Near the Bone – Christina Henry

Mattie and William live in a remote cabin on a mountain. It is clear early on that Mattie is afraid of her husband; she can easily read his “ice-chip” eyes and anticipate when he’s going to hit her. There are rules to their existence on the mountain and Mattie knows not to break them. It is also clear, early on, that something is not quite right in their marriage. Mattie is having flashes of another life and she is staring to contemplate escape.

William is not the only threat in Christina Henry’s novel Near the Bone. One day, while out checking the snares, Mattie finds a dead fox. A closer investigation reveals strange tracks – bear, maybe – in the snow, almost “like the bear was walking on its hind legs like a person.”

William and Mattie set out to find and kill the bear, but it is clear that whatever is out in the woods is not any normal predator. It’s also when they come across a hiker in the woods, the first person besides William that Mattie has seen for as long as she can remember. Even more disconcerting, the man indicates that Mattie looks familiar to him.

Near the Bone is a straightforward story of one woman’s desperate attempt to escape the monster she lives with and the monster that lives on the mountain. We don’t ever really get to know enough about either of them for the story to feel high-stakes. The book is marketed as horror, but it isn’t scary. At all. And it’s not really a thriller, either.

It tells you something when all the praise included on the book jacket and inside pages is for other books by the same author. This is a story where the faceless monster is more sympathetic than the human monster.

The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons

When Anne Rivers Siddons’s 1978 novel The House Next Door begins, Colquitt Kennedy tells us that she and Walter are not the sort of people who you’d find in People magazine. Colquitt and her husband, Walter, are a couple of 30-something yuppies who live on a tony street in suburban Atlanta.

We have a good house, but not a grand one, in a better neighborhood than we can really afford, because the down payment was a wedding gift from my parents. We have two cars, which is all we need since there are only two of us.

Walter is the president of an advertising agency and Colquitt does free-lance public relations. By her own estimation they are “fairly ordinary people,” but all this is about to change because Colquitt and Walter have decided to tell their story to People.

The house next door is haunted, and I am the one responsible for all the publicity.

For the longest time, there was no house next door to the Kennedy’s – just an odd pie-shaped lot which seemed impossible to build on.

In our midtown neighborhood it was an oasis of wild, dark greenness, luminous in the spring with white dogwood and honeysuckle and rhododendron blooms, giving one the feeling of being cloistered away in a mountain retreat even though our street is only one block off one of the city’s main thoroughfares.

When news spreads that someone has bought the land and is intending on building, no one on the street can quite believe it. The newly married Harralsons, Buddy and Pie, (I know – what’s with the names? But, it is the South), and their young, brilliant and handsome architect Kim Dougherty do build there, though, and the house is magnificent: everyone says so. But then stuff starts to happen: dead animals around the property, Pie has a devastating mishap and then, at their housewarming party – well…

Then the Sheehans move in. Anita is emerging from a long convalescence, her husband Buck tells the Kennedys. Things don’t go all that well for them, either. Colquitt has a niggling fear that the house is sinister and that fear is confirmed by Kim, who seems to have lost his designing mojo and tells Colquitt that he believes the house is responsible.

And so it goes. More owners: more troubles, until Colquitt feels that the only thing she can do is warn people.

By today’s standards, The House Next Door isn’t particularly scary and there are some references that certainly haven’t aged well. In his introduction, Stephen King calls the book “well planned and brilliantly cast” and I would have to agree. The book has elements of the southern gothic, which include “the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation” (Oxford).

I wasn’t scared reading this book, or even creeped out, but it is well-written and wholly enjoyable.

The Return – Rachel Harrison

When Elise’s best friend from college, Julie, disappears, Elise clings to the belief that she’s not really gone. Molly and Mae, their other besties, are not as optimistic as Elise. Neither is her husband, Tristan. And then “Two years to the day after she went missing, Tristan found her sitting on the porch swing. She was wearing the same clothes she’d had on when she disappeared. She did not seem confused or disoriented, but she had no memory of where she’d been for the past twenty-four months.”

Thus begins Rachel Harris’s debut novel The Return which is a weird hybrid: part horror novel and part novel about female friendships. Elise hasn’t been as successful as her friends post college. She dropped out of her Masters program and followed her married prof to Buffalo where she has a crap job and lives in a crap apartment. Mae is a fashion stylist in NYC; Molly lives on the West Coast and before she went missing, Julie and her husband were converting a farm house in Maine into a B & B.

Now that Julie is back, Mae plans a girls’ weekend in the Catskills at the Red Honey Inn – the kind of swanky spot that is totally out of Elise’s snack bracket, but how can she say no.

When they arrive, though, the Inn seems more sinister than swanky and Julie isn’t quite the girl they remember either.

She’s emaciated. She smiles and her skin pools like melted wax. Her teeth are chipped and discolored. Her eyes are bloodshot, and the green or her irises skews yellow. Her hair is string, simultaneously greasy and dry.

[…]

Her breath is awful. So awful I gag. I play it off like a sob but have to turn my head away.

Cue rooms that don’t heat up, labyrinthine halls, strange hotel staff and shadowy figures and a formerly vegetarian bestie who now loves meat. Um. I would not be sticking around. Like, at all. But Elise is nothing if not loyal. And her need to support her friend’s return to normal keeps her and Mae and Molly in the creepy hotel with their creepy friend way, way too long.

The Return is gruesome fun.

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.