Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

It’s October and that means creepy books. And what better way to deprive myself of some sleep than picking up a Shirley Jackson book? Horror movies don’t do much for me anymore, even the ones that try to avoid all the old tropes. But books? Put a well-written scary book in my hands and I’ll jump at every shadow in my bedroom and suspect the fridge noises of being a monster intruder, trying to eat my soul or something. This was scary, okay. I actually got really scared at night. I’ll tell you the embarrassing details below.

haunting of hill houseTHE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
by Shirley Jackson

Published by: Penguin Classics 2013 (1959),
Ebook: 246 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

divider1

Ah, Shirley Jackson! After watching all the horror movies out there, and expecting every jump scare, every evil horror twist, there are still things that make me scared enough to keep me from sleeping. The Haunting of Hill House has all the trappings of a haunted house story, fully furnished with strange noises in the night, writing on the wall, cold spots, and doors that seem to close themselves. But in Shirley Jackson’s hands the haunted house truly comes to life and shows us many more layers of horror than we expected.

Dr. Montague wishes to examine Hill House for supernatural activities. He invites, for that purpose, three other people. Luke, the future heir of Hill House, Theodora, a quirky, self-absorbed young woman, and Eleanor, shy and mysterious and with no confidence in herself. Throwing these four in an old creepy house together was a stroke of genius. The focus is definitely on the two women, with Eleanor being sort of the protagonist. I found the relationship between her and Theo both fascinating and terrifying. What starts as an instantaneous BFF vibe, with Theo declaring that they must be sisters because they get along so well, turns slowly into a darker thing. Friendship turns into admiration, which turns to jealousy, envy, disgust even. What made it so fascinating was that all these emotions were completely relatable in the beginning. It only gets strange when you realise you can’t be sure what’s true and what isn’t.

There is no first person narrator, so we’re not in any one person’s mind. But Eleanor is definitely the character we follow most closely. She is scared of Hill House from the get go, and for good reason. I shouldn’t have been as creeped out as I was. After all, this is your average, things-that-go-bump haunted house. But for some reason, I always managed to read the pleasant, daylight chapters during the day. At night, before bed, when I had some time to really get into the book, it was always night in the story as well. And we all know that’s when shit goes down. And shit did go down. A strange knocking on a door wouldn’t even merit an eye roll in a horror movie, but when you’re reading about it, and about the characters’ reactions, there’s no way to skip. You can’t close your eyes because when you open them again, you’re still at the same scary spot – you have to work through it.

I managed to read only scary bits three nights in a row – the last night I woke up my partner and made him hold my hand because I was convinced the shadows in our bedroom were moving strangely… yeah I know. But a book that can do that to me, a grown woman who absolutely does not believe in monsters under the bed or ghosts or whatever, that must be a great book. It really, really got to me. The descriptions of the scary parts were amazing, but what made it even better (or worse) was the psychological layer.

Without spoiling, something isn’t quite right with the characters. It might be the house, it might be insanity, it may be an unreliable narrator… I don’t know. The not knowing but constant suspecting, guessing, and trying to reason made this even more compelling. While Luke and Dr. Montague remained pale background characters, Theo and Eleanor are a riddle, each on her own and as a pair. Their behavior, especially in light of the mysterious events, is erratic at times and really bitchy at others. Eleanor’s past is another thing of interest. We don’t learn too much about it, but my imagination filled in the blanks with all sorts of horrors. Seriously, this is one of those cases where an active imagination is not your friend…

Despite the lack of sleep I am really glad I read this book. Shirley Jackson is a master storyteller! I don’t even mind her ambiguous, open-ish endings because with this book it’s the journey that counts.  You don’t work your way to a great reveal or twist, it’s about enjoying every page along the way. And although this book messed with my mind, I did enjoy the experience. If you’re looking for a good read for Halloween, pick this one up.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

divider1

rip-xi

 

Save

Save

Save

Advertisements

Christina Henry – Alice

I love Alice in Wonderland. Seeing its familiar characters used in different ways sounded really good. The only adaptation/retelling I’ve read so far was the less-than-stellar Looking Glass Wars. Christina Henry started out her horror version of Alice’s crazy adventures really well, only to lose steam along the way.

aliceALICE
by Christina Henry

Published by: Penguin, 2015
Ebook: 304 pages
Series: Alice #1
My rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: If she moved her head all the way up against the wall and tilted it to the left she could just see the edge of the moon through the bars.

In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City, there stands a hospital with cinderblock walls which echo the screams of the poor souls inside.
In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood…
Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, tumbling out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.
Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.
And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the rabbit waits for his Alice.

divider1

Alice lives in a mental asylum with only her neighbour Hatcher for company, whom she talks to through a little mouse hole in the wall. When the asylum burns down, however, and the two escape into the city, their memories of a life prior to being locked up come back and reveal all the horrors of who they really are.

Christina Henry has a lot of talent for building up tension. Alice and Hatcher are both suffering amnesia in the beginning of the book, but snippets come back to them, leaving the reader intrigued (and shocked!) about their past. Alice’s story is not that hard to guess but its initial horror almost drowns in the filthy pit of evil that is the Old City and the inhabitants we meet along the journey to come.

This version of Wonderland – or this secondary world based on Wonderland – is separated into  New City and  Old City. New City is where rich people live, where Alice grew up and was declared insane and locked away. Old City is the dirty underbelly, where – and here’s a big, gigantic problem with this book – every single man is a rapist, murderer, thief, cannibal, torturer or some other terrible thing. Seriously, not a single person is just a normal human being. As for the ones who don’t get a chance to be evil, they are victims of the very men desribed above. In fact, Christina Henry’s focus (obsession?) on rape and torture goes so far that any shock value these scenes should have had, flies right out the window. Whenever Alice and Hatcher reach a new place, I came to expect it to be (A) littered with bodies, or (B) full of naked girls being raped or bought or sold or kept as slaves. Also – it’s only ever girls. Nobody trades with young men, apparently.

So yeah, I get it, this is meant to be a dark story. But the amount of blood, gore, and disgusting torture devices was just too much. If there is nothing to contrast the horror, and no time spent on showing some variety in the Old City’s inhabitants, then I’m left with the impression that it was put in there as gratuitous shock-material. None of it, however, holds any power because it is so obviously put in there only to be shocking. The plot would have worked much better if some of the evil gang lords of Old City weren’t so very evil, and so very obvious about it. They are not characters, they are stand-ins. Little bosses before you reach the end boss. With the one exception of Cheshire, all the baddies Alice and Hatcher have to defeat are so evil that our heroes don’t have to have any qualms or remorse about brutally murdering them. Why bother with questions of morality when everything is so wonderfully black and white. I do have to say that Cheshire was a ray of light in that you can’t ever be sure if he is good or evil, on Alice’s side or on that of some underground boss – or simply working for his own gain. He’s one of the reasons I kept on reading.

The second reason is Hatcher. As you may guess from the name, this is the Mad Hatter, named Hatcher because of his favored weapon. He was a multi-layered character with a sad past, fighting with bouts of insanity, battling against his hunger for killing. In Hatcher, Christina Henry actually shows off some of her talent. Unfortunately, she didn’t grant Alice that favor…

Another problem with this book was the pacing. It starts out so good! Thrown into the dark, I wanted to find out how this Wonderland works, who is who, where characters were hiding or what new role they have taken on. Christina Henry scatters her references beautifully, some very obvious, others more hidden, and it was a joy to discover them.  But what kept me reading was the threat of the Jabberwocky as well as an interest in Hatcher and his memories. There is so much build-up to every single revelation or boss fight (I’m just calling it that now) – and then the author just lets us down.

Alice and Hatcher travel a lot and their journeys from place A to place B take quite a while. The good thing is, this time is spent showing us more of their characters (mostly Hatcher), the bad thing is – if you make me read 50 pages of travelogue (interrupted by attempted rape and consecutive murder), then at least make the big fight worthwile. But every single time they reach a destination, they face their current opponent and you’d expect an intricately choreographed fight scene – or at least a clever bit of magic – then everything is over before you know it. Unspectacular, uninteresting, unoriginal.

Which all leads back to Alice being Alice. The fact that all the female characters in this book are either sex slaves, caged up, tortured, or dead, is bad enough. But the protagonist is the most passive creature in this story. Alice is dragged along by Hatcher (who is much more interesting, simply by merit of doing stuff), follows other people, does as she is told, and when she finally does act, it is by accident. Only in two scenes – I counted – does she do anything pro-active. And these scenes, you guessed it, take about three sentences to be over. Whoop-dee-do!

And then there comes the final, climactic moment of catharsis – when Alice gets to face her own torturer – and she STILL doesn’t do anything. After that, it’s time to meet the end boss and, hopefully defeat him. That’s the whole point of this story, after all. But the climax is no climax at all, the final fight isn’t a fight (not even a struggle), and the ending is as predictable as uninteresting.

I am really sad that a book that started out with so much potential drifted off into gratuitous grimdark territory, losing sight of its story and just going for gore and blood. I may give Christina Henry a second chance with the next book in this series but if that’s a mess as well, my patience is over. The only reason I finished this one is because Hatcher was an excellent character and the references to Alice in Wonderland were actually very well done.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Meh! Great beginning turned very sour.

divider1

Second opinions:

Sarah Lotz – The Three

My readers have spoken and I have listened. When I posted my Halloween to-read list last week, I had several recommendations but The Three won in the end because creepy kids are hard to top. And since this novel is set on several continents, I thought it would be quite refreshing as well as terrifying. So despite really, really wanting to read another Shirley Jackson, I dove straight into The Three and must send a big Thank You to the commenters who recommended it.

threeTHE THREE
by Sarah Lotz

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014
Ebook: 480 pages
Series: The Three #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Come on, come on, come on…

They’re here … The boy. The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many … They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon. All of us. Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to­­–
The last words of Pamela May Donald (1961 – 2012)
Black Thursday. The day that will never be forgotten. The day that four passenger planes crash, at almost exactly the same moment, at four different points around the globe.
There are only four survivors. Three are children, who emerge from the wreckage seemingly unhurt. But they are not unchanged.
And the fourth is Pamela May Donald, who lives just long enough to record a voice message on her phone.
A message that will change the world.
The message is a warning.

divider1

Four planes crash almost at the exact same time in four different places in the world, killing numerous people. The world suspects terrorism – after all, how can this be a coincidence? But what is even stranger is that three of these four crashes were survived by one child each. Hiro in Japan, Bobby in the USA, and Jess from the UK – all are approximately the same age, all are almost unscathed (compared to what happened to the people who didn’t survive, at least). Now, that is a fantastic set-up for a horror novel, in part because it can go in so many different directions. The plane crashes could be supernatural, the children could be possessed, or aliens, or harbingers of the end of the world. Or it could all just be one evil, horrible coincidence.

Sarah Lotz chose to tell this story as a sort of oral history. The Three is told as a fictional non-fiction book, set after the events of Black Thursday, collecting newspaper articles, transcribed interviews, witness acounts, blog posts, chat histories, and more. This format lends itself really well to the story and the short chapters make it even harder to put the book down. Those 500 pages just fly by, as you watch the world turn insane.three

So… creepy kids. They really are creepy, mostly because they completely fail to deliver what horror movies have taught us to expect from creepy kids. They don’t suddenly stand behind you with a big knife, they don’t speak dead languages or with a demon’s voice – in fact, they behave almost normally most of the time. Considering the trauma that they have lived through, one could say they are handling it pretty well. What makes them so utterly scary is that there are moments where their personality shifts ever so slightly, moments when they say just one line that is a tiny bit off, when they don’t feel like children. It’s perfect if you like shivers down your spine.

But far more terrifying than three little children could ever be is the collective reaction of humanity to the events of Black Thursday. I was most shocked by the religious nuts, people claiming to want to save others, yet clearly out for their own gain, and following their delusions to scary lengths. Compared to them, the people who say aliens did it seem almost acceptable (mostly because not so many end up following them).
At first, the conspiracy blogs, the crazy preachers, the Three’s worried relations don’t have much influence in the wider world, but that changes quickly. As a pastor convinces a famous, celebrity priest that the Three are omens for the end of the world, they become convinced that there must be a fourth child, another survivor from the crash in South Africa. And, like mindless minions, people flock to South Africa and go looking for a child that may very well not exist. That is the stuff nightmares are made of.

My favorite story line is hard to pick, but I do have a soft spot for the Japanese survivor, Hiro, and his remaining family. Not only are there robots involved (which, come one, robots are just cool), but this was the story with the most humanity to it. It features troubled young people, living their lives surrounded by the insanity of suddenly having a celebrity in their midst. And their lives were hard enough to begin with, even without papparazzi and conspiracies and being afraid of assassins.

The scariest child, to me, was Jess. But this impression was probably colored by her uncle who acts as narrator through his recorded messages. Which leads me again to the way the story is told. The medium – or media, rather – turn this into a surprisingly quick read, more a thriller than a non-fiction book, but there’s still room for all the different voices to come through. After a few chapters, every character becomes recognisable through their voice alone, without even needing names or places mentioned as anchors. It’s always clear who’s telling the story at any given moment and that makes it much easier to empathise with people  – or despise them, in certain cases…

The Three is a horror thriller that turns the creepy children trope on its head and, without answering many questions, delivers the best ending I could have hoped for! I highly doubt I can wait until Halloween next year to read the sequel, Day Four. I also doubt I’ll ever be flying again without remembering that opening chapter, the most terrifying part of the entire book. Shirley Jackson and Sarah Lotz – you have seriously sweetened my Halloween this year. You know, in a spine-tingly way.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

divider1Second opinions:

 

Top Ten Tuesday – Halloweeny stuff

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is a Halloween freebie. Instead of going for creepy recommendations of books I’ve read, I am going to post my top ten scary books on my TBR that I’ve been wanting to read for ages but haven’t yet. I hope the guilty conscience helps me get onto these…

  1. Sarah Lotz – The Three
  2. Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House
  3. David Wong – John Dies at the End
  4. Helen Oyeyemi – White is for Witching
  5. Frances Hardinge – Cuckoo Song
  6. Mercedes M. Yardley – Pretty Little Dead Girls
  7. Lisa Goldstein – The Uncertain Places
  8. Mark Z. Danielewski – House of Leaves
  9. Robert Jackson Bennett – American Elsewhere
  10. Bram Stoker – Dracula

Some of these books I’ve started, some I’m reading right now (House of Leaves has been next to my bed for over a year but it takes a lot of concentration which I don’t have in the evenings), but all of them are must reads for me. I’ve been putting them off for far too long.

I’m already very behind on most of my challenges for the year so there’s no time to catch up on all of these, but I plan to squeeze one creepy book from this list into next week. You know, because Halloween.

R.I.P. Review: Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle

RIP XI had planned to finally read a Shirley Jackson book for years, but every time I thought of it I wanted to save it for October. You know, for when I need Halloween reads. Then I ended up forgetting… but not this year! I finally picked this up and loved it so much that I won’t wait for October to read the next one.

we have always lived in the castleWE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE
by Shirley Jackson

Published by: Penguin, 2006 (first published 1962)
Paperback: 224 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance.

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiousity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

divider1

Wow! Just wow. Let me tell you how this went down. I curled up on the couch and decided to try the first chapter of this little book here. I stayed up very, very late (despite having to get up early for work the next day) to read as far as I possibly could. In the very first chapter, Shirley Jackson builds up so much atmosphere, such an air of mystery and paranoia, that I couldn’t have put the book down. I just didn’t have the willpower.

Mary Katherine – called Merricat by her sister – goes on one of her two weekly trips to the town, to pick up groceries. Merricat, her older sister Constance, and their uncle Julian live in a big house a bit outside the city. The story is told by Merricat, which was a stroke of genius on the author’s part and makes the book all the more intriguing to read. Very little is known about the Blackwood family, only that most of them have died, and that the remaining sisters and uncle are shunned by the town people. Merricat follows strict rituals to get through her days. In fact, she almost seems to live in her own little dream world at times. She makes up games for her trips to town, she plans how to furnish her house on the moon where she wants to live with her sister…. she’s not a very trustworthy narrator, to say the least.

In the second chapter, the bomb drops. I realise the blurb already gives this away, but I had bought this book so many years ago that I had completely forgotten that. So the Blackwood family was murdered. Poisened with arsenic in the sugar bowl. During one fateful dinner, all the family members who had used the “sugar” started dying, leaving only Constance and Merricat, as well as uncle Julian, who has only eaten a little bit of “sugar” and survived, although he is now in a wheelchair and suffers from a befuddled memory.

The question that haunted me (until I figured it out, at least) was who really killed the Blackwoods and why. Constance was suspected – as she prepared the dinner – but eventually acquitted of the charge. Could it all have been an unfortunate accident? Merricat’s narration, as I mentioned, can not always be trusted. Sometimes, she goes off on tangents and focuses more on her own little games, such as burying objects in their garden or chanting words for protecting the house, so the reader can never be sure if she leaves important clues out, if she simply doesn’t remember, or if she is knowingly deceiving us. Either way, it makes for a super thrilling read!

Apart from the mystery, I was also impressed by the characterisation. On less than 250 pages, Shirley Jackson brought these two sisters to vibrant life. Their rituals, their conversations, it all makes perfect sense. They are fully-formed human beings who have been through a tragedy and, naturally, live lives very different from the other townspeople. I also sympathised with uncle Julian, whose main purpose is to chronicle the events of that fateful night, to get his memories in order, to find all the facts and solve the mystery.

I admit that the big twist was not all that difficult to guess, but at that point, it didn’t matter. When I figured out who killed the Blackwoods, I was already too deep in the story, I cared too much about the characters – plus, a new threat to their strange yet ordered lives appears early on in the book, and Merricat has to do everything in her power to protect her sister and their home.

For such a short book, there is a surprising amount of layers to uncover. I was amazed. Without being able to put my finger on a reason, the writing felt so fluid that there never seemed to be a good spot to put the book down. Even after my most burning question was answered, I still always needed to know what happens next. I found myself actually caring about Merricat’s weird buried objects and needed them to remain intact and in their place. The sense of paranoia, even madness, totally takes over and makes reading this almost like a dream. It doesn’t have to make sense to feel real and important.

So Shirley Jackson will now be my go-to author for October or any other time I feel like a creepy book with depth and great writing. I’ll say it again: Wow!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

divider1

Second opinions:

Nalo Hopkinson – Falling in Love with Hominids

Look, I would read anything by Nalo Hopkinson, but that cover is STUNNING! The colors, that woman, her hair, the sketchy art. I want to print a poster of this and put it on my wall. No wonder I jumped at the chance of a review copy. After reading the content – yeah, yeah, I know that’s the important bit – I am once again reminded of Hopkinson’s ability to write amazingly diverse stories, and at the same time a bit worried that her best work is her older stuff…

falling in love with hominidsFALLING IN LOVE WITH HOMINIDS
by Nalo Hopkinson

Published by: Tachyon Publications, 11 August 2015
Ebook: 240 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I didn’t used to like people much.

Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, The Salt Roads, Sister Mine) is an internationally-beloved storyteller. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as having “an imagination that most of us would kill for,” her Afro-Caribbean, Canadian, and American influences shine in truly unique stories that are filled with striking imagery, unlikely beauty, and delightful strangeness.
In this long-awaited collection, Hopkinson continues to expand the boundaries of culture and imagination. Whether she is retelling The Tempest as a new Caribbean myth, filling a shopping mall with unfulfilled ghosts, or herding chickens that occasionally breathe fire, Hopkinson continues to create bold fiction that transcends boundaries and borders.

divider1

Falling in Love With Hominids  was pure delight. I read few short story collections but when I do – despite other plans – I tend to read them like a novel. I don’t read one story, wait a few days, then read the next. I read story after story after story until it’s time to sleep or go to work or, you know, all that other grown-up stuff that gets in the way of reading. This makes it difficult to review single stories because they blur together in my memory, some I don’t remember very well at all, but others stand out.

The collection’s first story “The Easthound” is such a standout story. It first appeared in an anthology called After: Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Tales and that is exactly the kind of story it is. A group of children and young adults fight for survival in a world infested with what I first assumed to be zombies. Hopkinson is more original than that and the focus of the story is not that survival but much more presonal. It reminded me of the YA novel This is Not a Test which attempted to do in 300 pages what Nalo Hopkinson managed much better in one little short story.

My favorite story of the collection was the hilarious, whimsical “Emily Breakfast”. Emily Breakfast is a missing chicken – yes, really. Cranston, a young man goes to pick up fresh eggs for breakfast and notices one of the three chickens is missing. He and his wonderful cat Rose of Sharon go and search for Emily Breakfast. The plot is really simple, but what made this so entertaining was the almost sneaky world-building and the wonderful tone of voice. Yes, a man searching for his missing chicken really can be super entertaining and smart and funny. Oh, this was so funny. I particularly loved Rose of Sharon, who is so very clearly a cat and at the same time definitely not from this world.

Another tale that stuck in my memory is Hopkinson’s take on Shakespeare’s Tempest. In “Shift”, we follow Caliban and Ariel as one tries to lead a free life and the other, while driven by the same motive of freedom, looks to have him imprisoned again. This read like a folktale, or a dream. The distinct voices, the characterisation, the language – everything about this story was magical.

While writing this, I just remembered the heartbreaking “Old Habits”, a ghost story about the people who died in a shopping mall. Not only do they have to come to terms with being dead and having lost their sense of smell, taste, and touch, they also have to relive their death every day, as it occurred. The ending wasn’t really surprising but the journey there was heartbreaking.

The reason I mentioned Hopkinson’s older work being better is that the only previously unpublished story in the collection, “Flying Lessons”, was disappointing, and so short it felt like she had to put it in just to give us something new. I also greatly preferred her older novel Midnight Robber to the Nebula winning Sister Mine. Now that small gripe is out of the way, let me say that I adored almost all of the stories featured here, especially because they are so different in theme and style. Although Nalo Hopkinson mentions in the foreword that the only connecting tissue between these stories is, well, her being their author, I disagree. As varied as the collection is, I believe its stories are also connected by their diversity. Almost all characters are people of color, there were at least three stories featuring queer couples, and several characters with disabilities. Hopkinson also puts a distinct flavor of Caribbean myth in everything she writes and I can’t get enough of it.

Regardless of their publication dates, I preferred the stories featured in the first half of this collection. For some reason, the last few stories just didn’t work for me, perhaps with the exception of Hopkinson’s foray into Bordertown. I had heard about this shared universe before, although I don’t know any of the characters or world-building it’s based on. “Ours is the Prettiest” is Hopkinson’s contribution to Welcome to Bordertown and I believe it speaks for her that I enjoyed the story immensely, despite not knowing Bordertown and its inhabitants. This story served up an interesting twist that had more to do with character than, say, a shocking plot element. Well done, indeed!

Despite the few stories that I didn’t find very memorable and others that I simply disliked – Hopkinson’s twist on Bluebeard could have been executed better and wasn’t very original – the collection overall was just wonderful. Whether she explores strange plants, runaway chickens, shopping mall ghosts, or my favorite story from Unnatural Creatures, “The Smile on the Face”, Hopkinson is one of the most intriguing voices in fantasy and I intend to keep reading whatever she publishes.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

divider1

Second opinions:

Caitlín R. Kiernan – The Red Tree

I fell hard for Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl so it’s a bit of a surprise that I waited so long to try one of her other stories. I fully expected to be blown away again. It wasn’t as good as The Drowning Girl but it did haunt me for a few nights.

red treeTHE RED TREE
by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Published by: Roc, 2009
Ebook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: I have visited the old Wight Farm and its “red tree”, there where the house squats ancient and neglected below the bogs that lie at the southern edge of Ramswool Pond.

Sarah Crowe left Atlanta to live alone in an old house in rural Rhode Island. Within its walls she discovers an unfinished manuscript written by the house’s former tenant-an anthropologist obsessed with the ancient oak growing on the property. And as the gnarled tree takes root in her imagination, Sarah risks everything to unearth a revelation planted centuries ago…

divider1
Unreliable narrators are one thing but CaitlÍn R. Kiernan really takes it up to eleven in The Red Tree. Sarah Crowe moves to a remote house to finally write that book she owes her publisher. Instead of actually writing said book, she begins a journal that chronicles the events during her stay in the house. And some of those events are so batshit insane that, while I read, I frequently checked that my boyfriend was around because I did not want to be alone in the house with that book. It’s the stuff of nightmares and what makes it worse is that you can never be sure what’s real and what isn’t.

This isn’t a haunted house story. I don’t even know if it’s a haunted person story. As Sarah becomes more intrigued by and obsessed with the red oak growing outside her kitchen window, things begin happening. Another woman moves into the attic of the house and while they get along well enough, something just isn’t right. That’s pretty much the tenor of the entire book – something’s definitely not right but you can’t put your finger on it.

The narration (and its reliability) depends on Sarah’s mental health, on her memory, on the way she interprets things, so it is naturally flawed. Sarah takes medication for her epillepsy but as readers, we don’t know if she takes her pills regularly, if she takes too many, if she is slowly going insane. A few visits to the famous Red Tree make you suspect the latter – except Sarah doesn’t go there alone. The cellar of the house is yet another mystery, and one you shouldn’t read about when you’re home alone at night. These scenes sent chills down my spine and made the book impossible to put down. Fridge noises, creaky floorboards, and noisy heaters should be avoided  – in fact, I suggest reading this in broad daylight, surrounded by people you trust. It’s that scary.

It seems to be a Kiernan thing that there never is a right place to pause, to put the book away and make lunch, for instance. These books demand to be read in one sitting, without coming up for air. The Red Tree drew me into its descent (whether it’s mental or paranormal) and part of the thrill was wanting to find out whether Sarah truly is insane or whether the tree is actually a force of evil, causing brutal murders and bloody rites over centuries. In the manuscript Sarah digs up from the cellar, the former tenant of the Wight Farm, put down his research about the red tree and some of these chapters are as bone-chilling as the events that happen to Sarah.

In the two books by Kiernan I’ve read so far, the themes are clear and recurring. Women who can’t trust their own minds, who don’t know if or how stable their mental health is, if the things they see are real or a figment of their imagination. It’s not exactly a pick-me-up when you’re feeling down, but these books are just so damn good. The writing just flows from one chapter into the next and even when there are breaks in the text, you don’t want to stop. Just like in The Drowning Girl, Sarah’s journal entries include a short story she wrote (without remebering writing it, I might add), excerpts from the manuscript about the red oak, and descriptions of Sarah’s dreams and nightmares.

As a mystery, the ending was a bit disappointing. It’s true that the (fictional) preface tells us right away that Sarah Crowe will die, but I had hoped for at least some resolution, some glimpse of what the hell is going on around that tree. In that respect, I felt let down, but considering that the book was engrossing and thrilling and scary as fuck throughout, the open ending is really not that big of a deal. I still don’t know what went on in that house (concerning any of the mysterious events that happened in or around it) but that doesn’t change that The Red Tree sucked me into its strange world for a few hours and happily scared the living crap out of me. Nicely done, Ms. Kiernan!

RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

divider1Other reviews:

Lauren Beukes – Broken Monsters

Lauren Beukes just blew me away with last year’s The Shining Girls, so naturally I jumped at the invitation to read an ARC of her latest novel. This was such an amazing book and probably the first novel I ever read that felt truly contemporary in its use of social media. Lots of love ahead.

broken monstersBROKEN MONSTERS
by Lauren Beukes

Published by: Mulholland Books, 2014
Ebook: 448 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: The body. The-body-the-body-the-body, she thinks.

IN A BROKEN CITY, A DISTURBED KILLER IS TRYING TO REMAKE THE WORLD IN HIS IMAGE.
Detective Gabriella Versado has seen a lot of bodies. But this one is unique even by Detroit’s standards: half-boy, half-deer, somehow fused together. And it’s only the first.
As winter closes in on Detroit, strange and disturbing corpses start turning up in unusual places, pulling several lives into the killer’s orbit.
Gabi has to juggle the most harrowing case of her career with being a single mom to her troubled teen daughter Layla.
Layla, egged on by her best friend Cas, is playing a dangerous game with an online predator.
Broken Monsters is a dark and gripping thriller about the death of the American Dream, online fame, creativity, compromise and the undercurrents of the world we live in right now.

divider1

I’m not a big reader of horror novels or, indeed, anything other than fantasy and science fiction. Lauren Beukes has been settled fairly well into the SFF genre, but The Shining Girls was much more horror than science fiction (if you forget about the part where the serial killer is also a time-traveller). It goes to show that trying out new things is usually a good idea – at least if it leads people like me to authors like Lauren Beukes.

Broken Monsters is many things. A police procedural about hunting down a serial killer, a portrait of Detroit, a psycho-thriller, and a healthy dose of reality. Because it was so fantastically done, let met talk about that bit first.

Among the protagonists is Detective Versado’s teenage daughter, Layla. She and her best friend are  probably the most realistic teenagers I’ve ever read about. They clearly live in our time, although there are no mentions of what year the story is set it. They use facebook, know about reddit and 4chan, hell, youtube has a huge influence on their lives. The internet is often forgotten or boiled down in fiction. Like a fictional universe – whether it’s on TV or in a novel – only has those parts of the internet that are useful to the story (i.e. Wikipedia or Google) but none of the ugly sides. Truth is, and we all know this, the internet as a whole doesn’t have rules. It doesn’t have ethis. Once something bad is out there, you can never ever get rid of it completely. And these ones and zeroes somewhere on a server have real influence on people’s lives. Lauren Beukes does an A-MA-ZING job portraying this. And she doesn’t overdo it. Her characters sometimes speak in memes, but only as far as is realistic and believable. Layla regrets calling her cat NyanCat, for example, and her mother still makes fun of her for it. I won’t spoil anything but let’s just say that the internet (and the hunt for likes, views, or reddit gold) is a major player in this story, as it is in most of our lives. I wish more authors took that into consideration.

broken monsters international editions

Joey Hi-Fi cover (South African edition) for the win!

I’ve already talked about Layla in terms of her grounding the story in a certain time, but she is much more than that. She and her best friend Cas do stupid things, as teenagers will. Layla’s mother also happens to be on the case of the Detroit Monster, a serial killer who combines animals with human remains, to create “artwork” – or so we assume. Here’s the next surprise: I also never considered myself a fan of police procedurals but, boy, was I glued to the pages when reading about the investigation for the Detroit Monster. I could have spent hours and hours at the police station, following every single deputy on his or her part of the investigation. It was just all so damn interesting! Then again, maybe Lauren Beukes is just one hell of a great writer (yes… yes, she is).

The other characters – Jonno, the “citizen’s journalist”; TK, the homeless man with a horrible past; Clayton, the sculptor whose mind is decaying – were also vivid and very different types of people. Clayton’s chapters constantly sent chills down my back, I empathised with TK, and I kind of hated Jonno for the attention-seeking, greedy fuck-up that he is. On the other hand, I understood them all. There are no good or bad guys here. Every single character makes mistakes, every one of them does something good(ish). And you can’t know whether their next decision will be good or bad.

Lastly, the city of Detroit needs to be mentioned as a character in its own right. It came to life mostly through Jonno’s chapters, and gave me a real sense of being there. From graffiti artists to hipster coffee shops, to ruined buildings and soup kitchens for the homeless, we get to see a lot of the city, and not just through the eyes of someone who’s lived there all their life. You might think this was just the author cramming in exposition to create a nice setting, but it’s all relevant to the plot – which makes the book so amazing.

broken monsters coverThe writing is so on point, I really don’t know what else to say about it. Just like in The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes doesn’t need 50-page chapters to set a scene, develop a character, and push the plot forward. It’s all done so effortlessly. There was not a single chapter, not even a page, that bored me or took me out of the plot. This is one of those books that you sink into and don’t come up for air until you’re done. Beukes also effortlessly wrote a cast of characters that represent groups of people who don’t get to shine much in SFF. Most of the characters are black or Mexican or biracial, one has diabetes – a trait that doesn’t take over the plot but stays present, nonetheless – one is homeless, and several have suffered through events that would give anyone PTSD. None of the characters are defined by their race or disability or past, but it follows them around wherever they go. Of course it influences their daily life. I loved reading about all of them and I loved seeing so much diversity in a book that is, ostentatiously, just about a crazy serial killer who glues together animals with humans.

There is one thing to be said about having the stomach flu – if you have to stay in bed all day, might as well bring a fantastic book. So take a weekend and make sure you have no appointments. Once you start reading, you’ll gobble this up, no interruptions allowed! I’m still in awe and can’t wait to see what Beukes does next.

RATING: 9/10  – Close to perfection

divider1
When I am this much of a fangirl, I like to offer second opinions for you guys:

FTF Graphic Novel Review: Emily Carroll – Through the Woods

I picked up this short story collection on a whim when I was visiting my grandmother (how Red Riding Hood of me) and checked out the local bookstore. For a place whose English language section now stores nothing but bestsellers, naturally this new, creepy-looking book caught my eye. You can even get a taste online. The short story “His face all red” is on Emily Carroll’s home page, for free. I urge you to buy the book before you try the story because you’ll be wanting a lot more from where that came from.

through the woodsTHROUGH THE WOODS
by Emily Carroll

Published by: Margaret K. McElderry, 2014
Hardcover: 208 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: When I was little I used to read before I slept at night.

divider1Fairy Tales Retold

  • Bluebeard (sort of)
  • Red Riding Hood (sort of)

divider1

Synopsis

A fantastically dark and timeless graphic debut, for fans of Grimm Tales, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and the works of Neil Gaiman

‘It came from the woods. Most strange things do.’
Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss.
These chilling tales spring from the macabre imagination of acclaimed and award-winning comic creator Emily Carroll.
Come take a walk in the woods and see what awaits you there…

divider1Review

This was such a lucky buy. The cover stood out next to the mainstream paperbacks – the crass black, white, and red is the first eye catcher. When you open the book and leaf through it to see what the images are like, you’ll be stunned by the amazing and creative full color drawings that await you. I especially liked the two-page spreads with words flowing all over the pages, almost being part of the picture, the font type changing according to the story’s mood. The book was amazing even before I’d started reading it.

32-33ladieshands

A few minutes later, I got home, the book in my bag, waiting eagerly to be devoured. I will admit that I read these short stories during the day and was very happy about the sun light and twittering birds outside. Reading this in darkness (well, comparative darkness… you’ll still need a lamp in order to see the pages) would have been more like watching a horror movie. And I know that my fridge always makes particularly strange noises after I’ve seen a horror movie. Even more so if I’m alone in the house. To say nothing of the cat, who seems to have a sixth sense for when I’m already on edge. Thanks to the sunlight, I was fine, the cat was oblivious, and the fridge made no more than the usual noise.

The tales in Through the Woods may not exactly be fairy tale retellings, although they are certainly fairytale-esque in nature. You can see glimpses of Bluebeard and Little Red Riding Hood in them, and if you look carefully, I’m sure many other fairy tales that feature woods would fit the bill. In tone, they are absolutely creepy, and I mean that in the best way possible. As graphic novels (or short stories) go, the author only has that much space to use for written words. The grunt of the work has to be done by the images. And Emily Carroll combines the two to create this magnificent, scary, yet somehow beautiful reading experience. When I finished the book, I wished there had been more stories. A good 400 or 500 pages more would have suited me fine.

It’s impossible to pick a favorite story because they each have elements that push all my fairy tale buttons. Terrible things happen to women and children (there’s a definition of fairy tales for you) and these stories don’t exactly end well. Some don’t even end at all. They leave you on the kind of cliffhanger I remember from the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. A big revelation right at the end, the rest is left to the reader’s imagination. We all know that our own imagination can create the most terrifying endings of them all. Emily Carroll does well in leaving a bit of work for her readers – it adds to the creep-factor. But like I said, it’s a really good kind of creepy. The kind that makes you want to go and tell your friends.

through the woods red riding hood

The blurb recommends this to fans of Neil Gaiman, and I see where that comparison comes from. There is a sense of the weird about Carroll’s monsters and a scariness that does remind me of some of Gaiman’s villains. I have had a middling relationship with his books but I can’t say anything bad about his villains. They are weird and cruel and creepy – they always evoke strong emotions, whether it’s repulsion or fear. And that’s similar to the feeling you get with this graphic short story collection. Add to that the fact that you can never be sure who the villains are or whether the monsters are evil or just misunderstood, and you’ve got a thrillride of black-white-and-red goodness ahead of you.

Reading Through the Woods  is an immersive experience that is worth its price. It’s such a quick read that I’m sure I’ll revisit these stories in the not too distant future. It’s the perfect blend of horror and fairy tales – not that the two are exactly far apart – and if it does nothing else for you, it gets you in the perfect mood for more. Nothing is quite as it seems in Through the Woods and even the more genre-savvy readers will be surprised occasionally. What if Bluebeard had a good reason for killing his wives? What if wolves are the last thing you should worry about when entering the woods? Emily Carroll takes well-known tropes and spins them around to give you a creepy reading experience, filled with wonder and imagination. I can’t wait to read her next book!

RATING:  8/10 – Excellent

divider1

Other tales by Emily Carroll:

  • The Prince & The Sea
    A retelling of The Little Mermaid, with an added twist and lovely creepy images. Plus, the story is told in verse.
  • The Hare’s Bride
    This has an Alice in Wonderland feel to it but, again, turns what we know of the story up on its head. It’s a very short comic but I liked the clever protagonist and the creepy villain. There is no Disneyfication going on here…
  • Anu-Anulan and Yir’s daughter
    This reads like a tale out of mythology but is actually the result of a world-building project. I love the imagery! It’s not a horror story but instead a beautiful love story about a woman and a goddess.

Stephen King – The Shining

I’m very, very late to the party with Stephen King’s The Shining. Having never seen the movie (though I did know key scenes and, thusly, spoilers) I didn’t really know what was coming. In truth, I expected an almost classic haunted house story with lots of squeaking floorboards and tricky mirrors. I should have known better. Stephen King is, after all, a master of character study. And that was the book’s strength: it’s characters.

shiningTHE SHINING
by Stephen King

Published by: Hodder, 2007 (1977)
ISBN: 0340951397
Paperback: 497 pages
Series: The Shining #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Jack Tor­rance thought: Of­fi­cious lit­tle prick.

First published in 1977, The Shining quickly became a benchmark in the literary career of Stephen King. This tale of a troubled man hired to care for a remote mountain resort over the winter, his loyal wife, and their uniquely gifted son slowly but steadily unfolds as secrets from the Overlook Hotel’s past are revealed, and the hotel itself attempts to claim the very souls of the Torrence family. Adapted into a cinematic masterpiece of horror by legendary Stanley Kubrick — featuring an unforgettable performance by a demonic Jack Nicholson –The Shining stands as a cultural icon of modern horror, a searing study of a family torn apart, and a nightmarish glimpse into the dark recesses of human weakness and dementia.

divider1
This is one of those books that need no introduction. Everybody at least knows something about it, if only that famous scene from the movie adaptation “Heeeere’s Johnny!”. That and a few other scenes (creepy twins, anyone?) were everything I knew prior to reading this. I evaded the movie successfully for many years because I am one of those people. The ones that want to read the book first. Even from the little bit I knew about the movie, I can tell that the book tells quite another story.

Jack Torrance is hired as caretaker of the Overlook hotel, a place that will be snowed in during winter, limiting outside communication to the radio. The book’s beginning was great in many ways. We are introduced to the hotel and some of its history by the current manager, a despicable guy named Mr. Ullman. And Stephen King does despicable so, so well. At the same time, we get to know the characters and what has brought them to this godforsaken place in the mountains.

I don’t normally like reading books about alcoholics. I couldn’t tell you why. There is no history of alcoholism in my family, I’m not traumatised by bad experiences, I just find characters whose one defining characteristic is their addiction to booze pretty boring. But Jack Torrance, despite being a recovering alcoholic, is much more than that. He is a devoted father, he is scared by his own outbursts of violence, and he does love his wife, Wendy.

Stephen King grants us glimpses into each of their heads, as well as Mr. Halloran, the cook’s. I can’t say I disliked any of these characters. Sure, they all have flaws – some worse than others – but they felt so real that I couldn’t simply dismiss any one of them as The Villain or The Good Guy. Danny in particular got to me. At five years old, he is precocious and eager to learn, and also cursed with the Shining. Sometimes he can almost read minds, he certainly picks up on people’s feelings, and his imaginary friend Tony shows him visions of the future. They don’t always come true, but from the moment the story starts, you get a feeling that one particular vision will happen…

redrum

I read this for Halloween because, as we don’t celebrate that holiday here, it’s pretty much the only way I can get in the mood. Read scary books, watch horror movies. That said, the horror element left me rather cold. When it comes to movies, I’m a scaredy-cat. I jump at shadows, I try to guess from the music and background where the next ghost/zombie/demon will jump out to make me shriek – and I still shriek every time.

Stephen King’s stories, to me, are horror much more in the sense that they show what actual humans are capable of doing to each other. The monsters don’t bug me, at least on the page. Subtle things – a door ajar when a second before it was closed, a painting hanging crooked on the wall – do give me the chills, and there was a little bit of that in The Shining. But the truly scary moments came when that hotel invaded people’s minds and made them do horrible things.

I had no idea how this was going to end, despite Danny’s precognition. Some parts can be guessed but a lot of threads are left open and keep up the suspense until the very end. Now that there’s a sequel out (Doctor Sleep) I am looking forward to reading it. Everybody knows Danny survives because the sequel is about him. And boy, that kid must be fuck up beyond belief. Having the Shining would be enough to unsettle the most psychologically stable person, being through this hell is quite another thing. All of that considered, the ending was beautiful. Well rounded and with a glimmer of hope for the future, it delivered on all the things that are most important to me in books. Character development and believability. Well done, Mr. King. Well done, indeed.

MY RATING: 7/10  –  Very good.

divider1