I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things ★★★★
by Iain Reid
Simon & Schuster Canada, 2016

Available: June 14th!

endingOooooh, this is a tough one to review, because it’s not going to be for everyone, and I also don’t want to give too much away. It’s a slim volume that packs such a WALLOP! that creeps up on you, it would be super easy to spoil it for someone if you weren’t careful.

Many people have this filed as ‘Mystery’ or ‘Psychological Thriller’ and it’s sorta a blend of those, but way closer to ‘Psychological Horror’ for me than anything else. It’s an unsettling, paranoid mindfuck that at first appearances seems pretty slow-moving and innocuous. There’s a young couple on a road trip to visit the guy’s parents at their secluded farmhouse, and the girlfriend is “thinking of ending things”. In her head she’s ruminating on the course of their courtship and mulling over the nagging feeling that it’s time to pull the plug on a relationship whose expiration date is past.

endingthingsBut she also has a secret. Dun-dun-DUUUUUN.

But the boyfriend — who starts the novel normal and quite nice — starts to appear odd and off kilter as soon as we get to the farmhouse. Then things inexorably creep to majorly weird and unsettling with the parents by the time we get to dessert.

And just as you’re processing what’s happening in that farmhouse and freaked the hell out because you don’t know where the threat is coming from (or if whether there’s even a threat at all), the book will move to its final act in a deserted high school.

This isn’t a book about what happens. It’s one of those how we get there. It’s a book of atmosphere and tension and a narrator who absolutely takes the cake on unreliable. It’s a paranoid chant in places, and I was literally gripping the book as I was reading it because everything started to feel so portentous, so HEAVY, that the most horrible thing could happen at any moment. All bets are off. As a reader, when I am in the hands of a writer like that, and at their complete mercy, there is no other place I would rather be.

It was horror god Nick Cutter who brought my attention to this book first when he tweeted this about it:

“Creepy as hell. You owe me a few fingernails, Reid, because I’ve bitten them off reading your book!”

When Mr. Cutter endorses a book like that I will do just about anything (and I do mean anything people) to get my hands on a copy. Fortunately, I didn’t have to kill anybody (and lose precious reading time getting rid of the body since my woodchipper is in the shop). The publisher provided a review copy for free, no violence required, no cleanup in aisle four. Thanks Simon and Schuster Canada!

I want to compare this short read (which you should do in one sitting for maximum impact) with other great stories of the same ilk, but I don’t want to risk spoiling anything. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is psychological, subtle, mind-bendy, and utterly unnerving. I can’t wait to read this one again to enjoy its construction and appreciate even more the flawless execution of its moving parts.

Iain Reid, you are on my radar.

You can connect with the author here:
Twitter: @reid_iain
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4112760.Iain_Reid
Website: http://iainreidauthor.com/

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Welcome to The Coliseum (or, the many faces of Craig Davidson)

coliseumThe Coliseum ★★★★
Patrick Lestewka
Necro Publications, 2011

Deep in the Canadian back country a new experiment in extreme penal punishment is underway. Although officially known as the Innuvik Penitentiary, it’s more widely known as: The Coliseum. On October 15th, 1993, the first twenty prisoners were unleashed. These were the worst of the worst. Brutal criminals, psychopaths, lunatics, call them what you will. Today there is a batch of new fish. How long will they survive? What became of the original 20 prisoners? And what the hell is breeding in the deep, dark recesses of…THE COLISEUM

SWEET UNHOLY JEBUS!!!!

I’m a self-identified horror addict and veteran of the genre. It takes A LOT to rattle my cage. This book? It is an unholy abomination – a dark, seething morass of gore and human depravity. It is not a fun read. But if you are so minded, it is a keenly compelling and profoundly disturbing one.

And now a word about this book’s parentage. What unhinged mind gave birth to such a darkling monster?

There’s this Canadian author Craig Davidson. You may have heard of him. He is a wonderful literary writer who has been nominated for prestigious awards, and one of his short stories has even been adapted into a critically acclaimed film. But Davidson has a dark side you see — an alter ego that hijacks his more literary proclivities and pushes his writing into macabre and horrific territory.

Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter, aka Patrick Lestewka)

Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter, aka Patrick Lestewka)

Meet Nick Cutter, one of the most exciting things to happen to horror in the last decade. And he’s CANADIAN. So just when you think we’re all nice and polite and spend our days drinking Tim Horton’s coffee and playing hockey, think again.

About being Richard Bachman (Stephen King’s too short-lived alter ego) King quotes the late Donald Westlake referring to his very own alter ego Richard Stark: “I write Westlake stories on sunny days. When it rains. I’m Stark.” For Davidson, I like to imagine the same rule applies. Sunny days he writes as Craig — when it rains, Cutter takes over the writing room and anything goes. Anything.

But here’s the twist (are you still with me?): before there was Cutter, there was this guy Patrick Lestewka — and let’s be clear here — he makes Nick Cutter look like Mister Rogers. In fact, I think when Davidson realized he had this sub-id consciousness living inside of him — this psycho “other” — it scared the living shit out of him so much that he created Nick Cutter TO KILL Lestewka in an act of self-preservation. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t? It doesn’t bear pondering.

Lestewka had to die. Unlike the late, gone too soon Bachman, we will NOT mourn his passing. Instead we will breathe a sigh of relief, for it is a terrible, grotesque landscape in which he maneuvered, where he beckons us to come play, where the light never shines, where all hope is gone, and cruelty is the only currency.

Back in 2014, I shared a Q&A with Nick Cutter. I didn’t know about Lestewka then, and now really wish I had because I would have loved to have gotten Cutter’s take on the guy — maybe even a confession of murder of the pseudonym! Ah well, there’s always next time!

New Nick Cutter book is a mad mélange of literary ingredients

The Acolyte ★★★★
Nick Cutter
Chizine Publications
Available May 5, 2015

The Acolyte (2015), Chizine

The Acolyte (2015), Chizine

Maybe there’s a God above,
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not someone who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and broken Hallelujah

~ Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen

I don’t know how to describe the mad, dark, mash-up genius contained in the pages of Nick Cutter’s upcoming release The Acolyte — but I’ve found myself in a similar state of speechlessness with other titles released by the incomparable ChiZine Publications. Their motto is Embrace the Odd and embrace it they do with abandon. ChiZine’s book covers alone are enough to send this bibliophile into paroxysms of delight. Here are a few of my favorites:


ChiZine has also recently gotten into the graphic novel game and I adore this cover too:

Let me wrap up the fangirling over cover art to conclude that ChiZine is a wickedly weird and dangerous publishing house ruthlessly seeking out unique voices in speculative fiction. There is nothing safe or sanitized or boring about them. And while I’m not always in the mood to enter into the wacky landscapes they pimp, I’m very grateful that they exist, and very proud that they are Canadian.

Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter)

Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter)

Nick Cutter (a pseudonym for Craig Davidson) blasted onto the horror scene in 2014 with The Troop — the book Stephen King declared scared the hell out of him. For the record, it scared the hell out of me too. In January, Cutter followed up with an equally gripping and richly written sci-fi horror novel The Deep.

Fans of either or both of those books should not expect the same kind of story in The Acolyte. I’m not surprised it was ChiZine who published it for him because it is an odd, intense mixture of horror, police procedural, dystopia, and noir. It is violent, contemplative, thematic, and disturbing. It’s not a book you ‘enjoy’ or ‘savor’: it is one you endure and survive.

And that’s all I’m going to say about it. Read the plot summary if you want, but it’s not going to help prepare you for what lies in wait in its pages. If you are feeling adventurous and brave, and want a taste of something not so mainstream that will take you off the beaten path into a darker part of the forest, then by all means take The Acolyte home with you.

An advanced reading copy was provided by the publisher for review.

Check out more horror from Nick Cutter:

troop-usthedeepcutter

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!

Canadian debut missing a certain something

Where We Have to Go ★★★

by Lauren Kirshner

I thought I would be gaga over the moon for this book. It has all the ingredients I’m usually such a sucker for – coming-of-age; first-person narrator; dysfunctional family; humor; the mother and daughter relationship; it’s even set in where we have to goCanada during a time period that should make me feel nostalgic. I really liked it, parts of it work amazingly well, but overall I’m left feeling empty and a little cheated. It’s like I was promised a real, live, bloody beating heart and then after being led down the garden path a few times I was handed a cut-out of a black and white diagram from a 1960s biology textbook. Or remember this ad from a few years ago? The expression on that kid’s face perfectly sums up how I’m feeling right now (a little cheated, a little mistreated).

The structure of this novel is impressive; Kirshner’s control of language is enviable and she is obviously a talented writer (hence the 3 stars). But here’s the thing: even though all the technical aspects of the novel are firmly in place – plotting, pacing, characterization, metaphors, analogies, foreshadowing, the works – most readers are searching for more than technical proficiency when they sit down and open a book. I don’t like to feel manipulated by literary devices and tricks of the trade. I want to be swept away goddamn it, and be pulled out of my own life for awhile. I want to live and breathe a story and totally believe in the characters I’m reading about. I want to feel their pain and cheer for their success. There is just something a little too contrived and … I don’t know … kitschy about the struggles in this one.

The first 1/3 of the book sort of reminded me of Running with Scissors – the dysfunction is such that it reaches almost the level of parody. Surely the narrator is taking liberties with memory and exaggeration. In the case of Where We Have to Go, I found myself struggling with the way Lucy’s parents related to her and spoke with her. Things are said that left me scratching my head thinking: “would parents really talk to their 11 year old kid like that? Even an only child?” As for Lucy, her precociousness is so over-the-top, her insights so keen, I could never really buy her as “just a kid”. Her “beyond her years” wisdom is jarring and unconvincing when we also consider she’s prancing around in ALF merchandise (not even realizing it’s long off the air and she’s watching it in syndication).

Other things that left me unsatisfied: Lucy’s mom and her friend trying to set Lucy up with a boy when she’s TWELVE YEARS OLD. Huh??? Really? I know young girls are growing up faster than ever these days, but do you really need your mother pimping you out? I also felt the “anorexia” bit kind of a throwaway part of the novel; it lagged and didn’t ring true for me. It felt like forced drama attempting to add “depth” to Lucy’s coming-of-age trials. I also did not appreciate what happens to Lucy’s mother; I felt emotionally manipulated. It felt like a cheap ploy and made me angry.

Overall, while the novel is technically proficient and reads very strong in places, I find myself not able to recommend it.

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