Vince Darcangelo

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: A Short Stay in Hell

Steven L. Peck

A Short Stay in Hell

What fresh hell is this? Actually, Peck’s take on the underworld is quite fresh and not at all what I was expecting. Now, if you’d told me that hell was a library where the books were unreadable, I’d say that was some Saw-level torture porn.

But that is not what this book is about. In fact, Peck is at first able to sell this premise to the reader in such a way that it appears to be a pretty light sentence. By the time we realize how truly horrible it is, we’ve learned there are far worse things to be found in hell.

Other people.

That’s right, this book about the afterlife, written by a Mormon ecologist, deserves a place firmly on the existentialism shelf of your library. 

Let’s backtrack a moment for context. In this philosophical novella, Soren, a lifelong Mormon, dies and learns that he has chosen the wrong god and has been sent to a Zoroastrian hell. It’s not too bad at first: Meals are provided. You can still have sex. You can get drunk without hangovers. You are once again 25 and wake every morning pain free. And you live for near eternity inside a library.

However, each occupant of hell has one task, and that is to search the stacks of books until they find the one that tells their life story in full. Once that’s accomplished, this denizen of hell will be reshelved in heaven.

There are two problems:

First, this hell is based on Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Library of Babel,” which concerns a library that contains not just every book that has ever been written, but also every possible book that ever could be written, including all configurations of letters, numbers and symbols.

It’s not infinite, but may as well be for practical purposes. Even worse, not only does it take eons to find the correct book, it is next to impossible to even find a readable one. (In this biblio multiverse, there necessarily exists a book consisting only of periods, another of semicolons, and every combination of the two.)

Books, books everywhere, but not a one to read.

It’s a fate worse than that of Henry Bemis, who at least could take comfort in suicide or look forward to a natural expiration date.

The second problem with this hell is that Soren is not alone, which is a mixed bag. On the wall of the library, there is a list of rules for enjoying a good afterlife. The first rule:

“Please be kind. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Failure to do this will bring unhappiness and misery to you and your fellow citizens.”

Considering how poorly humanity followed this rule on Earth, you can imagine how well this goes over in hell.

A Short Stay in Hell is a quick and easy read. I read it in less than two hours, but don’t be fooled. The final page is just the beginning of the exercise, not the end of the book. Unlike most philosophy, the reading is the easy part. It is the thought experiment that occupies your mind long after that is the challenge. I’ve struggled so much to describe this book that I’ve already referenced Dorothy Parker, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Twilight Zone, existentialism in general and the Saw franchise in search of analogs.

And I’m not done. There’s some Kierkegaard coming as well. That’s a lot to pack into a 102-page book.

That said, it’s not perfect. Parts of the novella would have benefited from a deeper study (such as the rise and reign of the Direites, a violent cult that takes control of Soren’s region of the library). The quality of the prose is also inconsistent. Peck has a lot of strengths (philosophy, science, writing, theology), but urban fantasy is not one of them. His depiction of the Zoroastrian demon feels like a clumsy attempt to mimic the humor of Christopher Moore or Tom Robbins (though I was picking up some major Sean Murphy peripatetic vibes).

Otherwise, his writing is direct, easy to read and unobtrusive, but Peck’s intellect and ideas are much stronger than his prose. He has masterfully recreated an absurd scenario that would make any of the French existentialists proud:

A man finds himself inside a near-infinite library of gibberish and is tasked with finding the true story of his life (or the meaning of his existence, you might say). He wakes in a random point in the library that is of no relation to the location of the book he needs to find. He has no map. There are others who have, by chance, been born around the same time as him and happen to also occupy the same random section of the library. And in the afterlife, as in the original, the search for meaning often gets sidelined by disasters, distractions and creature comforts.

There are nine rules posted to the library walls, and they read like an existentialist creed: be kind, try not to die, everything is temporary, you can feel incredibly lonely despite never actually being alone.

Mostly, it’s the other people that make the library unpleasant. As above, so below.

So what about Kierkegaard? The library is divided by a wide chasm, with no way to cross from one side to the other (and what if the book you need is on the other side?). It’s an unbridgeable gap of unfathomable depth. An abyss, if you will. Soren (like his Danish namesake) considers leaping into it, but doesn’t do so until it becomes the only way to escape the daily torture of the Direites.

He quickly learns that in the abyss you can fall for thousands of years and still not hit the bottom, dying a million times from starvation along the way.

It’s a fate worse than Kierkegaard ever contemplated. Missing is the romance of surrender, the glorious descent and the annihilation of self. When our Soren leaps into the gap, it is an act of desperation, not salvation. And it’s a long way down.

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.

Review: The Collected Schizophrenias

The Collected Schizophrenias

Esmé Weijun Wang

Stumbled upon this at my favorite local used bookshop, the Bookworm in Boulder, Colorado,CollectedSchizophrenias and what a lucky find. I was unfamiliar with Wang’s writing, but loved the theme of this essay collection: her life with schizoaffective disorder and other explorations of mental illness.

Through essays that combine research and personal experience, Wang shows us the different flavors of schizophrenia, which are more diverse than public perception or TV and film portrayals.

She addresses the media portrayal head on in the essays “Reality, On-Screen” and “The Slender Man, the Nothing, and Me,” which are, in turn, shocking and heartbreaking. The author — who is both wickedly smart and funny — studied at Yale and Stanford, yet, during psychotic episodes becomes so unmoored that her husband has to explain that movies and television shows are fictional.

She also explores the topic of involuntary commitment, the ethics of procreation and delves into the darkest corners of mental illness: violence (rare in actually, but over-represented in the media) in “Toward a Pathology of the Possessed” and Cotard’s delusion (belief that oneself is dead) in “Perdition Days.”

My favorites are “Diagnosis,” the lead essay that introduces us to her journey, and “Yale Will Not Save You,” which reveals the shortcomings of academic institutions in addressing the mental health needs of students.

The Collected Schizophrenias won the 2019 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and that means something. Graywolf Press publishes incredible books that challenge and enlighten, such as Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which I consider to be one of the best books of the decade.

Likewise, The Collected Schizophrenias will challenge your preconceived notions of mental illness, introduce you to its many manifestations and delight you with confident prose, brutal vulnerability and a narrative quest that is more of a question than an answer.

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.

Sinclair Lewis: It Can’t Happen Here

Following the 2016 election, George Orwell’s 1984 was sold out online and rushed into sinclair_lewisanother print edition. Last year’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was a monster hit, and expectations are high for HBO’s stab at Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

If nothing else, the election has made dystopian fiction great again.

There is another classic that should be required reading for our times: Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.

What sets this 1935 novel apart from the others is that there is no great cataclysm throwing the country into turmoil, and we are not dropped into a future dystopia with little understanding of how we got there. It Can’t Happen Here disturbs by how blasé the descent into fascism can be.

Before delving into the narrative, it’s important to distinguish between political philosophy and the rhetoric of politicians. Having particular opinions about fiscal policy, foreign diplomacy, and tax rates doesn’t make someone evil or racist or fascist.

Political philosophy is something that decent, intelligent people can debate with merit. They can share a common goal, but disagree on how to achieve it.

The rhetoric of politicians, however, is another matter, and this is what is most startling and prescient about It Can’t Happen Here. The novel begins at a Rotary meeting, with a populist speech by anti-suffragette Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch, calling for a return to traditional values.

“We don’t want all this high-brow intellectuality, all this book-learning,” she says.

Seated in the crowd is the hero, Doremus Jessup, local newspaperman. He warns the crowd of the dangers of fascism disguised as nationalism, the likes of which was rising in Germany and Italy at the time. When members of the audience dismiss his warnings with the refrain that it can’t happen here, Doremus prophetically retorts, “The hell it can’t.”

It’s been more than 80 years since the book was published, but the populist rhetoric is eerily familiar. The outside challenger to FDR is Buzz Windrip, who, parroting the words of his chief strategist, appeals to the “Forgotten Men” who don’t feel appreciated now that women have the right to vote. Windrip goes after other populist bogeymen: labor unions, minorities, Commies, and the press.

While that is the rhetoric of modern Republicans, it is not proprietary to any party. Windrip runs on a socialist platform in the novel, and for a real-world example, read Democrat George Wallace’s disgusting 1963 inauguration address (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”).

As Lewis writes, “nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, any race, on which he can look down.”

During the campaign, Jessup muses that President Roosevelt and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (the first woman appointed to a U.S. cabinet position) “were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nation’s hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.”

Jessup can’t understand Windrip’s appeal and how he can draw such large audiences. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.”

In one speech, Windrip vows “to make America a proud, rich land again.”

Cue the dystopia. Once empowered, Windrip erodes civil liberties and Jessup is torn between fighting as part of the resistance or fleeing to Canada. Resistance fighters (or those simply accused of this) are herded into camps.

Remember, this novel was published in 1935: before Pearl Harbor, before we learned of the concentration camps.

While Lewis can’t match Orwell, Atwood, and Bradbury for creative totalitarian societies, he bests them in verisimilitude—what Hannah Arendt would later call the “banality of evil.” There are no two-way TV monitors or book-burning firemen, but there are heavily armed militias editing all newspaper articles and “encouraging” loyalty from businesses and citizens.

Inevitably, there are camps, and there is a resistance force… but it is clear to Jessup that the resistance has come too late. What good could pamphlets do against propaganda? Not surprisingly, fatigue and hopelessness set in: “What conceivable reason could one have for seeking after righteousness in a world which so hated righteousness?”

Fast-forward 80-plus years, where daily scandals, transgressions, incoherent Tweets, and deceptions have become mundane. The inundation has numbed us to the absurdity. Whether it’s noble or naive, Lewis, through Jessup, encourages us to soldier on, even if the cause is lost.

Jessup answers his own query about why one should seek “after righteousness”: “He never did find any particularly good reason. He simply went on.”

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.

The Red Tags Release

The wait is over. Today, Comet Press releases my novel, The Red Tags. The e-book is available in all formats, so it can be read on an e-reader, tablet, phone or computer. It is available at the following sites:

redtags-comp

Barnes & Noble

Amazon

Smashwords

 

And if you like what you read, download my short story, Skull City, for free at Smashwords.

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