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.

The horror! The horror!

The Horror of It All: One Moviegoer’s Love Affair with Masked Maniacs, Frightened Virgins, and the Living Dead ★★
Adam Rockoff
Scribner, May 2015

This is an advanced review. Reader copy provided by NetGalley.

horrorofitallI always feel guilty when I snag a book from NetGalley and don’t love it. But hey — impartial reviewing and honest reader response is what we all crave, right? So I get over that guilt pretty quickly.

Adam Rockoff has a great idea here. While my real passion is to watch horror movies (not read about them) every once in a while a book like this sneaks past my defenses with a come hither look I can’t resist. That’s what this book did with its great cover and catchy (if wordy) title.

Essentially what Rockoff is attempting to do here (and largely fails) is what Stephen King accomplished decades ago with flair and brilliance in his nonfiction study of the horror genre Danse Macabre. What did I want this Christmas season? What do I keenly long for every year that passes? A goddamn, updated sequel! Get on that Uncle Stevie, before it’s too late!

dansemacabre

Danse Macabre ©1981

King’s masterpiece covers horror in all its manifestations in print, and on the big and small screens. Rockoff narrows his focus to just the movies, and that would be enough if it had been a wide view of horror on the big screen, but Rockoff’s kink is the slasher / exploitation films (the subtitle for this book should have been my first clue).

Rockoff has already written a book about the rise of the slasher film called Going to Pieces — heh, cute title — and without having read it, I’m left with a sneaking suspicion that this follow-up book treads a lot of the same ground. In The Horror of it All Rockoff has a major rant against Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel for a special edition episode of their show Sneak Previews aired in 1980 in which the film critics lambast these “slasher” flicks as a dangerous and despicable trend in film both demeaning and dangerous to women (these men are so high up on their high horse here I can’t imagine they can still see the ground). Don’t get me wrong — I love Roger Ebert, he remains one of my favorite film critics — but boy, was he mostly a fuss bucket when it came to horror movies in general. It wasn’t his genre of choice and it showed in many of his prejudicial (and often undeserved) negative reviews of some great movies.

Rockoff is justified in tearing a strip off these two men in an instance where they show complete ignorance about a genre and its fans. Neither Siskel or Ebert appear to have actually sat through any of these movies they are so quick to dismiss as sleazy and misogynist. They show no awareness of “the Final Girl” who often survives to slay the “monster” herself, as well as suffering from the common misconception that it’s only women killed in slasher films. Quite the contrary; studies show men are just as likely to die violent deaths on screen in horror movies as their female counterparts.

But I get it. As a fan of the genre since before I could tie my own shoes, I’ve come up against that kind of prejudice many, many times. Horror is a genre where the consumer is attacked as often as the content itself. Understanding the appeal factor of horror is difficult for some people to accept, people who will look at you with a wary expression as they ask “how can you read/watch that stuff”? As if we should be ashamed, as if we are somehow mentally warped or our moral compass dangerously askew. Don’t worry, it isn’t. Horror appeals to many of us for very solid, rational, non-psychopathic reasons, I swear. And it appeals just as equally to men as it does women. And that doesn’t make the men misogynists, or the women failed feminists.

But I digress. Back to Rockoff. His goal here is to really champion for the slasher films and the deranged and disturbing pushing all the boundaries it can possibly think of exploitation films. And I wouldn’t have had a problem with that. But it gets a bit repetitive and tiresome and a lot of the movies he winds up talking about are pretty obscure if you’re not a complete and utter fanatic for everything underground and out of print (I’m not).

Adam Rockoff

Adam Rockoff

In his introduction, Rockoff promises to approach horror in a very personal essay, knitting together his experiences of the genre using memoir as a lens. I love that idea. I love hearing about people’s personal reactions to movies or what was going on in their lives when. One of my favorites of these sorts of anecdotes came from my own mother. She was dating my father at the time of the theatrical release of The Exorcist.

It was a date movie for them (these are my genes). They had to park the car at the very back of the mall parking lot. When the movie let out after 11pm the mall was closed and the parking lot was almost empty. They walked to the dark, abandoned hinterland of the lot to their car. When my mother went to open the passenger door (this was 1970’s Newfoundland – people rarely locked their car doors) a giant looming shadow of a man sat up in the back seat and groaned. My mother screamed. My father cursed (and probably shit himself). Turns out that while they were watching the movie, this guy stumbled out of the bar drunk and crawled into my parents car to pass out mistaking the car as belonging to his friend.

Rockoff has a few personal stories like this, humorous and charming, but not nearly enough of them. He can’t help but slip into the film school analysis voice, reviewing and critiquing. Too much of the book’s contents feel like grad school essays, a little pompous and righteous. In an effort to “legitimize” horror and testify to its importance and validity, Rockoff comes off sounding like a bit of a haughty dick.

Then there’s some sections that just don’t work at all, and their inclusion confounds me. Case in point — in Chapter 5 “Sounds of the Devil” Rockoff talks about the (un)natural marriage of heavy metal music to horror movies. The two go together like PB&J in some ways, in other ways it’s a misfit experiment gone awry.

Tipper Gore 1985

Tipper Gore, 1985

He raises a few interesting points and then inexplicably goes right off the reservation with a blow-by-blow account of the time in 1985 Tipper Gore helped found the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and brought the fight to Washington in the hopes of compelling the music industry to adopt a voluntary rating system warning of the explicit lyrics destined to corrupt and warp innocent children.

Halfway through this chapter I felt like I was reading a completely different book that didn’t have anything to do with horror movies at all. It just seemed really out of context and ultimately onerous. I remember when this bullshit was going on at the time — even at 11 years old I scoffed then, I scoff now. Plus, it’s not nearly as interesting a story as the Comics Code Authority and the war against horror comics of the 1950’s (check out The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America and Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America). And I’m really looking forward to seeing this 2014 documentary Diagram for Delinquents.

If you’ve made it to the end of this lengthy, rambling review I thank you. You are a good sport and too kind. I didn’t hate this book but it failed to really engage me or entertain. I don’t recommend it; instead, pop some popcorn, turn out the lights and cue up your favorite scary movie.

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.

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.

Not this deserted island, please.

NIL ★★
Lynne Matson
Henry Holt
Expected publication: March 4th, 2014

***

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

I really want to tear this book a new one, but it would be the equivalent of beating the shit out of the 80 pound asthmatic kid at school who wears glasses and stealing his lunch money.

See, here’s the problem: I picked up this book with entirely different expectations of what it’s actually about. The blurb caught my eye immediately:

On the mysterious island of Nil, the rules are set. You have exactly 365 days to escape—or you die.

My mind immediately began racing with awesome possibilities and potential — Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, The Long Walk — yeah, no. NIL is not any of these, not even close. What I should have done was keep reading the plot summary after that initial sexy blurb, which states:

Lost and alone, Charley finds no sign of other people until she meets Thad, the gorgeous leader of a clan of teenage refugees. Soon Charley learns that leaving the island is harder than she thought . . . and so is falling in love.

BUT I DON’T WANT A TEENAGE LOVE STORY ON A DESERTED ISLAND!!!

I want death games, and blood and danger and action and running and characters I can root for and scream in agony when they meet horrible, unpredictable ends.

Yeah, that is so not this book. There’s a little bit of that — about 13.36% (the rest is all lurve and angst of the teenage variety, my favorite kind). If the author really wants to have a love story (and let’s face it, these days it’s almost impossible to publish a YA novel without one), then it should have been more balanced. There are some great ideas and plot devices introduced here, but none of them ever get the attention they deserve, or are they ever fully fleshed out.

Young teens put off by violence seeking a more tepid adventure on a desert island may find some appeal here. I found it mostly pedestrian, safe and largely unsatisfying. The only positive I can think to throw out right now is that at least there was no love triangle. At least there was that.

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

Review: The Burn Palace, Stephen Dobyns

The Burn Palace ★ ★ ★
Stephen Dobyns
Blue Rider Press, 2013
Available Now

Surely fear is the oldest emotion. Not love, not pride, not greed. The emotion urging you to run is older than the one telling you to embrace. ~The Burn Palace

burn palaceLet’s get the Negative Nelly rant out of the way first: I may have just taken too damn long to read this book (it was a hellish work week, and I couldn’t seem to find the time needed to just attack the book and submerse myself in it the way it demands). It starts out really strong — with a great premise — but somewhere along the way, Dobyns has created so many colorful characters and so many plot threads that the book begins to unravel and stall, rather than gain momentum and tightly coil for the final climactic reveal.

I am officially diagnosing this novel with Attention Deficit Disorder. Because there are so many leads to uncover and investigate, as well as so many people to get to know within the borders of this sleepy little Rhode Island town, the narration flits about quickly often jerkily with no discernible pattern, from character to character, plot point to plot point — a busy bee desperate to pollinate ALL the flowers in the garden.

Dobyns almost pulls it off. Parts of this novel work extremely well, but it is messy and misdirected in too many places and dare I say a little bit of the investigation starts to feel like an episode of Scooby-Doo. Alright, that’s harsh. I should retract that.

Dobyns has proven in the past he has the writing chops to create memorable characters and capture the psychology of small towns besieged by fear and paranoia. What didn’t work for me here, worked exceedingly well I thought in The Church of Dead Girls. The difference between that book and this one comes down to narration. While Dead Girls introduces almost as many characters, I feel the story benefits tremendously from the voice of a single narrator telling the story in first-person. It gives the novel a cohesiveness and determined direction that this one seems lacking in.

Okay, those are my complaints. Here are some things I enjoyed, because overall, I did like this book very much. When I did get the time to sit with it for a few hours, I found it casting a spell over me. The descriptive prose sucked me into the streets and lives of Brewster, Rhode Island. Stephen King has been very supportive of Dobyns in the past, blurbing his books, and this time is no different. King writes:

“I entered the small-town world Stephen Dobyns creates with such affection, horror, and fidelity….Dobyns has always been good, but this book is authentically great. The characters are vivid originals, not a stereotype among them, and the story pulled this reader in so completely that I didn’t want the book to end, and actually did go back to re-read the first chapter.”

Super generous, yes? Reading Dobyns you can definitely sense a “King vibe” going on and it is not a stretch to say that Dobyns has been influenced by King’s New England tales of the macabre and small town sinister shenanigans. Dobyns appears to be paying homage to King specifically here with such references as:

  • The novel opens with a baby being stolen from hospital room 217. Later, an abusive father states: “No boy likes to be corrected.” (The Shining)
  • One of the lead detectives is named Bobby Anderson. (The Tommyknockers)
  • Another main character describes reading The Shining, Cujo and The Dark Half.

Okay, small things to be sure, but they jumped out at me despite that and made me smile.

I also really enjoyed how the kids are written in this story. They are quirky and precocious without coming off as bratty and annoying. They are King-worthy kids, the highest compliment I can pay. I just wish there had been more of them and less of some of the other plot threads.

So that’s it. If only I had more glowing praise to offer. This is a dense book that demands your attention and patience. If you like a challenge, and lots of colorful characters, you may just love this. Dobyns is a great writer and I would never discourage anyone from picking up one of his books.

***Review of ARC provided by publisher through NetGalley.

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