I was a big fan of Jonathon Butcher’s novella from last year, What Good Girls Do. So much so that in the wake of that release I found myself pondering something that doesn’t often come to mind with an author.
The question was, what now?
What does Miles Davis do after releasing Bitches Brew? What does Scorcese do after Goodfellas?
So when I saw that a new book was on the horizon I was excited. I was also very nervous. It’s about as difficult as it gets for an artist to reach down in oneself and come up with something that can stand on its own greatness in the shadow of what came before it. To put something out and constantly hear muttered refrains like, “Sure, it was okay. But it was nothing like…”
Is that a fair standard? To demand equal levels of greatness from each successive release, if not more? Perhaps not. Many an artist has unfairly ended up fading away into the background of our culture because they were too caught up in trying to chase the vestiges of former greatness.
Still, this was the mindset I was dueling with as I came to The Children At The Bottom Of The Gardden.
What can I say? Sometimes fears are totally unwarranted and clearly this kid has some game.
Let’s start with this brilliant cover art. Right away it had me thinking of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden Of Earthly Delights which made me believe that I was in for a great ride.
What I get from Bosch is a feeling of voueurism, of observing this panorama of society, having been left to its own excess and perhaps some overindulgence of sexual liberty.
Pack that notion away in your mind for a minute. We’ll come back to it.
The standard book formula tells us that we have to have a protagonist and an antagonist. The character who sits at the center of the story and makes most of the decisions and actions that drives the narrative as well as the character that provides opposition and roadblocks to that progress.
With Gardden, we don’t really have a protagonist or an antagonist, not in the strict definitions of the words, anyway. We have an ensemble cast of characters who (depending on the context) can have aspects of being both protagonist and antagonist at the same time. I think it can be a cop-out at times for books to present characters as if anyone can truly be either entirely good or entirely bad when the reality is that on the inside, each of us is fully capable of both.
This is a book that, in all fairness shouldn’t work. This is the kind of narrative structure that I think causes hair-rending and unsolicited lecturing in workshops and writers groups. It’s the kind of thing many readers might turn away from because of the sheer size of this journey.
Thankfully, this was not the case with me.
What makes this story succeed is the strength and depth of the characters. They’re so engaging that, looking at the first half of the book, I think that if you were to unravel the separate narratives and lay them out flat, any one would have the potential to stand on its own as a great novella. And yet somehow they also all manage to create a necessary support structure for each other.
I like the density of this story. As I have gotten older I have become less of a fan of longer books and on face, this would be one that would stretch my limit a bit. But the way a longer work gets to me in the same fashion as a novella is by keeping me invested in the story that is unfolding. This book easily hits this mark. Butcher breathes life into these people, for as much as I kind of hate that expression. This is a book that is going to demand your attentiveness and I would not suggest putting it down for very long. This is the kind of book you need to be picking up every day, even if just to read a chapter or two. But trust me, the level of familiarity you get from this complex tale makes all the time worthwhile.
Like the inherent craziness of that Bosch painting, what I see in this story is a conglomerate of different parts that are completely separate and yet destined to be brought crashing together. Is the point the specifics of the lives these people lead, thinking of themselves as completely independent? Or is it the fact that ultimately their fates have already been decided, merely for having been brought into existence on the same landscape? I love the sense of impending doom around all of them, that despite how independent they are from one another, they all share the common factor of hurtling down this common highway, leading towards the brutal end that maybe they all deserve.
And not unlike Good Girls, there are definitely parts of this book that will disturb, as well as some aspects of most of the characters. But again like Good Girls, it’s impossible to look away, sitting above this Bosch-ian landscape, secure in the knowledge that whatever is lying at the end of the road for these characters, it’s going to be nothing good.
This week, Machine Mean will be running our review of the latest book from author Jonathan Butcher. In advance of this, we took the opportunity to sit down with Jonathan and poke at his soft bits and see what came loose. Give it a read and don’t forget to come back on Thursday for our thoughts on The Children At The Bottom Of The Gardden.
MM: Tell us about yourself. Where do you come from? Why writing? Where does your passion come from? What do you eat?
JB: That’s like a game-show question! I’m Jonathan, from South West England. From the moment I was able to transcribe ideas onto paper, I’ve been writing stories about weird, dark subject matter. I have little idea where my passion comes from – maybe from my folks having read to me from a young age, and maybe from a natural curiosity. And I eat pretty much everything, but at the moment I’m on a protein kick because I’m trying to de-scrawn myself and gain a couple of muscles, here and there.
MM: How do you feel that your narrative sensibilities have been shaped? Have you ever thought about where your art comes from?
JB: I write about what interests me, what makes me laugh, what grosses me out, and sometimes what moves me. For me, the most important aspect of a story is its structure; if it doesn’t have a satisfying beginning, middle, and an end (no matter how obscure) then I consider it a failure. I started reading adult horror at the age of about 10 but I grew to read plenty of other genre and non-genre stuff, so over time I’ve picked up a lot of influences. I’ve no idea why I’ve always been obsessed with such twisted subjects though – I had a good childhood and my parents and friends never encouraged my love for horror. I’ve just always been interested in understanding the things that many other people shy away from: the cruel secret, the things in the dark, and the good person who does something abominable.
MM: The characters in your stories often seem to be quite complex and laid out. Do you devote time to wrapping your head around them to the point that they are mostly fully formed by the time you start writing? Or does that happen more organically as the story also comes into being?
JB: My characters are very important to me. Even if they are exaggerated and outlandish, I want them to feel real within the context of my story. I very rarely plan them out in too much detail. Their personality forms during the first draft and is then expanded upon and refined in future drafts. I think that the characters in The Children at the Bottom of the Gardden are my most successfully-developed so far, but that book took 10 years (off and on) to write, and had five full redrafts, so I guess that’s to be expected. For me, the most exciting moments I experience as a writer are when one of my characters does something I wasn’t expecting. That’s when I know they’ve taken on a life of their own.
MM: Tell us about how this book came to be.
JB: I started The Children at the Bottom of the Gardden in about 2007. I’d tried writing a couple of novels before but never got further than about the 17,000-word mark, because I had been attempting to make them “deeper” than I was capable of at that point. The only reason I managed to complete Gardden is because I focused on writing about people and things that interest me, rather than trying to say something profound. I just chucked as many twisted ideas in there as I could, making myself laugh and occasionally retch, and then after the first draft was complete I realised how much work I still had to do!
MM: This book weaves a complex tapestry of characters that dips and weaves into each other. Did you have to conceptualize all of these plot-lines on their own at first or were you able to keep all of that present in your head as you wrote it all at once?
JB: I was about 70,000 words into the initial draft when it occurred to me how ambitious I was being writing this as my first book. I had 6/7 main characters, each with multiple plot arcs. At that point I started putting together brainstorms and detailed character backgrounds, and listing the number of sub-plots between each character that needed resolutions. It was intimidating, infuriating at times, but very satisfying when it all came together.
MM: And related to that, is there a particular character or character relationship in this that you feel particularly drawn to?
JB: I don’t think that there is any single character in the book that I feel more drawn to than the others. The more “realistic” characters came from my own life experiences, and the more OTT ones came from all the films/books I’ve watched/read. If I had to pick one of my creations who I’m most proud of, it would have to be Gary. He’s such a tragic, hopeless, and (for me) horribly believable character, and I feel like his chapters have a real energy to them.
MM: You seem to have made some deliberate formatting choices with this, for example some sections in all caps or spelling in some cases of specific words. “Gardden” is certainly an older usage of the word. Can you cast any light on these choices?
JB: The formatting comes from the fact that, while each chapter is written in the third person (she said/he said) they are very much subjective to each character’s personality and dialogue. Henry is like a lame version of a Guy Richie cockney wideboy, so instead of writing “fucking” the word is written in his accent: “fackin”. Locker has a very blunt, abrasive view of the world, so I wanted his chapters to reflect this – that’s why they’re in block capitals. And so on. As for the spelling of “gardden”, you’ll notice that it’s only written that way at certain times and in certain contexts … and that’s all I’m willing to say, for fear of spoilers. I think that my formatting choices may be clearer in the physical copy of the book, because each character has their own font to suit the style of their chapters.
MM: What Good Girls Do was obviously a starkly written, disturbing book. And while this new offering is quite a bit easier to get through, there are still some fairly graphic, disturbing scenes. The horror industry has received criticism in the past for the content we put out into the world. Why do you feel like your writing is pulled in this direction?
JB: Horror is there to horrify, plain and simple. I don’t think that I’m an author who writes shocking scenes without a purpose behind them – I have no interest in producing that kind of horror. I like the transgressive, and I like there to be a point behind extreme content. Sure, there are some unpleasant scenes in Gardden, but I think there’s only one which you could argue to be truly excessive, and that one is so over-the-top that it makes me laugh! I refuse to pull back from the shock of torture, murder, and violence. I just hope that I manage to make the level of viciousness suit the context of each story. I am a firm believer in free speech, and I think that it’s transparently obvious that if someone doesn’t like horror then they shouldn’t be reading it.
MM: Finally, what excites you about the state of the genre, what authors do you enjoy? And considering you have now put out two successive books that couldn’t be more different from one another, where do you see yourself going from here?
JB: I don’t feel qualified to comment on the horror genre as a whole, but I like Adam Nevill, H P Lovecraft, Duncan Ralston, Paula Ashe, and I have just discovered Poppy Z Brite. I’m currently enjoying The Stake by the late Richard Laymon, despite the fact that he struggles to describe a woman or teen girl without sounding like a pervert with drool running down his chin. As for my writing, it’ll probably continue to remain varied. I’ve been working on a novel about religious and political extremism but I needed to take a break from that for a while. I’m hoping to write a horror novella next, which is looking like it will feature possession, demons, cultists, and the usual weirdness that keeps me scribbling.
Jonathan Butcher has been writing weird stories since he was a child. He vividly remembers being 7 years old and banned by his teacher from writing about monsters or ghosts for a full term, but he can only assume that this encouraged him to write about them even more. He is a glutton for punishment, in that he not only writes for a hobby and passion, but also for a living. He lives just outside of Birmingham and spends most of his time immersed in horror, VR, strange music, dark strong beer, and all sorts of other naughtiness.
At the start, let me get out of the way that I fully acknowledge that in no way is Blade a perfect film. I don’t place it in my list of favorites – its isn’t even my favorite vampire film and I’m not going to argue that it should be for you.
It isn’t horror – in any interpretation of the word. I would categorize this alongside other similarly themed films as Underworld or Van Helsing. Films that may involve supernatural creatures or monsters as part of the story but are clearly just intended to be action movies, thrillers at best. Is this really important in the evaluation of it as a film? Probably not. But considering the context of reviewing vampire movies this month, I think it’s a relevant issue to bring to light. Is it really a vampire movie? Or is it just a movie that happens to have vampires in it?
So, I don’t think this is necessarily a shining example of what I would consider vampire lore. I can’t stand the notion that a vampire could be able to survive being out during the day because he’s wearing sunblock. And I tend to think that it takes a concept that should be fairly straightforward and simple and places it on an arbitrarily grandiose scale with notions of this massive underground society and with pseudo-mythological notions of the “day-walker”. Whatever, it’s all just pieces of the story to me and I don’t give it that much importance.
And I do tend to believe that the movie is a tad superficial. At times, I can’t escape the feeling that what the movie is really trying to do is show me how cool leather can look and sound.
I’ll also admit that I haven’t read even a frame of the comics that this movie was based on. So for me, I’m coming at this and seeing the movie in a vacuum for what it is. For me, this is all about just sitting down in front of a movie and enjoying, or not. Any previous knowledge or expectations are left at the door.
The question naturally and fairly becomes, why the hell do I like this film when by all rights and on paper, this should be a movie I don’t like?
It could be that it came along in the perfect point in my life. I was in the process of moving out of my dorm, it was the end of my senior year of college and it was a stressful time. There was a lot that needed to get done and my brother was in town helping me out.
And as things were finally angling down towards being finished, he and I took time out to catch a late-night showing of this. And I think it was exactly what I needed at the moment. Mindless, fun, loud action film at the theater that gave me something to escape into.
It could also be that, growing up in the eighties and nineties, Wesley Snipes was a major name and bulwark of my movie experiences, from as early as Major League, with fairly notable roles throughout much of the years to come. And looking back now, from the distant perspective of 2018, the Blade franchise was kind of the last hurrah for Snipes in terms of his visibility as an actor. This is not a criticism of him, by any means and I hope that wherever he is, he’s living comfortably, working on what he wants to and has found happiness on the back of the great work he has produced over his life.
Despite the annoyances over the little things and the parts I wish had been done differently, I have to put out there that I think the opening sequence of this film was one of the best I’ve seen. As absurd as the notion is of underground vampire clubs, it was a perfect way to introduce Blade as a character and I loved watching the intensity of him taking that room apart. It established the perfect mood for a movie that is designed to keep you in your seat, eating popcorn and drinking soda. It’s a great movie visually, with great dark tones to it and despite the summer blockbuster status, it still has some hints at harder edges that would suggest that maybe they were going for an adult audience at least. This is the kind of movie that you aren’t supposed to take that seriously. It’s a nice balance of the Marvel formula of action and funny talking combined with some gory and bloody bits as well.
And if there is anything Wesley Snipes does to perfection, it’s action movies. And this was one of his swan songs in that regard. Take it in for what it’s worth, great action and fun fictional escape routes from the dreary reality of our day to day existences.
For me, part of what makes Interview With The Vampire interesting is in considering the movie that we almost got. This was an example of a film plagued by pre-production difficulties, one of which was the outspoken criticism of author Anne Rice of the decision to cast Tom Cruise in the enigmatic role of Lestat. Now, as I write this review in 2018, Scientology and other eccentricities aside, Cruise has become a household name and not just for being an action star. I think he has well established himself as an actor with chops. This was not so much the case in the early to mid-nineties, however, and it led to Rice’s decision to disassociate with the film. And it would only be years later when she would recant her position.
But more than that, even, was the role of the boy who conducts the interview during this story. In the beginning, this role was given to young, up-and-coming actor River Phoenix. And it would be only days before filming that he would pass away tragically from a drug overdose. The producers had to scramble at the last minute to find a replacement and as a result we ended up with Christian Slater, who does a perfectly fine job, but I still can’t help but wonder what kind of a turn Phoenix would have taken with the role.
The movie was not an easy experience for the cast. When production shifted to London, it was in the dead of winter and work was conducted inside a studio with little or no windows so after toiling away in darkness of that place, the cast would emerge into the outside world, dark as well. Kind of an appropriate statement on the content of the story but understandably difficult to endure.
The point is that the film had an interesting gestational process and I have to think that if some aspects of it been different, we would have ended up with a dramatically different film, for better or worse, who’s to say?
My feelings on Anne Rice are a bit complicated and conflicted. On one hand, growing up with her writing was immensely influential for me. It was my first exposure to the possibility that horror(ish) fiction could also be beautifully written and intelligent. The first four books of the vampire chronicles were read multiple times as I made my way from junior high through college.
As I got older, however, I kind of drifted away from her writing and I have never really returned. I could never really put a finger on it until I recently when I thought I would try reading the entire chronicles and started fresh with Interview and found that I couldn’t get myself past the fourth book. I still loved Interview and I even enjoyed The Vampire Lestat. I still think those two books serve as a perfect example of the importance of point of view and how you can never really trust your narrator.
But as for the rest, Queen Of The Damned and Tale Of The Body Thief, I just felt like the writing was overwrought with unnecessary verbiage and backstory and slowing down the plot to drag out personal histories for characters that I didn’t really care about. And as a result, with the heart of the story so difficult to access, I decided to leave it all behind. It just doesn’t click with who I am as a reader anymore.
I know, what’s the point of all this, right?
I found that it gave me a new appreciation for the film adaptation of Interview With The Vampire because I think it managed to capture the beauty of Rice’s prose while at the same time keeping things grounded in a fairly solidly plotted screenplay. It also helps that as Rice devotes a lot of time in creating complex characters, the performances across the board were phenomenal.
There was some to-do made on the casting of then unknown Kirsten Dunst in the role of Claudia. Because while Dunst was youn, the character in the book was even younger. And while I can see the point that the film departed from the text somewhat, ultimately you have to lean towards the abilities of the actor and there was no way any actor of the age the book calls for would be able to pull off such a difficult role.
And for as huge as they are now, imagine trying to pull off a film with both Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. One or both of those guys would have to take a serious pay cut in order for that to happen. And this is a time when I think both of them were really at the top of their game. Tom Cruise had been a star for some time, but more for his work as an action star than anything else. Coming out around the same time as movies like A Few Good Men and Jerry MacGuire, Cruise seemed to be branching out more, into more serious roles that he might have otherwise not been associated with. And Pitt was just starting to put in some of the more notable early performances that would make him a household name. In all, great performances from the both of them.
Add to this some great supporting performances from the likes of Stephen Rhea and then also emerging Antonio Banderas. Even Christian Slater, (who I occasionally poke at a little for being what I consider Jack Nicholon Lite) put in some solid work, despite basically being dropped into production.
Interview is a beautifully filmed and constructed movie, so much so that I almost feel like it was made as if Anne Rice’s narrative sensibilities were surgically grafted onto the director. The music is fantastic, and the set work is top notch. I feel like I’m in these places and I can distinctively feel the vibe and the history of all of them.
On the flip side of things, I also have to acknowledge the other possible influence that Anne Rice and this movie have had on the current landscape. I have not been a huge fan of where vampire lore has gone to this point, with Twilight and the likes dominating the genre to such an extent. And I think an argument could be made that books and movies like Interview With The Vampire and subsequent books were taking the first steps towards that point. Not that Anne Rice could have ever conceived of this taking place, but I find myself forced to consider it as I contemplate my feelings on the film.
Interview With The Vampire is not horror as I would define it. Not really, anyway. I think it’s a fairly literary story that happens to feature characters of supernatural origin. Regardless of how you categorize it, though, I think Interview stands as a fresh and original fictional take on the notion of vampirism. This isn’t just about fangs and coffins and victims screaming as they are devoured. This is a human story told through the lens of monsters and it’s the only time I can think of where I have seen vampires actually struggling with their own morality and where they stand in the world. It’s a well thought out and executed story, one that I would recommend checking out, either by seeing the movie, reading the novel or both.
I Kill In Peace, by Hunter Shea is a powerful book, one of the more effective explorations I have seen of the twisted and deteriorating sanity and perspective of a chilling character. I don’t say this very often but this really was a book that I had a hard time putting down so I’m glad I was able to read it fairly quickly. The narrative was that compelling, feeding my need with each page to find out what was happening.
The premise of the book is that of a character being driven to commit murder. After being let go from his job, Peter starts to receive text messages from an anonymous source, instructing him on who he is to kill, providing the weapon and the opportunity to do it. This starts simply enough as revenge against the opportunistic boss who fires him and from there it just gets more extreme.
One of the more effective parts of this book was how Shea demonstrated exactly how Peter is driven to committing acts that most of us would consider unconscionable. I’m not normally the biggest fan of the first person but in this case I think that it is essential to trace his state of mind and why he is doing the things he is doing. Ironically enough, even in the midst of committing unforgivable crimes, you can’t help but feel just a little bit sorry for him, like he was caught up in circumstances more than anything else.
Peter himself is a solid character and the story built around him is effectively done. Shea does a good job putting him in a position that earns the sympathy of the reader. You really feel his stress at the prospects of having to support his family now that he is without a means of earning an income. Besides obvious external pressures to commit these crimes, you also see the internal stresses created by the situation he finds himself in.
As intriguing and mysterious as the story is, right out of the gate, it only proves to get even more disturbing as we witness not just Peter’s apparent transformation but that of the world around him as well. As the story progressed, I was totally absorbed with the events of this town and what could possibly be causing all of it. I’ll be completely honest, there was a part of me that was worried about whether or not he was going to be able to bring everything in for a conclusion that was going to make any sense. Too often with books like this, the author does an amazing job building up the universe of the story but isn’t able to figure out how to find a good exit point. Happily though, the book does find its way to a resolution that felt complete and satisfying, without going too far and over explaining.
One aspect of this book I really liked was how at times I was reminded of Bret Easton Ellis’ book, American Psycho, in the moments where you find yourself questioning the reliability and honesty of the narrator, whether what you see through Peter’s eyes is really happening, or if he is manufacturing them in his mind. Is the person leading Peter along actually there at the other end of the digital messages he receives? Or is it some kind of supernatural force using Peter like a pawn? I thought that Shea’s use of technology in the story worked really well and added new elements as Peter tries here and there to extricate himself from this anonymous character.
This book is not going to be for everyone. There are some graphic moments and the story takes a very dark turn, but while the book is undoubtedly disturbing in its content, there was no point where I felt like he was being gratuitous. The content that is there serves an essential purpose in detailing the progression of his state of mind throughout the book. In my opinion, I don’t think I could imagine it working as well as it does without it.
The book ends on a really strong note, going in a direction I can honestly say I would have never predicted. Shea sends us off powerfully, with an intensely emotional scene followed by an incredibly vivid visual as the book draws to a close. Overall, the book was extremely effective in its pacing and execution. If you’re up for some gritty, dark fiction give this one a look. It is what I think is the perfect length for horror fiction and it does more in a hundred or so pages than some books manage to do in over a thousand.
Chances are that if you have found your way to this review, what I am about to say is likely unnecessary but I think it is still important to make this clear, up front.
You can always say things like, “this book isn’t going to be for everyone”. It’s a statement I have always been a little perplexed with, even though I use it myself often enough. My issue with it is that ultimately, isn’t that going to be the case with every book? So I am going to take this a step further.
This book will offend you.
You should exercise the full extent of your caution and awareness before you undertake this read. If you have even the smallest tinges of sensitivities to graphic and extreme content, you should be aware that this book has it in great magnitude. If ever there was a book that needed to come with trigger warnings, this would be it. It will offend you and I say this not as a criticism but because the horrors in the book and the way this character is treated should offend you. This book contains scenes of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in brazen fashion.
It also makes you think.
The main character is introduced in a quick and brutal first chapter. She is being held prisoner in the home of an unidentified male, someone she identifies simply as “Daddy”. It is with sinking dread that you realize that she has been essentially raised by this person for the purposes of providing pleasure and that her outlook on the world around her is so distorted and skewed, she doesn’t even share the same basic language. It was chilling for me when I reached the moment that I realized that she referred to not just her captor as Daddy, but in fact was referring to all men as, “Daddies”.
The second character is a wife, sharing a morning at home with her husband and children. The chapters of the book jump back and forth, twining the stories around each other in a dual narrative that seemed disparate at first but once the narratives are brought together; it’s off to the races in a way that was appalling, tragic and impossible to look away from.
One thing Butcher does particularly well is in crafting the voices for these two characters. It’s easy to just say that this chapter is from this character’s point of view and this chapter is another. But I genuinely felt the depth and complexity of both of these women. The difference in language in how the two of them talk and see the world around them is beautifully crafted. It feels strange using a descriptor like that for a book of this nature but he really does an outstanding job capturing the spirit and voices of two completely different people.
Reading this book, I found myself contemplating at times the extent of our tolerances when it comes to the horror genre. Is there a line that should be left alone? Is it possible to go too far? This is without a doubt one of the most extreme books I have ever read but the answer I kept coming back to was that a lot of this is dependent on the context in which the content appears in the first place. There were plenty of moments in the book that made me want to turn away, made me question why I was reading this thing. What I find interesting though is that despite all those moments, I never really questioned whether or not the content I was reading was needed for the story. There were a few moments that I thought he could have pulled back a little but on a whole, I felt like everything was there for a reason.
You can tell (I think) when an author throws in something gross or explicit, simply for the purposes of “punching up” or making their story more “in your face”. There does seem to be a culture of, “see how much I can shock you” that I am not necessarily a fan of. But in the case of What Good Girls Do, I was shocked and appalled but all throughout, I felt like I was reading the natural progression of a story as opposed to grit and gore that was being arbitrarily shoehorned into a book.
The best kinds of monsters are the ones that can’t be reasoned with, the ones who you can’t talk down or convince to be merciful. As the scenario in this book unfolds, what makes it particularly effective is that this monster in human form shares all those attributes. Because of the altered understanding of her world as a result of her captivity, she becomes essentially an uncomprehending monster that cannot be negotiated or bargained with.
And even at the height of the horrible acts she was conducting, I found that I couldn’t bring myself to hate her. And this is likely the most powerful aspect of the book for me. Because the thing is, I understood that everything she was doing was a result of her captivity and being sculpted against her will into this creature that destroys without really understanding what she is doing. I understood that the real monster in the story was the one who had kidnapped her, withheld her from the world and allowed her to grow into what she has become.
My sole criticism for the book would be that in the last chapter, the story makes a bit of a shift that I had a hard time accepting. Not because of how it made me feel or because I needed the book to end a certain way. It was that a character makes a decision that I didn’t really feel like I understood. I didn’t buy that the character had come to the point of the final act we bear witness to. I really needed that moment to be drawn out a little more so that Butcher could devote more to exploring the motivations and causes. I’m sorry for being so cagey in my framing of this, but I obviously can’t get into details without spoiling the end of the book. Still, it was this point that probably shifted my review from five stars to four. It was a shocking ending, to be sure, but speaking for myself, I needed Butcher to take a little more time in order to properly sell it.
Is this going to be a book for you? I can’t answer that. What I can tell you is that I was captivated all throughout. As a parent, the story wreaked me, emotionally. It was one of the most challenging reads I have ever taken on. This book made me feel. It made me cringe. It made me think and it made me recoil. It made me ponder the morality of the world around me and shudder at the thought of such things like this happening in real life. It made me scared for us as a society as I can absolutely imagine something like this happening in neighborhoods across the world. This is a book that was eye-opening and mind-bending. It found the cracks and crevices of my being and forced its way in.
This book does what all art should. It doesn’t care about you or in conforming to what you want.
It simply is.
As a child of the eighties, I was born and raised on what I consider to be one of the golden ages of horror fiction. Franchises were born here, franchises that, to this day we find ourselves unable to escape from. And while there are any number of instances where we, as a culture have lost our way, there is one specific area which I particularly lament where we seem to have gone wrong.
I speak specifically of vampires.
A lot of this is likely going to seem directed at Twilight and to be sure, much of it for me came from that particular franchise. If that’s your thing, all the power to you but for me, it was way too far of a stone’s throw from the classic films I grew up with. Vampires used to be cool, they were dangerous and gritty. Vampires were a force to be reckoned with in the fictional landscape.
Then things began to change and it was almost like vampires started to become too precious. The intensity of the genre seemed to lessen and with the exception of a few standout films, vampire fiction seemed to become very bland and for a long time now, I have been waiting for a beam of light to show us the way through this long vampiric nightmare we seem to exist within.
Enter King Carrion, by Rich Hawkins, stage left.
The story of the book is to the point and efficient. The main character, Mason, is returning to his home town after an incarceration to try and beg himself back into the life of his ex-wife, trying to atone for his crime. He quickly discovers that something is wrong. An ancient vampire God has descended on the town, intent on making Great Britain his own.
This is what I have been missing for all this time. These are the vampires I grew up with, this is the horror genre I grew up with. It was a breath of fresh air in a world of emotionally available vampires. These vampires hit hard and fast, with just the right amount of gore that I have come to expect.
The book is paced quite well and for me, King Carrion often has the feel of Salem’s Lot, if it were to be clarified down to its essential base self. Hawkins wastes no time taking the reader straight into the heart of the story and uses a ton of great description to plunge us into this beautifully bleak environment.
The quality of the writing here is top rate. Hawkins’ aptitude for physical description comes through clearly in this book and the action of the story does a great job moving things along. There was no point where I felt things were dragging and pretty much throughout the book, I didn’t want to put it down. This is one that I definitely could have taken down in one reading if the time had been there. His characters feel genuine and their struggles seem real. He does a good job making their situation sympathetic very quickly.
Hawkins also does what I think is essential to any proper monster story in that he takes the essence of the vampires but also adds some personal twists of his own. It felt like he paid tribute to the legacy of the monster while also putting something out there that was uniquely his.
If I had any gripe about the story, it would be a minor one and to be fair, this is a hard bridge to cross for any author and there are just some times when it works better than others. But for me it was the point in the story where, after having his first encounter with the vampires, Mason decides to return to the scene to investigate. For me, I always find myself in horror movies and books asking why the character is bothering at all when I would probably be trying to get the hell out of there. Why go back? So in the context of this book, I think I would have liked it if that decision had been a little more fleshed out so that his motivations were a little clearer. As I said though, very minor issue for me.
I don’t know if Hawkins has any plans for a follow-up to this book but if there is a chance, I would definitely be on the lookout for it as I believe there could be more story to tell here.
For anyone out there who is of a similar disposition to me, who loves their horror delivered with some grit and some bleakness to it, this book would be an excellent choice for you. And maybe, with small steps like this, we can start to bring ourselves back into the light and away from the sanitized versions of these great fictional characters we have today.
Say it with me.
Vampires can be cool again.
EDITOR’S NOTE – Please consider checking out Rich Hawkins’ Amazon author page and take a look at more of his books. He is an incredibly talented author who deserves far more recognition and accolades than he receives. Support a great artist today.
This was a beautifully written book and pretty much from the start I was taken in by the description of the environment. I thought it was a brilliant decision to place the story onto this bleak, cold landscape as I felt it perfectly reflected the nature and mood of the narrative.
This book is a perfect example of why I need to rectify the blind spot that has largely existed in my reading habits when it comes to crime novels. It’s a genre I’ve always felt drawn to but for some reason don’t actually come to as often. I think one of the strengths of narratives of this type (and this book in particular) is how much the human condition can come through and how the depth of the characters is put so emotionally on display.
As a parent, I responded deeply to this story, the tragedy of a young child killed (Alice), her best friend (Paige) bearing witness and the main character of the book (Tom), left to care for his granddaughter, protect her from elements of the town that would do her harm as well as what he can to help her heal. It’s a situation that has great potential for conflict and it’s all used to perfection.
The emotional conquests against Paige seem to come on multiple fronts as, in addition to the expected trauma, she becomes of greater interest to Alice’s parents. For whatever reason, they have concluded that Paige knows more than she has been telling and will go to any lengths to get her cooperation. What I liked about this point was how, on one hand their behavior comes off as unreasonable and hostile, you also feel a touch of sympathy for them. They have lost a child, after all. This, I think is an essential element of all great fiction. You don’t necessarily have characters that are absolutely good and absolutely evil. All we have are characters doing the best they can to live through the struggles which have been thrust upon them.
And as the story progresses, the escalation of situations that Tom keeps getting pulled in to serves wonderfully to heighten the tension of the story. It reminded me a bit of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan in how, despite all efforts to correct his situation, things just keep getting worse and worse.
And it all builds up to an ending that, while it isn’t something we haven’t seen before necessarily, Triana executes it in a way that is effective, without taking it so far over the top that it seems gimmicky.
If I had any criticism, it would be that while Tom himself is a deep and interesting character, early in the book there are a number of points where he reflects on his disdain for the world today. Of his lack of understanding of the younger generation and their technology and phones and so forth. It isn’t a point of view that I’m necessarily unsympathetic to, it’s just that it’s a narrative I’ve become more and more tired of seeing. It’s the kind of thing I can get pretty much every day on Facebook or Twitter and as it doesn’t really add anything to the plot of the book, I found it to be a bit distracting.
You could make the argument that this disdain for the modern world serves to further isolate Tom as a character from the rest of his life. But I think that the circumstances of the story already accomplish this effectively enough without having to use any kind of enhancing device.
Also, as we find out early, Paige is living with Tom because her parents passed away, leaving her in her grandfather’s care. This puts Tom in the awkward position of having to act as a parent, an older man trying to figure out the unsteady ground of raising a young girl. This in my opinion would be a more effective way of highlighting Tom’s sense of aloneness. It’s germane to the story, incredibly emotional and personal and doesn’t have quite so much the feel of pop-culture-speak.
And just putting all cards fairly on the table, there are a number of typos in this that were a bit glaring. That being said however, I didn’t feel like these took away from the impact of the story or the beauty of the prose. I never felt like turning away but they were there. I just think the story could have stood for another editing pass.
In all, it’s an incredibly rich and entertaining book, one I read multiple times. It’s a quick journey and if you’re looking for a vivid distraction, an emotional and human story, look not further than right here.
*originally posted at the Gingernuts Of Horror (http://gingernutsofhorror.com/fiction-reviews/book-review-shepherd-of-the-black-sheep-by-kristopher-triana)
Starring: Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, A.J. Bowen, and Joe Swanberg
Written By: Simon Barrett
Directed By: Adam Wingard
Synopsis: Aubrey and Paul Davison plan to celebrate their wedding anniversary at their remote weekend estate. Unfortunately, the festivities take a terrible turn for the worse when their home is invaded by a group of masked individuals armed with knives and crossbows.
My favorite sub-genre of Horror are slashers. As we all know, the slasher film had its hay-day in the 80’s but every once in a while a fun modern slasher comes along and hits the world of cinema like a breath of fresh air. I was born at the end of the 80’s so I was really only able to enjoy watching these films on tv or going to my local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video and renting every slasher that I could get my hands on. Continue Reading
It wasn’t until my senior year of college until I was introduced to the work of George Romero, by a college roommate. He also was the one who introduced me to the Evil Dead trilogy as well as Tom Waits, so at some point, I really should track that guy down and offer up my thanks.
I was always sensitive to horror movies as a kid. I couldn’t even bring myself to go through the local haunted house with my friends during Halloween, it was so stressful. So I don’t really have an answer as to why I forcibly exposed myself to this nightmare-inducing content. I suppose I could wax poetic about my unconscious need to face my fears and that horror films and books helped me do that. Saying stuff like that seems a bit too much like retrospective praise that maybe I don’t deserve so let’s just say I felt an illogical pull towards that which scared the crap out of me. Perhaps in a real world in which I had to inhabit the experiences of social anxieties as well as a neurological disorder (Tourette Syndrome), maybe part of me was drawn to the notion of horrors that I could witness and then leave behind.
What drew me to Romero’s work was the intense realism. He managed to pack so much emotion into what, on the surface might be seen as simplistic and childish. Also, unlike so many other films, I never felt like I was seeing special effects. The impact of the grainy, gritty quality of those films only served to drive home the sense of fear you felt watching them. I love the dread I get with Night Of The Living Dead. Using thunderstorms as a means of increasing tension is by no means new, I’ve certainly been guilty of doing it. But those strikes of thunder in that film, early on as Barbara is fleeing the cemetery is intense and evocative. The sense of claustrophobia and impending doom throughout Dawn Of The Dead is a physical weight and the sense of manic terror in Day Of The Dead can’t be denied. It was something I looked at and all I wanted to do was create like that, myself. I wanted to tell stories that had that much grit and impact to it. And ultimately, I believe that the experience of Romero’s films would make for a huge bulwark unto which I would build my own sensibilities as a writer, years on down the road.
So when the opportunity arose to contribute to Stories Of The Dead, a tribute to George, I jumped on the chance to give back and say thanks. It’s difficult to express how much one person can mean to a genre. It’s easy to make statements like, had it not been for George Romero, there wouldn’t be a Walking Dead right now. But more important to that was the way he functioned as a guiding light and inspiration for us all. In the postscript to his entry in Stories Of The Dead, Kenneth Olson talks about being at a convention when news of George’s passing hit the crowd. He talks about how, even in that massive space, it was like the air had been sucked out of the room as everyone seemed speechless at the announcement.
But following the revelation of that great loss, everyone soon began sharing their memories of the man and of his work. And I think it is in this spirit that Stories Of The Dead really succeeds as a book.
As I have work published in this, I can’t ethically post an official review of the book on Amazon or Goodreads or elsewhere. But I felt it was important to express how much I was impressed with this book and how much of an honor it was to be a part, alongside such unquestionably talented authors.
Some of the stories in this stand on their own and some are more heavily steeped in the specifics of George’s films. Want to learn more about the Coopers, the family that was occupying the basement of the farmhouse in Night Of The Living Dead? Want to find out what happened to Francine and Peter following their dramatic helicopter escape in Dawn Of The Dead? Or maybe see a little more of the enigmatic Private Steele from Day Of The Dead? They’re all in here.
My story starts off in the closing moments of Day Of The Dead during what I consider to be one of the most epic movie death scenes of all time. From there it goes off on its own. It was a lot of fun to write, as well as stressful as all hell, mostly because if there had ever been an instance in my career as a writer, this was one I really wanted to get right.
Identifying favorite stories from this collection is kind of along the lines of saying which slice of pizza was your favorite. I want to make sure it’s clear that I loved all the work in this book. But identifying some standouts that I really liked, Bachman’s Diner by Jeff Stevenson was a fun exploration of events prior to the start of Night Of The Living Dead. WGN TV : Off Air and Fuel, by Duncan Bradshaw and Jason Whittle respectively were great looks at characters involved with Dawn Of The Dead. And as Day of The Dead is my favorite of the bunch, I immediately loved David Owain Hughes story, Safe Zone Of The Dead. With After Us, Emma Dehany brilliantly uses a hurricane in New Orleans as a way of setting up her story. And Rich Hawkins’ story, Who They Were was touching as well as tragic and bleak.
George Romero redefined the landscape of an entire industry and I don’t think there are enough words in my arsenal to really express my appreciation for everything he did over the course of his life. There’s nothing new under the sun. Ultimately, there are only so many stories and so many iterations of the basic themes and concepts. Still, I think our ability to continue to generate fresh and interesting ideas comes largely from the incredible example set for us by pioneers like the one and only.
Thank you, George.
I hope you will consider giving this book a chance. Stories Of The Dead was a labor of love for all of us, one we were thrilled to undertake. And most important of all, the proceeds for this book will go to the American Cancer Society. Click here to check out the book at your Amazon storefront of choice.