Later – Stephen King

I was a total SK stan back in the day, and while I no longer read everything he writes, I do still read him. I picked up Later yesterday morning, and didn’t stop reading until I finished the book. Like Joyland, Later is part of the Hard Case Crime series, which reissues classic crime stories for today’s audiences and also allows current writers to try their hand. While not strictly a crime story, Later does nicely slot into this series.

Jamie Conklin sees dead people.

As far as I can remember, I always have. But it’s not like in that movie with Bruce Willis. It can be interesting, it can be scary sometimes (the Central Park dude), it can be a pain in the ass, but mostly it just is

The way this works is that Jamie sees the dead soon after they have died, wearing what they were wearing, and hanging out in a place where they spent a lot of time. Jamie can ask them questions, and the dead must tell him the truth. Eventually, usually within a week, the dead start to drift away from him until they finally disappear forever.

Jamie’s mom, Tia, knows about her son’s strange ability and, more importantly, she believes in it. For a long time, it is their secret, but then she tells her girlfriend, an NYPD officer. That’s when things start to get tricky for Jamie. After the relationship between Tia and Liz goes sideways, Liz has one last favour to ask of Jamie, and it concerns a guy called Thumper. Jamie tells us at the beginning that he thinks “this is a horror story”, and he’s not wrong.

I don’t want to say too much more than that because I don’t want to spoil any of the novel’s myriad pleasures. Jamie is a terrific narrator, and Later is vintage King. The story cracks along, there are plenty of creep-a-licious moments, and a couple of surprises, too. Whenever I do read King, I am reminded of why he is loved by so many. Reading him is like sliding into your most comfortable sweats on a cold winter night. He always delivers a great tale and Later is a worthy addition to your King collection.

The Lesser Dead – Christopher Buehlman

I think vampire stories are difficult to do well. Do you mess with the tropes? Do you make them evil or angsty? Should they sparkle? Have a conscience? Be sexy? Ruthless killers? Earlier this year I re-read Nancy Baker’s The Night Inside and it didn’t quite hold up to my memories of it. Christopher Buehlman’s 2014 book The Lesser Dead is, on the other hand, a fabulous book about vampires, if bloodsuckers are a thing you enjoy.

Joey Peacock was just fourteen when he was turned in 1933. Now it’s 1978 and Joey lives with an ad hoc family of vamps in the unused subway tunnels of New York City. His first person narrative is both funny and kind of heartbreaking.

If you’re looking for a story about nice people doing nice things, this isn’t for you. You will be burdened with an unreliable narrator who will disappoint and repel you at every turn.

Still with me?

Too bad for you.

I can’t wait to break your heart

Joey tells us a tale of monsters and warns readers that “if you like those stories, it means you’re bad.” He spends the early part of his story explaining how he and the others live, their hierarchy and how they hunt. He tells us the story of how he came to be a vampire and it’s a life he likes just fine. Then, one night, he sees something peculiar on the subway.

It was a kid. A little girl. Long black hair like an Oriental, but she was Anglo. Pale skin. Pretty but haunted. She was sitting two seats closer than she had been, though I never saw her move, holding a Raggedy Ann doll she didn’t seem interested in. She was looking at briefcase-hooker-notepad guy.

He looked back at her. And stared. It was all wrong.

This won’t be the only time Joey encounters this little girl, and the other children she hangs with. Their arrival in NYC starts a chain of events that is gory, horrifying and a lot of fun to read.

It’s interesting to read a vampire story that respects the lore, but isn’t afraid to tweak it a little. These vampires can eat and drink, but it’s only for show; food of the non-blood variety upsets their tummies. Sunlight. Not good. Thrall – totally a thing. Decapitation – end of the road for a vampire in this world. I loved all these little details.

I also loved the other vampires who shared Joey’s life: Margaret, their leader; Cvetko, Old Boy, Ruth, Billy and Luna are among the fourteen vampires in Joey’s immediate circle. Of them, he’s closest to Cvetko, who was turned around 1890. He’s the scholar in the group and acts, in some ways, as Joey’s mentor. Television, he tells Joey, will rot his brain. Joey describes Cvetko as a “charming but endearing calamity.”

The Lesser Dead is a great book and Joey is a fantastic narrator. I loved the time I spent with him trolling the tunnels of NYC and trying to do the right thing. Turns out, some vampires do care a great deal for humanity, even if their reasons are somewhat selfish.

Highly recommended.

The Night Inside – Nancy Baker

I have a vague memory of reading Nancy Baker’s novel The Night Inside years ago – perhaps closer to the time it was first published in 1993. I am not going to classify this as a re-read, though, because most of it was so unfamiliar it felt like I was reading it for the first time.

Ardeth Alexander is a grad student who is just about ready to graduate, leave academia behind and step into the real world. She’s the dependable one; her younger sister, Sara, is the wild one. She can’t shake this feeling that she’s being followed, though, and one morning on a run near Casa Loma, she’s grabbed by two thugs and whisked off to parts unknown, where she ends up in a basement cell.

The guy in the cell next to her is Dimitri Rozokov. He’s a vampire, and an old one. He’s lived as long as he has by being extremely careful. Even though Ardeth is sure there is no way he can exist because, after all, “Vampires do not exist, except as metaphors,” Ardeth’s captors prove that he’s deadly by showing Ardeth why he’s in a cell.

Turns out, they’re making movies. Roias, one of the men who nabbed her, gives her a private show and what she witnesses horrifies her.

The vampire was hungry and not particularly neat. When he was done, he dropped Suzy’s body over the table. Blood was smeared across her breasts and shoulders, painted across her face in a parody of cosmetics. Her blonde hair was dark with it, but not as dark as the gaping hole in her throat. When he let her fall, one limp arm knocked over the wedding cake and left its remains decorated with red icing.

It turns out, though, that Rozokov is a civilized being, and in their time chained in cells next to each other, the two captives talk. When it becomes clear that their days are numbered, they devise a plan to escape, but the plan comes at a cost.

I have long been fascinated with vampires. When I was a kid, I can remember going to old black and white movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and being terrified. What was my mother thinking?! I’ve read Dracula and devoured ‘salem’s Lot. Then, right around the time my kids were born, I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that sent me down a rabbit hole.

I didn’t hate The Night Inside, but I didn’t love it, either. Part of the problem is that there was a lot going on. Rozokov’s back story and the people chasing him might have been enough to sustain a novel. There needed to be a meet cute, or a meet ick in this case, though. Ardeth and Rozokov’s time as captives only makes up a small portion of the story, though, and then the pair are separated. Oddly enough, the novel felt dated to me, which is weird considering Rozokov is 500 years old.

I Remember You – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is a big deal in Iceland and I Remember You is the winner of the Icelandic Crime Fiction Award. It sounded like a book that I would really enjoy and I am always game to try new-to-me authors. The thing that I keep forgetting is that nine times out of ten translations are often disappointing, and this was no exception.

I Remember You is two stories, really. In one, three friends Garðar, his wife Katrín  and their widowed friend, Líf, have decided to travel to Hesteyri, a deserted village “way up north in the middle of nowhere.” The reason for this journey? It’s really Líf’s dead husband Einar’s fault.

He had spun them the story of a village at the end of the world, beauty and peace, and endless hiking trails in an unforgettable setting. Garðar had been inspired – not by the lure of nature, but by the fact that Einar hadn’t been able to rent a room in Hesteyri, since the only guesthouse there had been full. Katrín  couldn’t remember which of them had gone on to suggest they see if any of the other houses there were for sale and transform one into a guesthouse, but it didn’t matter: once the idea had been mooted there was no going back.

So, these three crazy kids head out to this remote place, in the winter, to begin refurbishing the house that is without electricity, running water, heat and, oh, yeah, there’s no one else around for miles. The captain of the boat who takes them to Hesteyri tells them they can return with him, free of charge, but they’re keen on this adventure. Lord knows why.

In the parallel story, Freyr, a psychiatrist, is helping Dagný, a police detective, discover who had broken into a primary school and caused a lot of damage. Freyr still isn’t over the loss of his son, Benni, who disappeared three years ago. His marriage is done, and he has thrown himself into his work. At first it appears that Freyr’s story has nothing to do with what’s happening on Hesteyri, but the more digging Freyr does the more coincidences start to reveal themselves.

I wish I could tell you that all of this is super creepy, but it’s not.  It takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r to get anywhere until the very end, when things seem to unravel super quickly. And, of course, the dialogue – especially near the end – is as clunky as hell. I understand this is a translation, but I always think it would be better to have someone go over dialogue after the translation is done to try and make people sound more natural. Given the circumstances these people find themselves in, you’d think they’d spend less time explaining and more time reacting.

There were a couple of creepy moments, but overall, it was a lot of fuss and bother for nothing.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism – Grady Hendrix

In the way that the monsters and demons in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are a metaphor for the horrors of high school, Grady Hendrix’s page-turner My Best Friend’s Exorcism works on a both a figurative and literal level. Or, at least, it did for me.

Abby and Gretchen have been besties since the day that Gretchen, a new kid in school, turns up to Abby’s tenth birthday party. She’d invited the whole class to the roller rink for an E.T. themed party (it’s the 80s), but Gretchen is the only one who shows up. All the others accepted an invitation to Margaret’s polo plantation (the novel takes place in South Carolina, where apparently there are such things) for a day of horse-back riding. When Abby asks Margaret why she didn’t go to that party, Gretchen replies “You invited me first.” It is from this awkward beginning that the two girls become best friends.

My best friend story has a similar beginning. When Michelle arrived at the country school I attended at the beginning of grade eight, I didn’t like her. And she didn’t like me. At least that’s how I remember it. Her hair was too blonde, her jeans were too tight and she hung out with the older kids. I was about as geeky as they came. We both imagined being writers and I remember that the Prize for English was a hot commodity; I won. Then in grade nine, more than half of the students in our class went on an exchange to Marathon, Ontario. Neither of us went, and that meant that we were without our usual friend groups. One afternoon, we found ourselves talking at the back of a classroom. Turns out, we had way more in common than not and that afternoon cemented a friendship that is now 45 years strong.

Abby and Gretchen have the best friend short-hand. They bond over movies and music. They trade secrets and commiserate about their families; “Everything happened over the next six years. Nothing happened over the next six years.” When Abby’s home life starts to crumble, Gretchen’s family is there to pick up the pieces.

And then. Abby, Gretchen, Margaret (same one, now a friend) and Glee are in high school and one afternoon, they decide to take acid. Just to try it out, not because they’re druggies. It’s 1988. The incident kicks off a descent into a hellscape that causes friendships to fracture. Gretchen disappears that night, and when Abby finds her the next morning she can’t remember anything about her night lost in the woods.

Things take a decided turn for the worst over the coming weeks, and the beauty of this novel (and there are many of them) is that I couldn’t decide whether Gretchen’s possession was literal or just a function of being a high school sophomore. People change, right, especially at this point in their lives. They’re always trying on new personas, shedding one skin to try out another. Abby never gives up on her friend, even when Gretchen behaves horribly; even when her own sanity and safety are threatened.

The nostalgia is a river running through Hendrix’s book, the chapters titled after popular songs, the allusions to the TV shows and pop culture of the era. The book is packaged like a high school yearbook. And I was sent hurtling back to my high school days, when friendships are the most important things in your life. About fifty pages in, I couldn’t put the book down.

And for the record, I would fight the devil for you, too, Michelle.

Highly recommended.

The Outsider – Stephen King

I haven’t read anything by Stephen King since Joyland but I am a fan from wayyyyy back. Despite the often creepy subject matter, King is like book comfort food. I know when I read him, I will not be disappointed (The Tommyknockers aside). The Outsiders delivers in every category…and lucky for me I started it at the beginning of my March Break because I could not put that 560 page sucker down. 

Flint City, Oklahoma is a quiet little ‘burb, but something horrific has happened there. outsider Eleven-year-old Frank Peterson has been found dead in the woods. The crime is unspeakable – so I won’t speak of it here, you’ll get enough of it in the book – and Detective Ralph Anderson is determined to catch the psycho who committed the crime posthaste.

It actually turns out to be a pretty easy case to crack: the DNA evidence is ironclad and there’s a handful of reliable eye-witnesses. Soon, Anderson is arresting Little League coach Terry Maitland.  Maitland, a high school teacher and well-respected member of the community, maintains his innocence, and there’s irrefutable evidence to prove that he didn’t kill Frankie. Like the detectives and the District Attorney, you’ll be trying to figure out how any of this is possible. And then, about half way through the book,  you’ll be reminded that you’re in King territory and he doesn’t play by the rules.

The Outsider is a puzzle of a book and in some ways it sort of reminded me of It, which is probably my favourite King novel. I mean, there’s not really a lot of similarities, except that a strange assortment of people gather together to fight evil, but the showdown at the end of The Outsiders gave me all-the-feels.

Here’s what I have always admired about Stephen King. He writes a cracking good story. The writing is unpretentious. It doesn’t get in the way, as writing often can. Story is king (excuse the pun) and he just lets his characters go about their business. And his characters are believable. You’ll root for them; you’ll care for them; you’ll want them to be safe. (Can’t help you with that, unfortunately. As King famously said in his memoir On Writing, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”)

If I have one niggle – and it’s so tiny and insignificant it’s hardly worth mentioning, but I will just so I don’t go full-on fangirl – sometimes, occasionally, the dialogue made me wince just a teensy bit.

But who cares?! Seriously. I had a ball reading this book. It’s all kinds of awesome. And the HBO series looks pretty dang good, too.

 

The Damned – Andrew Pyper

223C2A3B-A2C4-455F-AEFE-1A58DF3297B0Canadian writer Andrew Pyper is often compared to Stephen King and I can see why.  Both writers skillfully find the scary in the every day, and in relationships which should be sacrosanct. Pyper mined that territory in his novel The Guardians  and he does it again in The Damned which hooks you in pretty much from page one.

Danny Orchard has come back from the dead on more than one occasion. He wrote about the experience in a memoir called The After a book that, many years later, keeps him busy at “dentists’ conventions and service club fundraisers” where he talks about what’s at the end of the long tunnel. Danny’s experience has inspired a group known as The Afterlifers, “a community for those who’ve traveled to the other side and returned.”

When Danny was sixteen he and his fraternal twin, Ashleigh (Ash), were killed in a house fire. Well, Ash was killed; Danny was saved. If saved is what you want to call it. I guess Danny would have a different opinion about it since he’s been haunted by his sister ever since. Although on the surface, it looked like Danny and his family had it all

My father, mother, and I were aware that a monster lived with us, however photogenic, however scholarship-guaranteed. And because she was only a girl, because she was one of us by name, because we feared her, there was nothing we could do about it.

Ash is clearly a psychopath and death doesn’t change that, so Danny’s life is pretty solitary until he meets Willa and her ten-year-old son Eddie.  He believes that he can keep them safe, but Ash isn’t about to let go that easily and Danny soon realizes that he is going to have to face her on her terms. If heaven is reliving the best day of your life over and over, hell is quite the opposite.

Pyper has created a compelling and nightmarish hellscape and, in Danny, a character readers will actually want to root for. At first he thinks that Ash just wants him to solve the lingering questions about her death. (Why was she in that abandoned house and what happened to the three friends she was supposedly with that day?) But Ash’s motives are far more sinister and when Danny returns to Detroit looking for answers he finds far more than he bargained for.

The Damned would make a terrific movie, but I’ve got a great imagination and Pyper is a great writer. I could see everything just fine, thanks very much. If you don’t mind white-knuckling it through a book, this is the story for you.

And the Trees Crept In – Dawn Kurtagich

When Silla and Nori arrive at La Baume, their mother’s ancestral home, they are tired, hungrytrees and afraid. They’ve run away from home and come to the only place they thought they might be safe. But La Baume is not safe.

“You must never, never go into Python Wood” their Aunt Cath tells them.

You need to hear this as well, Silla. A monster of sorts. He did terrible things. And then he returned to the woods. He’s still in there, waiting for young girls to go wandering so he can capture them. So he can tear them up and eat their flesh from their – “

Dawn Kurtagich’s YA novel And the Trees Crept In is a nightmarish tale of impending doom. Silla is just 14 when she and Nori, 4, arrive from London. They’ve run away from home, specifically from their father who is a violent drunk. La Baume seems magical, if a little dilapidated, at first. There was a garden, plenty of food and “It was paradise. It was almost a home.”

But Aunt Cath wasn’t joking about the woods or The Creeper Man, and soon the girls, particularly Silla, are feeling isolated. The post man stops coming, there’s news of an impending war, and then, after months of not seeing a living soul, Gowan appears.

And the Trees Crept In is a page-turning puzzle of a book. Kurtagich includes diary entries, pages ripped from books, lists, and odd typography. If you’ve read Kurtagich’s novel The Dead House you will be familiar with some of these literary bells and whistles. It makes for an immersive reading experience.

Life becomes increasingly more claustrophobic for Silla and Nori, particularly once Cath seems to suffer from some sort of breakdown and cloisters herself in the attic. There’s no food. A terrifying trip through the woods to the local village reveals boarded up businesses and houses. If not for Gowan arriving from somewhere  with apples, Silla and Nori would starve. Worse than that, though, there seems to be someone in the house with the girls, and even more horrifying, the trees seem to be closing in on them.

And the Trees Crept In is like a horrifying fairy tale. The boogey man is right outside their door, and there is no escape for the sisters. Even Gowan seems helpless. I changed my mind several times about what was happening, and I was wrong. When the narrative resolved itself, and I am happy to say that it’s a terrific ending, I felt utterly wrung out and 100% satisfied (although a little gutted, too.)

If you’re looking for a creepy, compelling, well-written read-past-your-bedtime book, I highly recommend this one.

 

 

The Boy Who Drew Monsters – Keith Donohue

Who in the hell knows what really happens in Keith Donohue’s odd but utterly 108FC969-09A2-4584-905C-31766A67CC7Bcompelling novel The Boy Who Drew Monsters. I mean, sure, I could follow the story’s claustrophobic narrative, but at the end of the day I was still shaking my head and going WTF.

Holly and Tim live with their son, ten-year-old Jack Peter, in a small town on the coast of Maine. Jack Peter has never been 100% okay, but when he was seven he almost drowned and since then he “has not suffered easily any human touch.” He also can’t bear leaving the house; if not for his friend Nick, and his parents, Jack Peter would be completely isolated.

Jack Peter had been an inside boy for over three years. Hadn’t been to school, rarely left the house. One by one, his few old friends had nearly forgotten about him, and they always gave Nick grief for continuing his strange friendship.

These characters are isolated anyway. Their community is scattered; Jack Peter and his parents live way out on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It’s winter and constant snow is always further isolating them – so it seems.

Things are about to get slightly creepier, though. For example, driving Nick home one night, Tim sees something unsettling.

Uncoiling, the white mass transformed itself into a living figure rising from a crouch, its pale skin glowed sepulchral blue in the moonlight and it turned with a hunch of its shoulders and began to shuffle away.

Holly starts to have strange visions, too. She imagines the dead from a ship which sank off the coast. One night, home alone with Jack Peter, a “rapid-fire staccato that traveled the length of the waterfront wall” of her house startles her into exiting the house in her slippers to investigate.

As each of the small cast of characters in this novel are visited by stranger and stranger hallucinations – if that’s even what they can be called – Jack Peter’s behaviour grows increasingly more strange. He draws incessantly. And guess what he draws? Yep.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters, not gonna lie, was a weird one for me. I can’t really say with any certainty that I actually knew what was going on. It’s sort of a horror novel by way of the gothic, and sort of a family drama, too. For a while I thought Jack Peter might be autistic and then I started to doubt that diagnosis. When I closed the final page, I still wasn’t certain what I had just read, but I’ve certainly never read anything else like it.

Welcome to the Dark House – Laurie Faria Stolarz

darkhouseWho doesn’t love a good scare? Not Ivy Jensen. That’s not her fault, though. When she was 12, someone broke into her house and slaughtered her parents. In her recurring nightmare about that horrible night, Ivy wakes “with a gasp, covered in [her] own blood. It’s everywhere. Soaking into the bed covers, splattered against the wall, running through the cracks in the hardwood floor, and dripping over [her] fingers and hands.”

Ivy is just one of the teens in Laurie Faria Stolarz’s YA novel, Welcome to the Dark House. She decides to enter a contest sponsored by Justin Blake, director of several famous (infamous) horror films featuring the Nightmare Elf. Intrigued by the promise that her nightmares will disappear, Ivy submits an essay describing her worst fear. So do Frankie, Garth, Parker, Shayla, Natalie and Taylor.

These teens win an exclusive weekend away to meet Justin Blake and get an exclusive look at his latest project. For some of the attendees, this is the chance of a lifetime. Boy-crazy Shayla is on a mission to “”make the most of every moment” [and] have a fun and fulfilling life.” Garth, Frankie and Natalie are uber-fans. Parker is an aspiring film maker. Taylor is…well…missing. Ivy just wants her nightmares to go away.

When the group arrives at the B & B where they will be staying, they find their rooms kitted out with their most favourite things. Their hostess is Midge, “the psycho chamber-maid who collects her victims’ fingers in the pockets of her apron.” The next afternoon, the teens are taken to a nightmarish amusement park in the middle of nowhere.

It’s like something out of a dream. WELCOME, DARK HOUSE DREAMERS is lit up in Gothic lettering, hanging above an entrance gate. There’s also a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, and a ride called Hotel 9; with multiple pointed roofs, it looks like the hotel in the movie.

The rules are simple: the group has to leave their cell pones and recording devices behind, ride the rides and have some snacks, but each participant MUST ride the ride that has been specifically tailored to them. The prize? Well, “the camera’s already rolling” and so essentially, in a found-footage way, these guys are the stars of Blake’s latest project.

Of course, this is when things start to get a little hairy.

Welcome to the Dark House is reminiscent of teen horror movies like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fans of horror movies (and horror fiction) will likely enjoy the inventive ‘rides’ and these characters – although you don’t get to know any one of them particularly well. Of course, you wouldn’t want to get too attached now, would you? There are some truly creepy moments and a cliff hanger ending, so you’ll have to read the sequel, Return to the Dark House to discover how it all turns out.