You may be wondering what could have possibly made me pick up The Mammoth Book of Body Horror. I have something of a soft spot for the body horror sub-genre, as it’s pretty much the only type of horror that I can watch without having to worry that the orchestra will set off my noise aversion with jump scare chords. And having come across a book that included not only the inspiration for one of my favourite horror movies, John Carpenter’s The Thing, but several other stories on similar themes, I couldn’t really resist the temptation to check it out.
Category: Horror Page 2 of 6
I’ve had the Locke & Key series on my radar for some time, as I am a huge Joe Hill fan. I think I’ve managed to gather the majority of the series, so now the only thing left is to give them a read, starting with Welcome to Lovecraft.
Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft follows the remains of the Locke family after a disturbed student kills their father. They move in with their uncle in his New England mansion, known locally as the Keyhouse. But while they’re only looking to move on with their lives, the house is filled with doors that transform those brave enough to travel through with the right key. And there is a relentless creature who will stop at nothing to gain the power over those doors.
Considering that there was a lot made about the doors themselves, I was kind of expecting to see more of them. But Welcome to Lovecraft is a bit of a slower burn, which seems to be working for this volume at least. The first half alternates the focus on the kids trying to adapt to life without their dad and the traumatic events that led to their move in the first place. The slow familiarisation with the characters really works because by the time things start getting more threatening, the family has moved from generic survivors to characters whose safety I do feel genuinely concerned about. Character-wise, the three that are perhaps most important are the children. The oldest is Tyler, a former friend of the boy that killed his dad, and convinced that he is in some part responsible for the tragedy that occurred. The middle child is Kinsey, who saved her little brother at the time and is now struggling to reintegrate with her peers. Finally there is Bode, the youngest by a fair margin, who seems to be coping the best out of his siblings, but is frustrated that his encounters with the supernatural elements in the house are being written off as worrying signs of emotional instability. That’s one of the things that I really like about how the supernatural stuff is written in. It kind of takes a trope that’s really common with child fantasy protagonists, where the adults are useless and unwilling to believe, and makes it terrifying. I haven’t seen much of the house yet, but I already know that Bode is in way over his head and that’s really unsettling. It’s definitely made me want to read more of the series.
Since this is another comic, I guess that I should spend some time taking about the artwork. I hadn’t heard of Rodriguez before now, but I would be happy to see more of his work following this. It’s perhaps not the prettiest of artwork, but it’s great at evoking atmosphere and character personality, so it does fit the tone of the writing really well. He really doesn’t shy away from the blood and gore either, which works with this kind of horror. Sometimes horror works better without visible gore, but this is not one of those instances, so it was good to see that the visuals haven’t compromised that way.
More of a slow burner than I was initially expecting, but it really works to set up appealing protagonists who I am genuinely concerned for. It doesn’t compromise on the gore, so if you’re squeamish you may want to come prepared. It’s definitely set up a series that I am eager to continue reading. 4.5/5
Next review: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Boneshaker has been on my reading list for a fair while now, picked up as part of a geeky bundle. I was definitely looking forward to this one though, as it combines one of my favourite sub-genres, steampunk, with something looking horror elements. I was keen to see how it would pan out.
In an alternate history where the Civil War has been raging for two decades, an attempt to mine through the frozen Klondike for gold leads to disaster when the massive drill known as the Boneshaker destroys huge parts of downtown Seattle and releases a previously subterranean gas that turns those unfortunate to breathe it into the living dead. Sixteen years later, the worst affected parts of the city have been sealed off by walls, and the widow and son of the Boneshaker’s inventor, Leviticus Blue, are trying to make a living whilst dealing with the ignominy of their relative’s devastating actions. When Ezekiel makes his way into the sealed off city determined to find proof of his father’s lack of malicious intent, Briar must find a way through the living dead and heavily armed criminals still living in the ravaged city in order to bring her son back.
Boneshaker was something of a slow burner for me. While I absolutely loved Briar and her sections trying to reach her son whilst regretting all the things that she never felt ready to tell him about his father, I was less keen on Zeke’s sections. While there’s nothing outright wrong about the way that he’s written, I just find his kind of character irritating. An ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure and all, it’s more interesting watching Briar’s more considered approach as opposed to Zeke’s “I have maps and a mask, I have no more need for preparation” plan of attack, which inevitably leads to a lot of blind panic. He does get better by the end though, so it’s worth it to plough through his sections of blundering in the middle of the book. And Boneshaker is definitely worth finishing. Keeping in mind that it’s alternate history and thus there are some massive creative liberties that have been taken with regards to historical accuracy, you can really tell that Priest is enthusiastic about the period and tries to keep as much historical flavour as possible within her re-imagined chronology. It makes the world feel a lot more grounded and realistic than a lot of other fantasy/science-fiction books, even compared to series where comparatively little is different to the real world. I can’t really think of many people that I couldn’t recommend this to.
A steampunk story that feels a lot more grounded than other examples in the genre even considering the additional undead, Boneshaker is definitely a book that I would recommend picking up for fans of the genre or those looking to for an introduction to steampunk. I personally found Zeke’s sections in the middle to be a bit tiresome at times, but they are more than made up for by Briar’s sections and he does gradually get some decent character development. The characters are solid, and there is some decent intrigue. 4.5/5
Next review: Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton
When I was a teenager, I used to stay around my grandparents’ house a lot over the school holidays, and they would always allow me to use their library card. Whilst exploring the library there, I first discovered Christopher Pike, whose books I would have a love-hate relationship with from that day. I have previously read Weekend, but it has been a while and I wanted to see how it held up.
In Weekend we follow a group of friends who are spending their last days before graduation on holiday in Mexico. But what should be a dream holiday is made tense by memories of an unexplained accident that left one of their party severely ill. These tensions are ramped up as things go wrong one by one, starting with the phone lines going dead.
I’d forgotten just how 80s this novel feels at times. These days you’d have to write in why no-one is using a mobile phone for one thing. But mainly, the characters feel very reminiscent of the kind of teenagers that you got in films from that generation, both in teen dramas and slasher films. None of them are really all that likeable, but they’re entertaining enough that you want them to stay alive. While that can be really cheesy here, it does feel kind of comfortable. Like nothing new has been made here, but the stuff that does come up is handled at least competently. After the irritation that was The Benson Murder Case, I think I needed a bit of comfort reading.
Admittedly, I’m not sure why Weekend is labelled as horror, considering that it only barely flirts with the genre in the most minimal way possible. And of Christopher Pike’s work, it is also one of the least scary. If you start reading it expecting scares, then you’d be disappointed. If you’re looking for a pretty decent thriller and mystery, then you’re probably on safer territory.
Overall, pretty cheesy and very 80s in feel, but quite good if you’re looking for something comforting and easy on the brain. One of Pike’s less tense books, but still one of the most tonally consistent of his works. 3.5/5
Next review: Batman: The Dark Knight: Golden Dawn by David Finch & Jason Fabok
Rose Madder isn’t a Stephen King novel that gets talked about much, especially when you consider how much attention some of his work does get. Honestly, until I found this again on my shelf, I had kind of forgotten that it even existed, let alone what the book was actually about. I think the only thing that I sort of remembered was reading that King himself was kind of disappointed with Rose Madder. So I guess I was curious to see how it would pan out.
Rose Madder follows Rosie, a woman who decides to leave her physically abusive husband Norman after a 14 year loveless marriage that has already caused her to miscarry once. Armed only with a few hundred dollars that she took from their joint account, she journeys to a new city, where she slowly starts to regain friendship, independence, self-respect and even a little romance. But her newfound happiness may be short-lived, because Norman isn’t the type of man who can handle the thought that Rosie not only left him, but took his money in the same move. And even he may pale in comparison to the danger that Rosie lets in herself without even realising.
I can definitely see why King refers to Rose Madder as a “stiff, trying-too-hard” novel. I don’t know if this is the best way to describe it, but I would say that there was a real sense that Rose Madder was deliberately constructed, at least in comparison to some of King’s other novels. With King, I always got the sense that the bulk of his stories come out in one lump, with some tidying up done after the first draft. You know, making sure that characters act in ways that make sense or highlighting thematic links, that kind of thing. In comparison, Rose Madder felt more like the IKEA version of King: competently constructed, but hardly his best work.
Whilst I’m talking about how the novel doesn’t work, I should probably mention the supernatural element. So it’s a painting that Rosie finds, from which we get the novel’s title, and it is somehow the most stiff and awkward part of the narrative, and yet the flimsiest as well. It is when the painting comes to the fore that you really start to notice how obvious the construction is, because it’s this clumsy mish-mash of Greek mythology references that really don’t mesh well with the modern (at the time of writing anyway) American feel of the novel as a whole. It’s all the more noticeable when you’re like me and read a LOT of Greek myths as a child, and you get the references. So yeah, while the Ancient Greek angle could have worked quite well, it needed to pick a particular myth and expand on it instead of cherry-picking. As it is, we have a weird mix of Theseus and the Minotaur, the River of Lethe, Persephone in the Underworld, and a blending of the Furies with the Cretan Bull, all of which have very different tones and themes. So that’s the stiff part, now for the flimsy. While King’s books rarely explain the supernatural elements in great detail, it’s usually understandable from a thematic point of view. He had devil surrogates in The Stand and Needful Things representing ways that people can stray from the path if they don’t pay attention, and the eldritch monsters from Hearts in Atlantis were a nice metaphor for the loss and fear experienced if we grow up too quickly. Here, there is no theme that the whole painting marries with. Sure, the image of the bull works nicely as a metaphor for her brutish husband, but the rest of the painting could do with a bit more explaining. Maybe the woman in the painting is her, maybe it isn’t. It’s never really explained and it just makes the climax confusing and conflicting with Rosie’s story as an abused woman. Because while I can accept Rosie regaining confidence and beating her husband through wiles, I find the whole “suppressed rage” thing that comes up towards the end to be unsatisfying. It doesn’t fit the character arc if she sinks to her husband’s level.
One thing that I will concede works well is Norman’s sections. I have found some reviewers who consider him to be a bit of a one-note villain and I can see why (the corrupt cop who is happy to dish out police brutality is also a domestic abuser, really?), but the sections that followed him in his search for his errant wife were by far the most vivid and creepy of the novel. There is a line of reasoning in his inner monologue that is utterly awful, but makes him feel so much more immediate as a villain. Honestly, I think that Rose Madder could have been so much stronger if it had done away with the supernatural stuff and just focused on the cat and mouse game between runaway wife and abusive husband. It might not necessarily be the most original novel without the supernatural element, but a more solid and even-toned read perhaps.
Rose Madder is the first of Stephen King’s books that I find myself not recommending. It’s disappointing, because there is a very solid basis for a great book in Norman’s increasingly deranged hunt for his wife, but there are just so many things that don’t work that I can’t really say that it’s a necessity to read. A large part of that is a supernatural element in the eponymous painting, because the mish-mash of Greek mythology references and uncertain origins do not marry well and just leads to a tonally confused ending. I suppose entertaining enough if you’re looking to complete reading King’s works, but by no means one of his best. 3/5
Next review: Mort by Terry Pratchett
There are two main reasons that I can think of why I picked up Perfume. Firstly, the idea of a man who kills in order to preserve the scent of a young virgin is kind of fascinating in a sickening way, and there is a part of me that does relish narratives like that every once in a while. Secondly, I have very little sense of smell myself and I was curious to see what a novel with smell as its primary sense would read like. I guess I wanted to see if it could be conveyed clearly even to someone with my dulled olfactory sense.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an intensely strange and disturbing man throughout his equally disturbing life. From the moment that he is abandoned by his mother to die beneath her fish stall, he is seen as different by those who meet him, though they couldn’t necessarily be able to explain why. Whilst growing up, he realises that he has an unusually heightened sense of smell, and he develops a desire to become the world’s greatest perfumer and to recreate the particularly exquisite scent of a young virgin girl. And he will do anything in order to possess that scent.
Perfume is an odd book to try and review, because while there is nothing that I can point to within the novel and say that this part is badly written or included unwisely, there is something about the work as a whole that left me a bit cold.
I suppose that I can start with what definitely did work, which was the writing itself. It is kind of unusual for me, most of the time I can point at characters, scenes or even themes that endeared me most to the book. But here, it was the style itself that really caught me. In some ways, it reminds me a little of The Child of Pleasure by Gabriele d’Annunzio, because the two have a similar way of enriching their comparatively simple narratives with grandiose sensory accompaniment. Where d’Annunzio focuses on visuals, Suskind brings this world to life through a cavalcade of different scents. I keep trying to think how to describe it and the word lush always seems to come to mind: rich and abundant, if not always (or indeed often) pleasant. It is an enthralling experience to imagine that crush of scents and definitely makes up for some of the lesser elements of the book.
I suppose that my main issue is with the main character, Grenouille. Don’t misunderstand me, in his own way he is an interesting and well-written character. It was certainly refreshing to have a villain protagonist at least. I suppose my issue with him is that he is more or less a static character. While he creates conflict and has epiphanies about himself throughout the novel, I didn’t feel that there was much real change in him at all. At various points in the narrative, he is compared to a tick, parasitic and infinitely patient. Neither of those key personality traits change at all, and considering that his is the perspective that the narrator sticks to for long chunks of the novel it does start to feel a little flat and one-note at times. It’s not a huge issue, but I found it noticeable enough to bother me.
I found Perfume an odd book, but a mostly satisfying read. I would give it a shot simply for the lush sensory element of the writing style, although I did find myself a bit bothered by the static characterisation of the villain protagonist Grenouille. A book that I would recommend maybe reading once, but I can’t see myself re-reading it any time soon. 3.5/5
Next review: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett
Since my last two books have been more than a little disappointing, I thought that I would go back to an author that has been pretty consistently high in my estimation, Stephen King. I chose Dolores Claiborne because I vaguely remember watching the film adaptation many years ago and rather enjoying it. I wanted to see if the book was as good.
Dolores Claiborne is the confession of the eponymous Ms Claiborne after she had driven herself to her local police station. Widely suspected of killing her long-term employer, she decides that she is going to make a clean breast of it and reveal all: about how she killed her husband and got away with it, and how her employer’s death was an accident.
Stephen King states in his book On Writing that he never starts with a character, always with a “What If…” scenario, and doesn’t have much time for character studies as a result. I can imagine that this will seem unlikely with regards to Dolores Claiborne, considering just how much her character impacts this novel. Due to the fact that it is a first person narrative, and an explicit confession at that, it is an intensely personal and intimate experience to read. I think that, as a result, your enjoyment of the book will depend largely on how much you like Dolores herself. I personally rather liked her, perhaps relating to the fact that she is a perennially-grumpy bitch by her own admission. Throughout the book, she displays a refreshing amount of understanding about herself and an unwillingness to suffer fools kindly, whether that foolishness come from other people or herself. That is a large part of what drives her reactions to the situations that arise from her relationships with both her husband Joe and her employer Vera, so if you like your protagonists to be a little softer and kinder, then you may wish to look elsewhere. For me, Dolores Claiborne was a more or less perfect novel, with some really vivid characterisation and revelations that are flawlessly timed. I personally wish that there was more of Vera, but then I have a bit of a weak spot for characters who almost revel in their own viciously spiteful natures and yet still remain classy as hell.
For me, this was a compelling character study with complex relationships and well-timed plot reveals. I personally found nothing to fault it with. I would say that your enjoyment of Dolores Claiborne will ultimately depend on how much you like Dolores herself though, so if bitchy old ladies aren’t your thing then you may wish to skip this one. I’d be more than happy to recommend this though. 5/5
Next review: The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis
I can only conclude that I got Darkside as a present at some point, because I really don’t remember picking it up myself. For one thing, the blurb is far too vague to really raise any interest whatsoever. For another, there’s something about the cheesy cover obviously aimed at young boys that would normally put me off from picking it up (although I do appreciate that the glow-in-the-dark bits aren’t really intended for my demographic). Figured it might still be worth a look since I inexplicably owned it anyway.
I decided not to wait quite so long to take a crack at another Stephen King novel as I did for Hearts in Atlantis, and quite the understated one I decided on. Needful Things isn’t really one of King’s books that is mentioned terribly often, but I picked it up over some of his more famous offerings as the premise really struck me as interesting. I know, that has lead to some… less than successful ventures for me in the recent past, but my track record with King’s novels has been pretty good so far. What could it hurt?
At the beginning of Needful Things, Castle Rock is more or less your average small American town. A few weird things have happened there in the recent past, but not so hugely weird that most of the townspeople would notice. Then a new shop opens up in the business quarter. Nobody can quite tell what it sells, Needful Things being something of an obtuse name at best, but everyone is intrigued by it in only the way that small things can be fascinating to the population of a small town. When it does finally open, people are quite taken with the vendor, a Mr Leland Gaunt, and his shop proves to sell all kinds of interesting items, all things that people desperately want. And he sells them just within his customer’s budget, an added bonus almost. It’s only when old tensions start to intensify that the true price of said items come to light.
I do love a slow burner sometimes, and after a string of quick reads, it was nice to sit back and let Needful Things work its way under my skin. When you have this sort of story-line, where a lot depends on the slow build of conflict and tension, there are two primary things that you have to get right. First, there’s the basis for conflict within the cast of townspeople and the way that those grudges are exploited. There is quite admirable work on show here: mud thrown at the sheets of the woman who pretty much lives to be angry at her neighbours, spreading incriminating letters and “evidence” to sow the seeds of doubt in the lives of loving couples, and escalating what was already a bitter and petty argument between the congregations of the local Baptist and Catholic churches. Secondly, and inescapably tied to the first point, is the identity of the person masterminding the whole bloody affair. Enter Mr Gaunt, a devil figure who is, for the most part, much more subtle than Randall Flagg from The Stand. I think I kind of prefer this version of the Devil in King’s work, because, while I love The Stand, I did always wonder what really attracted people to someone as creepy as Flagg. In contrast, Gaunt is just the right mix of utterly charming and completely malign. There’s so much power that he could use to much flashier effect, but doesn’t because it’s so much more interesting to just nudge people into indulging the worst parts of their character. With these two aspects, the tension ramps up to some truly impressive heights, and that’s saying something considering that my favourite character is killed off probably less than halfway through the novel.
What stops it from being my current joint favourite King novel along with The Stand is the ending. All the mind-games that Gaunt has been playing on the town are in their final stages, people are dying left, right and centre. And then the heroes have their bittersweet victory after the intervention of a completely unexplained deus-ex-machina. It is seriously frustrating to have your main hero, a sheriff who until now was normal if decidedly more observant and slower to jump to conclusions than the rest of the town, suddenly develop powers that he had previously shown no signs of. Not cool. I’d have settled for a moral victory, have the heroes lose the fight but retain their dignity and souls, just so long as the magic hand-waving could be avoided.
The majority of Needful Things is absolutely brilliant, with a great build in tension stemming from intensifying small town grudges and a subtle mastermind villain. I only wish that the ending hadn’t been the unfulfilling deus-ex-machina that it was. I’d still give it a read though, considering that, bar 11 pages of disappointment at the end, it’s a damn near perfect supernatural thriller. 4.5/5
Next review: Darkside by Tom Becker
Hater was another of those books that I picked up because the premise intrigued me. I had previously read this one and I remember liking it, but I couldn’t really remember the specifics of it terribly well. So I figured that if anything was worth a re-read, it was this.
Hater is the story of what happens when a sudden and violent shift occurs in British society. Over the course of just over a week, there is a sudden increase in violent assaults across the country with no discernable reason. The reader follows council employee Danny McCoyne and his family as they try to cope with the increasing level of uncertainty and paranoia.
There’s a lot that I like about Hater. The build-up of tension is gradual and quite effective, going from a single incident to the point where armed police are a common sight. The violence is suitably shocking and brutal, counterpointing the comparative normality on show at the beginning. I just wish that I could have liked and sympathised with the narrator. I can appreciate where Moody was coming from when he created Danny: stuck in a dead-end job with the council that doesn’t pay enough, stuck in a council flat with a nagging wife and three children under 10, trying to be civil to a father-in-law who seems determined to dislike you regardless of what he does. Honestly though, he comes across more whiny and self-absorbed than the intended sympathetic everyman. He coasts through his job because he doesn’t have the drive to look for something better, then has the gumption to complain when his situation doesn’t change. He has the money to go to a concert with his wife to get away from the kids, but when the question of a pub lunch comes up suddenly they don’t have the funds. He claims to love his kids and tortures himself over the potential that someone in their family might turn violent, but it’s difficult to believe when the only dialogue that he really has with his kids is either telling them to shut up or fielding their questions to unsubtly imply that they should shut up. There’s just such an attitude there that is admittedly partially brought on by trying circumstances but mostly a result of his own laziness. I want to like him. I want to sympathise with his worries about looking after his family and his fears that one of them might be a Hater. But it falls flat for me, because there’s so much about him that pisses me off.
A solid horror plot with some decent build-up and some really good depictions of violence. But for me it’s made disappointing by a protagonist intended to be an everyman who just comes off as lazy and entitled. It’s difficult to care how the situation progresses when you’re hoping for the narrator to be bumped off, the sooner the better. 3/5
Next review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis