Books Read in 2021: Four-Star Horror
I talked to Eve last night after Matt went a few rounds with her and her calculus homework. She was feeling overwhelmed with in-person classes starting next week and I had just given a prime pep talk the day before and it was late and I didn't do my best work. Today she called and she was excited about a biology lecture on Cystic Fibrosis tomorrow, and they had a really cool guest speaker in Indigenous Studies and calculus still sucks but in a funny, dramatic kind of way ("you have to understand, trig identities were, like, the absolute hellishly worst thing in grade 12 calculus, and integrals are this terrible, absolutely alien concept, and now THEY'VE PUT TRIG IDENTITIES INTO INTEGRALS, they might as well just write 'Fuck you Eve Adams' under every problem"), and basically I am back to when the kids were babies and I thought every bad day meant that everything would be bad forever. Do I never learn? It's possible that I never learn.
Someone recommended Only Murders in the Building, which I had heard about but then forgotten, and I appreciate the reminder because we are presently watching the first part of Season 4 of Ozark because we watched the first three together and it's not the easiest thing to find a show we both want to watch. And it's a brilliant show but when I mentioned in December that season 4 was coming out Matt said "oh good, I've been way too happy lately, this'll take care of that". Did I mention that I'm prone to depression in January? This story is an hour-long study in people being shitty to each other, people who think of themselves as good making horrible, destructive choices, parents and children being alienated from each other - brilliantly! With subtlety and intelligence and poignancy! We should have waited until the spring to watch it!
Lakewood by Megan Giddings: Synopsis from Goodreads: A startling debut about class and race, Lakewood evokes a terrifying world of medical experimentation—part The Handmaid’s Tale, part The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. When Lena Johnson’s beloved grandmother dies, and the full extent of the family debt is revealed, the black millennial drops out of college to support her family and takes a job in the mysterious and remote town of Lakewood, Michigan. On paper, her new job is too good to be true. High paying. No out of pocket medical expenses. A free place to live. All Lena has to do is participate in a secret program—and lie to her friends and family about the research being done in Lakewood. An eye drop that makes brown eyes blue, a medication that could be a cure for dementia, golden pills promised to make all bad thoughts go away. The discoveries made in Lakewood, Lena is told, will change the world—but the consequences for the subjects involved could be devastating. As the truths of the program reveal themselves, Lena learns how much she’s willing to sacrifice for the sake of her family. Provocative and thrilling, Lakewoodis a breathtaking novel that takes an unflinching look at the moral dilemmas many working-class families face, and the horror that has been forced on black bodies in the name of science.
I feel like some areas of injustice - here, the medical mistreatment and exploitation of black people - lend themselves exceedingly well to the horror genre. Reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, my eyebrows went so high they almost exited my face - the way minorities are treated by the white patriarchal establishment reads like nothing short of science fiction or horror. The plot here is a little more hazy and unfinished than I usually like, but it works with the subject matter.
Thin Air: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver: Synopsis from Goodreads: The Himalayas, 1935 Kangchenjunga. Third highest peak on earth. Greatest killer of them all. Five Englishmen set off from Darjeeling, determined to tackle the sacred summit. But courage can only take them so far - and the mountain is not their only foe. As mountain sickness and the horrors of extreme altitude set in, the past refuses to stay buried. And sometimes, the truth won't set you free.
Mountain climbing is also a subject that lends itself well to horror - the extreme testing of physical and mental resources, the isolation and loneliness that turns easily to paranoia. I borrowed this book and the one below from the library right after I vowed to myself that I was going to branch out in my reading and get away from horror for a bit - then promptly ended up with two horror books about mountain climbing, with MOUNTAINS ON THE COVER. Epic fail. Sibling rivalry and classism were also in the mix here, and it was deliciously creepy.
The White Road by Sarah Lotz: Synopsis from Goodreads: A cutting-edge thriller about one man's quest to discover horror lurking at the top of the world. Desperate to attract subscribers to his fledgling website, 'Journey to the Dark Side', ex-adrenalin junkie and slacker Simon Newman hires someone to guide him through the notorious Cwm Pot caves, so that he can film the journey and put it on the internet. With a tragic history, Cwm Pot has been off-limits for decades, and unfortunately for Simon, the guide he's hired is as unpredictable and dangerous as the watery caverns that lurk beneath the earth. After a brutal struggle for survival, Simon barely escapes with his life, but predictably, the gruesome footage he managed to collect down in the earth's bowels goes viral. Ignoring the warning signs of mental trauma, and eager to capitalize on his new internet fame, Simon latches onto another escapade that has that magic click-bait mix of danger and death - a trip to Everest. But up above 8000 feet, in the infamous Death Zone, he'll need more than his dubious morals and wits to guide him, especially when he uncovers the truth behind a decade-old tragedy - a truth that means he might not be coming back alive. A truth that will change him - and anyone who views the footage he captures - forever.
Caving AND mountain climbing - I am even more claustrophobic than I am afraid of heights. Sarah Lotz has been an interesting writer - I've read three of her books and they are all good and very different from each other. As well as man vs nature here, there are questions about exploitive journalism, and the public's insatiable need for increasingly sensational clickbait.
Later by Stephen King: Synopsis from Goodreads: SOMETIMES GROWING UP MEANS FACING YOUR DEMONS The son of a struggling single mother, Jamie Conklin just wants an ordinary childhood. But Jamie is no ordinary child. Born with an unnatural ability his mom urges him to keep secret, Jamie can see what no one else can see and learn what no one else can learn. But the cost of using this ability is higher than Jamie can imagine - as he discovers when an NYPD detective draws him into the pursuit of a killer who has threatened to strike from beyond the grave. LATER is Stephen King at his finest, a terrifying and touching story of innocence lost and the trials that test our sense of right and wrong. With echoes of King's classic novel It, LATER is a powerful, haunting, unforgettable exploration of what it takes to stand up to evil in all the faces it wears.
This is classic Stephen King, including his remarkable ability to capture what it's like to be a child - vulnerable, at the mercy of adult whims and cruelties, horribly exposed. Jamie is an amazing character, and this was a thumping good read.
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell: Synopsis from Goodreads: When newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband's crumbling country estate, The Bridge, what greets her is far from the life of wealth and privilege she was expecting . . . When Elsie married handsome young heir Rupert Bainbridge, she believed she was destined for a life of luxury. But with her husband dead just weeks after their marriage, her new servants resentful, and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie has only her husband's awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. Inside her new home lies a locked door, beyond which is a painted wooden figure —a silent companion —-that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself. The residents of The Bridge are terrified of the figure, but Elsie tries to shrug this off as simple superstition--that is, until she notices the figure's eyes following her. A Victorian ghost story that evokes a most unsettling kind of fear, this is a tale that creeps its way through the consciousness in ways you least expect--much like the silent companions themselves.
This is more Gothic than I usually go, but it was properly frightening and unsettling. The older story shows the way witch-hysteria combined with class and race prejudice. The newer plotline combines a ghost story with family trauma so deep that it marks the actual structure of the house.
The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell: Synopsis from Goodreads: As the age of the photograph dawns in Victorian Bath, silhouette artist Agnes is struggling to keep her business afloat. Still recovering from a serious illness herself, making enough money to support her elderly mother and her orphaned nephew Cedric has never been easy, but then one of her clients is murdered shortly after sitting for Agnes, and then another, and another... Why is the killer seemingly targeting her business? Desperately seeking an answer, Agnes approaches Pearl, a child spirit medium lodging in Bath with her older half-sister and her ailing father, hoping that if Pearl can make contact with those who died, they might reveal who killed them. But Agnes and Pearl quickly discover that instead they may have opened the door to something that they can never put back.
Offers a vivid sense of place (don't Google 'phossy jaw' if you want to sleep tonight) as well as an emotionally affecting scary story.
Come Closer by Sara Gran: Synopsis from Goodreads: If everything in Amanda's life is so perfect, then why the mood swings, the obscene thoughts, the urge to harm the people she loves? What are those tapping sounds in the walls? And who's that woman following her? The mystery behind what's happening to Amanda in Come Closer is so frightening that it "ought to carry a warning to...readers."
Holy crap, this was one of the best examples of psychological horror I have ever read. Much of the action takes place inside Amanda's head, which does not lessen the impact at all. I will definitely be rereading this.
The Night Vanishing (Hell Inc. #5) by Dick Wybrow: Synopsis from Goodreads: Painter Mann has spent his afterlife in the InBetween helping other ghosts move on to whatever's next. Eventually, he'll want to make that leap too, but to do that, he'll need to discover the name of the person who murdered him. Painter, the world's only dead private investigator, goes to New Orleans hoping to learn the identity of his killer. Instead, he gets wrapped up in a case where he must find and rescue hundreds of missing ghosts. To do that, he'll have to tangle with two-headed monsters, a psychotic dead DJ, enemies with supernatural powers, and the mysterious Voodoo Cher.He's also being hunted by the Ghost Wranglers, a popular cable TV show determined to prove the existence of the ghost PI known as Painter Mann.
Rawblood by Catriona Ward: Synopsis from Goodreads: For generations they have died young. Now Iris and her father are the last of the Villarca line. Their disease confines them to their lonely mansion on Dartmoor; their disease means they must die alone. But Iris breaks her promise to hide from the world. She dares to fall in love.And only then do they discover the true horror of the Vallarca curse.
Another Gothic entry - see, I DID branch out! Early 20th century, southwest of England, a family curse, doomed love affairs, horrific scenes of asylums... The story ventures here and there both in time and place, with a gathering sense of doom and melancholy. Had echoes of Wuthering Heights. I borrowed this thinking it was by another Catriona, and the fact that it is a debut novel frankly stuns me. Definitely a writer I will follow.
Furnace by Muriel Gray: Synopsis from Goodreads: Josh Spiller is a long-distance truck driver. Although his girlfriend is pregnant, he's got no major personal problems--until the day he rolls into a small town called Furnace, where a middle-aged woman pushes a baby carriage straight into his wheels and then vanishes. The dead baby's teenage mother and other passers-by swear the wind caused the carriage to roll, and the police take Josh for a troublemaker when he insists on writing a statement to the contrary. Shaken, Josh hits the road again, only to find that it's not so easy to get away from Furnace; something inhuman is hot on his heels. A pretty hitchhiker recognizes a mysterious scrap of writing in his truck as ancient runes spelling out--on human skin--a horrific curse. From then on, all roads lead back to Furnace as Josh races to unscramble a weird puzzle involving a wealthy town councilor, the Philosopher's Stone, and a demon who will destroy Josh in three days unless he returns the runes to their rightful place.
Some of this was too dark even for me. It was definitely scary, though. I enjoyed the parts about the truck driving life and culture, and the plotting was excellent - I was completely surprised by the ending, which I seldom am.
, The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher: A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror in this gripping new novel.Kara finds these words in the mysterious bunker that she’s discovered behind a hole in the wall of her uncle’s house. Freshly divorced and living back at home, Kara now becomes obsessed with these cryptic words and starts exploring the peculiar bunker—only to discover that it holds portals to countless alternate realities. But these places are haunted by creatures that seem to hear thoughts…and the more you fear them, the stronger they become.
Under the Blade by Matt Serafini: Synopsis from Goodreads: Some campfire stories are real. It’s been twenty-five years since Cyrus Hoyt’s infamous killing spree at Camp Forest Grove. A quarter-century since teenage counsellor Melanie Holden left him mortally wounded and escaped with her life. Today, Melanie’s teaching career has bottomed out and left her with no choice but to return to the scene of the crime. Motivated by a lucrative publishing offer, as well as a desire to free herself from recurring nightmares, Melanie’s research into the murderer’s life brings resistance from all directions as she uncovers skeletons in Forest Grove’s past. Because of Melanie, a long-held secret is about to be revealed—one that somebody is willing to kill for in order to protect. And Melanie is going to discover she has a lot more to lose than just her mind. The stalk-and-slash suspense of Friday the 13th meets the small town mystery of Sharp Objects in this white-knuckle horror story of a final girl’s revenge.
I only learned about the concept of the 'final girl' - the last girl alive to confront the killer, usually a virgin - a few years ago, and I've been obsessively reading any book dealing with the concept since. I am currently reading a feminist theory book that explores how patriarchy and feminism play out in horror films, and it really resonates with me that a lot of women watch for the final girl, for whatever trick or method she uses to survive, as much as it might strain credulity. This was a glorious, messy B-movie of a book (with better characterization), and I loved it.
The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix: Synopsis from Goodreads: A fast-paced, thrilling horror novel that follows a group of heroines to die for, from the brilliant New York Times bestselling author of The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires. In horror movies, the final girl is the one who's left standing when the credits roll. The one who fought back, defeated the killer, and avenged her friends. The one who emerges bloodied but victorious. But after the sirens fade and the audience moves on, what happens to her? Lynnette Tarkington is a real-life final girl who survived a massacre twenty-two years ago, and it has defined every day of her life since. And she's not alone. For more than a decade she's been meeting with five other actual final girls and their therapist in a support group for those who survived the unthinkable, putting their lives back together, piece by piece. That is until one of the women misses a meeting and Lynnette's worst fears are realized--someone knows about the group and is determined to take their lives apart again, piece by piece. But the thing about these final girls is that they have each other now, and no matter how bad the odds, how dark the night, how sharp the knife, they will never, ever give up.
I've found Grady Hendrix an interesting writer - the books are not horror for horror's sake, although they are plenty scary. This is probably my favourite 'final girl' book so far - twisty, dark, lavishly entertaining.
My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones: Synopsis from Goodreads: In her quickly gentrifying rural lake town Jade sees recent events only her encyclopedic knowledge of horror films could have prepared her for. Jade Daniels is an angry, half-Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She lives in her own world, a world in which protection comes from an unusual source: horror movies…especially the ones where a masked killer seeks revenge on a world that wronged them. And Jade narrates the quirky history of Proofrock as if it is one of those movies. But when blood actually starts to spill into the waters of Indian Lake, she pulls us into her dizzying, encyclopedic mind of blood and masked murderers, and predicts exactly how the plot will unfold. Yet, even as Jade drags us into her dark fever dream, a surprising and intimate portrait emerges… a portrait of the scared and traumatized little girl beneath the Jason Voorhees mask: angry, yes, but also a girl who easily cries, fiercely loves, and desperately wants a home. A girl whose feelings are too big for her body. My Heart Is a Chainsaw is her story, her homage to horror and revenge and triumph.
Stephen Graham Jones is a fantastic writer who I can only recommend to a select group of people. On the one hand, it is outstanding for me personally that someone who writes this masterfully writes chiefly in the horror genre. On the other hand, it's a goddamned shame that people who don't read horror won't read him. He is a Blackfoot Indigenous American who brilliantly interweaves themes of discrimination and injustice towards Indigenous people with potent and imaginative plotlines. The characters are always ones you care about, and the fear is always that they have the odds stacked against them, not just because they're in a horror novel but because of their heritage. I always come away sad, wrung out, and dazzled by his gift.
Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones: Synopsis from Goodreads: Stephen Graham Jones returns with Night of the Mannequins, a contemporary horror story where a teen prank goes very wrong and all hell breaks loose: is there a supernatural cause, a psychopath on the loose, or both?
"So Shanna got a new job at the movie theater, we thought we'd play a fun prank on her, and now most of us are dead and I'm really starting to feel kind of guilty about it all". How's that for a first line? This is my second SGJ book of last year, but not my last. I'm not even sure it should be called horror, but, yeah, never mind, a lot of people die, it's horror. But it's much more than that. It's a bittersweet skewed coming-of-age, a maelstrom of the doubt and fear and longing that is adolescence, and maybe a giant evil mannequin that kills all your friends, but you know, chances you were all going to go away to university and lose touch anyway, really, who's to say?