We Eat Our Own, by Kea Wilson

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We Eat Our Own

Inspired by the making of and controversy surrounding Cannibal Holocaust, Kea Wilson’s disturbing We Eat Our Own is a story about artistic madness, danger, death, and the unknown. Set in 1979 in the Amazon jungle of Columbia, Italian director Ugo Velluto is attempting to make a new kind of horror film, something that will raise his reputation as a maker of schlock. Meanwhile, his lead actors are trying to keep up with him even though there is no script, his effects people are stymied by conditions and constant changes, and the country begins to descend into open warfare between cartels, the government, and rebels. It’s a wonder this book doesn’t have a higher body count than it does.

We Eat Our Own opens in New York, when an unnamed actor receives a call from his agent that he has been hired to be the lead in a film currently being shot in Columbia. The actor, who has been longing to break into something better than experimental (unpaid) theater and commercials, leaps at the chance. (Irritatingly, the actor’s chapters are written in the second person. I really don’t like reading second person prose, but the rest of the story kept me interested.) Because Ugo is so determined to have his actors’ performances seem real, does everything he can to put the actor into a state of paranoia, confusion, and fear. By the time the actor arrives on set almost a week after taking off from New York, he has no idea what’s going on and is not having a good time.

The unnamed actor is one of the main through lines for We Eat Our Own. The other is a series of excerpts from a court transcript. Ugo has been charged with criminal negligence and, possibly, murder. Sometime between the filming and the trial, the three main actors of Ugo’s film have gone missing. The film Ugo edited and released makes it look like all three have really been killed. Ugo refuses to tell the court what really happened, telling everyone that they need to watch the film and decide for themselves if the on screen deaths are real or not.

The chapters in between these two plot threads are told from the perspective of crew members or members of a local cadre of anti-government, anti-cartel rebels. Some of these chapters answer questions about what’s really going on; others further complicate the set. Ugo only has one chapter from his own perspective (along with the court scenes). For most of the novel, it’s hard to tell if he’s lost in artistic vision or an extremely skilled puppet master.

Throughout the book, characters ask each other or ponder for themselves why people watch horror movies and what those audiences want to see. Ugo is willing to pander to viewers who want gore, violence, and sex, even in his quest for putting something real on film. The actors have differing philosophies about performance. The unnamed actor is devoted to Stanislavski and character analysis. The female lead, Irena, is a master mimic who can switch emotions at the drop of a hat. She doesn’t care about method or psychology so much as she’s interested in the appearance of reality, even if it means taking her clothes off a lot. The director and the unnamed actor have higher ideals, compared to the cynics around them, but they are frequently shown up as out of touch with their audiences.

The predominate theory (both in the book and in what I know from listening to fans of horror) for why people watch these movies is that it provides emotional catharsis. The plots and scares wind up viewers until the climax, when good triumphs or a plot twist releases all that tension. We Eat Our Own does something similar. The confusion produced by the court scenes and the other chapters about what really happened in the jungle builds until the resolution near the end. But it adds an extra twist that makes you wonder if, even after the trick is revealed, the danger has really passed. I can’t say that I enjoyed We Eat Our Own, because it was a white-knuckle read, but it is some damn fine storytelling.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read something light and fluffy to get this book out of my head.

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle

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The Changeling

Apollo Kagwa thought he had the perfect life. He’s got his dream job as a rare book dealer. He’s deeply in love with his wife and they’re expecting their first child. Unfortunately for Apollo, he’s in a Victor LaValle novel, which means that things quickly get strange, dark, and dangerous. In The Changeling, Apollo soon finds himself in a parental nightmare that stretches back centuries.

The Changeling takes several chapters to gain traction as LaValle starts Apollo’s story with his parents. While we learn why Apollo is so determined to have a traditional family and so happy when he thinks he’s found it, I wondered all through those chapters when the action was going to start. When it does start, the plot took me for a terrifying ride alongside Apollo.

A few months after Apollo’s son is born, his wife, Emma, starts to behave strangely. A doctor might diagnose her with post-natal depression. After six months of Emma’s loathing of their child, she attacks Apollo and murders the child. Then she disappears. Apollo goes to jail for holding Emma’s co-workers hostage in an attempt to find out where she went. And then, things get very strange when Apollo realizes that the son he’d cherished was not at all what he thought it was.

The Changeling is, on its surface, a horror story in which the ordinary becomes supernatural and deadly. Underneath that surface, it’s a story that asks serious questions about what it means to be a parent when the day-to-day reality of the job is far from the ideal. Being a parent is about sacrifice, but I doubt that any parent has to face the struggles Apollo and Emma go up against when they find out what happened to their real son.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 13 June 2017.

Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

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Hex

The people of Black Spring, New York are cursed. It’s not really their fault. They were just unlucky enough to be born there or buy a house there. The curse is Katherine van Wyler, a woman accused of being a witch who still haunts Black Spring three hundred plus years later. In Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt and translated by Nancy Forest-Flier, we learn how the Black Spring folk cope with their witch and keep her secret from the world. We also learn how a town can, if pushed down the wrong road hard enough, tear itself apart.

It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s wrong with Black Spring—what takes longer is why it’s all going wrong now. The first chapters are filled with characters dropping bits of history about their town. Katherine van Wyler was executed as a witch and carried on haunting the area as it changed hands from the Dutch to the English. Her whisperings caused people to do terrible things, so a group of clergymen sewed her eyes and mouth shut and wrapped her in iron chains. Still, the people of Black Spring and their military guardians can’t leave her alone. Everyone is terrified of her and fascinated with her.

The plot of Hex starts to take off as Tyler Grant and his friends begin to experiment on Katherine. They figure that if they can work out how Katherine works, they can lift their town’s isolation from the rest of the world. They just have to work out how Katherine’s power keeps them from leaving, then they can get the town to lift it’s Emergency Decree. Unfortunately for Tyler, his friends, and the town, their experiments kick of a series of terrible events that drive the town berserk.

We watch all of this happen from the perspective of Tyler’s father, Steve, and one of the town watchers, Robert Grim. Compared to the obsession and superstition of the other characters, Steve and Robert appear as the lone voices of reason. Watching Black Spring and Katherine through their eyes creates a tense sense of helplessness and dread because none of us—reader or narrators—can do anything about it.

What interested me most about this book is the way the characters and the plot revolve around questions of sacrifice. Early in the book, the Grant boys pester their parents by asking hypothetical questions about who they would save if it really came down to it. This echoes Katherine’s original choice of (maybe) resurrecting her son and revealing herself to be a witch (maybe). Over and over, characters have to face agonizing decisions. And, over and over, characters are left to castigate themselves for those choices.

I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about Hex since I first heard about it weeks ago from Liberty Hardy at Book Riot. It absolutely lives up to its reputation as a first rate horror novel. I haven’t told all about this book in this review, so readers who are tempted will find all sorts of questions and things to think about after finishing this book.

The Girl from Rawblood, by Catriona Ward

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The Girl from Rawblood

Some families describe their histories as haunted due to wars, famines, and other traumas. But in Catriona Ward’s The Girl from Rawblood, the family is genuinely haunted. The Villarcas of Rawblood have all died young and horribly after getting married. Consequently, Iris, the youngest and last of the Villarcas, has grown up isolated to protect her from the family curse. Even though she follows her father’s rules (most of the time), the curse might be coming for her anyway.

The first part of The Girl from Rawblood switches back and forth between Iris in the early twentieth century and Charles Danforth in the 1880s. It isn’t clear what the connection between the two is until much later, except that they are both tied up with the terrible, shocking history of the Villarcas of Rawblood. (We learn that history in bits and pieces until the second half of the book.) We see Iris’s father, Alonso try to teach her to control her emotions, impressing upon her the danger of becoming friends with outsiders. Meanwhile, Charles works with a much younger Alonso to try and find a cure for the curse, which Alonso suspects might be a kind of congenital madness. It isn’t until much later that we learn of the family ghost, a bald woman with terrible scars who scares people to death, always referred to as her (with italics).

In the second half of the book, Ward takes us back into the family history and the deaths of previous Villarcas and Hopewells (the original owners of Rawblood). If each new generation wasn’t so very stubborn about how they will be the one to break the curse and find happiness in love, marriage, and family, they would have died out long ago. And yet, every time, they try to find a way to avoid her. The first half of the book might lead you to believe that Alonso is right and that there is a hereditary mental illness in the family. The second half, however, makes it clear that the Villarcas are genuinely haunted.

I admit that I found the first half of The Girl from Rawblood a little slow. Iris’ chapters are written in the present tense, which bothered me, and I found Charles a bit priggish. (Also, the vivisection scenes were very hard for me to get through.) But the second half was captivating. The Villarcas go through tragedy after tragedy, but they still keep falling in love and trying to thwart fate. This book is clearly a horror story, and yet, there’s a note of hope and redemption underneath all the of the violence. I also loved the spectacular conclusion of this book. It was worth it for me to keep reading just to get to that ending.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.

Things We Lost in the Fire, by Mariana Enríquez

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Things We Lost in the Fire

Even though they didn’t take very long to read, the stories in Mariana Enríquez’ collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, are going to stay in my brain for a while. (In fact, returning to read a few more chapters of War and Peace turned out to be a pleasant mental palate cleanser.) The stories are set in Buenos Aires, Corrientes, and other cities in Argentina between the late 1980s and now. In addition to sharing a feeling of creeping horror, the stories are connected by the way the characters are forced to confront the unhealed wounds of the past that are just waiting to reopen as soon as they are poked.

In the 1970s, Argentina was torn apart by the Dirty War, a bloody conflict in which the state terrorized its citizens in the name of anti-Communism and unity. Thousands of people were “disappeared.” The Dirty War is not directly referenced in Enríquez collection. Instead, Enríquez has transformed this trauma into semi or fully supernatural horrors that her protagonists stumble into when they try to right a wrong or stand up for themselves. In one story, “Under the Black Water,” a severely polluted river that has become a dumping ground for victims of police violence becomes a source of a zombie cult. In others, “Adela’s House” and “An Invocation of the Big-Earred Runt,” past crimes reach out from the past to claim new victims. It’s clear that nothing has healed.

The stories in Things We Lost in the Fire is also a close examination of women’s lives in Argentina. In many of the stories, the female characters are threatened by men. The threats are either of potential violence but, more often, of gaslighting. Over and over, the women in these stories are told that what they’ve seen is not real and that they should give up their “delusions.” In the final story, “Things We Lost in the Fire,” women begin to destroy themselves before their men can do it. This story is the one that will probably stick with me the longest because it is so appallingly bleak.

Things We Lost in the Fire is not for the faint of heart. Readers who tackle it, however, will be rewarded (if that’s the right word) with horripilating visions of traumatic lives, strange syncretic cults, preemptive revenge, and characters who will not leave things alone.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 February 2017.

Bodies of Water, by V.H. Leslie

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Bodies of Water

V.H. Leslie’s short novella, Bodies of Water, is perfect for feminist reading. In addition to the overt themes of women overcoming damaging relationships with men, there are also repeated metaphors of water, women’s perspectives of reality, and wombs. I enjoyed this ghostly story, but I feel that it is a dissertation waiting to happen. This isn’t a criticism. It’s more a warning that, if you are or have ever been an English major, those close reading skills will activate before too many pages and may get the way of really sinking into the story.

Bodies of Water parallels to lives that intersect at the same place, a century apart. In the 1870s, Evelyn has been sent to Wakewater House for the water cure. She has been diagnosed with hysteria after an incident that is only revealed later. Later, Wakewater has been turned into Wakewater Apartments and Kirsten has just moved in. She bought the place because it overlooks the Thames and just couldn’t resist the draw of the water. It soon becomes clear that Wakewater Apartments is haunted by what happened in Evelyn’s time.

In alternating chapters, we learn more about what sent Evelyn to Wakewater, what the water cure entails (lots of pruniness), and the psychic scars that were left behind. This might make the house seem sinister, but it’s not so much the house. Rather, the haunting is much more severe and strange than I was expecting at the outset of the novel. I’m not entirely sure I buy what Leslie was trying to sell me, but I was very interested in what she did with the idea of female despair and anger and the river.

Bodies of Water is the second novella I’ve read from Salt Publishing. It’s also the second novella I’ve enjoyed. The form is amazing for what the authors are able to pack into a limited number of pages. The stories they tell need a little room…but too much more would probably kill the driving pace the authors’ set. I’m glad there’s a publishing house out there that will take a chance on novellas. I’m also grateful to the readers who pointed me in the direction of these books.

The Witch’s Trinity, by Erika Mailman

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The Witch’s Trinity

The winter of 1507 followed two years of famine for the people of Tierkinddorf. They’re down to eating snow for dinner when a friar from the nearest city appears to help rid the town of the witches that must be causing the famine. The Witch’s Trinity, by Ericka Mailman, plays out over a few tense winter weeks as accusations of witchcraft spread and hunger deepens. As if the general mood of The Witch’s Trinity wasn’t paranoid enough, our protagonist is an elderly woman who is suffering from Alzheimer’s (or possibly dementia). Güde forgets things easily and sometimes sees things that didn’t actually happen. In spite of this, her age and her relative isolation from the rest of Tierkinddorf’s inhabitants allows her to see more clearly than people who are hungry, terrified, and angry.

The first woman to be accused is, like many women who were accused of witchcraft during historical witch trials, was old, lived alone, and knew how to use plants to heal. Because she has no protectors, it’s easy for the villagers to give Künne over to the nameless Dominican friar to practice what he’s learned from the Malleus Maleficarum. Of course nothing changes after Künne is killed. But Irmeltrud, Güde’s daughter-in-law sees how easy it is to have a witch trial do the dirty work of getting Güde out of her house. When Güde’s son leaves on a hunting trip with most of the village’s men, Irmeltrud quickly accuses Güde of witchcraft. Unfortunately, Irmeltrud wasn’t the only person to figure out that an accusation and a quick execution might be a good way to get what the accuser wants. An anonymous denunciation lans Irmeltrud in the witch’s tower along with Güde.

Though The Witch’s Trinity is short and occasionally bewildering with Güde’s confusion, it explores the historical injustice of witch trials. (Mailman notes in her afterword that she’s a descendent of a woman who was accused several times during the Salem Witch Trials.) It seems that all it takes for neighbors to turn on each other and do terrible things is for hardship to dissolve the bonds that hold people together. It’s easy to be generous when food is plenty and times are good. When times get tough, people look out for themselves—and try to find someone to blame.

Nineveh, by Henrietta Rose-Innes

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Nineveh

I never read Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, but the title has always stuck with me as an excellent way to sum up humans’ relationship to the other species on this planet. Nineveh, by Henrietta Rose-Innes, is very much about the “some we hate” category. The critters in this category—rodents, insects, reptiles, etc.—have done nothing to earn our enmity. They just gross us out or scare us for being what they are: low level predators, occasional disease vectors, destroyers of the wooden frames of our houses. The protagonist of Nineveh, Katya Grubbs, doesn’t hate any animals. She runs Painless Pest Relocation. Instead of trapping or poisoning pests, she collects them and moves them into the remaining wild areas around Cape Town. She is the Sisyphus of pest removal.

When we meet her, Katya is working with her nephew to remove a swarm of caterpillars from the garden of a rich Cape Towner. She has a method for tricking the caterpillars to swarm into collection boxes. It takes time, much to the annoyance of her client. One of the client’s guests, however, notices the care Katya takes for the fuzzy little guys and offers her a new job, a big one that could put her at the top of the list for pest removal in the city. All she has to do is figure out a way to clear a massive apartment complex, called Nineveh, of an infestation of some kind of biting beetles.

There is an added complication to the job. Katya’s estranged father—a rough, difficult, duplicitous man—previously had the job to get rid of the beetles. Now he’s disappeared. Taking the job would mean walking in his footsteps once again, something Katya has promised herself never to do. Still, she takes the job because her fledgling company needs the money. When she arrives at Nineveh to evaluate the situation, it’s like stepping into another world. Cape Town is a modern city. Nineveh feels like it was built smack in the middle of a wild jungle. It’s isolated. It’s run down. And it’s more than a little haunted by white men who aren’t quite right in the head.

On the face of things, this book sounds straightforward, possibly a little dull. (And gross, if you’re not good with creepy crawlies.) But I found Nineveh to be a meditative book about a daughter coming to terms with her childhood and her father. Life was rough with Grubbs Senior. He wasn’t bad, as such, but he was neglectful and expected his children to be as tough as he was when they broke bones or went hungry between jobs. He was casually cruel to animals and insects, often using them as tools to get jobs by deliberately causing infestations or leaving a few critters behind so that he would have to be called back.

When Katya temporarily occupies a caretaker flat at Nineveh, she finds her father once more up to his old tricks. When she left him before to strike out on her own, it was more a matter of opportunity than choice. In Nineveh, she has to face the choice at last. Who does she want to be? Can she be her best self if she is still somehow attached to her father? So, even though there are a lot of bugs, this book is a fascinating journey of self-discovery set in a place I’ve never read about before.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 November 2016 in the United States.

Mr Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt

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Mr Splitfoot

Belief is a powerful thing. It can also be a dangerous thing, as we learn in Mr Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt. Over the course of the novel, we see cults, seances, toxic love, and more. Hunt crams an awful lot of plot and ideas into this novel, yet it never feels overstuffed. Instead, Mr Splitfoot is an intense ride through upstate New York. It was so gripping, I had to read it in two sittings just so that I could get to the heart of this book’s mysteries.

Mr Splitfoot contains two women’s stories, told in alternating chapters. Ruth’s chapters are set 14 years ago. She and her sister were taken away from their mother after their mother poured bleach on Ruth’s face, scarring her for life. Ruth’s much older sister ages out of foster care and Ruth is left alone at Love of Christ! farm. The only good part of her rough, hungry life there is Nat. (They call themselves sisters, even though Nat never identifies as female.) When the two turn 17, Ruth starts to look for ways to escape Love of Christ! She doesn’t want to deal with the hunger or the Father’s crazy rants about religion and history anymore. She also doesn’t want to find herself penniless and helpless. Fortunately (or unfortunately), Nat develops a knack for talking to the dead and the pair meet conman Mr Bell.

In the present, Cora (Ruth’s niece) has just discovered that she is pregnant and that her married boyfriend is terrible. She drifts through life, unlike her striving mother and aunt. Cora’s life changes when Ruth appears one night and convinces her to take off for…somewhere. Ruth can’t or won’t speak. It’s only her urgency that gets Cora on the road. After the car breaks down, Cora and Ruth walk for months towards Ruth’s unknown goal.

The more time we spend on the road with Cora and in the past with Ruth, the weirder things get. Ruth keeps crossing (through no fault of her own) men who have such strong beliefs that they draw followers or who believe her self-serving lies. Nat and Mr Bell are her only allies—though it’s clear that Mr Bell has his own agenda. The women in Mr Splitfoot are survivors. They adapt to circumstances. They look for opportunities to get out of their bad situations. But the men! The men in Mr Splitfoot want to reshape reality in their own image and they do their best to drag the women into those reality. It’s terrifying.

Mr Splitfoot had me from the beginning. Because of the 14 year gap between Ruth’s chapters and Cora’s chapters, there is a big mystery about what happened to Ruth in the years in between. Why is she not talking? Where is she taking Cora? What happened to Nat and Mr Bell? Not only does the book get weirder, it gets ever more tense as Ruth escapes a psychotic cult leader and a disappointed lover over and over. I just had to get to the conclusion so that I would know what the hell happened. This book is an incredible ride.

 

A Time of Torment, by John Connolly

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A Time of Torment

Charlie Parker’s quest to rid the world of villains regular law enforcement can’t capture continues in John Connolly’s A Time of Torment. The book opens with a scene that shows us Parker and his allies, assassin Louis and thief Angel, capturing a kidnapper, murderer, and blackmailer and turning him over to the FBI. This scene serves as a reminder of what bigger game that Parker is playing now that he’s returned from the dead, but it’s not part of the main action in the book. Rather, this book is about Parker, with help from his allies, takes down a small, sinister commune in West Virginia that firmly believes itself to be above the law.

The main action of A Time of Torment begins when ex-con Jerome Brunel approaches Parker in a Portland bar. Brunel insists that he was set up. He doesn’t know who put all that child pornography in his house, but he thinks it has something to do with his stopping a robbery at a gas station shortly before his arrest. Brunel gives Parker most of the money he has left and asks the detective to investigate. Brunel also adds that whoever set him up will be coming back to finish the job. Parker has just enough time to start asking some questions before Brunel’s prediction comes true.

While other books in Connolly’s Parker series stick to the detective as he puzzles out the crime and who bears responsibility for it, A Time of Torment bounces around through the perspectives of secondary characters. Through these peripheral characters we learn about the Cut, a reclusive community in West Virginia that everyone for several counties around is afraid to cross. In fact, we learn more about the Cut and its crimes from the secondary characters than we learn from Parker. On the one hand, this technique reveals the broad scope of the Cut’s activities. On the other, it distances us from Parker—so much so that he descends like an avenging angel than like a righteous detective.

I was interested in the villains Connolly created in A Time of Torment, but I miss the tight focus on Parker that we saw in the earlier novels. Now that Parker is something more than entirely human, I want to spend time in his head as he wrestles with his new role as judge, jury, and executioner of criminals that regular law enforcement either can’t detect or can’t provide satisfying justice if they do manage to pick up on one of these evil peoples’ trails. Series fans will still enjoy A Time of Torment; new readers should start from the beginning to get Parker’s whole journey.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.