Book review: The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Book review: The Amityville Horror

This was actually a re-read, though I should note that I originally read this book in 1979, when I was 13 years old. My perspective has shifted a wee bit in the intervening 42 years, though my love for schlocky horror remains unchanged.

I have been in a reading funk these past few months because my usual reading time–an hour-long commute to work–was suddenly gone, thanks to the global pandemic. I found it hard to work reading back into my new routine, though on the plus side I am finally getting more sleep.

As I cast about for the book that would get me going again, I looked over a few ancient paperbacks I’d kept and among them was a yellowing copy of The Amityville Horror, its now wrinkled cover still asserting “A True Story.”

When the paperback first came out, I immediately snapped it up and read it in a blur, drawn in even more than normal due to the alleged authenticity of the story being told. As I re-read I began recalling the details, but what was once a scary read now seemed tame, and my mind turned to the gaps, disputes and lawsuits that followed in the wake of the book’s original publication.

The story is simple: A young family moves into a huge old Dutch Colonial on Long Island in December 1975 and 28 days later flee in terror, convinced the house is possessed by evil spirits or demons. But what seems like an improbable series of increasingly weird and menacing events is really more the story of a young family in trouble and how they may have enhanced what happened at 112 Ocean Avenue (and yes, you can easily recognize the house on Google Maps even today) in order to extricate themselves from a series of bad decisions.

The real horror here is bad finances. While author Jay Anson (who died only a few years after publication) may not have done so intentionally, he sprinkles thee story with enough clues to suggest a non-occult origin at the root of the Lutz family’s problems: a combination of over-extending themselves financially, moving into a new home and neighborhood just a few days before Christmas, and integrating a new family, as Kathy brings three children from a previous marriage.

On the one hand, you get a priest coming to bless the house and alleging that he heard a male voice tell him to “Get out!” On the other, George’s surveying business struggles with finances, and is due a visit from an IRS agent. The five year old daughter Missy reports an invisible friend named Jody, who she describes as a pig and cloven hoof prints are found in the snow outside a window–but records show no snow on the ground of the day reported.

The main thrust of the story revolves around perfectly mundane tensions–the two boys fight, George becomes obsessed with keeping the rattling old house warm by constantly stoking the fire, and Kathy play referees, keeping the factions together as best she can.

The demonic manifestations are, for the most part, also mundane–odd noises, doors and windows opening or closing on their own, the persistent chill in some rooms. Others seem odder–a large ceramic lion in the living room seems to shift position on its own–but could be easily explained without invoking a catalog of demonic influences.

The weirdest stuff–seeing the red eyes of the pig Jody in a window, or a white hooded figure standing menacingly at the top of the stairs–defy logical explanation, but also present themselves with no evidence at all, just “this is what happened, yep!”

Did the Lutzes leave after 28 days because they feared for their family’s safety? Maybe. Or did they leave because they had gotten in over their head and needed to hang their sudden decision to cut and run on some sort of story and the more sensational the better? I know which seems more plausible to me and it has nothing to do with psychic manifestations.

Putting aside the veracity of the events, is this an entertaining story? Well, not really. Because Anson is working with real people and some actual verifiable happenings he is constrained a bit. The story is told in straightforward fashion, which may make it seem more authentic, but also results in a somewhat bland presentation. How can the sudden sound of a marching band in the living room in the middle of the night come across as unremarkable? You will find out here. On the plus side, it’s a quick read at only 300 pages for the paperback version (at least the one I have from 1978).

What I may have most enjoyed from re-reading this book in 2020 is how it now serves as a chronicle of life in the mid-70s. Some of the most fascinating details are the smallest–people having to phone from their homes to reach others, and needing the other person to pick up right away, as even answering machines are not to be found. Cash is used to pay for most things. Everyone smokes. George has to drive to another city early on a Monday to get to a bank, so he can transfer funds to cover a check. Now imagine all of these people dressed in typical fashions of the time. Yes, amazing.

Overall, The Amityville Horror is not something I recommend, except as a kind of historical piece of horror from the 70s.

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Book review: Terrifying Tales to Tell at Night

Terrifying Tales to Tell at Night: 10 Scary Stories to Give You Nightmares!

Terrifying Tales to Tell at Night: 10 Scary Stories to Give You Nightmares! by Stephen Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another uneven horror collection, but this is pretty much the standard, so overall I found it perfectly fine and would recommend it as a quick read if you can grab it at a lower price.

Ostensibly aimed at kids (the acknowledgements section notes that some stories have been edited for content), some of these tales are pretty dark, so Stephen Jones’ warning about these causing nightmares may be apt for younger readers.

A brief take on each of the ten stories:

Click-Clack the Rattlebag (Neil Gaiman) is a typical Gaiman story, with a droll sort of delivery, the promise of spooky shenanigans, then it abruptly ends, so it certainly fits the “short” part of “short story.” It was fine.

Homemade Monster (R. Chetwynd-Hayes) is a light, modern take on the Frankenstein monster, featuring an easily distracted mad scientist, a yearning-to-be-sophisticated helper and exploding parts. It’s fun, if slight.

The Sideways Lady (Lynda E. Rucker) features a sister and brother out ghost-hunting in an abandoned house across town said to be haunted by an entity called The Sideways Lady. On Halloween they wrap up their trick or treating then go explore the house, joining up with a few older, skeptical kids along the way. The allegedly empty house has a strange occupant–and maybe others, as well. The kids felt authentic, but the actual haunting part seemed a bit confused, as if the author went in several directions, couldn’t decide, and tried to make both work.

Here There Be Tygers (Stephen King). Taken from King’s first collection, Night Shift, this is a curiously delightful tale about a boy at school who needs to use the washroom very badly, the possible presence of tigers in said washroom and what might happen to the frumpy, rude old teacher he has to endure when all elements are combined. The light, almost absurdist tone here stands out from the bulk of King’s work.

The Chimney (Ramsey Campbell) starts out as a simple story about a boy who is frightened of Santa and of the huge fireplace in the bedroom of the very old house he lives in. It gets progressively darker, turning from a child’s tale to something downright grim. I liked it, but this is one of those that could very well give younger kids bad dreams.

School for the Unspeakable (Manly Wade Wellman). First, Manly Wade Wellman is a great author name. This story, about a boy sent to a private school, is terrifically weird and unsettling. When Bart Setwick arrives at the school–at night, of course,–it’s strangely dark and the boys he meets are just strange. Things escalate quickly from there before the (mild) twist is revealed. This reads like a classic spooky story told ’round the campfire.

Granny’s Grinning (Robert Shearman). Told in a deliberately twee style, with giant paragraphs stuffed with dialogue from multiple characters, this is the one story I didn’t finish. I just didn’t care enough about the story or characters to push past the writing style. Grandma was probably a zombie or something.

The Chemistry of Ghosts (Lisa Morton). This feels like a YA story, in which a brother and sister attempt to find the brother’s missing friend, who the brother fears has disappeared in the closed wing of a college said to be haunted by a former chemistry professor. It is not a spoiler to say this is correct and the ghostly instructor challenges the kids to a series of puzzles to get their friend back–and avoid being trapped in the wing forever with him. Light, almost breezy, with plenty of opportunity for kids to try to figure things out and brag about how smart they are.

The Man Who Drew Cats (Michael Marshall Smith). A quiet stranger moves into a small town and begins to paint and draw in the town square, sharing (some) small talk with the locals at a nearby pub in the evenings. This is one of those stories that telegraphs what will happen in huge neon letters, but knows it, and makes the journey to its inevitable destination as entertaining as possible. In this case, an abusive husband gets his comeuppance when the stranger turns his drawing skills to certain beasts. In a way, this is a great companion to “Here There Be Tygers.”

Are You Afraid of the Dark? (Charles L. Grant). Basically, a story about a very bad babysitter. It’s weird, a bit gruesome and maybe should have been the second-to-last story in the collection.

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Book review: We Sold Our Souls

We Sold Our Souls

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Funny, gruesome, breathlessly paced, and with a loving, near-reverent tone toward its subject matter–metal–We Sold Our Souls chronicles what happens when a little known metal band signs away more than it bargained for on a fateful night in 1998.

The protagonist is 47 year old Kris Pulaski, one-time lead guitarist and writer for a metal band called Durt Work. Kris and the other members of the band are enticed into signing a contract late one night by their lead singer Terri Hunt, aka The Blind King, giving away a lot more than they suspected in the process. The night’s events end in tragedy and the dissolution of Durt Wurk.

Jumping forward to 2019, the story picks up when Hunt decides to reunite with his successor band, Koffin, for a final tour. Intrigued and unsettled by the tour, Kris begins putting together what really happened on that fateful night in 1998 and the story kicks into high gear, barreling relentlessly toward an inevitable but entertaining conclusion.

Ending each chapter with an epistolary snippet that uses radio shows and news reports to foreshadow or chronicle events, Hendrix presents a story in which the power of metal and music in general is literal, and which can be used to fight against evil, or to at least to hold it at bay. In this case, the evil is something called Black Iron Mountain, an entity Kris wrote about without understanding its implications on Dürt Würk’s album Troglodyte. As forces array to stop her, Kris tries to warn and then enlist the members of her former band before Koffin completes its shows and very bad things happen.

Kris gets pulled through the ringer and there are scenes featuring gory action that recall the pulp horror of the 70s and 80s–a subject Hendrix explored at length in the delightful Paperbacks From Hell. I found one scene (minor spoiler) in which Kris works her way through an increasingly claustrophobic tunnel to be especially vivid, perfectly capturing the suffocating despair one might feel in such a space.

We sold Our Souls is both a love letter to heavy metal and the freedom and power of being in a band, of doing your own thing, of having an axe and using it to make your mark on the world, and a perversely funny take on “What if every conspiracy theory turned out to be true?”

The prose at times is laid on thick, but it fits perfectly with the over-the-top, larger-than-life world of metal (and seemingly demonic forces) it depicts. Kris is a hero you will want to cheer for and see succeed, and We Sold Our Souls is a terrific old school work of horror.

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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.

Recommended.

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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 sale 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

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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