Tag Archive | horror

A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay

23019294Paul Tremblay’s novel A Head Full of Ghosts has been sucking up all the oxygen on the Internet for the past few weeks and even Stephen King said that it scared the “living hell” out of him. As you might imagine, that’s probably pretty hard to do and therefore high praise.

The Barrett family are kinda sorta normal in a completely dysfunctional way. Dad, John, has just been made redundant at the job where he’s worked for the last nineteen years. Times are tough and he hasn’t been able to find work since. Mom, Sarah, is tense and cold. Then there are the daughters: fourteen-year-old Marjorie and eight-year-old Meredith or Merry. The story is actually narrated by Merry, aged 23. She is sharing what happened to her family the year she was eight with best-selling author Rachel Neville but she is unsure how to proceed because she doesn’t “know how to explain to her that [her] sister hasn’t aged at all in fifteen-plus years and there never was a before everything happened.”

Despite the six year age gap, Marjorie and Merry are close. They share made up stories and have a sister-speak  shorthand. When Merry visited Marjorie’s room “she was convinced that [she] was going to grow up exactly like Marjorie, entering her room was like discovering a living, breathing map of [her] future.”  Lately, though, Marjorie has begun to act strange.

She tells Merry that the posters on her walls “disembodied hands, legs, arms, hair and a pair of eyes” were like that when Marjorie had woken up. She writes Merry a note that tells her:

I sneak into your room when you are asleep, Merry-Monkey. I’ve been doing it for weeks now, since the end of summer. You’re so pretty when you are asleep. Last night, I pinched your nose shut until you opened your mouth and gasped.

Merry isn’t the only one concerned about Marjorie. She’s seeing a psychologist and then John decides he needs to get the church involved. That’s how the Barrett family find themselves at the center of a reality television series, The Possession. No one could have predicted how it would all turn out, least of all Merry, but when she agrees to talk to Rachel Neville, the veil of what really happened in the Barrett house is lifted.

Or is it?

A Head Full of Ghosts is not scary, let’s just get that out of the way. It’s creepy and mind-bending and certainly capitalizes on the whole reality TV phenomenon. But full out pants-wetting scares are in short supply.

Truthfully, I am not sure how I feel about this book. I didn’t love it. I found it odd and unsettling, for sure, and neither of those things are bad necessarily, but I wasn’t enthralled. I kept changing my mind about what I thought was really going on  – which also isn’t a bad thing. I don’t need my fiction to be tidy.

I guess how I feel about A Head Full of Ghosts is that despite its numerous accolades, I wouldn’t tell everyone to read it, but I definitely would read another book by Tremblay. How’s that for wishy-washy?

 

 

 

The Dead House – Dawn Kurtagich

I cannot resist a book with a creepy cover – especially if there’s a  creepy house or building on it and so even though I’d heard nothing about this book and had never heard of its author, I took  a chance on Dawn Kurtagich’s debut novel, The Dead House.

deadhouseThe premise is that investigators are looking into the death of three students at Elmbridge High, a boarding school in Somerset,  England. The school was destroyed by fire.  In order to unravel the story they have gathered police interviews, personal diaries, notes and video tape footage which has been transcribed (although it might have been cool to include links to a site to watch the tape). The incident happened over twenty years ago and as the report statement reveals “little was revealed about the tragedy.”

The incident has been something of an urban legend  connecting Kaitlyn Johnson, “the girl of nowhere” to the blaze. When her diary is found in the rubble, it spurs a new investigation into what actually happened in the days leading up to the fire.

Readers will know they’re not in Kansas anymore from the book’s opening pages. First of all,  we’re at the Claydon Mental Hospital. Kaitlyn has written in her diary:

I am myself again.

Carly has disappeared into the umbra, and I am alone. Ink on my fingers – she’s been writing  in the Message Book.

Good night, sis! she writes. We’ll be back at school soon. I can’t wait.

Turns out Kaitlyn and Carly  are one and the same. Carly, sweet and shy, inhabits the day and Kaitlyn, a little tougher around the edges, inhabits the night. Dr. Lansing, their psychotherapist, says that Kaitlyn is a product of trauma, a personality born of a personal tragedy. The two personalities communicate via a message book. They remind each other of people they’ve met, food they’ve eaten and the minutiae of daily life. Their separate lives happily co-exist.

But then Carly seems to go ‘missing’ and that’s when things take a decided turn into the weirder.  Dr. Lansing considers the disappearance of one personality a breakthrough. She tells Kaitlyn, “Carly is letting you go. It has to happen. It will feel like abandonment, it will be so hard. But, eventually, you’ll find peace. You’ll integrate. Absorb.”

Kaitlyn is convinced that that is not what is happening. She thinks Carly is trapped in the “dead house” and she has to rescue her. Kaitlyn isn’t alone. Naida, Carly’s best friend, is also sure that something sinister is going on – something to do with powerful dark magic.

Whichever way you read The Dark House, as a novel about mental illness or a supernatural horror story, Kurtagich’s novel is unusual and compelling, if not always comprehensible.

 

 

The Dogs – Allan Stratton

Cameron and his mom have been on the run for as long as Cameron can remember. the_dogs_uk_cover_med_frontCameron’s dad is dangerous and they’ve never been able to stay in one place for very long. This last move takes them to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, outside of a small town called Wolf Hollow.

“Whoa! Somebody! Put this place out of its misery.” That’s how Cameron describes the two-storey, ramshackle building he and his mom are going to call home. Mom notes the two staircases and says “It’s good to have more than one escape route…in case of fire.” Mr. Sinclair, the old farmer who owns the house, is secretive and slightly menacing.

But Cameron’s creepy father isn’t the only creepy thing going on in Allan Stratton’s YA novel The Dogs. Cameron discovers some drawings and a photograph in the coal room and the discovery connects him to a strange mystery that has haunted the farmhouse for decades. One of the drawings depicts “a pack of wild dogs ripping things apart.” Further investigation reveals that the previous owner, Mr. McTavish, was ripped apart by his dogs after his wife and son, Jacky, ran off with another man.

The clever things about The Dogs is that it operates on many different levels. As Cameron spends more and more time trying to figure out what really happened in the farmhouse all those years ago, he also begins to question his own memories of his father. Is his mother telling him the whole truth or is she leaving out essential details? Is his dad really as bad as his mother says?

Cameron’s traumatic childhood makes him especially suggestible and readers will share every spooky bump-in-the-night incident with him as he tries to reconcile his memories with what is happening in the house. Is he crazy, as his mother worries he might be, or are the things he sees and hears really happening?

“It’s not my fault I picture things, or talk to myself. If I try to keep all the stuff in my head inside, I’ll explode,” Cameron explains to his mother.

The Dogs is written in straight-forward prose, which will appeal to many young readers particularly reluctant readers. I think any reader will enjoy the book’s eeriness and honest portrayal of a teenage boy who despite his own difficulties shows tremendous resilience. I know I did.

 

 

 

Off the shelf – Books with buzz

Listen here.

There are always books which are hotly anticipated by the reading public. Avid readers know, for example, when their favourite authors will be releasing their next book. Publishers generate a lot of pre-publishing buzz and of course books that win major literary awards also garner extra attention. I think book buying has changed a lot in the forty years I’ve been buying books with my own money. I remember when the Scholastic book flyer was my only real opportunity to purchase books – and then all you had was this teensy picture of the cover and the equivalent of a tweet’s worth of description. When you could actually go into a book store and hold the books, well, that was heaven. I have books on my shelf that literally cost 60 cents. Can you believe that? Social media wasn’t even a twinkle in someone’s eye – so word of mouth or checking out top ten lists was really the only ways to hear which books were hot and which books were not.

goldfinchThen you have to wonder if all books with buzz are created equal. Even books that have won big prizes are often mired in controversy. A huge portion of my summer reading time was taken up with reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning magnum opus The Goldfinch. That book is close to 800 pages long and, for me at least, was thrilling and infuriating in equal measure. Not everyone agreed that it should have won the Pulitzer. In fact, The Washington Post called it “the disappointing novel that just won a Pulitzer”  Lady Vowell Smith, a professor of literature and book blogger, wondered about the book’s merits in her post “Did the Goldfinch Deserve the Pulitzer?” The UK’s Sunday Times said “”no amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey”. Newsweek’s review said that “The Goldfinch neither sings nor flies.”  Ouch.

I am not much of a follower when it comes to reading, but I have read both of Tartt’s previous novels: The Secret History, which is my favourite and The Little Friend. Plus, my son, Con, read this book and really liked it – so I had to give it a go.

Okay – so what’s this book about?

Theo Decker is thirteen and lives with his mother in New York City. They are on their way to a meeting at Theo’s school when they duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take a look at an exhibit of Dutch paintings, including that of The Goldfinch. Theo’s mom wanders off to the gift shop; Theo is entranced by a girl of about the same age, who is in the museum with her grandfather…and then there’s an explosion and Theo’s life is irrevocably altered. The old man, as he’s dying, encourages – insists – that Theo make off with the painting of the goldfinch and that’s certainly central to the book’s story – but that’s really only a part of it. Tartt wrestles with a lot of themes here: family – both biological and the family you choose, art, beauty, addiction. Theo isn’t necessarily the most likable character, even though lots of bad things happen to him he also makes a lot of poor decisions. This book is chock-a-block with characters – Boris, the friend Theo meets while living in Vegas; Hobie, a furniture restorer, the Barbours, family friends who care for Theo when his mom first dies. A lot of people, lots of stuff happens and it’s up to the reader to decide whether any of it matters. Does it add up to something worthy of praise in the form of the Pulitzer – that is if you think prizes matter at all. It probably mattered to Tartt to the tune of $100,000.

Another book that everyone is talking about is Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. When this manuscript was “discovered” it Watchmanexploded the publishing world – but really: discovered? Everyone knows Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird. Other than Mockingbird she is best known for helping Truman Capote (her childhood friend) with research for his book In Cold Blood. She published a handful of essays – but that’s it. She’s notoriously private and always maintained she’d never publish another book. So, it’s  kinda suspicious that this one turned up after all these years. It’s essentially an early draft of Mockingbird. Lee is 89, lives in assisted care and I think the publication of this book has something to do with the fact that her sister, Alice, sort of her gatekeeper, passed away. There’s an awesome series of articles about the discovery of Watchman and a look back at Mockingbird in The New Republic. The first article, “The Suspicious Story Behind Go Set a Watchman” is particularly interesting for anyone who wants to read the whole story behind the birth of Watchman.

Personally, I’ve resisted buying the book. I love Mockingbird. I’ve read it multiple times. Since I believe I know the story of how Watchman came to be, I’m reluctant to hand over my $30 for a book which has pretty much been panned. And of course it has – it’s unedited because Lee is blind and deaf and perhaps even the teensiest bit senile. The book’s a cash grab. I hate that.

In any case – if you are looking for something to read, something that will guarantee you something to talk about at the water cooler or dinner or with your book club, it’s easy to find those books.

If you are interested in  books that generated buzz, check out some of these titles.

girlontrain

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

This is this year’s Gone Girl. It’s on my tbr shelf, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m probably just about the last person who hasn’t.

purity

Purity – Jonathan Franzen

Famous for dissing Oprah, there’s no arguing with Franzen’s talent. His newest book hits the shelves Sept. 15.

Euphoria

Euphoria – Lily King

Inspired by the life of Margaret Mead and almost universally praised.

troop

The Troop – Nick Cutter

Unless you love horror novels, you might not have heard of this one…but trust me, everyone was talking about it.

spider

The Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz

Stieg Larsson, the creator of the Millennium series, died of a heart attack in 2004, but that apparently won’t stop Lisbeth Salander, the series’ prickly computer genius. Hotly anticipated and hitting the shelves Sept 1st.

The Troop – Nick Cutter

troopNick Cutter is a pseudonym for Canadian writer Craig Davidson, author of Rust and Bone and Cataract City. I haven’t read anything by Davidson, but The Troop ended up on my reading radar because it was on pretty much everyone’s  radar when it was released in 2014. Even Stephen King, master of all things macabre claimed The Troop “scared the hell out of [him]…This is old-school horror at its best.”

Scoutmaster Tim Riggs takes his troop of five fourteen-year-olds (Kent, Ephraim, Max, Shelley and Newt)  to Falstaff Island, which is located fifteen miles off the northern coast of Prince Edward Island. (Trust me, there is not even a whiff of Anne Shirley here.)  It’s October and it’s time for the annual camping trip – something that Tim (who is also the local doctor) and the boys (as varied an assortment of teenagers as you can get including the alpha male, the nerd and the psychopath) look forward to. Tim is “everything they could possibly want in a leader: knowledgeable and serene, exuding confidence while bolstering their own.”

They’ve only just settled in when a boat arrives at the island   and a man disembarks.

A quivering string of drool spooled over his lip, hung, snapped. His skin was stretched thin as crepe paper over his skull. Capillaries wormed across his nose, over his cheeks and down his neck like river routes on a topographical map. His arms jutted from his T-shirt like Tinker Toys. The skin was shrink-wrapped around the radius and ulna bones, giving his elbows the appearance of knots in a rope.

The man is starving. So hungry, in fact, that Tim watches in amazement as the man “picked up a handful of coarse soil and stuffed it in his mouth.”

A day later, the man is dead and all hell has broken loose on the island.

The man has brought a bioengineered threat with him and it doesn’t take very long for the chaos to begin. The boys, who are loosely divided into factions anyway, start to crumble under the weight of their own terror. Shelley, who is clearly a psychopath, uses the circumstances to “play.” He is, by far, the most horrifying character to spend time with. I could barely read the words on the page.

The other boys are equally well-drawn and you’ll want them all to be safe (well, except for Shel) even when you realize it’s just not possible.

I’m going to say it up front: The Troop isn’t a book for the squeamish. I’m talking skin-crawling, page-skimming squick here. I’ve got a pretty strong stomach when it comes to the written word (I’m less brave when the violence is on the screen) but there were seriously parts of this book that were just….awful.

Cutter includes newspaper articles, courtroom depositions and interviews to help fill in some of the narrative blanks – information the boys and Tim would not be privy to in the circumstances. It all makes for page-turning, gloriously icky fun.

White Crow – Marcus Sedgwick

whitecrowMarcus Sedgwick’s YA novel White Crow is not for the faint of heart, but careful readers will certainly be rewarded by this atmospheric tale. It’s a creepy story of science and obsession, of ghosts both real and imagined.

Rebecca and her policeman father move to Winterfold, a seacoast town in England. Like many other villages along Britain’s coast, Winterfold is slowly being eroded by the sea and what was once a bustling village of thousands of people is now “storm by storm, year by year” crumbling into the sea  and all that remains is “a triangle of three streets, a dozen houses, an inn, a church.”

Rebecca is none too happy about having to leave her more urban life for the much quieter Winterfold. She doesn’t quite know what to do with herself besides harbor resentment towards her father (who is, essentially, hiding out after some mishap at work) and pine for Adam, the boy who she left behind.

Then she meets Ferelith, a local girl who is, frankly, pretty strange. In fact, Rebecca notes she’s “the strangest-looking girl she’s ever seen.”

There’s something elfin about her. Everything ends in points: her nose, her eyes, her chin, her lips, her fingers, the spikes of her long tresses of black hair….her teeth, not quite a vampire’s, but not far short.

Rebecca and Ferelith don’t immediately gel, although it’s clear that Ferelith is smitten. Eventually, though, with nothing better to do, Rebecca starts to hang out with her a bit and Ferelith starts to reveal Winterfold’s somewhat sinister past.

That’s where the third narrator comes in.  Entries in a diary dated 1798, reveal the strange relationship between the writer, a Reverend, and a French doctor. The two men are fascinated with the prospect of discovering if there is life after death and their methods turn out to be – well – horrifying. He writes:

And so this young man has become our first subject, and though my hopes were high, the results were low.

I scorn myself to record it herein, but we learned nothing.

Not a single thing.

But, oh!

The blood! The blood!

White Crow is like one of those old fashioned horror movies I used to watch when I was a kid. I could almost hear the menacing music as Ferelith tours Rebecca around Winterfold, through old, decaying ruins and to the one remaining church with the missing wall. When the novel reaches its climax, it’s creepy, page-turning fun. Young readers will have to pay attention; I know I did. But the book pays off in spades.

Bird Box – Josh Malerman

birdboxIt seemed like everyone was talking about Josh Malerman’s debut novel, Bird Box, but it was still a surprise when it was chosen as our April read for book club. In the 15 years we’ve been together we’ve never read anything even resembling a horror story. I was really looking forward to this one because I love a scary book.

Malorie lives alone in a house in a Detroit suburb with two children she calls Boy and Girl. The house used to be nice but now she notices the “rusted utensils and cracked dishes. The cardboard box used as a garbage can. The chairs, some held together by twine.” Clearly, it’s not situation normal and Malorie’s musings allude to “older stains,”  for which there are “no chemicals in the house to help clean.”

Malerman doesn’t waste any time with preamble. That’s probably a good thing because Bird Box relies on a heavy dose of the unknown to make it tick. Something has happened to the world. The “Internet has blown up with a story people are calling ‘the Russia Report.'” People are behaving monstrously, attacking strangers and family members in gruesome ways (a mother buries her children alive) before ending their own lives. It’s a “the whole world’s going crazy” scenario, but it spreads from Russia to North America (and who knows where else) like wildfire. The only way to prevent doing harm to others and yourself is to prevent yourself from seeing whatever is out there. People hole up in their houses, windows covered, and if they must venture outside, they wear a blindfold.

Bird Box bounces between Malorie’s perilous journey down the river in a boat (she’s heard that there is a safe community and after four years alone, she longs for something more for herself and her children who she laments “have never seen the sky. Have never looked out a window.” ) and her time in the house with a group of strangers she discovered through an advertisement in the paper.

I can’t say I was fussy about the beginning or the ending of Bird Box, but I was seriously creeped out in the middle. There’s a scene when members of the house have to go out into the backyard to get water from the well. They have to be blindfolded, of course, and a rope is tied around their waist. The person whose job it is to go to the well must make the journey three times. On this occasion, it’s Felix’s turn. On the third and final trip from the house to the well he hears a sound.

But now he can tell where it is coming from.

It is coming from inside the well.

He releases the crank and steps back. The bucket falls, crashing against the stone, before splashing below.

Something moved. Something moved in the water.

It’s moments like these when Bird Box is at its best. Like Malerman’s characters, we are blind and we realize that the scariest thing in the world is what we can’t see.