“Is this heaven?”

44. Blood Farm – Sam Siciliano

The cover of this 1988 horror trade paperback is awesome. The title is perfect for an “Iowa Gothic” as it is labeled. That is where the awesome ends, unfortunately.

There are some strong images, the hippie driving the hearse is an amiable fellow, the damsel in distress is damsely and very 70s with the hitchhiking and such, and the highways covered in snow are aptly described. I also appreciated the very 1970s aesthetic of the apartment interior description… It falls apart in terms of the horror. It’s brutally obvious and gets rapey and well, the setting basically means nothing (kind of like the extremely cold Southern Gothic I read earlier this year, Who Made Stevie Crye? [sub-disclosure, I remembered the title as “What Makes Stevie Crye?” and that’s probably because a lot of the book made me want to cry(e)]) and that disappointed me a lot because I’m Iowan. There’s lots of Gothic to extract from the Iowa winter landscape and farms. I’ve seen some desolation, perhaps it is up to me to properly “Iowa Gothic.” To be fair, the one time I tried clove cigarettes and didn’t inhale seems like a more apt description of “Iowa Gothic” for me, which doesn’t bode well for the genre.

Danger Crumples and Horace engage in a tense scene from their Guinea Pig Gothic drama where they are friends and part of the same long lasting herd, but sometimes Danger is compelled by his dementia to be not friends and Horace wants the will re-written so he can inherit the unholy legacy of having as many little toys as Danger Crumples. It’s a real page turner. A flip book.

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Don’t go in the basement.

11. The Ridge – Lisa W. Cantrell

“There’s something evil underneath the house” is the theme of both Lisa W. Cantrell books I’ve read. The third one I have, which attracted me entirely because of the evil pumpkin gnawing on a banister on the cover, is also about something evil underneath a house, well, a “manse.” This time the house is a monastery for black magic monks. The black magic entities do not like this young girl named Sara who has an assassin for a father, who now must take care of her since the rest of the family died in the black magic accident; which makes it sound like maybe we’ve got a case of The Professional meets Amityville here- it’s more like Grosse Pointe Blank meets Ghoulies, but, worse than that would actually turn out. This assassin has less than half the charisma of John Cusack, for starters, I don’t care how many braided belts he has.

Thaddeus, awaiting anything actually scary happening in The Ridge under a pillow. He’s got a long wait. Through all the pages. All of them!

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Cooper: “Well my symptoms suggest the onset of malaria, but I’ve never felt better in my life.”

54. Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So – Mark Vonnegut

If you went to undergrad where I went to undergrad, you could be essentially excommunicated from the English department if you didn’t love Kurt Vonnegut Jr. The unwavering adoration for his literary genius seems like the kind of thing he wouldn’t have appreciated, but it was the status quo. I never got into any deadly pretentious conversations about Vonnegut, thankfully, and I do love his work, but I do not love most of the people who love his work enough to be important in the English department social scene. And I had no idea until I read this memoir by his son Mark that he couldn’t write for long periods of time (I…didn’t do the supplemental reading…sometimes…) because of depressive bouts. Woo!

One of the major things going for this memoir is that it doesn’t really offer any perfect solutions. There are a lot of mental illness-based memoirs where you read through certain situations and then suddenly the person writing is “fine” because they got married or are in a new relationship and I just can’t really stand those bits. They’re not that helpful. Mark Vonnegut’s strategy involves trying to find a balance that will help him avoid severe episodes and it’s not just “being married” or “working too much,” it’s obvious that many aspects go into recovering and trying to stay functional. He also demonstrates how easy it is for a psychotic break to happen to a successful person – see, you can be successful or creative or both or also a pediatrician or not and bad shit can still take you down, it’s not a personal failure to have mental illness. Vonnegut also makes sure to make it clear that being perfectly mentally well is not really a thing either, and I like that. It takes that whole “aspire to happiness” bullshit down; in my opinion, taking that down is half the battle for maintaining levels of functionality.

“Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a [guinea pig].” – Kurt Vonnegut, “I Love You, Madame Librarian” (inthesetimes.com/article/903)

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“I take care of the place while the Master is away.”

13. Those Across the River – Christopher Buehlman

This is some Southern Gothic. Those Across the River is beautifully written, with lots of images that stick with you long after the reading is over. The dust, the stickiness, the pigs, the woods, that one guy with his little shack who occasionally reminded me of a way smarter Torgo… there’s just so much here. And I loved the results of the central mystery. It wasn’t quite what I expected, and I ended up pleasantly surprised.

Finny would save Ozma from anything, if he could get across the pumpkin.

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If only we could do something about those wacky billionaires.

46. Stolen – Kelley Armstrong

Adding witches, vampires, demons, a mad scientist, and a sadistic billionaire to her urban fantasy (but this one’s mainly set in an isolated compound) series may have seemed like a good idea at the time for Kelley Armstrong. Second book in the series, throw in everything. And in fact, the Otherworld books are usually fun to read regardless of how many types of supernatural characters have been thrown in – besides, Charlaine Harris did the same thing and it happened on Buffy and Monster Squad and there are so many, many more. If one supernatural thing is real, they all must be! Here’s a kitchen sink for your trouble! It does get tiresome having to learn everyone’s powers over and over – oh you’re not all demon, you’re just half demon and a jerk- okay. On something else, you’d be super tortured and whining about not being able to find love or something…

In the context of Stolen, which came directly after Bitten – a novel dealing entirely with werewolves – it’s quite the expansion on what I thought was going to be a series dealing with the issues of one main species. And in the setting it has – some jerk billionaire uses his resources to capture and hunt different supernatural species, it makes it work. Armstrong’s female characters are very strong and very capable and I appreciate that. Even the imprisoned witches and Elena the werewolf are resourceful and making the effort to make do with their circumstances while finding a way out. It’s far more realistic than panicking and waiting for male characters to help them out…and sometimes it seems like stories have to be set in a fully supernatural universe for that to be truly understood.

Ozma, planning her escape from the couch full of pumpkins.

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“I knew a man like you once. He was wonderfully handsome and strong and brave. He lasted almost a week.”

56. Harvest Home – Thomas Tryon

The story this book tells has been imitated enough that I knew exactly where we were heading. Like Deathstalker, I’ve seen it all before and could shake my eighties haircut with hubris at it (if I had an eighties haircut). And really, the problem of the main character is hubris. He thinks he’s smart enough to figure out what’s really going on in Cornwall Coombe and stamp out those “old ways” he keeps hearing about. He thinks. He’s no rural sexpot postmaster, or frustrated outsider who should really go to college, and he’s certainly no blind elderly neighbor who just goes with the flow. No, he’s Ned, incredibly pompous narrator, so he goes forth into the corn-based fray (watch out though, corn will sneak up on you when you least expect it), with all the self-righteousness and obsession he can muster.

Finny, you don’t want to cross the Widow Peregrine when she’s looking up at you like that. Don’t get sassy.

 

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Act 4 Hope is a Demon Bitch – Hamlet 2

13. Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression – Nell Casey, ed.

To an extent, shorter essays can help make the symptoms, the coping mechanisms, and the general feeling of depression much more comprehensible. When reading longer memoirs I’ve had a harder time finding pieces of what I experience and part of that is just the lack of differing viewpoints. A first person story is never going to have the thoughts of the person watching the one with depression, the friend or significant other trying to understand what they’re going through or helping them, and that’s not enough when trying to root through all the possible rabbit holes of information on the disease. It’s not enough to know the pain of one person, even if there are bits of that pain in all persons with depression. I’m very glad the Unholy Ghost collection was put together because of all of the viewpoints represented.

In the first essay, “A Delicious Placebo” by Virginia Heffernan, I found the description of her endlessly trying to get to the root of her depression incredibly jarring. It hadn’t occurred to me that finding more and more information about Why wouldn’t fix the situation or stop much of anything. I’m used to research, I’m used to figuring things out as a method for solving problems, I am not used to simply accepting that there is a problem to be coped with instead of fixed. Another essay I found incredibly useful was Meri Nana-Amah Danquah’s “Writing the Wrongs of Identity,” in which she mentions that “For every twelve joys, I had twenty-five sorrows… So much wasted time.” I can relate to that way more than I like.

Another aspect of depression that came up for me when reading these essays was class. There are certain classes of people who are not allowed to admit to themselves or say to others that they have depression. They don’t have money or time to deal with it the way someone of a different class would. They basically have to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with them and if that becomes impossible, they feel weak and are presumably seen by others of the same class as weak. And there is a lot of class warfare in this country that goes under the radar because people don’t even realize they’re being classist. I am sort of in between classes for a few reasons and I’ve found through dealing with my depression that those class barriers when you can’t “perform” are as solid as a steel door. If we want people to be able to get the help they really need, we as a country need to admit that healthcare is a right and that all illnesses are illnesses, not personal failings. No one asked to have their brain broken. No one.

Ozma displays extraordinary self-care and also owner-care skills by grooming on top of a pumpkin mid-photoshoot.

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“This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation.”

63. NOS4A2 – Joe Hill

Victoria McQueen felt very familiar to me, and not just because we’re both good at finding things. When I originally read the description for NOS4A2 before the book came out, all I could think about was Regan, the main heroine of my Squirrelpocalypse trilogy . I know that Joe Hill and I aren’t working on the same level, but we are working within the same territory. We’re a little bit like the two camps in The Thing. I’m the Norwegian one, for a variety of fun reasons. And it’s little comparisons such as that one that give me the indications that Hill and I are neighbors. Allusions are part of the fabric of our writing. The Thing is, heh, if you know what one of us is alluding to, you’ll either love the whole story more or start to resent it.

I recognized many things in NOS4A2 just as I have in other Hill works. The one that most significantly sparked for me was the bridge. I knew I’d seen it before. The vision that Vic crossing it put in my head was straight out of something that, at the time I read this, I hadn’t seen in a very long time – In the Mouth of Madness. It’s that bridge. Those lights between the boards. That rickety slapping. NOS4A2 is a masterwork of allusion and it’s also just an amazing damn original story- always what I’m aiming for as well. Christmasland reminded me a little too easily of his father’s work, which is neither here nor there, as it mostly made me worried the ending wouldn’t be satisfactory.

Merricat would’ve burned down both camps. She was a finisher and fierce little pig.

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One of the characters is named Daria. Guess what she’s like.

31. Silk – Caitlin R. Kiernan

I’m not going to lie, there are parts of me that just wish I was a lot cooler in the 1990s. And by “cooler” I mean, older and able to get into clubs where I would have died quickly of an asthma attack because there weren’t any smoking bans back then. Sigh. But I would have seen so many more bands I like in person (surely!) and worn my leather pants with purpose. (I had one pair. They were a very important Christmas present for my psyche. I am proud to report that they didn’t squeak when I wore them, but I did not have nearly enough opportunities. I still have them, but I’m not sure if they fit as they were last deployed on my birthday in 2005.) I probably would have said a lot of really annoying things about how “maybe I’ll just, like, write a novel about vampires or some shit and like, send it in to some random horror publisher,” that totally would have worked out. Totally. Maybe I would have developed a taste for coffee. Perhaps I would have seen Slayer in a much smaller venue than they play now – and developed permanent tinnitus early on. Dreams. As Mitch Hedberg said, “I’m sick of following my dreams. I’m just going to ask them where they’re goin’ and hook up with them later.”

Anyway, all I could think about while reading Silk was the 1990s. And how ridiculously familiar many of the characters were to friends I’ve known since I did become old enough to get into music venues. Yes, let’s all hang out in the parking lot and speak way too loudly for no reason at 2AM. Let’s. Let’s also never shut up about coffee, oh wait, that’s STILL HAPPENING. Also the smoking. I have one terrible ex-boyfriend who fancied himself a filmmaker who did that thing that everyone who smokes and had a video camera when they weren’t ubiquitous on phones does where they film someone smoking in black and white and linger on the smoke. Linger. Soundtrack it with Portishead. I know I would have loved this book and considered it to be somewhat aspirational when I was in middle school – because I had no idea how annoying most people were going to turn out to be. Even me.

Silk is a little more plot conscious than some of the other Kiernan works I’ve read, but reading it as a jaded, cynical adult with some failure under my belt I had very little ability to care about the characters – partly because they’re interchangeable, partly because the genesis of Kiernan’s atmostpheric, impressionist writing style is here and it doesn’t give much room for fully developing her people.

Pickles imitates the Hype Williams’ music video staple – fish eye lens. She’s all nose here, and not too long ago someone told me guinea pigs are “all nose” and I’m a little irritated to find proof as I don’t like how he said it. Damn it, Vincent.

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“On the business end of a beam of despair”

4. Them or Us – David Moody

Welcome to the post-post-apocalypse, where if you can’t get your mental shit together, you’re doomed. Then again, you always were doomed, even if you could get your mental shit together because there’s some probably tiny handed dictator waiting to only give you food if you’re fittingly sycophantic and brutal. Sheesh. How do these people gain power? Oh wait, regardless of country, sometimes they get voted in.

Them or Us is a fittingly bleak and mildly brutal end to the Hater trilogy, set in Lowestoft, and yet, The Darkness’ fate was not mentioned. I assume Justin and Dan and co. are fine and were in a bunker when the bombs fell – after all, bombs are really only supposed to fall on Slough, isn’t that how the poem goes?

It was the coming of the …Belvedere. Damnit, too many syllables, and “Bel Bel” just doesn’t have the same ring as “Black Shuck.” He was certainly “a curious beast” though. Oooooooh.

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