Book review: Later

Later by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are two things I like about King’s Hardcase crime novels: they’re short and cheap.

I appreciate the price given the premium that King’s novels carry these days, but even more I appreciate the length. These novels are short enough that you don’t get the usual pages of backstory, side plots, poetry or whatever King may decide to include and that no editor will touch. Instead, you just get a simple story, told directly and without flab.

In this case, Later is told from the perspective of 22-year-old Jamie “Champ” Conklin, who begins this story when he is around nine years old. Jamie and his literary agent mother live in New York, the father having disappeared and never being spoken of. Jamie’s childhood is fairly ordinary, save for one thing: he can see the recently dead (and yes, The Sixth Sense gets name-called). Jamie picks up a few things from the ex-living he encounters. They don’t hang around long. They don’t seem interested in the living. And they are compelled to answer any questions put to them truthfully. This becomes very important later (ho ho) in the story.

Without getting into spoilers, Jamie’s life becomes complicated when his mother meets up with a police officer and they start a relationship. The hard crime part of the story gets folded in here–there are killers on the loose, crimes committed and future crimes to be thwarted. In the middle of it all Jamie discovers that sometimes the recently dead don’t just fade away–that bad people can be inhabited by bad things. As they say, hijinks ensue.

King adopts a kind of patter for Jamie’s telling of the story, and it has a breezy feel to it, making it feel like it really is a still fairly young schmuck recounting some freaky things that happened to him as a kid.

The story is pretty straightforward and leads to an ending that is largely predictable, save a bit of a twist right at the end, but the journey there is full of King’s effortlessly believable characters and dotted with moments both funny and poignant. Later isn’t a deep red, but it’s a good one.

Recommended.

View all my reviews

Book review: At the Mountains of Madness, Volume 2 (adapted by Gou Tanabe)

H.P. Lovecraft’s at the Mountains of Madness, Volume 2 by Gou Tanabe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The concluding volume follows Professor Dyer and Danforth as they fly out to the ancient ruins, to discover the fate of Gedney, the still-missing expedition member, and to explore the remains of a long-dead civilization.

This is where things get weird and Tanabe does a great job with the illustrations, constructing the baffling, maze-like remains of the Old Ones’ sprawling city in grand detail. Staying faithful to the story, Dyer and Danforth come across the giant albino penguins and…other things.

All visual adaptations of Lovecraft must grapple with the same dilemma–how do you illustrate things that, per the prose, will drive people mad merely be seeing them? Tanabe does this in two ways–the first is by depicting the shoggoths as so physically weird that it’s difficult to tell what they are, other than organic, immense and heading straight for you. In the second way, Tanabe allows the reader–equipped with his hundreds of illustrations of the labyrinthine ruins as background–to imagine what drives Danforth mad, with no description offered. And it works.

Highly recommended, particularly for those who have already read the story. This is a great adaptation and short of the seemingly ill-fated Guillermo Del Toro film, may be the best we will see.

View all my reviews

Book review: At the Mountains of Madness, Volume One (adapted by Gou Tanabe)

H.P. Lovecraft’s at the Mountains of Madness, Volume 1 by Gou Tanabe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an excellent adaptation of Lovecraft’s classic tale, with artist and writer Gou Tanabe providing exquisite black and white illustrations depicting the doomed expedition to the Antarctic, done in a realistic Manga style. Tanabe often lets the characters speak through reaction shots alone, and it works well.

This is only Volume One of two, so it ends with the discovery of what remains of Professor Lake’s camp and the promise to find out what led to its grisly end. It works well as a cliffhanger for those unfamiliar with the story, and as terrific anticipation for those like myself who are.

The depiction of the otherworldly elements, from the strange star-faced creatures to the towering Black Mountains, does an excellent job of conveying the sinister feeling of entering a realm that is both weird and brimming with malevolence.

Recommended.

View all my reviews

Book review: The Murders of Molly Southbourne

The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a weird story that effortlessly embraces its weirdness.

Molly Southbourne is an only child raised and homeschooled on the family farm under the guise of having hemophilia. What Molly really has is much stranger and deadlier than that. Every time she bleeds she produces a clone of herself that eventually turns murderous and tries to kill her.

The novella is largely framed around the mystery of why this happens while chronicling Molly’s training by her parents on how to avoid making clones and combat them if needed.

Molly becomes very efficient in combating them.

Fed by insatiable curiosity, but lacking the social skills acquired from being out in the world, Molly turns into a clinically efficient young woman, one who knows exactly what she wants, speaks to others with a daring frankness, and pursues her goals with relentless precision. She is admirable, if not entirely likable.

The story does address this, but it feels a bit too late to resonate much. It is there, though. It’s perhaps a case where a longer work would have expanded more on the theme of Molly not really connecting with anyone due to her bizarre upbringing and the freakish requirements for survival she endures.

And while the story is violent and gruesome, and devoid of sentimentality, there is a certain droll quality to the proceedings as Molly literally stacks up the bodies of her bloodthirsty clones.

The ending is neat, but I am unsure how I feel about it. The ride getting there is, well, fun isn’t quite the word I’d use, but it definitely entertained, with prose that moves as crisply and briskly as Molly with her clone-crushing hands.

Recommended, if only because of how all-in author Tade Thompson commits to the premise.

(Note: I did not realize this is apparently the first book of a series–it stands on its own as a quick read, though.)

View all my reviews

Book review: If It Bleeds

If It Bleeds by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a new collection of four short novels in which King gets weird, traditional, and, of course, spooky.

Minor spoilers follow.

“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” is a simple story of revenge from beyond the grave, in which a young boy reads to a somewhat weird old man after school and they form a relationship that yields results even after Harrigan passes on. In the notes at the end, King highlights how he got an original working iPhone to play around with, and a lot of the fun in the story is treating the smartphone as a wondrous thing, even if it maybe rings in places it shouldn’t.

“The Life of Chuck” feels like an experiment and King again notes as much in the afterword. The scenes themselves are interesting, ranging from those instant and unexpected connections that can happen in public (or used to in The Olden Times), to cryptic, terrifying world-ending stuff. But the three pieces, presented in reverse chronological order, never really cohere into a whole. Maybe it’s intentional, maybe King wants the reader to fill in the gaps. In the end, Chuck was kind of unremarkable. Sorry, Chuck.

“If it Bleeds” is the closest to a full novel in the collection, and works as a sequel to The Outsider. Here, the story focuses on another shifter who has assumed the forms of reporters over the years, all the better to be close to the tragedy it feeds on. When it starts to create the tragedy it needs, it begins drawing a little too much attention to itself, and this is where Holly Gibney comes in.

Gibney was introduced in the first novel of the Bill Hodges trilogy, Mr. Mercedes, and as King again explains, was never meant to be more than a slight supporting character. He clearly loves writing about her and her role in each story has expanded as a result. It’s fun to watch her here as the main character, grappling with her family, the new outsider, trying to hold it together, growing more confident, but never too confident. The story itself is pretty straightforward, with few surprises and the actual outsider gets a bit too Campy Villain in the end, but Holly makes it well worth the read.

The concluding story, “Rat” is basically a monkey’s paw story, but King writes it with relish, with flashes of dark humor sprinkled throughout. The story is simple–an English professor struggles to write novels–past attempts having led to nervous breakdowns–but when he comes up with an idea he is certain he can execute, he gets offered a guarantee from an unexpected visitor in the family cabin he has hunkered down in to start writing.

One of the little details I love in the story is how effectively King gets across the idea of Drew Larson driving himself crazy over indecision, where choosing the right turn of phrase becomes a maddening series of endless but equal choices. The scenes with the titular rat are droll and cheeky. Sometimes a writer just wants to have fun with a story, nothing more, and “Rat” delivers that.

View all my reviews

Book review: Full Throttle

Full Throttle by Joe Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are a few things you need to know about Joe Hill. The first is he does not seem to like happy endings. Happy endings do not make him happy. If you are looking for stories of hope or redemption or reconciliation, you will not find them here in any notable measure. The second is that it doesn’t matter, because Hill writes very good short stories, easily moving from fantasy to straight-up horror and stops in-between, while maintaining a tone and voice that is reminiscent of his famous father’s but still uniquely his own. It is a matter of taste when I say I didn’t care as much for certain stories, not a reflection on the talent and skill used to craft them.

Below are mini-reviews of each story. There are minor spoilers, so the non-spoiler summary is: Read this book if you like weird fiction or horror or have enjoyed any of Hill’s previous work.

“Throttle” (with Stephen King): Written as part of an homage to Richard Matheson, this story twists the premise of “Duel” around, making the trucker the hero. Violent and bloody, it is no pun to say this story moves.

“Dark Carousel”: In the notes, Hill confesses to shamelessly riffing on King in this tale of young adults having fun at the expense of the operator of a rather sinister carousel. The premise is absurd on its face, but Hill makes it credible. The ending is great, too.

“Wolverton Station” answers the question, “What would you do if you found yourself on a train in England that seemed to be filled with chatty, refined..and hungry wolves?” Goofy and gruesome, this is the lightest piece in the collection and is good furry fun.

“By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” starts off-kilter and kind of ends the same way. It’s a melancholic story about kids finding what may be the corpse of a fabled lake monster that captures the absurd logic of kids. And adults.

“Faun” is a twist on the mystic-door-to-another-world story that encapsulates the lack of happy endings in these stories. The biggest knock I have here is that none of the characters were especially likable, and I felt that hurt the overall effect of the story.

“Late Returns” is about a bookmobile that seems to attract ghosts. Hill weaves together the various encounters with the protagonist’s own struggle to come to terms with the deaths of his parents. One of the best in the collection, vintage Hill.

“All I Care About is You” features a rebellious teenage girl in the not-distant-future and the Clockwork automaton that acts as her personal assistant for an hour (after she feeds a couple of tokens into it). This one I immediately started thinking of how the girl would get her comeuppance after the story ended. This left me more satisfied with the story than I would have been otherwise.

“Thumbprint”: A tough as hell woman returns from duty in Iraq, only to find herself hunted on her home turf. Again, the story is delivered well, but the characters are unlikable.

“The Devil on the Staircase”: I read the ebook version of the collection, which dispenses with the staircase effect of the type found in the print edition. I’m kind of glad I didn’t have to read the story that way. Again, horrible people doing horrible things. This is probably the weakest story for me. It never seemed to generate much heat.

“Twittering from the Circus of the Dead”: A story told through tweets. I’ve done this, too. It’s a fun way to present a story and Hill pulls it off well here, right down to the cheeky ending. The people in this story are not horrible for a change.

“Mums” is a devastating look at a “separatist” family and how their lives come unglued while tending to their farm. Here Hill takes a page from Paul Tremblay, presenting seemingly supernatural elements that could also be explained by addled minds, dreams and such. Creepy and sad in equal measure, it captures a more extreme side of America that has all too often come to the forefront in 2020.

“In the Tall Grass” (with Stephen King) is an old-fashioned horror story about people getting lost in a field of very strange and tall grass. This has King’s prints all over it, to good effect.

“You Are Released” was previously featured in the Flight or Fright collection and remains one of my favorite Hill short stories. It’s a harrowing look at the end of the world as viewed through the eyes of the passengers on a commercial flight. I don’t know if the story resonates more with me as someone who grew up in the shadow of the cold war, but this one really hits.

View all my reviews

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 the 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 in 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 on the day in question.

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 plays referee, 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 stranger–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 heads and needed to hang their sudden decision to cut and run on a cover 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 an historical slice of urban 70s horror for the most dedicated.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews