Graveminder – Melissa Marr

Melissa Marr’s first novel for adults (she’s better known for her YA novel series Wicked Lovely) was my first read in 2012. Actually I started Graveminder  in 2011 and was hoping to get it finished but I just couldn’t manage it. Graveminder was recently voted Best Horror novel at Goodreads, but it’s been on my radar for a few months and I was really looking forward to reading it.

So, so disappointed.

The premise of Graveminder is actually quite intriguing. When Rebekkah Barrow’s grandmother, Maylene, is murdered, Rebekkah comes back to the town where she grew up. Claysville is not like other towns; it has strange traditions, particularly where the dead are concerned.

Matlene was a graveminder.

If anything happens to me, you mind her grave and mine the first three months. Just like when you go with me, you take care of the graves. …Promise me.

Rebekkah, as it turns out, is a graveminder, too. Her job – which she knows nothing about until she returns to Claysville, is to guard the graves of the dead.

Her return to Claysville is complicated by her on again off again relationship with Byron,  the town’s undertaker.  (Graveminder, undertaker – sounds like a couple wresters,eh?) Byron was Rebekkah’s sister’s high school sweetheart until tragedy struck and now Rebekkah just can’t seem to get it together where Byron’s concerned. These unresolved feelings make up a large part of the novel’s energy – but not in a good way.

None of Graveminder actually lives up to the promise of the plot.  The writing is generally clunky, the characters vacillate between annoying and insipid and many promising plot threads are never satisfactorily resolved.  Rebekkah continually pushes Byron away and they have the same conversation over and over – like they are 12 – drove me c-r-a-z-y.  Their interaction was not adult in any way.

Graveminder wasn’t scary, either. The premise was: the dead must be tended or maybe they’ll come back and if they do – watch out. Also, Marr has created an intriguing ‘other’ world, a place where the dead go and live. The thing is, it feels like she’s dropping the reader into the middle of a story – where questions are asked but never answered.

If there’s a sequel coming, I won’t be reading.

11/365

Dark Harvest – Norman Partridge

Peter Straub, a writer I have admired for several decades said that Norman Partridge  is “probably the most exciting and original voice in horror literature to have appeared in the last decade.”  Coming from the man who wrote Floating Dragon and Ghost Story, two books I read with the lights totally on, this is high praise.

An unnamed Midwestern town is cursed. Every Halloween the October Boy (or Ol’ Hacksaw Face or Sawtooth Jack) rises from the cornfields and heads to town where all the eligible teenage boys try to kill him. They’ve been denied food for the past few days and the October Boy has a gut full of candy.  This year, Pete McCormick is one of those boys. He’s had a rough few months: his mother has died of cancer, his father’s grief led him to the bottle and that led to the unemployment line. Killing the October Boy is Pete’s way out of town because that’s what the prize is: a way out of the one-horse town he lives in and free everything for his dad and little sister.

What Pete doesn’t know is that the October Boy is on a quest, too. He has to make it to the church by midnight and so he’s every bit as determined as Pete. Neither of them know the town’s dark history or its secrets, though.

I liked Dark Harvest. Was it the scariest book I’ve ever read? Uh, no. It was unusual, though. Creative. And strangely, I sort of felt myself rooting (no pun intended – but you’ll have to read the book to know what I mean) for both Pete and the October Boy. It’s a short book, you could read it in a couple hours if you were so inclined. Save it for Halloween night.

 

Song of Kali – Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons’ novel Song of Kali was first published in 1985. At the time, Simmons was not the  well-known writer he is today – he had a few published short stories under his belt, but that’s about it. Song of Kali was the winner of the World Fantasy Award and received universal priase as a novel as “harrowing and goulish as anyone could wish” (Locus) and “an absolutely harrowing experience” (F. Paul Wilson).

“Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist,” narrator Bobby Luczak says. He’s talking about Calcutta. Bobby, a  poet and editor (with his partner, Abe) of a literary magazine called Other Voices is being sent to India to retrieve a manuscript by an important Indian writer, M. Das. Das is presumed dead: he’s been missing for years. Bobby takes his wife, Amrita (who was born in New Dehli, but left for England when she was seven) and their infant daughter, Victoria.

Although Bobby lives in New York City, Calcutta is unlike any place he’s ever been. The heat, the poverty, the stench:

Rotting residential slums gave way to larger, even more decayed-looking buildings. There were few street lights. Vague flickers of heat lightning were reflected in the deep pools of black water that filled the intersections…the buildings seemed ancient beyond age, decayed remnants of some forgotten millennium – some pre-human age – for the shadows, angles, apertures, and emptiness did not fit the architecture of man. Yet, on every second or third floor there were open-windowed glimpses of humanity inhabiting these druidic shambles: bare bulbs swinging, bobbing heads, peeled walls with plaster rotting off the rib-bones of the building…the sight of sheeted figures lying like corpses in the sidewalk shadows.

From the moment Bobby and Amrita arrive in Calcutta life as they’ve known it as intellectuals is tested. Perhaps it is the heat; perhaps it is the lack of those conveniences they’ve always taken for granted, but Bobby’s quest for Das’ lost manuscript takes him to the edge of sanity. Secret meetings, whispered stories and Kali – the Goddess of death- all contribute to the claustrophobic atmosphere Simmons does such a terrific job with. There are some truly heart-pounding moments in this book.

But – this is not a horror novel in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s horrific, but ultimately the truly horrible thing that happens to Luczak’s family is not supernatural. And as we all know, men are  the most evil beings we’ll ever encounter in our lifetime.

So, Song of Kali is atmospheric, creepy and strangely affecting but not in the ways you might expect.

Ammie, Come Home – Barbara Michaels

Barbara Michaels is a prolific writer, having penned over 30 novels (some under her real name, Elizabeth Peters). Somehow her book  Ammie, Come Home found its way onto my tbr list, then shelf and I finally got around to reading it.

Published in 1968, Ammie, Come Home is an old-fashioned ghost story (emphasis on the old-fashioned.) It concerns Ruth, her 19-year-old niece, Sara (who is living with her while she attends college), Pat MacDougal (Sara’s professor and Ruth’s love interest) and Bruce, Sara’s boyfriend. Ruth and Sara live in a house they Ruth inherited from an aunt. It’s quite a famous house, one which causes Professor MacDougal to exclaim “Good God Almighty!” the first time he enters.

A seance kicks off the other-worldly events in Michaels’ novel. Then Ammie, Come Home plods along with all the requisite ghostly bells and whistles (moaning, doors opening and closing, cold air.) Perhaps I am jaded. No, I am definitely jaded because I didn’t find the book even remotely scary and no one likes a good horror story more than me.

It’s got me thinking though. What books have truly frightened me?  I’m going to have to do some thinking on that one. I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, what’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

Isolation by Travis Thrasher

Travis Thrasher’s novel Isolation is a sheep  in wolf’s clothing. It pretends to be one thing, but it’s actually something very different indeed.

Isolation tells the story of missionaries James and Stephanie Miller. They’ve recently returned home from Papua New Guinea with their two young children, Zach, 8 and Ashley, 5. Something traumatic happened in Papua New Guinea and Jim and Stephanie are feeling disillusioned and isolated – from each other and from their church.

Jim wants to take some time to recharge his spiritual battery and so he moves his family  to North Carolina, to an isolated lodge built by an eccentric millionaire. The house has secrets though and so, apparently, does Stephanie’s family history.

Now, if this had been a book about how this couple and family overcome obstacles to find their way back to their faith, that might have been one thing. But this is supposed to be a ‘horror’ novel. Thrasher even thanks scare-master Stephen King in his acknowledgments. I’m not saying the book doesn’t have a certain creep-factor. It does. But I think that this book is more about God and putting your faith him him. Evil in this book is the work of the devil and the ability to fight against it comes from a higher power.

I’m not religious. In my book club, I proudly wear the flag of heathen. Organized religion irritates me. Hopefully that will explain, in part, why I felt duped by Isolation.  Whole sections of the novel felt preachy to me, like when we learn about how Stephanie’s character came to be Christian.

The camp was run by Christians who were sincere and loving. They weren’t like the televangelists her parents mocked or the pious churchgoers in her neighbourhood who never even bothered to wave hello. They weren’t like the preachy kids at school who made others feel bad for not believing. These were simply loving, fun men and women who wanted to befriend the campers.

Oh, so there are different kinds of Christians, then.

Apparently, because the author takes great pains to describe Stephanie’s friend, Michelle’s “no-nonsense” qualities.

Why aren’t there women elders in the church, and why can’t they serve Communion, and what’s the big deal about having a beer every now and then, and why can’t Christians get off their high horse sometimes?

It’s stuff like this that made me feel as though Isolation‘s agenda was not actually to scare, but to instruct. Too bad because all the ingredients were there for a creepy little story…if only it hadn’t felt so much like a sermon.

Dark Debts by Karen Hall

debtsKaren Hall’s novel Dark Debts is a lot of things, but the most ‘terrifying horror thriller of the last decade’ is not one of them. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this book – I did. But it didn’t scare me.

Dark Debts tells the story of Randa, a newspaper writer; Jack, eldest son of a cursed family (all of whom have either committed suicide or been executed); and Michael, a Jesuit priest who’s in love with Tess, a book editor. Their connection isn’t immediately apparent, but as it turns out they have more in common than you’d think. Don’t worry, all is revealed by the book’s rather neat-bow ending.

What I liked about Dark Debts had less to do with its, at times, heavy-handed musing on the nature of faith and more to do with Hall’s ability to write dialogue that is often very funny.It’s the dialogue that propels the novel along, and so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Hall’s other career is as a successful television writer. (The fact that Dark Debts is destined for the big screen should therefore be no surprise either. )

Her characters are all likable, too, even when they do unrealistic things.

There’s a lot going on in Dark Debts – murders and devils and exorcisms, but none of it’s scary –  or maybe I’ve just been forever spoiled by the demon who possessed Regan in The Exorcist.

Desert Places by Blake Crouch

desert

Okay, I admit it. I have a kinda thing for psycho-killer novels. You know, some crazy person who chews up the landscape doing unspeakable things to innocent people. The best one I’ve ever read is Intensity by Dean Koontz. I could not put that book down.

Blake Crouch’s debut novel Desert Places isn’t nearly as good as Intensity, but it’s pretty darn good. It tells the story of successful mystery writer Andrew Thomas. One day Andy gets a letter in his mailbox: There is a body buried on your property covered in your blood. And we’re off. And so is Andy on a harrowing ride which cuts pretty close to home. I don’t want to give away a pivotal plot point, even though it comes fairly soon in the novel. Suffice to say, Andy is about to have a very bad few weeks.

Books like these fail or succeed (for me at least) because of a couple important ingredients. First of all, I want the good guy to be someone I want to root for. He doesn’t necessarily need to be the nicest guy, but he has to be decent in a way that the bad guy is not. Andy, the writer, is decent enough. He visits his mother faithfully, has a good friend. He’s smart and human. I also like the bad guy to be scarily bad. I want to feel afraid when I read a book like this, otherwise what’s the point? Trust me, this book is scary….especially the first third of it.

I am not sure that Desert Places delivered on its early promise, but that won’t stop me from checking out Crouch’s other books.

The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff

harrowing

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this quickly. I started it last night and finally had to turn my light off after 100 pages…my eyes were burning and my heart was pounding.

Alexandra Sokoloff’s background is in theatre and as a script writer and The Harrowing, her first novel, certainly owes a debt to the screen. The prose is straightforward and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say the book is filled with trademark horror-film cliches,  the book’s creepiness (and trust me- the book is creepy) does owe a debt of gratitude to all those scary movies you watched as a teenager.

First of all, the book takes place at a remote college campus- specifically in a dorm filled with dark halls and secret staircases. You know what that means, right? The novel’s protagonist is Robin, a lonely girl who doesn’t quite fit in with the usual suspects (and trust me- all the stereotypes make an appearance: the handsome jock, the emo musician, the Southern belle, the slutty girl, the intellectual.) The book opens on a stormy Thanksgiving weekend. Everyone is heading home except for Robin; she has to spend the weekend all alone in her dorm.  Turns out she’s not alone, though.

The Harrowing benefits from its fast-moving plot and sketchy characterizations, ie it moves along at a breathtaking clip. That’s not to say that you don’t care about the characters, but this is a book with one purpose: to scare the bejebus out of you and it works on many levels.

It’d make a damn fine movie.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

I didn’t know who Joe Hill was when I bought Heart-Shaped Box. I read a review, thought it sounded interesting and bought it.  The book sat on my to-read shelf for several months (yes, my to-read shelf is ridiculous!) until I had a conversation one day in the bookstore.

Customer: I’m looking for 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill. You probably don’t even have him.

Me: He wrote Heart-Shaped Box.

Customer: (looking surprised) Yeah. Have you read it?

Me: (sheepishly) No. But I’m going to.

Customer: He’s Stephen King’s son.

Me: (my turn to be surprised) Really? Wow.

Customer: I *loved* Heart-Shaped Box. It’s fantastic.

And now,  just this morning,  after my kids left for school and my husband left for work and before I had breakfast or started any of the things I have to do before I go to work…I finished the book. Ironically, the last time I carted a ‘horror’ novel around with me it was King’s book It. That was a long time ago. I loved that book.

I loved Heart-Shaped Box, too. As a matter of fact, before I was even half-way through the book, I hand-sold a copy to a woman who was purusing the Horror section. (I work at Indigo.)

Me: Do you like scary stories?

Customer: (looks sheepish) Yes.

Me: Have you heard of Joe Hill?

Her: No.

Me: I am currently reading Heart-Shaped Box. It’s great. (hand her a copy). He’s Stephen King’s son.

Her: (looking at picture) Only better looking. (laughs and puts book in shopping bag)

I hope Mr. Hill doesn’t think it’s a disservice to draw a comparison between him and his famous Dad. I grew up reading Stephen King. I don’t like everything he’s ever written. For example, even after several attempts I cannot get into The Stand and I know people who love that book. But the thing about King is that he writes books peopled with characters whose fate you actually care about. If you didn’t give a toss about them- the horrible things that happen to them wouldn’t matter. They’d have it coming.

Judas Coyne, the middle-aged, former rock star, slightly misogynistic anti-hero of Heart-Shaped Box, might have had it coming except for this:

“Not my hand! No, Dad, not my hand!”

Any ambivalence I felt about Jude’s fate ended right then and there. Suddenly, he was a character- fully drawn, with an aching past and a boulder the size of Mount Rushmore lodged in his heart. Hill doesn’t go over-the-top with details of Jude’s horrific childhood; I didn’t need to hear anymore anyway. Your imagination always fills in the blanks.

Besides, Heart-Shaped Box operates on a more immediate level. The book has barely begun before Jude buys a dead man’s suit and the ghost that accompanies it. Then all hell breaks loose and Jude and his goth-girlfriend-of-the-moment are running for their lives. And, thanks to Hill, they are lives we actually care about.

Of course there are some horror conventions in this book: radios that intone doom, television news reports that announce horrible endings, creepy people with scribbled out eyes.  There are no cliches here, though.

And I wonder if Jude’s flight- away from the ghost that he’s bought and towards the ghost that has haunted him for the past 34 years was intentional on Hill’s part. It must have been, I know. It adds an extra layer of depth to the book’s denouement, though, that’s for sure

Mr. King must be tremendously proud.

Off Season by Jack Ketchum

There’s no way to describe Jack Ketchum’s book, Off Season other than to call it torture porn. I was called out for this label, but I stand by it. It’s so gruesome, so over-the-top, it’s impossible to call it straight up horror.

This book caused quite a sensation way back in 1980 when it was first published. It was Ketchum’s debut novel and the editorial team at Ballantine wanted to make substantial changes to the book’s vivid (for lack of a better word) writing and pretty damn depressing denouement. Ketchum was reluctant, but also pretty excited about having his first novel published. Ultimately, he went along with the changes. He tells the whole story in the Afterward of the Leisure Fiction edition  of  Off Season, which is uncut and uncensored (and by this I mean, the story appears as Ketchum had intended it to appear all those years ago.) And, likely for some readers, the book is unpalatable.

I’ve got a pretty strong stomach. Thank God because this book was pretty horrific. It tells the story of a group of six friends who are about to spend a week together in a remote cabin on the coast of Maine. This is Deliverance country, folks, only ten times as nasty. Ketchum does a good job of moving the story along (the whole thing plays out over a couple days), of giving us characters we can root for (although not necessarily keeping them alive) and of grossing us out even as we’re turning the pages.

It’ll only take a couple hours to read the book, but I don’t recommend you do it at night or if you have a queasy stomach.

And, while I’m here: I read Ketchum’s novel The Girl Next Door a couple years ago. Based on true-life events, that book was a riveting story of how people are able to justify extreme cruelty against innocence. It was even scarier, for me, than Off Season because the narrator was, despite his compliance, likable.