Way back in the day, when I was starting to get legs as a reader, while I had yet to find my way into the universes of Stephen King, my early sensibilities towards horror were already beginning to manifest in my love for one book in particular.
The House With a Clock in its Walls.
I think I was drawn initially to the fact that the hero of the story was a child, of roughly my age. But more than that, this was a child who felt out of place, like me. Like Lewis, I often found it easier to retreat to the comfort of books than to expose myself to the stress of trying to make and hold on to friends. I had recently moved to a new town as well and much of my life at that point was spent feeling out of place. I knew all too well the drive and desire to want to impress people and to set myself apart from the pack.
I was immediately drawn to the characters of Uncle Jonathon and Mrs. Zimmerman. They were great but beyond that I was also still at a point in my life when I looked up to adults and again, because I generally didn’t feel like my peers ever accepted me, I felt much more comfortable around adults.
I also loved magic. And magic was something this story was steeped in. But not the magic of Tolkien or CS Lewis. I think this was the first time I considered the possibility of magic in the context of a contemporary setting. I had never entertained the notion that a wizard need not come cloaked in robes and a tall hat. And that witches didn’t need to be accompanied by a cat, a cauldron and crystal ball. In this story, the witches and warlocks were also just the neighbors that lived up the hill from you.
John Bellairs did a great job making his books exciting and spooky, but never so high on the scare scale that I couldn’t handle it. His books had ghosts, dark magic as well as apocalyptic leanings but it was still in a format ideally to be consumed by an emerging reader. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if his books had been some of the earlier influences taken in by a young JK Rowling.
As an adult, I found that the books had slipped from my recollection. I couldn’t remember the titles or the name of the author. All I could really remember was something about a young character moving in with an uncle. And magic. For years, this book held an almost mythical status in my imagination. The notion of it would rise up into my mind but with no way of really satisfying the urge. It was finally thanks to the internet that I was finally able to put the pieces together as someone on Facebook was able to steer my in the right direction.
John Bellairs and this book in particular were a part of my life again.
And the book has again risen to the national consciousness with the recent film adaptation. And while I was definitely skeptical of the notion of it being another Jack Black vehicle, I ended up enjoying it, quite a bit. There were some departures for sure, but that should always be expected. There were aspects to the film I would have liked to have seen done differently but I definitely felt the spirit of the book. Even Jack Black proved to be great as the enigmatic Uncle Jonathan and of course, Cate Blanchett was spectacular as Mrs. Zimmerman.
In all, a highly entertaining book, one that I am glad was a part of my development as a writer. It may be a bit on the mild side, especially with the older readers but it’s still a fine example of fun and spooky entertainment.
The Sinister Horror Company has long since established itself as a source for outstanding fiction. I have been introduced to a number of fantastic authors, courtesy of their releases and they are one publisher in particular that I always keep a close eye on to see what might be coming next. The handling of the books has consistently been of the utmost care and respect and I always feel confident that my purchasing dollars are going to a good place whenever I support their authors.
One major centerpiece of the Sinister tabletop has been the anthology series, the Black Room Manuscripts. Having run over multiple editions and years, more amazing fiction than I could keep track of has graced the pages of these books, with a hefty amount of money going to charity on the back of the work of so many spectacular authors.
This year, the Black Room series has come to an end with volume four, the final installment. And Sinister Horror laid down a collection of great stories to go out in fine form. Overall, I found them to range from entertaining to staggering and it reminded me of what I have loved about the series (that I have read), that the stories contained in these collections make a point of straying from the convention and striking out into narrative territory that is maybe a bit less tackled by other authors and publishers. I have always held that there isn’t really that much new to be done out there and that the important issue is the talent of the writer. Despite my holding to this conviction, this book still manages to feel at moments like writing I have never seen before.
If I had any critical comments to make about the book, it would be that some of the stories felt a bit on the ambitious side for the length they had to work with. There were a number of stories where, when I reached the end I was kind of surprised and disappointed to find that there weren’t a few more pages to contexualize everything. But even taking this issue into consideration, even those stories where I wished the ground felt a little firmer underneath me, I still found plenty in the prose to enjoy. The journey of words in all of these stories were enjoyable to experience. I think it’s normal and should be expected with any anthology that some stories aren’t going to work as well for you as others. It’s just the nature of the beast. A story that I might not respond to could be the one that splits the skies open for someone else. You never know.
So with those prefacing statements, I felt it would be appropriate in recognition of this great achievement from Sinister that I go through the book and offer up my thoughts on each individual story. And I want to make sure it is clear how much I would like to pass along my compliments to all the individual contributors to this book. You are of a quality we all should aspire to and the work you contributed here is well deserving of all praise and honor.
THAT THING I DID, by TRACY FAHEY
This was about as powerful an opening to an anthology as I may have seen. It’s the kind of story where you aren’t really sure where things are going until the last few moments when all you can do is bask in the heightened tragedy of the whole thing. It’s a perfect example of how you don’t have to have stereotypical horror elements to make a story terrifying. You don’t need monsters or ghosts.
Sometimes the horror is found in the circumstances.
This story is short but it uses the small space to build a ton of character history and emotional punch. The pacing is perfect and there are just enough crumbs to indicate what’s about to happen. And there is a perfect moment where you almost unconsciously say to yourself, “No, this isn’t going there, is it?”
Of course it’s going there.
EATING THE DREAM, by K.A. LAITY
This one was more of a mixed bag for me. On one hand, I thought the concept of the story was interesting and that a lot of history was packed into a small amount of space. On the other hand, though, I also had a harder time engaging in the story and I kind of wish certain narrative parameters had been more clearly established, earlier on.
The language of this piece is incredibly gorgeous. The tactile imagery and sensations in the story were about as intense and effective as I have seen in a book in a long time. Passages like “The lights of a small town are just right, a bouquet of neon, headlights, and flickering fluorescence. Makes me feel pretty” or “The main transaction is between loneliness and cash”. Lines like that just take me off my feet and remind me about what language can be and why I love doing this in the first place. So many turns of phrase that are just awesome and the poetry of the setting is so powerful, I might just be happy reading it off into the horizon, like the longest Tom Waits song ever written.
All that aside, I did find it harder to pick up on what was going on in the story and where things were going. And please don’t let this arbitrary note deter you from reading this because it’s entirely possible that the problem is with my dumb brain. All I can say is that I think the story could have been stronger if we had known a little more concrete information about not just this universe but also the narrator. It’s a tough challenge here because while using the first person cuts us off from a lot of potentially useful information that a third-person narrative voice could provide, being able to hear the character’s train of thought is really important. Perhaps a hybrid between the two would have worked.
In all, an interesting story that I found compelling for what it seemed to be offering. I just would have liked it to have been executed slightly differently.
A CLEAR DAY IN A SEASON OF STORMS, by SIMON AVERY
This was a cool story with a premise that really rattled around in my brain pan for some time after reading it. And sadly, there is very little I can say about it without spoiling the details of the plot. I shall do the best I can.
The story is centered around a married couple who have clearly seen better times in terms of their relationship. As we open, we see them having seemingly reached the realization that even their fairly extreme ideas to try and improve their marriage have failed and as the reader, my immediate assumption was that they were likely finished with each other.
The table is upturned by the introduction of a stranger (I know, cue Ms. Agatha Christie with the sudden thunderstorm and a dark visitor in the rain slicker). If you can look past the superficial, you will find a story that is unique in its scope and execution. I was fascinated by this new character and with how quickly he took on a tone of familiarity with this couple. I’m a sucker for any kinds of stories about the sea and as with the previous tale in this volume, the atmosphere and setting of this is phenomenal.
Great characterization, plot and description. And a great reminder that just because a story has supernatural elements, it doesn’t necessarily have to be horrific.
THE HANGING BOY, by GARY MCMAHON
This was a fun story. I really enjoy it when an author allows a narrative to thrive on a surrealistic landscape and doesn’t make a ton of effort to explain away or justify it. This tale is definitely an example of that, a normal, average day that quickly transitions to anything but. It was a situation for a character of which I had no understanding but was definitely engaged in wanting to know more. Some of the language and dialogue really reinforced the idea with me that this was a kind of modern day fable.
I think it casts an interesting light on the subject of perspective and how our mind can sometimes allow us to see the world in times of stress. In other words, maybe we can’t always trust our own senses if, on a subconscious level we are trying to shield ourselves from what’s really happening.
Plenty of stories will take the tactic of shifting and changing your perspective on everything but I found this one to be particularly clever about it. An interesting and enjoyable read.
MAM’S GIRL, by J.L. GEORGE
I’ll be completely honest and admit that this one went past me a little. But I definitely enjoyed the intrigue of the tale and in trying to unravel what was going on. And perhaps more importantly, the story got me thinking.
It made me ponder the experience of getting old and how we can end up retreating into our own consciousness, to the point where maybe we interact with our own memories. Could those memories actually be self-aware as they swirl around us in the ether? Is it possible that the moment of our death is that in which all those disparate elements are finally brought back together?
Not to do with the story. But it’s the mental journey I was sent on.
TEARS OF HONEY, by JOHN MCNEE
With an opening line like, “For what is pleasure, but an evolution of pain?”, it’s hard for me to not go in with my brain in a Clive Barker kind of mindset. And this is a completely unfair standard to set for a story but unfortunately, that was what was colored expectations from the start.
I was thrilled to find that the story completely delivers on this implied expectation that I had created for myself. l loved the notion of this group of individuals coming together for the purposes of exploring paranormal phenomenon. It isn’t clear at first what they are going to be doing but the tone of the piece kept me engaged throughout.
And for me, what sets Clive Barker aside is how he weaves his dramatic visual canvas on which to draw. This carries over nicely as McNee delivers some imagery that is profoundly disturbing.
if I had any critical note, I would say that the story at the start steps aside from the main narrative to offer up backstory. It provides some insight into the characters that I didn’t think was necessary. I wasn’t really sure where things were going at that point and I thought that section could have been condensed quite a bit.
DECIPHER, by DANIEL MARC CHANT
I think what I found really cool about this was the shifting in time and perspective and how, while narrative modes like this could have created more confusion around the mystery of the plot, Chant manages to layer everything perfectly. I loved the interaction between this couple and seeing how the relationship became so fractured.
Chant does a good job getting into the minds of the characters and using them to craft an engaging story. He did a good job showing the increasing obsession of the wife and demonstrating how this leads to her revelation about her husband that drives the drama underlying in the piece. It all works up to a brilliant ending, one of the stronger ones in the collection, in my opinion. The questions aren’t all necessarily answered and maybe we aren’t left really knowing which one of the couple is more of the monster but I kind of like how that is left open-ended. While some stories leave making me feel like there needs to be more filler to the core of the plot, this moves quickly and is compelling enough to make me really love it in the form it is in.
TAP, TAP, by MARIE O’REGAN
This one had a beautifully creepy atmosphere to it. While dolls aren’t exactly new when it comes to the content of horror fiction, there always exists the possibility of taking something routine and making it great. I think that is what O’Regan has done here, in brilliant form.
The pacing of was near perfect as I had no desire to put it down at any point while I read it. The tension is real and palpable as the story moves along, which isn’t easy in any kind of story length. I don’t want to give too much away but the experiences of this woman and her mother quickly escalate from curious to simply terrifying. I’m not generally bothered by horror fiction but some of the imagery in my head at the end of this piece definitely had me feeling unsettled. It’s a perfect example of a creative drive that we should all aspire to. It’s a fantastic idea, delivered with tremendously talented writing. This was one of my favorites from the collection.
BLACK SILK, by BENEDICT J. JONES
Benedict Jones has long since demonstrated his abilities as a great storyteller and he brought his full game to bear in this finale for the Black Room Manuscripts. After a quick start, Jones does a superb job developing tension in this with a great sense of movement to the plot, foreshadowing something terrible yet to come.
I loved the mystery behind this character as she learns more about herself and her past. And the situation she has to live with is pretty sympathetic, a sympathy which Jones will challenge as the story goes on. Everything winds down to a turn at the end that I didn’t see coming and I thought worked extremely well.
This story is a perfect example of how things aren’t always what they seem and before you pass judgment on anyone, it’s important to work your way through, all the way to the end.
DRAGGED DOWN, by RAMSEY CAMPBELL
This was a cool little tale that seemed to be going for a number of different angles at the same time. On one hand, I liked the creepy vibe around the nature of a local tunnel and the various stories that the characters come up with, surrounding it. Is this just a case of characters being asked to mine their own imaginations and making something more than it really is? Or does the tunnel in question actually bear some darker aspects that we can’t really understand?
I have seen a number of stories over the years about the phenomenon of tunnels that have the power where you can be affected somehow if you dare to venture through to the other side. Doing great horror is often about taking something mundane and making it into something unsettling and I think Campbell does this well.
I also appreciated how the dynamics between classmates was represented here. I think it takes a bit more work and guts to portray children as the bullies they can be and demonstrating how a hostile environment can swell into something horrifically worse.
In all, very entertaining and I’m glad I got the chance to read this.
PLACE OF THE DAMNED, by C.L. RAVEN
This was a fun story that managed to pack a lot of action into a short amount of time and space. The premise of exploring a long vacant castle is certainly nothing new, responsible for so much of the gothic imagery we associate with horror anymore. The vibe I felt in this was really similar to what I got from Dusk ‘til Dawn in which there is a definitive line that separates two starkly different aspects of the story. To start out, we have a fairly light-hearted sort of ghost story but this quickly descends into something much more serious. Once the action kicks in, it doesn’t let go.
If I had any complaint it would probably be that I didn’t think the whole ghost hunters angle was needed for the story. It didn’t really add anything crucial to the overall vibe of the piece and if anything, it felt slightly more like ground I have walked a few too many times. Still, while these aspects may have been present, I still found the execution of the story to be top rate, a good, fun read.
BROOKS POND, by MARK WEST
I’m always grateful for anthologies like this for opening my experience to new authors but obviously I also like seeing what work the names I’m familiar with have laid down. I have been a fan of Mark West for several years now and I think he excels at crafting beautiful atmosphere and characters. His work on Brooks Pond is no exception.
We have come to expect it anymore that in stories like this, our expectations will be played on a little and that by the end of the story, we get to see how misled we had been throughout. West does a great job in spinning the tables around and giving all the characters a grim turn in terms of how we see them. And after all of that, he manages somehow to give one character in particular an even darker turn than he had already. Not really a double twist but certainly a clarification of just how dark and depraved some characters can be.
PLANNING PERMISSION, by HANNAH KATE
Write a horror story involving urban planning.
I feel a bit ridiculous even writing that out but somehow this is what Hannah Kate managed to accomplish with this one. And I think it’s a great example of how you can take narrative devices that have been used often and freshen them by putting them into a new context.
Despite being fairly heavy-handed with the exposition at times, I found the mystery to be engaging and interesting. And even though I had an inkling of where things were going, the quality of the prose and skill in the crafting kept me hanging on to the last paragraph.
SHRIVELED TONGUES OF DEAD HORSES, by ERIK HOFSTATTER
I really loved this one, despite the fact that for the first half or so I hadn’t a clue what the hell was going on. Still, the imagery was incredibly vivid so I hung tight. Then, about halfway through, the story came together and began to actually make sense. And then with the final line, we get the rug pulled out and we are once again floundering without a tether. I suspect I could read this six times and come away with six different interpretations.
DEATH WISH, by MARGARÉT HELGADÓTTIR
Mixed feelings somewhat on this. On one hand, I love that we are dropped right into the middle of things and the heart of the story is almost immediately present. On the other, I also would have liked to have had a little more information on the universe this takes place in, of traumas experienced by the protagonist that seem to weigh heavily but are maybe sketched a bit lightly.
Beyond this minor issue, the execution of the story works really well. I liked the sense of confused familiarity between the narrator and the girl he chooses to help. From the start you have a sense that something beyond the obvious is going on and the story does a good job layering the plot out ahead of you.
I kind of wanted more at the end but it closes with a solid last line and some creepy imagery to go along with it.
SIZE ISNT EVERYTHING, by JAMES EVERINGTON
I enjoyed this story, mostly for the atmosphere and the description. I felt like I was sitting in that car for most of the time, the writing was so vivid and evocative. I also would have liked a little more clarity at the ending, just tilting the narrative cards down a little bit more so we can get a better look at them.
That aside, the atmosphere and creeping dread that is present throughout the story is brilliantly done. There’s an intriguing pace to the story as the protagonist finds himself exploring the confines of an abandoned apartment.
Tons of dark foreshadowing, which I am a fan of. And also an incredibly inventive monster, if you want to call it that. Quite Lovecraftian in its design but with maybe even more sci-fi kind of aspects.
PAIN HAS A VOICE, by STEPHEN BACON
Really brilliant. A great examination of the emotional struggles of a child who has to come to terms with the death of a parent as well as the introduction of a new parental figure who may be quite a bit less suited as a parent.
As a writer and a lover of books who also has kids, I appreciated the notion of books being used as a conduit that can connect kids to their parents.
And although the story is pretty grim in the details of the plot, I also found it a nice way of demonstrating a child’s development of inner strength, possibly to the point of standing up to his abusive step-father. Of course, it’s also possible that we are seeing the origin story for a psychopath. And the ultimate irony here is that both of those statements could easily be true.
The reality of great fiction is that just because a character is sympathetic, it doesn’t inherently make them a good person. This story really hammered home that point for me.
SWIMMING OUT TO SEA, by PENNY JONES
This one spoke to me as it took place in an environment that felt comfortable to me. It reminded me of summers at Lake Michigan and wading out into deeper waters than we probably should have been allowed. I’ve felt the uncertain pressure under my feet and around my ankles as they are sucked into the sand, always wondering about the fabled rip-tide that could drag you out to sea.
This story is pretty bonkers as it unfolds and it’s a brilliant examination of a persons state of mind and how perceptions can be warped or misled. Jones does a great job leading the reader along, right there with the protagonist, only to have the floor yanked out in due course.
This was a cool sequence of events as this character’s peril just seems to increase with each passing moment. And it leaves you in a powerful moment at the ending.
REANIMATION CHANNEL, by MARK CASSEL
Probably another one of my favorites from the book. The premise of this is incredibly inventive and crafted out to a high degree. And just when I thought I couldn’t get more impressed with the concept behind the plot, it just went and got even crazier and more creative. Somehow, he has managed to take a fairly grizzly monster story and fused it with a kind of tech-y, almost science-fiction feel to it. The mystery is effective and the plot is laid out perfectly to create just the right level of action, mystery and suspense.
It all builds up to an ending that is probably one of the more emotionally satisfying ending points I’ve seen in a story. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall as the concept for this was worked out because I was really impressed with the level of skill that went into crafting a story such as this. Give it a read. And keep it in the back of your mind the next time you go online to do some serious gaming.
CRAFT AIL, by DUNCAN BRADSHAW
This was an incredibly fun and entertaining story. I have read a number of Bradshaw’s works, from his books to his shorter stories and I am always impressed with the breadth of content in his writing. By no means is this a writer who takes on the same subject matter time and time again. And yet, despite the difference in subject, the style always seems to be uniquely his. It’s hard to strike a totally unique tone in your writing but I think Duncan Bradshaw has done quite a bit in this regard.
This story is bonkers, right out of the gate and with very little exclamation you are dumped into the middle of the craziest situation you could probably imagine in a story. And somehow, without giving a ton of backstory, he still manages to make all of this craziness seemed completely normal. I had a lot of fun trying to disentangle what was going on and what direction the story was going in.
Bradshaw exercises a deft slide in perspective in this, moving from one character to a completely new one at about the midpoint of the story. And while, by all rights this shouldn’t have worked, it serves to function in the story perfectly. The dark and violent notes of the opening are only smoothed over by the humor and absurdity of the second half.
Definitely one of the high points of the collection for me.
ZWIGLI’S LAST PAPER, by ELIZABETH DAVIS
I’m feeling a fair amount of guilt when it comes to this one and it is for this story that I think I have had the most difficult time phrasing how I feel about it. Because I think it’s clear how much time and attention and craft that went into the construction of this story. This is not some paper-thin narrative that someone threw together and patched up with some packing tape. I can only imagine the Herculean effort it would have taken to both conceive of and execute this
It just isn’t for me.
Ultimately, I just feel like there isn’t enough context for the story, told in a mostly epistolary fashion. The mode of the narrative made me think quite a bit about Lovecraft’s At The Mountain Of Madness, or even Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The problem for me was that I didn’t understand what was happening around the existence of these writings. I didn’t really know why I was reading it or what this person had done to warrant the collection of her writings. Ultimately, there was just too much work for me to engage with this and I was not successful. And I take full responsibility for this. The failing here is mine, not the author.
I would strongly encourage you to give the story a go. Plenty of people will be able to find a connection here that I have not.
LAUREL, by TERRY GRIMWOOD
This was a well paced and written piece of historical fiction. It’s a skill set I have never had and I’m always impressed with writers who can do such a good job putting a narrative so authentically into an era lost to all of us. It’s easy to just say that a story is set in the past, it’s another entirely to avoid the anachronistic and make a piece feel like it’s oozing the time period it’s set in. It was an exciting read.
It’s also an example of what I have said of the book overall, that this was one that I would have liked to have seen with a slightly more firm ending to it. The frame story in this felt less successful to me and I’m not really sure why, other than it seemed to not function as well as a part of a coalesced work of fiction.
Still, a fantastically layered story. Kind of a mashup of Lovecraft and the Great Escape.
TIDE WILL TELL, by V.H. LESLIE
This is a beautifully written piece with a lot of great descriptions. I felt like the tactile descriptions of the environment of the story was done to near perfection and this river sounded like one that I might be walking or jogging along. I also liked the glimpses we got at the relationship of the married couple in this story as I know first-hand how stressful it can become in a relationship when going through the process of trying to have a child. I don’t know if this was something intended by the author. I kind of doubt it but this is one aspect I took away from it.
Centered around a man who comes across a sack floating in the river, sure for a moment that he sees something moving in there. Or did he? I’m not really sure. I would have liked to have seen a little more context for these characters. But even though I suspect the heart of the story went over my head a little, the reading was quite pleasurable, in a fictional landscape that felt familiar and comfortable.
THE LAST HORROR, by JR PARK
Great tale to close out the collection. The layering of the story was a joy to try and read through, with perspectives shifting and dropping out brilliantly. In this, we have a writer trying to figure out a story about a writer who is also trying to write a story. And while on the surface, this may seem destined for disaster, the vibe of the story is brilliant. At times I found myself wondering if any of this was real or if the narratives I was seeing merely existed in the middle layers of a sort of literary nesting doll. How many more layers are there, both above and below? To take that even further into the rabbit hole, in some higher level universe is there someone reading a book about me reading a book about a writer writing about a writer?
Like a great Lynch film, this is a story best experienced driving through without a roadmap. Setting your preconceptions too firmly would likely only serve to detract from the experience. It was a narrative that had me thinking for long after I got to the final lines and for much longer after.
And that’s a wrap on both this review as well as this series of fantastic anthologies. I would like to extend my thanks to the folks at Sinister Horror for the outstanding work they continue to put out and for being a bright and tragically underappreciated light in this industry. This has been a great series and the world of horror fiction has only served to benefit from them, all four volumes.
Do yourself a favor and give some of your time for a deep and heavy book that will entertain and open your mind to narrative possibilities you may have never considered before.
This past year seems to have a common theme of me finally getting around to Robert McCammon books that I should have read in high school. Last year I finally cracked the cover on Swan Song and loved it. Now, this year the choice appears to have been Usher’s Passing. And again the result is me wanting to reach back through time and give the teenage version of myself a good slap.
To start, I’ll admit that I haven’t read Poe’s story, The Fall of the House of Usher, another error I should probably correct. My point in bringing it up is that I can’t really speak to the relevance of McCammon’s book to Poe’s work.
This is a stunning book. There is so much history and depth to the narrative, much more than anything I have read in a long time. I would probably place this up there with some of the massive tomes like Swan Song, The Stand, IT, stories that just seem to keep getting larger and at no point do you feel like any of it is excessive. McCammon makes this massive book feel digestible by making the characters completely dynamic and compelling. These are people who I am interested to learn more about and to see where the currents of the story will take them. This is a real family with real history and all I wanted was just more pages.
What’s more, McCammon brilliantly lays out the tension between his main character and his family, after turning his back on their legacy of arms development. A decision that has cost him the massive amounts of money he would likely inherit otherwise, had he not been a cog in the wheel. I loved the emotionally antagonistic father who finds himself in the position of having to reach out for help from a son who has turned on him. Also, the sniveling brother who clearly thinks highly of himself, much more than most of the family. Add a further complication with a sister who is frequently traveling abroad and you have a recipe for perfect levels of conflict that can fester in a family.
Description and atmosphere are also outstanding in this book. Reading this is like sitting down to a really great meal that you don’t want to end. The chef might be going off in all different directions that interest them but every turn seems like the perfect decision.
There’s a lot going on at the same time but McCammon doesn’t seem to have any difficulty keeping so much in the air. He executes the story on many different levels and he clearly put in the necessary groundwork that was needed to write this. There is the history of the family but also the history of the area and the people who live on the mountain around the family estate. It’s a massive amount of work that he managed to make accessible and organized.
The drama is done well and not at all cliché. The tension is real and the elements of horror that work their way into the book are disturbing. There are some frightening monsters in this as well as an abandoned house that raises some chills as well. There were some brilliantly creepy moments throughout, all delivered with the McCammon level of intensity and power.
And I suppose the best possible compliment I can give to a book is that it made me feel inspired to go read another book. I should probably stop hedging and follow through on my so-called “interest” in reading Poe’s story. If nothing else, it could only serve to enhance the context of McCammon’s book. And then, of course, once I read Poe’s story it would give me a convenient excuse to go back once more through the doors of the house of Usher.
One of my favorite books growing up was Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon. And it was a book that I didn’t immediately engage with. I had been a fan of several of McCammon’s books already but Boy’s Life was quite a departure from what I was expecting. There was seemingly none of the horrific elements that his books seemed to deliver. I bailed out, shortly after beginning my first attempt but before long, I was able to buckle down and force myself through. It wasn’t long after that before I realized how much I had missed out by not sticking with the book the first time through.
The book isn’t horror. I wasn’t wrong in that initial assessment. Sure, there are some moments where the narrative seems to brush up against the supernatural but in no way was this horror. Still, I loved it. The characters were compelling and I quickly bought into them as a reader. I couldn’t put the book down and the thing that really threw me was how, for most of the book, it wasn’t really clear what the story was driving towards. I’m normally not a huge fan of books that are so plot-driven but in this case, the plot was so great, it was all I wanted.
It was this feeling that I returned to when I came across The Travelling Vampire Show. I have not had the pleasure of reading anything by Richard Laymon before and I suspect that this will not be the last. The setup for the book is pretty straightforward. A group of three friends come across a flier for a travelling act that is coming to town. The poster claims that the town can come out to see one of the last surviving vampires, alive. An intense show is promised, one that won’t be soon forgotten.
The friends, after much debate, decide that they need to figure out how to sneak out that night in order to get in and see this vampire, real or not.
From this point on, the book mostly goes into a detailed sequence of events, what transpires for these three friends. It’s a notion that in the hands of another author probably could have ended up being a complete disaster. And for me, this is where the comparison to Boy’s Life really comes into play. As with Boy’s Life, I frequently found myself looking up from this book and realizing that I really couldn’t say what the book was about, or what kind of arc these characters were on. And while many would bemoan the absence of these things, for me, the story was so compelling, I was finding that I just didn’t care. This was a rich universe that was an absolute pleasure to dip in to. It’s a story about friendship and loyalty and about growing up and how our relationships can change as that process moves forward. The plot has an almost episodic feel to it as our characters move from one emotional challenge to the next and I loved it.
The characters were what really rocketed this book into the stratosphere. Everyone felt like they had an immense history and texture to them and it was a big part of what made me overlook my feelings about the story seeming like one endless stream of point A to point B to point C and so forth. The importance of where the book was going took a comfortable back seat to my desire to simply see what the characters were going to do next.
There were a few points where I thought the book could have been better. There are a number of flashbacks throughout and for some reason, one of the characters always seems to have a different nickname during each one. It’s never really explained why she changes her nickname all the time and the first time it happened there were several minutes of confusion on my part, wondering who this new character was.
My other issue was with the ending. While it was dramatic and satisfying, there were certain aspects that I found a bit overdone. There were several moments that I thought were getting a little masturbatory, with multiple female characters fighting and of course losing their clothes in the process.
These were both minor issues however, and my enjoyment of the book remained strong. The romance between two of the characters is certainly to be expected by most readers so it isn’t exactly a stunning twist but the way that aspect of the story develops is actually quite sweet and I felt like I was seeing something genuine developing, not just an author arbitrarily pushing two characters together. And I’ll give Laymon credit for resisting the urge at a key moment to launch into an obligatory sex scene and instead throwing in a head-fake that made me actually laugh as I was reading, something that doesn’t happen very often.
This isn’t a horror story. It does however build up to some closing moments that are grim and intense in their violence and in how disturbing they are. Overall, this was a fantastic book and the genius of it is in how it takes moments that should drag the book down and uses them as the essential building blocks to construct a book that I didn’t want to put down.
Salvage is a story built on a solid and creepy premise. It’s a book that somehow manages to feel claustrophobic within mostly open spaces and isolated it’s characters in ways that I don’t think I have seen done similarly in anything else I have read.
I love stories that deal with the sea and especially underwater. One of my favorite movies growing up was The Abyss, along with the fantastic novelization, written by Orson Scott Card. I loved the sense of terror that is exuded from being underwater, even at shallow depths. It’s the one place where, despite our often feeling like masters of our domain, once we are plunged into the depths we begin to realize how weak and unwanted we can be on an alien landscape. The sound and temperature is distorted. You have no sense of touch or smell. What you see can only be illuminated by what natural light filters down or by your dive lights. Diving underwater is something that begs to have a horror story written about it.
The concept for this book is of a lost town, flooded intentionally as a part of rerouting a river. It’s something I was surprised to see has happened before. Google it if you want to see some interesting material. Essentially the population must abandon the town and ever since, it has been lost at the bottom of a man-made lake, save for the top peak of the local chapel. The book is centered around the disappearance of the local Reverend as well as some of the parishioners.
All this makes for some outstanding atmosphere and tension. It’s spooky enough to explore an abandoned town but add to that the aspect of doing it underwater makes for a beautiful sense of claustrophobia and anxiety.
It’s a fine line to strike but technical detail is something I like, so long as it is being used to augment the story, not replace it. I call this the Dan Brown syndrome from his tendency to bring an entire narrative to a shrieking halt while some concept is explained. Maybe we even get a flashback of Robert Langdon beating some concept into the ground for one of his classes. This phenomenon happens when you have a writer who puts a ton of time at the library or online, researching some aspects of the story and when it comes time to write, you can tell they are somewhat shoehorning to make room for all the knowledge they discovered. Wouldn’t want that time to get wasted, would we?
And I get it. I’ve been in a similar position. And often we find ourselves really interested in a subject and want to write about it. The problem is that it bogs down the narrative. So I was happy to discover that in this, Ralston deftly incorporates the necessary technical aspects of diving while at the same time making it feel natural and logical. He also has enough respect for us to keep from overexplaining, making his descriptions clear, while expecting us to keep up with him as well. I felt like I actually learned a lot about diving and of the common dangers that I don’t think I was ever really aware of. It created a beautiful balance of danger for the characters, presented by the real world sources as well as possibly other-worldly as well.
And of course added to all of this is the well-layered tension and mystery around the protagonist’s history as well as that of the town. There is a certain amount of intrigue to the story as he works through the locals, trying to obtain more information. It’s a dynamic between characters that isn’t necessarily new but Ralston delivers the classic narrative in fine form.
The novel is paced well and the characters are carefully crafted. But for me the atmosphere was what really made this story take off. Supernatural horror has always been one of my favorites and the addition of the diving aspect really made it work well. If, by chance you aren’t as familiar with the works of Duncan Ralston, Salvage would be a great starting point.
Thank goodness for Goodreads. Seriously. I don’t know how else i would keep track of my year long books read without it. Plus, there’s the progress goals that helps you keep on track with reading. There were more than a few times that I had gotten so bogged down in my own work that I needed that reminder to take a breath and read other peoples books. And I have found some good suggested reads on there too. This year, my goal was 12 books, one per month. Kinda wimpy when compared to others, I know. I saw one person with like a 500 book reading goal. Freaking crazy! I guess i’m just a slow reader. I am setting 2019 goals a little higher with plans to read more small press indie books. There year is, though, what it is. Can’t complain. I’ve read some really great titles. So, without further babbling on my part, here are my 2018 reads! Continue Reading
Until recently, Stephen King movie adaptations were dreadful. And not in a good way. His first adaptation was good, the 1976’s depiction of Carrie, which may have had more to do with Brian De Palma’s version and not the journal styled storytelling from King. Some adaptations, mostly spanning through the 90s, where just down right embarrassing. Both made for TV movies IT and The Stand were nauseating to watch. In fact, it was only through a sheer force of will that i was able to finally watch the entire 90s IT movie. Without Tim Curry I wouldn’t have made it. But nowadays, King movies seem to be doing alright. The new IT is actually creepy and fun to watch. Adaptions of his newer work such as 11.22.63 was great. And i’ve heard nothing but good things surrounding the new Castle Rock show. But before all these newfound home runs, solid adaptions were slim pickenings. However, there was one that was and still is arguably the best Stephen King inspired movie, and that would be Tobe Hooper’s take on Salem’s Lot. Continue Reading
For those who know me understand, I will never win awards for the worlds fastest reader. I see other bibliophiles and their Goodreads accomplishments and marvel. My own wife can sit down and consume a 800 page mega-novel in the span of a few days. Its insane. I don’t get how its even possible. But hey, to each their own pace, right? So, when a fast read, and I mean a good fast read, comes along, its worth celebrating. Such was the case when I started Jeffery X Martin’s new book, The Ridge on a Saturday morning and finished that night. Continue Reading
The tenants never saw it coming.
The Murray building, constructed in the seventies by the eccentric billionaire Samuel Murray, contains a secret so horrific and abhorrent that those caught in the ‘experiment’ might not see the light of day again.
Time is ticking.
Only one person can beat the War Game and walk away with $100 million in cash.
Who dies? Who lives? Who is the real villain? What is the building’s biggest secret and why do only a select few know about it?
War Game is a maniacal thriller with enough plot twists to make your stomach churn. There’s violence, murder and buckets of blood.
Can you predict the outcome?
Renier Palland hails from Cape Town, South Africa. He is a published poet, a book & film reviewer, and a Survivor Superfan. The first book in his debut trilogy, War Game, was soft launched in August of 2017. The paperback is slated for an international release in early 2018. Renier loves cats, reality television, and enjoys writing about the human condition. He is currently completing his PhD in Sociology at Stanford University.