Book review: Crawlspace

Crawlspace: Dark Gory HorrorCrawlspace: Dark Gory Horror by Dan Padavona
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Spoilers in this review after the next paragraph, so be warned.

Crawlspace is a fairly standard “psycho killer(s) on the loose” story, but there are areas where I feel it falls short, bringing down the overall experience.

First, the author may find himself surprised when he turns 50 and discovers that everyone does not turn into haggard, out of shape old people as soon as they hit the half century mark. Every observation about an older character in the story would convince you otherwise. This is a common issue with younger authors and even Stephen King bungled middle-aged or older folks in his early novels. Still, it’s 2018, not 1718. People live past their 30s now and can actually stay in shape. :P

The biggest problem with the story is the protagonist. Jerry Laymon has bad judgment, a bad temper, a bad attitude, regularly makes impulsive and irrational choices, and claims he’s not all about sex while constantly describing the physical characteristics of every female character (that isn’t a decrepit 50-year old) in lurid detail. He is, in a word, a schmuck. And he narrates the story, so you don’t even get the satisfaction of him nobly sacrificing himself at the end.

The main issue with the character, though, isn’t that he’s actively unlikable, though at times he is, it’s that his odd decisions are needed to drive the plot forward and as always this remains my least favorite thing authors do in their stories. When the plot drives the characters, you are unlikely to engage readers or make them care much about the characters. They become pieces being moved across a game board, except in this case the game board is covered in plastic to catch all the blood of the victims of the wife and husband team of Satanic and occasional serial killers.

Also, there is a weird anti-university thing going on that gets played up a lot in the first half of the book that feels more like the author’s personal politics being injected than anything that actually serves the story. Laymon views all other students as entitled and spoiled, wasting their time while they acquire debt. The professors are terrible people who live in mansions and protect each other at the expense of the student body. The townfolk also apparently hate the university and all who attend it, leading to clashes–literal clashes, like fistfights and such–between the university crowd and the “townies.” It all seems a bit odd, but maybe I’ve just lived in nicer cities.

Anyway, the last chapter is a drawn-out fight between the haggard/old/in their 50s Satanic killers, Jerry, Kelli (his girlfriend) and Charlotte (his next girlfriend) and it mostly takes place in near or total darkness so there’s lots of wondering who’s where and what’s what. It all feels very conventional after the build-up to a possibly supernatural pair of murderous killers who move seamlessly through time to kill and kill again. No, they just use the crawlspace.

Some of the scenes moving through the titular crawlspace are actually fairly well-done, and the writing is always decent, if sometimes melodramatic. But this story is just a little too weird in the wrong ways to really recommend.

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Book review: Him Standing

Him StandingHim Standing by Richard Wagamese
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novella has one of the most delightfully creepy covers I’ve seen in recent years. A quick glance at the premise–a young Ojibway man carver is asked to make a spirit mask by a mysterious stranger, with possibly dire consequences–and I was in.

Him standing is one of those stories that doesn’t surprise in any way, but it achieves everything it sets out to do, making the time you spend with the amiable and slightly goofy protagonist Lucas Smoke perfectly enjoyable. Smoke’s ability to capture a person’s likeness, their essential essence, in wood attracts the attention of a vaguely menacing stranger who conscripts him to make a spirit mask for what turns out to be a Very Bad Reason. Hijinks follow involving shaman both good and evil, alive and not-exactly-alive, the dream world and more.

Richard Wagamese does a nice job of capturing the voice of Smoke, a charming, uncomplicated man whose core decency is as much a part of what saves him as is his ability to tap into mystical abilities he never knew he had. While his fight against the stranger–identified later as Gareth Knight, a modern-day shaman, is predictable, it’s a fun little ride, peppered with quirky touches, like Knight’s apparent obsession with different hats.

Him Standing is a solid read that does justice to its subject matter without descending into hokum.

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Book review: Snowblind

SnowblindSnowblind by Christopher Golden
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Snowblind is like a reliable sedan–it safely gets you where you want to go, and with no real surprises along the way, unpleasant or otherwise. But like that reliable sedan, you’re not likely to long remember the trip riding in it, either.

Having now broken my solemn vow to never use analogies, there is one odd bit I will remember and it has nothing to do with the story per se. Christopher Golden really likes the word “bitch.” He uses it (32 times) both as a verb and a descriptor, and every time he does it stands out in the same way that unironically using the word “groovy” to describe something in positive terms would. It was kind of distracting.

The Stephen King blurb on the cover promises Snowblind will be “deeply scary” but I didn’t find it scary at all–and I don’t even like snow! Or demons. Or snow demons, which Snowblind features, with icicle teeth and bottomless dark eyes filled with cruel intelligence (though they actually seem kind of dumb when it’s time to put plans into action). But not being scary is perfectly fine with me. A horror novel doesn’t have to make me want to keep the lights on, it just has to tell a good story within the milieu of horror.

While I was okay with the premise–otherworldly demons ride in on blizzards and attack the living–and thought the framing device of having them attack, then leave survivors to deal with their return when another monster blizzard strikes a dozen years later–was also interesting, there were aspects of the story that didn’t hold together as well as they might have, diminishing the overall experience.

I felt there were a few too many characters and switching back and forth between different groups didn’t really add much to the story, it just left me feeling less invested in everyone’s fate. This was exacerbated by some of the characters being rather shallow. I didn’t feel connected to them and at times it felt more like they were moving to help the plot rather than acting naturally (probably my biggest pet peeve when it comes to fiction).

There are predictable turns–the noble sacrifice is set up early, so by the time it arrives all I could do was let out a small sigh and keep reading–but for the most part these don’t actively detract from the story, but neither do they enhance it. The prose is straightforward, perhaps setting a low bar, but also easily clearing it. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but there is something to be said for authors not journeying deep into their navels when trying to tell a simple story.

However, the actual demon-things are presented in a way that makes them not so much menacing as cartoonishly evil, and this undercuts much of what Golden has built. Whenever they showed up I found myself imagining more effective ways of depicting them. And while the framing device of splitting the story into two storms separated by twelve years is not a bad one, it leads to a lot of not much happening between the blizzards. The characters go about their lives and things happen, but none of it is especially compelling.

This paragraph contains a spoiler on the ending. Read at your peril! (Apologies if the spoiler tags don’t work.) (view spoiler)

Despite what I’ve written, I don’t think Snowblind is a bad book, it’s just ordinary, a story that has all the right pieces, but doesn’t do anything to elevate what’s there into something better than just serviceable.

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Book review: Mateguas Island

Mateguas Island: A Novel of Horror and Suspense (Mateguas Island, #1)Mateguas Island: A Novel of Horror and Suspense by Linda Watkins
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I should note that this is not a review of the full book, so keep that in mind, as I only made it 20% of the way through before abandoning it.

It is rare that I pick up a book and then not finish it. I will usually push to the end just for the sense of completion, but I could not keep going here.

The last few years I’ve been taking advantage of sales to explore new authors and I’ve found a few new favorites, some I’ve enjoyed but don’t necessarily feel compelled to keep following and a few that I’ve made a point to never investigate again.

Unfortunately the latter is the case here. Mateguas Island feels like a project where someone misread what not to do in creative writing and did all of those things instead of avoiding them.

There are pages and pages of backstory for every character, even to the point that the first meeting between the wife and husband is played out in separate chapters from each character’s perspective. Exposition is lengthy and explicit, the characters thoughts are carefully laid out for the reader in detail, often bracketed by even more exposition. Motivations are not revealed through actions or dialogue, but through the author stating them.

On top of this, all of the characters are unlikable, either shrill and manipulative, or weak and fumbling, or “flawed” in ways that make you kind of hate them. And they are always so very transparent to themselves (through those endless internal monologues) and to everyone else. Maybe the big reveal later is all the characters have telepathy.

In the first 20% of the story, nothing happens. The “precocious” twins, who speak more like pod people than actual children, find a slim locked box. One of them has a vague bad dream. It rains. There is alleged tension in the relationship of the husband and wife, but the characters are so unpleasant I was hoping the mouth to Hell would open and swallow them up, but no such luck.

If the author had started the action a lot sooner I probably would have kept muddling through to see what happens, but after my 20% investment it was easy to close the book and not give a whit.

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Book review: Abandon

AbandonAbandon by Blake Crouch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review is full of spoilers, the way the hole under a lifted rock is full of bugs. Or something like that. If you want a short, non-spoiler review, read the next paragraph, then stop.

Abandon is well-written and has an intriguing premise–why did the 100+ inhabitants of a Colorado mining town suddenly disappear on Christmas Day in 1893?–that unravels once the mystery is revealed, and the plot gets hijacked by cartoonishly evil people, way too many coincidences and convenient acts of god. It’s a story about how isolation and greed affect people (hint: neither are good), but it fails to resonate because Crouch regularly undercuts the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief.

Spoilers ahead! The premise–and the fact that I enjoyed Crouch’s fun alternate reality romp Dark Matter–is what drew me to pick up Abandon. (It should be noted that Abandon is Crouch’s third novel, published in 2009, where Dark Matter came out in 2016.) Abandon establishes a structure where scenes jump from Christmas 1893 to late fall 2009 and back again. The present-day scenes follow Abigail Foster, who, along with her estranged father Lawrence, a ghost-hunting couple, and their guides, head up to Abandon to check the town out before the snows come and it becomes inaccessible until the spring.

Crouch starts unwinding things slowly and there’s some tension early on over whether anything actually supernatural might happen, especially in the present day. The 1893 scenes depict a town hit on hard times and winding down, its citizens poor and tired and about ready to, well, abandon Abandon. Crouch neatly handles the differences in dialect between the two time periods without making it seem forced or unnatural, though the citizens of Abandon tend to fancy the exact same expressions.

Where the story started to lose me was after the mystery got revealed–not because the mystery was gone, but because of what happens for the remainder of the novel. In 1893 the town’s preacher, Stephen Cole, goes mad because–well, he does (a brain tumor is hinted at). And God tells him to kill all the wicked heathens (the citizens of Abandon). Meantime, there’s a stash of Conquistador gold that’s been piled up and hidden in the area for a few hundred years and a couple of the locals look to make off with it.

Cole convinces the town that a marauding band of cannibal Indians is making its way to Abandon and everyone must hide in the mine above the town while they pass through. He escorts them all into the mine for safety (hehe), and then marshals some of the men to go meet the savages head-on. Cole shoots and kills the men. A few days later he returns to the mine with a team of burros carrying the gold. He dumps the gold off in an alcove inside the mine. Then he locks the impenetrable steel door for good, leaving the last few still alive to die.

One person manages to escape by getting boosted through a natural chimney by the barmaid due to be hanged in the spring–more on her fate in a bit.

From the 1893 side we see men who beat women, men who beat men and men willing to murder over gold or just because they’re plain loco.

In 2009…it’s mostly the same. It turns out Abagail’s father has lied about their trip to Abandon–he knows about the gold, and how it was never found. A small band of Iraqi vets (who maybe totally have PTSD) want him to lead them to it, then use everyone to help haul it out and be rich, hooray.

From here the 2009 scenes alternate between a kind of torture porn, with the group leader Isiah constantly threatening to hurt people, and sparing no detail in telling them how. He kills the husband of the ghost-hunting team to prove he’s a credible threat. After that the other members of the party–all of whom are evil or foolish, save Abigail, who is only kind of foolish–face various horrible ends.

There are several near-comedic scenes where Abigail and the others almost escape, but always get caught again. They finally think they’ve succeeded when Isiah and his right-hand man Jerrod go sliding off a cliff. But they can’t get close to the cliff edge to see the bodies. But they’re totally dead, right? Of course not. Convenient ledge.

But Isiah dispatches Jerrod because Jerrod is hurt and there’s no hope of rescue. Sorry, Jerrod! Isiah somehow gets down unscathed, spoiling for revenge/whatever. He also managed to hold onto his gun.

Meanwhile, the sudden appearance of a guy named Quinn startles, then delights Lawrence. He’s a big admirer of Lawrence’s work. What a coincidence they’d meet up at Abandon. Quinn has a key. Lawrence thinks some more and thinks he knows where the key might fit. Plus maybe gold. The three head up to the mine, unlock the magic door, and in that little alcove, there it is. While Lawrence and Abigail are exploring the mine–and finding the bones of the citizens of Abandon–Quinn helps himself to a bunch of gold, then uses the key to lock up that impenetrable steel door because he is super-evil.

Thus trapped, Lawrence and Abigail spend several days trying to find a way out. A veritable blizzard begins blanketing the mountain. They finally find a natural chimney and Lawrence is able to boost Abigail up high enough for her to climb out. She somehow makes her way back to Abandon, finds Scott in the old hotel, one of the guides thought to be dead, but who totally went ninja on his captor despite a grievous injury. They head out for Scott’s SUV, located miles down the mountain.

Quinn immediately pops up and gives chase, taking potshots with a rifle.

They evade until Scott finally has to get out of their hidden tent to take a poop. He then gets shot dead–by Isiah! Then Isiah starts to describe how he’s going to kill Abigail. He then gets shot dead–by Quinn! This is why guns are bad. So much shooting! At this point I thought the whole thing was just kind of ridiculous, but nearly everyone was now dead or stuck in a cave, so what else could happen?

Well, as it turns out, Abigail makes it to Scott’s SUV and peels off, just as Quinn arrives to get off a few more shots. He gets in another vehicle for a good ol’ car chase.

Meanwhile, in 1893, Lana Hartman, the mute piano-player, has escaped the mine, but Cole is on her like Quinn on Abigail, except slower, because they don’t have motor vehicles. He chases her on down through the snowy slopes of the mountain and though she falters, she never gives up. In the end she grows weak and stumbles and Cole–who has conscripted a seven year girl as his co-murderer (it’s easier to just not explain) is about to dispatch her when…an avalanche literally sweeps them all away, killing Cole, probably the girl, but leaving Lana relatively unscathed. Those darned convenient acts of god.

Lana pushes on through the snow and finally makes it to the town of Silverton, where she is brought to the hotel and treated by a local doctor, who regretfully has to amputate her legs and left arm due to the “mortification.” As she can’t talk, he gives her a notepad and she writes out the terrible tale of Abandon and also P.S. ALL THAT GOLD UP THERE. This is the doctor’s cue to reveal himself as super-evil. He knocks Lana unconscious, cuts off her good right arm, then signs her off to an insane asylum, because who knows what trouble a mute woman with three missing limbs might get up to when there’s gold to be found otherwise?

Somehow he never finds the gold, despite Lana earlier handing him the key to the mine door and telling him via the notepad to send a rescue party as there are children and such locked up there.

Back in 2009, Abigail arrives at…Silverton! Is she safe in civilization? No, Quinn is still hot on her trail. She dashes into a hotel and asks where the sheriff is, then tells the indifferent clerk to hide under the counter. Quinn comes in, huffs and puffs a bit, then leaves.

Abigail makes it the sheriff’s office or actually his home. Or maybe both? Anyway, his daughter Jennifer lets her in and for some reason Abigail clams up about her whole story, as if Quinn is suddenly not a threat. She finds an old book on a shelf and leafs through it. It’s that super-evil doctor’s journal from 1893! The sheriff spies her reading it and that’s when the drugged tea she was given kicks in. Turns out the Quinn is the sheriff’s son and they, along with Jennifer, are descendants of the super-evil doctor and have been hankering for that gold he never found. They are also super-evil, blithely willing to pass off multiple murders as a few days of bad behavior in exchange for lots and lots of gold.

They plan to take Abigail back up the mountain to make it look like she didn’t make it trying to get down through the snowy conditions. Instead, Abigail remembers she has her father’s Ruger stuffed in her pants (okay, it’s actually in her jacket, which the super-evil trio somehow failed to check), and even though she has 30 milligrams of Oxicodone–per Jennifer–coursing through her system, she manages to shoot and kill all three of them while completely zonked out.

THE END.

Except she goes on trial for murder, but then is found not guilty due to “mental defect.”

THE END.

Except I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the other details that just don’t add up. Abigail keeps quiet about the gold during the trial–confiding to her mother afterward how it brings out the worst in people (you think?) But it’s made clear earlier that multiple people knew about the gold and have been trying for more than a hundred years to find it. It doesn’t really seem that secret. Also, the drugged tea, the bullet holes in Scott’s SUV, Quinn’s rifle where said bullets came from, and a billion other pieces of evidence would clearly paint a picture of how yes, maybe someone really was trying to kill her and it wasn’t a “mental defect.”

But anyway, that’s where the story ended, so I was glad.

What frustrated me is despite everything I’ve said, Crouch writes the whole thing really well for the most part. It’s not just readable, it’s colorful, full of interesting and weird characters, vivid imagery, scenes that blend the real and hallucinatory. It’s just saddled with cartoonishly evil people, and a stream of coincidences and plot contrivances.

A curious “great idea/not so great execution” I can’t really recommend, unless you’re okay with everything that was obviously a problem for me. If you are, all the better for you, because the writing, as said, is quite good.

One thumb up, the other thumb waggling at the first one disapprovingly.

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Book review: Paperbacks from Hell

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror FictionPaperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Equal parts snarky and respectful, this look back on the paperback horror novels of the 1970s and 80s is a gruesomely delightful trip down memory lane.

Hendrix’s language in describing the outlandish stories moves beyond colorful and into tasteless at times, but I could never decide if it was in keeping with the spirit of the books described or if he was trying (and perhaps failing) to adopt the presence of a guy at a bar sharing some whacked-out stories with you. It doesn’t come up a lot and I suspect it won’t be an issue for most people attracted to this book, but be warned all the same.

How you read this book will greatly affect your enjoyment of it. This is not something to read on a Kindle or Kobo ereader. If you are not in possession of a paper copy, you owe it to yourself to read this on a larger tablet, all the better to take in the dozens of gaudy, gory and inevitably skeleton-filled book covers. I recognized a few here and there, but even as a fan of horror in the 80s, a lot of these were new to me.

Did I mention the skeleton covers? Skeletons were very popular.

When you’re not drinking in the bloody book covers, Hendrix provides a somewhat truncated overview of the period, dividing the chapters into different themes such as Hail Satan, Creepy Kids, Weird Science and so on. For everyone who scrunched up their toes at that scene in Stephen King’s IT (hint: it involves sex and kids), Hendrix lays out stuff that is far worse here, stuff that layers on one outrageous, offensive, gory, horrible, disgusting thing on another, then slices them all in half with a machete and serves them up for dinner, with the boiled blood of babies as the gravy. I’m probably underselling some of these novels on how gruesome they are–and this is before Hendrix even gets to the actual splatterpunk sub-genre.

In a way, Paperbacks from Hell is sad, as it chronicles the rise of popular horror fiction that began after Rosemary’s Baby became a hit in the late 60s, and follows along as it sputters out in the early 90s. This is when horror proper gave way to thrillers (aka a million variations on “killer on the loose” stories). While Grady doesn’t talk about contemporary horror, a visit to any decent-sized bookstore (those that remain) will reveal that not much has changed. Horror is again a niche, and in some ways worse (or better, depending on your perspective), with endless series based on zombie apocalypses, other apocalypses, or zombie apocalypses mixed in with other apocalypses. If you like zombies, though, you pretty much have a lifetime smorgasbord already waiting for you.

In the end, though, it’s the lurid full color book covers that make Paperbacks From Hell worth looking through. There is enough here to keep a Ridiculous Book Cover blog going for years.

Recommended for fans of horror or fans of paperback art who don’t mind the occasionally gruesome work. And lots of skeletons.

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Book review: Strange Weather

Strange WeatherStrange Weather by Joe Hill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’d easily give Strange Weather four stars, but one of the stories just didn’t work for me. Having said that, this is still an easy recommendation for both fans of Hill and horror in general.

The first story, “Snapshot” has a nice Twilight Zone vibe going on. Set in 1988, it tells of a surly, strange man with a not-quite Polaroid camera that does more than just take your picture, it takes you, a piece at a time. The man encounters an awkward, clumsy, but bright teenage boy and…things happen. It’s better to just read and enjoy the story.

The second story, “Loaded” is about a murderous psychopath who acquires a lot of guns and goes on a shooting rampage and kills a lot of people. And that’s it. In the Afterword Hill describes it as “my attempt to make sense out of our national hard-on for The Gun” and while the story certainly has plenty of guns and gun-related violence, it didn’t work for me, even as I imagine Hill leaning back in his chair, pointing a finger gun at the monitor after writing the last sentence of the story and saying, “Nailed it!” If “Loaded” were a movie, it would be an unrewarding slog, a series of killings that say little more than “a psychopath with guns is probably not a good thing.” I also felt the characters didn’t always act believably. The reporter makes a long string of stupid decisions for no apparent reason, while I think the psychopath would likely have killed himself after one particular event in the story.

spoiler
specifically after he accidentally shoots and kills his son
The forest fire that serves as a backdrop is maybe meant to be a metaphor, but it could have been cut from the story and not affected it at all.

I did think it was clever setting the story in Florida, though, allowing the character of Kellaway (the killer) to represent everyone’s crime headline favorite, Florida Man.

The third story, “Aloft” is a fantasy involving a petrified skydiver who, on his first jump, lands on a cloud that turns out to be more than just a cloud. It’s funny and weird and the background story that intersperses his travails on the cloud is touching and engaging. The whole story just hangs together tightly.

The final story, “Rain” is a bleak, nasty tale that asks the question, “What if it rained super-sharp shards of crystal?” If you guessed “a lot of people would die”, you’re right! Things tie together a little too conveniently at times and the whole “Comet Cult” group that serve as neighbors to the main character, seem more in service to the plot than being necessary to the story. Still, Hill skillfully paints a truly frightening picture of a world where the weather can suddenly kill. A certain president with a fondness for tweeting insults adds further to the story’s sense of despair.

Overall, Strange Weather is a terrific collection, even if “Loaded” was a misfire (sorry) for me.

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Book review: What the Hell Did I Just Read

What the Hell Did I Just Read (John Dies at the End #3)What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even though the title of What the Hell Did I Just Read is self-referential in the same the previous novel was (This Book is Full of Spiders), I still kept reading expecting some sort of arcane book to play a part in the story.

Don’t be dumb like me. The only book is the novel itself, the third adventure of David, John and Amy, twenty-somethings living in Undisclosed, a small town beset by supernatural as well as super gross manifestations.

Like the previous entries, What the Hell Did I Just Read is filled with weird (Batmantis???) and gruesome (giant squirming larvae) monsters that the would-be heroes must stop before the town and possibly the universe itself is destroyed.

It’s more fun than it sounds.

The story starts with a child kidnapping and as the saying goes, things escalate quickly, with seemingly immortal not-government agents, a biker gang and others tossed together as an unceasing storm threatens to sweep the town away in a devastating flood.

Jason Pargin, going under the pen name David Wong, does his usual excellent job juggling all of the elements while tossing in regular dollops of absurdist humor. There are even a few serious moments of personal growth for some of the characters. But only a few. Mostly it’s dildo guns, silicone butts, dimensions of endless despair and children who may not be quite as they appear.

My only real disappoint with the story is how it builds to a climax that never really happens. Sure, stuff happens but not necessarily what you’d expect, although you could argue that’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. It’s open-ended when I was not expecting it to be open-ended. Maybe Pargin wanted to leave room for a direct sequel, because who can’t get enough of giant squirming larvae that could potentially destroy the world?

This is an easy recommendation for anyone who enjoyed the first two Books (the first being John Dies at the End). For anyone else who is not averse to some well-written and occasionally gross-out horror with tongue in/through cheek, it’s still a solid recommendation (though you should still read all three in order for maximum effect).

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Book review: Lost Signals

Lost SignalsLost Signals by Max Booth III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with most anthologies, the quality of the individual stories varies in Lost Signals and while a few didn’t do much for me, the collection overall is well worth reading if you enjoy horror.

A lot of enjoyment comes from how the authors make use of the broad theme of the book, with the inevitable stories about weird radio transmissions, and others that get even weirder, darker or both. There are references to the Cthulhu mythos, Twilight Zone-ish dead people calling on phones, jovial electronic devices that seem to enjoy killing, time displacement and enough electrical discharges to put your hair permanently on end.

“All That You Leave Behind” is a haunting tale by Paul Michael Anderson in which a couple experiences the sorrow of a miscarriage and the surreal joy of birth simultaneously. Keeping with babies, Damien Angelica Walters’ “Little Girl Blue, Come Cry Your Way Home” will make you look twice at baby monitors.

David James Keaton’s “Sharks with Thumbs” (apparently you needed at least three names to get into this anthology) nearly lost me up front as it’s written from the second person perspective, but the off-kilter story of a man and a fly that acts as a supernatural transmitter is so daft the unusual choice of perspective ends up working.

While I normally don’t give much thought to the actual order of stories in a collection, I had expected the long “All That You Leave Behind” to be the concluding tale, but it’s followed by a rather glib tale presented as an epistolary of a video game that inspires many of the children in a small town to kill themselves. The quiet, powerful conclusion of “All That You Leave Behind” would have been a nice conclusion for the book, but “somethinginthecode” feels like an attempt to abruptly lighten things up (weird, I know, given the plot of the story). It’s a minor thing, and others may react differently (or indifferently).

Overall, the range of styles and subject in service of weird horror and the specific theme are strong and varied enough to warrant a recommendation. Just be advised that the tinfoil hate probably won’t help.

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Book review: The Boy Who Drew Monsters

The Boy Who Drew MonstersThe Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The ending of The Boy Who Drew Monsters caught me by (pleasant) surprise, which was a fun way to end the novel, but it also made me reflect back on the story’s events that lead up to that ending, and I’m left with the feeling that while this is a good, creepy story, it falls short of its potential.

The potential goes unfilled for a couple of reasons. On the plus side, all the ingredients are here for a spooky tale–a remote(ish) seaside location during a snowy winter, a strange child with some rather unique talents, old shipwrecks and their possible ghosts, unearthed bones, sightings of weird people and animals. Into this author Keith Donohue inserts an unhappy family–a young couple straining to hold everything together as they raise their son, a ten year old with Asperger’s and agoraphobia who spends most of his time withdrawn into himself.

Things get progressively weirder as the house and area are beset by unusual sounds and fleeting glimpses of monstrous things. Holly, the wife, finding little comfort from her husband, the once unfaithful Tim, returns to church, seeking guidance from a surprisingly skeptical priest and his odd Japanese housekeeper, who speaks openly of ghosts over the objections of the priest.

All of this is good material but there are problems. The pacing feels off. When the first big storm of the winter arrives you know it’s going to lead into the story’s conclusion. The problem is that while a lot of plot points are introduced, there is no sense of escalation, things just keep happening until the storm hits and the story leaps forward to an abrupt conclusion.

The priest is an entirely odd character, seeming to fit more of a “skeptical scientist” role who adds little to the story. The housekeeper offers more, bringing comfort to Holly and speaking to the boy, Jack Peter, holding out the promise of a breakthrough with him, but this gets abandoned without further exploration, again making her character seem superfluous.

Jack Peter, the boy, is unsympathetic. While the reader will naturally feel bad about his afflictions, his behavior is compulsively strange and remote, and never really changes.

In the end the story just needs more flesh on its bones. What is here is decent enough, there’s just not enough of it, leaving the story feeling thin and underdeveloped. Donohue’s writing has a lyrical rhythm to it, which makes the relatively thin material all the more frustrating. This could have been a great read instead of just a good one.

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Book review: Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted PlacesGhostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ghostland is at turns frightening and horrifying, not because of the alleged ghosts said to haunt homes, bars, hotels and other places across the U.S., but due to the sometimes unspeakably awful ways the people who lived, worked or occupied these places behaved.

In the hands of author Colin Dickey, Ghostland is an examination of how crime, class warfare, sexism, racism and more are often the root of so many ghostly appearances. Where people have suffered, Dickey argues, stories of ghosts thrive, borne variously from anxiety, guilt and loss. Sometimes the stories have an economic motivation–people making a few bucks off tours of allegedly haunted houses. Other times the stories are a way of translating some human horror–the mistreatment and abuse of slaves, for one–into something more easily-digested. As Dickey notes, “Ghost stories like [these] are a way for us to revel in the open wounds of the past while any question of responsibility for that past blurs, then fades away.”

As Dickey details the operation of massive insane asylums constructed in the mid to late 19th century, with their horrific overcrowding and cruel experimentation on patients in search of “curing” them, it seems inevitable that ghost stories would emerge from the real-life horrors that went on inside the walls of these hospitals.

Dickey also covers some well-known haunted locales, such as the Winchester Mystery House. Here he lays out evidence suggesting that Sarah Winchester didn’t keep adding rooms to the mansion to ward off the spirits of those killed by her husband’s rifles, but because she had the keen mind of an architect–and nearly limitless funds to indulge her experiments in building.

And so it goes throughout Ghostland, with Dickey deconstructing nearly every haunted place he has researched. A few that he visits give him pause, leaving him genuinely unsettled, but there is no “a-ha!” moment when he becomes convinced–or tries to convince the reader–that ghosts are real.

Rather, this is a fascinating journey through the darker parts of American history, Ghostland is well worth reading for how capably it provides rational explanations for the ghosts, poltergeists and other entities said to haunt so many corners of America’s vast landscape. Recommended.

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Book review: The Folcroft Ghosts

The Folcroft GhostsThe Folcroft Ghosts by Darcy Coates
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although not specifically branded as such, The Folcroft Ghosts struck me as a story aimed at middle school kids. It’s short–more a novelette than a full novel–there’s no foul language, the scares are relatively mild, and the heroes are a plucky young sister and brother.

This is an easy read but by the end the experience felt a bit underwhelming. The brevity of the story, along with a curiously abrupt wrap-up at the end brought to mind a treatment for a half hour TV anthology series or perhaps an expanded short story. What’s here is good, it’s just that it all feels a bit thin and rushed, as if written with a short deadline.

I wasn’t bothered by the ghosts not being particularly frightening, as the story is structured more as a mystery, with suspense ratcheting up not because of the ghosts, but due to the folksy homespun charm of the matronly grandmother morphing into some seriously questionable applications of the concepts of family and “love.”

Overall, this is a solid if slight read that eschews big scares for lingering unease. It’s a story that will likely be enjoyed even more by kids around age 12 or thereabouts.

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