48. Long Lankin – Lindsey Barraclough
Every once in a while, less so nowadays, someone creates (or illustrates, damnit, Stephen Gammell) a story for young people that will scare them half to death. It will stick in the back of their minds, jumping to the surface when they hear a noise, see a creepy tree, or are walking all alone, late at night, past a graveyard. Long Lankin is a scary fucking book. Reading it made me jumpy and paranoid during the daylight and frankly, a story about post-World War II era British children and folklore should not have managed to accomplish that task. The last thing that made me that jumpy was The Blair Witch Project (saw it in the theater, pre-most of the hype or at least I had no access to hype, didn’t think it was real though, still scary. No corners).
There’s a level of scarcity and secrecy in Long Lankin that just puts a damper on the mood and pushes it into a murky, stifling place. Children aren’t allowed to know what they need to know and there’s an exciting amount of dramatic tension at play as a result. Another contributor to the effectiveness are Barraclough’s lush descriptions. She does an excellent job describing how rooms feel when the windows have been nailed shut for years and I can even feel my breath hitch thinking about the stale air (of course, as an allergic-asthmatic, that’s always going to be a sticking point of terror for me). And that classic British damp is ever-present, rotting away the shingles and leaving room for creepy beasties to get through.
The one thing that didn’t work for me was the ending, but it’s quite the journey to get there, so overall it’s a worthwhile read.
Pickles dramatically reenacts my experience reading Long Lankin. Did you hear that?
26. Schoolhouse – Lee Duigon
1988, a time when horror paperbacks were plentiful and there were more than enough skeletons on covers to scare all the children in line at the grocery store. Schoolhouse has a skeleton teacher (with bun and pointer, but no shoes, I feel like she could’ve been wearing shoes) with both an apple and another skull on her desk. Another skull on her desk! And the background isn’t just black, there’s a chalkboard and a spider web and everything. Pinnacle getting their money’s worth out of the cover artist. It’s a full painting. There are many parts of me that wish publishing still allowed for this style of cover and for a proliferation of bizarre horror novels.
Schoolhouse’s staying power is in its weirdness. If one went to public school, one generally could be led to believe that something weird is going on…especially in the 1980s, when the something weird didn’t have to be related to state budget cuts and elected officials painting teachers as the enemy for wanting proper resources because public schools’ mission is give EVERY student an education, and they don’t actually leave any children out. Perhaps a digression, but things were different then and if your teacher was an enemy, it was probably because they were possessed by an alien beast creature sliming its way to the surface (now those are just lots of repugnant elected officials, possessed by somebody else’s money). Schoolhouse very much treads the line between horror and science fiction and who knew that would be a preview of our educational system today – vouchers and creationist textbooks, anyone? Scary stuff.
Danger Crumples and Ozymandias have very different investigative styles. Danger leaves no pillow un-turned, Ozy knows H.P. Lovecraft-style slimy beasts don’t hide under pillows.
25. Fifty Feet of Trouble – Justin Robinson
The continuing adventures of Nick Moss, private detective in the City of Devils , Fifty Feet of Trouble delivered on a number of levels; although I must report that I didn’t actually realize the significance of the title until the end and am somewhat embarrassed about it because it’s really perfect.
It was pretty easy to get distracted away from cataloging familiar situations and tropes in this one and I’m glad so much ground work was laid in City of Devils. It may be a surprise, but, I’m not as familiar as many readers might be with noir and classic hard-boiled detective stories. My mystery choices tend to be more Lansdale and Leonard than Hammett and I still found it really easy to see where the weirdo stuff, snappy dialogue, and I have to say- a lot more horrific elements this time (Damn those clowns right to hell!) of the mysteries I’m used to and the salty (pretty literally in this case) detective traditions stomp around with each other. Really though, damn those clowns. And they had their own church! That was effing terrifying. Robinson managed to broaden the world and give several City of Devils characters much more depth, including main meatstick Nick Moss, (and Serendipity got much more of a chance to glisten and shine with slime, which I didn’t know I was waiting for as a reader until after I finished) while also presenting a thoroughly sign-posted and well heeled pulpy as hell mystery. There’s some seriously deft handling of a large cast in a smoothly readable, surprisingly short amount of space. I never got confused. And now I know what happened to Escuerzo. Sheesh.
Meanwhile, my last pumpkin photo shoot was a less than deft example of how to handle a lot of characters. As always, Horace was being a good pig. Ozma, Peregrine, and Danger Crumples were not having it. Guinea pigs. Familiars of the thwarting kind.
56. City of Devils – Justin Robinson
Long time, no see, eh? Let’s just say that moving, starting a new job, renewing my ongoing battle with eczema (Now on my neck! Very visibly! You can’t see me!), most of my allergies, and trying not to engage with the fatalist part of my brain every second has been distressing. However, October is my favorite month and this book was FUN and I’m trying very hard.
When reading a book that engages heavily with pop culture, as this one does, I cannot help but think back to every writing workshop I’ve brought part of Night of the Squirrels to with the “But will everyone get it? Why are you referencing anything at all if everyone won’t get it?” questions. I get why people ask that. I get why workshops are concerned with that- they typically seem designed to make everyone’s work as accessible and therefore generic as possible. Some people don’t like pop culture, won’t appreciate references, have no sense of humor, etc. That’s fine. They’re fine. I believe the generic story with broad emotions and no pop cultural references humans are already being catered to very handily by several writers. Not me. Not Justin Robinson in City of Devils.
I do have to say I was initially skeptical when a vast variety of monsters were mentioned and I was especially skeptical when one of the characters was a gremlin named “Brows.” Full disclosure, probably not a surprise, I adore Gremlins (and Gremlins II) and I don’t want to see anybody mangle anything about either of those films, including the gremlins that scared me to death when I was little. Hi ho. Thankfully, Robinson has enough respect for this subject matter and the necessity of red herrings in mystery stories and not leaving loose ends (or maybe I should say stringy, pulpy ends as I was pretty happy with how the pumpkin-head, not the Henriksen movie one with too big scapulas -more like Jack from Return to Oz, ended up being more than just a lawn visitor). Maybe he also has a Gremlins lunchbox. Even if he doesn’t, I really appreciate having a solid example of how smoothly references can work to truly deepen the possibilities of appreciation in a funny, original story.
The meshing of horror movie monsters (the werewolves vs. wolfmen distinctions were particularly amusing to me) with noir tropes and humor in sweaty post-war L.A.’s secretive studio system and underworld really worked for me. I was expecting it to be like what the movie Dylan Dog wanted to be and it easily met and exceeded that expectation, which makes it seem like I’m lowballing but I had high hopes for the Dylan Dog movie. City of Devils was more fun. I am also now concerned about the whereabouts of a toad.
If Thaddeus ever eats after midnight and becomes a Gremlin of the scariest kind, his name will be “Bolt.” I will not allow him to move to L.A. though, not even Louisiana, where I have spent many extremely sweaty days and nights.