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.

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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.

historical fiction · horror · review

The Visitant, by Megan Chance

24982850Elena Spira believes she’s prepared to help her patient. She’s dealt with drug addicts and alcoholics before. She’s even helped epileptics, which is no mean feat in 1884 when the only “treatments” are cold water baths and bromides. But when she arrives at the dilapidated Casa Basilio at the beginning of The Visitant, by Megan Chance, Elena quickly realizes that her patient will be the toughest one she’s had to care for yet…and that’s before the ghost shows up.

The Casa Basilio in Venice is no one’s first choice as a place to convalesce. The place is falling apart. The servants are clearly skimming. The owner’s aunt shares fictional DNA with Mrs. Danvers; she still pines for her lost daughter, Laura. The patient, Samuel, is recovering from a long debauch, a beating, and his worsening epilepsy. Samuel’s parents dispatch Elena to Venice after offering her family a deal they can’t refuse. All she has to do is treat Samuel, return him to New York, and she gets to travel Europe for months (and not marry her cousin).

Everyone in this book is in an impossible position. They all have deadly secrets. The climate is terrible. Nothing goes right. When Samuel starts to show signs that he’s possessed by Laura’s ghost, Elena gets pulled into an ugly mystery that tests her rational medical mind. Ghosts can’t be real in Elena’s world, but there’s no other way to explain Samuel’s attacks, his inexplicable use of Venetian, and the more-cold-than-usual breezes that fill the rooms of the Casa.

This book completely hooked me. I barely put it down because I just had to know what really happened to Laura and who would win in the battle of wills between Elena and Samuel. (The steamy scenes between Elena and Nero Basilio are icing on the cake.) This fast blend of historical fiction and horror was exactly what I needed after the long, generational story of Britannia Mews.

historical fiction · horror · review

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.

contemporary fantasy · horror · review

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.

horror · review

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.