horror · literary fiction · review

The Devil in Silver, by Victor LaValle

Pepper may have the worst luck of any man I’ve seen in fiction. Pepper, in what he believes to be an act of chivalry, goes to warn off the ex of a woman he’s interested in. When some cops happen to show up and Pepper starts fighting them, they take him to a place where they can dump him so that he’ll be off the streets but where they don’t have to do the paperwork: New Hyde Hospital. Before the end of the first chapter of The Devil in Silver, by Victor LaValle, Pepper finds himself locked up in a cell with an obsessive roommate and dosed to the gills with psychotropic medication. On top of all this, something terrible and inhumane is stalking the hospital and killing patients.

In 1973, a psychologist and a bunch of psychology students conducted an experiment. They would claim to have hallucinations until they were committed to a mental hospital. Once they had been committed, they would drop their acts and see how long it took for the staff to notice that there were sane people in their hospital. To quote Wikipedia, “All were forced to admit to having a mental illness and had to agree to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release. The average time that the patients spent in the hospital was 19 days. All but one were diagnosed with schizophrenia ‘in remission’ before their release.” The Devil in Silver brought back all the shock I felt when I heard about the Rosenhan Experiment or Nellie Bly’s experiment at the women’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Pepper is not mentally ill but, because he has been involuntarily committed at a mental hospital, he is treated by all the staff as if he is. Even if his life (and the lives of the other patients) weren’t in immediate danger by the creature in the walls, he is in very real danger of losing his mind in the terrible, abusive, drugged confines of New Hyde.

The Devil in Silver is a meandering novel, especially for a horror novel. In fact, more of this book is literary fiction than horror. I have to classify it as horror because of the aforementioned creature in the walls. In between attacks by the creature and tense moments trying to track down said creature, The Devil in Silver discusses the collapse of Americans mental health system, run by a cruel Kafka-esque bureaucracies driven by milking profit out of the system; the injustice of the immigration system; dehumanization; fundamental breakdowns of communication when people fail to listen to each other; and more. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is frequently referenced and Jaws and Dead Souls make appearances. Not only will this book terrify you with its monster, it can freak you on on an existential level.

I liked a lot of The Devil in Silver, but there is one major loose end that is not tied up at the end that annoyed me enough to keep me from wholeheartedly loving this book. Personally, even though the ending let me down, I would love to read this book with a group because I want to talk about the deeper themes of the book. While this book could have been set any time in the last fifty years (or more, to be honest), the injustices Pepper faces are still very much with us. I don’t know if anyone has found the right way to care for people with severe mental illnesses who are a danger to others and themselves. Readers who like a hefty dose of terror with their food for thought will enjoy this book. Readers who like thoughtful horror novels will have a good time, too, but will probably be as irritated as I was that we never really find out how the creature in the walls came to be.

historical fiction · horror · review

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

7234875Haunted houses always seemed particularly creepy to me because of the way they invert the way home ought to feel. In fact, the German word for uncanny is unheimlich, which can be literally translated as un-home-like. Homes should be warm, comfortable, full of memories of family life, and welcoming. A haunted house is uncanny because nothing is quite right. There might be family memories, but they are usually tainted somehow. The comfort has vanished and they are almost universally cold. Their outward features tend to keep people away. This is certainly the case in Sarah Water’s unsettling novel, The Little Stranger.

Our narrator, Dr. Faraday, provides an outsider’s perspective to life in the no-longer-stately home, Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire. Faraday has childhood memories of what life was like at Hundreds Hall when it was in its heyday, so it’s a shock to him how far the mighty have fallen. By 1948, roughly when the novel is set, there is no money for repairs and barely any for the two servants left to tend the Ayres family. The story isn’t all that uncommon after World War II when many of the gentry and aristocratic classes could no longer raise the funds to maintain their ancestral piles. What is unusual is what Faraday hears on his return to Hundreds Hall to tend to the maid. She, we learn, has faked an illness to try and get sent home. The maid finds the house unbearably depressed and not right. Faraday soothes her fears, rationalizing them all away.

Faraday makes a habit of rationalizing away the strange things that start to happen at Hundreds Hall. His care of the maid turns out to be the beginning of an odd sort of friendship. Because he’s one of the few visitors the Ayres’ family gets, they begin to confide in him. The only son, a wounded World War II veteran, worries incessantly about how the family can ever make enough money to turn the estate around. The mother grows a bit vaguer as time goes on, though she tries to keep calm and carry on. Faraday becomes closest to Caroline, the daughter of the family, who is blunt yet caring.

As The Little Stranger starts to slowly morph into a horror novel, with inexplicable “pranks” occurring all over the Hall, I started to wonder who was the bigger threat: whatever is playing with the Ayres family…or the good Dr. Faraday himself. The stories Faraday hears about the hauntings are chilling enough. There are fires, strange noises, doors that lock and can’t be opened, and more. But Dr. Faraday is always there to try and explain things away. He tells the former soldier with PTSD, the aged widow, and Caroline that they’re tired, under pressure. When he talks over his “cases” with his colleagues, Faraday ends up wondering whether some form of hysteria is to blame. The members of the Ayres family just want someone to believe them. Faraday wants to cure them and, perhaps, become master of Hundreds Hall himself. In the end, I was more upset by Faraday than any potential supernatural presence.

The Little Stranger is more than a little strange itself. It lured me in with the promise of a haunted house. While it delivered and I got the Halloween reading experience I was hoping for with The House of the Seven Gables, I was left with a lot of questions about who the real villain was, what really happened to the Ayreses when Faraday wasn’t around the witness the weird behavior at the Hall, how people who may have mental illnesses should be diagnosed and treated, and who among the characters could be believed. I think The Little Stranger would be a terrific book for a book group because there are so many ways it could be interpreted, all depending on who one decides to trust. A book group could have hours of fun debating just what the hell it all meant.

contemporary fantasy · horror · review

We Are All Completely Fine, by Daryl Gregory

20344877Most adventure stories, of any stripe, focus on the lead up to, the journey to, and the fight with the enemy. Very rarely to they focus on the aftermath. But in Daryl Gregory’s novella, We Are All Completely Fine, we see a group of survivors of supernatural crimes and horrors, meeting for group therapy. Dr. Jan Sayer has brought them all together to work through their issues. After all, they’re the only people who will believe each other.

The narrative shifts between the various members of the group. There’s Harrison Harrison, a former monster slayer with intractable insomnia. Martin is addicted to this world’s version of Google Glass, which help him see monsters, who’s roommates were killed by a mysterious homeless man. Stan survived a family of cannibals, but lost several appendages. Barbara was kidnapped by the Scrimshander, who carved up her bones. And then there’s Greta, who is covered in scars and is on the run from something. All of these survivors resist being called victims. More than that, the book resists this label, too. We see these characters in all their complicated prickliness as they struggle with the legacy of what they’ve seen and had done to them.

We Are All Completely Fine is not just a series of therapy meetings. In addition to this fascinating scenes, Harrison and Martin pick up on the fact that one of their member’s “adventures” are not over. Even though he’s a very damaged person, Harrison not-so-reluctantly takes up his mantle as monster hunter again. This time around, he has help, whether he wants it or not.

This book races along its horror plot, which I enjoyed for its originality and for the grit of the characters, but my favorite parts were the therapy sessions. Stan is the only one who’s willing to talk about what happened to him, even if he only tells a very polished, public version of his story. The others keep their memories tightly locked away until they finally learn to trust each other enough to share. The brief hints about this world’s Lovecraftian monsters and horrors made me want more—obviously from the safety of this side of the page. We Are All Completely Fine turned out to be a great read for October.

contemporary fantasy · horror · review

In the Night Wood, by Dale Bailey

37570474The house that the Haydens inherit at the start of Dale Bailey’s chilling In the Night Wood does not have the best reputation. Not only does it border the Eorl Wood, a swathe of primeval forest that the locals warn everyone away from, but it also burned to the ground in the 1840s and housed the last reclusive member of the Hollow family. Oh, and sometimes young girls go missing. But that’s still in the future of the grief-stricken Haydens, who arrive looking with varying levels of optimism for a chance to start over after the death of their only child.

Erin is devastated after her child’s death and is only really handing on with pharmaceutical help. Her husband Charles, however, has his academic interest in Caedmon Hollow to keep him busy. Hollow was the Victorian author of a fairy tale-like story that is always described as “not appropriate” for children because of its grimness. (Pun.) Not much is known about Hollow, so if Charles can deliver a biography full of new and hopefully interesting material, it might help him resurrect his career.

What neither of the Haydens counted on was the Eorl Wood. Both of them start to see people in the woods. Erin thinks she sees her lost daughter. Charles has flashes of the Horned King, a figure from Hollow’s book and Celtic mythology. Neither of them says a word to the other. While they play an uncomfortable dance of politeness for the servants and the locals, Erin starts to draw the Horned King and get lost in depression while Charles hunts down clues about Hollow’s life.

I was much more interested in Charles’ plotline than Erin’s. At times, I thought Erin’s character was shoved to the side while Charles and the local historian got to dig through old papers and actually get a handle on what might be going on. There was plenty of archival goodness and plenty of literary allusions to keep me entertained during Charles’ sections. Unfortunately, Erin is left to suffer from grief and depression for most of the book. She sinks deeper and deeper and her part of the puzzle goes to waste in the overall plot. I would have liked In the Night Woods a lot more if Erin’s character and plotline were more developed.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.

horror · review · science fiction

The Nightmarchers, by J. Lincoln Fenn

40225885I’m not sure it’s a common lesson in the fiction read or just fiction in genre, but I’ve noticed an awful lot of books that warn readers not to mess with things they discovered because there are always consequences. There’s Dr. Faustus, of course, and Jurassic Park. Actually, a lot of Michael Crichton fits here. There’s Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series. And now there’s J. Lincoln Fenn’s The NightmarchersIn this incarnation of the “don’t play with that thing you found” genre-let, a botanist in the 1930s discovered something on a Pacific island somewhere near Hawai’i that has remarkable properties. Decades later, her great-niece Julia returns to the island to figure out what happened in return for a payout that will help her reclaim her daughter from her ex-husband.

Julia Greer is at the end of her rope when we meet her after a longish prologue that sets up the original discovery of a MacGuffin by Irene Greer. Julia is flat broke, unemployed, and suffering from terrible depression after her sudden, acrimonious divorce from her wealthy husband. Because she has no options left, she takes up a strange offer by her surviving great-aunt, a scientist who wants her to travel to Kapu, where Irene apparently went mad and died all those years ago. Julia will be rewarded with money beyond her wildest dreams if she can recover Irene’s body and take samples of the plants Irene was studying before her death. It’s odd, but Julia is desperate to get her child back. She says yes and is whisked away to Kapu.

In Irene’s day, Kapu was home to a small group of unidentified Polynesians; a pious, white Evangelical preacher; and an unsettling orphan named Agnes. In Julia’s day, Kapu is still home to the descendants of the Polynesians and the preacher—who have essentially become a cult—and the “spiritually healing” resort for the ultra-rich that the cult runs. The visitors are not allowed to take photos or souvenirs. They have to surrender their electronic devices on arrival. They are not allowed to talk to anyone except one member of the cult. It’s all very strange, but people put up with it because some of the guests have make impossible recoveries from cancers and such after a short stay on the island.

Most of The Nightmarchers is a speedy unravelling of historical and scientific mysteries. Julia and the other visitors to the island are only on Kapu for about a day before things start to go horribly wrong. There’s a vaguely plausible scientific explanation for it all, but this seems to function as a slight foundation for all kinds of running amok. The Nightmarchers didn’t gel for me; there was a little too much going on. I enjoyed the parts in which Irene and Julia connect to the island, but the parts about the cult were not fully realized and the villains might have made a stop or two on the way in from central casting before taking up their parts as single-minded, evil scientists.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 1 October 2018. 

fantasy · horror · metafiction · review · short stories

The Merry Spinster, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

35035160I’ve been chasing the high of reading Angela Carter’s collection, The Bloody Chamber, ever since I first read it. When I first heard about Daniel Ortberg’s short story collection, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, I hoped that I would find the same sort of disturbing truths that I found in Carter. Ortberg is not Carter, but that’s not a bad thing. Carter’s stories are about sexuality and power. Ortberg’s stories touch on sexuality, but I mostly found explorations of autonomy and the collective. Ortberg took familiar stories and uses them as a vehicle to ask new questions.

Some of the standout stories from this collection are:

“The Merry Spinster” is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast with a twist on the ending that I absolutely adore. Folklore is full of stories of self-sacrificing daughters. Women sacrifice their well-being and happiness for foolish parents or to end conflicts, etc. When her financial whiz mother loses and regains the family fortune, Beauty (an ironic nickname here) is asked to pay the price for her mother’s trespassing on Mr. Beale’s property and stealing his roses. Beauty is not happy about this. She is less happy when Mr. Beale starts asking her to marry him. In this version of the story, Beauty will sacrifice only so much. She holds her ground when asked for more.

“The Frog’s Princess” is an unsettling tale set in a land where beautiful people are obliged to others because of their appearance. They don’t belong to themselves. Beautiful people are told to smile, to make other people happy. The king’s daughter (who is written about using “he” pronouns”) runs a foul of this when he loses a golden down a well occupied by a frog. The frog offers him a deal: the frog will return the ball if the daughter keeps the frog with him forever. The daughter never says yes, but the frog retrieves the ball anyway. Even though the daughter never took the deal, he is beholden because someone else acted on his behalf. This story is an uncomfortable look at the thorny issues of implied consent.

“The Rabbit” is probably the most disturbing story in the collection. In this tale, a velveteen rabbit wants to be Real. Only a child can make him Real, so the rabbit takes out his rivals to become a boy’s favorite toy. The original book, The Velveteen Rabbit, was a story about love. This version is parasitic, as the rabbit becomes more Real as his leeches the life out of the boy who loves him. In the end, we’re left to wonder about how far it’s acceptable to go to be self-actualized.

The reaction to The Merry Spinster has been mixed. Some readers have liked it for its boldness with the source material. Other readers have been too weirded out by the stories. I can see their point, but I’m on Team Boldness. Ortberg reinvigorates old stories that ask questions our society desperately needs to have conversations about. I was disturbed, but I enjoyed reading this collection.



horror · review

The Atrocities, by Jeremy C. Shipp

36353985One would think that with all the fiction with clear reasons why one should flee from this kind of job description, that characters would run screaming in the opposite direction when offered a job with weird instructions. at a remote country estate teaching children. And yet, Danna Valdez accepts just such an offer at the outset of The Atrocities, by Jeremy C. Shipp. Valdez experiences a full share of horror in her brief stay in this very short novelette. It’s a wonder anyone makes it out of the book alive.

The Atrocities of the title are the sculptures in the maze around and inside Stockton House. These grotesques depict humans suffering creatively appalling deaths. If it had been me, I would have noped out of the job offer immediately. Valdez is made of sterner stuff, guided by her need to help people. She wants to help Isabelle Evers however she can. Isabelle is, for some unexplained reason, unable to go to school with other children. The isolation is causing her to act out, Valdez is told.

Valdez gets another opportunity to escape Stockton House when she learns what’s really going on. She decides to tough it out. Her disturbing dreams and hints of something that might have gone wrong in her past help explain why, but I still marveled at what Valdez decides to take on because things are very, very wrong at Stockton House.

Because it is so short and so full of vivid events that made me question what was real and what wasn’t, The Atrocities is a thrilling ride. I was worried that if I put it down, I would lose the ominous atmosphere that the book created. I admit that I was also worried about Valdez. I didn’t want to pause my reading until I knew if she would be okay. This book would be a great read for readers looking for a genuinely scary horror story.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 17 April 2018.