Editor & Publisher, has been at for 30 years. In addition to his various management duties, he continues to edit the crime fiction section of the magazine and delights in discovering new hard-boiled writers, particularly those who set their stories in Europe and Asia (where is more than mere window dressing). To get away from books, he attempts to play golf.++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
My Kind of Scary
By Bill Ott
Let’s get a couple of things straight: I’m no Dan Kraus. The really scary stuff in true horror fiction is too much for me. Reading Dan’s marvelous horror novels, Rotters and Scowler, I’m amazed at his talent but so creeped out that I have to skip whole chunks of the story. Sorry. Just can’t do it. When I attended Dan’s reading of Rotters at a bookstore appropriately called “Buckets of Blood,” I was proud of myself for remaining upright (unlike one of my colleagues, who was reduced to swaying back and forth on her haunches—there were no chairs in the room—as Dan gleefully read about rats scampering about in open graves). It started early for me. In grade school at Saturday matinees, sitting in the balcony while my buddies threw popcorn at the creature from the black lagoon, I demurely—and subtly, so they wouldn’t notice—closed my eyes.
I’m not a complete wimp, however. I can take the kind of violence, even the occasional bucket of blood, which one encounters in thrillers and in hard-boiled and noir fiction. Philip Marlowe, after all, never had to deal with giant rodents. So when I think of my favorite scary books, I move out of the horror genre altogether. But that’s not to say Chelsea Cain is for the timid. Cain’s bewitching serial killer, Gretchen (“the Beauty Killer”) Lowell, with whom Portland, Oregon, cop Archie Sheridan has danced a perverse pas de deux through five gut-wrenching, incredibly intense novels, simply loves blood. That’s why she has such a fondness for removing spleens (sans anesthetic, of course). Archie, naturally, is spleenless at Gretchen’s hand (she took his spleen, then spared his life), but Archie is only one of several hapless souls (whose lives were not spared) who have felt the sting of Gretchen’s scalpel. And she’s not the only psycho in Portland who finds spleen removal oh-so titillating. In Evil atHeart, the third in the series, a spate of copycats attempts to emulate the Beauty Killer’s surgical brio (their technique, alas, is sadly lacking). But give the copycats credit: one of them is equal at least to Gretchen’s flair for grotesque homicide. Male readers, in particular, don’t want to know by what body part one undeserving victim was suspended (well, I guess parts would be more anatomically correct).
So I hope I’ve at least partially established my bona fides here. No, I can’t take chainsaw massacres (or ravenous rodents), but I’m down with spleen removal, private-part suspension, and a host of other decidedly unpleasant demises. I heartily recommend Chelsea Cain for anyone, like me, who can take violence, even grotesque violence, but needs the insulation of a character-driven, psychologically complex thriller. No, that last sentence is all wrong. It makes me sound like an NPR type who would never read a crime novel (“too formulaic”) but laps up Mystery! on PBS because it’s “literary.” That’s not me, I assure you. What I mean by “insulation” is that I need a little time to settle my stomach between spleens. Cain gives me that because, between the gory outbursts, she probes the delicate psychological underpinnings of her characters as deeply as Gretchen probes our squishy parts.
Ah, but that annoying Dan Kraus gives the lie to this fancy theory. His books are every bit as psychologically acute and character driven as Cain’s, but I’m still way more scared by Scowler than I am by any of the Cain novels, even Heartsick, the first in the series, in which poor Archie endures the majority of his bodily invasions. Why is that? Maybe because Cain is writing a kind of police procedural, which means she must devote numerous pages to investigatory detail. With Dan’s books, he’s under no such generic obligation, and you never know when the rats are coming next. And when they come, oh my God, you just know that Dan is back there cackling at your terror.
That’s the story. Read Chelsea Cain if you haven’t already; she’s among my favorite thriller writers. And, if you’re made of sterner stuff than I am, read Dan Kraus, too, without skipping any pages.