Chills by Mary SanGiovanni

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.”

And:

“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.

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The Croning by Laird Barron

The Croning by Laird Barron
The Croning by Laird Barron

Something amazing happens in Laird Barron’s The Croning.

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.

And later:

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.

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