The Process (Is a Process All Its Own)

March 6, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

processThe Process (Is a Process All Its Own) by Peter Straub

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I’m not one for including a bunch of images with my reviews, but this was my feeling upon finishing this story:

dafuq

It has themes of people growing at a faster-than-normal rate, as well as people not staying dead, but the story was also about Henry James, and I couldn’t tie it all together. I’m willing to admit that it went over my head (Straub is far more literary than my usual reading fare), but the story just didn’t gel for me.

I haven’t read as much of Straub’s later works, so I don’t know if this literary angle is his new normal, but my favorite works of his are Ghost Story and Shadowland, so I was disappointed that it only had a few scenes that reminded me of how good those stories were. The Process is more puzzling than anything else.

If anyone has some insights into this novella, even if it’s just that I need to read A Dark Matter to get the full context of this story, I would appreciate them. As of now, the story just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Started: December 26, 2017
Finished: December 26, 2017

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Darkness Whispers

March 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

darknessDarkness Whispers by Richard Chizmar & Brian James Freeman

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Darkness Whispers is actually a collection of short stories than an actual novella. The title story is novella-length, written by both authors, while the collection also features one story written solo by each author. Like most collections, it’s a mixed bag of quality.

The title novella is about a mysterious man who comes to town and wreaks havoc by granting some residents their heart’s desire, and others their worst nightmare. It sounds a lot like Needful Things to me, but where King’s book followed his formula of likable characters in unlikable situations, Darkness Whispers is just plain unlikable. The authors cheat their way through the story, building up a false tension by writing lines like “Had he known it would be his last day with his family, he would have spent more time with them at breakfast”, but then ends the story by having the whole family survive. It’s fine that the authors took the story in that direction, but they cheat by hinting that the story will end differently than it does. It destroys whatever credibility the authors have, and it means we can’t trust them any more. (And, frankly, the less said about the ending with Hitler, the better. It’s just cliched at this point.)

“The Meek Shall Inherit…” is Chizmar’s solo story, and is compelling, but by the time the story finally gets interesting, it ends. It reads more like a spec summary for a novel than a story into itself, and I felt disappointed with it. I don’t have to have a firm resolution to every story I read, but for this one, I needed more details, and needed to know how it would end.

Freeman’s story, “What They Left Behind”, is the best story in this small collection, but even it isn’t a five-star story. What makes it work is the atmosphere Freeman creates around the story, which imbibes the story with a just-right creepy feeling. I only wish he had been able to bring more of that atmosphere and subtlety to the title story.

Darkness Whispers isn’t a top-tier collection, but it does have its moments. I only wish that the title story had been more trustworthy, and that it had featured more of the best skills of each writer. As it is, it’s mediocre at best, and not something I would recommend even to the most hardcore of horror readers.

Started: December 25, 2017
Finished: December 26, 2017

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I’ll Bring You the Birds from Out of the Sky

March 2, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

birdsI’ll Bring You the Birds from Out of the Sky by Brian Hodge

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I haven’t read something by Brian Hodge in years. I discovered him back in college, when he was a part of the Dell/Abyss line of books, and he was one of those authors I would read, no questions asked. Life moved on, but I’ve always had a soft spot for him, so when I received this is a grab-bag of books from Cemetery Dance, I moved it to the top of my list.

The story is about an art dealer in New York who becomes aware of a folk artist when a young woman comes to his gallery to show him her great-grandfather’s work. The work becomes an obsession of sorts, and as he learns more about the artist through recordings and the work itself, he finds himself making a trek across the mountain to the village where the artist lived near the end of his life. There, he finds secrets that reveal the truth behind the artwork, and ones that run even deeper.

Hodge has some brilliant turns of phrase in this story:

Her inheritance of earth and trees had come down as an heirloom of love given out of spite.

If Cecil Conklin has the devil in him, he forgot where he put him.

I don’t remember these kinds of turns of phrase in his earlier works, but I might not have noticed them even if they were there. At the time, I was more interested in the horror than the writing, though I was still a stickler for a good story.

Also worthy of note is how many horror stories I’ve read this year that have been about Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the fungus that infects and takes over control of ants. It’s shown up a few times, most notably in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland. I suppose it’s a fashionable subject now, since it’s both real and creepy, but I like that Hodge and Kiernan approach the subject in different ways. While Kiernan makes it a cosmic kind of horror, Hodge brings it back to Earth and makes it something more benign in intention. Either way, the stories are horrifying.

It’s nice to see that Hodge still has it. I had already planned on re-tackling the Dell/Abyss books this year, and Hodge has (I think) three books in that list. I look forward to re-reading them with a fresh eye.

Started: December 24, 2017
Finished: December 24, 2017

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The Fleshless Man

February 1, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

fleshlessThe Fleshless Man by Norman Prentiss

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Thanks to Invisible Fences, I added Norman Prentiss to my list of authors to read, no matter what. It was a quiet, deliberate story of disquiet and uncertainty, told in a straightforward, engrossing style. It impressed the hell out of me, and I knew this was a writer to whom I should pay attention.

Had I started with The Fleshless Man, that might not have happened.

The story isn’t bad, nor is it not creepy. Like Invisible Fences, it looks at family dynamics and uses that as a starting point for a horror story, but where Fences lulled us with its soft style and compelling characters, Fleshless lulls us to sleep.

The story is about two brothers and how they cope with their mother’s impending death. One brother left home long ago, to escape the suffocating home and town, while the other stayed behind and ultimately had to take care of their mother. With her death only days away, the other brother returns home, and the problems of their home life returns to him, only this time he’s also haunted by the fleshless man, who his mother says is trying to kill her.

The fleshless man invades the one brother’s dreams, and since this is all happening while he is dealing with feelings of guilt over his mother and brother, it’s hard to say if the fleshless man is a real entity, or just something he’s created to help him with his feelings. Maybe it’s up to the reader to decide. I don’t mind ambiguous endings, but I prefer there to be a bit more closure with a story than The Fleshless Man provides.

I’m willing to admit that the story may have gone over my head, but after the quiet brilliance of Invisible Fences, I was expecting something different from The Fleshless Man. I’d recommend it to other readers of horror, namely because maybe they’ll get the point better than I did, and can explain it to me. While the story is one that will stay with me for its imagery, it’s not one that will stay with me for making a strong connection with me.

Started: November 13, 2017
Finished: November 13, 2017

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The Girl in the Basement

January 22, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

basementThe Girl in the Basement by Ray Garton

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I remember liking Ray Garton’s books. A lot. This would be back in the 1990s, when I was still branching out into the larger world of horror, reading writers other than Stephen King, long after the horror boom had gone bust. I also remember liking Marilyn Manson’s music a lot back then, too, but I’ve outgrown it.

To be fair, Garton does a good job with his characterization and his pacing. Once you get started on one of his stories, it’s easy to get caught up in it and not put it down until you’re finished. That was the case with Meds, read last year, and that’s also the case with The Girl in the Basement. Unfortunately, both of these books also have characters who don’t do sensible things; instead, they do what’s necessary to keep the plot moving along.

The plot of The Girl in the Basement involves (spoiler!) a girl who lives in the basement. She’s part of a foster home, and our main character is a new resident at said foster home. The girl in the basement isn’t seen, and what the other kids in the home know about her is through hearsay. What makes her special — and how that involves the other kids — is the core of the story.

Garton doesn’t approach this story with much subtlety. He makes things too clear and explains too much. It’s like he doesn’t trust his readers to make the connections on their own, since he doesn’t allow them to draw their own conclusions. He also puts a thinly-veiled version of himself into the story, as a horror author who lives next door. In Meds, Garton pierced the veil to share his opinions about prescription medications, and in The Girl in the Basement, he pierces it again to reveal himself as a bitter horror author, jealous of Stephen King’s success and disappointed with how the general public perceives him. The style feels immature, which is odd, since Garton has been writing professionally since the early 1980s.

The story here is entertaining, but it doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny. It’s not so bad that I wouldn’t read more of his work (it doesn’t have the rampant sexism of Richard Laymon, nor the pointless cruelty of Bentley Little), but it does give me pause. At the very least, Garton is a good storyteller, and for him to have been working for over 30 years, that counts for something.

Started: October 31, 2017
Finished: October 31, 2017

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The Murders of Molly Southbourne

January 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

murdersThe Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

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Molly Southbourne was taught four simple rules from a very young age:

If you see a girl who looks like you, run and fight.
Don’t bleed.
If you bleed, blot, burn, and bleach.
If you find a hole, find your parents.

The reason is also simple: Whenever she bleeds, she creates a perfect, murderous duplicate of herself.

It’s tempting to go deeper into that premise, but to do so takes away the joy of discovering this odd, compelling story. Thompson thought it through, from beginning to end, and tells us exactly what it would be like to grow up with this sort of affliction. By all rights, the story should read like a clinical report on her condition, but Thompson frames everything through the eyes of Molly herself, and makes it come alive. It’s not that we learn about her affliction; it’s that we learn about Molly.

The only tripping point in the story is near the end, when Thompson attempts to explain Molly’s affliction. He also attempts to make the story into something larger, using a framing device around Molly’s story, which only gets in the way. I understand this is the first book in a series, which is disappointing, since it’s hard to see what else Thompson would have to say about Molly. This novella feels self-contained, with questions left to be answered, without them having to be answered. That’s not to say I won’t read the next book in the series, but by itself, this story is fantastic.

A word of advice: Start this book when you have the time to finish it. It will suck you in like a Dyson, and nothing short of your house catching fire will take you away from it. Before this novella, I had never heard of Tade Thompson; afterward, I was adding his other books to my must-read list. It’s an incredible read.

Started: October 24, 2017
Finished: October 24, 2017

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The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion

January 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lambThe Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy

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I think it’s fantastic that Tor.com Publishing has put a focus on underrepresented groups as writers and as characters in their publications. It brings to focus people who have been kept in the background, who have been forced to keep secrets, and the more we read the books with those characters, by those writers, the more we grow to accept them. The sooner this can happen, the better.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion features a variety of characters, including trans characters and gay characters, and uses them to tell a story about a vindictive spirit that preys on the hunters. The story is set in a commune called Freedom, Iowa, where a group of anarchists have created an idyllic place where all of those who have been cast aside by society can live. Our narrator enters the town in search of answers regarding a friend who had lived there before going off to commit suicide, and what she finds, along with an open market where people can take the food they need, open gardens where everyone contributes, and the freedom to make choices outside of societal expectations, is a blood-red, three-horned deer that kills and eats the hearts of predators. Unfortunately, that includes humans.

This is a novella with something to say, and Killjoy doesn’t shy away from saying it, loudly and clearly. It reads more like a treatise on anarchy than it does a fairy tale, and Killjoy highlights the pitfalls of such a society as much as the benefits. It’s a story that bleeds its meaning through the plot, and while I’ve enjoyed that kind of story in the past (Laurie Penny’s contribution to this line of novellas was particularly good), here I found myself less interested. Part of me feels too old to get behind the idea of a commune. They appealed more when I was younger, but now I see the reality of them, where one person with a desire for power can easily corrupt the system and destroy it for everyone else.

The story moves quickly. It feels like Killjoy is more focused on her treatise than the story, so characterization isn’t as strong as it could be. They waver between good and bad, which could be another point of the story, but it’s hard to get invested in the story since they don’t feel realized. Killjoy is a good writer, and creates a good story, but it doesn’t sing like it could with better characters. Had it been a longer work, with more time to develop the characters, maybe it could have been more impactful.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion isn’t a bad book, but I’m afraid people will finish it wanting more, but not in an “I can’t wait for the sequel!” kind of way. It doesn’t feel unfinished, but neither does it feel incomplete. It just feels rushed, which is a shame, since the message and the plot feel substantial. I understand this is the first in a series, so maybe that will come. As it is, though, I’m not convinced I’ll be reading the next installment.

Started: October 23, 2017
Finished: October 24, 2017

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Mapping the Interior

January 12, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

mappingMapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

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I keep hearing a lot of good about Stephen Graham Jones. He’s considered to be one of the “new horror” authors creating a buzz, and since I’ve touched on John Langan, David Nickel, and Laird Barron, I figured it was time to touch on Jones, too. He’s written a bunch of stuff, though, so I started with Mapping the Interior, since it’s newer, and since it’s short.

The story is about a young Native American boy who sees his dead father walking through his house one night. From there, he begins an investigation, one which doesn’t just answer his questions about his father, who died when he was four, but also raises new questions about himself. The story has a focus on Native American culture, but shies away from using that as the source of the horror. This is refreshing, since older horror uses Native Americans as tropes instead of characters, and it certainly helps that Jones is himself Native American.

Jones’ imagery is fascinating. He creates a sense of disquiet through the events. The narrator’s father becomes more and more substantial as the story progresses, and the ways he interacts with the physical world make him more unnatural than if he were just a ghost. Jones avoids the tropes of the genre, and writes in a style that leaves the reader feeling a little out of sorts. He works hard to make the story effective, and it pays off.

Part ghost story, part coming-of-age story, and part surreal look at the world around us, Mapping the Interior is a cerebral horror novella that keeps you reading. It’s engaging and thoughtful, eerie and unsettling, and doesn’t rely on easy answers or conclusions. I feel like I’ve only just touched on what the novella has to say, and I can see myself revisiting it in a few years’ time to see what else I can discover in the story.

Started: October 21, 2017
Finished: October 23, 2017

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The Red Threads of Fortune

January 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

threadsThe Red Threads of Fortune by J.Y. Yang

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Rumor has it, you can read the two books in Yang’s Tensorate series in any order. Based on that rumor, I picked the order in which Goodreads has the books ordered in the series and started there, with The Black Tides of Heaven. I made the right choice, because if I had started with The Red Threads of Fortune, (a) I would have been lost, and (b) I’m not sure I would have continued with the series.

The focus of Tides was on Akeha and Mokoya, twin children of the Protector, and their early life. Threads shifts away from the twins to a degree, showing us what they’re like as adults. By now, the characters have grown into the different personalities they became at the end of Tides, and have moved on to life, not without each other, but at least focused away from them. The main focus of Threads is Mokoya, as she hunts a rogue naga that threatens the city where she lives.

Threads is less interesting, since it shifts its focus away from the relationships. The character Mokoya is now isn’t as sympathetic as the one she was in Tides, and what relationships she does have in the novella feel more forced. Her development feels authentic, but where she goes in this book with that development simply isn’t as interesting. The story does have more of a plot than the previous book, but when Yang writes the first book to focus on character, it’s jarring to then shift over to a book that’s primarily plot.

How much you like this book may depend on where you start with the two books. Chronologically, Tides comes before Threads, and gives us more insight into the characters than the latter book. Those readers who start with Threads, though, might be disappointed by the shift from plot to character, but I still feel like they would be confused by events in Tides. Yang is still a strong writer, and I’m in it for their next two books, but I’m hoping the attention will shift back to the characters and their relationships for those books.

Started: October 16, 2017
Finished: October 20, 2017

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The Black Tides of Heaven

January 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

tidesThe Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang

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I’m a sucker for a novella, and for a novella that’s getting lots of positive buzz. Tor.com is doing a great job with them (and with promoting the non-male, non-cis, non-white authors and stories), so it was a no-brainer that I would be reading Yang’s contributions to the line. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Black Tides of Heaven is a book that pairs with The Red Threads of Fortune, and I waffled over which to read first. In the end, I decided to follow the series as Goodreads had cataloged it, so Tides it was. It introduces us to a handful of characters, like the Protector (think Mommy Dearest with wizarding powers and a ruthlessness that would make Cersei Lannister sit up and pay attention) and Head Abbott Sung (Atticus Finch with magical powers), but the two main characters are the twins, Mokoya and Akeha, who are birthed by the Protector to honor a debt she owed the Head Abbott, and also to manipulate it so he didn’t get what he expected out of the deal. At the age of six, the twins are adopted into the Grand Monastery and are taught how to use the Tensorate magics.

Yang is a talented wordsmith. They create scenes effortlessly, imbibing them with all the senses to ensure you feel immersed in their world. Their characterization is deft, as they develop the twins to be more complex than first appearances would suggest. The Head Abbott and the Protector run the risk of being cliches, but Yang adds a few twists and turns to their development to keep you guessing. The story develops out of the relationships among all these characters, so the plot feels natural, and no development ever feels forced. The characters in their world are born sexless and adopt a male or female persona whenever they feel comfortable, so “they” is used to refer to single persons, as well as groups. It takes some adjusting to flow with the story, but this is more a limit to the English language, and not a problem with how Yang tells the story.

My only complaint about the story is that it feels rushed. The first half of the book takes its time to show and reveal the characters, but the second half feels like Yang was rushing to get to the end and still be able to call the book a novella. As I mentioned, the development isn’t forced, so nothing strikes me as Yang cheating the reader, but I would have liked more time spent with the characters as they make their significant decisions. The good news is Yang doesn’t sacrifice the emotion of their story, but since they develop the characters so well, that’s no surprise.

Yang’s style has shades of Sanderson in it, but their voice is all their own. The good news about this novella is it’s the first of four, and I can move straight into the second one. I’ll be paying attention to Yang’s future books, and I know I’ll be reading the second pair of books as soon as they’re released.

Started: October 12, 2017
Finished: October 16, 2017

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