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.

alternate history · horror · review

Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland

30223025Sometimes I worry when authors introduce supernatural or horror tropes to tragic historical events. But I couldn’t resist Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation when it was getting so much positive buzz from readers I know care about diversity and sensitivity. I’m glad I listened. This book is absolutely incredible for the way it introduces zombies to American slavery and institutional racism. Yup: zombies.

Jane McKeene had a privileged but tenuous position at Rose Hill Plantation.The fact that Jane is the black daughter of the plantation mistress is still a scandal, but everyone’s position gets a lot more tenuous when the dead start to rise after the Battle of Gettysburg. The next time we see Jane, she’s drilling with the other (black) students at Miss Preston’s federally-created school for black and Native American children, designed to teach them how to fight the undead—so that the whites don’t have to risk their skins.

On top of the undead, Jane has to deal with the overwhelming racism from the whites around her. They condescend. They punish her when she speaks up for herself. And when she and two of her friends uncovers clues that the there is an unspeakable conspiracy going on that involves shipping people (black and white) out to a places called Summerland when they become “troublesome,” she gets sent on a train out to a town under siege in the middle of Kansas.

Dread Nation is a gripping read. There’s plenty of zombie-killing action and the alternate history is richly imagined. Even though there are undead creatures running around, I found this book incredibly plausible—and incredibly heartbreaking because some of the worst things people say and do in this book are based on things that were really said and done after the Civil War. This book made me very angry, like it was supposed to. Thankfully, Jane’s prowess at killing the undead is hugely satisfying after someone white says something unforgivable.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 3 April 2018.