What does Paul Michael Anderson do when he’s avoiding his actual writing work (“avoiding” in the sense of I have a metric fuck-tonne of dayjob shit to do)? Updates his reviews on his website because of course he does.
So, at the beginning of the year, I decided I wanted to both track my reading and read more since it seemed, last year, I hadn’t been reading as much as I had in the past. I set up a Goodreads Reading Challenge–in which I set a high number and am hysterically behind–and got to it. Throughout the beginning of the year (and because I’m a teacher, I automatically think, “Through the spring semester”), I was pretty good at keeping up with reviews.
And then summer vacation hit and…nada.
Oh, I read, but I wasn’t talking about what I read–even in the echo-chamber that is this website. And I read some good shit. But, even if I wasn’t reading that good shit, books and reading, to me, should be the beginnings of conversations, always and forever.
So, let’s talk about a writer’s version of How I Spent My Summer Vacation, okay?
Universal Harvester (FS&G, 2017) by John Darnielle is ultimately an uneven “horror” novel that, while well-written, will leave readers at the end of the story cocking their head to the side and going, “Huh.” Not in a confused sort-of way, but, rather, “I don’t know what to think about this.”
The story depicts a group of films at an old-school rental store (a majority of this story takes place on the cusp of Y2K) that, inexplicably, have patches of another movie sewn through. The novel unfolds in the past, the 1990s, and the “present”.
The problems with this novel begin with the depiction of the “scenes” in the regular movies. They’re described as upsetting the viewer, but, ultimately, they’d at most be described as bizarrely mundane, with only one scene–a woman sprinting away from the camera, down a dirt road at night–that could be construed as frightening. The rest, even when some violence like punching are kicking is thrown in, come off as…hum drum. Weird, but not like watching a snuff film. Still, the characters have a visceral aversion to the scenes, even as they become fixated on the shots, and that can lead to disconnect with the reader.
Ultimately, a majority of the mystery is explained–Darnielle points the reader in the right direction, but leaves it to you to figure it out. That can leave some readers disappointed and some satisfied; it all depends on how detailed you like your maps drawn.
When the novel works, it does so with the familial relationships–Jeremy and his father, or the present-day family that discovers the tapes–showing the space and tension and isolation that trauma, or witnessed-trauma, can have between loved ones. The plot line that focuses in the past is, probably, the most emotionally and intellectually satisfying because it’s the most realized. More, the novel’s horror elements, to this reader, come from the sense of being stuck, or left behind–by parents, by choices, by lifestyles and friends. This helplessness powers the engine for the novel’s unsettled tendencies.
Ultimately, Darnielle writes in an easy, forward manner–lyrical at times, but never to the point of pretentious obfuscation or incoherence. You enjoy hearing his voice. Still, the melody he creates doesn’t seem to reap the rewards of a musical pay-off (and I’ll stop with the musical comparisons now, thanks).
Three out of five stars for this bad boy.
You can pick up Universal Harvester here.
Kristi DeMeester’s Beneath (Word Horde, 2017) is an off-beat novel that mixes cosmic horror, late-20th-century angst, the ghosts of an unsettled past, and some of that ol’time religion.
DeMeester makes the easy (for her) transition here from the short form to the long form in this story of Cora, a journalist sent to report on a snake-handling church in a small Southern town. Cora has her own issues with religion, stemming for her childhood, and takes an instant dislike to the pastor, Mike. Meanwhile, the town itself is undergoing a change, with mythical creatures underground assuming control.
It’s an interesting premise and can easily become tangled in clumsy hands, or fall down into vague, pedantic (and LOUD) proclamations about god, but DeMeester has a confident hand and keeps the reader as Cora and Mike try and fail (wash, rinse, repeat) to figure out a way to save the town, the people, and themselves. Set during the 1980s, the novel has that typical 80s feel of small towns that King and Koontz mined in that decade, but it’s set apart by, again, DeMeester’s confident hand. She ratchets up the tension as the plot-walls close in on our heroes and you won’t struggle to root for them (or keep reading), even when you get a sense of futility in their actions.
With that said, there were instances where the reader may wonder how the outside world responds to the cataclysm; DeMeester references it, but keeps the focus on Cora, which could lead some people to feeling vaguely claustrophobic about the narrowness of the view. Elsewhere, it’s hard to get a bead on Mike as a character–someone who has as many flaws as virtues and, at times, alternates between both extremes–but it can be argued that, because we’re predominately in Cora’s head, this is due to the fact that Cora can’t get a bead on the preacher.
Overall, Beneath is not your typical “first novel” and it’s all the better for it. In terms of story alone, it’s a strong, solid piece, and the writing is top-notch.
Four out of five stars.
You can pick up Beneath here.
The first thing I picked up at Scares That Care 4, Detritus in Love by Mercedes Murdock Yardley and John Boden (Omnium Gatherum, 2016) is a bizarre novella of magic realism and probably can have as many detractors as it does admirers. I fall in the latter category.
Of the two writers, I’m less familiar with Boden (I’ve read a short story here and there, like in LampLight) than with Yardley, whose collection Beautiful Sorrows I own (as well as her novel Nameless), but the styles blend well here in this story of Det, a teenager with a ghost dressed in a Nazi Halloween costume for a best friend and is in love with a dead girl. Det’s opposite is literally an Opposite, and the plot follows Det as he comes to terms with his diametrically-opposed Other as the Opposite upsets Det’s life, world, and reality.
The pacing is brisk, the characterizations sketched and all the better for it, the writing as clear as it is lyrical and given to Yardley-stamped description. That said, while I loved the surreal nature of the prose and plot–particularly the ending–this surrealism might prove to be a turn-off for some readers. Some people like finely-detailed maps in their stories; others like sketches; still others like a shotgun-blast of abstract, the details thrown in the air for the reader to assemble and come to terms with. Detritus falls between that sketch and shotgun-blast and I love it for that alone.
In the end Detritus in Love is a fun, surreal romp. Four out of five stars.
You can pick up Detritus in Love here.
[I’m gonna wind up spilling the most words on this one because it involves rape and perspectives on the feminism movement and I can only really review this novella if, first, I discuss these two things. So, um, bear with me.]
Boys’ Night by Wrath James White and Matt Shaw (Matt Shaw Productions, 2017) avoids falling into the trap of being a remix on I Spit on Your Grave through a fairly decent plot twist, but this could prove as problematic as the subject manner of rape itself. In this instance, the extreme violence takes a backseat.
Boys’ Night tells the story of Emily, a popular but incendiary blogger on feminist issues, pitted against a group of good ol’ boys who don’t like what she says and decide to teach her a lesson. In the center is Sandra, Emily’s ex-girlfriend, and, really, the viewpoint character for the audience–both Emily and the boys are extremes and its hard to connect with them versus Sandra.
Now, the topic of rape and feminism in fiction is a…troubled one, to say the least. In this conversation–one reviewer, two writers–it’s worth noting that, oh hey, we’re all a bunch of dudes.
Moreover, the use of rape as plot device has become a bit of a bear in media–take a look at the blowback Game of Thrones has taken over its use–with people broken into various camps. One camp wants creators to stop using it, period; the trope can only be used so many times before a viewer has to say, “You got nothing else to explain female agency, do you?” Another camp is less against the use of rape in media but more of a yes-rape-happens-but-let’s-not-exploit-it-okay; these are the people who felt GoT (which, I should note, I’ve never seen and can’t weigh in on) was fallen into exploitation given the frequency (among other things) of its use.
When it comes to rape in media…that’s for you to make a decision on. For me, if I’m going to read something with rape in it, my benchmark is the opening scene of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill; it was awful and it was painful. There was nothing sexual about it; it was dehumanizing and oppressive. Grisham rubbed his readers’s noses in it to make them understand why the perpetrators had to die and put you in that mindset to fully identify with the protagonists. Rape isn’t about sex; it’s about control and removing humanity and toxic power.
Moreover, feminism–in 2017–is as unclear to some people as ever. Some will view feminism in the way Emily uses it (read–an almost caricature extreme); others will (hopefully) see feminism from Sandra’s perspective, which is about the basic units of equality and agency. Your mileage may vary here.
With that all that said, Boys’ Night avoids the exploitative aspects; while James and Shaw (the latter who, before this book, I had never heard of) rub their readers’s noses in the violence, it’s about power and control, and the descriptions follow this thread, to the extent that the reader is only in the victim’s POV. That’s still thin-ice to skate on, story-telling-wise, but it’s enough.
The story, overall, is about power, really. Emily is not that much better than her enemies here and, in the end, when the blood can begin drying, the reader will find themselves identifying with Sandra, Emily’s ex, more than Emily. This may turn off readers–the person they’d been sold on, from the back cover to the summaries, is less a hero and, really, as awful as the villains. This isn’t a switcheroo by the writers, nor a statement on feminism (knowing Wrath, I feel I can make this statement), nor also a spoiler. This is extreme horror with extreme people in it. Again, Sandra will most likely be the person people relate to because she looks at both sides and goes, “What the fuck?”
In the end, the writing is clear and the pacing brisk (I don’t know how the writing duties broke down between the two people); while detailed, James and Shaw don’t linger on this or that violent tableau for too long. It could be argued that the villains are a bit stock (depending on your socio and ideological views, you could argue the same with Emily), but that doesn’t make the comeuppance any less brutal.
If nothing else, I’ll be seeking more from Wrath James White.
Three out of five stars. You can pick up Boys’ Night here.
C.V. Hunt’s Baby Hater (self-published, 2014) is short, vicious romp through the life of a woman who feels shunned due to her inability to have children. If you have friends or family who don’t have children, or you don’t, or you had children “late” (whatever our culture deems “late” for child-rearing, anymore), you will find shades of this book. It was good.
The story is ridiculously short, so the plot can literally be boiled down to, “Woman who can’t have kids feels shunned by the world and grows to hate the babies of others. Begins punching them. Hilarity ensues.” It’s a semi-ludicrous premise that nevertheless leaves the reader uneasy because–oh, shit, son–you can see people being this way. On a personal level, my wife and I didn’t have our daughter until we were twenty-seven, and it wasn’t planned, and we spent the first three years of our marriage being asked when we were going to have children and why aren’t we having them. More, every one of us knows someone who is looked down upon because they can’t have kids, or put their careers first, or–again, oh, shit, son–doesn’t want to have children. I could go on a rant about the cult of children in this country, and Mommy-shaming, and father stereotypes, but I won’t (mostly because it’s late; I really like ranting about those things), but, in the end, this premise isn’t so far-fetched.
Of all the books I’ve read this summer, this one is the story that gets closest to my heart, if for no other reason than I can recognize every single person in the book. Hunt nails her characterizations and even the vaguely-ironic, Palahnuik-type ending fits here. My only complaint is that this is only a novella; Hunt left herself so much room to explore these people, if the story had dictated it.
This one’s a five-stars, guys.
You can pick up Baby Hater (and you should) here.
Bracken MacLeod’s Come to Dust (Trepidatio, 2017) asks a very simple question: What would be the ramifications–social, emotional, religious–if dead children returned to life? In his third novel, MacLeod brings the pathos and what’s become his trademark action and put it into a blend that continues the streak of heartfelt entertainment.
Mitch is a down-on-his-luck ex-con, trying to build a stable life for himself and his niece Sophie (abandoned by her flighty mother). When he decides, for once, to go out on a date, Sophie is killed by the negligent and abusive babysitter. He’s distraught and struggling with how to pick up the pieces of his life…when Sophie wakes back up. Now Mitch must fight to protect Sophie from the fearful, the authorities, her “reformed” mother, and a religious zealot hellbent on using the dead children towards his own horrific goals.
When I first heard the premise, my mind instantly clicked over to Suffer the Children by Craig DiLouie, a harrowing twist in the vampire trope, but it immediately becomes apparent that these are two different animals sharing only the initial spark (dead kids coming back to life). Moreover, it needs to be clear that all dead kids, regardless of when they died, are coming back; if they have some meat on their bones, they come back–and not as zombies, either. These are our children…but different. Sadder. More terrifying because of what these pale children can now do.
Bracken, not known from a soporific line of prose, keeps the story running without allowing the pathos of such a situation and our reactions to it fall by the way side. Mitch is fully realized and his anguish easily translates from the page. This emotional core keeps the novel from devolving into a standard zombie-fare, even as it sometimes may seem like it moves over to the passenger seat in favor of the action–particularly in the third act. The action never subdues the emotional core, but it’s clear to readers that, now that the emotional foundations of these characters have been fully laid out–MacLeod doesn’t patronize his audience with constant reminders of why Mitch (or any of the other parents) feel as they do–the final half of the novel is devoted to seeing where these characters will go and what they will do. To put it another way, MacLeod winds the top and then lets it fly.
With a novel that’s good and solid, it’s going to have people who wanted more action in the beginning, or more emotion in the end. Personally, I found myself wanting one final confrontation (to reveal between who would be a spoiler) and felt cheated that circumstances never allow it to happen (before anyone asks–the book is the boss; to force the wanted-confrontation would’ve cheated the story), but that’s more of a testament to the characterization MacLeod imbues his people with.
Four out of five stars.
You can pick up Come to Dust here.
I meant to review Fight Club 2 in this one, but I’m still getting my thoughts in order on it. In other news, though, this is how I spent my summer vacation–reading books. Because–well, fucking, duh.