a sampling of what you’ll find in this year’s editions:

For me, the 2013 headliner is The Best American Science and Nature Writing, edited by Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies). Standouts include Kevin Dutton’s “What Psychopaths Teach Us About How to Succeed,” adapted Best American Essays 2013from his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, as well as Oliver Sacks’ “Altered States,” and Gareth Cook’s “Autism Inc.”

The Best American Sports Writing is edited by J.R. Moehringer, whose magazine feature, “Resurrecting the Champ,” inspired a wonderful fictionalization on the big screen. Must-reads include Rick Reilly’s “Special Team,” Paul Solotaroff’s “The NFL’s Secret Drug Problem,” and Erik Malinowski’s “The Making of ‘Homer at the Bat,’ the Episode that Conquered Prime Time 20 Years Ago Tonight.” For top-shelf nonfiction, look no further than The Best American Essays, featuring Zadie Smith, Michelle Mirsky and Alice Munro.

Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Connolly and Hannah Tinti headline The Best American Mystery Stories, while Junot Diaz, George Saunders and Steven Millhauser take the spotlight in The Best American Short Stories. Elizabeth Gilbert guest edits The Best American Travel Writing.

Once again, The Best American Nonrequired Reading slays us with its Best American Comics 2013combination of literati and irreverence. Case in point: there are pieces by Walter Mosley, Sherman Alexie and Kurt Vonnegut, while the “best of” categories include “Best American Poem About a Particle Accelerator,” “Best American Apocryphal Discussion Between Our Nation’s Founding Fathers” and “Best American Comic That Ends in Arson.”

Speaking of comics, one of my favorite new editions is The Best American Comics, featuring fiction and nonfiction art work, from the “funny pages” to graphic novels. There’s now even The Best American Infographics. With an introduction by David Byrne. Go figure.

Review: Skull in the Ashes

Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America

by Peter Kaufman

University presses aren’t usually known for producing pot-boiling thrillers, but that’s Skull in the Asheswhat the University of Iowa Press has done with Skull in the Ashes. In 1897, the quiet eastern Iowa town of Walford was awoken by a fire at the general store. When the flame had died, they discovered a charred corpse with some belongings of the store’s owner, Frank Novak, who often slept there.

The timing was curious as Novak, heavily in debt, had recently purchased multiple life insurance policies.

Oh yeah, and the skull they found in the ashes had been bashed in, which is atypical behavior for your run-of-the-mill house fire.

Here, the lives of three men intertwine: Novak; M.J. Tobin, the new county attorney; and Red Perrin, a near-superhero whom we’ll discuss later.

There may have been a time when folks wouldn’t have asked too many questions about the fire, odd though it was, but Tobin utilized emerging forensic tools—such as dental records—to identify the corpse as someone other than Novak. Tobin’s quest crossed multiple state lines and even involved the famed Pinkerton National Detective Agency. But the trail went cold in the Pacific Northwest.

Enter Red Perrin.

Perrin was a detective in Arizona who had a reputation for tenacity and toughness. He was the only one trusted to venture into the Yukon and return Novak alive.

The amount of research that went into this book is evident. Kaufman worked his butt off on this book, and he does a good job of balancing information with narrative. Where he is strongest, though, is following Perrin—which, ironically, was probably the toughest to recreate. The trek through the mining territory is difficult. Perrin hires a team, hikes for days through the mountains and brings along with him a boat builder.

That’s right, a boat builder.

On the other side of the mountain pass was a treacherous waterway, which Perrin would need to traverse to get up to the mining camp where he suspected Novak was living under an assumed name. But they couldn’t carry a boat through the mountains, so once completing that leg of the journey, Perrin and his partner chopped down trees and built a craft sturdy enough for the rapids.

That’s pretty bad ass.

Skull in the Ashes is divided into three parts, and this is by far my favorite. Part one is the story of Novak and Tobin; the town of Walford; and the crime and initial investigation. It’s a bit like a murder-mystery, although we already know whodunit. The narrative here is about history and evidence, and I really enjoyed this section.

Part two is an adventure tale. Kaufman creates lavish scenery, strong characters, high tension and the thrill of a pulp wilderness expedition. I think of it as Thoreau’s The Maine Woods meets The Fugitive. The plotting is well-paced, and Kaufman rightly pulls back on the history and lets the action take center stage.

Which brings us to part three: the aftermath. Unfortunately, this is where Kaufman runs out of bullets. It’s not his doing, but simply the climax of the story. The final part covers Novak’s trial and incarceration and ties up the storylines of all involved. As with the other sections, it is well-researched and –written, but we spend too much time on the trial.

I did enjoy the sociological aspects of the book’s conclusion. Kaufman describes prison life at the time and reforms that were making it more humane. There is also the importance of the Novak trial for its use of forensics and circumstantial evidence. Kaufman clearly describes a time of transition in American history: the advance of science, the sophistication of law enforcement, and the expansion and opening of the world, such that a local crime committed in small-town Iowa would involve the federal government, multiple states, two countries and a wilderness chase.

And so Iowa, and America, looked ahead to the 20th century.

To sum up, Skull in the Ashes is a thrill ride for history buffs and fans of narrative nonfiction and an unexpected, and delightful, blend of pulp and scholarship.

Summer Horror Roundup

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

The Hole

William Meikle

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

Ah, to be 23 again.

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

Literally.

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

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

And so the horror begins…

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

Doors

Daniel Brako

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

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

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

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

It’s our world, slightly askew.

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

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

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

The Last Whisper in the Dark

Tom Piccirilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Last Whisper in the Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June Recommendations

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

Joyland, Stephen King

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

Bring it.

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

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

Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself, Adam Rutherford

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

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

Though I doubt there are any squeamish readers this blog.

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

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

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

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

 

The Hole, William Meikle

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

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