Disappointed Expectations

You may have noticed that the book reviews on this website tend toward the positive. I decided a few months ago to post reviews here of only those books I could recommend. I’m choosy about what I read in the first place, but if a book doesn’t meet expectations, OK. What’s the point of giving a tepid review to a book that probably won’t ever come to the notice of most readers? Let those authors have their shot. Tastes differ.

Two books I’ve read lately are exceptions. Both are receiving a healthy dose of publicity—one because the author is popular and the other, a debut, because the publisher has put big bucks behind it. So these books may actually may attract your attention. Here’s what troubled me about them.

The Hollows

Mark Edwards is a popular British thriller writer. He set this story at a family camp in Maine—remote, wooded. A grisly double murder occurred there twenty years earlier, and the local teenager thought to have committed the crime disappears and isn’t seen again. When British journalist Tom and his teenage daughter arrive for a getaway, they learn right away about the killings and that many of the camp’s visitors are murder-porn tourists. Creepy events ensue. Is the place haunted, has the killer been living in the woods all this time, why are people warning them to leave? Of course, they don’t take any of this good advice (or there wouldn’t be a story), but Tom’s second-guessing and the predictable plot become tiresome.

Falling

TJ Newman’s debut thriller is an exciting read, so much so (especially for us formerly-frequent flyers) that it may distract you from the plot’s implausibility. But after you close the book, the head-scratching will begin. Newman is a former flight attendant and captures the technical aspects of commercial flight very persuasively and her flight attendant characters are nicely three-dimensional. In a nutshell, a transcontinental passenger airline is hijacked and the pilot is told he must crash the plane when it reaches New York. If he refuses, his kidnapped wife and children will be killed. But aside from the behavioral clichés in the story, the bad guys’ plot is way way more complicated than it needed to be. Ultimately, it makes no sense. (I won’t say why in case you decide to give it a go.) There’s a lot of feel-good stuff near the end that doesn’t hold up either. This book has already been optioned for film and has Hollywood fakery written all over it.

The Beresford

In Will Carver’s new literary thriller, The Beresford is a grand old pile at the edge of an unnamed city. The bottom two floors contain the quarters of Mrs. May, the landlady, the ‘library,’ and four furnished flats—spacious, airy, and cheap—and she has no difficulty keeping them filled. From the time a tenant departs, no more than a minute passes before a replacement rings the front bell.

When the story opens, Mrs. May has two tenants in residence, a third arriving momentarily. One is the insufferably pretentious conceptual artist Sythe, né Aidan Gallagher, desperate to escape his Irish farm-boy roots and even more desperate to become a famous painter. He makes heavy use of Mrs. May’s immaculate back garden and its burning bin, where he destroys piles of disappointing artworks.

A longer-term tenant is Abe Schwartz, whom the narrator introduces by saying, “Your daughter brings home Abe Schwartz and you’re pleased. Not for her.” He’s polite, normal, nice. So of course Abe interrupts what he’s doing to help the new tenant, Blair Conroy, shuttle her boxes up the Beresford’s imposing staircase. After a week or so, she notices that, although she’s heard a lot about Sythe, she hasn’t met him. Nor will she, as Abe has murdered him. When she arrived that first day, he was preparing to dismember the body.

Despite the grim situation, Carver’s deft touch maintains an upbeat tone and romance blossoms between Abe and Blair. Meanwhile, oblivious Mrs. May keeps her rigid schedule, which involves numerous glasses of wine during the day, violent prayer, and an afternoon siesta.

As the story progresses, you may hear a bizarre echo of the Eagles’s hit, “Hotel California”: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” At least not in one piece. Carver keeps the story moving along briskly with new people to meet, including some who are asking too many questions and whose tenancy may be rather short. They’re all initially charmed by the building and their dotty new landlady, which conjures up another line from the same song: “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell,” with The Beresford leaning distinctly toward the latter.

Newcomer Gail upends the uneasy equilibrium. She’s escaped an abusive husband, and she and Abe incinerate her cell phone (a literal burner) to stop his offensive texts. Complicating matters, she’s unexpectedly pregnant.

Carver leads off his novel with an epigram credited to Charles Bukowski: “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must live.” This may lead you to wonder about the extent of crazy at work in this story. Being overcome by madness is referred to several times, even when Abe muses about his affection for Blair. For the most part, he thinks, love is interchangeable with madness, but nobody would ask to be mad. As Gail obsesses on the future of her unborn child, she too is increasingly unhinged.

How much does ancient Mrs. May know? Or suspect? You’ll start to wonder that during the awkward dinners she hosts for new arrivals. She challenges her guests with Faustian questions like, What do you most want in the world?, and its dangerous corollary, What would you do to get it?

This is an entertaining book, full of surprises. Carver’s smooth writing style and the hothouse environment he creates prevent you from being troubled by certain logistical details. And, at the end, don’t be surprised if you recall a third “Hotel California” lyric, ‘They just can’t kill the Beast.’

Find it at Amazon or at your favorite indie bookstore.

The Only Good Indians

By Stephen Graham Jones, narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett –If I’d realized there was a supernatural element to this book, I probably wouldn’t have listened to it. Real life is scary enough! Boy, would I ever have missed something spectacular. I urge you not to be put off by the “horror” label attached to award-winning Blackfeet author Stephen Graham Jones’s latest, The Only Good Indians.

A crime sets the plot in motion. It’s the kind of irresponsible daredevilry four young male buddies are prone to. As a big snowstorm starts four days before Thanksgiving, Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe decide they need to put some of their own game on the holiday table. They take their hunt to the portion of the Blackfeet reservation set aside for the elders.

Down below a cliff, they find a herd of elk. They shoot into the herd, killing far more animals than they can drag uphill and far more than the truck can hold. Doesn’t matter anyway. At the top of the cliff, the game warden waits. One of the animals Lewis shot was a young doe. When he begins to field-dress her, he discovers she isn’t dead and she is pregnant. Her calf is alive inside her, and several more shots are required to finally kill her. Lewis takes her hide, intending to make something good out of this sad episode, not to waste one bit of her.

Ten years have passed since the hunt Gabe calls the Thanksgiving Classic. Ricky is working a temporary job with a North Dakota drilling crew. One night, outside a bar, he encounters a herd of elk in the parking lot. The animals panic and, in running away, do considerable damage to the parked trucks. Shrieking vehicle alarms send the bar patrons stumbling outside. They see a native, jump to the wrong conclusion, and chase and kill Ricky. ‘Indian Man Killed in Dispute Outside Bar.’ From the viewpoint of Lewis, Cass, and Gabe, Ricky’s death is totally predictable.

Lewis has married a white woman, Peta, works at the post office, and has his life pretty together until he starts see that pregnant elk lying on his living room floor. Increasingly obsessed with this notion, he digs her hide out his freezer—the hide he wanted to do something with and never has. As his mental state deteriorates, the intrusion of Shaney, his Crow coworker, disrupts the home equilibrium in ways you may not expect.

To this point in the story, you could legitimately think of the elk sightings by Ricky and the half-mad Lewis as hallucinations, possibly brought on by (in one case) alcohol and (in the other) guilt. The situations are strange and terrible, but not totally outside the realm of logical explanation—metaphorical, not metaphysical.

Amid much good-natured bantering, Gabe and Cass concoct a plan for a sweatlodge ceremony to commemorate their dead friends. Bad idea. Now revenge comes thundering toward them.

What I found most intriguing about this story is how enriched it is by Blackfeet traditions and folklore, put in a modern context. Folktales last for generations because they hold a kernel of truth. While this story would never work set in downtown Washington, D.C., in the remote world of Big Sky, of native culture? It finds its groove. The interesting way the men negotiate two different worlds, that worked for me.

Following and getting connected to the story was made easier by the stellar narration of actor Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who gave authenticity to every word. Even in the story’s most bizarre moments, never a sliver of doubt entered his voice. (Saw him on stage once, playing Romeo. Now there’s a contrast!)

Interestingly, many publishers of crime and mystery fiction these days say they want to see stories with ‘paranormal elements.’ Presumably, there’s market interest. If you give it a try, I think you’ll find it a memorable and moving experience.

Order here from Amazon.

For Spooky, Edgar Allan Poe Has Staying Power

The Raven, MWA, Poe

One hundred seventy-one Octobers ago, Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore. Judging by the frequency with which cultural references to him and his works pop up—Poe and Raven masks, the Edgar Awards, t-shirts, mugs, you-name-it—it seems he haunts us still. Now, in 2020, perhaps his shade’s message is, “What didn’t you get about ‘The Masque of the Red Death’?”

The late mystery writer Julian Symons’s Poe biography, The Tell-Tale Heart, is a painful journey. Time and again, Poe’s precarious financial situation would start to brighten, and time and again, he would get in his own way, sabotaging his prospects.

Poe’s parents were itinerant actors. His heavy-drinking father deserted the family in Poe’s first year, and his mother died of consumption when he was two. Certainly retrospective psychoanalysts of his personality make much of these early traumas. For his part, Symons believes a combination of predilection and early experience marked Poe, ‘and his life can best be understood as a play in which he half-consciously cast himself as a tragic hero.’

He dropped out of the University of Virginia, resentful of the aristocratic young men he met there, and moved to Maryland. In Baltimore, he connected with his aunt and later married her not-quite fourteen-year-old daughter. Having a family gave him a sense of purpose, but the problem then and ever after was earning money.

Today we know Poe best for his short stories, and that one poem. Yet Poe’s greatest desire was to be a poet and literary critic, to have his own magazine. Unfortunately, the caustic reviews he wrote for literary journals cost him many friendships and connections with people who might have helped him. Eventually, Symons says, ‘his drinking and critical quarrelsomeness were too well known for anybody to employ him.’ A modern reader can’t help but think Poe suffered from some psychiatric disorder that today might have been treated.

His last, disastrous decision was to name Rufus Wilmot Griswold his literary executor. For reasons of his own, Griswold made false and scurrilous accusations about Poe’s work and character that tarnished the author’s reputation for nearly a century. To a degree, they persist today.

In the last couple of years, I’ve written two short stories inspired by Poe’s “Berenice,” in which a young man becomes obsessed with his wife’s teeth. After she dies, he yanks them out before her body is relegated to the family crypt. Alas, (and you know this is coming), she isn’t dead.

They appeared in an entertaining anthology of contemporary stories with roots in classic Poe called Quoth the Raven, edited by Lyn Worthen; and in an anthology with the premise that Sherlock Holmes is called in to investigate the strange doings Poe set up. It’s Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Brian and Derrick Belanger. No doubt Poe would never have imagined that the stories he dismissed so casually just to put money in his pocket would continue to fire other writers’ imaginations these many years later.

Photo: c2.staticflickr.com

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

McCarter Theatre in Princeton imported the exciting new play, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. It opened October 19 and runs through the Halloween season until November 3. Written and directed by David Catlin, the play contextualizes the familiar story of Victor Frankenstein and his ill-fated creature by grounding it in the strange and tragic life of the story’s author, Mary Shelley. More than a tale of horror, it’s a tale of deep woe.

The five characters are Mary Shelley herself (played by Cordelia Dewdney), her half-sister, Claire Claremont (Amanda Raquel Martinez), her lover and, later, husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Walter Briggs), and the couple’s friends, Dr. John Polidori (Debo Balogun) and Lord Byron (Keith D. Gallagher).

During a sojourn on Lake Geneva, the ominously stormy skies fire the characters’ imaginations. Byron suggests they each pen a ghost story to see which is scariest. Only 18 when she begins writing Frankenstein, Mary’s life is already marked by terrible events, including the deaths of her mother from childbed fever and her own first baby. Mary’s real-life sorrows help shape her narrative and, as the five characters enact her gothic fantasy, reality breaks through at poignant moments.

Mary’s tale demonstrates the folly of trying to play god. Victor Frankenstein wants to be “the Modern Prometheus,” to bring the spark of life to the creature he’s assembled. Much tragedy occurs before he recognizes he hasn’t grappled with the possible unintended, bad consequences. (Is this a cautionary tale for today, with respect to artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation?)

Nor does Victor (nicely ironic choice of name) take responsibility for the monster. He viciously rejects him, yet the monster’s relentless pursuit of his creator contains an element of devotion. “I would have loved to be your son,” he laments. Thus, we are confronted with a truth Mary expresses: “Within every man there is a monster; within every monster, a man.”

The play’s emotional experience is intensified by the reconfigured theater space. McCarter undertook the massive task of removing several rows of seats and moving the stage forward, to create an “in-the round” effect. (Watch this amazing transformation here.)

Most of the company comes direct from the Lookingglass production. All strong players, they manage the dramatic aerial features and give the characters richness and three-dimensionality. Though all are excellent, Gallagher delivers an unforgettable portrayal of the monster.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

****Pieces

package, box

By Michael Aloisi and Rebecca Rowland – Serial killer Dennis Sweeney had a really bad idea: kill a young woman, divide her into parts, and mail them to 30 randomly selected, unsuspecting people all across the United States. Who doesn’t like a surprise package? There’s 30 people in this novel who would never open another one.

Sweeney sends an anonymous letter to over-the-hill reporter Jackson Matthews, whom he admires, describing what he’s done and proving it with pictures. He invites Jax to cover the story, “to be the voice of my actions.”

If all the pieces of the girl are found, Sweeney promises to turn himself in. If not? He says, “All the King’s horses and All the King’s men, will force me to start all over again.” Jax calls the police. It seems the letter isn’t a hoax, and reports of the macabre parcels begin to appear in the news media.

Bizarrely and, you may think, predictably, only eighteen of the grisly packages are turned in to the authorities. That’s 12 people who received a body part and did something else with it. The stories of what happened to these dozen packages make up most of the book. The authors treat those twelve chapters as short stories, with quirky back-stories for the recipients—character studies of people who, for wildly varied reasons, are incapable of the correct response. (Apparently none of them listen to the news to know there’s a bigger picture here.)

In between these stories are chapters that let you catch up with Jax and his efforts to identify Sweeney, and what else Sweeney is up to. The stakes increase dramatically when Sweeney threatens Jax’s wife, if the reporter doesn’t start writing about him. Early on Jax is approached by a young man who introduces himself as a police detective. Jax soon unmasks him as the creator of a serial killer website with lagging viewership who hopes the inside scoop on this story can renew its popularity. He claims to have an algorithm that can find the killer, and it certainly unearths some unsavory folk.

Between the chapters about the missing body parts, Jax’s investigations, and Sweeney’s story, past and present, the authors have a lot of balls to keep in the air, yet the tale is never confusing. I liked the diabolically varied missing pieces stories, although perhaps two or three fewer would have worked as well, as the rhythm of the chapters gets a little exhausting. On the whole, Pieces has a clever premise, innovative format, and quite capable writing that kept me engaged. Not for the faint of heart.

Photo: Jonathan, creative commons license.

Notes from the Dark Side

raven

Here’s news I like to hear from an anthology editor.

Wrote Lyn Worthen, “I am proud to announce that Quoth the Raven, which was recently named the Best Anthology of 2018 by the Critters Workshop/Preditors and Editors Annual Reader’s Poll, is now on the 2018 Bram Stoker Awards Preliminary Ballot.”

In Quoth the Raven, poets and short story authors tell a contemporary tale, riffing on the style and sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s “Berenice” inspired my story, “Tooth and Nail,” and now some of my family members hesitate to be in a room alone with me . . . Nevertheless.

Why Dark Fiction?

My fellow QtR author, Tiffany Michelle Brown interviewed several of the collection’s 32 authors on why they are attracted to dark fiction. “Why do you think we like to read about the things that terrify us?” she asked.

Emerian Rich, author of the story “My Annabel” says, “Horror addicts like to be scared in a safe, non-harmful way. Creep me out, test my limits, push me over the edge as long as in reality I am safe in my warm bed, able to switch on the light and see the monsters are just in my head.”

Can this predilection be traced to the fight or flight instincts developed over millennia? Susan McCAuley, author of “The Cask,” thinks so. Our world today is relatively safe, she says, and “going to scary movies, reading scary stories, and going on scary rides, helps fulfill a part of us that isn’t being used very often, at least in countries where all our major survival needs are met.”

Her theory may get some support from Donea Lee Weaver, author of “The Ca(t)sualty,” who admits that, for her, the attraction of dark fiction is “the adrenalin rush.” She says she may be covering her eyes, “but I’m still peeking through my fingers, because I just have to know what happens next.”

The stories that Sonora Taylor, author of “Hearts are Just ‘Likes’” says she’s most drawn to aren’t just about a dark force, but how someone’s responding to that darkness” and is possibly unhinged by it. Understandably, the Poe work that inspired her story was “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

My own answer to Tiffany’s question is that “sometimes reading about—exposing oneself to—supremely terrifying things makes it easier to deal with the fearful events encountered in everyday life. Some experts suggest this accounts for the popularity among women of a certain kind of thriller. Reading about sexual violence helps readers contemplate not just the terror of such an event, but also its survivability. Maybe.”

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Raven artwork by rebeccarawrr, creative commons license.

If You Met Poe, What Would You Say?

raven

drawing, rebeccarawrr, creative commons license

My fellow-authors in the anthology inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Quoth the Raven, have bonded via social media. Tiffany Michelle Brown, author of the story “My Love, In Pieces,” has interviewed a number of us regarding our experience looking at contemporary issues through a Poe-ish lens. Her interview with me is now posted on her website.

I loved Tiffany’s story because it grew from the seed of Poe’s gothic tale “Berenice,” as did my story, “Tooth and Nail.” Yet, they’re so different! She notes that when “Berenice” was first published by the Southern Literary Messenger, readers were so disturbed by its graphic content, they complained to the editor. When Poe published it subsequently, apparently he toned it down a bit. Hmph!

Dark like the days, and scary like the times.

****Quoth the Raven

raven

drawing, rebeccarawrr, creative commons license

Edgar Allan Poe, king of 19th century mystery and the gothic horror tales, is credited with inventing the modern detective story, wrote stories about inventions, science, and adventure, and, as people may remember him best, was a master of the macabre. The 169th anniversary of his own mysterious death in Baltimore was this month. To mark the occasion, Camden Park Press published a notable anthology of short stories and poems inspired by Poe’s works, reimagined for contemporary times.

Lyn Worthen edited the collection and—beyond amazing—the submissions were due August 30, and the book became available in early October! In her introduction, she says “I believe it is the evocative imagery he paints in sometimes hypnotic lines of pen and ink that have captured our imaginations; the sensations of fear, loathing, grief, and despair that have bound his characters to our souls. . . .those same elements that the authors in Quoth the Raven have so thoroughly captured.”

Just in time for Halloween ordering and reading, here are some of my favorites:

  • “My Love, in Pieces,” by Tiffany Michelle Brown, inspired by Poe’s “Berenice.” The experience of writing it, she says, was “both thrilling and terrifying.”
  • “Marcela,” by Penelope Paling. As in Poe’s “Liegeia,” Marcela is more than happy to continue the tradition of haunting her husband’s subsequent loves.
  • There’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and other diabolical death traps. Then there’s Hugh J. O’Donnell’s “The Montressor Method.”
  • If you’re an ailurophobic with a special horror of black cats, this volume will give you nightmares! Perhaps you should read “The Ca(t)sualty” by Donea Lee Weaver and “The Black, Long-Haired Domestic” by John Kiste in the daytime.
  • And Kenneth C. Goldman’s funny tale, “Get the Door for Me, Will You, Edgar?” about the trials of a high school English teacher. A more horrifying situation would be hard to come by.

My own story in the collection, “Tooth and Nail” also is inspired by “Berenice,” and concerns a young woman’s obsession with her twin brother. She’s developed a bad case of meth mouth and fixates on the blindingly white teeth of her brother’s new fiancée. No good comes of this. The villain of the tale is “the red-haired Wil Griswold,” a name and description inspired by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who bore a grudge against Poe. After Poe’s death, Griswold wrote a scathing biography that started many of the rumors about the author’s depravity, drunkenness, and dissipation—which later scholarship proved to be false.
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Legends of the Undead are . . . Undead

Cemetery, gravestones

photo: John W. Schulze, creative commons license

In Chicago recently, we took a nine-year-old to a theatrical version of Dracula (playing at the Mercury Theater through November 5). “Weren’t you scared?” several audience members asked him after the show, as he was the show’s youngest audience member by many decades. “No.” This was said with deadpan aplomb. And possibly an eye-roll.

Perhaps some of the edge was off Bram Stoker’s classic because of all the much more horrifying real-life shenanigans filling the daily news, or perhaps it was because this production veered occasionally—and entertainingly—close to camp. While it wasn’t terrifying, it had good acting and nice touches. Notably, the production credits include acknowledgment of the show’s “violence and blood/gore designer.” Which gives an inkling.

When the Stoker’s tale first appeared 120 years ago, The Manchester Guardian dismissed it with almost the same nonchalance as our young theater companion. “Most of the delightful old superstitions of the past have an unhappy way of appearing limp and sickly in the glare of the later day,” the reviewer said. “Man is no longer in dread of the monstrous and the unnatural, and . . . the effect is more often grotesque than terrible.” Tell that to Ann Rice and Stephenie Meyer and the legions of other authors who continue to resurrect “the ancient legends of the were-wolf and the vampire”!