Thursday, May 19, 2022

HASTY FOR THE DARK: STORIES by Adam Nevill

There are dedicated, vocal fans of Adam Nevill among horror readers, with praise that I’ve been hearing for a while. His work has always looked interesting to me, so when I felt like reading another short story collection, I jumped into this one as my introduction to Nevill’s work. 

Each story in this collection has an elusive quality, a creeping, disorienting feeling that really lends to the horror. Each stands out in how little they spoon-feed the reader, challenging our ideas of horror and story form. One of the standout stories here, “Hippocampus,” reads like a found-footage movie in prose form, with no dialogue or characters, just pure mood and discovery as we explore an ship of death adrift in a storm. And most of the stories take everyday circumstances of discomfort and take them to the extreme, pulling pure horror out of the day-to-day, like a horrible subway commute in “On All London Underground Lines,” abusive relationships in “The Days of Our Lives,” or aging and Alzheimer’s in “Little Black Lamb.”

Not everything here is great, as some of the stories are just plain boring, but it’s a solid collection and if you’re looking for challenging stories that aren’t your usual fare, give this one a look. 

GRADE: B

Friday, May 13, 2022

THE BOOK OF THE MOST PRECIOUS SUBSTANCE by Sara Gran

I’m pretty surprised that a novel about rare books and sex magic would be so compelling…

...or maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise? 

Because on second thought, that sounds awesome. And to top it off, it’s written by the great Sara Gran. 

This novel follows a successful author-turned-book-dealer who is hired to track down a mysterious rare grimoire detailing a complicated sex spell that promises the practitioner unimaginable power after the successful completion of five acts.

Sara Gran has a serious talent for writing with a  powerful efficiency in characterization; she really knows how to introduce and illustrate a character to the point where you immediately understand who they are. She’s detailed and engaging in her descriptions and astute in her observations. She’s a stand-out and better at this than most authors I’ve read, and it makes her work immediately readable. Just like with Gran’s masterful horror novel, Come Closer, the power here is in the subtleties. The plot and the way it evolves is actually deceptively simple, but it leaves room for Gran to focus on what’s really going on here which is the spiritual and emotional reawakening that Lily goes through in the search for the book. And the author does this in a subtle, well-paced way. 

Yes, it’s a book about greed, sex magic, and rare book-selling, but it’s also a sometimes touching look at getting past grief. 

GRADE: A

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

MAN WITH NO NAME by Laird Barron

During this entire novella, Barron had me entranced by his writing. His prose is equal parts efficient and deliriously lyrical in this strange crime story about an enforcer for the Heron clan of the Yakuza and his colleagues as they kidnap an ex-celebrity wrestler during a gang war. From the start, I got a sense that this story was not going to be your run-of-the-mill crime thriller, as the author infuses the tale with a sense of existential dread that just gets worse and worse as it goes on. And once the climax hits, it becomes something way more creepy than I ever expected. 

The first thing I attempted to read by Laird Barron was the story collection, Swift to Chase, which I was disappointed by but which I now understand was more advanced, grad school-level Barron, especially with the fact that Barron’s books reference each other. Well I’m still in Barron high school so this short book was my next choice, and although I still might not understand all of its mysteries, I enjoyed it much more. And there’s even a bonus story that was just as impressive, “Blood and Stardust,” which played like a really twisted Frankenstein. I’m excited to read more Laird Barron soon.

GRADE: B+

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

PIECES OF HER by Karin Slaughter

A good novel is hidden somewhere in here. I know it. Karin Slaughter’s book starts off with a promising and provocative opening sequence as our main character Andrea witnesses her speech therapist mom take down a mall shooter. 

But once the book attempts to move past this opening, and I started to be increasingly irritated by one of the least compelling protagonists I’ve ever read, it started to go downhill fast. Not only does Andrea have the personality of a sea slug but Slaughter falls into the habit of trying to telegraph drama by detailing her inner monologue of worrying and whining and it goes on and on. It’s tiresome to read. 

And I knew I was in for a bad time when someone asks Andy a question about something and her reply is:
“I don’t know… About anything actually.”
And then it got even worse when a new parallel flashback storyline is introduced and the main character there is just as irritating in the same way. Then, when I got to the 65% mark and I realized that nothing much had happened, it was the final straw. The book is painfully boring and actually tedious to read. 

GRADE: D


Saturday, January 29, 2022

COMMODORE by Philip Fracassi

I went into this prepared for a Stephen King-inspired coming-of-age drama laced with horror tones similar to Hearts in Atlantis or The Body, with its 1950’s small-town setting, and a story about a group of curious boys looking for adventure. What I did not expect was a mysterious and disturbing horror of haunting imagery, body trauma that will make you cringe, and inexplicable cosmic occurrences. 

The novella follows five young friends in the fictional town of Sabbath who head to a vast junkyard to find a fabled black car that’s become a town legend. The story is well-written and quick and easy to read, but what’s really exciting is realizing that this is one smaller story in a bigger mythos that Fracassi is building with the town of Sabbath. While the story here is creepy on its own, the hints at deeper horrors in the town were even more unsettling to me. Even at the beginning of this book, you get a sense that something isn’t quite right in this small town. And are the residents aware? Are they okay with this? Do they even have a choice?

And discerning Fracassi readers will recognize that the events in this story were referenced in the first Sabbath short story, “Soda Jerk,” which can be found in his latest collection, Beneath A Pale Sky, or as a bonus story at the end of his novella Shiloh

GRADE: B+

MAN DOWN by Roger Smith

Roger Smith is known for his brutal, grim, violent crime novels and Man Down might be one of his most nihilistic and that’s saying a lot. This suspenseful thriller uses a home invasion story as its basis, but it expands in surprising ways until you get a stronger sense of what sins of the past have influenced the attacks on John Turner, his wife Tanya, and his daughter Lucy, South Africans who emigrated to the U.S. and found some success. 

The first thing that struck me was how “off” Smith’s writing felt compared to his other work. It came off to me as a bit wordy, with constant run-on sentences that felt a little lofty and pretentious, very different from my experience with other novels by Smith. I was also a little turned off by the non-linear structure, which normally I don’t have a problem with, but it felt like it distracted from the story and there was no rhyme or reason when certain storylines and timelines were paired. 

But ultimately, the story did click for me halfway through. Smith really brought it home by the end and I was actually pretty satisfied. There are hardly any redeeming characters (even John our protagonist was pretty reprehensible), but I was riveted for the last half of the book once it all started coming together. 
He felt a moment of powerful vertigo, a curious lurching, like an elevator coming suddenly uncoupled from his winding drum, and, despite clenching his fist, jaw, and asshole, the feeling persisted, as if something so deep within his being that he had become aware of it only by its absence had broken its tether and was now lost to him forever.

GRADE: B-



SLOW DOWN by Lee Matthew Goldberg

This novel is sold as a tense noir in the same vein as a classic James M. Cain novel with a successful filmmaker recounting his cutthroat rise to fame by stealing his mentor’s film and wife. It had some potential but ultimately, there’s not enough there to really live up to its hype and promise. 

The characters aren’t nearly as compelling as they should be and once the lumbering plot gets going about halfway through, it proves to be barely existent beyond a maddeningly basic noir skeleton that can be summarized in a couple of sentences. The entitled asshole protagonist got on my nerves and the femme fatale was completely without nuance. And the ending…goodness, what a timid cop-out that doesn’t at all stand up to the stories that it professes to be influenced by. 

GRADE: D


THE ODDS by Jeff Strand

I wonder what Jeff Strand thinks of Squid Game

This book by Strand, released a year before the popular Netflix show, is a cautionary tale following a gambling addict who is presented with a game with odds so good that it would be silly to turn it down. But then as the rounds to the game go on, the stakes become a lot higher! I‘m starting to think that Strand is incapable of writing a bad story. At the very least they’re all very entertaining and this one is no different. As a matter of fact, this one might be one of his most entertaining as our hero digs himself deeper into the game until we ask ourselves if it’s even possible to win. On paper, it works as a great thriller but it’s really all Jeff Strand in all his audacity. All the background and characters behind the game are so ridiculous but done with such conviction that only Strand is capable of. I finished the book wanting to know more and wishing that it was a hundred pages longer. 

GRADE: A-

Saturday, December 11, 2021

THE SUMMER I DIED by Ryan C. Thomas

Recently I read a novella that was labeled as “extreme horror” on the cover, and I went into it bracing myself to read something uncomfortable and unbearable. That book was a bit of a letdown but its graphic content also didn’t really affect me much. I went into The Summer I Died aware of the great reviews and that it also had graphic content. But holy shit, I didn’t expect what I experienced here. It caught me with my guard down, maybe because it wasn’t billed as “extreme horror” like the other book, which was a children’s Sunday cartoon compared to The Summer I Died.

The book takes a second to spend time with the two protagonists and build their characters and their relationships and this probably lulled me into a sense of comfort. But when the story takes a turn for the worse and the two friends investigate the screaming of a woman in the woods, I was horrified by its brutal violence and left reeling by its suspenseful tension. At first, I thought I would be tempted to call it torture porn but it’s so damn well-done that it’s hard to deny the artistry here. The countless close calls, the rolling of the dice, the unseen actions in another room left to the imagination, and the missed escape opportunities built the suspense to such a fever pitch that there were times I had to take a breath after reading a passage. 

I’m still thinking about this book and it will probably be on my mind long after. That’s all a reader can ask for.

GRADE: A

SORCERER by Greg F. Gifune

I feel like I’ve read enough to know that Greg Gifune is a master of horror in any form, so obviously I went into this novella with high expectations and the book did not disappoint! 

After losing his job, a salesman named Jeff is desperate to find work to keep him and his wife Eden afloat. And then a beautiful stranger offers him the job of a lifetime. I don’t want to say more because the book doesn’t fully reveal itself until its climax and until then it’s tense and mysterious as the walls begin to close in around Jeff, and it gets more and more disturbing as Jeff slowly discovers what’s going on right up until its great ending. 

And if you thought that that weird Iron Maiden song couldn’t get any creepier, wait until you see Gifune get a hold of it. Another winner by a horror expert. 

GRADE: A-