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Book Reviews

The Girl Next Door
The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Okay, now I need like … a cup of Ovaltine and a mid-80s Tom Hanks film. I just feel like I watched a True Crime marathon and need to scrub the naked depravity from my brain.

Is there a sub-genre of children chained in the basement stories? Because this book is like that, if you crossed it with Lord of the Flies to make it even more unpleasant. I wanted to reach through the page and strangle everyone involved.

Unfortunately for me, when I get angry at a story, I can’t help but keep reading.

It’s also based pretty much on a true story, where two sisters were left with a horrible woman in Indiana and tortured by the woman, her sons, and some horrible neighborhood kids. It’s an incredibly powerful book, but the simple fact of it being so closely tied to a very real incident really fucks me up.

In the author’s note, Ketchum claims he toned some of the real-life details down.

Christ.

And I had such faith in humanity to begin with!

This is why sometimes the horror genre needs to go supernatural. Supernatural abilities come in handy in stories like this. Just ask the “I like you” girl from V/H/S how she deals with bad situations …

I’m sorry. Bad joke. I’m in a dark place right now.

Actually, that’s true. There are no lights on and it’s 1:20am.

Someone want to try and sell me on the ol’ everything happens for a reason bit again?

Now … about that Ovaltine…

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Nightmare Magazine, October 2012
Nightmare Magazine, October 2012 by John Joseph Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a great debut issue of a promising magazine! I also enjoyed listening to the podcasts for two of the four fiction pieces (if you want something to listen to this Halloween, I’d highly recommend going to iTunes or wherever great podcasts are available and downloading the Tales to Terrify episode from this week, featuring Laird Barron’s story, “Frontier Death Song”–the reading and the story are both a lot of creepy fun). The interviews with the authors seemed a little cursory (I’ve enjoyed interviews of this nature a little better in One Story, for example), and I’m looking forward to the column discussing the horror genre digging deeper in the coming months; this issue’s defense of horror is fine, but it also makes points Peter Straub has been making for decades. Overall, however, this magazine is exactly what I want showing up at my door every month.

The standout stories in this issue for me are definitely Barron’s aforementioned “Frontier Death Song,” about a man chased by some nasty heavies from the Alaskan wilds (Barron himself raced the Iditarod three times, and his authority over such material here is a real benefit), and also Sarah Langan’s “Afterlife,” which is a clear lock for inclusion in any self-respecting anthology of the year’s best horror. “Afterlife” tells the story of a woman, trapped in her abusive mother’s house for forty-plus years, trying to convince the ghosts in the attic to move on before it’s too late. The gift for grim, inspired details in Langan’s story reminded me a lot of the same quality I loved so much in Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.

The other two stories were good, but they weren’t quite knockouts for me, but I’m sure there are people who will like them better. What’s nice about the magazine as a whole is that it found four distinct voices to highlight the potential range of this great genre.

Can’t wait for the next issue!

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The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel
The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book essentially contains two nested novellas, wrapped within an interlude with our favorite ka-tet. All three stories pivot on a starkblast, which is a powerfully cold storm that causes trees to implode from the sudden drop in temperature.

The books stays true to the narrative nature of the other Dark Tower books–so much so that I can’t imagine how frustrated I would have been to have read this is in sequence after Wizard and Glass, which is itself another storytelling hour from Roland.

I also think that nesting the stories provided few returns and was ultimately irritating. Halfway through each tale, King fires up the next one, and it breaks the narrative flow. Humorously enough, this book started me on a vicious round of starting books and not finishing them. I’ve had about a dozen going lately.

But though I put this book down for months, I’m glad I returned to it. The conclusions to the stories were evocative, and as a Dark Tower fan I was rewarded with some emotional moments centered on Roland when we find out who the whole thing is about. It was mature and rather subtle sleight of hand.

Overall, a well-written gem with a frustrating structure, a nice addition to the Dark Tower cycle. I hope it’s not the last.

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Frank's World
Frank’s World by George Mangels

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Frank wasn’t born: he escaped from somewhere else … “

George Mangels quickly became a bit of a mysterious legend to me: a cab driver who appeared out of nowhere and dropped a one-sentence-long rant about the world (told from the point of view of someone embodied by the spirit of Frank Booth, otherwise known as the character played by Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet) on the doorstep of literature and then vanished to Mount Shasta–a place not entirely without its own sense of mystery, being the last known residence of the mythological Lemurian race (referenced in the book).

His vocabulary is off the charts. I study word use in the books I read, and this man’s work stands alongside heavyweights like David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo. Published in 1995, Mangels has long been struggling to find a publisher for the follow-up, which he tells me is called Franksegesis, in an apparent nod to Philip K. Dick. I hope he finds a publisher. I’d love to see what the last seventeen years have done to this man’s mind.

“no, one cannot return CHILDREN–God does not give receipts”

The book’s also incredibly funny and smart. It’s seemingly out-of-print now, but you can find it in used bookstores, or on Amazon via some resellers. I bought a first edition online and sent it to Mr. Mangels, who was gracious enough to sign my copy.

“DOES A COW KNOW THAT IT BIRTHS BUTTER AND THAT ITS SACRED JUICES WILL BE SPREAD UPON SLICES OF SCORCHED, COMPRESSED GRAIN?”

Yes, to passages like the above. Yes, to this whole book, which attacks the brain with great wit and literary accomplishment.

“… amber waves of situation comedy rippling outward in every direction … “

Sure, it can be a lot to take–the book is not an “easy” read–but savoring it can be a real joy.

Frank is a force in the world, and he traumatizes people, but the trauma he inflicts is often quite psychological. So much so that the true effect spills out for years, and Mangels has a real gift for writing about what happens to his characters after they run into Frank. At times, these passages can be quite beautiful and heartbreaking.

You should read this book for the description of Mister Ed alone:

“…Mister Ed, the vehicle that transcends three dimensions and sails beyond space, existing and living forever, teaching through millions of box-lips at once, transcending time, living the hipster sunglasses-at-night horse good life throughout time, throughout space, roaming the eternity that is syndication, a transdimensional consciousness wedging its way outwards through the spaces between worlds and into eternity … hell, Mister Ed is ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE…”

The trouble with reading passages like these is that they made my own writing feel dreadfully boring.

Seek this book out. It’s a treasure: earnest and energetic, fully committed to getting into your head and trying to say something worth hearing in some of the best passages I’ve read.

Finding and reading this book was one of the highlights of the year.

I’ve been holding off on this review, because I feel like I should say more, but I have nothing more to say:

I loved this book.

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Fifty Shades of GreySifting through the Fifty Shades trilogy, I started paying more attention to patterns than to the plot. Perhaps E L James (choosing to respect her apparent wishes to drop the periods after her initials) repeated the phrase “you are one fucked up bitch” six times in Fifty Shades Darker in order to aid rote memorization, perhaps not, but I’m sure Homer wouldn’t have done it any differently. At any rate, I embarked on my own odyssey in search of something all the books in the trilogy shared; something which could pull the whole series together.

Well, I think I’ve found it. Appearing at least fifteen times in each book as simply “I shake my head,” the phrase runs through E L James’s book like a true idée fixe, sometimes appearing only a sentence after its last appearance!

But E L James is nothing if not creative, and she shows us many different ways of shaking one’s head. Here are more than fifty cumulative ways of shaking one’s head, as found throughout the Fifty Shades series. (And, yes, it’s possible I missed some. I shake my head at science!)

From Fifty Shades of Grey:

  1. “I shake my head, disturbed at the direction of my thoughts…”
  2. “I shake my head to gather my wits.”
  3. “I shake my head, because I just don’t know.”
  4. “I shake my head, and he heads to the counter.”
  5. “I shake my head at her in a back-off now Kavanagh way – but I might as well be dealing with a blind, deaf mute.”
  6. “I shake my head, not daring to tell him and keep my eyes on my food.”
  7. “I shake my head. Not for food.”
  8. “I shake my head, so much to think about.”
  9. “I shake my head in defeat.”
  10. “I shake my head to concentrate on the task at hand.”
  11. “I shake my head in disbelief.”
  12. “I shake my head, and she rolls her eyes at me.”
  13. “I shake my head as I wander back inside.”
  14. “I shake my head resigned and grasp Christian’s toothbrush.”
  15. “I shake my head at the realization.”
  16. “I shake my head at his largesse, and I frown as a scene from Tess crosses my mind: the strawberry scene.”
  17. “I shake my head as the thought crosses my mind that Christian might have purchased the adjacent seat so that I couldn’t talk to anyone. “
  18. “I shake my head amused, and before I realize it, I roll my eyes at him.”

From Fifty Shades Darker:

  1. “I shake my head and flush before taking a less confrontational approach.”
  2. “I shake my head, confused.”
  3. “I shake my head, equally puzzled.”
  4. “I shake my head, but my heart is in my mouth.”
  5. “I shake my head in disapproval because of the expense, but deep down I love it.”
  6. “I shake my head, trying to clear my mind.”
  7. “I shake my head—Christian Mindfuck Grey.”
  8. “I shake my head, disgusted at myself…”
  9. “I shake my head sleepily. No way.”
  10. “I shake my head, remembering my body bowed and wanting beneath his expert hands.”
  11. “I shake my head in disbelief.”
  12. “I shake my head at the screen, but figure I cannot continue to argue with him over e-mail.”
  13. “I shake my head to reassure him.”
  14. “I shake my head and stare out my window at the gray Seattle day, feeling forlorn.”
  15. “I shake my head as I realize I need to start communicating.”
  16. “I shake my head and clutch José’s hand.”
  17. “I shake my head and clamber unsteadily to my feet.”
  18. “I shake my head at him—he’s actually being serious?”
  19. “I shake my head thinking about my mythical father.”

From Fifty Shades Freed:

  1. “I shake my head slowly, deliberately, trying to look as serious as possible. He closes his eyes and shakes his head then tilts his head back in surrender.”
  2. “I shake my head . . . one day, maybe.”
  3. “I shake my head, causing him to release my ear and gaze up at him.”
  4. “I shake my head to emphasize my point.”
  5. “I shake my head in frustration but I’m grateful that he’s telling Miss Provocative-And-Unfortunately-Good-At-Her-Job just who’s in charge.”
  6. “I shake my head vehemently.”
  7. “I shake my head, and his brow furrows once more.”
  8. “I shake my head in resignation.”
  9. “I shake my head in denial…”
  10. “I shake my head and reach up to caress his lovely face.”
  11. “I shake my head, unable to speak.”
  12. “I shake my head as I recall my distressing, tense encounter…”
  13. “I shake my head mutely.” (Ed. note: is there any other way?)
  14. “I shake my head and sigh loudly.” (Ed. note: shouldn’t have asked!)
  15. “I shake my head, exasperated at myself and at Hannah . . . “
  16. “I shake my head as Taylor sets off toward the hospital.”
  17. “I shake my head and pick up his socks and tie, and fold his jacket over my arm.”
  18. “I shake my head and gingerly get out of bed.”
  19. “I shake my head slowly, deliberately, trying to look as serious as possible.”

This kind of laser-like thematic focus is rare, folks.  Truly impressive stuff.

Hellboy: Seed of Destruction
Hellboy: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Re-read this introductory Hellboy collection this weekend, because I missed the big red ape. I can’t say enough about Mignola’s skill when it comes to art and drawing some memorably stylish panels.

There’s also the nice blend of monsters, Nazis, and folklore that is such a signature of his work, and it mostly works. But my problem with Hellboy in general is also my problem with this book: too much monologuing on Rasputin’s part, and while the story starts with great characters and good atmosphere, it throws that aside in the conclusion for monster-mash fisticuffs. I’m just never going to be as involved in those scenes as I might like to be, I guess. At least Mignola keeps it charming throughout with characteristic whit and whimsy.

And, even if the story is a little wooden, it’s still some beautiful, evocative art.

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The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead
The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t think it was possible for me to like this book. I expected some jokey coffee-table stupidity, I guess. Instead, what I found was both a great survival manual as well as a dead-serious consideration of the zombie mythos in general. Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks) has written the best criticism of a tired subgenre that I’ve ever seen, and I think anyone who writes a zombie story from this point forward should at least read through this once.

While I don’t agree with every argument Brooks makes (e.g., I can think of several reasons why if the brain continues to function some vestigial behavior patterns could remain), his commitment to a scientific approach to the genre leads in some delightful directions (like zombies walking across the ocean over long periods of time — love that idea!).

Further, I feel this book highlights something about the world of zombie fiction (and, in a more general sense, all disaster stories and apocalyptica) and the role it plays for the reader (or the viewer): namely, that most of the fun of such stories is in the fantasy of a world where survivalism becomes once again paramount. By writing a book that is a straight-up survival manual, he trims a lot of the fat off what has become a lot of rote, by-the-numbers situational drama in a lot of stories that all end up feeling very similar. Instead, he gives his reader the interesting bits regarding what might work well, what might not work at all, and what might end up in disaster. Thinking about the potential for zombies to still swarm on a secluded island, as well as the threat pirates pose to such a place, is both more interesting and also briefer than sitting through another modern-day, half-baked schlock-a-thon.

I didn’t find the final third (brief accounts of zombie invasions through history) as compelling, but I did appreciate it in concept (Brooks really displays his history-buff side, and I like that, in theory). Even so, I’m interested in now giving World War Z a read, if only to see if Brooks can follow his own rules in a longer narrative format.

Those looking for a suspenseful horror novel or a humorous take on this material will probably not enjoy this book, but for anyone (like me) who enjoys watching impressive and straight-faced brainpower applied to a pop fiction mythology, look no further.

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The Land of Laughs
The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend recommended this cult classic to me, and I read it without reading anything regarding the plot. I’m glad. This book takes some amazing, creative turns, even if as a whole I didn’t quite fall in love with it.

An English teacher obsessed with the work of children’s book author Marshall France journeys to that author’s hometown to unearth details for a biography. The narrative tone is likable enough, if slightly square for a book that is at times delightfully weird. On the balance, though, I think the tone works and is an advantage. There’s enough sex and swearing to keep it from seeming chaste or overly cozy.

The trouble with the book is how gosh-darned nice everyone seems for the greater part of the novel. The suspense doesn’t really fully kick into gear until the final third. The whole work feels under-dramatized to me, and the sentences were often a little under-written, as well.

However, the ideas in the book are delightful and nicely thought-through, and a lot of the imagery is compelling and memorable (I found myself really wishing I could read one of the books Marshall France wrote). The answer to the riddle of France’s hometown is a tough thing to do right, and I think Jonathan Carroll nails it. The end of the story is perfect. Overall, I liked this book, but I wish there had been more conflict throughout the piece as a whole.

Imaginative and creative, just a little unfinished.

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Throttle
Throttle by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So I wanted to read a Kindle Single, and I found this one. Couldn’t resist.

In this episode of Sons of Anarchy, Samcro fights the truck driver from Duel after a drug deal goes bad on Breaking Bad. Written by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill, it’s a tribute to the work of Richard Matheson and some TV shows. It also has cartoonish illustrations which look like panels from a silly comic book.

As a story, it hangs together pretty neatly. Neat, square, cheesy, and ordinary. Slightly boring, slightly entertaining … but definitely derivative. I expected something a little more imaginative from these two.

Ho-hum.

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Conjure Wife
Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to recommend this story of a man who learns his wife has a bit of a witchcraft habit. The writing style is clean and admirable, and the story moves at a decent clip. Whether Tansy Saylor, the wife of skeptical college professor Norman, is actually a witch or is instead one among a group of similarly deranged women is left to the reader to decide. Either way, in order to save her, Norman must often act as if the magic were real. I personally found the restraint required for such a balancing act to work a little tired by the twentieth chapter, but I often found myself really enjoying the chapters which attempted to place witchcraft in a more scientific context.

While I liked Norman and Tansy well enough, the book as a whole feels thin to me and a little too old-fashioned. I enjoyed its realism and its delicate touch, but often I found the other characters flat and not very compelling. It was difficult, for example, to tell the other wives apart, and even more difficult to remember the characteristics of their clueless husbands.

Still, there are some scenes that were very good–enough so that I’m glad I read this book. It was a pleasant enough diversion, and parts of it were still pretty inspiring.

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