Book review: The Outsider

The Outsider

The Outsider by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Outsider is both vintage King and a continuation of his recent fondness for police procedurals, notably the Bill Hodges trilogy. Here he fuses a murder mystery with a classic King monster. There is a shift in the story where it goes from being a baffling murder case to more of a monster chase, and at first the shift felt a bit abrupt to me, almost as if King started writing a whodunit and couldn’t figure out how to finish it, so reverted back to supernatural boogums.

But in the main character of police detective Ralph Anderson, King works the angle of the disbeliever hard, laying down the groundwork for the novel’s closing act and the introduction of Holly Gibney from the Hodges trilogy, who becomes the linchpin who helps steer events to their conclusion.

While not reaching the heights of some of King’s latter day work like Duma Key or 11/22/63, The Outsider still has all the strengths typical of King–instantly engaging (or despicable) characters, and an authentic feel for the places the people inhabit, while avoiding most of the excessive bloat. The story could probably stand to lose a bit of the flab, but King is one of the few writers I’ve read who makes even the flab interesting.

There is an analogy used by one of the characters late in the novel about how we all skate on the thin ice of reality, and how few fall through to see what is beneath, and that both summarizes the main theme of the story, and also serves to ground it in a way some of King’s other straight-up horror novels don’t quite manage. Here the characters basically confront weird shit, acknowledge it’s weird shit, then deal with it, because what else are you going to do?

For King fans, this is a solid effort. For those intrigued by the police procedural aspect, be warned that while it is there and is a good chunk of the story, this is ultimately a horror novel that fits neatly alongside the others King has written.


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Book review: The Frighteners

The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore

The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore by Peter Laws

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was better than expected. Going in, I was unfamiliar with Peter Laws, apart from the blurb for the book mentioning that he is a reverend and perhaps a seemingly unlikely choice to author a book about why we are delighted by things that scare us (he devotes an entire chapter on this near the end, and also addresses it at the beginning). A writer when not conducting church services, Laws has authored novels about a professor aiding in the solving of religious crimes, and also reviews horror and similarly themed movies for The Fortean Times, the delightfully wacky magazine devoted to the weird and out there. This is relevant, because Laws demonstrates wit and verve throughout The Frighteners.

Laws has done his research on why we seek out to be frightened by various things, but this is not a carefully considered study and analysis, it is very much Laws providing expert testimony and studies, while adding in a lot of his own personal take on the various spooky subjects, neatly divided into their own chapters. There are fictional frights—scary movies and TV shows, but also could-be-real frights like ghosts, werewolves, cryptids and more. Then there are the sadly real, like serial killers, their “murderabilia” and crush videos (don’t look up the latter if you are at work or anywhere else on the planet. Trust me on this.)

Laws doesn’t defend the more dubious aspects that some people seem to crave, but he does attempt to understand motivations. And he highlights that most of us—even people into murderabilia (mementos from famous crimes or killers) have our limits. For example, a couple that run a curio shop in York sells things like strands of Charles Manson’s hair, among other ghoulish “delights”, but the American half of the couple admits she turned down the chance to sell bricks from Sandy Hook, because she lived nearby and had no emotional distance from the killings.

A lot of the fare Laws covers is lighter, and even silly. Zombie-themed escape rooms are a big thing now, and Laws partakes not as research for the book, but because he just loves them so much (he went to Transylvania for his 40th birthday), going out of his way to squeeze every last bit of drama from them, like the hero of a horror film.

In the end I was carried along by Laws’ enthusiasm for the macabre and frightening, and his gleeful delight in the same. He provides enough research, expert interviews and other material to elevate the book well above “I like scary stuff, let me talk about it”, so if you find the subject matter interesting, this is an easy recommendation.

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Book review: American Nightmare

American Nightmare

American Nightmare by George Cotronis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

American Nightmare is a themed horror story collection, with every story taking place in 1950s America. Ultimately the theme doesn’t add much to the stories, serving mostly as window dressing (everyone smokes, for example), and the stories themselves are a mixed bag, typical of most horror collections. This is not a bad read, but you might want to wait for a dale price to grab it.

Also in the tradition of horror collections, a lot of American Nightmare is Men Behaving Badly, with abusive husbands figuring prominently. The real monster is us. And also the tentacled horror in the lake.

Story by story:

Grandma Elspeth’s Culinary Enchiridion for Domestic Harmony. An abusive husband gets his just desserts (or dinner, rather) while the son watches with horror and wonder. But mostly horror. A decent intro to the book and is the first (but not last) to feature tentacles.

CHIAROSCURO. A weird tale that swaps between first person POV for scenes of a soldier in WWII and second person for the then-present day of 1958, as the former soldier and now-detective with an odd affliction that prevents him from recognizing faces, goes after a murdering couple that dresses as Raggedy Ann and Andy.

The author repeatedly references famous paintings to literally illustrate scenes, lending an odd sort of whimsy to the story, but it’s bloody and violent and ends with a lot of gunplay. It almost feels like it would work better as a longer piece, but it’s an interesting and surreal bit of mayhem.

Bow Creek: Kids living in a bucolic small town discover All Is Not What It Seems and those who see the ark underbelly either join or die. The End. Really. Slight, perfunctory and did not really do much for me. It tries to create a 50s horror movie vibe (and references the same), but it only partly succeeds.

Glow: Frustrated teen finds space rock that seems to have something to do with Cthulhu. Screaming (of others) follows. Not bad, but given the potential it seems to fall short.

Lucy’s Lips: Misunderstood high school girl leaves town, comes back with the circus, may have some ties to Cthulhu. Sort of features tentacles and might be trying to make a statement (not a nice one) about promiscuity, whether by accident or design. Did not grab me.

Pear People from Planet 13. As you might guess from the title, this is a comedic piece that riffs on the monster movies of the 50s. Weirdly gory and a little too on the nose, maybe.

Ghost Girl, Zombie Boy and The Count. A self-loathing killer meets some very interesting kids trick or treating. Another just desserts story, but written with some verve and wraps up appropriately.

The Two Monsters of Levittown. A clumsy attempt to address Nazis, racism, medical experimentation and just who are the real monsters, anyway? This could have worked better, but the writing is just too unsubtle, bludgeoning all of its points like a mallet to the skull.

Double Feature: What seems like a charming story about a teen couple watching a double feature at the drive-in descends into horror at the very end. It’s not quite a twist ending, but I was almost disappointed by it. This is one where I felt the journey was more interesting than the destination.

In the Blood: Totally Cthulhu, complete with the tentacles. Military experiments on soldiers prove disruptive to a nuclear family. Violent, gory, with that air of hopelessness one expects from a good Old Ones story. Despite this playing directly into expectations, it was just okay. The 1950s/Cold War setting could have been exploited better.

The Black Pharaoh of Hollywood. An ancient pharaoh (are there other kinds, really?) uses a desperate screen writer to return to the living. This was is well-written, but is undermined by an ending that feels forced, not earned, particularly in how the protagonist makes his decisions. Good, but could have been better.

The King. An old woman/witch mails seeds that grow weird black oak trees that make people commit literal blood sacrifices. This one pays lip service to the book’s theme and is just weird. Nothing is really explained and sometimes in a horror story that’s for the best. There’s some characters-doing-things-to-advance-the-plot business here, which I hate more than weird black oaks that prompt blood sacrifices.

A Night to Remember. A cancer-ridden man in a dinner encounters a strange, possibly Lovecraftian fellow who has a message. The Titanic does not figure at all, sorry. This one goes for ominous and mostly works.

All the Marilyns. An unconvincing look at a smart young man who years to move beyond his small town and somehow turns into a murderous psycho. Maybe I missed the subtle transition, but it felt jarring and off-putting.

Looking back, it seems I didn’t care much for most of these stories. The majority are decent, but flawed in some way. You could probably do worse for a horror collection, but you can also do much better.

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Book review: Transmission


Transmission by Ambrose Ibsen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Transmission is a short, direct, no-filler, no subplot horror story with perfunctory prose that feels more like an initial treatment for something more substantial than a complete work.

It’s perfectly okay as is, but that’s my main issue–it’s just okay. Nearly every aspect of it falls short of its potential. The student protagonists of Kenji and Dylan are sketches and I never really felt much of anything for them. The Vietnam vet Reggie (you are reminded he is a Vietnam vet–for no real reason–so often it almost becomes part of his name) is a generic semi-retired guy who similarly has no life outside the narrow confines of the book’s plot. The characters feel like pieces put into play to be subject to the spooky goings-on.

The plot itself is one I’m a sucker for. As the title suggests, it’s about the transmission of a message from a mysterious woman who somehow gets herself into a World War II documentary and a song by an obscure band. The students and Reggie are compelled to decipher the cryptic message she speaks and from there both spooky and bad things happen.

All this is good and I kept reading to see what would happen, just as any author would hope for, but by the end I was left unsatisfied because the whole experience is a little too straightforward. By eschewing any subplots or supporting characters, by cutting away the rest of these characters’ lives, save for the bare minimum, I felt detached from them, instead of invested. And the transmission and the fallout of the successful deciphering (spoiler!) likewise left me wanting more. It’s all just a little too…little.

This is where really sharp prose could have lifted the entire story, but the prose only does its job, nothing more.

Transmission is not bad by any means, it just seems content to amble along instead of trying to fly.

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Book review: Flight or Fright

Flight or Fright: 17 Turbulent Tales

Flight or Fright: 17 Turbulent Tales by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with most anthologies, this collection is filled with stories that are mostly fine, a few that are great and some that are merely okay. That Bev Vincent managed to collect enough stories based around a specific theme–terrible things happening on aircraft, makes the overall quality noteworthy.

All but two of the stories have been previously published, but given the narrow focus of the collection, it’s likely you will not have read many of them. Here’s a short summary of each. Overall I can recommend this collection to fans of horror or suspense. And if you read these stories while flying, I salute you.

“Cargo” by E. Michael Lewis is an effectively creepy opener in which a Loadmaster onboard a Lockheed C-141A StarLifter transport must deal oversee dozens of coffins being sent back to the U.S., straight from the Jonestown massacre. Things go bump in the plane.

“The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle. This story has been scuppered by the inevitable march of progress in air flight (not to mention space travel), but it’s still a nifty epistolary of a pilot who dares to fly his solo aircraft into the unheard of reaches of 40,000 feet, where strange and hostile creatures are rumored to dwell.

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” by Richard Matheson. This is easily the best-known story of the anthology, and if you’ve seen the classic Twilight zone episode, which Matheson also adapted, you’ll find it is largely faithful to the original story of a man convinced he is seeing a creature on the plane’s wing, trying to tamper with the engine. Chilling, suspenseful and an all-around good time.

“The Flying Machine” by Ambrose Bierce. An odd short short more about procuring investment from gullible types than flying (Bierce died in 1914).

“Lucifer!” by E.C. Tubb. A morgue attendant pries the ring off a dead body before it is claimed. He discovers the ring has certain unique qualities while abroad a flight and from there a devious mix of time travel and terror unfolds.

“The Fifth Category” by Thomas Carlisle Bissell. A man who worked for the U.S. government during the Iraq invasion, writing legal opinions on torture, earns himself a reputation for being a war criminal by some. He agrees to give a speech, with others, in Lithuania, then on the flight home, strange things happen that seem to relate to his defense of torture. This dark tale is wonderfully written, with prose that snaps and sparkles.

“Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds” by Dan Simmons. A shorter piece in which a man feeling guilty of what he has done with his life, decides to do something about it while in a private jet full of executives. This one didn’t grab me and the rollercoaster analogy fell flat.

“Diablitos” by Cody Goodfellow. Ryan Rayburn III tries to smuggle a mask from a now-extinguished primitive people known as the Xorocua onboard a 727. The mask was worn in harvest ceremonies to summon Diablitos, or little demons. You know how you shouldn’t steal uranium with your bare hands? This story is kind of like that. And it is delightful.

“Air Raid” by John Varley. This is a weird time travel story taking place on a commercial flight in 1979 (the story was written in 1977) and I can’t really say much without spoiling it, but it’s a neat idea, filled with quirks and people just doing their jobs, however strange their jobs may be. Another good one.

“You Are Released” by Joe Hill. This story os one of two originals written for the collection and is my favorite. It’s a simple story–a group of passengers on a 777 are returning to Boston when the pilot announces a report of a flash near Guam. Details emerge that it may be a nuclear strike, and the various characters–an actress, an alcoholic, a MAGA adherent and others–begin to realize that a full-on nuclear exchange is likely taking place as they cruise 30,000 feet above what could be the start of the end of human civilization. Harrowing and authentic.

“Warbirds” by David J. Schow. An old flyer from World War II tells the son of a fellow flyer, now deceased, about the warbirds, strange creatures that he swears flew with them through their battles in the sky. This one has a haunting quality to it I liked.

“The Flying Machine” by Ray Bradbury. A short and dark tale sent in China in AD 400, in which the servant of Emperor Yuan spots a man impossibly flying, using some kind of contraption he has apparently built himself. The emperor, fearing what might happen if flight became more common–and the great defense of The Great Wall was trivialized–orders the flier executed, and swears the servant to the same, hoping to prevent anyone else from inventing another flying machine and using it for dark purposes. Well, we all know how that turned out. :P Bradbury writes well, as always, but the lesson here felt a little too on-point.

“Zombies on a Plane” by Bev Vincent. This is a short, slight tale about a group of survivors amid a zombie apocalypse trying to escape dodge on a small passenger jet. A twist ending of sorts and there are zombies, as promised in the title. A decent take, but nothing revelatory.

“They Shall Not Grow Old” by Roald Dahl. I adored this story, not just for the language, but also for the sheer earnestness of WWII pilot Fin, describing to his baffled comrades how he came back two days after a surveillance mission, long after his plane would have run out of fuel. Published near the end of the war, it brims with authentic detail as Fin depicts his trip into the light.

“Murder in the Air” by Peter Tremayne. A straight-up murder mystery on a commercial flight, with suspects, an investigation, the explanation and everything neatly wrapped up by the end, including, presumably, the body. Despite the gore surrounding the deceased, this is probably the closet the collection gets to high brow. There’s Latin and all that. I enjoyed it, though murder mysteries aren’t really my thing.

“The Turbulence Expert” by Stephen King. The other original story, this story hints at people who can see the future and conscript others to avoid worst case scenarios–in this case, potentially fatal clear air turbulence on commercial airliners. It’s fun and the characters are smart and witty and engaging. My one nit is the Mary Worth character (literally named Mary Worth) seems a little too quick on the uptake, given the oddities she is presented with.

“Falling” by James L. Dickey. Stephen King introduces this with, “Before you groan, shake your head, and say ‘I don’t read poetry,'” which is exactly where I stopped. It may be a dazzling poem and perhaps I will go back and read it one day. But not now.

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Book review: Dead Shift

Dead Shift

Dead Shift by John Llewellyn Probert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a fast-moving and witty romp that starts with a cancer-riddled old man completing the proverbial deal with the devil shortly after being brought into Northcote Hospital. He summons Terrible Things, gets his just reward (not so good), then leaves the hospital staff to deal with the cosmic horrors he’s invited to our dimension.

Complete with a literal shout out to Lovecraft, Dead Shift is full of gruesomely gory scenes and characters both smart and sarcastic. They take the whole “world transforming into some unspeakable place” thing well, considering.

The story zips by quickly and though the climax is predictable, the journey getting to it is entertaining as the three central characters–a doctor, a pathologist and a staff nurse–team together to undo what the old man has done, showing resolve, ingenuity and that ineffably dry British wit along the way.

The only reason I rate the novel three starts instead of four (come on, Goodreads, add half stars already) is I felt there was an unnecessary tonal shift in the final scene. It is rather humorlessly grim, unlike all that came before it, and feels designed more to show off a shock/twist ending. As such, it left me disappointed, because the twist is trite and doesn’t earn the abrupt shift in tone.

Everything before is a spiffy take on the ever-growing library of Lovecraftian fiction. If you like yours with a dash of sarcasm and a handful of sensible characters that don’t behave stupidly to advance the plot, Dead Shift is recommended.

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Book review: The Hike

The HikeThe Hike by Drew Magary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a delightfully nutty story.

A man goes to a seedy hotel to conduct a business meeting and gets there early. He decides to go on a short hike before the meeting and follows a nearby path into the surrounding woods. Then things get terrifying and weird and weirder still.

The Hike is probably better without knowing too many details before going in–even the illustrations on its cover (well, the busier version of the cover) are a series of mini-spoilers. Without going in too deeply, The Hike finds the protagonist Ben on a path that he is warned to stay on, under penalty of death. From there, he begins a long journey that tests his sanity, mental and physical strength, and resolve to keep pushing forward in the hope of seeing his wife and three children again.

The overall tone is light and at times quite amusing, despite the horrors sometimes visited upon Ben, and while you might be able to poke holes in the logic of this strange universe if you look closely enough, doing so is going entirely against the spirit of the book.

The Hike is silly and weird and I was entertained throughout. If you’re looking for a surreal take on the hero’s journey that never takes itself too seriously, The Hike is an easy recommendation.

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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.


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


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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