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Monday, February 21, 2011

What I'm Reading: Full Dark, No Stars

By Stephen King: Full Dark, No Stars [Audiobook]Every time I start to think Stephen King may finally be on the down slope of his career, he goes and writes an absolutely brilliant book that is better than 99% of what is out there.  This is one of those times.

Toward the end of 2010, Stephen King quietly released a collection of 4 novellas, called Full Dark, No Stars.  I got the audio, loaded it on to my computer, and finally got around to listening to it this month.  There are 2 narrators, a man and a woman, and each reads 2 novellas, which works out perfectly as there are 2 female protagonists and 2 male protagonists.

I will comment on the stories in order and then talk about the volume's overall appeal.

"1922," the first story reads like a confession.  We know from the start that the narrator has killed his wife years before and is alone, waiting to die as he bares his soul. The reader is less of a participant and more of observer here, as we watch Wilf kill his wife to stop her from selling the farm.  We watch as his guilt overtakes and ultimately destroys him.  There is more than just a passing nod at Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" here; actually here it is more of "The Tell-Tale Rat."  Even though we know the outcome from the start, King is able to hold us in Wilf's story; we feel the tension; we hang on his every word.  It is awesome.  I was literally tired at the end.

"Big Driver" is an unsettling take on the typical female victim story.  A cozy mystery writer is raped and left for dead, but that is just where the story begins.  What follows is a revenge fantasy, carefully plotted like a novel by the victim herself.  You will cheer her on as she goes after those responsible for her rape, but will you fell good about yourself for it?  While we are along for the ride, our protagonist is clearly losing it (she has 2 way conversations with her GPS), making us question who is really responsible for what.

"Fair Exchange" is the only novella in this collection which I would classify as pure horror.  The others are more psychological suspense.  In Fair Exchange, Dave, is in midlife and dying of cancer.  Along an access road he meets Mr Elvid (rearrange the letters).  The two make a fair exchange, no souls are sold here, and our protagonist trades his bad fortune in for his best friend's good fortune.  This is a dark and bleak story.  There is no redemption; things only go from bad to worse.  I think King fans may be shocked by this one.  Personally, I loved it.

In "A Good Marriage" Darcy Anderson discovers that her "perfect" husband Bob is a serial killer.  How she handles this knowledge is shocking, chilling, and to quote another character at the end of the story, "the right thing." I honestly did not know how to feel at the end of this story.  From someone who reads a lot of macabre stuff, that is a compliment.

In all of these stories, the protagonists make immoral, even consciously evil choices, but in every single story, they also justify their decisions.  The scariest thing is, that King gets the reader to go along.  You are disgusted in yourself that you actually think, if even for a second, that the death and destruction these protagonists knowingly enact is okay.  But yet, we keep reading...and love it.

These are visceral stories that really probe into the dark side of humanity.  King is asking the reader to look at the darkest corners of ourselves.  For example, when Mr. Elvid asks Dave who he hates, after thinking it over Dave knows the answer...his best friend.  He hates his best friend enough to ruin this friend's life in order to save his own.  Can't really get much darker than that.

King is using Full Dark, No Stars to help draw attention to short fiction.  He has said that he wants to introduce more people to the format, so he is doing it the best way he can, by using his best-seller status to get people to read his short fiction.

Three Words That Describe This Book: Psychological; Novellas; Dark Side of Humanity.

Readalikes:  In honor of King's desire to get more people to read short fiction, I will only suggest readalikes that are short fiction.

King's son, Joe Hill, has a great story collection called 20th Century Ghosts.  These stories are also a mix of  horror and  psychological suspense, and they also deeply probe the dark side of humanity for plot.

These Children Who Come at You with Knives, and Other Fairy Tales: Stories by Jim Knipfel takes a very negative view on humanity in its dark take on fairy tales.  Click here to see my full report on this collection.

Joyce Carol Oates is the master of short, dark fiction.  Anything by her would be a great readalike here.  Her most recent collection is also from the last quarter of 2010.  Try Sourland: Stories.

My final short story readalike suggestion is a collection by John Langan, and the title says it all, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters.

What I'm Reading: The Caretaker of Lorne Field

The Caretaker of Lorne Field: A NovelThe Caretaker of Lorne Field (here after CoLF) by Dave Zeltserman is one of the most compelling and original horror books I have read in awhile.  Probably, not since I read The Ruins by Scott Smith, have I been sad to finish a horror book. Interestingly, both books deal with a scary plant monster.  Hmmm....I wonder what that says about me.  Well, that's for another time.

Here is the imaginative set-up.  Jack Durkin is the current caretaker of Lorne Field, somewhere in modern day, rural New England.  He is the current in a 300 year line of caretakers.  Durkin works from dawn until dusk every day, from spring until first frost, pulling the weeds that grow in Lorne Field.

But these are not any weeds.  These weeds are monsters, known as Aukowies, a vicious monster, which if not weeded, will grow to its full form, leave the ground, and destroy the world.

The town's residents used to idolize the caretaker and his family.  Their every need was cared for, but new, younger people have taken over the town's government and they are fed up with supporting the caretaker.  They see his work as nothing but a superstition let go too long.  Even Durkin's oldest son, who is supposed to take over for Durkin on the boy's 21st birthday, doesn't believe in the Aukowies.

So that's the premise.  What follows is the story of Durkin's undoing.  It is a slow, painful, sorrowful, and compelling undoing.

The appeal of this book is in that unique plot, but it is also in how Zeltserman tells the story.  Throughout the book we see mostly Durkin's point of view.  When we see the field through his eyes, we are convinced that the Aukowies are there, but at times, we get the point of view of others.  When these others intrude, the reader begins to question our own undying support for and belief in Durkin.  The entire novel, even up to its final paragraph, is a battle for our support.  I still don't know which side to fall on, but I am leaning toward Durkin's.

Zeltserman writes in a personal way.  Durkin's feelings, his hopes and dreams, his belief in what is just and right, and his physical travails are all outlined in great detail.  He writes in a style that allows the reader to join Durkin in his work.  I felt like we became friends while I was reading CoLF.  I wanted to stand up to those who questioned the man and his work.  This is a testament to the author's writing.  Without this close, personal style, the book wouldn't work.  The reader would not care, much like the townsfolk, whether Durkin weeds the field or not.

This is not a long book, but the pace builds slowly with the tension and suspense along for the ride.  Each chapter feels more urgent than the one before, until the last few, when the entire world is spiraling out of control.  In the final court room scene, things have slowed down.  As the final proof of whether Durkin is sane and correct or insane, a murderer, and completely wrong comes, I was holding my breath.  And honestly, you can read the open ending however you want.  Either answer could be right.  I loved that!

I know Zeltserman is a rising star in the crime fiction world, but I truly hope he visits horror again some time soon.


Three Words That Describe This Book: Legend, Real or Not, Tightly Wound.

Readalikes: Besides the aforementioned The Ruins, I would also suggest that readers who like the modern legend part of CoLF, try Terry Windling's excellent editing in the revisionist fairy tale series, or the works of Neil Gaiman, who mines legend in original and dark ways to create some of the best books I have ever read.  Anansi Boys in particular takes the African folktale of the trickster spider and turns it into a compelling story in which the reader is questioning what is real and what isn't, much like in CoLF.

Zeltserman's writing style (tightly wound, intense, building suspense, flawed but lovable protagonist, a pacing that begins at a crawl, but slowly moves toward light speed) all reminded me of Joe Hill.

For other great, subtle horror featuring monsters, I would also suggest Dweller by Jeff Strand (newer title) and Song of Kali by Dan Simmons (backlist option).

Finally, if you liked the movie Black Swan, you will love CoLF.  Both require the reader/viewer to make a choice as to what parts of the story are "real" or not.  Both will also make you squirm throughout their duration...and you will love it!

Steven King would love this book, if he hasn't read it himself already.

Not Quite Horror: Peter Abrahams

Now that I am in the home stretch of revising the book, I am going to be turning my attention to this blog more and more.  Recently, I started a new feature, "Backlist Not to Miss."  Today, I will launch another feature, "Not Quite Horror."

The goal of these features is to help you, the librarian, help your readers.  I will make your job as easy as possible.  The result will be happy horror readers who will come to trust and rely on you for their next scary read.

With this feature specifically I am tapping into the fact that like any reader, horror fans do not only read books which strictly fit the definition of horror.  There are many authors and titles on your shelves that these patrons may love if only they knew where to look.  So, to that end, I will be guiding you toward the specific titles and, in some case, authors who you can suggest to your horror fans.

I am going to begin with one of my favorite psychological suspense authors, Peter Abrahams.  In a Abrahams psychological suspense story, he leads his main character into a situation which the reader will dread.  He know things are going to go badly from the initial set-up, but as readers, we enjoy the tension and love to squirm as Abrahams takes us on a ride.  He compares himself to Hitchcock, and I agree.  If you like Hitchcock, you will love Abrahams.

These novels are highly literate, brisk, and graphic.  There are no ghosts, vampires, zombies, or monsters of any speculative kind.  The horror comes from real life situations.  His protagonists are ordinary, flawed people, but it those flaws which propel them, head first, into trouble.  Expect the truth to not be what it appears, expect overlapping subplots, expect a tension that build to danger, basically, expect one unsettlingly ride.

I usually begin readers who are new to Abrahams with End of Story.  Just the set up alone makes me squirm.  A young, female, aspiring writer decides to take a job teaching a writing class at a maximum security prison.  Do you see what I mean now?  Even letting your wicked imagination run wild, you would still not figure out the engrossing, suspenseful, and tense story that follows.  Plus, it will stay with you for days after you turn the final page.

One final note about Abrahams.  He does not only write psychological suspense.  In fact, he has 2 other series which will probably not appeal to pure horror fans, but both are very good in their own right.  The first is the young adult Echo Falls Mystery series, which begins with Down the Rabbit  Hole.  The second is a series he writes under the pseudonym Spencer QuinnThe Chet and Bernie Mysteries are told from Chet, the dog's point of view.  Here is a link to the review I wrote on the first book in the series, Dog On It.

So if you or your patrons love horror but want to try something new, check out Peter Abrahams.

And look for more Not Quite Horror features soon.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Female Horror Writers Month

Genreville, the PW blog about SF, Fantasy, and Horror had this post talking about female horror writers.  Led by author, Hannah Neurotica, Women in Horror Recognition Month has grown in its second year.  Here is a link to their manifesto.  It is a month to celebrate all of the women who work in horror as well as the female fans.  Neurotica has recruited others to join the conversation too.

Female horror writers are often left out of the horror discussion.  I note this in my new book (out this summer) with a section on notable female horror writers.  I am happy to pass on more resources  on these dark women writers.  There really is some great female created horror out there right now, and much of it is getting lost in the male dominated horror community.

I also had this post, my first in a series called, "Backlist Not to Miss" about often overlooked female horror author Tananarive Due.  She is a favorite with men and women at my library.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Horror Reading Lists

I have a three reading lists of books both old and new to pass on to you:

One of my favorite awards, the Black Quill, which goes to the best "dark" books of the year came out recently.  Sponsored by Dark Scribe Magazine, the awards are given out in multiple categories and offer both readers and editors picks.  What I love most about this award is that it is an appeal based award.  They don't care what genre these books are in (although it is mostly horror).  They just care that they are dark.  Check out the list of winners here.

In related news, GalleyCat took the winners of the Black Quill and made a "mixtape" linking to free samples of all of the winners.  Click here for the full story and for links to their previous "mixtapes." 

Now taking a look at the backlist, Bookstove had this list of the 100 novels all horror fans should read.  Again, I am a fan on the appeal focus here.  The list is not titled the "100 Best Horror Novels;" rather it is 100 novels horror readers would also enjoy.  These books were picked based on the fact that they would appeal to a horror reader, even if they were not strictly horror themselves.