Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What I've Been Reading: Winter 2013

While I tend to stick mostly to film talk around here, in real life when I'm not sitting in front of a screen I'm usually sitting behind a book. Yes, I am working hard at being single forever. Depressing quips aside, here are a few recent reads of mine that fall in or around the horror world:

Video Night, by Adam Cesare

For high school student Billy Rile and his slacker friend Tom, nothing is more sacred then their weekly basement horror movie night. But when their town is invaded by a parasitic alien race, will their tradition survive? And even if the aliens are defeated, can it survive Tom's new relationship and their senior year of high school? Video Night is as quickly plotted, colorful, and witty as the best clamshell-packaged gore-fests you'd find on an old video store shelf. It also does a great job of getting you invested its characters so that you're genuinely concerned for their fate by the time they start to realize the peril they're in. Adam Cesare brings a horror fan's knowledge and love of the genre to his writing, but never in a way that feels like he's name-dropping to be cool. Cesare is one of my favorite new horror authors, and I'm eagerly awaiting his next work. Highly recommended.

Wormwood, by Poppy Z. Brite

Poppy Z. Brite is a writer that I enjoy immensely in small doses. His ultra-lush prose frequently pushes eroticism into areas considered taboo even in the horror world. What's most remarkable is that it rarely descends into cheap shock and maintains a relatively nonchalant tone even when the subject matter gets pretty extreme. That said, there are some quirks that come along with a lot of Brite's work: a fixation on preternaturally beautiful goth guys, indulgent descriptions of music as a vast transformative force... absinthe. When it works, it works really well, but it can occasionally fly over the top. This collection of short work illustrates Brite's signature style, for better and worse (but mostly better). The highlights are:

  • Angels, a haunting story set in the same universe as Brite's novel Lost Souls that has protagonists Steve and Ghost helping to reunite a pair of formerly conjoined twins.
  • Calcutta, Lord of Nerves, a nihilistic zombie story that's less about the undead and more about societal decay.
  • The Sixth Sentinel, a doomed romance / ghost story that has one of the most disturbing reunions between lost lovers that I've ever read. 

Wormwood is a great sampler of Brite's writing. I'd recommend it for the stories listed above, which alone are worth the price of admission. Aside from those, there are four other good ones, four average, and only one I'd skip (How to Get Ahead In New York - another Lost Souls throwback that feels way too fanfiction-y).

The Wind Through the Keyhole, by Stephen King

Despite many rough patches over the past couple of decades, Stephen King has recently undergone a sort of renaissance with back-to-basics novels like Under the Dome and 11/22/63. It's too bad that he backtracks with his latest novel, which is a return to the universe of The Dark Tower. The Wind Through the Keyhole takes place between volumes 4 and 5 of the Dark Tower - sort of - it uses the main series as a framing device to flash back to prequel territory, and then uses that to frame a third story that's more a fable than a Dark Tower tale. The central story is good but not great - it follows a young boy sent on a quest to save his mother from a horribly failed marriage and abusive step-dad. It's a typical episodic coming-of-age fantasy, and aside from being set in Mid-World, it doesn't have many new ideas of its own. The most disappointing part about it is that neither of the framing stories are fleshed out enough to add much to the series' mythology. It's also littered with tons of annoying baby-talk slang that I either overlooked or learned to ignore when I read the main series. I don't remember which, but here it was grating. For Dark Tower completists only.

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn's work is most often placed under the "thriller" umbrella, but Dark Places lives up to its name in a way that will satisfy any horror fan. Libby Day's family was brutally murdered when she was only seven years old. Her teenage brother was convicted of the killings and sentenced to life in prison. Twenty years later, Libby has milked the donations from her charity fund and the profit from her book deal until they're almost dry. She's also a depressed, alcoholic mess. Finding herself in an increasingly desperate financial situation, she's forced to rely on funding from a group of hobbyists who obsess over serial killers and crimes - but only if she's willing to unearth some of the buried secrets behind the night that ruined her life so long ago. All of Flynn's characters seem loathsome in some way when viewed through the toxic lens of Libby's viewpoint. The stink of small-town corruption and ennui is palpable throughout the novel, and adds another layer of discomfort. That said, Dark Places is incredibly well written and grabbed my attention from the first page. If "true crime" stories, the satanic panic of the eighties, and gothic horror are things you like, I'd strongly recommend this one.

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