book review: locke and key (complete series)

Last year I tried reading Joe Hill’s first novel Heart-Shaped Box and couldn’t finish it. It was horror but to me felt like an Eli Roth movie or part of the Saw franchise where it was just sort of unremittingly shitty to its characters, kind of revelling in the power that the writer has to play god with the shits under their command. I hated that book.

I love Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke and Key.

Maybe there’s a bit of a softening to how Hill portrays people, but damn did I ever give a shit about the Locke family and their myriad not-great decisions that let terrible supernatural things happen to them.

The story starts off with the violent death of the father of the Locke family. He dies trying to protect his wife and kids from a murderer. He’d always said though that if anything happened to him the family should move back to his family home in Lovecraft County.

In the first volume (which I’d read a few years ago without following up) that kind of cutesy naming thing (“See, it’s in New England and it’s horror, so the county is Lovecraft! Like the writer! Get it? Eh?”) bugged me. Everything felt very on the nose and wink-nudge nerdculture nodding (the gym teacher named Whedon and stuff). It was a little less annoying this time (especially after having recently dealt with all the Dark Tower self-referential bullshit) and once you get past the first volume the story really settles into itself and gets good.

The hook to the story is that in this family home there are all these magickal keys and locks and doors that the kids find and have to protect from nefarious forces. It’s a great hook and as it goes along the “stupid rules” make sense. The villain has an actually interesting endgame and uses one of the traditional horror tropes that gives me the screaming habublies to achieve it.

So yes. It won Eisners and all that so the book isn’t some undiscovered gem; it doesn’t need my praise but it has it.

book review: american elsewhere

Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere is about a little town in New Mexico called Wink. Wink is full of white picket fences and lots of rules, one of the most important of which is “stay inside at night.” Mona Bright has just inherited a house in Wink and the day she arrives is the day of the funeral of one of the town’s oldest residents. Oh, and thrity years ago there was some sort of accident at the lab up on the mesa. And Wink isn’t on any maps (because of that lab and its sensitive government work from decades past).

This all sounds like a pretty standard Stephen King-ish horror novel, and in a lot of ways it is. There’s nothing frighteningly innovative going on with the text. Challenges mount, characters rise to meet them in the face of sanity blasting beings we would go mad to perceive. Occasionally as a reader, you’re a few steps ahead of Mona, which can be annoying as you wait for her to catch up. But Bennett is very good at telling the story. The “seeing something impossible and it wrecks your brain” is described in a way that makes it sound scary rather than just a magic eye or what have you. It’s good neo-Lovecraft.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

The viewpoint shifts between a number of characters and even the drug dealers are basically root-for-ably written (apart from one character who is quite vile, but he’s mostly there so Mona can get a high-powered rifle in the final third of the book). If you like Stephen King novels, this is less dark than those (though there’s a lot of death around the climax), but similar. It’s less about mythic resonance than a Tim Powers book, but there’s a lot of shared DNA between them. What I liked best about it was that it was a fairly serious examination of how we (people and pandimensional beings) try to be happy. That probably excludes it from a real Lovecraftian vibe, since by the end the monstrosities are somewhat knowable.

I received my copy of American Elsewhere as an Advance Reading Copy through LibraryThing.com‘s Early Reviewers program.

book review: dark inside

Dark Inside is Jeyn Roberts’ multi-perspective YA novel about a kind of apocalyptic event that happens after a huge earthquake hits North America’s west coast. Cities are destroyed, yes, but a kind of evil is unleashed, not just at the earthquake site but in everyone’s souls. The book follows a scattered bunch of teenagers as they try to deal with the end of the world.

The book feels like a zombie book, since everyone aside from our protagonists has changed into bloodthirsty terrible murderers, but they haven’t gone brainless, just embraced their inner evil. This evil inside everyone is left pretty nebulous, as is the reason why the characters we’re following are spared it. The people who have turned (so most of the population) are terrible and terrifying, and some of the scenes are pretty intense. It would make for the kind of movie I couldn’t really watch, myself.

The teens are all eventually converging on Vancouver for various reasons (looking for a lost brother, keeping a promise to someone met on the road from Saskatoon, that kind of thing) and there are plenty of good scenes on the way. People feel survivor guilt and show survival skills and all in all it’s pretty good. And props to the book having interesting First Nations characters who didn’t feel like stereotypes. They weren’t the main characters but they were there, doing stuff like the rest of the kids with their own specific problems and issues.

book review: the kurosagi corpse delivery service (vol. 1)

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is a manga series by Eiji Ohtsuka and Housui Yamazaki about a group of Buddhist students who, well, dispose of corpses. Not just in a mortuarial sense, but in the getting the dead their closure kind of sense. The main character can speak with the dead and find out why they are restless. Another guy is like a dowser for corpses. One girl was trained in embalming in the States (evidently it’s not a common practice in Japan). There’s a kid with a puppet channeling alien voices.

The stories aren’t bad. They feel very manga like in the broad strokes the characters are painted in. I think my favourite story in this volume was the old woman in a cabinet they carried all over the place until they found a monk who’d made an urban version of Dendari Fields, from an old poem. That story worked much better than the guy who was cutting bodies up and stitching them into patchwork creatures for the sake of a campfire tale.

book review: that which should not be

I don’t like reviewing books I don’t like. It feels rude. So I’m not going to rip into Brett J. Talley’s That Which Should Not Be with great abandon.

This is a Lovecraftian tale about a young man at Miskatonic University who is sent by a mentor to find a book in the town of Anchorhead. In that town he goes to a tavern in a storm and listens to tales of horror from world-weary men. One is a Wendigo story, one is a cultists in Transylvania story, one is an Asylum story, one is a nautical ghost-ship/evil tome story. Then the young hero sails around the world and helps prevent Cthulhu from waking.

The thing about this book is that there wasn’t anything new or interesting done with any of those story-forms. They are all entirely old-fashioned in plotting and language. The language emulation leaves out a lot of Lovecraft’s purple prose, but it does use that formalized stiff diction that makes it sound like it was written a hundred years ago. If you have read any Mythos stuff before (really, if you’ve read any horror story from the last two hundred years) you’ve read the same thing.

The big philosophical problem I had with the book was the power of Judeo-Christian symbols in the face of the Mythos. Not to be a huge nerd about it, but these monsters cowering at crucifixes is completely antithetical to how I see the cosmology of a universe including Great Old Ones. There is altogether too much veneration of Christ in these stories to be effective Mythos tales.

I would not recommend this book to anyone but someone completely new to horror fiction.

Note: I received a free copy of this ebook through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program.

book review: king rat

King Rat was the China Mieville book I hadn’t read (apart from his thesis which is a Marxian analyis of some economics topic I can’t remember). It is unread no longer.

Basically the story is a Pied Piper retelling set in late-90s London in the Drum & Bass community. When Saul’s father dies he’s brought into the police for questioning, but then King Rat shows up, tells Saul he’s part rat and part human and he needs to escape right now. King Rat has plans for Saul in his age-old feud with The Piper, who is fucking terrfiying because he can make you do whatever he wants with his music.

While Saul is learning to move through the city like a rat, his friends are disappearing and being turned into pawns of the Piper. There’s also some cool stuff with the Loplop, the king of the birds and Anansi of the spider realm. These urban animals have all dealt with the Piper before and been defeated.

I loved the descriptions of how moving like a rat through the world worked for Saul. He’s a human and doesn’t simply shapeshift or anything. He just does impossible things. The book is set very specifically in London and it feels far from generically urban in its fantasy.

This is a much darker book than The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, another reimagining of the Pied Piper tale. People die horribly violently in this book. You can see a lot of themes Mieville came back to in his later novels, but this one doesn’t have any of the real mind-blowing craziness I love in his work.

book review: the plague ships (baltimore vol. 1)

Baltimore: The Plague Ships is a companion to Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire in full-on comics form.

Lord Baltimore was a soldier in the Great War and in his view, started the plague that has been decimating Europe. While the illustrated novel tells a number of tales of Lord Baltimore, this book focuses on his arrival in a village that a young woman wishes to leave. He kills some vampires and they set to sea and have to deal with a whole lot of fungus zombies. We also see the story of his family after his return from the war and the origin of his revenge quest (which I believe is also in the illustrated novel).

Ben Stenbeck does the art, apart from the covers, so it’s not quite the super-chunky, black-filling-the-page Mike Mignola work throughout, but it’s got a great palette for a horror comic that does a great job of setting mood and punctuating it with stylized gore. Very good stuff.