Down Among the Sticks and Bones

October 19, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sticksDown Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

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So far, the only works I’ve read by McGuire/Grant are her novellas. They’ve been fine, with intriguing ideas and near-perfect language, but they haven’t been great. In a way, they feel like they’re not quite long enough for the ideas they contain, despite being so well written that I want to gush about it; Down Among the Sticks and Bones, however, is the perfect story for its length.

The novella is about Jacqueline and Jillian, twin sisters whose parents raised them under strict rules: Jacqueline (never Jack) to be a tomboy to make up for her not being the son her father wanted; and Jillian (never Jill) to be the pretty princess her mother desires. This book is the sequel to McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, so we know ahead of time that the two sisters will find their way into a fantastical world, tinged with darkness, where they grow to become themselves.

The story McGuire tells here is wonderful, in so many ways. Her characters are lively, her settings are vivid, and her atmosphere bleeds through every page. Her language sings, and the emotions she conveys in the story are real. It has true heartbreak and grief, frustration and joy. These are all traits that have been present in her other novellas I’ve read, but here everything comes together perfectly. It has a fatalistic tone for the ending, most likely due to it being a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway and me knowing how it would ultimately end, but that could be a projection on my part. The story felt stand-alone and self-contained.

McGuire was already on my “authors to watch” list, but knowing that she can write a five-star story like Down Among the Sticks and Bones, I can now add her to my “authors to read” list. Given how prolific she is, it’s going to take a while before I can get caught up.

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Elizabeth: A Novel of the Unnatural

October 17, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

elizabethElizabeth: A Novel of the Unnatural by Ken Greenhall

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I’m not one to worry about subtitles, but in the case of this book, it’s important. It’s not “strange” or “weird” or “occult”; it’s “unnatural”. It’s a specific word, used to evoke a specific feeling, enough so that it feels like it’s part of the proper title, and not an attempt to classify the book.

That “unnatural” is such a specific, evocative word isn’t a surprise; Greenhall was apparently the kind of writer who took his time to find the perfect word for every sentence. Elizabeth reflects this, as he tells his story with an economy of words. A lot happens in this brief (152 pages) novel, but it never feels like it moves quickly, or that the author is skimping on the details. Instead, he creates mood and atmosphere in as little as one sentence:

In the night I would hear the slopping of the lake against rocks, and half-awake, I sometimes mistook it for the sound of someone choking.

Greenhall’s imagery is unsettling, as is the story. It’s not a graphic, in-your-face kind of horror, nor is it the quiet horror of Bernard Taylor or Charles Grant; it’s the kind of story that creeps under the skin and stays with you long after it’s finished.

The story won’t be easy for everyone. Its main character, Elizabeth, is fourteen, and involved in a sexual relationship with her uncle that she initiated. This isn’t a spoiler, though; aside from being made clear in the early part of the novel, it’s a central part of the story. The story is sensual, sex being an important part of it, but it’s never explicit. Greenhall suggests the activity, and by doing so shows off his talent for showing, not telling. That a fourteen-year-old woman and a late-thirties man maintain the relationship suggests that the “unnatural” in the title is about more than just the supernatural.

The point of the story, though, isn’t the sex. It’s important to the plot, but what Elizabeth is about is power. Elizabeth recognizes that she has power through sex, and isn’t afraid to use it. For her, sex isn’t about love or intimacy, it’s about strength.

Elizabeth is our narrator as well as our main character, and it presents an interesting dilemma: Is she reliable? Near the beginning, it’s easy to think that what she’s telling us is only in her head. Later in the story, it’s harder to tell. Knowing is important, though, since it determines if Elizabeth is the antagonist or the protagonist.

Greenhall isn’t as well known in the canon as other authors from his time, which is a shame. Elizabeth proves that his writing is precise, his horror suggestive, and he understands how to unsettle instead of scare. Valancourt has done a great job republishing these lost classics, and I look forward to more by him, as well as other authors in their catalog I have yet to discover.

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Harrow County: Abandoned

September 26, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

harrow5Harrow County: Abandoned by Cullen Bunn, et al.

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I’m no expert on horror comics, but Harrow County is at the top of my list for that genre. It combines the weird with the graphic, the unsettling with the mood, and it creates an atmosphere that’s unique to the title. Afterlife with Archie comes close to hitting that magic combination, but that series relies a bit too much on what the reader already knows about the characters, while Harrow County fords new territory.

The story this time centers on Abandoned, the four-eyed creature that roams the woods near Harrow County. We learn more about his history and how he ties in with Emmy and her history. We also see firsthand what happens when outsiders come to town in search of the monster they’ve heard so much about, and how it rarely ends well for them.

The first half of the story is okay, but I feel like the revelation should have been more impactful. As it was, I just read it and thought, “Huh.” It makes sense, it fits the story, and it doesn’t stir anything up. Maybe it will have more relevance over the next few arcs, but I found myself much more interested in the hunters who have come to try to kill Abandoned. It encompassed the myth surrounding Harrow County, and gave us new details about it. Plus, it shows us how powerful Emmy has become, and what her choices will mean for the future of the town.

Bunn pulls in another artist for the first two issues in the book, which I wasn’t thrilled to see (Tyler Crook, as far as I’m concerned, has defined the look of the series and should be the only artist working on it), but McNeil does a good job of mimicking his style without it being a straight copy. It helps that she isn’t required to create any new characters for that half of the story.

Abandoned is half-good, half-okay, which still works out to being a decent arc. I hope Crook will remain the sole and constant artist, and I hope Bunn keeps this story going in unusual, thought-provoking directions. The series works best when it does so, and I feel like he’s set it up so we’ll see some consequences in future issues.

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The Moorstone Sickness

September 25, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

moorstoneThe Moorstone Sickness by Bernard Taylor

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Several months back, Valancourt Books had a sale on some of their ebooks. I’ve sort of become a Valancourt fanboy, so of course I bought them all, though it’s taken me some time to get around to them (story of my life). The Moorstone Sickness was one of those books, and when I was prioritizing my ebook to-read list, I bumped this one up, since I had enjoyed Taylor’s Sweetheart, Sweetheart so much.

This book is part of the “Small Town with a Hidden Secret” genre, which is a personal favorite. It’s hard to talk much about plots with these kinds of books. The broad overview of the story is familiar — a young couple is accepted into a small town where the townspeople don’t take that kindly to outsiders — but the story is about discovering that secret.

The story takes a while to get going, which is odd, since I was able to peg the secret by chapter eight (of thirty-two). In that sense, it was frustrating, since I was able to recognize the clues that the main characters couldn’t see. It winds up making them look foolish, and affects how sympathetic they are. I may have been inclined to recognize the clues, knowing I was reading a horror novel, but they seemed to be too obvious.

In addition, the characterization feels a little thin, even though Taylor focuses his attention on Hal and Rowan, the couple. By the end of the story, I felt the connection to them to respond appropriately, but up until then, it felt like they were defined just enough to create a conflict to feed the main plot. The good news is that the mystery — the us vs. them mentality of the main struggle — was compelling enough to keep me engaged in the story.

Tought the story begins slowly, the final events move quickly, taking us through the bulk of the secret within just a few chapters. It worked well enough — I had already figured out what the secret was, so it was just a matter of learning the how — but for such a leisurely beginning, the ending was more like a sprint. I would have liked to have known more about the how, but it wasn’t necessary. I’m learning that this gentle kind of horror that Taylor and Charles Grant did so well rarely explains the heart of their horror.

The story was written in the early 1980s, so it’s stuck in that time period, which could be a problem for modern readers. A large part of the story relies on the characters not being able to reach one another on the phone, and I wonder if readers who have never been without a cell phone would even understand that part. Sure, we get dropped signals, but our constant connections are so much a part of our culture now that I wonder if they would truly get the limitations of a house phone.

I read this in its ebook edition, and I had issues with the way it was formatted. There were breaks within the chapters, some that indicated a shift in scene, others that were just there. About halfway through, I cracked the code — if the next paragraph was indented, it wasn’t a scene break — but it was a little frustrating until then. I kept expecting the scene to jump, but it kept on going like nothing had happened.

Overall, I liked this story, even if it wasn’t as effective as Sweetheart, Sweetheart. Granted, that is considered to be Taylor’s best novel, and it’s the one I read first, so I should expect that the rest won’t be quite as good. Regardless, his narrative style and methodical pacing works well, and the ending took me by surprise. It’s a good read, and a good introduction to the author’s works.

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Seed

September 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

seedSeed by Ania Ahlborn

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Children possessed by the devil isn’t an original premise in horror fiction. Then again, many of the most popular novels in horror fiction use premises that have been used over and over again. The Rolling Stones sang “It’s the singer, not the song”, and there’s truth there; reading a familiar story, told well, can often be better than an original work that isn’t.

In Seed, our main character is Jack, a guitarist/worker/husband/father who nearly runs over an animal on the way back from his daughter’s sixth birthday party. The animal appears familiar to Jack, but we don’t learn why until we start to see his younger daughter exhibiting strange behaviors. Through her story, we also learn that Jack experienced something similar when he was younger, and that something seems to be coming back to haunt him further.

That idea of hereditary darkness is handled well. Jack has an understanding of what his daughter is experiencing, but because he’s never told his wife (or anyone else) about that part of his past, he’s compelled to be silent about what’s happening to his daughter. He has to have the right motivation to address it. Strangely, the safety of his family isn’t that motivation, but Ahlborn suggests that Jack can’t speak about it due to his ties to whatever has possessed his daughter. This conflict is paired with the family dynamic, which is already strained.

Additionally, what makes the story stand out is Ahlborn’s focus on mood and atmosphere. She doesn’t necessarily go for the shock in her horror; she creates moments that are unsettling, slightly off-step, to keep the reader a little off-kilter. She alternates between normality and menace, portraying it well, even if sometimes it feels sudden. I would have preferred it had Ahlborn eased her way back and forth between the two moods, but she tends to jump from one to the other. Seed was her first novel, so I’m willing to overlook some missteps in favor of her command of atmosphere.

The story moves through all the beats, adding more conflict and anxiety as it progresses, but somehow it skips over the tension along the way. It has its moments (the ending is particularly effective), but key scenes feel rushed, as if Ahlborn doesn’t want to sacrifice momentum for scene. What makes it more unusual is that she draws out other moments, specifically when showing the relationships between characters, but neglects it in other scenes.

There are also threads in the story that feel abandoned. There’s a strained relationship between Jack and his mother-in-law, which comes to a head midway through the story, but it’s never revisited, and the character conflict is dropped. She never reappears, and that strained relationship — both with Jack and with his wife — remains unresolved. It could have been a poignant plot point.

As a horror novel, Seed is effective, but I found it didn’t frighten me as much as I would have liked due to how Ahlborn presented it. This isn’t her fault, because to me the idea of evil being something external is too comforting. We can dismiss evil that comes from outside, because it’s out of control; when evil is within, for no reason, it’s harder to dismiss, harder to forgive. Still, Ahlborn knows what she’s doing in the genre, and the story remains effective.

For a first novel, Seed is very good. It isn’t perfect, but what Ahlborn does well more than makes up for what’s not perfect. It’s a little off-kilter reading this after reading The Pretty Ones, because I’m going back in her chronology, but I’m convinced that had I started with Seed first, I’d still be looking forward to reading the rest of her work.

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Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse?

September 11, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

surviveCan You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? by Max Brallier

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You’re in your mid-forties, with fond memories of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. You especially liked the horror titles (you have fond memories of The Mystery of Chimney Rock), so when you discovered that someone had written and published an adult CYOA book, written around a zombie apocalypse, of course you had to buy it. You figure the author and publisher were counting on it.

The thing is, you still want to read a good story. That’s what you liked about the CYOA books to begin with. It wasn’t just the conceit of being the star in the story that appealed to you; it was also that they drew you in and made you want to find out what happened next. The more you read Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse?, the more disappointed you get. You find that the choices to make aren’t meaningful, and neither is the character you’re supposed to be. You remember the original CYOA books having your choices drive the character growth, but here you find that the character is already established: male, mid-twenties, obsessed with sex even in the midst of a collapsing society, and pretty pathetic.

What happens if the reader isn’t any of those things? you think. Why can’t there be stories like this that feature different characters the reader can choose to better reflect who they are in the real world? Fiction is fantasy, sure, but when you’re supposed to be the star of the book, the story should reflect as much of that person as possible.

You find the book to be too juvenile for adults. You think the book was written for males suffering from arrested development. More often that not, the stories play out where the main character isn’t much of a hero, since he relies on other people to save him more than he does anything himself.

You do have to give credit for the book working well as an e-book. Gone are the days of shuffling pages back and forth looking for the next section to read; instead, you have the luxury of clicking on a link and going straight to your choice. It’s just a shame you couldn’t read a good story, too.

You remember that Kim Newman wrote an adult CYOA book, too, called Life’s Lottery. Maybe that will be the adult CYOA book you were hoping Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? would be.

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Dark Screams: Volume Two

September 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

screams2Dark Screams: Volume Two, edited by Brian James Freeman & Richard Chizmar

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For the most part, I’m not interested in short stories. I’ve read some that have made a tremendous impression on me (“Chivalry”, anyone?), but I’m more interested in longer fiction. I think it’s because I want to read a story with a narrative arc, and shorter fiction seems to be more focused on an image, or an emotion, or a particular scene. I wouldn’t have read either of the two Dark Screams volumes I’ve read, save for they were on sale.

Volume Two collects five short stories from a mix of well-known authors and lesser-known authors, with a couple of reprints, much like Volume One did. It starts off with Robert R. McCammon’s “The Deep End”, from 1987, which is about a haunted swimming pool. It hearkens back to McCammon’s heyday, and the story reflects that; it’s a decent story that’s well-paced and compelling, even if it is a little laughable. It’s solid, but nothing groundbreaking, and unfortunately it’s the best of the bunch.

Norman Prentiss makes his second appearance in the series with “Interval”, a story that’s effective, if disjointed. Prentiss builds tension well in this story about a plane crash, but he seems to have trouble deciding on what kind of story he wants to tell. It starts off as a suspense story but then goes full-horror at the midpoint. The supernatural element felt silly, but Prentiss created an effectively creepy scene near the end of the story.

“If These Walls Could Talk” by Shawntelle Madison follows, and is pointless and forgettable. A woman travels to a remote house to prepare it for filming, but winds up being a victim of a past connection. The imagery and setting are good, but it lacks that narrative arc I mentioned above. It feels incomplete, like it’s the opening chapter of a larger work.

Graham Masterson is up next with “The Night Hider”, a ridiculous story about the wardrobe that inspired C.S. Lewis. The dialogue is stilted, and the characters are unconvincing. They make stupid decisions just because the story needs them to, and they’re so thinly drawn that there’s no connection to them. Masterson is a well-known author, and this is a newly-published work, so it surprises me that it’s such a poor story.

Finally, Richard Christian Matheson wraps up the anthology with “Whatever”, a story about a popular band from the ’60s and ’70s. I like RCM’s short-short fiction, and one thing I noticed with this work is that he writes his stories like they’re prose poems, with his short sentence fragments that convey a moment, an item, or a feeling. It gets tiresome in his longer works, and this story takes up a good third of the entire anthology. I don’t understand its place in the “dark” category, but this is also the other reprint, so maybe the editors were just going for name recognition here.

I don’t expect to read any more releases in this series, even if they go on sale. The quality isn’t that great, and reviews of later releases suggest that the quality keeps going down. The best story in the collection is solidly mediocre, at best, and the rest of the works just aren’t worth the time.

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Agents of Dreamland

August 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , , )

agentsAgents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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Agents of Dreamland is my first exposure to Caitlín Kiernan. I’ve known of her for a long time (I even had a copy of Silk for a long time), but she never pinged my radar enough for me to read her work. Later, I found a quote of hers where she discarded the use of plot in creative writing, and I, being a function-over-form reader, figured she wasn’t for me. I kept hearing good things about this novella, though, and I figured it was time to try her out.

I’m glad I did, because what I found is a story that has some plot (just enough, really), but excels for its use of language, atmosphere, and mood. It’s a piece that draws on The X-Files as much as Lovecraft, and it paints a picture of a moment that presents a terrible future. It flows through time, and introduces us to a couple of characters who appear to be on the same side, but are only marginally so. We don’t get caught up in their relationship, nor are we presented with the characters in such a way that we find ourselves immediately relating to and caring for them, but that’s not the point of the story, so it’s hard to complain about it.

Kiernan has an hallucinatory style to her narrative that’s a perfect fit for a story like this. Lovecraft’s nameless horrors have always resembled something from a bad acid trip, and here we have a writer who embraces that style with her writing. She also peppers the story with some named horrors lifted right out of our reality, giving the book a sense of reality, and reminding us that we don’t have to look far to find something to fear. The novella is an unsettling piece of work.

Suffice it to say, I’m impressed. I’m not sure if her style would sustain me over the length of an entire novel, but I’m more willing to give her a shot now than I was before. Agents of Dreamland strikes me as a perfect starting point for Kiernan. I can see that she wouldn’t be a writer for just anyone (heck, the jury’s still out on whether she’s one for me), but readers who like the dark and questionable and enjoy stories that aren’t traditionally told should give her a chance.

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Harrison Squared

August 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

harrisonHarrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

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This is an odd book. It’s a prequel to Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine, in that it tells the story of one of the characters in that book, Harrison Harrison, whose life inspired a series of children’s books. The thing is, Harrison Squared is that children’s book (well, YA at best), which makes it not just a prequel but also a meta story related to the original work.

Harrison travels with his mom, a marine biologist, to a town in Massachusetts called Dunnsmouth, where she hopes to capture footage of an underwater beast. Harrison thinks she’s after giant squids and the like, but Dunnsmouth is hiding something far more interesting than the usual deep-sea creatures. In fact, the creature she’s hoping to discover relates back to when Harrison’s father was killed, and when Harrison himself lost his left leg.

This is a wildly compelling book, which surprises me, since WAACF didn’t grip me the same way. Gregory captures his characters well, doing that thing good writers do where you try to pinpoint where, exactly, you started to relate to the characters so well, but it happens so slowly over the course of the narrative that you can’t do it. They grow organically, building relationships in the same way real people do, over time and (sometimes) reluctantly, and they do it so well that it’s impossible not to root for them.

The plot is a little simplified, but the story doesn’t suffer for it. Key characteristics of the characters will obviously play into plot resolutions near the end, but Gregory handles his characters so well that it’s hard to complain about it. The story itself doesn’t answer all the questions it asks, which isn’t always a bad thing, but here it feels more like a cliffhanger ending than an ambiguity that’s intended to make the reader think. I read an interview that suggests Gregory hopes to make a trilogy out of this, but that he hasn’t written anything else in the series yet. I feel a little cheated by it, but hopefully the book does well enough to justify getting the rest of these books written. You know, as soon as possible.

Harrison Squared wasn’t a book I was itching to read, but it surprised me. WAACF wasn’t one of those books that made me want to go out and read everything Gregory wrote, but Harrison Squared is. I see a lot of his books have won acclaim and awards, so I’ve added another book of his to my to-read list (current count: 600+). I’m eager to see how Pandemonium shakes out.

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Dread Island

July 11, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dreadDread Island by Joe R. Lansdale

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Dread Island is a story Joe Lansdale wrote for an anthology called Classics Mutilated. In it, the authors take classic stories and mash them together with other genres to see what comes out at the other end. In Dread Island, Lansdale mashes up Huck Finn, Uncle Remus, and the Cthulhu Mythos (along with a dash of Peter Pan) to create what can only be described as some super-mojo storytelling, as one would expect from Lansdale.

Lansdale captures the voice of Mark Twain well, which is no surprise since his East Texas style lends itself to that voice. The themes of his fiction are also parallelled with Twain’s, since they both look at racial injustice in the South. Of all the writers to write like Mark Twain, Lansdale is the best choice; of all the writers to mix in Uncle Remus and Cthulhu into Mark Twain’s style, Lansdale is probably the only choice.

Like a lot of Lansdale’s short stories and novellas, Dread Island is intended for Lansdale’s most hardcore fans. Fans of his Hap and Leonard stories, or his East Texas mysteries like Sunset and Sawdust or A Fine Dark Line, might not be prepared for this much of an oddity, especially if they haven’t read, say, “Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland” or “Dog, Cat, and Baby”. Lansdale’s delving into his weird oeuvre here, which is much weirder than his standard fiction.

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