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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The hush at the end of the world

Good Morning, Midnight ★★★★
by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Random House
Available: August 9th 2016

goodmorningGood Morning, Midnight is the quietest apocalypse book you’re ever likely to read. From the stark, icy silences of the vast Arctic, to the soundless black infinity of outer space, this introspective book is about loneliness and isolation, not bombs, or germs or zombies and fighting like a dog over the last can of beans.

If your reader’s desire is to immerse yourself in a well-constructed and deftly explored end of the world scenario then you just might be disappointed here. Getting into the nitty gritty details of an apocalypse — the whys and wherefores — that’s not this book.

Instead what we have here is a thoughtful and poignantly written contemplation on the ways humans can cut themselves off from other humans, can so easily become trapped in their own inability to connect and build lasting relationships, moving through life untethered — on the outside of everything, apart from everyone. The two vividly described settings — the Arctic and outer space — are perfect metaphors for our disconnected protagonists to move in. Our genius astronomer Augustine is stationed at the top of the world in a remote Arctic research station when the world ends. Our intrepid female astronaut Sullivan (or Sully) is on a round trip back to Earth from the outer reaches of Jupiter, confined in tight quarters with the rest of her crew.

Each is struggling with a loneliness they can’t quite define, a torment that only becomes amplified and more crushing as the terrifying realization begins to crystallize that the world might just have ended. From space, Sully and her crew are disturbed at the utter hush of zero communication coming from Earth. What sort of cataclysmic, inexplicable event could have happened to the home planet they are speeding toward? Augustine’s Arctic life is just as silent, save for the company of a mysterious young girl left behind after the research station is evacuated.

The real strength of this book (especially considering its modest length) is the striking descriptions (at times breathtakingly rendered) of life in space and in an Arctic research facility. The attention to detail put me RIGHT THERE, I could see, taste, touch everything. I lived on the Aether and experienced the excitement, the boredom, the claustrophobia, the anxiety, the fear. The challenge of meals, and going to the bathroom, and sleeping, and staying in shape. I came to know the frigid wind of the Arctic wanting to rip my face off, and the despair of feeling swallowed up by a white frozen landscape void of humans and seemingly hope. Until the sun rises. And the descriptions — often eloquent — are not plodding or heavy. No word is wasted. The prose is so sharp and so observant.

Our protagonists Augustine and Sully — though they keep themselves busy and strive for ways to normalize a far from normal situation — will have a lot of time on their hands, empty hours that will torment them, and force them to confront painful truths about themselves and the life choices they’ve made. What lies on the other side of the apocalyptic silence is a mystery that won’t be solved, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t answers to be found.

An advanced reading copy was provided through Netgalley.

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

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.

It was not a pleasure to burn

Dream of the Serpent ★ ★ ★ ★
Alan Ryker
DarkFuse, 2014

————————-

dream of the serpentAlan Ryker! Alan Ryker! Alan Ryker!

I’m shouting his name from the rooftops, are you paying attention? This gentleman has got some serious skill people, writing chops to make you quiver and shake.

Dream of the Serpent is only my second Ryker book (the first being The Hoard) but with it he has clinched a spot on my author to watch radar. Color me a smitten kitten.

Burning is the sort of thing that changes you forever. It makes you realize that you’re an animal, that all the rest is pretense.

The prose and pacing is exquisitely rendered here reflecting a maturity and mastery of the craft that is a pleasure to read even when what you are reading is fraught with pain and despair. When I picked up this book I was wholly unprepared to read such a graphic, explicit depiction of a young man’s savage burns and the life he must confront post-fire. It is tragedy at its most gripping and devastating, so poignant and raw and in your face. It’s impossible not to become positively engrossed in Cody’s story and his ultimate fate.

This is not a “horror” story per se, but there is plenty here that is shocking and horrific. It is in its way a love story as well, or at least just what and how much we are willing to sacrifice for those we love. Amongst the punishing bleak detail of excruciating hopelessness, there emerges a twisty, mindfuck tale of second chances that’s mysterious and oh so satisfyingly constructed in its parts.

Bravo Mr. Ryker. Bravo.

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

A noir horror piece (about amputees)

Last Days ★★★★
Brian Evenson
Underland Press, 2009

last daysWow! What a darkly disturbing yet strangely delightful romp of a book. Last Days is a marvelous mash-up of hard-boiled detective noir, literary mystery and straight-up horror that never comes across as messy or confused. Evenson’s prose is sooooo tight; not a single word is wasted, the narrative action propelled along at a break-neck pace, every other chapter ending on a nail-biting cliffhanger, the dialogue smart, snappy, and at times very funny. I blew through its 200 pages in no time at all, and I bet you will too.

It’s easy to draw parallels to the noir greats here, but since I just finished reading several Cain novels I will repeat what I wrote in my review for Double Indemnity because it applies just as well here:

It all starts with a delicious chill up your spine, your eyeballs riveted to the page, your breath held, the “gotta know what happens next” monster rattling the bars of his cage….[Cain’s] ear for dialogue is enough to make grown men cry and women purr. It’s sharp, with staccato beats and primal rhythms.

In his wonderful introduction [which you read after or you will be entirely spoiled], Peter Straub compares Evenson’s snappy dialogue to not only the Marx Brothers and the “patter of 1930s” vaudeville and burlesque, but to comedic teams like Abbott and Costello and their “Who’s on first” routine. Even with all of the dreadful mutilations and creepy fanaticism running through the story, there are unexpected moments of brilliant levity which made me grin and snicker. As I found myself grinning and snickering, I was reminded of The Pilo Family Circus, another great piece of writing not to be missed that’s a genius blend of genres containing the blackest of humor.

Saw_l

Dr. Lawrence Gordon braces himself to do what must be done | SAW (2004)

But now a short word on the dark heart of Last Days, because in some respects what we have here is a non-supernatural horror novel. At times, the story flirts dangerously close to parody: it’s so over the top in places that you can’t help but wonder if Evenson is just pulling your leg. No he’s not. If you’re not careful, he just might cut it right the fuck off.

There’s something so unbelievably creepy and sinister to me about the lopping off of body parts (either against one’s will or voluntarily). Several films that come to mind are: Boxing Helena (dreadful!) and the Asian flick Audition (chilling!). And who could ever forget poor old Lawrence being forced to hack through his own foot in the original Saw movie? (bloody brilliant!):

“He doesn’t want us to cut through our chains. He wants us to cut through our feet!”

Evenson takes the essence of this celluloid horror and transforms it into something grittier and more nuanced. There’s a depth to Kline’s descent into a dizzying maze of mysteries. We are as in the dark as he is, as frustrated and frightened. Something sinister is afoot (no pun intended), and madness lurks around every corner. Looking for something different? This is it.

Ambiguity is not my friend

The Uninvited ★★
Liz Jensen
Bloomsbury USA, 2013
Available Now

I’m going to tell you two things that made me want to read this book:

1) The cover – I mean, c’mon…how kick-ass creepy is this?

uninvited

2) The first sentence of the book jacket description: “A seven-year-old girl puts a nail gun to her grandmother’s neck and fires.”

Creepy, evil kids doing creepy evil things is usually a win for me. So it was a foregone conclusion that I would dive into this book with abandon.

First of all — it isn’t horror, despite the cover and the book jacket description. It’s more a mash-up of mystery sci-fi with a philosophical bent to it. There are creepy parts, but those are almost incidental to the book’s defined purpose. And what is that purpose?

The writing is great. Liz Jensen knows what to do with words. Hesketh Lock is a remarkable character study of a person living with Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m no expert by any means (and maybe it’s a terribly erroneous portrait), nevertheless I appreciated the attention to detail. I found Hesketh’s way of looking at the world and interacting with it endlessly fascinating.

The book opens with Hesketh being sent to different countries on various continents to investigate cases of industrial sabotage. It’s not entirely clear how these financially devastating actions by valued employees are even related to the other disturbing cases occurring at the same time of children murdering their caregivers. Hence the mystery. But Hesketh is on the case and with his very unusual brain and the aid of Venn diagrams moves closer to the truth with each passing day.

Even up to the three-quarter mark I was still chomping at the bit to uncover what the hell was really going on. I needed to know. Things were going from bad to worse. What could be behind it all? Demons? Aliens? Time-traveling scientists? So many cryptic clues, hinting at something universally “big” in a space-time-evolutionary way.

I was ready for it. I believed in the author. It felt like she had a plan. I trusted her. Even with a mere 10 pages left and no definitive climax or resolution in sight, I was only slightly worried and concerned.

Ever watch an overwrought, existential and confused piece of French cinema replete with embedded themes and imagery and allegory that you were supposed to “get” but didn’t, and then the end title comes up and looks like this:

fin1

And then you shout at the screen and shake your fist: What the bleep?! You fume and even cry real tears. Because you realize no one’s going to tell you the answer. Oh no. You will have to guess, extrapolate, surmise and theorize, with your friends, or worse still, with the obnoxious douche you have to work with every day.

Well piss on that. If that’s what I wanted to spend my time doing I would have gotten my PhD in goddam philosophy. I can tolerate some ambiguity, but by and large I don’t like it. It aggravates me. I’m reading for answers and resolution, not for more questions and uncertainty. Ambiguity stinks. Ambiguity is not my friend. Which is also probably why David Lynch movies make me want to stab somebody, him mostly.

So for a horror novel, that turned out to be a mysterious sci-fi piece that turned out to be an exercise in pointless philosophy showcasing an excruciatingly ambiguous ending — two stars.

This review is also posted to Goodreads.

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