A new chilling vision of Hell

devils detectiveThe Devil’s Detective: A Novel ★★★1/2
Simon Kurt Unsworth
Doubleday | March 2015

All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

I picked up this book with the initial impression that I was in for an urban fantasy piece in which Hell (and angels and demons) would play a role, but that some of the story would inevitably take place in a concrete, corrupted human city. But no. This is full on, 24/7 Hell, all the time Hell, everything Hell. There is no reprieve. And very little hope. The hope is so miniscule you need a very expensive microscope to see it.

So yeah. Hell. In as much technicolor, cinematic horrorscape that you probably can’t handle. Seriously, it’s brutal. Claustrophobic and suffocating. Unsworth’s painstaking, meticulous world-building of this feared and unknown domain is

impressive to say the least. He spares no detail and isn’t shy about unleashing buckets of effluvia, viscera, despair and derangement. This isn’t your paranormal fantasy version of Hell where the Demons are sexy anti-heroes brooding about looking for bodices to rip open. Noooooo. These are deformed, mutated, merciless beasts seeking out any hole of any body to violate, and throw in some torture on the side for good measure.

Unsworth creates a Hell populated by innumerable species of Demons of varying size, hierarchy, power and cruelty. In this devilish brew, forsaken humans doomed to suffer Hell’s torment, must co-exist. They are Demon slaves. Mere chattel. With meaningless jobs and tasks to perform in the ever present threat of Demon violence.

Thomas Fool is one of those humans, and one of Hell’s Information Men. Normally, Fool’s job consists of looking the other way — of NOT investigating Hell’s crimes. But when a human corpse shows up with its soul entirely gone, Fool is pushed into an investigation he is not ready for. He must learn his Detective’s trade fast before whatever is consuming human souls turns its appetites on all of Hell itself.

This is a book extremely dense with description, and understandably so because the author has cut himself out a big job to build Hell and its fiery inhabitants from scratch missing no detail, no matter how small. There is A LOT of narrative exposition to move the story and action along too. Dialogue is minimally used. And that means the book can read heavy and slow in parts. You have to be patient with it and soak up the landscape. Let it unfurl in your mind and agree to stay with it until the tale is done.

Now that the book is done, and I’ve laid it aside, I find flashes of it continuing to haunt me — certain scenes appear to be burned onto my retinas. I can’t unsee them. This is a dark book, but for those seeking a dark fantasy set in the darkest and most fearful place, then you might want to give this one a go.

A free copy was provided by NetGalley in exchange for this review.

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Q&A with Nick Cutter

troop-usRecently I reviewed one of the scariest books I’ve read in a long time, The Troop by Nick Cutter. Today I’m very excited to post a Q&A I shared with the author.

Click here to read an excerpt and to purchase The Troop!

To start Nick, thank you for this interview and congratulations on The Troop’s release. I’m a horror veteran and have loved the genre for years. I thought I’d seen and read everything. You showed me that I had not. Your book scared the crap out of me! But I also loved the characters and found parts of the book very emotional and therefore very rewarding. It’s only February, but I’m calling it already – The Troop is the scariest book I’ll read this year and I will be aggressively recommending it!

Well, thanks for that! It’s a long year ahead and I’m sure a great many fine books will cross your transom, but I’m heartened to hear that you enjoyed it. Certainly it was a blast to write it (as weird and twisted as that may sound …) and hopefully it finds an audience.

Nick Cutter is a pen name (and a very cool sounding one at that). What made you decide to publish The Troop under a pseudonym? Is there an origin story behind the name like Stephen King using Richard Bachman and George Stark in honor of Donald Westlake’s famous alter ego Richard Stark?

nick cutter

Nick Cutter

That was my agent’s idea—I write a different kind/genre of books under my own name, and my agent’s idea was to have some separation between these two “spheres” I guess you could say, or these two different styles of books. We kicked around a few names. We felt that a short, grabby, punchy name might work—hence, Cutter. (other possibilities: Stabber, Hacker, Plucker, Chopper, etc). And Nick is my son’s name. So we’ll see, in the fullness of time, whether he’s really all that happy about his little honorific!

It must have been quite a thrill to have Stephen King blurb your book with such declarative praise. I always thought to be successful with any genre you have to be a fan of it yourself. What are some of the books that have scared you in the past?

Stephen King

Stephen King

Huge thrill to have Mr. King even read it—there’s something so strange about your idol reading something you’ve read; I suppose it would be the equivalent of Michael Jordan showing up at your weekly pickup game and saying, “Hey, that’s a pretty nice jump-shot you’ve got.” Other than King, I love Barker, Straub, a lot of Koontz, and Robert R. McCammon. Ketchum, Lansdale, Blatty, Matheson … the list goes on. Recently, House of Leaves and Benjamin Percy’s last book and Joe Hill’s work are all great. And there’s a great press in Toronto, ChiZine, that puts out plenty of fantastic dark fiction.

Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share about how the genre is faring these days especially in publishing? I was excited to find out you’re Canadian because I feel like there is a real dearth of genre writing in this country, especially in horror.

I tend to agree, although it is kicking along domestically and elsewhere, but I can understand the sense of it not being as important to publishers as it was in its heyday, the 80s and 90s. That’s in great part, I think, because the horror boom during that time kind of killed the Golden Goose—too many shoddy books—and a lot of readers turned away because the quality had really gone down. And now it seems that often the books that get attention are the Zone Ones and Breeds and The Last Werewolf-kind of books: ie, books by literary writers who are “stepping out” to work in the genre. It’s kind of like, “Whoa, Colson Whitehead’s written a zombie book”! And these books aren’t necessarily rigidly within the genre, they’re meta- or meta-ironic or something like that: they kind of announce themselves as ostensibly horror, but not really horror so it’s okay to read it. They’re very often excellent books, but I still get a daytripper whiff off of them: this is the work of a “proper” writer dipping their toe in the horror pool for the illicit thrill of it.

Of course, the irony of the fact that some could say that I am doing the exact same thing does not go unnoticed by me!

You do have a lot of great contemporary horror writers, like Joe Hill and Christopher Golden (who skips around genres, too) and Jonathan Maberry, etc, so it’s not like it’s a dead genre or a dying breed of writer. But I’m not sure how many writers are solely horror writers: they are simply writers who write horror from time to time. Anyway. I could be wrong about a great deal of this, but that’s my sense of things.

How long had you been thinking about The Troop before you finally set pen to paper? Is this a story you’ve wanted to tell for a long time?

In this instance the idea just kind of popped into my head. Fully-fleshed, as they say—then it was up to me to skin all that flesh off. I enjoy writing about child protagonists, so you could say the book had been gestating while I came up with an idea that would allow me to populate the book with kid characters.

For such a grisly, graphic tale of survival did you have any qualms over the age of your protagonists? I can honestly say as a reader I don’t think the story would have packed such an emotional wallop if the story had featured adults facing the same challenges as opposed to children.

I did have qualms, for sure. I was thinking: Even if an editor likes the book, is he or she going to be able to run it up the flagpole at their publisher? Will readers go there with me? So, yeah, I worried but the act of writing a book involves a lot of worry all the time, I’ve found, so I just put that particular worry on the enormous worry-pile and got on with writing the book. I was shocked to discover that not only did one publisher express interest, 4 or 5 ended up making offers on it. So it was one of the only “bidding wars” that I’ve ever been involved in as a writer, and it was for a book that I was almost to scared and ashamed to send to my editor! So thank goodness I found the guts to do that.

And yes, I really do think the book wouldn’t work the same way (if a reader considers it to work at all…) if it’d happened to a bunch of randy teenagers on a weekend screw-fest, or a bunch of hunters looking to bag a moose. Child characters were crucial.

The characterization in The Troop is one of the book’s greatest strengths. I like to say I don’t scare if I don’t care, and you made me care a lot about these boys, especially Newt. Was there ever any doubt in your mind who would die and whether anyone would survive? In other words, did you know from the very beginning how this story would end, or did that come with the writing of it?

Good question. And as you said, that’s pretty much the cardinal rule of horror: if you don’t care about the characters, love or hate, you won’t care what becomes of them. So my editor and I put a lot into those characters—and I mean, listen, as some reviewers have noted, they’re types: The Jock, The Nerd, The Sociopath, The Hair-Trigger Temper, The Straight Man. But in a horror narrative, there’s a certain joy in types, at least when it comes to longtime readers of the genre: you know how these characters are supposed to behave, because you’ve got this enormous backlog of pop culture and genre-specific history that dictates what they’ll do.

And I also liked working with the “fatal flaw”—that is, if you’ve got a jock character who is bossy, well, how will that work against him in the crucible of a novel like The Troop? If you’ve got a crazy person, how will his fatal flaw present itself? How does the Angry Kid’s anger come back to bite him? When you look at the book, you’ll see that these kids—the ones who perish—go because of their fatal flaws, which again are flaws built into the DNA of horror genre characterizations. Their fates are written in that DNA; they’ve got these predetermined vectors that they’re going to go down. So for horror aficionados I hope there’s some grim thrill in seeing how those familiar personality types, and the traits they hold, help push the narrative.

But ultimately, these kids were important to me. I came to care about them (all except Shelley, I guess, though he was a fun creep to write). So even though they were types and they had these roles to play … well, that’s the great thing about being a novelist. In the realm of the book, you’re God. So if you want to save a character, you can. Or if you want to off a character in a spectacular grisly way, you can do that too. So I wasn’t sure how a few of those characters would end up until the very end. And it wasn’t an easy decision, to be honest, but you’re also trying to make a narrative choice that will provoke a reaction in a reader. So we’ll see whether or not I managed that.

Finally, please tell us that there will be another Nick Cutter novel in the future.

Yes! It’s called The Deep. I’m working on edits right now. Set in a research station at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot called Challenger Deep, 8 miles under the sea. Some grim shit goes down, I can assure you.

Now that, I can assure you, is the best news I’ve gotten all month. Grim shit? Sign me up!

Who will survive, and what will be left of them?

The Troop ★★★★★
Nick Cutter
Gallery Books
Available February 25, 2014

Find out more here!

troop-usFirst of all, when Stephen King goes out of his way to blurb a book, I pay attention. About The Troop he says:

The Troop scared the hell out of me, and I couldn’t put it down. This is old-school horror at its best. Not for the faint-hearted, but for the rest of us sick puppies, it’s a perfect gift for a winter night.”

I’m a sick puppy! Right away, I perk up like one of those Pointer dogs on the scent. Secondly, the book description refers to The Troop as Lord of the Flies meets The Ruins. Oh yeah! You just pressed two of my book buttons right there. I’m lighting up and going off all over the damn place.

So yeah, Stephen King is not lying or exaggerating. This book IS NOT for the faint-hearted. It’s for the sick puppies — it will make you squirm and gag and cringe and hold on for dear life. It will also creep you the fuck out and make your skin crawl off in self defense. Your skin may never speak to you again actually.

I usually run an image free zone in my reviews, but for this book, I’m hoping a picture speaks a thousand words.

Here are some of the faces this book made me make:

ewwww

donotwanthouse

upset

babyeyes

Get the picture? I’m a horror veteran, and let me tell you, this book traumatized me. There are scenes I will NEVER forget. If they invented brain bleach tomorrow, it still couldn’t erase the shock and ewww and WTF? from my mind.

Five stars for totally creeping me out and giving me a raging case of heebie jeebies. I could not put this book down and I will be recommending it to other sick puppies. Plus, I actually CARED about the characters. Newt!!!

***Mild Spoiler Alert*** And perhaps introducing a bonafide animal torturing sociopath into a story that already has such an extreme threat is a bit of overkill, but so what? I admire the author’s commitment to a grab-you-by-the-throat, full-throttle storytelling style.***End Spoiler***

@TheNickCutter is a great pseudonym for a horror writer. Let’s hope we hear more from him in the future. Check out my Q&A with the author!

A free copy was provided by the publisher through NetGalley for an honest review.

Everybody’s working for the weekend

Severance Package ★★★
Duane Swierczynski
Minotaur Books, 2008

severance

EVER WANT TO KILL YOUR BOSS? WELL GUESS WHAT, THE FEELING IS MUTUAL.

This was my Saturday to work, and you can bet I would have much rather been goofing off. But as Saturdays go, it wasn’t too bad, and compared to the Saturday Swierczynski writes about in this book it was heaven on earth in the library stacks this afternoon.

It’s summer. It’s hot. It’s Saturday. But Jamie DeBroux’s boss has called a special meeting for all “key personnel”. Locked in a conference room with cookies and champagne, Jamie and his fellow co-workers soon discover they have been assembled in order to terminate. Permanently. Who will survive this bloody Saturday, and what will be left of them?

Severance Package is a wickedly adrenalized, pulsating, page-turning piece of pulp. Like seriously, WTF? Everything is exquisitely exaggerated and unleashed in comic technicolor. I would love to have seen this as a graphic novel actually (or a slick Tarantino cinematic production), since so many of its best characteristics are both visceral and visual.

This novel IS NOT grounded in realism, flirting much more with parody and noir. And what can I say? I loved it! It’s bloody and ridiculous. Unbelievable and silly. Yet still manages to keep you riveted and rapidly turning pages to see what the freakin’ hell is going to happen next.

Awesome for summer. Brain candy of the sweetest kind (that will rot your brain if you consume too much) … but this … this is the perfect amount presenting the perfect escape from life’s stresses (and asshole bosses). Even though I haven’t figured out how to pronounce his name yet, this won’t be the last Swierczynski I read. In fact, I have it on very good authority that his Charlie Hardie series is outrageously violent, action-packed and very addictive.

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.

The most disturbing books ever written (revised edition)

This all began with a Goodreads poll on the most disturbing book ever written and my original Top 10 blog post in 2011. It’s a couple of years later and even though I’ve read a lot more books, there’s not much I would change here. However, there are two books especially that warrant a revision and you will find them listed below.

All of these books in some way made me grimace and shiver with repulsion and I found each of them difficult to shake weeks after I finished reading them. This doesn’t necessarily mean these are good books, well-written or otherwise, it just means these are books that grabbed me by the throat and left me feeling assaulted for one reason or another. If you want to continue adding to this list, please feel free to do so in the comments!!! ***Note: the books are not listed in a way to imply rank or degree of disturbance.

(more…)

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