Tag Archives: horror

Review: Black Light, Elizabeth Hand (1999)

Been a while since I posted anything here. Been a while since I finished a book. Oh, I’ve been readin’, but I’m in one of my phases in which I just can’t finish anything. Nothing quite scratches the itch, ya know? So I thought to myself, I thought, “Hey, man, I really enjoyed Elizabeth Hand’s novella Wylding Hall. And I liked Generation Loss. Maybe I should read something else by Hand.” I’m clever. I know things. So I went to the library and found Black Light (HarperCollins, 1999). And I’m here to tell you I walked away a little sad. And a little hungry. But that didn’t have anything to do with the book.

Paperback edition.

Paperback edition.

Black Light begins promisingly enough. Teenager Charlotte “Lit” Moynihan lives in the New York village of Kamensic, a quaint little town inhabited mainly by actors and their families. Lit’s parents, for instance, are both on television. Lit’s neighbor, Hillary, is her best friend and occasional lover. Ali, a bit of a stoner, completes the triad. The first third of the book faithfully recreates the seventies teenage experience. The crew skips school, drinks, and listens to music. All right, all right, all right. And the entire town looks forward to the Halloween party to be hosted at Bolerium, the estate owned by Alex Kern, Lit’s godfather.

The first half of Black Light is quite strong. Hand is particularly gifted when it comes to setting and atmosphere. Hand describes Kamensic with just the right degree of detail; readers will find themselves envisioning the village. But there is something “off” about Kamensic. The graveyard is full of tombstones that feature sculptures of animal heads. The roads leading to and from the village never seem to be in the same place twice. And, as Halloween approaches, every family hangs creepy terracotta masks on their doors. Seriously, it’s weird.

E-book edition.

E-book edition.

And…then things stall. Soon enough Lit is bundled off to Kern’s party where, it is not-so-subtly hinted, she will play a starring role. And it might have something to do with a giant horned god with a massively erect phallus, of which Lit had a vision earlier that day. Hand begins to reveal the mysteries behind Lit’s dreams, Alex Kern, and the party. Suffice it to say that there are religious themes, of a sort, with which Hand has dealt before; she studied anthropology in university. But it all becomes somewhat muddled. There are secret societies that are facing off against one another, and of course Lit is caught in between.

The party takes up the entire second half of the book, and, sadly, seems interminable. Lit wanders Bolerium looking for her friends. Lit experiences visions. Lit engages in weird rites. Drugs. Orgies. Dead gods. It all just sort of meanders, much like the labyrinthine Bolerium itself. In keeping with its apocalyptic themes, Black Light ends not with a bang, but with a whimpered “meh.” Recommended mainly for hardcore Hand aficionados.

Similar books:

  • For my comments on Generation Loss and Wylding Hall, see my post on my “Winter of Discontent.”
  • If you like atmospheric horror novels that start off strong and then peter out, consider Adam Nevill’s The Ritual.
Advertisements

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: 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: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

Have you heard of this guy, Stephen King? I get the impression he’s a big deal, a Young Turk of the publishing world, taking the horror genre by storm. Pay attention to him. He’s going places.

Har, har.

Stephen King, of course, needs no introduction, having attained decades ago authorial, if not literary, success. Likewise, King’s books don’t need reviews, at least not from bloggers as insignificant as I. Some of his novels–The Stand, The Shining–are so well known that they’ve become pop-culture artifacts with lives of their own. I might as well review the sun or the stars. Still, even if King is beyond my reach, I think it’s worth my time, and perhaps yours, to consider my encounter with him.

onwriting

King, in some ways, serves as a bellwether for readers’ tastes. My father read all of King’s books when I was a child, and, knowing that his name was synonymous with horror, I was leery of him. Later, I looked down my nose at King, without ever having read him, of course. A friend of mine sniffs at the mere thought of reading King, despite her interest in urban fantasy, which is to say–not literature, as you might expect. King can have a polarizing effect on readers.

Let me state my own biases up front. I’ve only read a few of King’s books: The Shining, The Gunslinger, and The Drawing of the Three. (And, now, On Writing.) I enjoyed The Shining, found The Gunslinger entertaining, and did not like at all The Drawing of the Three. In other words, my experiences with King have been hit-or-miss, and variable enough that I approach with caution the thought of reading any of his books. So it was that I bought a copy of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft several years ago, but put off starting it for fear that I’d be disappointed.

I needn’t have worried.

On Writing is easily the King book I most enjoyed, which I think says more about me than it does him. King’s prose here is clear and straightforward, perfectly suited to his “instructional” intent. Quite simply, the entire book is a delight to read. King breaks his memoir into three parts: First, a discussion of his childhood, with an eye toward how an author, or, at least this author, was made; an examination of King’s opinions regarding what constitutes “good” writing; and, briefly, a description of the accident that nearly killed him (and which interrupted the completion of this book).

on-writing-a-memoir-of-the-craft

The recounting of King’s childhood is pleasant enough, soaked, as it is, in nostalgia. Indeed, much of the content of this portion was familiar to me, weaned as I was on my mom and dad’s stories of their mid-twentieth century childhoods. Readers may nor may not acquire any particular insight into King’s career path, but, in any case, it’s damned fine storytelling.

The portion of the book most likely to be of interest to readers is the second part, in which King discusses his philosophy of writing. Interestingly, there are few big surprises here. King advocates extensive reading and writing for wannabe writers. Eschew adverbs, advice I have not taken. Have a door you can shut. The tidbit I found most surprising was King’s claim that he doesn’t plot his books. Rather, he discovers them: The story is a preexisting entity that he “excavates.”

King touches upon his accident in the last third of the book, in excruciating language. He describes, for instance, the unnatural way his lap was shifted to the right, and recalls his screams as the EMTs loaded him onto a helicopter. This portion of the book has little to do with the previous parts, but it serves to assure readers that, even after having been hit by a van, King continued to write. Indeed, writing seems to have been part of what brought him. back. Perhaps it’s a balm to the aspiring writer, too: Although his first sessions back at the keyboard were painful, King soon regained his rhythm. If a man whose body had been smashed can do it, presumably you can, too.

On Writing is my favorite of the few King books I’ve read. There are no pretensions here, just the goal of speaking plainly and entertaining and enlightening the reader. If King’s advice is simple, perhaps that’s because that’s all it really takes, and his honesty is refreshing. A highly recommended look into the writing practices of one of America’s most successful authors.

Fun fact: While writing this review, my browser crashed every time I typed “The Stand.” And then the walls started bleeding.

Review: The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

What’s a reader to do when a ghost story is the embodiment of “The Ghost Story”? If it ticks off every requirement–old, isolated house; sullen villagers; gloomy weather–does that make it “the best” ghost story? I might once have insisted that, yes, a ghost story that meets all of the criteria (whatever the list might be) is in fact the best of its genre. (The hubris of youth!) Having read Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, I’m forced to concede that perhaps there is more to a ghost story than spooks, moors, and crisp English diction. I’m reminded of the words of a comic book writer, who advised teenagers aspiring to his role, “If you only read comic books, you might write the best comic book ever written, but you’ll never write anything different.”

The Woman in Black begins, appropriately enough, on a Christmas Eve sometime in the early decades of the twentieth century. Arthur Kipps’ second wife and his step-children sit around the fire, telling one another ghost stories. Here we have already satisfied one criterion of a ghost story: It must be set in England. Certainly, every culture in every time and place has spoken of ghosts, but “the best” ghost story can only be set in England. Bonus: By beginning  her tale on Christmas Eve, Hill tips her hat to the fine English tradition of telling ghost stories on that most-anticipated evening of the year. More spooky stories by the fire, fewer fat men and elves!

Kipps is agitated as his family’s stories grow grislier and more ridiculous. As his children’s merriment increases, his declines. Urged by his step-sons to join in the fun, Kipps storms off in a huff. Staring at the clear night sky, he is reminded of events through which he suffered as a younger man, a trauma he has worked hard to put behind him. He resolves to write it down in its entirety, a purge that becomes Hills’ larger narrative, the ghost story “proper.”

I don't see Daniel Radcliffe anywhere.

I don’t see Daniel Radcliffe anywhere.

The action commences with Kipps dispatched on legal business to a small village a day’s train ride outside of London. Kipps, stymied in his career aspirations, gladly takes on what his elder partner perceives as an imposition. In addition to seeking refuge from his humdrum duties as a solicitor, Kipps flees the London weather, characterized by many days of fog so dense it made travel within the city dangerous. Kipps sallies forth to put in order the estate of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Read those names again: That is some heavy handed foreshadowing going on there.

En route to Eel Marsh House, Kipps encounters what you might expect from the villagers, which is to that they seem to know something about Eel Marsh House, but are unwilling to talk about it, to Kipps’ growing frustration. The local lawyer, Kipps’ contact, is thrown into paroxysms of fear when, at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral, Kipps confesses to having seen the eponymous “Woman in Black.” Kipps nevertheless proceeds, as an ambitious and sensible young man is likely to do, to head to Eel Marsh House, which, sitting in the middle of a swamp, can be reached only by a narrow causeway during low tide. One requirement of a successful ghost story is for the protagonist to be headstrong in his foolishness to the point of foolhardiness. He (or she) must tempt fate with his (or her) stupidity. Needless to say, Kipps’ visit does not go as planned, and it is at this point, as his adventure derails, that I can so no more about the plot. It is obvious from the first chapter of the book that Kipps survives, albeit as a changed man.

Nope, no Harry Potter.

Nope, no Harry Potter.

There is much to be said in favor of The Woman in Black. Kipps’ voice, channeled via Hill, is spot-on, which is to say very, very English. (I am subconsciously mimicking it as I write this.) Whether or not Kipps really sounds like a turn-of-the-century British professional, I don’t know, but it’s house I imagine such men would have sounded. In other words, it’s believable. So, too, is the tone, which is one of creeping eeriness, abetted by Hill’s strength in establishing setting. Hill obviously knows the English countryside and its weather, and lavishes attention on such details. Of course, atmosphere is in some ways the most essential aspect of any ghost story. The author must ease the reader into it, step by step, just as the protagonist, for instance, Kipps, cheerfully whistling his way to his doom. You can’t just toss an idiot into a decrepit old house and throw spooks at him. It takes subtlety, and Hill masters that.

In the end, though, even as The Woman in Black meets all of the expectations a reader might have of a ghost story, in doing so it somehow fails to do anything different, and that, perhaps, is the problem. There’s a predictability about the plot that is comforting if you want a good, old-fashioned ghost story, but is dissatisfying if you want anything more. The story is also rather tame, although one must keep in mind that it isn’t horror in the modern sense, meaning that it isn’t dripping with gore. Still, contemporary readers (The Woman in Black was published in 1983) might be desensitized to the novel’s quiet dread. Recommended for lovers of the supernatural, but not necessarily for horror aficionados, The Woman in Black is a fine book with which to spend any autumn day.