Josh Malerman’s Black Mad Wheel is an excellent tale of a 1950s army band recruited to track down a mysterious musical weapon (and its equally mysterious owner) in the South African desert. The title could refer to vinyl records or the spin of reel-to-reel recording decks. It might refer to the tires of an army jeep stuck in the sand, or the ever-turning wheel of history. Or it could refer to life itself, the way we circle back, again and again, to the things that hurt and haunt us. Malerman leaves it open, and Black Mad Wheel is all the better for the ambiguity.
Protagonist Phillip Tonka should have listened to his mother when the army requested his band, The Danes, travel to South Africa to investigate a strange and potentially dangerous sound.
“Mystery,” she says, “is bad enough on its own. But mystery with the army?” She shakes her head. “Means they’re hiding something.”
Indeed, Black Mad Wheel is packed with twists, turns, betrayals, and a few moments of hold-your-breath suspense. This novel is not only set in the 1950s, it has a post-war mood that reverberates throughout the story, including a budding romance between Phillip and his nurse, Ellen.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I suppose we’re all a bit wounded.”
They stare at one another, connected by the hospital and more.
Perhaps the most interesting twist Malerman presents is that the sound is not a weapon, but the opposite, something capable of stopping the endless cycle of war.
While the ending hits a few sour notes, this book is 95% awesome. Malerman strikes a memorable chord in the pantheon of musical fiction with Black Mad Wheel.
Kathy Ryan has problems. Her brother is a psychopath who tried to kill her when they were young, and now a band of cultists have unleashed an otherworldly invasion on the otherwise quiet town of Colby, Connecticut. Kathy is also emotionally drained from her job battling supernatural monsters. Guarding the inter-dimensional gateway against ancient intruders is difficult work, described in Mary SanGiovanni‘s Chills as:
“It was science and science fiction and magic and religion and physics and mathematics all sort of rolled into one.”
“This here is the language of creation and destruction itself, the language that echoes the sound of the Convergence, the substance between dimensions and the space between the stars.”
It is no wonder that Kathy drinks. Heavily.
Mary SanGiovanni creates an otherworldly winter wonderland in Chills. Described as “H.P. Lovecraft meets True Detective,” Chills reads more like a road episode of the X-Files, if Fox and Mulder or combined into one powerful female protagonist.
Kathy has help on her quest to shut the inter-dimensional doorway and keep the world-eating Old Gods out. Teagan not only provides a romantic foil for Kathy, he also helps her solve a linguistics problem (who knew Old Gods spoke Gaelic? Top o’ the mornin’, Cthulu!)
Detective Jack Glazier loses a loved one, but saves the day, surviving a face-to-tentacle brush with the Old Gods. SanGiovanni makes magnificent monsters, from her Blue People, to her fish-headed assassins, to the messy tentacle-monsters at the novel’s conclusion. But her finest achievement is the way she transforms the weather itself into a fully flesh-out character in Chills. The snow is alive, spawning screaming creatures who “sound not much different in timbre from the waling gust of wind.” Old Man Winter is a mean bully.
“The creatures, though, had raised an incredible din. It sounded to Jack like wind and thunder, and it was growing louder.”
The backbone of this novel is Kathy’s relationship with her damaged brother, Toby. SanGiovanni does an excellent job describing Toby’s detachment:
“Everything is happening around you and you’re in the center of it, but you’re not real, not really there. You’re just . . . superimposed on the world.”
And the suffering of individuals with mental disorders:
“It was unsettling to watch anyone die slowly of intellectual malnutrition in the deserted wasteland of a broken mind…”
SanGiovanni is at her best when she’s world-building (or, other-world building, as the case my be). Her mythos borrows Lovecraft’s structure, but expands upon it in delightful and strangely logical ways (something Lovecraft himself often failed to achieve). SanGiovanni’s prose is lyrical — almost poetic —her characters are believably flawed human beings, and her mastery of tone and atmosphere makes Chills a chilling, edge-of-your-seat read.
Responsibility. Withdrawal symptoms. Owning up to their past mistakes.
One of the recovering addicts in Matt Hayward’s creep-fest What Do Monsters Fear? sums up the plot in a few well-chosen words:
“Three strung-out fucks are gonna stop an ancient evil god?”
Hell, yeah, they are! Because the ancient evil god—a body-snatching baddie called Phobos—has underestimated the drive and determination of men with nothing left to lose.
There’s a claustrophobic quality to this novel comparable to the trapped arctic explorers in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tensions ratchet up by as Phobos picks off victims and terrifies those that remain. Like Freddy Krueger or Pennywise, Phobos knows what scares you, and takes perverse pleasure in torturing victims with their own deepest fears and phobias.
Hayward’s writing engages the senses and propels the story forward, like when he introduces the shifty doctor:
“A waft of aftershave drifted from him, tainting the honest smell of raw wood.”
Or describes the death of supernatural beings:
“Unlike in the movies when a supernatural entity died, the cat didn’t dissipate into nothingness with a sizzle. Instead, it burned and burned, the smell of charred flesh and singed hair filling the space. Dark smoke packed the room.”
Hayward employs the same multi-sensory technique even when the scenes get visceral:
“Shelly’s body slopped from the table and splashed to the floor.”
Poor liquified Shelly makes another appearance later on:
“He stepped in Shelly Matthews. The liquefied blob of flesh quivered like a fried egg beneath his heel. One eye blinked within the mess and stared back at him.”
Yuck! Sucks to be Shelly! Beyond the blood and monsters, What Do Monsters Fear? tackles the issue of addicts in recovery, and the way they view themselves as they attempt to turn their lives around.
“Peter hated to admit it, but for the briefest moment, he related to the monster.”
But men and monsters alike get second chances. Seeing elderly drunk Henry’s redemption is perhaps the novel’s most triumphant moment.
“I was useful for once in my miserable piece of shit life… My actions meant something.”
That’s the kind of validation we all seek, both addict and non-addict, man and monster alike.
Hayward has a great sense of pacing and a cinematic writing style that makes What Do Monsters Fear? a fast, fun read! He leaves the door open for potential sequels, and implies that the worst kind of monsters don’t live in alternate, cosmic dimensions but inside the hearts of men.
Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full Of Ghosts is a beautiful novel, a post-modern tale of demonic possession that leaves you questioning where truth lies in our surreal/unreal world.
Publisher William Morrow sums up A Head Full Of Ghosts:
The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.
To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.
Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.
Like a brilliant gem, A Head Full Of Ghosts looks different from different angles. Overall, it’s a story about the bonds of sisterhood. It’s also an indictment of our reality TV culture and the toll it takes on reality itself. Viewed from another angle, it’s a straight-up tale of demonic possession packed with genuinely scary moments, suspenseful scenes, and plot twists that leave the reader satisfied—and a bit haunted—after reading.
That’s how good horror stories work and Tremblay has crafted a great one. He freely pulls from pop culture influences—from Richard Scarry books to Lovecraft’s Elder Gods mythos—and deftly weaves them into a plausible framework for his story.
At one point Tremblay describes the older sister’s disheveled appearance:
Her black hair was a dead octopus leaking and sliding off her scalp.
Conjuring images of both Lovecraftian monsters and the pale she-demons that stalk modern Japanese horror, like The Ring.
What kind of demon is at work here? Tremblay implies it’s the vengeful ghost of the Internet itself when Majorie reports:
I was born with all of the universe’s information hidden in the infinite folds and wrinkles of my gray matter, and the information itself decides when it wants to come out and be known.
At times Tremblay implicates the readers as voyeuristic sadists, as we watch “the terrible and systematic torture of a mentally ill teenage girl under the guise of entertainment.” Then he flips the script so you feel like you’re no more than a morsel of food slipping into a monstrous gullet.
“I could eat the world. Merry, pass the sauce, please,” Majorie said, and winked at me.
All the characters are fully realized and accessible. Your heart breaks for the Barrett family as outside forces—perhaps demonic, perhaps dogmatic— tear their lives apart.
Protagonist Ignatius C. Reilly is a bloated buffoon, a man-baby who lives with his mother, has a troubled digestive valve that causes him to burp and fart with great frequency, and possesses one of the most “unique” worldviews you’re likely to find.
Ignatius is loaf completely at ease with his loafishness:
“I dust a bit,” Ignatius told the policeman. “In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”
Ignatius is like a giant child when he considers his career options and argues with his mother:
I suspect that something like a newspaper route would be rather agreeable.
“I dare you to come out in that shredded nightgown and get me!” Ignatius answered defiantly and stuck out his massive pink tongue.
Above all, A Confederacy of Dunces is funny. Laugh out loud is an overused phrase, but COD will make you LOL for realz, yo. The situations are so absurd, the characters so odd, and the dialogue veers between biting satire punctuated by unexpected blasts of pee-your-pants profanity.
“Go dangle your withered parts over the toilet!” Ignatius screamed savagely. Miss Trixie shuffled away.
No mater what the problem, Ignatius always finds a way to blame others.
“Employers sense in me a denial of their values.” He rolled over onto his back. “They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century which I loathe.
You must realize the fear and hatred which my weltanschauung instills in people.
He twisted his face into a mask of suffering. There was no use fighting Fortuna until the cycle was over. “You realize, of course, that this is all your fault.
“You’re full of bullshit.”
“I? The incident is sociologically valid. The blame rests upon our society.”
Sometimes COD goes for screwball comedy and slapstick. Taken as a whole, COD is the mother of all farces.
When he’s not avoiding work or fighting with his mother, Ignatius plots against Myrna, a radical student he once attended classes with. The romantic ending of COD is anticipated but still manages to be unexpectedly satisfying.
Dr. Talc idly wondered if they (Iggy and Myrna) had married each other. Each certainly deserved the other.
Through Myrna’s letters we see she has true insight into Ignatius’ personality:
This “automobile accident” is a new crutch to help you make excuses for your meaningless, impotent existence.
A good, explosive orgasm would cleanse your being and bring you out of the shadows.
Great Oedipus bonds are encircling your brain and destroying you
Ignatius, a very bad crack-up is on the way. You must do something. Even volunteer work at a hospital would snap you out of your apathy,
The valve closes because it thinks it is living in a dead organism. Open your heart, Ignatius, and you will open your valve.
Behind his absurdity, Ignatius is sad and lonely, a sorrow that stems from his isolationism:
We both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Myrna was, you see, terribly engaged in her society; I, on the other hand, older and wiser, was terribly dis-engaged.
I really have had little to do with them, for I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.
I don’t dance. I never dance. I have never danced in my life.
COD is also a love letter to Toole’s native New Orleans:
Patrolman Mancuso inhaled the moldy scent of the oaks and thought, in a romantic aside, that St. Charles Avenue must be the loveliest place in the world.
New Orleans is, on the other hand, a comfortable metropolis which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive. At least its climate is mild.
The balconies of the old buildings hung over my head like dark branches in an allegorical forest of evil.
I won’t get into the tragic personal history of author John Kenndy Toole. The story behind his career and the publication of COD is itself an impossible tale of heartbreaking genius. But the toxic mother-son relationship at the heart of this novel certainly is rife with autobiographical elements.
Ms. Reilly laments Ignatius’ weak work ethic.
“My heart’s broke.”
“Ain’t he writing something?”
“Some foolishness nobody never gonna feel like reading.”
Fortunately, the real-life Thelma Toole felt differently about her son’s work.
The magic of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling lies in its combination of simplicity and familiarity. Like a three-chord pop song, Harry Potter sticks in your head, causing pleasant sensations as it bounces around your brain.
The star of the show, of course, is Harry Potter himself, a downtrodden elementary school student who must contend with the sudden responsibility of fulfilling a magical destiny. The well-known coming-of-age tale of finding (and re-inventing) yourself in a new school gives Harry Potter’s high fantasy a connection to real-world grade school drama, which is what makes this book so appealing to readers of all ages.
Harry embarks upon a hero’s quest to find the elusive Sorcerer’s Stone.
The Stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.
“Now, don’t ask me anymore,” said Hagrid gruffly. “That’s top secret, that is.”
There’s the wise and patient old teacher, Dumbledore, who walks a trail blazed by Gandolf and Yoda, and gets the lion’s share of the book’s most meaningful quotes:
It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.
To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.
“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”
“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
This last one is interesting, since Rowling plays an annoying name game with the characters in Harry Potter. The school bully is named Draco Malfoy and his thug friends are Crabbe and Goyle. These characters are snakes in the grass and they live in Slytherin House. The school nerd is Neville Longbottom. A wicked teacher is named Severus Snape. Maybe younger readers find these over-the-top character names endearing, but they took me out of the story a bit every time I encountered them.
Naming quibbles aside, Rowling’s writing is sharp, lean, and constantly moving forward. This is the stuff that page-turners are made off. Keeping her younger readers in mind, Rowling sometimes goes straight for juvenile gross-out:
“Can you smell something?” Harry sniffed and a foul stench reached his nostrils, a mixture of old socks and the kind of public toilet no one seems to clean.
He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue. “Urgh – troll boogers.” He wiped it on the troll’s trousers.
Other times, Harry Potter skirts the fringes of horror fiction (while conjuring the legend of Edward Mordake):
Harry would have screamed, but he couldn’t make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Quirrell’s head, there was a face, the most terrible face Harry had ever seen. It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.
A piercing, bloodcurdling shriek split the silence — the book was screaming! Harry snapped it shut, but the shriek went on and on, one high, unbroken, earsplitting note.
Part of the fun of Harry Potter is the interactive games, wizarding spells, and puzzle solving that keeps the reader engaged the way an old Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen mystery might.
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Dumbledore serves up the novel’s main theme—undying love versus ancient evil—for young hero, Harry:
He (Voldemort) didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.
Isn’t this the wish of all living beings, to be loved by our mothers, and to be watched over by those who came before us? To be marked by a love so powerful and eternal it will protect and guide you through life?
It’s no wonder the Harry Potter franchise is so popular. It contains characters and situations we can all relate too (even if they’re cloaked in the fantastic) while quietly fulfilling humanity’s deepest wish.
The hero saves the day simply by forgetting to act. He agrees to let his mind rot away (perhaps the most terrifying fate of all) while his witchy woman makes off with their newborn grandchild.
That’s the happiest ending possible in this twisted tale that combines the legend of Rumplestilskin, Ira Levin’s secret satanic societies, and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror mythos.
Laird Barron is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. His stuff is way out there, there’s a palpable sense of the strange in his prose, and he uses cools words like sybarites and decorticate.
Protagonist Don Miller is the last to learn he’s a pawn in an ancient game. His wife is a witch hell-bent on double-crossing a race of demons that long to suck humanity dry and wipe the Earth clean.
Every smart husband knows when to back off, and Miller has learned not to pry into his wife’s affairs or ask too many questions.
She’d given him a long, wintry look, the coldest he’d ever received prior or since. Then she said, Leave a girl her secrets, Don.
Miller willfully turns a blind eye, and maybe that’s the secret to their successful marriage. That, and the long absences Don and Michelle take from one another. A nosey federal agent points out what Miller refuses to see about himself:
I’m guessing you’re exactly the rube she needs to maintain her cover as a cute little lady scientist. Who’d suspect her of anything with Gomer Pyle hanging around?
The Ancient Evil at work here is called Old Leech, and it’s straight outta Stoker, yo.
This was a colossal worm that had swallowed whole villages, cities… A leech of nightmare proportions, a constellation rendered against granite, and it had shat the populations of entire worlds in its slithering wake through the night skies.
There is a lot of weird stuff going on here. Hollow Earth Theory. Toothy, limbless creatures that live inside ancient trees. Sacrificial dolmens, like Stonehenge, in the middle of the Washington State. Vortexes to other dimensions.
The conspiracy is everywhere, as Don learns, and his own daughter is not immune. Don’s turncoat boss gives a glimpse into the vastness of the enemy:
“They worship a deity that ate the fucking dinosaurs, several species of advanced hominids and the Mayans. Opened a gate and slurped them through a funnel.”
And as Old Leech’s human servant puts it:
We venerate the Great Dark, the things that dwell there… Our cult is monolithic with tentacles in every human enterprise throughout history, into prehistory.”
“Ah, like Amway,” Don notes.
Barron’s language is equal parts noir and poetry.
You are a mosquito trapped in the sap of a sundew.
You’re a flea on the belly of a mastodon.
Barron’s writing makes you feel small and frightened, which is all you can ask from good horror fiction.
The Croning can trace its literary roots back to Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife. But Leiber’s “classic” novel is dated and quaint (and more than a little paranoid) by today’s standards. The Croning is a more wholly realized tale that digs deeper into the fertile soil of myth and fairy-tale, and employs more believable characters to deliver its message.
There is something beautiful and poetic about the splatterpunk redneck fiction on display in Edward Lee‘s novella Header (1995) and the long-form novel Creekers (1994).
Lee’s redneck horror pays homage to Richard Laymon‘s novels of backwoods terror as well as James Dickey‘s classic, Deliverance. Lee’s work is violent and nasty, but his pacing and dialogue are so swift and on-target, you’re knee-deep in foul shit before you even know what happened.
Headers is a twisted novella about rednecks that drill holes in peoples’ skulls and stick their erections inside. Creekers is about backwoods inbreds, and the slick tight rope they walk between an ancient evil and the modern plague of drugs.
The drug trade is the backdrop in both Headers and Creekers. Both stories have lawmen protagonists who are down on their luck and looking for redemption. It doesn’t work out so well for either guy.
Both of these novels are rollicking fun, even if they’re bloody disgusting. Like a Quentin Tarantino movie, Lee’s work seems to revel in a cartoonish level of violence and gore while searching for some kind of existential meaning beyond the mutilation and torment of the physical body. There are lots of dirty sex scenes, too. What’s not to like?
Even so, there are amazing and memorable moments in this book, as well as a few genuinely shocking events, including multiple cases of incest (the Buendia family has a proclivity toward incest, as well as a constant fear of birthing a monster baby born with a “pig’s tail”).
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s language is breathtaking and strange:
“He had wept in his mother’s womb and had been born with this eyes open”
Surrealistic fiction means anything can happen, and it often does in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It rains for “four years, eleven months, and two days.” They tie the family patriarch to a tree for decades. There’s a rain of flowers. All this strangeness is taken in stride, which is what makes it so surreal. The overall theme seems to be the Buendia family’s failure to learn from past mistakes.
Family matriarch Urusala notes:
“Every member of the family, without realizing it, repeated the same path every day, the same actions, and almost repeated the same words at the same hour. Only when they deviated from the meticulous routine did they run the risk of losing something.”
The word “solitude” takes on a different meaning each time it appears in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Sometimes it means being alone and/or lonely. Other times solitude is a type of personal obligation or duty that one must endure. Solitude above all seems to be the common thread that runs through the Buendia family, as each member has their own moments of intense personal reflection.
García Márquez mentions “the paradise of shared solitude,” and says of the relationship between Jose Arcadio and Aureliano:
“That drawing closer together of two solitary people of the same blood was far from friendship, but it did allow them both to beaer up better under the unfathomable solitude that separated and united them at the same time.”
There’s undoubtedly a lot of political metaphor here. Marquez’s fictional town of Macondo is a stand-in for Colombia, and I’m sure I missed the geopolitical significance of many of the events in the novel since I’m not familiar with Colombia’s history. Evidently there are a lot of real-life events seen metaphorically in One Hundred Years of Solitude, like the building of a railroad into the secluded mountain regions, the slaughter of striking workers by government soldiers, and the influence of big business on the culture. (The novel’s “American Fruit Company” is a stand-in for the United Fruit Company, an American company whose rapid expansion into Central and South America countries in the early 1900s brought about the term “banana republics.”)
According to our omniscient overlord, Wikipedia, “García Márquez is said to have a gift for blending the everyday with the miraculous, the historical with the fabulous, and psychological realism with surreal flights of fancy.” It’s true (like everything Wiki tells us, right?) but García Márquez makes it hurt with dense language and ponderous pacing.
One Hundred Years of Solitude may be a literary classic, but something got lost in translation for me.
But before King conjured the Children of the Corn, author/actor Thomas Tryon‘s built Harvest Home(1973), a rural-gothic horror novel that was a major influence not only on King, but appears to have helped shaped the work of T.E.D Klein’s The Ceremonies, and Ira Levin’s novels of the occult.
Set in the fictional corn-fed farming community of Cornwall Coombe, Connecticut, Harvest Home offers a familiar set-up. Narrator Ned Constantine and his wife Beth are fed up with life in New York City, so they take their teenage daughter and move to the country. The Constantines fall in love with country living (for a while) and embrace Cornwall Coombe’s quirky traditions. But, as Tryon notes, sometimes simple beliefs hide wicked and troubling superstitions.
Tryon borrows heavily from Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, (check out my Conjure Wife review here) with it’s powerful cast of female witches and equally memorable cast of wimpy males.
There’s a groovy ‘70s feel to Harvest Home. Like Happy Days, Harvest Home was created in the early ‘70s but reflects a simpler time in American culture. The novel has a cozy movie-of-the-week feel to it as well, which adds to the ’70s vibe. In fact, Harvest Home was made into an NBC mini-series in 1978 called The Dark Secrets of Harvest Home.
Harvest Home is presented more as a gothic mystery than a straight-up horror novel. Tryon’s tome is dulled a bit by time—and by forty years of rip-offs and imitators —but it still manages to hit all the right notes, especially during the racy climax and grimly satisfying Epilogue. Harvest Home finishes strong, and there are not many novels you can honestly say that about.