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Tag: horror novels

THE SPITE HOUSE – Cover Reveal

Here it is, the cool, classic, creepy cover for my debut novel, The Spite House, coming to stores near you on February 7th, 2023. But by all means, feel free to pre-order now at the Tor Nightfire website, or wherever else books are sold.

Note: For the time being, I would avoid trying to order through Amazon, as they have my novel partly confused with a poetry book of the same name. If you do go through Amazon, the hardback you pre-order is my book. The paperback is the poetry book. Not sure about the Kindle edition. READ MORE

Healthy Fears Episode 13: Dead and Unburied

Generally speaking, societies across the world agree that our beloved dead ideally belong in a certain, final resting place, and that place is out of sight. The idea of people who are dead–or who should be dead–remaining among us is a consistent source of horror. In this episode I talk about our fear of dead bodies that aren’t at rest, either because they never were buried or, in the case of Timothy Baterman, from Pet Sematary, because they returned to us.

For more episodes, visit HealthyFears.com, search for Healthy Fears on your preferred podcasting platform, or click here for a list of popular options. READ MORE

My Favorite Horrors: Michelle Paver’s DARK MATTER and THIN AIR

On her official page, Michelle Paver is described first as simply “A Creator of Legends,” and whoever wrote that “ain’t never lied,” as the folks say. I haven’t read any of her fantasy works. I’ve only read two of her novels in fact, but they’re two of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read. This is especially remarkable as they are so similar. You might think the latter story might be less effective for being so close to the first. No, it’s still excellent, and both novels pull together something that feels like a legend. Classic, timeless lore befitting Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book.

The very high-level premise of both books–Dark Matter and Thin Air–could be described as follows: A man–an outsider among his peers–joins an expedition that will take him to one of the coldest and most inhospitable places on Earth. There, it soon becomes apparent that secrets, crimes and tragedies figuratively and literally haunt the hostile landscape, and that the unquiet dead may be willing to do something dangerous to have their story heard.

Now, if you phrase things broadly enough you can make a lot of different stories sound suspiciously similar to each other. Hell, what I wrote up above there would almost fit as a description of The Shining if you just replace a couple of words in the opening sentence. With Dark Matter and Thin Air, however, the similarities extend beyond a vague summary of each book. Certain story beats that appeared earlier in Dark Matter are replayed in Thin Air, including what happens in the climax, and this surprisingly didn’t affect my enjoyment of the latter book at all. Possibly because Paver created imagery in Thin Air that was somehow even more staggeringly haunting than what worked so well in Dark Matter.

The setting for Dark Matter is the arctic, specifically an abandoned and now dreaded mining settlement called Gruhuken, while Thin Air‘s action takes place on the Himalayan mountain Kangchenjunga. As perilous as Gruhuken proves to be, the mountain is that much more dangerous. Likewise, the revelation of what took place in Gruhuken is terrifying, while the revelation of what happened on a previous attempt to ascend Kangchenjunga managed to be even more macabre and disturbing to me. It burned an image into my brain that will live with me for as long as I have a healthy memory.

Both books are atmospheric, eerie, and patient burns leading toward impactful payoffs, and by the end both feel less like pure fiction than shadowy pieces of history. I’ll always have a soft spot for quasi-historical horror stories, possibly a product of reading Daniel Cohen’s Ghostly Terrors when I was seven or eight, a book that introduced me to Glamis Castle and its many creepy legends.

Given how much I like both of these books, I can’t really explain why I haven’t yet gotten around to Paver’s Wakenhyrst, her latest historical-spooky-fiction novel, except that even now, as I’m thinking I need to rectify that, part of me just wants to go back to Gruhuken or Kangchenjunga instead.

My Most Anticipated Horror Books of 2020

Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre

World War Z inspired multiple, similar efforts through the years, trading zombies for some other brand of monster or threat. Robopocalypse and its sequel took the “oral history of humanity’s brush with genre-inspired Armageddon” approach into the realm of science-fiction horror. 2018’s A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is essentially World War V. At least the pretty cleverly named Sleep Over (I’m a sucker for a quality pun) did something different with the format and made the immediate threat something passive that can’t be shot, hacked up, bombed out or set aflame: mass insomnia.

Of these World War Z offspring, only Robopocalypse attained any level of popularity.1 It wasn’t great, but at least it landed a film deal that Spielberg was originally attached to (that  hasn’t moved forward significantly for years, now).

This year, Max Brooks returns to the faux-non-fiction horror sub-genre, albeit with what appears to something closer to the classically epistolary format than an oral history. Devolution is, as the subtitle indicates, a story about a Sasquatch massacre as told through the journal pages of someone who suffered through it. To add to the hellishness, there’s apparently also an eruption of Mount Rainier.

Three things I can’t get enough of are journal entries found in the aftermath of a fictional disaster +*1+*

Traveler’s Book Review: Nightfall by John Farris

Odds are this premise will sound familiar to you.

An enigmatic homicidal psychopath makes a daring, impossible escape from a mental hospital. His sole objective is to hunt down and murder a female family member. Along the way to his goal he murders a number of other people who get in his way and proves to be all but unstoppable, and there are vague allusions to him even being supernatural.

Playing “spot the similarities” between two works of fiction is often a mug’s game; paint the picture broadly enough and any story can be made similar to any other, but the details will usually belie the notion that the stories genuinely mirror one another. Nonetheless, if you’re a horror fan who likes movies as much as literature, then that description in the first paragraph probably brought John Carpenter’s Halloween to mind. It’s also an apt (albeit broad) description of the plot to John Farris’s novel Nightfall.

I picked up a paperback copy of Nightfall at a small, well-stocked indie bookstore in Universal City, Texas (a suburb of my home city of San Antonio) called The Book Rack. (Yes, I know that I’m sort of cheating on the whole premise of the “traveler’s” book review by going with a book from a store that’s right here at home). The cover caught my attention with its Southern Gothic simplicity. Dark swampland, plantation home in the background, mother and son frightful and on the run. Given my relatively recent affinity for the fiction of Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock, it’s little wonder that such cover imagery drew me in. The straightforward blurb on back brought me in a little deeper, mostly by not overselling its fairly direct premise.

“His heritage is violence and terror. A creature of nightmare, shunning all that is good in mankind, he kills without warning, without mercy. Only once has his prey survived.

Scarred emotionally and physically, Anita fled to the sanctuary of Lostman’s Bayou. But the quiet of the swamps holds no peace–she cannot escape the terror.

Angel will find her. Then she will die.”

Woman on the run; killer on the hunt; bayou as the scene. That’s all I needed to read. So, out of the many John Farris novels available on the shelves, I chose this one and cracked into it less than a half hour after purchase.

The novel opens with the aforementioned daring, impossible escape from the mental hospital, executed by the villain of the story, Angel, aka “Dark Angel,” aka “the Angel of Death,” properly known as Dominic. Though his real name and identity appear to be a source of mystery throughout the first few chapters, that mystery is dropped less than a third of the way through the book. It’s just one of many things that seem to be cast aside as the book progresses. Initially, Angel’s actions suggest that something supernatural is at work here. He wakes from a catatonic state by projectile-vomiting on command in order to stun his first victim, whom he’s strong enough to pick up off the ground and throw out of a room with one arm. He also seemingly hypnotizes said first victim into giving him some halfhearted manual stimulation before delivering the coup de grâce. He then moves quickly to promptly dispatch of three more individuals on his way out of the hospital. Throughout the book he’s referred to as being something other than human, but the initial chapter is the only time where he’s shown to be that. For the rest of the book he resorts to traps, stealth, knives and guns to do his killing. No weaponized projectile vomit, no hypnosis. Less inhuman in the literal “not of this Earth” sense than in the “morally bankrupt psychopath” sense.

There’s a chapter early on devoted to Angel’s rather disturbed mother, who has hallucinations of the Virgin Mary and literally smothered her son on occasion when he was younger to keep him from going wayward, at least in her fractured mind. This seems important, but it’s one more thing that gets cast aside as though it were nearly nothing. She’s reduced to one of many hints Farris drops in regard to Angel’s motives: mommy issues; wife issues; sexual issues. Basically the guy has pretty screwed up views in regard to women as a whole. But none of this really connects or adds up. And the thing is, it wouldn’t really have to add up if Farris hadn’t set up the arithmetic before abandoning it.

I’m going to go back to John Carpenter’s original Halloween for some more comparison here. Michael Myers is made out to be beyond human in that story, but all of that “pure evil” talk comes from one man at first, Doctor Loomis, who appears so obsessed with Michael that his take on the situation can be justifiably questioned. By the end, though, it’s apparent that Michael is no ordinary man. He takes a ridiculous amount of physical punishment and keeps trucking, culminating with the sequence of him taking multiple gunshots, falling out of a second story window, then (off-screen) getting up and leaving from the spot on the lawn where he landed. Loomis then confirms that Myers is “the bogeyman” just before the infamous, chilling final shots of the film.

Farris’s Nightfall “tries” to work in reverse. I put tries in quotes, because it doesn’t feel like Farris–who, if we’re talking about straight up writing prose, is damn good–was actually trying to do anything with that aspect of the story at all. In the end, whether or not Angel is more than human isn’t left as a mystery or even a contradiction so much as a, “meh.”

In fact, much of Nightfall feels like the work of a guy who was trying to power through this book on his way to material he actually cared about. Again, Farris can write. That at least makes Nightfall a fast read. But it comes across as a wasted setting and opportunity. You have Louisiana swamps, mobsters and a relentless killer to work with, and yet the story is ultimately uninspired. Hell, I haven’t even mentioned the hero, Tomlin, yet. (No, the female lead–Anita–doesn’t get much to do beyond be scared for herself and her son, and immediately fall in love with the male lead, who likewise immediately falls in love with her.) He’s the reason for the novel’s title: he suffers from crippling night-blindness that doesn’t just hinder his vision at night, it obliterates it. So of course you expect this to be a major factor in his final confrontation with Angel, but it isn’t. Sure, the finale takes place at night, but Tomlin’s approach to the situation isn’t nearly impacted by his inability to see as you would expect. In short, the night-blindness plot doesn’t add sufficient tension to the climax. It’s just there.

As a whole, Farris’s Nightfall is exactly that: just there. Not awful, but not anything you’d recommend either. Which actually says a lot for Farris as a writer. It should probably be worse than it is, given its flaws, and its sappy, “Everything’s okay because romance has won the day!” / “Uh, may I remind you that people have been horribly murdered!” happy ending. But the dashes of excitement, the swift pace and the solid prose make for a read that, at least, isn’t regrettable.

Confessions of a Fearphile: Simon’s Soul by Stanley Shaprio

Simon's Soul Cover1It took a while for me to realize that the things that scared me most were products of my imagination. That’s not to say I’ve never been scared by a movie or a book, obviously. But much of what’s really stuck with me through the years were products largely or sometimes solely of my mind. I forget exactly how young I was when I started praying for nightmare-free sleep before going to bed, but it should have been apparent to me then. And if not then, it should have been apparent around the time I first became aware of a relatively obscure novel titled Simon’s Soul.

I can’t pinpoint the exact year for this little story, but I know it was no earlier than the summer of 1988, because June of ’88 is when the original Metal Gear video game was released in North America for the NES, and that’s the game I was playing when I first heard about Simon’s Soul. Accounting for the probability that my folks didn’t buy me a new game immediately after it came out, I can narrow the time frame down to being before the summer of 1990, because that’s when the movie Flatliners hit theaters; the relevance of this factoid will become apparent shortly. For the moment, let’s say that the following took place in the summer of 1989, which would put me at 9-years-old.

I was in the living room, sitting on the floor in front of the television, glued to the game, but aware of my mother and her friends behind me, sitting on the sofa and chairs, talking about things that didn’t really interest me. I figure my mom thought I was too focused on the game to pick up on anything she said; a reasonable presumption. I’m not exactly sure why my ears perked up when she started giving her friends a quick, enthusiastic summary of Stanley Shapiro’s novel.

Here is how I remember my mother describing the opening of the story (note that this is not meant as an accurate summary of the book, just a remembrance of someone else’s summation): a group of scientists decide to seek proof of the afterlife. To do so, they set up an experiment to actually kill one of their own, Simon, while hooking him up to a machine that allows him to convey his thoughts and experience back to the others during the process. At first he ventures into death with a sense of wonder and curiosity, but gradually his isolation breeds fear and dread. There’s nothing visible, audible or otherwise identifiable out there beyond death, so far as he can tell, but there is an existence nonetheless. Not quite nothingness, but also not actually anything. He asks his colleagues to bring him back, but they either can’t or, for the sake of science, won’t. Then, finally, he starts to sense something. Wherever Simon is, there’s a place beyond that, and he senses something living on that other-other-side is trying to break through the barrier to make its way to where he is. At that point he’s begging his colleagues to bring him back to life before whatever else is out there gets to him, and does heaven only knows what from there. And then…

Then the subject changed. I have no idea how the conversation got to that point, or how it changed. Maybe my mom cut it off there so as not to spoil the rest for her friends, in case they wanted to read the book. Or maybe a phone call came in and interrupted her. Maybe they all got up to leave for lunch and she continued the story out of earshot. Whatever the reason, she stopped her recap of the novel there, and though I was terrified to know what was going to happen next, I was more terrified to never find out. Leaving off there, with Simon stuck in that strange limbo, with some unknown thing trying to get at him from some place deeper in the hereafter, did one hell of a number on me.

Isolation is a key component to horror–something that didn’t really dawn on me until it was pointed out by my outstanding 11th & 12th grade English teacher, Mister Comer. Fear can make you feel pretty lonely. Many other emotions are more apt to be communal experiences. Happiness, anger, even grief. But fear–horror–even when it’s experienced in the midst of other people is still a very private emotion. Other emotions more easily lend themselves to empathy, I think. We can have a ceremony such as a funeral where everyone can gather to mourn and express their sadness. There are parties thrown for celebratory occassions, so everyone can get together to smile, dance and laugh. You can even have rallies built around anger, where everyone can unite around how fed up they are, and how they’re not going to stand for it anymore. But for someone else to truly understand and feel how horrified another person is, they have to be horrified themselves, which means each individual is very much dealing with their own shit. You don’t have rallies, parties or ceremonies where everyone gets together to share their fear. I mention all of this because I can’t think of anything more frightening and lonely than being stuck on the other side of death with no one else around, no sights to be seen, no sounds to be heard, and no way to get back from the void.

Simon's Soul CoverAgain, I was about 9 or 10 years old when my mom accidentally dropped the Simon’s Soul synopsis on me, so I wasn’t giving deep thought to the loneliness of horror at that point. I just knew there was something about this fragment of a story that scared the hell out of me. Scared me so much, in fact, that I couldn’t play that damn Metal Gear game for several weeks afterward. In my mind, the game’s (otherwise charmingly goofy / “spy themed”) music was associated with what I knew of Simon’s Soul; a man’s spirit locked in the stark crawlspace between our world and an antagonistic afterlife. When the movie Flatliners hit theaters in 1990, I remember telling my friends that there was a book out there that had covered similar ground, but I couldn’t get any of them to understand how creepy it genuinely was. Again, I was alone with my fear on this.

Cut to a little more than a decade later, and I would still think of Simon’s Soul on occasion, much more so out of curiosity by that point. I had just gotten comfortable with the idea of buying anything via the internet, and lo and behold, I soon discovered someone selling a used, hardback copy of the book online. Naturally, I decided to get it for my mom as for one of her birthday presents. It arrived and I couldn’t even wait for the actual occasion to give it to her. She appreciated the gesture and placed the book on the shelf, but it soon occurred to me that the book hadn’t been occupying space in her mind the way it had in mine. Not even close. For her it was just something she’d once read and recommended to friends. Besides that, she was by then a grandmother, and as it is with many people as they age and get a few grand-kids under their belt, her tastes in fiction had softened.  Dark, relentless stories centered around a despairing, trapped soul didn’t much appeal anymore to the woman who had just started taking semi-annual road trips to Disney World with the family’s latest additions.

In a (very selfish) way, this was a win for me. I realized pretty soon that she wasn’t in any hurry at all to revisit the book. I didn’t have to wait for her to finish it, or even get started on it, before I could borrow it and plow through it. So I did. And…

…Well, in fairness, there was almost no way Simon’s Soul could have lived up to what I’d mentally prepared myself to venture into. The opening chapters of the book came pretty close to it, however, taking me through the journey into the dark hereafter that I’d so dreaded as a youngster. Thing is, I’d unreasonably presumed that this particular scene was what the entire book would focus on. So when it moved beyond that and into an increasingly imaginative and bizarre self-contained mythology involving demons amok, possession and an afterlife where Hell and Heaven exist, but souls don’t always end up where you think they should, for reasons not quite within the range of human understanding, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. It’s still one hell of an intriguing, engaging horror novel, and it doesn’t pull punches. On first read it kind of reminded me of some of the Dean Koontz novels I’d read; how the story can end in a place so far afield from where it began you want to flip back to the first chapter to be sure you aren’t mis-remembering how the story started, but Shapiro’s story is ultimately darker than any of the handful of books I’ve read by Koontz.

In the end, I don’t know if I can fully recommend Simon’s Soul the novel. But the memory of it had an indelible impact on the kid with the near-masochistic fascination with the macabre and horrific.