Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review: Ghosts by Gaslight, ed. Jack Dann and Nick Gevers


Lovers of the classic Victorian/Edwardian ghost story will find much to like in Ghosts by Gaslight, a generally excellent collection featuring names like Margo Lanagan, Laird Barron, Garth Nix and Robert Silverberg. It is, as other reviews have mentioned, slightly lighter on the "steampunk" than the subtitle suggests -- there are certainly no bloody big airships. if that's your expectation. However, the spirit of limitless invention and curiousity that pervaded the era hangs like London fog over the book, and the supernatural disruptions here generally occur as result of humanity's hubris, of meddling with forces beyond our ken in our hunger for invention, discovery and dominance.

So . . .  I'm going to start by being contrary: GbG contains plenty for the steampunk set: loads of mysterious clanking machines, menacing automata, eerie floating constructions, and far-out communication devices -- some of them downright terrifying. In Richard Harland's "Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism," a miraculous nightmare-removal machine reaches critical mass. An inventor working on wireless communication taps into a distressing uncanny signal in Peter S. Beagle's melancholy "Music, When Soft Voices Die." And in Lucius Shepard's novella-length "Rose Street Attractors," a peculiar scientist builds rooftop machines intended to improve London's filthy air. Curiously, they trap revenants rather than smog. And among them is his mysteriously murdered fiancĂ©e.

The collection also features plenty of Victorian supernatural staples like that ghostly lady bent on revenge; for starters, there's a dead twin in the mirror in "The Grave Reflection," by Marly Youmans. An unscrupulous spiritualist is after more than his patients' money in John Langan's uncanny "The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn's Balloons." A brave and resourceful young hero struggles with a supernatural curse and his own (vividly drawn!) terror in "The Proving of Smollett Standforth" by Margo Lanagan; and we see the brutal consequences of challenging the alien wild, in the bloody and cleverly-named hunting yarn, Laird Barron's "Blackwood's Baby."

On the lighter side, Garth Nix cross-breeds Conan Doyle with R.L. Stevenson, adding just a touch of Lovecraft, to gruesome yet hilarious effect in "The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder." And in "The Summer Palace" (set in the world of his Well-Built City Trilogy), Jeffery Ford's irascible bizarro-world Sherlock, Physiognimist Cley, faces off with a malignant drug-induced spectre, all the while controlling the unbearable urge to murder his witless partner, Chibbins.

Anthologies are often uneven by their nature (and there is at least one story here that just didn't do it for me), but Ghosts by Gaslight works: a rich tapestry, diverse in style yet thematically cohesive. So glad I picked this one up . . . it's a keeper.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Book Review: The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2012, ed. Paula Guran

Dark fiction editrix supreme Paula Guran has put together another huge, mostly excellent selection this year, with enough variety to please most tastes. Here you'll find everything from cowboys vs. vampires, to pitch-dark fairy-tale revisions, to zombie baseball. There's also a visit to Marie Laveau, a "Maltese Unicorn," a  non-zombie apocalypse (for a change), a sand dune that predicts death, and a wardrobe that contains the whole sea.

She's also managed to draw some very well-established names -- like Stephen King, Charles de Lint, Caitlin Kiernan and Joan Aiken -- to sit side-by-side with relatively new talents. Some of my favorites include:

A book-lover's nightmare set in a dystopian near-future San Francisco, Glen Hirshberg's "After-Words" introduces the crazed leader of a book-cult whose end-time plans rely on remarkably old-fashioned methods. Hirshberg, a fellow SF denizen, always captures the tiniest nuances of the city, right down to the smells, night sounds, and neighborhood weather (yes, in SF we have different weather in different neighborhoods). Since the world in this story is quite grim, the verisimilitude adds an extra dose of shiver for me.

Joe R. Lansdale's "The Bleeding Shadow" has a Lovecraft-on-the-bayou vibe. Callow bluesman Tootie makes an unwise trade at Cross Roads Records: in exchange for a drop of his blood, he gets a platter full of unearthly music that, when he plays it, bequeaths him equally unearthly musical skills. Unfortunately, it also opens a doorway for those pesky things that should not be. (And if you like this story, I'd highly recommend picking up John Horner Jacobs' awesome novel Southern Gods.)
Yoon Ha Lee's "Conservation of Shadows" re-visions the ancient myth of Innana's journey to the Underworld as a MMORPG dungeon-like challenge, complete with mazes and inventory slots. I'd never read Lee's work before, but the juxtaposition of an eons-old tale with a futuristic gamescape makes for a memorable story, and Lee's language is beautiful and poetic.

"The Lake" by (the mellifluously-named) Tannarive Due, delivers a sneaky yet genteel brutality with the story of Abbie LaFleur, a Bostonian transplant to the deep south . . . where she really takes to her new environment.

And Laura Anne Gilman's "Crossroads" puts a quick and clever new spin on the standard deal with the devil.

I could go through the whole book like this. I am such a sucker for the short form, and Guran's choices are almost always top-notch: out of 33 stories, only one or two are a little meh, and that's probably just down to personal taste. (In fact, I'm not even gushing about other favorites -- Maureen McHugh's emotionally savage "After the Apocalypse," Elizabeth Hand's eerie "Near Zennor," and Tim Powers' clever and creepy "A Journey of Only Two Paces" -- because I have or plan to write about them in separate reviews of their authors' own collections.)

Verdict: if you like horror, and you like short stories, put this 2012 collection on your holiday wish list -- it's a real treat.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Book Review: Southern Gods, by John Horner Jacobs

Southern Gods    5/5 

1950s, the deep south. Hardboiled noir meets the Memphis blues and eldritch Lovecraftian horror. If any of those words ring your bell (or induce skittering waves of nauseous-yet-pleasurable horror), you must read Southern Gods right now.

Get ready to welcome the Old Ones to the bayou, when elusive blues player Ramblin' John Hastur releases a record that curdles the soul and calls to those that wait in the gulfs between the stars. Enter Bull, a damaged private dick in search of an A&R man gone missing while trying to sign Ramblin' John, and Sarah, an attractive lady with a gruesome family secret and an occult library to die for (who among us doesn't want a peek at the illustrated Necronomicon?), and you'll get an idea of what's in play in John Horner Jacobs' mind-blowing debut novel.

Needless to say, if that first paragraph is gibberish to you, or if appalling violence and obscene ancient rituals put you off your feed, please don't read this book. (There's also a smattering of sex, including a monumentally repulsive scene involving a kind of group possession, as well as lots of smoking, drinking and playing the blues, which you probably won't care for either, you prude.)

On the other hand, if you appreciate tight, literate prose seasoned with a great deal of thoroughly ooky splatter, look no further. Southern Gods made my Best of 2011 list: Horner brings a complicated era vividly to life and at the same time adds an original, dark, and swampy-foetid breath of air to the Lovecraft-inspired new weird.

You have been warned.

Fangirl Squee of the Day: Sonic Your Plaque Away

For all the nerds on your gift list:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Fangirl Squee of the Day: More Gaiman + Spectacular Cast


That's left to right, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Harewood,  Natalie Dormer, Dirk Maggs, James McAvoy, David Schofield and Anthony Head, all gathered today to record the BBC Radio 4/Radio 4 Extra production of NEVERWHERE.

(It'll start on Radio 4 and then go over to Radio 4 extra.) The adaptation is by Dirk Maggs, who did the last three Hitchhiker's Guide Radio adaptations. He's co-directing it with producer Heather Larmour, who is the one who went off and made this happen after a small enthusiastic chat in a London coffee shop much earlier this year -- the kind of conversation that you have that normally just leaves you feeling happy, but doesn't actually turn into anything real. This time it did.

The cast includes...

James McAvoy: Richard
Natalie Dormer: Door
David Harewood: Marquis
Sophie Okonedo: Hunter
Benedict Cumberbatch: Islington
Anthony Head: Croup
David Schofield: Vandemar
Bernard Cribbins: Old Bailey
Romola Garai: Jessica
Christopher Lee: Earl of Earl's Court
Andrew Sachs: Tooley
...and lots more. It will go out in six episodes.  
[End NG]
Now (says I), how do we get to hear this in the US?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book Review: The Orange Eats Creeps, by Grace Krilanovich

 2/5 -- MA-LSV

I had been looking forward to reading The Orange Eats Creeps for a long while. The glowing reviews! The blurbs that boldly proclaimed it a "new literature"; the future of horror! The shock, the grit, the awe, the really freaking weird cover . . ..

Meth and cough syrup junkie (maybe) vampires, Pacific Northwest, the 90s. Spreading dis(ease) and nihilism, riding the rails, hiding in the woods, stealing what they need. Told from the seriously damaged point of view of the only female running with a group of lost boys while ostensibly looking for her missing foster home "sister," TOEC is really mainly about these: body fluids, unsafe sex in gas station bathrooms, smoking, drinking, drug-overdosing, waking facedown in vomit in a grocery store breakroom. Facedown in blood behind a 7-11.  And again. And again.

I wanted to like this book, and I indeed did, at first. Krilanovich's fractured, stream-of-consciousness style suits the subject . . . the problem is not with the language, but with the hollow, drifting plotlessness of the thing. (Okay, drifters drift -- perhaps that's part of the point, but it does make for pretty repetitive reading.) Also?  Krilanovich was only about 14 years old when Kurt Cobain died. True, her main characters aren't meant to be that much older -- 16, 17 -- but there's this sense of trying too hard to be cool and affectless, of shock for shock's sake, lurking beneath her ugly/lovely, Burroughs-esque prose. (Truth: I don't much like Burroughs, either. If you do, you might like this.) Bottom line is I don't buy it, and I've lost interest in how (or whether) the story actually ends.

I'm going to admit here that I only made it a bit over two-thirds through TOEC -- what could have been a mash-up of On the Road and Requiem for a Dream just wound up mushy, monotonous and seemingly endless. I prefer the other "new voices" of horror -- check out the late Paul Haines for a more authentic, muscular version of self-inflicted Gen-X misery. In the end, TOEC is retroscope nostalgia for a fin de seicle ennui that ultimately imploded out of its own tiresomeness. Trust me; I was there.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Book Review: The Fifty Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski

Prefatory note: I take a perverse pleasure in banging my head up against experimental narratives, have ever since grad school. I nearly wrote my thesis on Ulysses; adore Rushdie; will continue to mourn David Foster Wallace. China Mieville is my literary pinup. It's like . . . well, there's this old joke: Twin boys, one a pessimist and one an optimist, are sent to a psychiatrist because their parents are concerned about their personality extremes. By way of testing, the pessimist is shown a room filled with toys, but, afraid he would break them, immediately burst into tears. The junior optimist, however, was brought to a room filled to the ceiling with stinky, sticky manure. He climbed to the top of the pile and started digging gleefully. When asked why he was so pleased by such an awful task, he shrugged and smiled:“With all this shit, there has to be a pony in there somewhere.” I'm the sucker that can't stop believing in poop-covered ponies. Also the person who feels the sting of defeat if I just give up on difficult books. All of which has almost no bearing on The Fifty Year Sword, except by way of explaining how I got involved with reading Mark Z. Danielewski in the first place.
In The Fifty Year Sword, more objet d'art than book-for-reading, Danielewski once again plays with type and page layout and color, and even texture via pinprick holes in the dust cover. (Are there 50 of them? Maybe 100, as if run all the way through? Perhaps; I didn't count.) I know this edition has been breathlessly awaited by those who couldn't get their hands on TFYS before, it having previously been released only in the Netherlands in 2005 and in a limited run of 2,000 copies in English in 2006. It's also been performed in 2010 and 2011 as a staged Halloween reading with shadow theater, which I imagine is a very cool show.

Danielewski's newest experiment-in-print asks nowhere near the commitment that House of Leaves doesnor is it ultimately as satisfying. (HoL has a pony, but the pile is pretty big. Not to say I didn't appreciate the exercise.) On the other hand, The Fifty Year Sword is far less overwrought: ephemeral like a children's tale (though not a tale for children), structured in a simple yet resonant poetic language. It's also quite slight; though the book-object itself logs in at 284 pages, at least half are loosely related artwork. (The art is all tactile, textural stuff, stitches and rips and cut and wrinkled paper. I'm sure it's really interesting in the original, but photos of these things are not.) This being an MZD work, some pages have only a lone word. Or none. They're calling it a novella, but I read it in one long, fascinated hour.

Ready-made to be told around the fire on Halloween (in an echo of the book itself), TFYS is the story of a story told by an uncanny stranger at an annual small-town Halloween party. Hosted by an ancient local eccentric, with both children and adults in attendance, the soiree this year doubles as the 50th birthday party of the local jezebel, Belinda Kite. Seamstress Chintana (the closest to a protagonist the book has) is in reluctant attendance, since her recent, unhappy divorce was a direct result of Ms. Kite's un(whole)some relationship with her husband. Chintana decides instead to spend the evening hidden away with the kids, for whom a storyteller has been arranged. (Does it matter the children are five orphans? Maybe.) And, after extinguishing the porch lights with his arrival, a "shadow cast by nothing," such a tale he has to tell.

Chintana's thumb begins to prickle ominously as she and the children listen wide-eyed to the mysterious Story Teller's tale of his protracted quest to find a magical weapon-smith, and his eventual acquisition of the Fifty Year Sword -- so named because its violence, no matter when dealt, does not reveal itself until the victim's 50th birthday. (The scene in the sword-maker's shop is particularly deft, both charming and subversive, with some of the most resonant bits of language in the book.)

And, perhaps even more interesting than his words, the Story Teller has something with him: a long, thin black box at his feet . . .  a box with five locks, just waiting to be opened.

Typographic visual games are only lightly applied in TFYS, which complements the style of the story. The important exception is MZD's  use of multi-colored quotation marks, each color indicating a different (but ultimately unknown and unknowable) speaker. This tactic renders dialogue into snippets of language, broken and overlapping, as each "speaker" chimes in. Like a palimpsest, under the postmodern antics there's the suggestion of a Greek chorus, breathlessly narrating events as they unfold beneath our impotent gaze. (Here there are only five in the chorus, one-tenth of the originally designated fifty. Yes, fifty.). This technique creates a mytho-poetic resonance that suits TFYS, at its heart a timelessly creepy little tale of hubris, vengeance, and the ofttimes queasy reality of getting a thing you have secretly wanted.

So here I am again, trying to review something that's as much an art project/performance piece as a book, and I come back to a similar problem I had with  House of Leaves. Sometimes the packaging gets in the way of a good story. Make no mistake, the story(ies) that comprise TFYS are compelling: eerie, sinister and viscerally satisfying in exactly the way fairy tales are. But in this case I feel slightly hoodwinked for paying hardback novel price and getting (at best) a slim novella. I know MDZ fanatics needed this edition on their shelves, but I would have been perfectly satisfied with a slim paperback (although that assumes there will be one). I'd recommend checking it out of the library (hell, you could read it without leaving the library!) and saving the cash for a ticket the (theoretical) next time The Fifty Year Sword is performed. Because that would make for a good Halloween.

Nerdy Fangirl Sqee of the Day: Weeping Angel Barbie

Midway through her transformation. To see the rest of the process, visit wich-crafting.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Book Review: The Children of Men, by P.D. James


Absolutely brilliant. I'd never read P.D. James before, though I know her reputation among mystery buffs is unimpeachable, and of course I've seen the film adaptation, which I like very much.The Children of MenBut this novel very different from what I expected . . . there's very little "science" to this science fiction classic; instead I'd call it "philosophy-fiction." The Children of Men shines an unnerving light on the moral lassitude of a race with, quite literally, no future. But in James's vision, it's not the sudden flash-apocalypse of nuclear destruction or viral plague which brings the crisis, but a protracted period of infertility during which humanity has the leisure to contemplate its own pointlessness and existential fear -- and reacts accordingly.It's a society where senior citizens commit mass suicide in a state-sponsored ritual called the "Quietus"; where the last generation of children (the "Omegas") are treated like spoiled royalty; and where draconian government policies become embraced as part and parcel of giving what remains of society "freedom from fear, freedom from want, and freedom from boredom."

As seen through the eyes of historian and former Oxford don Theo Faren -- "former" because the only educational efforts now are soft courses which keep the population entertained -- it's a world of moral greys, which gradually turn, for him, into black-and-whites when he is approached for help by a former student who is, miraculously, pregnant.

The tale that follows is a subtle morality play, beautifully written and realized. Unlike the film, which has been recast in a more gritty, depressing and obviously "dystopian" light, James's novel, though containing horrors aplenty, also revels in the beauty of an English countryside gone back to nature, focuses on the moral considerations of what it means to be human . . . and holds out the hope that there will always be those among us who will choose the right path rather than the easy one.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Nerdy Fangirl Squee of the Day: Now With 2x the Squee!

Good news and bad news . . .

The good: Neil Gaiman is penning another Doctor Who script!
The bad: It's about these guys:

Maybe Gaiman can make Cybermen actually scary?

And, ahead of Sunday's Firefly: Browncoats Unite special on the Science Channel, EW has this tidbit about Alan Tudyk's weirdest script pitch:

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Book Review: Breed, by Chase Novak

4/5 - MA-LSV             

Blurbs keep comparing Chase Novak's debut* novel Breed to Rosemary's Baby, and there is something there, in that both books tell the stories of well-off Manhattanites and their unusual offspring. And indeed, there's a scene early on that feels very much like an hommage to Levin's classic, but that's really where the similarities end.

A more satisfying comparison might be: Breed is to the dark side of contemporary parenting as American Psycho is to the cutthroat financial world of the Reagan era. Violent, creepy and at times unexpectedly touching, Novak's novel delivers the squicky medical/body horror, and reads as a vicious satire on the lives of the mega-rich who know they'll get everything they want simply because they have the money to pay for it. (And pay they do.) Breed might also be read as a smack upside the head to helicopter parents, a tweak of the nose to the fertility industry, or a Frankenstein-ian take on the hubris of tampering with the natural order. But I digress . . .

Meet Leslie and Alex Twisden, New York power couple. They have satisfying careers (he's a high-profile attorney, she's a respected editor), old money, and a fabulous Manhattan townhouse full of antique heirlooms. They are also madly in love. The one thing they don't seem to have is the ability to conceive. After three years and going on a million dollars spent on "everything from laser surgery to Chinese tea," they've had no luck. So when Alex and Leslie run into old friends from an infertility support group, now hugely with child, the Twisdens  pull some strings to learn their secret. (Weirdly, I liked the Twisdens, particularly Leslie, in spite of themselves. They sound terrible on paper, but they felt authentic, if not quite sympathetic.)

Cut to the Ljubljana, Slovenia clinic of one Dr. Kis, purportedly a cutting-edge pioneer in "fertility enhancement treatments." His unorthodox methods clearly worked for their friends, so Alex made the arrangements and convinced a tired and reluctant Leslie to try this one last treatment. Within the week, they are standing in a bleak waiting room, swallowing their dismay at the shabby premises, the doctor's inability to speak English, and his uncouth bedside manner. Shortly, they will undergo Dr. Kis' groundbreaking procedure: painful injections filled with genetically questionable material, administered with a roughness that could be confused with assault.

But back at their hotel that night, Leslie and Alex fall on each other like teenagers. Like animals.

Ten years later: The Twisden twins, Alice and Adam, are thriving, and well-loved, if more than a little sheltered. The Twisdens have always been a close-knit family, needing or wanting few outside connections. But of late the twins have become concerned -- frightened, even -- about their parents' increasingly erratic behavior. The nearly raw meat they eat at dinner, the strange, animalistic sounds coming from the master bedroom, and also sometimes the basement. And then there's the fact that Leslie and Alex lock the twins into their own rooms each night . . . from the outside. Finally, Adam's fear and curiosity lead him to buck the status quo, and his actions trigger a bloody and disturbing series of events that will have repercussions far beyond just the Twisden family.

To say any more about the plot would deprive you of discovering its twisted joys, but I will say I've never read a horror story -- and I've read more than my share -- that addresses this truly taboo territory.  Breed is inventive and propulsive reading. It's hard to put down, even as you're pretty sure you don't really want to know what's going to happen next.

Breed certainly isn't flawless -- sometimes it's difficult to suspend disbelief in the characters' actions, for example the key bit about flying off to get an experimental treatment from a creepy doctor in an unfamiliar Eastern European city with seemingly no medical regulations. Never having been desperate to, um, breed, maybe I just don't understand the lengths to which people will go. To me it seems like a colossally stupid idea; but -- something like climbing Everest with no mountaineering experience -- perhaps it would appeal to those with more money than sense.

One other flaw is that the denoument of the book, though emotionally satisfying in its way, is completely rushed. Some of that may be stylistic choice, an attempt to indicate heightened stakes and anxiety levels, but for me it was like an episode of "24" -- too much happened, too fast and too conveniently. If I hadn't been told there was a sequel in the works I'd have thought Breed full of dangling and/or unnecessary plot threads. I'll suspend critique on the dangly bits until I see where Novak's overall arc is heading, but the main events of this book did wrap up just a little too neatly.

Still, I'd highly recommend Breed to anyone who's looking for something innovative in the horror field; it's frequently disgusting, and its theme just plain wrong (in the right way). Not even remotely for the squeamish. 

* Since the cat is already out of the bag on this nom de plume, it can't hurt to tell you that, while this is Chase Novak's first novel, the talent actually belongs to two-time National Book Award nominee Scott Spencer, author of 11 novels, one of which is Endless Love. (Don't worry, the book was way better than the movie. It was stalkerrific!)

Monday, November 05, 2012

Book Review: Elsewhere, by William Peter Blatty

(This review refers to the 1999 version, included in the anthology 999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense, not to the 2009 reissue in hardback. I am unsure if there are substantive differences in the text.)

Elsewhere is an eerie little haunted-house story strong on atmospherics and clever dialogue, but one which ultimately disappoints with a pretty stock resolution.

Ambitious real estate agent Joan Freeboard is offered a huge fee if she can sell Elsewhere, a notoriously haunted mansion on an island in the Hudson river. Known as the scene of a particularly gruesome murder-suicide, even the family heirs refuse to live in it, decamping to Italy and putting it on the market.

Joan knows she has to do something to dispel the ridiculous rumors, so in order to clear the house's reputation she hatches a clever PR plan: she retains the services of a psychic, an occult expert from NYU, and her closest friend, award-winning but creatively blocked writer Terence Dare, to spend five days with her at Elsewhere. If all goes well, they can debunk the ghost stories, and Terence can break his dry spell by writing an account of the experiment for a high-profile magazine -- which will also serve as excellent publicity for the house's sale. Win-win, right?

Needless to say, things don't go as planned. But I'll bet you expected that. (At least you did if you've ever read The Haunting of Hill House.)

And that's the real problem with Elsewhere: it's just a bit too predictable to actually be scary. Perhaps that's unfair, since the novella was originally published in 1999 -- earlier than some of the works it ultimately feels derivative of. But if you're up on your contemporary horror, you can see the end coming from miles away. This is especially irritating because, a) we all know Blatty is fully capable of scaring the crap out of readers; and b) because the story's setup seems so obvious you're sure the twist simply can't be what you think it is. And yet.

Elsewhere was a perfectly fine way to while away a Sunday afternoon, and I'm not sorry I read it; I just wish I'd read it before subsequent works made it essentially redundant.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Book Review: The Diviners, by Libba Bray

(Mild spoilers ahead)

Libba Bray's The Diviners, yet another YA novel with a seriously dark streak, is set in the glittering Manhattan of the 1920s -- where jazz clubs are hopping, stars are being made, illegal hooch is flowing, and just about anything can happen.

Including the apocalypse.

A small-town girl from Ohio who commits a tipsy and socially ruinous party-foul, seventeen-year-old firecracker Evie O'Neill has been packed off to stay with her bachelor uncle Will in Manhattan (some punishment, right?). Despite the fact that she's stuck with a stuffy academic who runs a creepy museum (formally known as "The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition and the Occult," but mostly referred to as "The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies"), Evie is thrilled at the chance to taste big-city life for herself, and proceeds to duck Will and drag her quiet friend Mabel into fabulously-attired trouble at every opportunity.

But then Will is called to consult on a brutal murder with ritualistic occult overtones, and Evie brashly invites herself along to the crime scene. Here, her "party trick" again rears its ugly head: Evie has the ability to see a person's history just by touching their belongings. And, when she unthinkingly straightens the buckle on the dead girl's shoe, Evie has a vision like never before: she sees the killer, and he's not like you or me. In fact, it's the infamous occultist John Hobbes (also known as Naughty John) . . . and he's been dead for 50 years. Impossible as it may seem, he's back, and he's got a plan to bring on the end times -- one that's going to take several more bloody rituals.
Though it takes Evie, Will, and a host of friends (among them Will's taciturn assistant Jericho, shy Mabel, and street-smart scoundrel Sam Lloyd) almost 600 pages to unravel the supernatural killer's complex and gruesome intentions, The Diviners has never dull moment. Manhattan in 1926 is a huge canvas, and Bray brings it to life with flair -- the catchy slang, the clothes, the music, the promise in the air -- so "everything's jake," as Evie might say. The cast is also quite large, and full of vivid characters like iconoclastic Ziegfeld girl Theta; her charming "brother" Henry (read: gay bestie); Memphis, a poet who longs to be part of the Harlem Renaissance but runs numbers in the meantime; and Memphis's little brother Isaiah, who is having apocalyptic visions of his own. Each provides additional interest and intrigue, since they all have unique secrets and nightmares to conceal.
And, as the plot thickens and the killer counts down to a rare comet's appearance in the sky, they all, knowingly or not, play a part in the action.

I'll freely admit I thoroughly enjoyed every page of The Diviners, but do have one or two slight reservations, the foremost being that at times this book is extremely frightening and/or bloody, and it also includes scenes of sexual violence. While I found the book (appealingly) disturbing as a horror-jaded adult, it certainly would have scared the bejayzus out of me when I was the tender target age for YA lit. 

Also, some aspects of the novel are almost laughably revisionist. For example: were seventeen year-olds really nightly fixtures at underground gin-joints, and did unescorted white girls often go to Harlem to hear jazz and flirt with black musicians, or wind up at hush-hush gay nightclubs? True, Bray is focused on boho underground culture -- theatricals, artists and musicians -- but the easy attitudes her characters have about race and sexual preference certainly weren't the norm at the time. In fact these kinds of "transgressions" regularly got people beaten or killed up until at least the 1960s, and (sadly) still might in some places. I guess I really can't fault Bray for trying to inject a little tolerance into her imagined 1920s -- after all, if we can buy a supernaturally resurrected serial killer, I guess Theta can fall for Memphis and Henry can dance cheek-to-stubbled-cheek with whomever he likes.

In the end, I might hesitate before handing The Diviners to my (imaginary) thirteen year-old cousin, but it's most definitely going on my Best-of-2012 list. And despite frequent rants about "sequelitis" on the YA and paranormal fiction shelves, I am not at all unhappy to hear Evie and company will return for further adventures. If nothing else, they bring the kind of clever vibe to fighting apocalyptic evil that calls to mind a different set of supernatural white-hats, also led by a sassy blonde. In fact, sometimes you can almost see Will cleaning his glasses -- and if you get that reference, you'll love The Diviners.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book Review: The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater


I had been meaning to read The Scorpio Races  for quite awhile -- it's been sitting patiently on my tablet waiting for an opportunity to stand out. Then I took only my e-reader on vacation, and there it was. Now I'm just sorry I waited so long it's already being developed for the big screen

I suspect Maggie Stiefvater's  Printz Award-Honored novel is one of those books labeled as YA-specific at least in part because it can be: there's no sex or drugs, or even any particularly foul language. It has a feisty teenage heroine, a taciturn, moody hero . . . and YA is the hottest market to be in. True, it is a coming-of-age story, but much like The Hunger Games before it, or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" before that, this is a "YA" story whose central concerns are ageless -- loss, family loyalty, poverty, desperation, endurance, and the weight of responsibility. (Also? Like the other two: there's death and violence, lots and lots of violence.) It would simply be a shame if the YA designation scared off potential adult readers by putting The Scorpio Races on the same shelf as Twilight. <climbs off soapbox>

Set on a rocky, uncompromising island somewhere off the Western coast of not-quite Ireland, in not-quite the mid-twentieth century, TSR is not-quite the story of a girl and her horse. Well, it kind of is, but in no way you'd expect. What it also is: original, tense, otherworldly, and filled with wild, strange danger.

A " . . . crag jutting from the sea . . . hours from the mainland . . . all horses and sheep
 and one-track roads" -- Thisby's  biggest claim to fame is the Scorpio Races.
Each autumn, a festival is held which attracts wealthy tourists and gamblers from "the mainland," even as far as America. The days-long festival culminates in a horse race, one which kills  a significant number of riders -- bloodily -- every year. For on Thisby, as the month of October wanes, the capaill uisceterrible, magical and bloodthirsty horses from the sea, emerge from the waves to menace the island, and insanely brave men  lose their limbs or worse catching and breaking them to ride in the annual abbatoir that is race day.

Kate (called "Puck") Connolly and her brothers, Finn and Gabe, were orphaned by the capaill uisce, both parents killed in a bloody boat attack. (Yes, they will attack both animals and humans, especially as autumn progresses.) After two years alone, the kids are barely getting by. When Gabe, the oldest and breadwinner, announces he's leaving Thisby for the mainland, Puck is heartbroken and desperate at the prospect of fending for herself and younger brother Finn. Thinking of the purse -- and  of punishing Gabe -- Puck makes a rash and foolhardy decision: she declares she'll be the first girl to compete in the Scorpio Races, and she'll ride her own (regular) mare, Dove, against the deadly water horses.    

Sean Kendrick too, lost a parent to the capaill uisce . . . his father, and in the Scorpio Races themselves. But horses run in his blood: at nineteen, he's won the races four times, and will ride again this year on Corr, a powerful red water horse he has managed to quasi-domesticate. Sean is a preternaturally good trainer, handling both normal and water horses better than anyone else on the island. But he's also poor, and to survive Sean works at the breeding stables of the rich, unpleasant Malverns. His dearest dream is to run his own stable, but he hopes this year's purse will at least allow him to buy Corr outright.

And then, Puck meets Sean. But it's not-quite going to go the way you imagine. 

Two appealing protagonists are set on a potentially fatal collision course, and it makes for juicy tension; adding carnivorous water-horses into the mix makes it feel like a fevered fairytale. Which it kind of is: Stiefvater has transformed the mythological Celtic "kelpie" into a magnificent and terrifying reality, a monster which nevertheless has a breathtaking beauty and primal appeal. And around the capaill uisce she has built a world so grounded and real -- so  vividly normal --  that the water horses deliver exactly the alien, bone-chilling intrusion that they should. 

I have to confess I'm a a sucker for good art direction, and The Scorpio Races is a lovely odd, strange, exhilarating, melancholy book (maybe it's the Celtic influence). If, on occasion, the characters' decisions seem a bit predictable (hence the 4.5/5), it almost doesn't matter, since the tale quickly distracts again with its tension and eerie beauty.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Review: 99 Brief Scenes from the End of the World, by T.W. Grim

99  Brief Scenes From The End Of The World 3.5/5 -- MA-LSV

This book started out as a 2.5 and performed the unusual feat of raising itself to a 3.5 by the time I finished it. 99 Brief Scenes From The End Of The World  was stealthy, sneak-up-on-you-good, despite some intrinsic flaws, and I'm glad I stuck with it.

The bad news first: Right out of the box I was irritated that the structure of the book was not as implied by the title. I expected something more like David Eagleman's strange and wonderful Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, only with splatterrific zombie gore. So, when characters and locales began to make repeat appearances, I had to revise my expectation (99 unique pieces of apocalyptic flash-fiction), to reading what is better described as a novel with 99 chapters. These are not always "brief scenes," and some are a bit filler-y, not strictly necessary to the story as a whole. It seems to me that a final round of edits could have pulled this all together into a tight, suspenseful novel not reliant on the random titular number for its structure.

Now for the good news: Grim's book does have a number of things going for it; despite my initial irritation I found it impossible to put down. First and foremost, Grim -- a talented, descriptive writer -- does good character work. Once I finally got to know the core cast of survivors, I became invested their fate(s), and admired the way his craft allows their singular stories to eventually dovetail. Some of the global-picture characters (the foaming-at-the-mouth US President, or the morality-challenged leaders of a Japanese science/weapons lab) certainly might have been excised or toned down a wee bit. Though I suppose they serve to give us a window into the global situation, I found that the struggle for survival (and sanity) of the everyday citizens was more tethered in realism, and gave me more to sink my teeth into.

Speaking of which . . . absolutely key to this particular genre is the splatter, and Grim pours forth an endless stream of surprisingly innovative mayhem. The man knows his gore, and and has a million ways to spill it. in fact, a couple of unbelievably disgusting scenes really worked their way under my skin -- and I eat dinner while watching "The Walking Dead," so do the math. Grim also conceives an unusual twist on the now-standard zombie/rage virus trope (tiny spoiler: it's neither one!) which might allow a continuance of the story . . . something challenging to achieve when writing about an extinction-level event.

Because the unexpected twist piqued my interest, and because it takes a lot to actually gross me out, I not only upgraded this book to "liked a lot" status; I'll happily read any follow-up work Grim gets out there.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Book Review: The Horror of Lisa Mannetti

4.5/5 -- MA-LSV
3/5 -- MA-LSV

 (Spoiler warning in full effect.)
This has been a damnably difficult review to write; I read both of these back-to-back a couple of weeks ago, and am still not sure what to make of Mannetti's freaky and deeply disturbing modern gothic. The Gentling Box won the Bram Stoker for Best First Novel in 2008; Deathwatch is made up of two novellas -- Dissolution (a 2010 Stoker nominee for Long Fiction) and Sheila Na Gig. All three tales, though varied in setting, explore similar psychological ground, and some of the themes -- including necromancy, blood sacrifice, possession and (in particular) medical horror and taboo sexual transgressions -- are most unpleasant. As in, "WTF is wrong with Lisa Mannetti?" unpleasant. Of course I intend no insult; from the interviews I've read she seems like a warm and intelligent woman with a quick sense of humor, someone you'd like to chat with over tea or a beer. Which makes these dark, unforgiving, and ultimately rather misogynistic stories all the stranger. But in the horror field, the provocation of, well, horror, in the reader is kind of the point . . . right?

Set in the Romany culture of Hungary and Romania in the 1860s, The Gentling Box is as claustrophobic as a gypsy caravan, and as bone-chilling as an open grave. Through skillful, atmospheric prose, intense research and a wicked imagination, Mannetti recreates a world where fear, superstition and magic still hold sway; impeccably detailed, exotic enough to feel like a dark, bloody fairy tale, this book is definitely not for the squeamish. The Gentling Box is the tragedy of horse-trader Imre, his Romany wife Mimi, and their daughter Lenore. The two women become targets (and in Mimi's case, a meat-sack) for the ghost of Anyeta, Mimi's scheming mother, in life a powerful gypsy witch with a lust for immortality (among other things). Anyeta's power springs from "The Hand of the Dead," a repulsive fetish that grants the possessor power over life and death, and her goal is the acquisition of a fresh body. Anyeta's assault on the family includes poisoning the desperately protective Imre with disease and hallucinations, particularly sexual illusions -- she seduces and mocks him while possessing his wife's body, and curses him with unbearable and humiliating desire for the adolescent Lenore. The more Imre struggles to save his family from Anyeta's foul gypsy curse, the more it  tightens around him, until he's left dying and helpless, faced with an impossible choice. There's no question this deserved a Stoker: The Gentling Box, though unrelievedly dark and dreadful, is ambitious and uniquely haunting.

However, the novellas that make up Deathwatch are more problematic for me. That they again feature wicked women wielding supernatural powers to manipulate men into destroying other women (children, really) is what disturbs and somewhat dismays me. In Dissolution we meet another ghost, the mother of twelve-year-old conjoined twins Abby and Ellie, who seeks to live again through the body(ies) of her daughters. Again the ghost plays manipulative erotic tricks, this time upon the young surgeon  burdened with separating the twins, and to even more disastrous and disgusting results. In Dissolution, the medical/body horror works, but the young doctor's slide into madness and pedophilia plays like a repetitive and far less subtle version of The Gentling Box's horrors. And in Sheila Na Gig, an Irish crone uses ancient fertility magic to keep her family and its fortunes firmly under her control. If I told you her manipulations result in several deaths and an adolescent girl incestuously impregnated, I think that might be enough of the plot with which to make my point.

So here it is: the but-face. You know I love me some horror, the darker and more hopeless the better. I also  love the way Mannetti writes . . . The Gentling Box is unforgettable and alone warrants her a place at the big kids' table. But so far my experience with her work has left me equal parts impressed and repulsed. I think her various violations of the body -- possession, radical surgery, and the twisting of the erotic to make it unpalatable and unnatural -- work, even as they are profoundly disgusting. But I can't say that the repetitive theme of violence done to women by other women  (using men's lust and gullibility as their weapons) is a good look for any writer to be stuck in, let alone a woman. I'm pretty shock-proof, so when something makes me want to throw up on a book, that's news. Dissolution in particular openly crosses a line that is difficult to stomach. I'm no prude, but there were points at which I felt contaminated by the text.

Now . . . is that good horror or not? 

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Nerdy Fangirl Squee of the Day: This one counts double!

The magnificent Neil Gaiman wins a Hugo for the utterly charming
Doctor Who episode "The Doctor's Wife."
Click on the image below to go to Neil's blog and read the full tale.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review: Mockingbird (Miriam Black #2), by Chuck Wendig


Ass-kicking "vulture" Miriam Black* is back, and trying to make a go of "normalcy." Sure, she's no longer grifting on the back of her visions of death, but then she's also dying a little herself every day. Sharing an Airstream with trucker Louis (who's never home), stifling her visions, and working the checkout counter at a crappy Jersey Shore convenience store just isn't cutting it. So when one more sunburned bitch in a muumuu makes a crack about Miriam's gloves . . . they come off. Both literally and figuratively. And we all know where that can lead.

Pink-slipped and pissed off, she's ready to blow town when Louis offers her a last-ditch peace-offering. He has a friend, a teacher at an exclusive all-girls boarding institution, who is willing to pay for Miriam's "talent," and she finds herself almost too eager to agree. Easy, in and out, right?

But as we all know, boarding schools just scream perverse and creepy, so she's not getting away that easy. When a casual encounter with a smart-ass student brings on a debilitating vision of the girl's torture and death at the hands of a bird-masked butcher, Miriam feels compelled to see what she can do about twisting Fate. Again.

While still rocking  plenty of Miriam's patented irreverent snark, and a bunch of epic fights (man can this girl take a beating -- she's either a Slayer or related to Harry Dresden), this book delivers a more introspective Miriam. We learn more about her seriously damaged history, and that recently, she's had a frequent visitor. She calls him  "The Trespasser," and he likes to arrive out of nowhere in the shape of a dead lover, the back of his skull blown off, delivering ominous messages regarding the "work" she has to do. Which is suddenly somehow related to the girls of the Caldecott School. So there goes Jersey . . . and the gloves. Who wants normal anyway?

Bravo, Mr. Wendig. A sequel that's as good as the first, possibly better (the yellow-line metaphors are certainly much more effective* . . . melting butter pats FTW!), Mockingbird also significantly ups both character development and the creep-factor, with Miriam facing a truly insidious and deeply disturbing adversary. A bit less noir and more horror than Blackbirds, this book kept me up late into the night, alternately cracking me up and building up dread . . . the twisted twists keep coming right to the end. Can't wait for #3 -- Cormorant -- due in 2013.

*See my review of Blackbirds (Miriam Black #1) here.

More: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski


Okay, so I think I'm finished with this book, if lacking even the remotest textual sense of an ending can be called "finished."

 Lev Grossman, in a recent review of the new David Foster Wallace bio, talks about the genre that DFW helped to birth, and that James Woods referred to (in a review of Zadie Smith's White Teeth) as "hysterical realism." Grossman says:

               Wood coined the phrase to describe the big, hyper-inter-connected,
detailed, hyper-annotated, novels that Rushdie, Pynchon,  
               DeLillo, DFW and Smith were writing at the time . . ..  Hysterical realism treats
               the world as an infinite network, but we already have an infinite network, the
               Internet, and our nose is rubbed in it on an hourly basis. We don’t need more of
               that—more hysteria. We need novels that help us manage hysteria instead.

It's interesting (or maybe just inevitable) that this branch of postmodernism began to peter out even as the internet was remaking the way we process information. House of Leaves, published in 2000, also tries that sort of remaking . . . in fact, it may represent the genre at its most excessive, with multiple layers of narration, endless footnotes, experiments in typography and page layout, and several appendices that may or may not enhance the reader's experience of the story ("novel" feels like a misnomer).  And of course there are no answers to its endless riddles, aside from the ones the reader wants to see.

Is House of Leaves hysteria inducing, or just a lot of work? I think that depends on how much you enjoy puzzles, or maybe how much time you have to devote to puzzling. I remember reading Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum in the good ol' days pre-Internet, and desperately wanting to look up every historical reference to see if he was pulling my leg or not. Fact was, I enjoyed it immensely without (in fact, it's one of my permanently earmarked desert island tomes, and I never have bothered with that web research now that it's available). I also enjoyed DFW's Infinite Jest when the only stylistic point of reference I had was Nabokov's Pale Fire (yeah, he did the footnote/end-note/gloss thing way back in 1962).

So . . . House of Leaves was good, but not great. Maybe I'd have been more impressed had I read it when its its stylistic quirks were still fresh; maybe I'd care more about putting the reams of clues together if I were writing some dry academic treatise on it. (On the other hand, HoL makes a great deal of indirect and snarky fun of dry academic treatises, so . . . maybe not so much.) Yes, I was amused by the endless invented scholarship; yes, some of Johnny Truant's prose sings like a nightingale; but, much like Nabokov's annotated poem, HoL relies almost completely on the interpretation of a text by an unreliable narrator, taking that conceit one step further to a level of TWO unreliable narrators -- each telling his own story as much as the Navidsons'. And the rub is that the narrative buried deepest in is the most intriguing.

The Navidson Report had me at "bigger on the inside," and the uncanny nature of the great dark void at the center of the house is what really kept me going. I expect the text is intended to be as much a mystery as that inexplicable darkness -- which, ironically, is the only narrative thread with an emotionally satisfying conclusion. I'm not even sure what I'm saying anymore, so I'll leave it at this: 5 big shiny stars for The Navidson Report, which is creepy beyond measure.  3 stars for the rest, which can be both lyrical and amusing, but in the end amounts to an entirely different tale, which is nowhere near as compelling.