Noir classic still thrills and chills

The Killer Inside Me ★★★★★
Jim Thompson
With an introduction by Stephen King
Mulholland Books, 2014 (1952)

Mullholland Books edition (2014)

Mullholland Books edition (2014)

I tip my hat and pretend I don’t hear
grinning like a half-wit from ear to ear
I can think of a thousand ways to say hello
so I start through ’em all, and go real slow.
They listen hard, and act like they care.
How can they be so completely unaware
of the truth the answer is always denied me
So I introduce them to the killer inside me.
(MC 900 Ft. Jesus, The Killer Inside Me)

*****

First of all, a warning: if you happen to pick up the edition I did that includes an introductory essay from Stephen King, make sure you read it after you finish the book. Goddamn it, either the entire principal of *spoiler* completely flies over this man’s head, or he just loves being a bastard about these things. After 2014’s Twitter controversy where he spoiled a major death for fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, I’m pretty certain it’s the latter.

It’s not that he doesn’t get it — he just doesn’t care!!!

Stephen King: tossing out spoilers like live grenades since 1972

Stephen King: tossing out spoilers like live grenades since 1972

And he does it here too, spoiling a MAJOR scene from Thompson’s classic noir novel. Thanks a lot, Uncle Stevie!!! I don’t care that the book was published in 1952 — it’s not the same as revealing the Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks or that Janet Leigh gets stabbed in the shower in Psycho! And it’s especially not the same as revealing that Romeo and Juliet die in Act 5. Now you’re just being an asshole, asshole!

Anyway, all wrath and chagrin aside, Uncle Stevie gives great introduction (heh) and this essay is particularly inspired dealing as it does with Jim Thompson, his mark on dark literature, and the enduring legacy of his psychopathic, unassuming small town Deputy Sheriff, Lou Ford.

Told in the first-person, The Killer Inside Me is as close as you’re ever going to want to get to the inner thoughts and irrepressible urges of a psycho killer. The most chilling part? On the outside, Lou Ford is a regular, down home good ol’ boy, with charm and even some wit. But underneath his methodically constructed facade lurks a steel-trap mind and inexplicable violent compulsions. First published in 1952, I can only imagine the impact this book would have had on its original audience. Even to this jaded 21st century reader The Killer Inside Me still holds within its ruthless prose the power to shock and unsettle.

Original cover, 1952

Original cover, 1952

And despite Ford’s obvious dark passenger — his “sickness” — you still find yourself rooting for the guy (that is when you’re not screaming at characters to run for their fucking lives far, far away from the crazy man). It made me consider who I’d take my chances with in a locked room — Lou Ford or Annie Wilkes? ::shudder:: There’s a Sophie’s Choice I’m glad I never have to make.

Without Jim Thompson — and especially without Lou Ford — I can only believe ‘country noir’ would not be what it is today. Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, Daniel Woodrell, Ron Rash all owe a debt to Thompson. And as readers, so do we.

A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere

Revival, Volume One: You’re Among Friends (Revival #1) ★★★★
Tim Seely (Story), Mike Norton (Graphic Art)
Image Comics, 2012

Revival 1This is a re-read for me, in preparation of hitting up Volume 2, and I gotta say, I’m still excited about what this series has to offer. It’s a claustrophobic tale set in a quarantined Midwestern town that has recently fallen prey to a rash of re-animations. The dead are coming back to life, but not in the way you think, or with the same dramatic gore and apocalyptic consequences we have come to expect from the walking dead.

This isn’t a traditional zombie tale. First and foremost it’s a story about a cast of characters thrust into a very unusual and distressing situation. What happens when the dead and gone who have been grieved and laid to rest suddenly barge back into our lives again, not just walking, but talking? With needs, and fears, and memories?

What happens when the outside world beyond the borders of your sleepy little town becomes fearful and paranoid and only wants to contain whatever mystery is unfolding in your backyard, holding you under scrutiny and behind roadblocks leaving your town to not only fend for itself but ride out whatever traumas yet to unfold?

Officer Dana Cypress is caught right in the middle of the inexplicable “revivals” along with her sister Martha (or Em) who has a terrible secret. Then there’s the rookie journalist May who senses there’s much more going on in the town than meets the eye.

revival 1 sceneThis is a story that takes its time, and by the end leaves you with way more questions than answers. But the pull of the mystery is so addictive, you’ll be desperate to get your hands on the next volume. It’s a story that’s rich in atmosphere, a creepy-crawly sensation of impending doom, but doom that’s on a more personal scale of individual tragedy, rather than unleashing a free-floating anxiety for the fate of the entire human race.

The graphic art is crisp and clean and terrifying where it needs to be. The nature of small town life is realistically portrayed and the panel after panel of snow and cold had me thinking of Fargo and that a lot can happen in the middle of nowhere. My one complaint is that the three main women characters (Dana, her sister Em, and reporter May) are very similar in appearance, at least at first glance. I was better equipped to tell them apart this time around, but it still took some practice. It’s a shame that they should be artistically rendered so similarly, because as characters, each woman is very different with her own distinctive voice and personality.

Do yourself a favor and give this one a try.

Review: A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash

A Land More Kind Than Home ★★★★★
Wiley Cash
William Morrow, 2012

Trade Paperback

Trade Paperback

This book has everything I love — a Southern setting, secrets, family tragedy, religious zealotry run amok, and strong narrative voices. If I had read it, it would have been an easy four stars. But because I listened to it, and the audio version is one of the best I’ve ever heard, it’s getting five stars.

This is a debut novel — is it flawless? No. But you know what? I didn’t care. I don’t think you will either. I got so swept up and carried away by the story I was being told I was living it. I was right there in that small town watching it all go down with a flutter of anxiety in my stomach, and a lump of sadness in my throat.

What really made me love this story as an audiobook is that we have three narrators read by three different readers– 1) Jess Hall, a precocious nine year old who has a penchant for spying and will eventually see something he wishes he hadn’t that will change his life and the life of his town forever 2) Adelaide Lyle, a feisty old woman who has born witness to much of the town’s history and dark secrets and 3) Clem Barefield, seasoned Sheriff with a painful past who must confront the evil that has taken hold of his town like a cancer.

Getting the story from these three very distinct voices and points of view is fantastic. It makes what is essentially a simple and straight forward story feel richer, more layered and emotional. I loved the reader for the Sheriff. What a fantastic performance. That voice married to the author’s prose is a match made in heaven. In the best ways it reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones’s performance in No Country for Old Men.

A Land More Kind Than Home is set deep in the heart of snake-handling country where you better hope that when the preacher arrives in town, he ain’t the devil in disguise.

Read this book — and if you do the audio thing — listen. You won’t be able to stop, I promise.

And since I have a thing for book trailers, this one does a great job of capturing the edgy, southern Gothic mood of this novel that’s so portent with revelation, betrayals, and tragedy.

This review is also posted to Goodreads.

Recommended Readalikes:

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter | Tom Franklin
The Devil All The Time | Donald Ray Pollock
The Scent of Rain and Lightning | Nancy Pickard

Going up the country – the rise of rural lit (and why you need to be reading it)

I just came across a great online piece written last year by Keith Rawson called: It’s More Than Just Meth Labs and Single-Wides: A Rural Noir Primer. First of all, that’s a great title. More importantly, if the terms rural noir, country noir, country crime, or hick lit don’t mean anything to you, then listen up. Maybe you’re already reading it and just didn’t know what to call it (neither does anyone else really, hence all the grab bag terminology). If you’re not reading it, I’m here to convince you of why you need to start.

american salvage

American Salvage: Stories
Bonnie Joe Campbell

These are tales about ordinary folk trapped in dead-end places in dead-end lives who don’t even have the wherewithal or wisdom to get the hell out of Dodge even if it means chewing their own goddam leg off to do so. No matter how beautifully written — the stories reveal a kind of brutalization lined with a deep and abiding sadness. People are desperate — or deranged — and behave accordingly. Sometimes it’s because of crushing poverty, other times it is because of inheriting a mantle of family violence that stretches back countless generations. I don’t know what that says about me that this sort of visceral reading experience appeals to me, but it does. Perhaps it’s the cold comfort that no matter how bad my life seems at any given moment on any given day, it will never be as bad as that.

For the 21st century urban dweller, roots firmly embedded in concrete and steel, the rural landscape has become mysterious and alien (and a little unsettling). As the Coen brothers were quick to point out in the tagline for their Oscar-winning film Fargo: A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere. What we’re seeing is a rising breed of novelist that seeks to show us exactly what that looks like. Patterns begin to emerge of settings devastated by economic collapse and shrinking populations. Communities no longer able to thrive by farming, factory or mining work are left vulnerable to a sad litany of drug dependency, alcoholism, violent crime, domestic violence, depression and suicide.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the genre is distinctly an American one, being written post 9-11, post wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and post the financial meltdown and government bailouts. There’s been a human cost to all of this, that’s manifesting itself in some very heartbreaking and frightening ways in rural settings noted for their isolation. What all this doom and gravitas adds up to is some phenomenal writing by extremely talented authors. The work may not always be uplifting, but it never stops being compelling.

Check out Country Noir on Goodreads
and the Rural Noir board on Pinterest.

I’ve been adding these books to a shelf called ‘Good Country People‘ named after the short story by Flannery O’Connor (you can read it here). There’s still so much I have yet to explore, but here I will offer my thoughts on several five star reads to get you started. Writing doesn’t get any better than this, in any genre.

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winters boneWinter’s Bone ★★★★★
Daniel Woodrell

Woodrell is a master of his craft. His prose is poetry and grit. Winter’s Bone is a stinging portrait of impoverished life in the Ozarks, where kin saves as often as it condemns. The hill people of Ree’s world live by their own laws separate from that of the state — of paramount importance, don’t be a snitch and mind your own business. Bad things happen to anyone who talks too much or asks too many questions. Unfortunately, sixteen year old Ree has a lot of questions that need answering with only her to ask them. Left on her own to protect a shattered mother and two helpless kid brothers, Ree is desperate to uncover the whereabouts of her meth-making father. She must venture into the cold and ice and pass over hostile thresholds where she is neither invited nor wanted.

Woodrell is not out to romanticize this hill life or the hardscrabble characters living it. He wants us to see the ugly, to feel it in our bones, but for all of that there is tremendous beauty here as well, in the simplicity of a proud people who do what they must to survive in an environment that does not forgive weakness or stupidity lightly.

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devil all the timeThe Devil All The Time ★★★★★
Donald Ray Pollock

Pollock writes gritty, raw, uncompromising prose that snaps and bites at your soft spots. Set in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, Pollock’s debut novel is a tangled web of tales about a desperate father who cannot save his wife from the grave, whose grief will derange him; his young son who grows into a man haunted by his mother’s death and his father’s insanity; a psychopathic couple cleaved together through sex and violence haunting the back roads of America hunting for their next perfect victim; and a spider handling preacher with a wheelchair bound partner on the run from the law and a dark past of their own.

Pollock is able to juggle multiple narrative threads, do each of them justice, and have them collide and intersect with one another in a convincing, satisfying way. He makes it look so easy. This is a dark novel, full of dark deeds that promises neither redemption nor offers any hope. I found parts of this novel very difficult to read, and not because Pollock is explicit in his descriptions, because he isn’t. He refrains from showing the reader everything, leaving room for what you can imagine. But his prose is vivid nevertheless, and there are scenes from this novel that I will never forget.

knockemstiffAlso not to be missed is Pollock’s collection of short stories Knockemstiff. What can I say? It knocked me flat on my ass. The writing is lean, mean and precise. I’m amazed how quickly Pollock was able to drop me into any story and feel like I’d been reading about the characters for hundreds of pages already. Also adding to the overall reading experience here is the fact that many of these stories interconnect so that a character from one will reappear in another, usually older and even more damaged than when we first meet them. This gives the collection a kind of coherency where the sum is far greater than the individual parts. And of those opening sentences? Here are a few of my favorites. By reading these I think you’ll be able to tell whether this collection is for you or not.

Real Life: My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at.

Hair’s Fate: When people in town said inbred, what they really meant was lonely. Daniel liked to pretend that anyway. He needed the long hair. Without it, he was nothing but a creepy country stooge from Knockemstiff, Ohio–old people glasses and acne sprouts and a bony chicken chest.

Fish Sticks: It was the day before his cousin’s funeral and Del ended up at the Suds washing his black jeans at midnight. They were the only pants he owned that were fit for the occasion.

Bactine: I’d been staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole.

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crooked letterCrooked Letter, Crooked Letter ★★★★★
Tom Franklin

Franklin’s descriptions of human isolation and loneliness are so raw and uncompromising I forced myself to take breathers between reading sessions. I don’t think this is a book meant to be read in one gulp; it is made up of so much complexity and depth that it’s better to sip from its well, savor what you’ve tasted, and then go back for more.

This book had me at hello: it’s set in the American south, it features the mess of family dynamics, and secrets big and small stalk its pages. It is a coming-of-age story and at its center are two boys — Silas and Larry. Their lives intersect in ways neither could have predicted, and one of them must carry the pain and punishment of that connection his entire life. It is a heavy burden, but I will say not without redemption.

I love Larry Ott — not only is he a die-hard Stephen King fan, despite years of being ruthlessly cast as town pariah, Larry quietly goes on about his business. He is not consumed by bitterness, or enraged by the unfairness of the abuse that has been heaped upon him. That takes a strong man, and this is what probably made me the most sad is that Larry doesn’t know how great and kind a man he really is. Beaten down first by his father, then by the town, he is prevented from discovering his true qualities of inner strength and dignity. Read this book. It is beautiful. So very sad, but beautiful.

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Last but not least there’s the ferocious and insane Frank Bill. I have recently discussed both his collection of short stories and his debut novel Donnybrook. Clicking on the book covers will take you to my reviews.

Crimes in Southern Indiana donnybrook

All roads lead to the Donnybrook

We got no jobs, no money, no power, no nothin’, nothin’ to live for ‘cept vice and indulgence. That’s how they control us. But it’s falling apart. What we got is our land and our machines, our families and our ability to protect it all, to keep them alive. We got our hands. Ones who’ll survive will be the ones can live from the land. Can wield a gun. Those folks’ll fight for what little they’ve got. They’ll surprise the criminals with their own savagery.
~ Donnybrook: A Novel, Frank Bill.

donnybrookDonnybrook: A Novel ★★★★★
Frank Bill
FSG Originals, 2013
Available Now

I was already familiar with Frank Bill’s writing after surviving a close encounter with his debut — the short story collection Crimes In Southern Indiana. Upon finishing those stories, my only thought was: “Jesus Christ, this man is a lunatic” — and then immediately, “I want more!” For sure the stories are raw and unpolished, and perhaps a little too overeager to tell rather than show, but there is also an urgency, a ferocity to the writing that refuses to be ignored. It’s so in your face that at times it feels like an assault. I loved it!

So you can bet when I heard this guy was about to publish his first novel I became very afraid, and very, very obsessed with getting my hands on it to read it.

Usually my eyes tend to glaze over and ignore most book blurbs because they always seem so generic and at their worst, sycophantic. But at their best, book blurbs can capture in a few short phrases the very tail of the beast itself and show you its face. As much as I loathe the majority, there are some that do their job so well, they deserve to be recognized along with the book they’re blurbing. I only say this now to emphasize that Bill has attracted the attention of authors I love and respect and if you’re not going to listen to me when I say this guy’s the real deal, then maybe you’ll listen to them:

Donnybrook is vivid in its violence, grim in its grimness. It reams the English language with a broken beer bottle and lets the blood drops tell the story. — Daniel Woodrell, (Winter’s Bone)

With action like a belt across the face and vivid prose like a stroke up the neck, Frank Bill’s astonishing novel…renders you punch-drunk. Here’s the writer to watch: mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Megan Abbott, (Dare Me)

I also like this one by Bonnie Jo Campbell: “Don’t poke this book with a stick or you’ll make it angry.” And trust me — you won’t like this book when it’s angry. Goodreads friend Jacob writes in his review:

something this good should be illegal, because the act of hunting down a banned copy and hiding from the censors and morality police to read it is the only goddamn way it could get any better. Donnybrook is a relentless, no-holds-barred, total fucking mind-fuck of endless violence…

Frank Bill (author)

Frank Bill (author)

Yeah, like that. But now you’re looking at me tapping your foot impatiently saying: “Yeah, but what the hell is this book about?” I could give you the plot summary lowdown — about bare-knuckle fighting in the backwoods of Southern Indiana, about desperate family man Jarhead Johnny Earl who’s going to steal a thousand dollars to cover the entry fee into the infamous annual Donnybrook tournament.

Then there’s meth-making brother and sister Angus (nickname Chainsaw) and Liz who put the F.U.N. in family dysfunction. They’ve just lost their last batch of dope and are determined to recoup their losses, no matter who gets in their way, even if it means each other. Like any great rural crime story, you’ve got the steely, determined deputy Sheriff following a trail of dead bodies into a trap he has no idea lays in wait for him. Last but not least, there’s Chinese “collection agent” Fu, who’s about as badass a dude as you’re ever going to meet. He is awesome.

This mad, manic mélange of murderers, misfits and miscreants will eventually descend upon the Donnybrook — a three day stint of brawling, booze and drugs run by a man named McGill, who makes the Governor from the Walking Dead comics look like Mr. Rogers. But it’s not about the final destination folks, but the journey to get there, and (to quote one of my favorite movie taglines ever): who will survive and what will be left of them. Reading this book I couldn’t help but be reminded of the lucid insanity of some of Tarantino’s best work — the ensemble characters, the multiple plot threads, and how it all comes crashing together in the end with defined, divine purpose. Hells yeah, people. This is the good shit. Heisenberg grade blue.

Frank Bill is a writer you want to watch. You can find out more about him at his blog House of Grit or follow him on Twitter @HouseofGrit. And as my mama always told me — never trust a man with two first names.

This review also appears at Shelf Inflicted.

Frank Bill takes us on a crime spree into the heart of Southern Indiana

Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories ★★★★
Frank Bill
Crimes in Southern IndianaFSG Originals, 2011
Available Now

Iris kept driving….He reached over and rubbed Spade between his black ears, not knowing where he was headed, but knowing he wouldn’t stop until he was several states shy of the crimes in southern Indiana.

This book ::flails helplessly:: How do I begin to review these raw and ruthless stories and do them justice? I probably can’t ladies and gents, but I want to try goddammit. Frank Bill’s collection of crazies and crimes in southern Indiana deserves that much at least.

This is prose that sings — not with the sweetness and harmony of a Mama Cass, but rather a whiskey-soaked growl and feverish screech of a Janis Joplin. It’s jagged, fragmented, and toothsome; ready at any point to tear a chunk out of the reader and leave him or her panting and bleeding like the sordid cast of cutthroat characters that populate the pages of these 17 inter-connected stories.

The stories piece together a harsh portrait of poor, scrabbling, backwoods people — where victims become victimizers, and the brutalized do their fair share of brutalizing in return. As Frank Bill weaves together his tales of madness and mayhem, he is not interested in telling mere exploitative snapshots of gratuitous violence; his carefully crafted stories resonate with gritty themes of PTSD, poverty, domestic violence, addiction, greed and corruption. Each story flashes bright and fierce, a powerhouse on its own, but when melded with its brethren featured in the collection, the sum definitely becomes more awesome than the parts.

Frank Bill is writing Southern Noir and making it his bitch. This is Quentin Tarantino meets Cormac McCarthy. For make no mistake Frank Bill convinces his readers that his Indiana landscape is also no country for old men.

Jagged marrow lined his gums like he’d tried to huff a stick of dynamite. But when he stuttered into Medford’s ear he sounded like a drunk who had Frenched a running chainsaw.

This isn’t a collection to love per se; it certainly won’t leave you with the warm fuzzies. It will shake you up and smack you around a bit though, and you definitely won’t forget it easily. It also made me green with envy over how easy Frank Bill makes it all seem. What he accomplishes isn’t easy; if it were we’d see the likes of this kind of writing more often. Bill’s prose is rough; there isn’t the same kind of lyricism to be found in these stories as is in the work of Daniel Woodrell, Tom Franklin, or even his closest kin Donald Ray Pollock. However, if you have a penchant for the raw and brutal side of life, this collection is required reading in my books.

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, look for Bill’s new novel hot off the presses called Donnybrook. Word on the street is that it’s even more an orgy of violence than the short stories that appear in Crimes. I’ve got a copy in my hands as I type this and you can bet I cannot wait to crack it open and see what carnage awaits me inside. Stay tuned!

This review also appears on Shelf-Inflicted.

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