Review: Bryant & May and the Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

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Bryant and May are back in the twelfth installment of Christopher Fowler’s long running series which finds the detectives of the Peculiar Crimes Unit investigating a bizarre series of murders leading up to Guy Fawkes Night.  The problems begin when a London banker is accused of insider trading at the Findersbury Private Bank.  This causes bad publicity for the bank and enormous losses for its clientele but it is also connected to a more grievous turn of events.  As Bryant points out, “[t]here’s nothing more frightening than watching what people do when they start to lose money.”  In this case, they start protesting in the streets.  Soon these mobs become a flash point of social and political unrest and the protesters grow more vocal and violent.  When a homeless man is killed on the steps of the bank by a Molotov cocktail, it appears he is an accidental victim of the mob’s violence.  Bryant and May, however,  suspect otherwise and begin investigating the case.  When a second man is murdered with burning tar and covered in feathers it is clear they are dealing with the mysterious agenda of a twisted murderer.  And when the murders continue coming one a day, the PCU fear they will culminate in some horrific event on Guy Fawkes Night.

The plot has its share twists and turns and the reveal is ultimately satisfying but the real meat on the bone of the book is the social and political commentary provided by Bryant and company on the state of modern society.  As one of Bryant’s friends notes, this is a society where you see “the urban middle class destroyed, the working poor exploited, the vulgar rich elevated to eminence, the underclass demonised [and] the wasteland of celebrity held in veneration.”  But as much as Bryant laments society’s current problems, as well as the loss of many London institutions, it is clear he would rather live in this world than give up on it.  During the course of the book, the reader becomes aware that Bryant is suffering from a medical condition which he valiantly tries to hide from May and the PCU.  But he can’t keep it a secret forever and when he finally confesses his condition to his friend he also enumerates a bucket list that is both funny and heart-wrenching.  In the hands of a different author this book might feel like a light mystery given its cast of quirky and endearing characters, but Fowler’s prose is clever and his use of British history throughout give it an enjoyable heft.  The book can be enjoyed on its own but this is a series that is well worthing reading from the beginning.

Bryant & May and the Burning Man, Bantam, 416 pp., $26.00.

 

Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware employs the murder at an English country estate device to a mostly satisfying effect in her first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood.  In doing so, Ware creates a crazy quilt of characters and a plot that is part mystery and part thriller.  The mostly likable narrator, Nora, is a crime fiction writer living in London who receives an invitation to attend a “hen” –a kind of bachelorette party– being thrown for Claire, her childhood best friend.  The hen takes place at an isolated country house and, as Nora has not seen Claire in years due to an unspecified falling out, the stage is set for some obvious drama.  Shortly after arriving, Nora learns that Claire is going to marry Nora’s ex-boyfriend and the discomfort level quickly ratchets up to eleven.  To make things worse, Nora soon realizes that Flo, Claire’s friend who organized the hen, is mentally unstable.  Add to this a landline that inexplicably stops working, nonexistent cell phone reception, a mysterious set of footprints in the snow leading to the backdoor of the house and an unloaded shotgun over the fireplace and it is clear that something very bad is going to happen.

Although In a Dark, Dark Wood is the debut novel from Ruth Ware, she has experience in the publishing business and her knowledge is evident in both the structure and pacing of the novel.  Her prose is fluid and the pages fly by so quickly you will be tempted to read the book in one sitting.  Despite these strengths, the book is not without it’s problems.  You will almost certainly guess the murderer’s identity early on making you wonder why the narrator hasn’t figured this out too.  In the latter part of the book the narrator seems frustratingly obtuse about criminal investigations and engages in some behavior that feels suspiciously like plot manipulation.  These issues were not enough to make me want to fling the book against the wall in disgust but there was some serious eye rolling going on.  Still, the dialogue is sharp and although this is more a light mystery than a thriller, there are several moments of tension and outright fear that are well written.  Despite the plot problems I enjoyed this book in large part because of Ware’s writing and the interesting characters.  All in all a solid debut novel from an author I looked forward to following.

In a Dark, Dark Wood, Gallery/Scout Press, 320 pp., $26.00.

 

 

Review: The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

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The Grownup is a melange of a classic Jamesian ghost story with a modern psychological tale reminiscent of Flynn’s prior novel, Gone Girl.  At 64 pages, the book occupies that no man’s land between short story and novella but manages to pack some very interesting characters into that short space.  First published in George R.R. Martin’s Rogues under the title “What Do You Do?,” it tells the story of a young, unnamed narrator who starts work as a beggar with her one-eyed mother before becoming a “therapist” that gives hand jobs to customers in the back room of a psychic’s shop.  She is a small-time, streetwise grifter that has a knack for reading people and then taking advantage of them. When her carpel tunnel syndrome prevents her from continuing to work as a “therapist,” she is forced to move to the front of the shop to work as a clairvoyant.   It is there she meets Susan Burke, a rich mother with two children and a serious problem.  Susan and her family have just moved in to Carterhook Manor, a creepy Victorian mansion that Susan believes may be haunted and may have possessed her stepson, Miles.  She hires the young con artist to cleanse the house and the woman agrees anticipating a profitable and easy job.

When the narrator visits the house, however, she soon suspects she may have underestimated both the ease of the job and the severity of the problem.  Susan’s psychological and physical conditions have deteriorated and her stepson, Miles, is far from a normal teenage boy.  The first part of the of the story builds nicely to some very disturbing scenes and reaches a frightening climax when the narrator finally realizes she is in over her head and tries to escape.  Problems with the story begin to surface, though, when the explanation for these hauntings is finally revealed.  Flynn takes the reader a little too firmly by the hand during the reveal and provides an almost clinical explanation of the events which only deflates the sense of horror built up to that point.  This results in a story that feels rushed and an additional twist at the end that feels less inventive and more like Flynn couldn’t decide between two different storylines.  And while the usual writing advice is to cut more rather than add more, I think the story would have been well served by the addition of another ten to twenty pages.  That said, I enjoyed the ironic fate of the narrator and Flynn does a good job of blending modern characters into the framework of the classic ghost story.

The Grownup, Crown Publishers, 64 pp., $5.99.

 

Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House, a series of five horror vignettes connected by a house as mysterious and evil as Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, is a creepy homage to classic haunted house stories. The first section, “The Right Sort,” was originally published via 280 tweets over the course of a week. Mitchell then wrote an additional four sections and the resulting story has now been published as a proper novel. In the book, the narrators of each vignette unravel the secrets of the Grayer twins and their mysterious home, Slade House. Every nine years someone is drawn to Slade House, either by invitation or in an attempt to solve its mystery. After entering the grounds through a small, black iron door found in a narrow alley, each character is enticed to travel deeper into the house by the promised fulfillment of some deeply personal desire. After that, they are never seen again.

Mitchell does an admirable job creating distinctive voices for each of the five narrators which range from a thirteen year old boy with Asberger-like problems, to a racist DI, to an overweight and lovesick college student. You don’t have to be a particularly careful reader to guess what will happen to the narrators after reading the first vignette but each tale has enough twists to make you question whether they will somehow escape this fate. One particular weakness of the book is that the climatic scenes of each section often feel at odds with the carefully choreographed tension and creepy atmosphere built up by Mitchell. This results in reveals and dialogue that seem as though they belong in a very different type of horror novel. The final vignette, however, does provide a modicum of a twist and should please fans of the storyline interwoven by Mitchell throughout many of his novels, including The Bone Clocks and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It is not necessary, however, to have read those books to enjoy Slade House.

Ten Great Horror Stories for Halloween

Halloween is less than two weeks away so now is a good time to stack the old nightstand with some books that are best read with all the lights on—or better yet, during the day. The following list contains a little bit of everything, from classic ghost stories to modern psychological horror to the boy next door who turned out to be a serial killer.

I’m Want Something Old School

Frank

FrankensteinMary Shelley

It doesn’t get much more old school than “Frankenstein.” Shelley wrote this now classic novel as part of a ghost story competition proposed by Lord Byron while she, her husband and a friend were vacationing in Switzerland. At the time, the idea of using electricity to stimulate muscles and other objects was a hot topic. So Shelley imagined what would happen if you used electricity to reanimate a corpse and her famous monster was born. And although the book was written almost two hundred years ago Shelley’s prose feels surprisingly modern. Most people assumed it was written by a man since it was originally published anonymously but Shelley proved that a woman has what it takes to write a great horror story. Another reason to be grateful? If not for Mary Shelly we wouldn’t have one of the funniest comedies of all time, “Young Frankenstein.”

I Just Want Classic Ghost Stories

Turn

The Turn of the ScrewHenry James

“The Turn of the Screw” is the quintessential psychological ghost story. James said he wrote this story as a “trap for the unwary” and it has been described by some frustrated critics as intentionally ambiguous. The story involves a governess who is hired to take care of two young children in an English country house. Soon after she arrives she sees a man and woman wandering around the estate but does not recognize them. The man and woman do not appear to be seen by anyone else and the governess comes to believe they are ghosts. Worse still, she suspects the children may have been corrupted by these ghosts. James skillfully weaves a tale that will have you question the true nature of the mysterious couple and the possibility that the governess is simply going mad.

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Collected Ghost Stories, M.R. James

Plenty of lists will steer you to Edgar Allen Poe for some old school ghost stories and Poe certainly has his fair share of classic ghost stories in his oeuvre. But M.R. James is considered by many to be the master of the English ghost story. Most of his stories involve the discovery of an old book or object that results in an unspeakable horror being visited on an unlucky victim. In “Casting the Runes,” for example, the narrator reaches under his pillow for his watch but finds instead “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair” and he realizes this is “not the mouth of a human being.” James (no relation to Henry James) was a dean at Kings College, Cambridge and wrote four volumes of ghost stories. Many of his classics can be found in this collection.

Woman in Black

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

Before “The Woman in Black” was a hit movie starring Daniel Radcliffe it was a wildly popular book and the second longest running play in London. The narrator is a solicitor hired to wrap up the estate of the widow at Eel Marsh House. He travels to the house from London and unwisely decides to spend the night while sorting through the estates’ papers. As he uncovers the story of the woman in black, he begins to see things in the house, including the woman herself who is not at all happy that he his there. Of course, it doesn’t end well.

I Want Something A Little More Modern

Shirley

The Haunting of Hill HouseShirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson wrote “The Haunting of Hill House” in 1959 and although the prose is modern the story has a clear gothic bent. Remember all those stories about a group of people that spend the night in a haunted house to find out if it is really haunted? Well, they all owe a debt to this story. Three people are invited to spend the summer at Hill House by a professor investigating the supernatural. They soon began experiencing all kinds of disturbing events that cannot be explained. Here, the house is the ghost and it preys on each member of the party with the most terrifying punishments being reserved for the psychologically weakest member of the group. A true classic.

 King

The ShiningStephen King

“The Shining” has become so well known and makes so many critics’ top ten lists you might be inclined to think it could be drifting toward kitsch. You would be wrong. The story is simple, almost familiar. Jack Torrance is hired to act as a caretaker of a large hotel that shuts down every winter. He is allowed to bring his family with him but otherwise he will be totally alone. Oh, and did I forget to mention the hotel is haunted? Kings’ chronicle of Torrance’s gradual descent into madness would be terrifying enough if Torrance were alone at the Overlook Hotel. The real power of the horror in the novel, though, is the effect this madness has on his family. Like “The Exorcist,” King works the family dynamic with terrifying results.

I Want Something More Hardcore

Blatty

The ExorcistWilliam Peter Blatty

“The Exorcist” is another book that most people associate with the movie of the same name. And why not? When the movie was released in 1973 there were stories of people fainting in the theaters while others fled before the film was over. No doubt this was due, in part, to the gruesome special effects of the film. But perhaps the real cause was the disturbing nature of the story itself: a twelve-year old girl is possessed by the devil as her mother struggles to understand what is happening to her. The book captures all the terror of this situation and more. A thoroughly modern horror story with the oldest demon around at its heart.

Harris

The Red DragonThomas Harris

“The Silence of the Lambs” gets all the love but this is the better book. A serial killer is murdering entire families, seemingly at random, and the F.B.I is called in to investigate. They discover a pattern of ritualistic killings in which the victims are bitten and cut with broken mirrors. “The Red Dragon” introduces us to Hannibal Lecter, one of the most disturbing fictional characters in recent years, and Jack Crawford, his F.B.I. counter-part. Originally published in 1981, “The Red Dragon” was one of the progenitors of the serial killer genre and is certainly one of the best books in that class.

Hill

Heart-Shaped BoxJoe Hill

For those who like their horror with a rock and roll flavor, there is Joe Hill’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” the story of aging rock star Jude Coyne. Coyne, like many rock stars, has left a trail of pain, broken relationships and heartbreak over the course of his career. He also has a taste for the macabre and after buying a suit that belonged to a dead man he discovers that the dead man’s ghost has followed him home Haunted Mansion style. Contains plenty of scares but also manages to reflect on the pain caused by our mistakes.

I Want a Challenge

Leaves

House of LeavesMark Z. Danielewski

At over 700 pages, you may still be reading this one next Halloween. Not because of its’ length but because of how the novel is constructed. A multitude of annotations, the liberal use of different typefaces, pages containing only a single word and multiple narrators all make this book a challenge to read. It has been described as both a horror story and a love story, although the plot is simple and familiar: a family moves into a house and soon discovers something is not right. In this case, the problem is that the house is bigger on the inside than the outside. They find huge staircases, extra bedrooms, numerous hallways and the periodic growl of some unknown creature. A cult classic.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

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So I just finished reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin as part of my “Does it Hold Up Over Time” reading series. I remember reading this book for the first time in the 8th grade and feeling a little bewildered. I had already read The Lord of the Rings so I felt confident about tackling more serious science fiction and fantasy books. I was, however, unprepared for the mature themes and the depth of the social issues that run throughout this book.  Re-reading the novel today I can see why it is considered a classic of the science fiction genre.  The writing is superb– something I sensed as a middle school reader but can now more fully appreciate.  The real power of this book though is the way it addresses the complex issues of xenophobia and the importance of bridging cultural divides.  It is a testament to Le Guin’s skill in conveying the difficulties inherent in dealing with such issues that I often felt uncomfortable as the protagonist, Gently Ai, interacted with a culture that was sometimes similar but often very different than his own.  Can you say “androgynous aliens?” The Left Hand of Darkness has definitely stood the test of time and is worth checking out even if you’ve never cracked open a science fiction book. The BBC seems to agree as they recently aired a BBC Radio Play of the book.