Monthly Archives: November 2014

Review: The Harrowing (A Ghost Story), Alexandra Sokoloff

Rare (I suppose) is the horror novel that uses Kabbalah as its jumping-off point. Rarer still, these days, at least, is a novel in which cell phones are only minimally present, and in which the characters visit an Internet cafe. First published in 2006, though, Alexandra Sokoloff’s The Harrowing (A Ghost Story) exists in that interstitial period between the advent of the Internet and its omnipresence via smart phones and wireless networks. And guess what? Those anachronisms work in The Harrowing‘s favor. It’s like The Breakfast Club with mysticism and bloodshed.

Welcome to Baird College, a liberal arts institution ambiguously located in the Northeast. Whatever state Baird is located in, the locals must own slickers and rain boots, because it rains all the time. Sokoloff must have glommed onto the notion that rain is creepy, because it only ceases to rain for a few pages throughout the book, and, even then, the weather remains dank and dreary. What’s the suicide rate at Baird? Riddle me that, admissions office. If we go by the feelings of our main character, Robin Stone, we might assume that Baird isn’t doing well maintaining its students’ mental health. As Thanksgiving break nears, Robin, dejected, socially isolated, and suicidal, readies herself to spend the holiday alone. In her big ol’ creepy dorm. Great idea, Robin.

The Harrowing, Alexandra Sokoloff

The Harrowing, Alexandra Sokoloff

Fortunately, for both Robin and the story, her attempt at suicide is interrupted when she realizes that several other students remain behind: Patrick, the footballer on whom she has a crush; Lisa, the “vamp”; Cain (seriously?), the nihilistic rocker-cum-prelaw student; and Martin, the atheist only-son of an Orthodox rabbi. At this point, the most unbelievable aspect of the story is that a rabbi might name his son “Martin.” All five students are in their own ways damaged, and, in their brokenness, they can relate to one another. It is perhaps unsurprising that they decide to spend the dark and stormy night before Thanksgiving playing with a Ouija board, making (possible) contact with a spirit calling itself Zachary who seems to know an awful lot about the five of them, and who exhibits a mean anti-Semitic streak. (Fun fact: The Hebrew root from which “Zachary” is derived–zakor–means “remember.”) At this point, readers with a passing familiarity to what Martin derisively refers to as “Madonna’s Kabbalah” will have a sense where this is headed: The rabbi’s son; the red bracelet on Lisa’s wrist (a ward against evil); Zachary’s references to “shells” and “discarded ones” all point to Kabbalah. (I’m not really giving anything away here.) It goes without saying that things take a nasty turn as the weekend progresses, and that things aren’t what they appear.

Sokoloff is at her strongest when it comes to establishing setting and atmosphere. She describes Baird’s campus as being “unmarred by the slightest sight of civilization”; indeed, “the isolation seemed ominous.” Likewise, the lecture Robin attends immediately prior to the holiday break is “soporific, strangely hypnotic.” Solitude and altered states of consciousness within just the first few pages. Approaching her dorm, Robin “never noticed how the high windows near the top of the balcony looked like watching eyes.” Okay, we get it; you’re laying it on a bit thick, now. “And the double doors, flicking, serpentine tongues, tasting the scent of its prey as it neared its gaping maw.” Nope, I made that last one up.

To give you a taste of Kabbalah: The ten Sefirot, or "emanations" of "The Infinite."

To give you a taste of Kabbalah: The ten Sefirot, or “emanations” of “The Infinite.”

Robin and her fellow characters are recognizable and relatable, if shallowly drawn. Sokoloff tells the story from Robin’s perspective. Despite her initial emotional problems, Robin seems remarkably resilient; indeed, contact with the others, and with Zachary, seems to provide her energy and strength. Intuitive readers will immediately guess the relational outcomes of the characters, though. Populated by college students, it’s inevitable that the characters become involved with one another. Even the powers of the beyond (spooky voice) can’t interfere with raging hormones! (Indeed, it seems to feed upon them, raising, for this reader, at least, the question of why horror is the most conservative of all genre fiction.)

Sokoloff began her career as a screenwriter, a background that informs the structure of The Harrowing. The novel is clearly divided into three sections: The beginning consists of Thanksgiving weekend; the bridge, the return to “normality” and Robin’s subsequent investigation into Zachary’s identity; and, finally, the action-packed conclusion, in which all pretense at thoughtfulness is cast aside. It goes without saying that the third act is the weakest.

Ultimately, The Harrowing is a bit of a missed opportunity. Sokoloff maintains ambiguity throughout the first third of the novel, hinting that the “seance” held over the Ouija board may be supernatural in origin without quite saying it. While Cain suspects trickery, Martin is fascinated by the possibility that the events are precipitated by some kind of hitherto unknown psychological phenomena. All of the students are experiencing extreme emotional stress, and Sokoloff suggests that there are rational explanations for what’s going on, all of which appeals to the possibility that horror is found in ambiguity rather than certainty. Unfortunately, Sokoloff errs on the side of the latter: She takes the safe path, and, thus, abandons any attempt at depth or thoughtfulness.

The Harrowing is an engaging and emotionally satisfying “horror” story, and, refreshingly, a tale more concerned with mood and atmosphere than with bloodshed and gore. Although The Harrowing lacks depth, it is well told, and uses Kabbalah to introduce a novel element into the story’s background. Reminiscent (in some ways) of The Secret HistoryThe Harrowing is best recommended to fans of ghost stories and dark, emotionally-intense tales of mystery and deceit.

You may also be interested in…

To see another taken on Jewish lore, consider Stephanie Feldman’s The Angel of Losses.

For a different take on the supernatural in horror, see Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters.

Review: The Angel of Losses, Stephanie Feldman

There is a genre of fiction–perhaps “subgenre” is more accurate–that might be termed “Jewish fantasy.” Like the folktales on which they draw, entries in the genre hover between magical realism, the tragic, and the absurd. The Golem & the Jinni (2013) is a recent (and popular) example, as is Michael Chabon’s alternate history, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007). Because Jewish fantasy imposes on readers certain special requirements, for instance, rudimentary knowledge of Judaism, the genre is not for everyone. At least one acquaintance of this reviewer couldn’t finish The Yiddish Policemen’s Union because it was “too Jewish,” by which he meant it included too many things about which he knew too little, Yiddishisms, of course, but also obscure religious concepts likely only to be understood by Jews and those non-Jews with an interest in religion. This is a difficult hurdle to cross. Helene Wecker circumvented it by minimizing her novel’s “Jewishness”; Chabon, macher that he is, went all in. Stephanie Feldman treads a careful middle ground in her debut novel, The Angel of Losses (2014, Deckle Edge).

When Marjorie and her sister, Holly, were children, their Grandpa Eli told them wondrous stories about the White Magician. Now an adult, studying for a PhD in literature, Marjorie misses the sweetness of that time in one’s childhood when, in retrospect, things seem to have been perfect, just the way they were meant to be. Life has moved on in unexpected ways, as life often does. Eli turned mean in his old age, moved out of the family’s house, died. Holly defied her family by converting to orthodox Judaism for love, and marrying Nathan, a member of the Berukhim (roughly, “blessed ones”) sect.

The Angel of Losses, Stephanie Feldman

The Angel of Losses, Stephanie Feldman

 

Holly is pregnant, and she and Nathan need to move Eli’s things to make room for the baby. With that in mind, Marjorie rushes to what once was her family’s house–now alien, rearranged for Jewish needs, like keeping kosher–to rescue the notebooks in which Eli recorded his stories of the White Magician. Only something is wrong; the notebook she finds mentions not the White Magician, but the “White Rebbe.” (The term “rebbe” is related to “rabbi.” Its meaning is more general; rather than referring to a clerical office, which it can, it may also indicate a spiritual leader, and so on. Regardless, it is a honorific.) But Marjorie recalls her Grandpa dimly eyeing the orthodox Jews in town and complaining about “those people.” Clearly, things weren’t quite what they appeared.

That’s a lot of exposition in order to review a book that isn’t 300 pages long, but I think it demonstrates the quandary in which writers of Jewish fantasy find themselves. The size of their potential readership is inversely proportional to the degree of Jewish detail they incorporate into their story. Feldman is clever: She begins with a non-Jewish character, Marjorie, who is writing a dissertation on the trope of the “Wandering Jew,” and whose sister is a convert to Judaism. Explication of potentially bewildering topics, then, is embedded in the nature of the story. In the opinion of this reader, Feldman deftly avoids “infodumps” by working details into the natural course of characters’ conversations. There are, of course, some awkward moments. The descriptions of the database on which Simon, Marjorie’s love interest, is working–an application that permits users to track worldwide Jewish “wandering–may cause some readers’ eyes to glaze over. (But it was like candy to this graduate of history and library science programs.)

The story alternates between Eli’s diaries and Marjorie’s narration, a structure that should work, but which this reader found frustrating. Folktales are simplistic by nature, and, by mimicking that quality in the chapters devoted to Eli, the narrative, at times, becomes jumbled. It is difficult for the reader to differentiate from one another characters that are rendered in brief. Is this guy the one who…no, that’s the other one. Later in the narrative, as the mystery of the White Rebbe is revealed, all becomes clear, and the identities of characters are sorted out. Readers should prepare themselves for some potential early confusion, though.

Feldman’s real strength is her portrayals of her characters. Marjorie, the very definition of a “type A” personality, is a bit of a pill. Her resentment, distrusting relationship with Nathan is well-drawn. Likewise, Feldman masterfully draws Nathan as the stereotypical ultra-orthodox Jew, distant and studious, only to subvert that image as the story progresses. Holly is a particularly engaging character, an artist and free spirit who took upon herself a lifestyle that Marjorie perceives as constrictive. Indeed, female readers who have a sister will find in the dynamics of Marjorie’s and Holly’s relationship much with which to identify.

The Angel of Losses is well told and engaging, and compensates for its early structural weaknesses with gorgeous prose and identifiable characters. For those readers sensitive to it, religion is present, although it is treated either, in folktale form, as “magic,” or as a source of family contention. Marjorie, for instance, perceives Holly to be subservient to her “patriarch,” Nathan. Ultimately, it is family, and family drama, that is the driver of Feldman’s narrative, and that’s something to which every reader can relate. A promising debut, The Angel of Losses is especially recommended to readers who love folktales and strong female characters.

Review: Broken Monsters, Lauren Beukes

I want you to look in a mirror. Are you looking in a mirror? I’ll wait.

Okay, ready?

Now recall the worst thing you ever did. Maybe you hurt an author’s feelings. Really inhabit that moment. Don’t stop looking in the mirror! Are you sad? Yeah? Imagine that you need a hug, but there’s no one to hug you. All of the people who might hug you are pervs. There’s probably a single tear running down your cheek right now. You’re weak.

So, that sums up how you’ll feel after finishing Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters (Mulholland Books, September 2014). You should read it. Like, right now. But prepare to drown the ceremony of innocence. Face down in a kiddie pool with two inches of dirty water in the bottom. In the back yard of a house that serves as a meth lab.

Broken Monsters is set in present day Detroit, a provocative choice: The capital of ruin p***, target of political jeremiads, butt of jokes, looming symbol of American decline. Had Beukes failed to tell a story worthy of her chosen setting, Broken Monsters might have been a stillbirth, another corpse to stack in the Motor City’s overflowing morgues. But Beukes rightly focuses on her characters, the people who call Detroit home, the humanity that’s forgotten amid the point-scoring and jockeying for position, and that becomes the book’s saving grace–for what it’s worth. To paraphrase an encounter between the disgraced journalist Jonno Haim, who sees in Detroit’s deterioration his chance for redemption: “People need to know this is happening,” to which an artist replies, “We’re here. We know.”

Broken Monsters, Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters, Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters is, superficially, the story of a serial killer with a fetish for weird art. Think corpse montages. roadkill jigsaw puzzles. Imagine the loveliest thing you’ve ever seen, and then imagine that the devil vomited on it. And that he made eye contact with you while doing it. You get the idea. But Broken Monsters isn’t a police procedural. It’s not a mystery, not really, although readers will eagerly wonder how the story pans out. The identity of the killer is known from the beginning of the story, you see, so the question isn’t “whodunnit,” but “How in the hell will the paths of these poor saps intersect those of the murderer? And just what the hell is wrong with him?”

Detective Gabi Versado is the unlucky cop assigned the case that is, unbeknownst to the police, the first public installation of the Detroit Monster’s art. It’s gruesome, and it’s tragic, and Gabi, a good cop, is determined to find the killer, but the police have little evidence to go on, with the exception of some of the, er, materials used in the “piece.” Gabi’s homelife complicates her efforts: Layla, Gabi’s teenage daughter, resents her parents’ divorce, and, despite being a good kid, demonstrates a knack for getting into trouble. And Broken Monsters is really Layla’s show, Layla’s struggle to realize herself as an individual in a fallen world.

Beukes spent time in Detroit prior to (or perhaps during) the writing of Broken Monsters, and it shows, at least to this reader, who confesses that he’s never visited. Beukes references neighborhoods the way I imagine a local might, and, during her visit, she clearly spent time at abandoned industrial sites, the derelict remnants of which are like sores on the civic body. There is a sense of emptiness here, that those who had the means fled, and that those who remain are trapped in an oversized, tumbledown municipality built in better days with a brighter future in mind. Characters, such as TK, haunt the streets, scavenging the goods left behind by those evicted from their homes. And if it can’t be stolen, or if it’s not worth it, then the vultures destroy it, the petty vandalism of those who have nothing left to lose.

And loss is really the unifying theme of Broken Monsters, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, or a relationship, or innocence, or sanity. Or, in one memorable scene, teeth. (Don’t ask. Best to read it for yourself.) Beukes’s Detroit is stalked by a vicious circle of predators and prey, and the delineation between one and the other is never quite clear. Like the Detroit Monster’s artwork, individual’s roles are transgressive. Beukes’s characters are neither fully good nor fully bad–like real human beings, incidentally–and nearly all of the major characters undergo a flip-flop at some point in the narrative that shifts the reader’s perspective from skepticism to sympathy, or vice versa. For instance, Jonno’s “[c]areer highlights: playing Scheherazade to a serial killer.” Readers will laugh even as they weep, knowing that Jonno and his fellow characters knowingly chose their fates.

Beukes’s atmosphere, her sense of place, her plotting, and her characterization are spot on. She wields tension like a knife, twisting it in the reader’s guts: “Something is happening…Something is building like a wave. Tsunamis pull all the ocean back before they come crashing in.” Well, shit, Lauren, what choice do I have but to read on? She engages, too, in cutting commentary on our relationship with social media, and the way it creeps into, colonizes, every corner of our lives. There is something awful, something objectifying and voyeuristic, about staring at a blog full of images of Detroit’s deterioration–but ashamed of ourselves as we might be, we can’t look away. Beukes knows that, holds the mirror up to the reader’s face, and refuses to let her flinch.

Broken Monsters isn’t perfect. (Although it is damn near.) This reader enjoyed the introductions of the characters, one at a time, early in the novel, and was primed to expect equal treatment of them throughout. That doesn’t happen. Nor should it; some characters, and some storylines, are, of course, more important (and interesting) than others. Still, the introduction hinted at an equal time in the narrative that doesn’t pan out. TK is present early on, but disappears after the halfway point, only to return. Layla, and her friend Cas, rise to prominence after the first third of the narrative is complete. Jonno dips in and out again as Beukes needs him. Part of this is due to the panoramic story she’s telling, but some readers might have hoped for more consistency in Beukes’s treatment of her characters.

It's a little known fact that Beukes claims to have encountered a satyr in the woods as a child. Not really, I made that up.

It’s a little known fact that Beukes claims to have encountered a satyr in the woods as a child. Not really, I made that up.

Certain plot elements are predictable. Readers will be able to predict a certain secondary character’s back story early on. Likewise, identifying the killer early in the story could have been a risk if it weren’t for the supernatural elements Beukes eases into the narrative. Beukes evokes tension by leading on the reader, ever curious to see who will next cross paths with the Detroit Monster. That supernatural mystery, too, is a draw. Beukes uses a (blessedly) light touch with the supernatural throughout the novel, although she brings it to frightening fruition at the narrative’s climax. It’s a bit “squishy,” though, never quite clear what it is or is not, which will appeal to some readers but put off those who need more definitive answers. (On a personal note, this reader was uncomfortable with knowing the killer’s thoughts, which has the perhaps unintended consequence of rationalizing his behavior.) Readers sensitive to gore and grimness are warned away. Me? I was like, “F*** this, I’m done. I’m all in.”

These are minor quibbles, though, when taken in the context of what is otherwise an overwhelming success of a novel. Broken Monsters was well received when published in September, and justly so. This reader will go so far as to say that Broken Monsters will end up on its share of the “best of” lists that are ubiquitous this time of year, although it’s likely to be pigeonholed as a “genre” novel. I’m not sure that I would trot out the overused phrase “genre defying” to describe Broken Monsters, but I don’t think I need to; the book speaks for itself. (And that speech consists of shrieks followed by whimpers in the dark.) Beukes has in Broken Monsters an unqualified success. Highly recommended.

Hey, Lauren: If you see this, you’ve made me a fan. (And my readers will know I don’t say things like that often.)

Review: 30 Days in the Word Mines, Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig has lately installed himself as the patron saint of aspiring writers, and there are worse muses one could look towards for inspiration. Where elsewhere one is likely to encounter a chorus of “nos,” Wendig unceasingly, resoundingly, shouts “yes,” usually preceded by an expletive or followed by non sequitur about monkeys or hobos. So it is with Wendig’s latest entry in his series of books on writing, 30 Days in the Word Mines (October 2014).

Wendig released his book (quite cleverly, I might add) just a few days prior to the onset of National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo,” as it’s more popularly known. (Note: I am not participating.) And the book takes its structure from NaNoWriMo. Each chapter, with the exception of the preface and afterword, is devoted to one day in the month, e.g., Day 1, and so on. The idea is that the reader (who is also, in this premise, writing) will read each page on its assigned day, taking to heart St. Chuck’s advice and thereby making one’s daily word count. I should note that the book can be read straight through in, at most, two hours, and probably less.

30 Days in the Word Mines, Chuck Wendig

30 Days in the Word Mines, Chuck Wendig

As with any book of this sort, the chapters are uneven. Some are nearly non existent, for instance, Day 20, which amounts to a few sentences along the lines of, “You can do this.” The cynic in me whispers that Chuck is just padding here, filling space, but I have nothing but respect for Wendig. If NaNoWriMo is about “yes,” then, giving Wendig the benefit of the doubt, this is really a pep talk intended to get weary writers over the hump. And there is something inspirational about an author addressing you to let you know that you can accomplish something.

Still. Pep only goes so far. My difficulty with books of this sort is that they are long on inspiration, but short on practical knowledge. “Advice” is something of a dirty word where I come from. “A fool and his money are soon parted.” That’s advice. But it doesn’t tell you how to avoid being foolish with your money. There’s no strategy attached. And, thus, its utility is questionable. So, too, with 30 Days in the Word Mines. Wendig dispenses information about pacing, plotting, and so on, but, to this reader, at least, it reads more like advice than “how to.” That said, what NaNoWriMo participant would have time to read at length about dialog or pacing? Presumably participants engaged in that deeper study in preparation for the sprint.

It’s worth considering the origins of this book. 30 Days in the Word Mines reads like Wendig’s blog, in which, between creative vulgarity and manic asides, he advocates on behalf of aspiring writers. Indeed, one chapter near the end refers to itself as “this post,” indicating that much of the book’s material consists of recycled blog posts. NaNoWriMo participants might consider using Wendig’s blog in lieu of this book. There are some editing problems, too; one sentence in the middle of the book drops off mysteriously, missing its second half, and I caught at least three misspelled words. These are hardly major complaints, but one might hope for more careful editing from a book one purchases.

In sum, 30 Days in the Word Mines is a pithy little book that might serve NaNoWriMo participants well, particularly if they’re open minded. I see it as something of a devotional: Crack it open (so to speak; it’s an ebook), read the chapter closely, and extract from it the core of wisdom Wendig embeds in layers of humor and tomfoolery. Recommended for Wendig aficionados and committed NaNoWriMo participants.