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.

 

 

 

Long Lankin – Lindsey Barraclough

longlankin When I was a kid, they used to air these British films about kids on TV. They all would have been set in the 60s (it was probably the early 1970s when I watched them) and although I don’t really remember what any of them were about, I do remember that I wanted a British accent more than anything. I was also a fan of Enid Blyton’s books – especially the ones set in boarding schools.

Lindsey Barraclough’s debut novel Long Lankin doesn’t take place in a boarding school, but it did make me think of those movies. The language, in particular, was reminiscent of that particular time. Things in Barraclough’s novel are “smashing” and words like  “blimey,” “cheerio” and “crikey”  pepper the novel. The whole novel unspooled in my head like one of those movies. I loved it!

Long Lankin is inspired by the English ballad “Lamkin” which tells the story of a woman and her infant son who are murdered by a mason who seeks revenge for not having been paid. The original ballad can be found here.

Said my lord to my lady as he rode away:/ Beware of Long Lankin who lives in the hay.

In Barraclough’s intelligent and creepy re-telling, Long Lankin is a sinister, slithering man who steals children in the small English town of Bryers Guerdon. When Cora and her little sister Mimi go to  Guerdon Hall to live with their great-aunt Ida, Cora soon discovers that her aunt’s crumbling home is full of secrets and her aunt doesn’t seem all that pleased about their arrival. It’s 1958 and Cora and Mimi’s father has sent his children to Ida as a last resort. Their mother is ‘away.’

The story is told from the perspectives of Cora, Aunt Ida and Roger, a local boy. Cora is smart and inquisitive and soon becomes interested in what she knows her aunt is not telling her. Something strange is going on in the isolated little town and it has to do with the church which Aunt Ida tells her she is “absolutely not – under any circumstances…it was completely forbidden” to visit. Of course, that makes it the first place Cora wants to go.

Long Lankin is atmospheric and smart. It’s filled with Latin warnings, menacing shadows, whispers and more secrets than you can shake a stick at. Readers will have to work a little to keep the characters and the story straight, but it’s totally worth the effort.  As with the best ghost stories, this one has a beating heart at its centre and it takes Cora and Roger quite a while to uncover the town’s secret. It’s worth the wait. The novel’s conclusion is terrific, too.

Highly recommended.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown – Holly Black

Thank goodness for Holly Black – she’s put the bite back into vampire fiction.coldest  If you’ve been playing the home game, you’ll know that Stephenie Meyer pretty much took fangs and sex out of the vampire equation with her hugely popular Twilight series.  I didn’t hate the first book, but it went downhill fast afterwards. I loved The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. The prose sparkles, but the vampires don’t, so it’s win-win for lovers of vampire fiction.

Tana woke lying in a bathtub.

It doesn’t take very long for Tana and the reader to realize that something just isn’t right. Tana had been attending a sundown party and had locked herself in the bathroom to avoid her ex boyfriend, Aidan. Exiting the bathroom the morning after, Tana is aware of the quiet.

She’d been to plenty [of sundown parties], and the mornings were always full of shouting and showers, boiling coffee and trying to hack together breakfast from a couple of eggs and scraps of toast.

What Tana finds instead, as she moves through the house which smells of spilled beer and “something metallic and charnel-sweet,” are the bodies of her classmates “their bodies pale and cold, their eyes staring like rows of dolls in a shop window.”  And we’re only on page five, people!

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown takes the best parts of standard vampire mythology and ups the ante. The vampires in this book are rock stars, revered and coveted.  Black builds a mythology that is believable. Patient zero in Black’s world is Caspar Morales, a vampire who decided that he wouldn’t kill his victims, he’d infect them instead. Essentially, you’re bitten by a vampire, you’re infected, or Cold.

If one of the people who’d gone Cold drank human blood, the infection mutated. It killed the host and then raised them back up again, Colder than before. Cold through and through, forever and ever.

Pretty soon, the government has no choice but to barricade the infected people (and the wannabes) in places called Coldtowns. People who suspect that they are infected must,  by law, turn themselves in. And once you’re in a Coldtown, there’s no getting out.

As Tana comes to terms with the fact that her friends are dead, she discovers that Aidan is, in fact, not. He’s been bungee corded to a bed and chained beside him is a vampire boy, a boy who “must have been handsome when he was alive and was handsome still, although made monstrous by his pallor and her awareness of what he was.”

This is Gavriel. He is everything a vampire should be: dangerous, cunning, tortured and impossible to resist. (Okay, maybe I am just a little bit fixated on my personal notion of a vampire here, but Gavriel ticks all the vampire ticky boxes for me. )

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is so good. Tana is smart and resourceful and brave. The book builds a world that is believable and terrifying. It is a world that just is. The book isn’t scary, but it is definitely a page-turner. The descriptions of vampirism are bloody and sensual (without being over-the-top, so there’s nothing sexually graphic).

I raced to the end, concerned for all the characters and their fates.  Should there be a sequel?  Black had this to say on her website:

Coldest Girl in Coldtown was written as a stand-alone. That said, I know what happens next, and maybe someday you will too. Right now, as with Curse Workers, I’m happy with where I left everyone. I’m sure they’ll be fine. Right?

I’m good with that.

Highly recommended.

Off the Shelf – CBC Radio

So I did my second book column on CBC Radio this morning.

Listen to it here.

Here’s what I prepared for the talk about scary books.

Literary historian J. A. Cuddon defines the horror story as “a piece of fiction which creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror is usually supernatural, though it can be non-supernatural. Often the central menace of a work of horror fiction can be interpreted as a metaphor for the larger fears of a society.” One of the first horror novels was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, 1764 – probably not going to get too many young people reading that one today.

R.L. Stine is probably the best known writer of horror novels for the middle grader. He’s the author of all the Goosebumps books and then went on to write Fear Street, a series of over 150 titles for older teens. To date he’s sold over 400 million books, so I guess the proof is in the gloopy pudding.

Teenagers love to be scared. No one knows that better than Stephen King, who’s made a career out of scaring us. King said: “horror stories allow us to safely vent our “uncivilized emotions…lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath. In addition, for some young people, reading a scary story can be a rite of passage, a way of earning bragging rights: “That didn’t scare me!”

Heart-pounding, palms-sweating, doors locked, lights on – who doesn’t love a good scare? It’s like riding a rollercoaster, thrilling, scary, but ultimately safe. A really good book can creep you out way more than a movie – where the scary stuff is often in your face and you become desensitized. A good scary book can be way more unsettling.

So – in honour of Halloween, here’s a list of my favourite scary books.

I’m going to talk about some of the books in the genre geared for Young Adults – plus one.

First off – here’s a quick guide:

If you want to read a book about vampires – definitely check out Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Cold Town.

If you want to read a book about werewolves, check out NB writer Kathleen Peacock’s novel Hemlock.

If you want to read a book about zombies, I highly recommend Ilsa J Bick’s series, Ashes.

If you want to read a book about a ghost hunter, check out Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Now for a closer look at some of my recent scary reads.

Nevermore – Kelly Creagh

It sounds like your typical good girl, bad boy set up…but this book is awesome and super creepy. Isobel is a popular cheerleader who gets partnered up with Varen the goth kid (of course he’s a goth kid with a name like that!) to work on a project about Edgar Allan Poe. There’s your clue right there that things are going to take a seriously gothic turn and they do. I mean Poe’s the granddaddy of creepy and Creagh makes good use of his personal story. Fans of Poe will eat this book up, but even if you’re not a fan or know very much about him, you’ll get gooseflesh reading about the truly nightmarish world and Pinfeathers, the character who inhabits it. There’s a sequel, too, called Enshadowed.

Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

I just read this one last week. It’s a collection of short stories written by Canadian author and illustrator, Emily Carroll. I don’t know anything about art, but I can say that the art in this book is really striking, the colours are kind of menacing. Can you say that about a colour? Anyway – these are stories about dark places and strangers and people who are not whom they seem. The first story is about three girls who live with their father in the woods and one day he leaves them to go hunting and tells them, if I’m not back in three days, head to the neighbours. Of course he doesn’t come back, and then the narrator’s two sisters disappear and the ending will just give you goose bumps. You could certainly read the five stories contained in this volume in one sitting, but I think it’s the sort of book you’ll want to revisit again and again – especially at this time of year.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

Fifteen-year-old Jake Portman has a special relationship with his grandfather, who has always been a teller of tales. Thing is, his tales are pretty fantastic and concern children who could fly or make themselves invisible. When his grandfather is killed, Jake goes to Wales to visit the orphanage that his grandfather was sent to during the war and finds out the stories might actually be true. The book is full of pretty dang creepy pictures culled from private collections, but the story itself is magical with a side of monsters.

Plus one.

I had a student a couple of years ago who insisted he’d never been frightened by a book. I promised him that I could remedy that and gave him Stephen King’s novel, It. Okay, anyone around in the 1970s will remember the miniseries starring Richard Thomas aka John Boy Walton and that clown, Pennywise. “They all float down here.” Stephen King is the king (pun intended) of making everyday things scary. He’s also really excellent at tapping into childhood fears – something all great horror fiction does – and nobody captures adolescence quite like he does. I don’t love everything King has written, but I loved It and so did my student.

Read something scary for Halloween. With the lights on, of course!

 

 

Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

throughwoodsJust in time for Hallowe’en comes Canadian author Emily Carroll’s book, Through the Woods, a collection of chilling short stories. The stories would be quite enough on their own, but Carroll ups the ante with amazing art work. As far as graphic literature goes, Through the Woods goes to eleven. (Yes, yes I did just use a Spinal Tap reference.)

There are five stories in Carroll’s collection and each one of the stories feels vaguely old-fashioned. The monsters that live on these pages have been around for a very long time.

In the first story “Our Neighbor’s House,” Mary is left in charge of her two younger sisters, Beth and Hannah, while her father goes off to hunt. Their father tells them “I’ll be gone for three days…but if I’m not back by sunset on the third day, pack some food, dress up warm, and travel to our neighbor’s house.” When their father fails to return, things go from bad to worse in short order.

In the final story, “The Nesting Place, ” Bell, short for Mabel,  spends her school holidays with her older brother, Clarence, and his wife, Rebecca, at their isolated country house. Bell is a solitary child and she takes little interest in socializing with her brother. The only other person at the house is the housekeeper who warns Bell not to venture into the woods because she could easily become lost as Rebecca once had, “found three days later at the bottom of a cave…three days all alone in the dark drinking water out of a fetid pool to stay alive.” Rebecca, as Bell is soon to find out, has been deeply changed by that experience. And not in a good way.

woods

The stories between the first and last are every bit as unsettling. Dreams and teeth and blood and beasts loom large in this collection.Carroll’s illustrations are saturated with primary colours: blood-red moons and sapphire blue rivers. I don’t know much about art, but Through the Woods is a beautiful book to look at – if slightly macabre.

See more of Carroll’s work at her website.