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.

 

 

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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.

historical fantasy · horror · review

The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell

35458733It’s not a delusion if someone else sees something strange, right? This is what I told myself as I read Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions. This is also what the protagonist, widow Elsie Bainbridge, tells herself when she hears unexplained noises, sees doors lock and unlock, and finds the “silent companion” statues all over the house she inherited from her husband after his sudden death. Even at the end of the book, I had questions about what was real and what wasn’t.

The Silent Companions takes place in three different times at The Bridge, the ancestral home of the Bainbridge family. In 1866, a badly burned woman is treated by a new doctor. This doctor thinks the woman might be innocent of arson and murder, as everyone else thinks. This woman, a year before, is the widowed Mrs. Elsie Bainbridge. She’s pregnant and suddenly in charge of running a country home. And in 1635, Anne Bainbridge grows increasingly worried about her daughter—a child she believes she conceived through magic.

The Bridge is an unsettling place, especially once Elsie orders the garret reopened. She and her companion find a painted statue of a girl that they decide to place in the house’s entrance hall. After that, nothing goes right. More and more of the statues, called the companions, appear all over the house. Elsie would worry more about her sanity if her hired companion, Sarah, didn’t also see and hear the same things she does. Like Anne’s increasing alarm about her uncanny child, everything that happens to Elsie seems believable because they’re not the only one having those thoughts or experiencing the weirdness. At the end of The Silent Companions, we’re asked to weigh in on what really happened to Elsie. Is she insane? Is The Bridge actually haunted?

I was a little disappointed in how the 1635 plot and the 1860s plots were integrated in The Silent Companions. The 1635 plot is used in the 1860s plots, but not as much as I would have liked. The timelines don’t really hang together most of the time. This was really my only problem with the book. I enjoyed the rest of it. It was fascinating to follow two women down the road to what might (or might not) be insanity.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

historical fiction · horror

In the Valley of the Sun, by Andy Davidson

31213078In the fall of 1980, predators are roaming remote corners of Texas. One of these predators is a serial killer with a disturbed past. The other is a creature that wants to turn him into an even deadlier beast. Andy Davidson’s In the Valley of the Sun is a chilling horror novel in which these predators battle each other and their natures, all while innocents try to cope with the sinister things in their midst.

Travis Stillwell is a dangerous man, especially for women with a certain color of hair, of a specific age, and who have a penchant for honky-tonks. He has killed three such women in just a few weeks when he meets the woman who kills him. Travis doesn’t realize it at first, not until he starts getting terrible sunburns and throwing up any food or water he ingests—except for blood. The woman who kills him wants him to be a predator. Together, she thinks, they will live forever because, without blood, they fade away into nothing.

In his slow, meandering way west in his truck and cabover, Travis eventually fetches up in Cielo Rojo, Texas at the hotel/RV Park/café owned by the widowed Annabel and her son, Sandy. During the day, Travis does heavy labor in exchange for a place to park—and fights both his new and old hungers. Reading this book is almost painfully tense at times, as I waited for Travis to lose his battle against his demons or for Annabel, Sandy, and the Texas Ranger who is following Travis’ trail to figure out what they’re up against.

In the Valley of the Sun was an entertaining change from the books I’ve been reading lately. Sometimes, I just need a good horror novel to spice things up and get my heart pounding. I would highly recommend it to readers who might need the same.

alternate history · horror · review

After the End of the World, by Jonathan L. Howard

33574101After the universe was “unfolded” at the end of Lovecraft & Carter, Emily Lovecraft and Dan Carter found themselves in a world that was deeply wrong. The prologue of After the End of the World clues us into how wrong the world is as well. The novel opens shortly before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is signed in Moscow, in 1939. Instead of signing, in this reality, a German pilot detonates what appears to be an atomic bomb over the city. Everyone is killed and the Nazis sweep east to conquer the Soviet Union. The prologue sets up a sense of deep unease, one that never really lets up as Lovecraft and Carter try to put the universe back to rights.

Lovecraft is still a book seller and the descendant of H.P. Lovecraft. Carter is still a detective, former policeman, and descendant of Randolph Carter. However, in this new universe, not only did the Nazis win and World War II never happen, but Arkham, Rhode Island, Miskatonic University, and the Necronomicon exist. The intrepid pair don’t have a lot of time to work out just how different their new universe is. Instead, a mysterious and unsettling lawyer gives Carter a job: working for a Gestapo agent on what appears to be a case of scientific malfeasance. The job first pulls Carter deeper into weirdness, then grabs Lovecraft, too.

The plot of After the End of the World begins to pick up speed at the halfway point. Most of what happens before serves to encourage feelings of Lovecraftian weirdness and set the stage for what happens in the second half, when the action relocates to Attu Island, Alaska. It’s rather amazing how Howard manages to pull in so much Nazi occultism while sidestepping some of the worst implications of a successful Third Reich and introducing some new, deeply unpleasant effects.

I wasn’t sure about this book when I first started it. The first half, the stage-setting bit moves a bit too slowly. Like Lovecraft, I was itching for some serious Nazi ass-kicking action. That itch was very satisfyingly scratched in the second half. I was glued to the pages for the entire second half. I still don’t care overmuch for the first half, but I did like the spectacular finish and all the clandestine shenanigans that preceded it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 14 November 2017.

book club picks · horror · review

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

89717I’m not sure if The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, is a horror story that has lots of explanations for what happens—or if it’s meant to remain inexplicable. Either way, I found the story utterly gripping. Not only did I want to know what was happening, but I was intrigued by the way the the house comes to malevolent life in this novel and drives at least one of its visitors mad.

The opening paragraph sets a tone of dread and inevitable violence. It’s so forthright that it reads like a warning, one that the protagonists should’ve had before they decided to follow paranormal investigator Dr. Montague’s invitation to stay at Hill House. The good(ish) doctor wants people who’ve had possibly supernatural experiences to stay in the house to see if he can document real paranormal activity. His invitations don’t get many takers, but he does convince two women who already wanted to leave their current homes to try something different. Theodora and Eleanor agree to spend time at the house, along with Montague and Luke, a relative of the current owner.

It’s not long before things go bump in the night, literally. Over the course of the book, details about the house’s and the character’s history. There are tantalizing clues about what might be going on—repeated phrases and events, possible psychological interpretations, etc.—but none of my hypotheses really fit what happens in the few days that Eleanor et al. spent at the house. There are pieces that refused be forced into a complete picture. I’m rather glad that this book is a book club pick because it means I can hash out some of my ideas with fellow readers.

In spite of all the psychological terror, I found The Haunting of Hill House to be unexpectedly funny. The characters banter during the day, partly to cope with what happens at night, but also because these four weirdos click and enjoy riffing on each other’s statements. Without these moments of levity, I think I might have found this novel unbearable dreadful, in the full sense of inducing dread. Dr. Montague’s methodically nutty wife even had me laughing out loud.

The Haunting of Hill House is a strange, disturbing tale. Because the perspective moves in and out of Eleanor’s head, it’s hard to keep track of what might be real and what isn’t. It’s genius in the way it keeps readers off-balance for its full length; it kept me constantly guessing and reassessing what I thought I knew. Even if there isn’t an explanation for what happened to Eleanor and the gang at Hill House, I’m not disappointed in this book. Solutions aren’t everything. The reading experience is and I had a great time reading The Haunting of Hill House.