Reprieve (Book Review)

Reprieve by James Han Mattson (William Morrow, 2021)

James Han Mattson’s second novel (following 2017’s The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves) features a terrific premise: the horror goes too far at a controversial, full-contact haunted attraction in Lincoln, Nebraska, when a deranged stranger breaks into the Quigley House haunt and slashes the throat of one of the attendees/contestants. This grim incident is established from the outset (Mattson includes witness-stand testimonies and other court evidence), but the plot matters here are hardly cut and dried. Much like in Quigley House itself, the line between staged illusion and stark reality gets blurred, and the various characters are forced to wrestle with the question of their individual responsibility in the tragic event that transpired.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Mattson possesses impressive writing skills and takes a strong literary approach to his subject. Via alternating viewpoint chapters, he delves deep into his main characters, patiently exploring the complexities of their personalities. Other characters, though, are not as well-developed: two of the four team members competing during that fateful night at Quigley House are barely there for the reader. While this is no doubt deliberate on Mattson’s part (one key player, the international student Jaidee, journeys to America in misguided romantic pursuit of his former English teacher back in Thailand–a man he knows almost nothing about), a noticeable imbalance results.

The real unevenness of the novel, though, emerges in the presentation of the narrative’s horror aspects (interspersed “the night of” chapters dramatizing the experience inside the various rooms or “cells” of Quigley House). Yes, there’s a motley crew of actors decked out as monsters and psychos, and there’s undeniable grotesquerie (lots of fake blood is spewed) and physical rigor (wooden bludgeons and shock wands are wielded against the contestants), but Mattson fails to fully capture the horrific intensity for which the haunt is notorious. Suspense naturally suffers because of the book’s achronological structure: the reader already knows who did–and did not–make it out of Quigley House unscathed. The larger issue, arguably, is that Mattson comes across as someone slumming in genre territory; on horror ground, the author’s footing is not as assured. The very safe-word that supplies the novel’s title smacks of stiltedness, sounds like nothing a customer would ever utter at an actual haunt.

For all its promise, Reprieve ultimately disappoints on a few different levels. The big plot twist explaining what really happened at Quigley House falls flat as it falls back on a scheme of sleazy manipulation that is no great surprise (since the real villain of the piece has been made clear throughout). The novel also falls short of its lofty aims, at least as they are articulated by book-jacket hype (“a provocative exploration of capitalism, hate politics, racial fetishism, and our obsession with fear as entertainment”; “combines the psychological tension of classic horror with searing social criticism to present an unsettling portrait of this tangled American life”). Reprieve recalls the film Crash in its crafted intersecting of the lives of disparate characters and in its portrayal of how discrete elements can create a combustible composite, but the book (to this reviewer, at least) lacks any profound statement about issues of race, social class, or sexual orientation. Finally, Mattson’s narrative disappoints in its concluding disavowal of genre horror. A protagonist established as a horror film lover and Constant Reader of Stephen King cringes at her teenage interests when looking back on them later in life. “All that horror nonsense” is now dismissed as treacherous, and the former fandom viewed as a time of misspent youth meant to be outgrown.

Mattson is a gifted writer who scripts beautiful prose, but the house of fiction that he constructs here proves less than the sum of its parts. Failing to serve serious food for thought, it also is apt to leave a sour taste with those who truly savor horror fare.

 

Countdown: The Top Ten in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Thirteen

Ellen Datlow’s latest addition to her superlative anthology series features twenty-four stories and one poem. There is a certain disproportion to the contents: as Datlow herself admits in her introductory “Summation 2020,” “For some reason, the overwhelming number [of contributors] this year are from the United Kingdom” (which makes this feel more like one of Stephen Jones’s annual Best New Horror compilations). A quarter of the selections come from just two anthologies: After Sundown and Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles (the latter edited by Datlow). Repetition of tropes (e.g. haunted houses) and settings (e.g. harsh winter landscapes) is also noticeable here. But while the contents lack somewhat in diversity, they evince consistent high quality; overall, The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Thirteen is a very impressive collection of genre talent.

So just before the ball drops in Times Square, here’s my countdown of the ten best selections in this 2021 anthology:

10. “A Treat for Your Last Day” by Simon Bestwick. This one presents a simple yet chillingly plausible premise: a family outing devolves into tragedy. As the narrator hauntingly reminds us at tale’s end: “Life is basically a field full of hidden landmines, and nothing you can do protects you against treading on one.”

9. “In the English Rain” by Steve Duffy. A coming-of-age tale that features a compelling setting. History and horrific imagining are blurred, as a home once briefly owned by John Lennon turns out to be the haunt of a terrifying child-murderer.

8. “Come Closer” by Gemma Files. A surreal and supremely creepy narrative concerning an itinerant haunted house that appears to slide through the neighborhood and displace the existing residences.

7. “The Whisper of Stars” by Thana Niveau. A harrowing cosmic horror tale set in the frozen wilds of the Arctic Circle. Reminiscent of the best outdoors horror of Algernon Blackwood.

6. “Lords of the Matinee” by Stephen Graham Jones. A fine variation on the haunted-theater story, and yet another instance of Jones’s uncanny ability to wring horror from the most quotidian elements (in this case, a kitchen can opener).

5. “Sicko” by Stephen Volk. Think “Psycho meets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Volk crafts a moving alternative narrative of the horror genre’s most famous shower victim.

4. “A Deed Without a Name” by Jack Lothian. Speaking of riffs on classic works.,.This richly detailed story takes a different perspective onto Shakespeare’s Macbeth, turning the Weird Sisters into sympathetic protagonists.

3. “A Hotel in Germany” by Catriona Ward. A tale that proves (in exquisite prose, to boot) that there are still fresh vampire stories to tell. This was my first encounter with Ward’s work, whose much-ballyhooed The Last House on Needless Street has now shot to the top of my must-read list.

2. “Scream Queen” by Nathan Ballingrud. A writer who always seems to produce excellent short fiction, and this piece is no exception. A documentary delving into a cult-favorite horror film from 1970 transforms into a harrowing descent into the occult.

1. “Cleaver, Meat, and Block” by Maria Haskins. This impactful post-apocalyptic (and revenge) narrative about a cannibalism-inducing plague reads like an engrossing mini-movie. Much more terrifying than typical zombie fare, as the antagonists here are too recognizably human in their savage inhumanity.

 

My Heart is a Chainsaw (Book Review)

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones (Saga Press, 2021)

I finished–and immediately re-read–this novel months ago, yet never ended up reviewing it here on Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, perhaps fearing that I wouldn’t have the words to do it justice. But considering that Stephen Graham Jones’s latest effort is currently showing up on every year-end “Best of” list, I figured now is the time to speak my piece about this incredible book. My Heart is a Chainsaw is a literary Cupid’s arrow that penetrates deeply and leaves the horror lover swooning.

The narrative starts out hot, with a prologue-style opening chapter in which a pair of young tourists from the Netherlands are murdered during a late-night lake frolic. From here, the action simmers down, but a deliberate pace does not mean a dull pace. Jones takes the time to establish his large cast’s characters and backstories, the setting (the isolated mountain community of Proofrock, Idaho, which has a long, dark history including a massacre a half-century earlier at the now notoriously dubbed “Camp Blood”), and the present situation (someone seems to begrudge the conversion of forest land on the far side of Indian Lake into a luxury development for the ultra-rich). The book’s protagonist, graduating high-schooler and horror movie savant Jade Daniels, finds numerous signs that an actual slasher cycle is about to erupt in her hometown, but of course, this American teenage Cassandra is discounted even as the body count begins to rise. Dreadful suspense (stemming from the killer’s vicious deeds and concealed identity) mounts, and the narrative momentum steadily builds to an extended climax (involving a 4th of July lake-float screening of Jaws) marked by scenes of jaw-dropping violence.

Jones’s book chapters are evocatively titled and glossed by those of golden-era slasher films (e.g., Just Before Dawn, Happy Birthday to Me, Hell Night). They are also intercut by sections labeled “Slasher 101”–the texts of extra-credit papers Jade composed for her history teacher, Mr. Holmes. Jade’s mini-treatises offer a slash course on the genre’s workings, educating not only her uninitiated teacher (and later the classmate Jade identifies as a quintessential final girl), but the reader as well. One need not be a slasher buff to approach/appreciate this book, but likely will become one before the end credits roll.

No doubt, it is Jade’s voice and viewpoint (from chapter two onwards, the narrative is presented through her third-person-limited perspective) that dominates, and delightfully so. Jade is wise beyond her years and possesses a sharp wit (her snarky attitude never grows irritating, though). For all her social outcast status (resulting from her poverty, her Native American heritage, her unabashed horror fandom…) in Proofrock, she proves quite endearing and easily elicits reader sympathy. Jade is a fighter, a figure of fierce independence, but her tough exterior (as Jones gradually reveals) covers a host of emotional wounds. Simply put, Jade Daniels is destined to become a classic and much beloved character, a horror genre equivalent of Huck Finn or Scout Finch.

Hers is a story I didn’t want to draw to a close, and thankfully, it doesn’t. For sure, this novel forms Jones’s magnus opus of slasher fiction (topping previous esteemed endeavors such as Demon Theory and The Last Final Girl), but maybe not for long. In then end, the best statement I can make about My Heart is a Chainsaw is that it’s only the start of a trilogy; Jade returns to Proofrock and encounters more macabre mayhem next summer in Don’t Fear the Reaper.

 

Nothing More Brilliant Than

Something More Than Night by Kim Newman (Titan Books, 2021)

Kim Newman (who, in his Anno Dracula series, has proven himself an absolute master of horror/dark fantasy narratives with an alternate-history twist) begins here with an ingenious premise: Raymond Chandler and Boris Karloff (real name: Billy Pratt) aren’t just Hollywood contemporaries but compadres whose relationship traces back to their days as English public school students. They have both been marked by the ultimate femme fatale (a vampiric muse known as Ariadne), and they repeatedly have been embroiled in cases involving occult-tinged crimes. At the start of Something More Than Night (a title drawn from Chandler’s introduction to his collection Trouble is My Business), the mystery writer and the horror actor are confronted with the bizarre death of their friend, private investigator Joh Devlin (who has served as an inspiration for Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character). The crime scene conspicuously restages the murder (suicide?) of the chauffeur Owen Taylor in Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. An equally unsubtle calling card has been left for Karloff, in the form of his own annotated script (for his recent film The Man They Could Not Hang) found in the glove compartment of Devlin’s crashed car.

As if all this weren’t compelling enough, the narrative thrusts Chandler and Karloff into an investigation that opens up onto citywide corruption and supernatural conspiracy. The case points them toward an immortality-obsessed studio mogul whose mad experiments with electricity make Victor Frankenstein’s labwork seem prosaic by comparison. Newman’s plot, which time jumps back and forth as the various pieces of the uncanny puzzle are laid out, grabs hold of the reader with the strength of a Universal monster; it bullets along even as it delves into elaborate set-pieces. There are breathtaking escapes (e.g. from sanitarium imprisonment), faceoffs with oddball gunmen and clowning killers, explorations of a spooky, deathtrap-rigged mansion. And copious literary and cinematic references all along the way. As in the best hardboiled detective novels, the joy is in the journey rather than the destination, the thrill ride throughout more than some clever, climactic solving of a mystery.

Newman (whose “Afterword and Acknowledgements” section reveals an incredible amount of research for the novel) presents a masterclass in world-building here. He brings late-30’s Los Angeles to life in exquisite detail, ranging from movie studio to mean street to police precinct and beyond. The verisimilitude achieved by the invoking of Chandler’s and Karloff’s biography and bibliography/filmography makes the wildly fantastic aspects of the tale seem grounded in bedrock reality. Something more than the immediate scene can be sensed as well, as the narrative connects to a broader historical context. The America depicted here is a country still recovering from the first World War, and teetering on the precipice of the next one.

Of the book’s many strengths, its greatest has to be its voice. Chandler provides first-person narration, an account worthy of his soon-to-be-famous detective hero. For instance, he flashes an abundance of sardonic wit: “The Princesses Royal would scorn the place as too ostentatiously luxurious. A hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars’ worth of smudge hung on the [hospital room’s] walls, mostly right side up. Paris in the rain. Sunsets at sea. A clown with no eyes. You’d want to recover just to get away from the art.” And, of course, there’s no shortage of slangy, hyperbolic similes: “The woman’s wet silk dress was transparent, stuck like cellophane wrapping a bon-bon. Her figure would draw the eye in dry church clothes. Now she looked like the centrepiece of a Spicy Mystery cover, tethered to a hooded fiend’s altar.” That being said, Newman is interested in more than mere hardboiled pastiche. The use of Chandler as narrator affords interesting insight into that author’s creative mindset, and allows introspective assessment of personal flaws (such as Chandler’s struggle with alcoholism). No doubt this novel overflows with stylistic verve, but substance is never submerged.

Although some of the characters (Ariadne, Stephen Swift) connect to other Newman works, the novel functions perfectly as a standalone. At the same time, there appears to be ample space for a sequel, and that is a most welcome prospect. Anyone who isn’t already a fan of Chandler or Karloff will be after reading this amazingly imaginative effort featuring the pair of 20th Century cultural icons. A monster of a mashup of the hardboiled-detective and horror genres, Something More Than Night shines in Noirvember–or at any other time of year.

 

Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow (Book Review)

Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow by Christina Henry (Berkeley, 2021)

This engrossing novel (Henry has a knack for crafting chapter endings that leave the reader helpless but to turn the page) returns to the enchanted region of Sleepy Hollow and presents the village and surrounding woods in all their rural, autumnal, and dark magical splendor. Set three decades after the events of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Horseman offers a convincing extrapolation of what life has been like for the Van Brunt family in the time since Brom and Katrina wed. It also fills in some of Irving’s longstanding blanks along the way, most notably in the case of what happened to Ichabod Crane the night he was pumpkin-thumped on that fateful ride home from the Van Tassel quilting frolic.

The book is narrated by fourteen-year-old Ben Van Brunt (whose grandparents are Brom and Katrina): a rambunctious adventurer in rebellion against the roles mapped out by family upbringing and village life. Such narrative perspective gives Horseman a certain young-adult feel, but make no mistake, this is an unflinching horror novel. Its plot feels like Irving’s “Legend” by way of Stephen King’s The Outsider: a fiendish creature is preying on young boys, savagely devouring their heads and hands (and leaving behind corpses that decompose in gruesomely advanced manner). With its scheming-warlock and evil-seducer character types, its woodland forays, and its thematic concern with haunting family legacy, the book also conveys a strong American Gothic atmosphere.

By the end of the first chapter, Henry reveals an interesting twist: Ben (short for Bente) is actually a female who isn’t just going through some tomboy phase; the character insistently identifies as male. At first, this might seem a jarring choice by the author, a retroactive importing of modern issues into the early-19th Century. But Ben’s desires prove easily understandable within the world of the novel, considering his idolizing of his grandfather Brom (who in turn treats Ben like the son he tragically lost). Ben’s liminal status is also integral to the plot: the character’s unusual appearance (dresses have been ditched for breeches) causes him to be deemed “unnatural” in the eyes of the provincial villagers, and he faces suspicion and persecution as the body count from the bizarre murders rises. Ben experiences moments of terrible peril and suffers some serious harm during the novel, but is also aided by a curious connection with the notorious Horseman of local lore.

A word of warning: this is not the ghostly, galloping Hessian created by Irving. The salient characteristic–headlessness–is even lacking here. Henry’s version of the Horseman (who remains in the background for much of the narrative) is more guardian spirit than harrying goblin. This could prove disappointing to readers expecting the majestic headhunter popularized by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Nevertheless, Henry deserves credit for her fresh take, her refusal to follow the same old chase-to-the-churchyard path. Casting its own captivating spell, Horseman is a welcome addition to the ever-growing body of literature that has developed from Irving’s classic story.

 

The Final Girl Support Group (Book Review)

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix (Berkeley, 2021)

Grady Hendrix’s latest novel wasn’t what I expected–it was even better.

Based on the subject matter, I figured the book would go heavy on the meta, with lots of character mentions of popular horror films. The slasher references, though, are woven unobtrusively into the narrative. The real-life final girls within the world of the novel have had film franchises made of their ordeals, and these series prove to be thinly-veiled versions of genre classics such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. There are ample parallels for readers to notice, but the postmodern playfulness never gets in the way of the story Hendrix is telling.

Secondly, given the author’s track record for publishing humor-laced horror, I cracked the covers of The Final Girl Support Group anticipating a continuous display of irreverent wit. Not that there aren’t fine comedic moments here, but Hendrix handles the figure of the final girl with admirable seriousness. His protagonist, narrator Lynette Tarkington, is still struggling with her near-death experience decades later. She’s paranoid and agoraphobic, has disconnected from others (she lives alone, save for a pepper-plant companion called Fine–short for Final Plant). Lynette is painfully aware of the trauma and trials that remain long after the physical wounds scar over:

I know what happens to those [final] girls. After the movie deals get signed, after the film franchise fails, after you realize that while everyone else was filling out college applications you were locked in a residential treatment program pretending you weren’t scared of the dark. After the talk show circuit, after your third therapist just accepts that he’s your Zoloft-dispensing machine and you won’t be making any breakthroughs on his watch, after you realize that the only interesting thing that’ll ever happen to you happened when you were sixteen, after you stop going outside, after you start browsing locksmiths the way other women browse the windows of Tiffany’s, after you’ve left town because you couldn’t deal with the “Why not you?” looks from the parents of all your dead friends, after you’ve lost everything, been through the fire, started knowing your stalkers by their first names, after all that happens you wind up where I’m going today: in a church basement in Burbank, seated with your back to the wall, trying to hold the pieces of your life together.

The book has an ingenious hook: the women who famously withstood slasher massacres are secretly meeting in a monthly support group organized by a therapist specializing in final girls. The sextet of respective survivors understand that they are an endangered species these days (the novel is set in 2010), a realization that grows more stark when a mysterious killer starts to prey on the group members. Hendrix’s plot sweeps the reader along, presenting numerous twists and terrifying set-pieces. Lynette goes through quite a character arc, faltering many times but ultimately rising above her fears and insecurities to obtain true final girl status. By delving into Lynette’s viewpoint, Hendrix supplies the critical element most often lacking in slasher films: complex characterization.

The structure of Hendrix’s book is also noteworthy. The chapters are all cleverly titled, echoing the syntax of horror-film identifiers (e.g., The Final Girl Support Group 3-D, The Final Girl Support Group’s New Nightmare, Final Girl Vs. Final Girl, Bride of the Final Girls). Bracketing each chapter are various faux documents (therapist notes, incident reports, interview transcripts, diary entries, newspaper clippings and magazine articles) that both supplement the main narrative and explore the cultural significance of the final girl. Unfortunately, an early interpellated piece insufficiently disguises a character’s identity, spoiling some of the mystery (count yourself lucky if you happen to gloss over the clue).

But that’s the only negative note I have on this wonderful, compellingly readable book. A feminism-conscious tribute to horror’s last girls standing, The Final Girl Support Group is an instant classic destined to stand as Hendrix’s greatest literary achievement.

Goblin (Book Review)

Reviewers of Josh Malerman’s Goblin: A Novel in Six Novellas (first published in 2017 as part of Earthling’s limited-edition Halloween book series; re-released as a Del Rey hardcover in 2021) have been quick to invoke Stephen King’s Derry. The comparison is no doubt apt–Malerman’s central locale (more Michigan city than small-town Maine enclave like Castle Rock) is rooted in/haunted by the otherworldly. There are also discernible echoes of Creepshow here, especially considering that the book’s opening frame story features a mysterious crate that seems to contain something monstrous. The reader, though, should not be led to expect simplistic, E.C.-style tales of garish comeuppance, as Malerman takes his horror narratives in various and unexpected directions.

The first novella, A Man in Slices, recalls Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. But the childhood friendship of Richard and the more mischievous Charles (Malerman’s answer to Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade) is extended here into adult life and grows increasingly troubled when Charles gets involved in a long-distance relationship with a woman requesting self-mutilating gestures of love that would make Van Gogh cringe. Matters shade off finely into mortuary darkness by narrative’s end, and the novella tantalizes with its introduction of the folklore of the typically-rainswept Goblin–a place where the sun sets a full minute before in neighboring towns; where people gather in “Perish Park” every winter to reenact a historic death-by-strangulation; where the off-limit North Woods are said to be the habitat not only of mythic owls but also a sinister witch whose whispering words can explode a person’s heart.

Kamp concerns a Goblin resident petrified of being scared to death, and who accordingly takes some drastic measures to ghost-proof his apartment. It’s a wonderfully offbeat premise, and since the eponymous protagonist is also a local-history buff, much more of Goblin’s shadowed history is revealed in the course of unsettling events. The tale deftly draws readers into Kamp’s dreadful fixation, demonstrating all the strengths of Malerman’s writing: original situations, filtered through the viewpoint of well-rounded, psychologically-complex characters.

The next novella, Happy Birthday, Hunter!, constitutes the book’s most satisfyingly shivery entry. The renowned big-game hunter, Neal Nash, decides to punctuate the night of his lavish birthday celebration by attempting to bag the missing piece from his trophy collection: one of Goblin’s Great Owls. Nash’s ill-advised adventure (with his colleagues) into the dark woods delivers white-knuckle tension. The plot is shot through with startling twists, and fortifies the bloodshed with a rich dose of irony.

Presto! conjures both Bradbury and Clive Barker (“The Last Illusion”), with its story of a Goblin child’s idolizing of a dark-carnivalesque figure whose magic act relies on more than just prestidigitation. But Roman Emperor is no standard villain–rather a tragic, Faustian character. A lot of the fiendish fun here comes from the discovery of the source of Emperor’s “dirty magic” and the macabre lengths the entertainer must go to to fulfill his end of the bargain.

A Mix-Up at the Zoo reads like Winesburg, Ohio by way of The Twilight Zone, in its focus on an obsessive, mentally-disintegrating “grotesque” of the Sherwood Anderson variety, a lonely young man feeling ground down by his dual positions at the Goblin zoo and slaughterhouse. Slow-moving and overlong (the shock ending is foretold by the very title), this is arguably the least successful of the book’s sextet of novellas. Nevertheless, the protagonist’s steady descent into nightmare is distinguished by a slew of disturbingly surreal images.

As a site of misdirection and twisting turn, the hedge maze in The Hedges forms a perfect symbol of Malerman’s narrative approach. When a precocious young girl is the first to solve the sculpted puzzle, she discovers something shocking hidden within the heart of the maze, but this MacGuffin (un-identified for much of the suspenseful novella) ultimately defies reader expectation. The action detours back into the North Woods, and includes a dogged pursuit by Goblin’s bizarre police force (who form a grim joke on the very notion of protecting and serving).

The book’s epilogue (which returns to the story of the strange crate) ties everything together, showing that the interconnections between the novellas involve more than the overlap of character- and place names. Reminiscent of Trick r’ Treat, Goblin‘s narrative folds back over itself: the events of the individual novellas all trace to a singular stormy night in town, where further grisly mayhem appears to be in store for the hapless residents at epilogue’s end. Malerman invokes some of the horror genre’s hoariest elements (cursed land; disgruntled/displaced Native Americans) yet still manages to produce an original work containing no shortage of surprise.

The (fictional) town of Goblin itself is not a nice place to visit, and you likely wouldn’t want to live–or die–there. But Malerman’s Goblin is an inviting haunted attraction, a creepy and darkly atmospheric novel/linked-collection that makes for a terrific read on a dreary autumn evening.

 

Mob Scene: Good Neighbors

In her 2021 novel Good Neighbors, Sarah Langan creates thematic resonance through a series of fine allusions. The very title of the book, which the text proceeds to turn into a terrible oxymoron, recalls the refrain from the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The setting of the action on “Maple Street” is a firm nod to the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (the concluding section of Good Neighbors is actually titled “The Monsters Have Arrived on Maple Street”). Repeated reference to “the lonely thing” lurking in the fictional Long Island community of Garden City calls to mind the Lonely One haunting Green Town in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. The interpolation of faux news articles and excerpts from nonfiction book commentaries about the novel’s events mimics the structure of Stephen King’s Carrie (a book that centers on the catastrophic results of casting out designated others). Langan’s character Peter Benchley echoes the name of the author of another novel about a Long Island town terrorized by a monstrous incursion one summer. Likewise, the Wilde family shares the surname of writer Oscar Wilde, who was demonized in late-Victorian England for his perceived sexual deviancy. Also, Arlo Wilde in Good Neighbors bears tattoo sleeves on his arms depicting the Universal Monsters–those recurrent cinematic scapegoats of angry villagers. Given all this, it should come as no surprise that Langan’s novel contains a prominent mob scene.

When a sinkhole opens in the park on Maple Street and a teen girl later falls into the boarded-over aperture, her presumed death is treated as more than a tragic accident. The Wildes are (wrongly) blamed for the mishap, and outrageous accusation soon gives way to vigilante action. Langan expertly dramatizes how discrimination and misunderstanding can devolve into madness and mass hysteria. Just as poor Shelly Schroeder appears to have been swept away by the subterranean currents after falling into the sinkhole, the people of Maple Street are driven along by fear and anger: “They were passengers, riding the momentum of something greater than themselves.” They hatch a mischievous and mean-spirited plan of attack, and proceed to smear their faces with the oily muck spewing from the sinkhole (such primitive masking exposes these adults as the literary offspring of the warring boys in Golding’s Lord of the Flies). The chapter breaks off, and the ensuing one is presented from the Wildes’ perspective, capturing all of their dread and disorientation as they are awoken overnight by the approach of the strangely-disguised horde of neighbors. Arlo’s pregnant wife Gertie bears the brunt of the assault (“Her belly felt like it had been punched by an industrial stapler to the mattress”), only belatedly realizing that she has been struck by a brick breaking through the bedroom window.

It is a sudden, savage act of transgression, a stoning to parallel the ritual violence in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Gertie’s wounding represents a marked escalation of the hostilities that exist on Maple Street; this central scene (which occurs virtually mid-point in the novel), is soon followed by additional acts of despicable aggression. Langan’s entire book forms a meditation on mob mentality, a concern oftentimes shared via passages of ominous omniscience: “Directed against the wrong person, violence assumes a will of its own. It wants to continue to hurt that person, as if to right the wrong, as if, in some way, to provoke violence in kind, thereby conveying its own legitimacy.”

A further word on Good Neighbors: I cannot heap enough praise on this book (the best one I have read this year, and probably in the past several years). It is American Gothic at its finest, not only in its sounding of the sins-of-the-fathers (and mothers) theme, but also in its attention to the sinisterness hidden behind seemingly idyllic facades. Langan presents a terrifying (and frightfully timely, considering our current cultural climate of intolerance and quick-triggered incrimination) story, told in beautiful prose. The novel is impeccably plotted, demonstrating how individual, sometimes innocent, events can create a chain reaction of chaos. It is suffused with rich symbolism, particularly in the case of the sinkhole, whose noxious, insidiously spreading contents signal the dark and roiling underbelly of suburban existence. Langan’s villains are reprehensible but comprehensible, their monstrous thoughts and deeds all too plausible. Her protagonists, rendered even more real by their imperfections, are easy to relate to, and to fear for. This is the first novel that Langan (The Keeper, The Missing, Audrey’s Door) has published in twelve years, but even if she produced twelve books every year for the rest of her career, she would be hard-pressed to match the dark brilliance of this one. Good Neighbors is an absolute masterpiece.

Later: A Review of Stephen King’s Latest

Stephen King’s publications with Hard Case Crime have been a mixed effort. The first novel, 2005’s The Colorado Kid, proved frustratingly inconclusive (and not very hard-boiled). 2013’s Joyland, a coming-of-age-type narrative involving ghostly apparitions and murder at a summertime amusement park, made for a much more representative King showing. The author’s third Hard Case novel, though, stands as an instant classic.

Later is narrated by Jamie Conklin, a 22-year-old reflecting back on incidents from his youth. Jamie was born with a very special ability to see dead people, but not in any facile, Sixth Sense type of way. The dead appear to him more solid-looking than spectral (sporting the clothes they died in, and sometimes the fatal wounds they incurred), and can hold conversations with him. This paranormal gift is both a blessing and a curse, helping Jamie and his single-mom Tia solve problems but also leading to dire predicaments. Part of the fun of the novel is the way King carefully establishes the rules of interaction with the dead, then complicates them significantly when one particularly menacing revenant refuses to fade into the hereafter.

The novel presents a seamless mix of crime and the supernatural. A serial bomber, a sadistic drug lord, and a femme fatale in the form of a crooked cop number amongst the cast. From the outset, Jamie insists that he is telling a horror story, and the subsequent narrative gives zero reason to doubt him. There are deadly images here (both natural and supernatural) guaranteed to haunt the reader just as they have Jamie.

King reinforces his reign as America’s consummate storyteller (his mastery allows a complex narrative to unfold fluidly and realistically). The retrospective nature of the tale (foregrounded by the title and reiterated by Jamie) enables King to trail precisely-placed breadcrumbs of suspense throughout. Featuring engaging characters and a compelling premise, the book is a quintessential page-turner. There’s an added intimacy (not to mention a succinctness) when King writes fiction in the first person, and this novel draws readers in with its narrative magic as easily as do The Body, The Mist, and Dolores Claiborne.

Not surprisingly for a novel in which one of the characters (Jamie’s mom) is a literary agent, Later makes plentiful references to other books and authors. Ghost stories by M.R. James and Charles Dickens are invoked, as is Bram Stoker’s vampire opus Dracula. But the greatest treat for Constant Readers is the intertextual connection (as the back cover copy alerts) that King weaves with his own classic work It.

Reminiscent of recent publications like The Outsider and the title novella of If It Bleeds, this book will greatly appeal to those who enjoy dark crime that shades off into horror. Later is a novel that King fans can’t pick up soon enough.

 

 

October Dreams: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

The year 2020 marks the twentieth anniversary of the amazing Cemetery Dance anthology October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween. This subtitle says it all, as the book forms a treasure trove of holiday-themed writing, clocking in at a whopping 650 pages. Editors Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish strike a fine balance between original offerings and classic reprints (the volume features twenty-one fictional tales, plus one poem). Like the assorted sweets heaped inside a trick-or-treater’s candy bag, the table of contents brims with brand-name greats and the less well-known (but no less enjoyable).

October Dreams gives rise to tales covering the various aspects popularly associated with the holiday. There are tales of pumpkin carving: the graphic grotesquerie of Dean Koontz’s “The Black Pumpkin,” the more restrained yet extremely disturbing art of Charles L. Grant’s “Eyes.” Trick-or-treating stories galore, involving gruesome comeuppance in F. Paul Wilson’s visceral “Buckets,” and terrible revelation in Jack Ketchum’s gut-punching “Gone.” Old, dark houses loom throughout, from the shadowed abode in Richard Laymon’s shocker “Boo” to the utterly haunting structure in Tim Lebbon’s “Pay the Ghost.” Witches get their kicks from ill-treated children, whimsically in Gahan Wilson’s “Yesterday’s Witch,” and much more wickedly in creep-meister Ramsey Campbell’s “The Trick.” Self-reflexive tales take the telling of spook stories as their very subject, in Lewis Shiner’s ouroboros of an October narrative, “The Circle,” and Peter Straub’s foray into Faulknerian Southern Gothic in the novella “Pork Pie Hat.” The selections run the gamut from quiet realism (Ray Bradbury’s subtle yet unsettling “Heavy Set”) to fantastic flights of Lovecraftian terror (or descents, in the case of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s sublimely-titled “A Redress for Andromeda”).

The fictional narratives are greatly variegated in October Dreams, but the book adds even more into the mix with its inclusion of nonfiction pieces. Paula Guran’s “A Short History of Halloween” teems with information, offering plenty of savory tidbits in its baker’s-dozen-worth of pages. In “First of All, It Was October,” Gary A. Braunbeck engages in a broad survey of Halloween -themed/-related movies. Towards the volume’s end, Stefan Dziemianowicz’s “Trick-or-Read: A Reader’s Guide to Halloween Fiction” assures that there are further narrative neighborhoods to venture through.

But without a doubt, the most unexpected treat in October Dreams is the “My Favorite Halloween Memory” feature. These slices of personal memoir prove just as engaging and atmospheric as the fictional tales bracketing them. They remind the reader why Halloween is so beloved, and provide insight on how the narrators developed into writers–whether out of nostalgic hope of recapturing the delightful frights of childhood, or in the determination to surpass them.

Somewhat surprisingly, Ray Bradbury–the “October Dreamer Extraordinaire” to whom the anthology is dedicated–shares a sad rather than favorite Halloween memory (recounting his loss of holiday spirit following the death of his friend Federico Fellini on October 31st). At the start of the piece, Bradbury writes, “I often wonder why people wander around shouting to one another, ‘Happy Halloween!’ It is not supposed to be happy. We celebrate it with a certain amount of fervor and excitement, but at its core it is about those who have gone on ahead of us.” Looking back through the anthology today, I am sadly reminded of just how many of the writers (Bradbury included) gathered within the book have passed away in the twenty years since its publication. From the vantage point of 2020, October Dreams constitutes not just a celebration of Halloween; it forms a memorial to genre giants laid low. It also reinforces the function and import of Halloween horror: as the season turns dark and cold, we briefly make friends with death, that relentless predator who otherwise stalks us every moment of our lives.

After a gap of too many years, Cemetery Dance finally released a wonderful follow-up volume, October Dreams II. Two decades later, though, the first anthology remains the benchmark of Halloween writing, a book that has aged with tremendous grace. October dreams might typically turn nightmarish, but this collection affirms that they can be happily revisited.