New books (to me)!

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What I’m Reading Now

During the lead up to Halloween, I was incredibly disappointed with what I see as the generalized and annualized failure of television (and Netflix) to capitalize on the season and offer any kind of quality horror offerings. While basic cable has a few channels (well, it has AMC) that try to rise the occasion, they usually fall back on the “syndicated” franchises, like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween series. Just like TV shows need to hit that magical number of 100 episodes before TBS or FX will buy the syndication rights, it seems like during the 80s and 90s there was an unspoken goal to build up a themed franchise that you could sell in movie-day-marathon blocks (so, 12 hours give or take, if you edit for time and insert commercials).

In retrospect, Friday the 13th had the best business strategy since they get shown in marathon blocks for both Halloween and . . . well, Friday the 13th. So bully for them.

All of this is a very long way of saying that there was nothing to watch on TV (although I did watch some Netflix horror movies that maybe I’ll review one day), so I ordered some books online. I read some as e-books and am getting around to those, but my hard copy books finally arrived.

This is more of a “first impression” than a review, but here’s what I’m working on:

Kissing Carrion by Gemma Files

I’ve previously expressed my appreciation for Ms. Files on this blog. I can’t say enough good things about “each thing I show you is a piece of my death” and I also greatly enjoyed her contribution to the King in Yellow tribute “A Season in Carcosa” (available from the publisher or via Amazon, where I’ve written a review.)

So, you can imagine that I was excited to get some more work by her. I figured the best place to start is with her first collection, “Kissing Carrion.” So far, I’m not disappointed but it also isn’t quite what I expected.

So far, I’ve only read a few of the stories, but some were really excellent. I think “Mouthful of Pins” is my current favorite, but “Skeleton Bitch” is also up there. There were some I didn’t think were as successful (like “We Pretend We’re Dead”), but overall even the ones that don’t hit the mark for me are good.

I’ll damn with faint praise first, then gush. In “We Pretend We’re Dead” the setting is one of the weirdest, yet richest with possibilities of any contemporary-set horror story I can remember. It takes place in Toronto after something called the “Infestation”, in which the Other Side somehow has come to co-exist with Toronto. Ghosts walk the street, young people are “Ghosters” that dress up like the dead on weekends, and people have come to live with this . . . or they haven’t. As with all of Files’s stories, the human element is front and center. Which is where, unfortunately, I didn’t much care for the narrator; I found her surroundings and her mother much more intriguing characters than the “I cut myself” description of the plot would lead you to believe. So, that one I didn’t love.

That being said, there are some great ones. I really like “Mouthful of Pins,” which is about what happens when the fantasy realm concocted years ago by a cadre of damaged children grows up without them. I liked this one particularly because of what I see as the twin “revelations” (no coincidence, I think that the narrator created an imaginary creature called The Twins). While these are spoilers, for anyone who has read the story, you know that one revelation is when the narrator reflects on the hatred the creations apparently feel towards their creators and says, why of course, they hate us, we’re their parents. This spells out the thematic cycle of abuse and destruction, but I think that the twin revelation, which isn’t spelled out, is that these people were so fundamentally damaged by their early childhood traumas that not even the gruesome series of monster-murders even phases them. They’ve become so inured to icy numbness and casual terror, that they can accept and dismiss the horrors that occur around them.

I also like “Skeleton Bitch,” but I’m afraid to start reading too much into that. As Caitlin Kiernan says in her introduction to the collection, one of the dangers authors face is a flattering misunderstanding. So I’ll be less effusive in my interpretations and just say that the structure and pacing are great and when we get to the revelation, its every bit as squirm-inducing as you were fearing (and probably then some).

Really, I think the strength in these stories so far has been: 1) pacing (usually short, very quickly paced); 2) language (very clear descriptions, particularly for the weird or disturbing – actually, both graphic detail and subtle implication are handled with equal aplomb); and 3) the human element. There are horrors in Ms. Files’s world, but I don’t get the sense that humans are merely being swept along in the current of the strange. Rather, I feel like her characters are appropriately reflective and reactive, making the stories feel more contemporary and identifiable.

Anyway, I’m really enjoying it and would certainly recommend this book.

Worse Than Myself by Adam Golaski

Jesus Christ, Adam Golaski.

I haven’t been creeped out by a story as much as I was by “The Animator’s House” in years. I’m not really sure what it was about, which makes it all the worse. There are just some flat-out off moments and disturbing imagery that will make you shiver. And, I think this is one of those rare stories where “more is more.” When things start going bad, they keep going bad and the way in which repetition works to draw out the agony . . . brrr.

Most of the stories that I’ve read so far leave me full of questions without answers. Well, I should clarify. The way that these stories are constructed, I feel like there are answers, but they’re not given. What makes the best of Golaski’s stories really stick, however, is that I am left with the feeling that I can dig into the story and put together what comes next (or before), but that still leaves me one step away from resolution. So my wheels are spinning and I gain a little traction, but I know the answer will never be fully revealed.

In “The Animator’s House” this works incredibly well. In the next story, “In the Cellar,” I’m more torn. The bulk of “In the Cellar” is a memory within a dream within a half-remembered story. That sounds a bit mushy, but don’t worry, these dovetail wonderfully with each other and Golaski’s choice of tone and atmosphere are suitably dream-like. However, the last paragraph is a twist/kicker that either ruins it or makes it great. I don’t know which. All I know is that now I have more questions that I feel like I can work out parts of, but not the rest. It’s just that it seems like the twist came so fast at the end, I don’t know that I feel involved enough to dig into it. But, it’s stayed with me over the last few days, so its successful and I’ll probably end up going back to try to pick up clues. So maybe it worked really well?

Finally, I read 2 others that were good, but not great. I wouldn’t consider “The Animal Aspect of Her Movement” or “The Demon” to be real horror stories. I think these definitely showcase Golaski’s considerable gifts for building rich atmosphere and creating very relatable characters. However, these seem devoid of the tension in the earlier stories, although they’re just as technically accomplished.

For example, the “Animal Aspect of Her Movement” as some great little weird moments. Also, I have to say that Janie, the narrator for the second half, is probably my favorite of Golaski’s characters in the stories I’ve read yet. However, the story is weird but not scarily so and the tension feels low-stakes throughout. (Also, I’ve seen a few reviews where people didn’t understand this one at all, so if your in the same boat this might help you start piecing some of it together. But, as is Golaski’s wont, there are no real answers.)

“The Demon” ratcheted up tension, but in the end it just kind of sloughed away. I liked the main character, there are some very uneasy moments and threads that don’t fully get resolved so the Golaski-mystery is there, but I’m just left feeling sort of . . . eh, about it all. It doesn’t help that the book-end stylistic experiments leave me feeling totally apathetic. I don’t think that they add anything and, if anything, the coda spells out part of what we’d already guessed (how un-Golaski!)

I think, though, that I really need to give Golaski praise for his excellent literary style and the atmosphere/tone. He uses varied narrators (ages, genders, social class, etc.) and different tones (child-like, dream-like, colloquial, stately) that all come off without a hitch. Furthermore, he really understands the ambiance of a successful horror story. This goes a long way to turning his good stories great and making what would otherwise be OK into “good.”

All in all, Worse Than Myself comes very highly recommended.

Beneath the Surface by Simon Strantzas

I’d be remiss in actually trying to give impressions on this, since I’ve only read one story so far. (For some reason, I’ve been writing about what I’ve been reading instead of reading.)

I first read Strantzas in “A Season in Carcosa.” I enjoyed his contribution, but its hard to get a sense of an author’s style when they are writing in homage to another. But I enjoyed what I’d read and I kept seeing Strantzas’s name pop up in various discussions of the best horror that you’re not reading.

I finally read “Behind Glass” online (which it looks like is a legitimately free version, although one never knows unless its on the author’s site). And it was fantastic.

I have a soft spot for corporate horror, which is a . . . well, if not “larger” than at least more well-developed . . . field than you might expect. Behind Glass (which is collected here in Beneath the Surface) has a great sense of “otherness” and a nicely grim and dank corporate setting. However, when the final wall of reality falls, the monstrosity is bigger than I was expecting (bigger than possible? certainly bigger than logical) and suitably mind-blowing.

So, I really liked that one, but so far have been remiss in reading more, even though I have the book now.

So, I guess I’ll get on that and then report back.

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