Category: Horror

Ninth House

Cover image for Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo by Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 978-1250-31307-2

 “Nothing is going to stop this. Too many powerful people rely on what the societies can do. Before Lethe existed, no one was keeping watch. So you can make futile bleating noises in protest and lose you scholarship, or you can stay here, do your job, and do the most good you can.”

Alex Stern never expected to end up at Yale. She spent most of her teen years going from fix to fix, looking to numb out, to forget. But when an overdose lands her in the hospital, she wakes up to an unexpected visitor. Dean Sandow of Yale University knows much more about her than any stranger should, and he has an offer to make Alex; come to Yale on a full scholarship, in exchange for serving as the watch dog to Yale’s secret societies. When she arrives on campus, Alex descends into a world of privilege and magic, monitoring the arcane rights of the societies, and ensuring that they follow the proper occult forms for their rituals. She was supposed to have an entire year to learn the rules from outgoing delegate Daniel Arlington before he graduated and moved on. But then Darlington disappears, and a girl is murdered, and it is up to Alex to ensure that none of the societies were responsible.

Told in alternating chapters, Ninth House toggles between Alex’s arrival at Yale in the autumn, and the investigation into the murder of Tara Hutchins during the winter. Leigh Bardugo carefully peels back the layers, doling out information in dribs and drabs. Alex’s past is murky, and the precise events the led her to the hospital where Dean Sandow made her his offer even more so. She doesn’t want to think about it. The circumstances around Darlington’s disappearance are equally mysterious; no one is supposed to know that he isn’t just spending a semester abroad, lest the societies get any funny ideas. What quickly becomes evident is why Alex was chosen; she can see the Grays, the ghostly shadows of the dead that haunt New Haven and the Yale campus, and threaten to disrupt occult rites if not banished by graveyard dirt or death words. Every watcher before her has had to swallow a nasty, toxic potion to perform this duty, but Alex can see the Grays all the time, even when she would rather not.

Ninth House might be best described as a dark fantasy with horror vibes. It is set in our own world, but to the privilege of wealth is added the privilege of magic, the one contributing to the other. The fact that it feels just one step to the left of what is real only serves to make it that much more eerie. Some of the horror is magical in nature, but much of it is real. Trigger warnings for this title include, but are not limited to: rape and sexual assault, ritual gore, drug use, and self-harm. Bardugo is examining these events from the point of view of the victims and survivors, but nevertheless, some of these occurrences make for difficult reading.

In many respects, Ninth House is an examination of structural inequality. It is all too easy to imagine the privileged secret societies of an Ivy League school keeping magic to themselves, and using it to increase their power, wealth, and influence, widening the gap between themselves and everyone else. Alex is trying to bear the weight of the responsibility she has taken on, but she is being slowly crushed under the burden. Her aborted high school career left her utterly unprepared for the rigours of study at Yale, just as Darlington’s sudden disappearance leaves her utterly unprepared for performing the full scope of her responsibilities. Lethe House is supposed to monitor and curtail the excesses of the other eight houses, but Lethe is also dependent on the houses for the very funding that allows it to continue to exist, creating a conflict of interest that threatens to bind Alex’s hands at every turn. Power dynamics are constantly in play.

At nearly five hundred pages long, Ninth House is a slow burn. Bardugo plays her cards close to the vest, and only doles out information grudgingly. This opening and build up contrasts sharply with the dramatic twists and rapid turns of the ending, which comes to more than one false conclusion. While the main plot is largely wrapped up in this volume, Bardugo leaves the door open for more mysteries in the world of Alex Stern.

The Ballad of Black Tom

Cover image for The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValleby Victor LaValle

ISBN 978-0-7653-8786-3

“People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can’t see the place. This is true of Manhattan, but even the outer boroughs, too, be it Flatbush Meadows in Queens or Red Hook in Brooklyn. They come looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince them it isn’t here.”

Charles Thomas Tester could be called a scammer, a swindler, a con, or a charlatan. He calls himself an entertainer, and hustles for room and board for himself and his father, a middle-aged man made old by back-breaking labour as a bricklayer. Tommy puts on a good appearance in his second-hand suit, hustling the arcane by skirting the rules without ever breaking them. But when he catches the attention of Robert Suydam, a wealthy, reclusive scholar of ancient traditions, he finds himself in deep with New York’s magical underworld. Human and supernatural forces are descending on Red Hook, and Black Tom is caught in the middle.

In Tommy Tester, Victor LaValle has created a flawed but sympathetic character. Though his profession isn’t strictly legal, Tommy’s motives are understandable, and he tries to stay out of the really deep, dark magic. But the idea of making a quick buck gets the better of him when he meets Robert Suydam, and slowly he is drawn into his orbit. Tommy’s father is an honest man, but one who is perhaps too trusting of a system that worked him to the bone, and left him poor and decrepit. Indeed, the relationship between Tommy and Otis is one of the most interesting parts of the story. Sometimes they are a team, and sometimes they are fundamentally at odds in their principles. Nevertheless, he values his father’s advice, and turns often to him for counsel.

LaValle’s dedication reads “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings,” referring to the fact that The Ballad of Black Tom is based on Lovecraft’s short story “The Horror at Red Hook.”  Although he is regarded as a foundational author, as best I can remember, I’ve never read any Lovecraft before. My interests lie more in the realm of science fiction and fantasy than the weird or horror genres, but I decided to request the Oxford University Press Classic Horror Stories from my library to get of sense of his work. I was amply aware that Lovecraft was a eugenicist and a racist, but I don’t think I was quite prepared for the level of vitriol I encountered in “The Horror at Red Hook.” Lovecraft describes the immigrant neighbourhood of Red Hook as a “polyglot abyss” and “a maze of hybrid squalor.” But these xenophobic descriptors have nothing on the descriptions he applies to people of colour, from “swarthy, sin-pitted faces” to “squinting physiognomies” and “a hatefully negroid mouth.” His fiction is so permeated by his racist philosophy that he cannot describe a Black or Asian person with spewing vitriol. As Roger Luckhurst puts it in his introduction to the OUP edition of Lovecraft’s stories, the question of race is “not superficial, but integral to his work.”

In LaValle’s retelling, race is equally integral, but explored entirely differently. Though the story is set in 1924, and LaValle recreates the atmosphere of that time, the issues the story addresses feel remarkably relevant today. Facing hostility and even police inquiry into his presence in a white suburb, Tommy observes “Becoming unremarkable, invisible, compliant—these were useful tricks for a black man in an all-white neighbourhood. Survival techniques.” Perhaps the most chilling scene comes with the raid on Parker Place, which addresses the militarization of the police. “At the sight of the heavy machine guns the whole neighborhood gasped as one. These guns were designed to shoot airplanes out of the sky. Much of the local population had fled countries under siege, in the midst of war, and had not expected to find such artillery used against citizens of the United States.” That these passages feel both modern and historical ought to give us pause about the current state of affairs. Much of the horror of this tale comes not from the supernatural elements borrowed from Lovecraft, but from the human interactions: “Mankind didn’t make messes; mankind was the mess.” To some extent, racism becomes the horror at Red Hook.

Lovecraft’s original story doesn’t seem to be regarded as one of his best, even by his hard core admirers. There are lots of guides for where to start in his large oeuvre, but this story rarely makes the list.  My local library stocks more than a hundred Lovecraft collections, but only four of them include “The Horror at Red Hook.” But Victor LaValle has managed to take a plodding and shockingly racist story, and spin it into a nuanced exploration both of Lovecraft’s continued influence on the horror genre, and its correlation to the continued strain on race relations in America today.


Cover image for Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older You might also like Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

The Wanderer in Unknown Realms

Cover image for The Wanderer in Unknown Realms by John Connollyby John Connolly

ISBN 978-1-4767-5139-9

A book is a carrier, and the ideas contained within its covers are an infection waiting to be spread. They breed in men. They adapt according to the host. Books alter men, and men, in their turn, alter worlds.”

By all accounts, Lionel Maulding led a quiet and retired life in the English countryside, never traveling further afield than strictly necessary. If he was regarded as a little bit eccentric by his neighbours, he was also considered harmless. So when Maulding goes missing, both foul play and leaving of his own volition seem equally unlikely. Recently returned from the Great War, Soter is hired by Maulding’s lawyer, Mr. Quayle, to look into Maulding’s whereabouts. When Soter arrives at Bromdun Hall, he discovers that Maulding’s home is less of a house, and more of a library—every room is overflowing books. Maulding’s library reveals his recent fascination with the supernatural and occult, and leads Soter into the dangerous world of occultist book sellers in London as he searches for answers.

What starts out slowly as a conventional historical mystery takes a chilling turn for the supernatural when Lionel Maulding’s occult studies are revealed. The turn from routine mystery to creepy horror is abrupt, but prior to this point, the story wasn’t really grabbing my interest. Unfortunately, the story comes to a rather abrupt conclusion just when it feels like we are getting into the meat of Connolly’s fascinating world. This may be in part due to false expectation set by the fact that the last 15% of the Kindle file is a preview for one of Connolly’s novels, but it is also due in part to the fact that the ending leaves a lot to the imagination. Having read a few Kindle Singles over the course of the last month, I shouldn’t be surprised; very few of them have struck the right balance and actually feel as if they are “expressed at their natural length.” Connolly’s writing is intriguing and I would consider reading other books by him in the future, but this novella failed to satisfy.


More Kindle Singles:

To Have and Uphold by Adam Liptak

Rules for Virgins by Amy Tan

Drinking My Way Through 14 Dating Websites by Tiffany Peon


Sketchy (The Bea Catcher Chronicles #1)

Cover image for Sketchy by Olivia SammsOlivia Samms

ISBN 9781477816509

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

I can draw the truth out of people…literally.”

Seventeen year old Bea Washington has just been released from a tough three month stint in drug and alcohol rehab. As if coping with the real world again wasn’t enough, Bea is also struggling with an unusual talent that manifested when she got sober. Always an artist, Bea now finds that she can draw the truth out of people, looking into their minds and drawing what they see, as if her hand has a mind of its own. She hoped that the power was merely a bizarre symptom of withdrawal, but it quickly becomes clear that the power isn’t going away. Recently beaten and left for dead, Bea’s classmate Willa Pressman is the latest victim of a local serial killer who is bound to strike again. Willa claims she can’t remember anything about her attacker, but when Bea draws the truth, she realizes the situation is even more complicated. With her parents keeping her on a short leash, Bea must try to solve the mystery of the serial killer, with or without Willa’s cooperation.

Bea has a spirited narrative voice and a dark sense of humour about the problems in her life that mostly made her pleasant company. Although she seems judgmental and sarcastic when we encounter her at her first AA meeting, it quickly becomes clear that she is hiding her own vulnerabilities and judging her own failures. Once the mystery begins, the novel is harrowing and fast paced. The only drawback to the quick pacing is that characters seem to have weirdly candid conversations with one another on relatively short acquaintance, usually in service of moving the plot forward. Unlike many mystery protagonists, who seem to have a natural talent for sleuthing, Bea is a blunderingly bad detective, struggling to use her power for a beneficial purpose. Overall, she was a wonderfully flawed and intriguing protagonist.

In additional to the regular textual narration, Sketchy also includes drawings, handwriting, and text messages. Although appropriate to the premise of the book, they added very little to the novel practically speaking. The drawings also occasionally mark a scene transition, which led to a few instances of confusion on my part about what was going on. What really did work, however, was the handwritten chapter titles, which demarcate the number of months, days, and hours that Bea has been sober, a constant reminder that she is struggling not to use despite the stress of coping with her new ability.

In a short novel dealing with a barrage of serious issues, some topics inevitably receive short shrift. However, there were a few instances where things went downright wrong. I was initially happy to see a young adult novel with a mixed race protagonist and a gay secondary character, but Samms’ treatment of the characters quickly demolished any enjoyment. She repeatedly refers to Bea’s “nappy” African American hair, and casually uses the term “tranny” not once, but twice. In the first instance, Bea describes her gay friend as a “tranny” for wanting to check out her closet, which almost caused me to set down the novel then and there. Also disturbing was Samms’ choice of a love interest for Bea. In a novel about sexual violence and exploitation, setting up your seventeen year old protagonist (who is a vulnerable recovering addict) with an adult (and a police officer no less) is more than a little discomfiting. Although the romance was mostly only hinted at, likely as set up for future books in the series, it nevertheless seemed inappropriate. Although Samms clearly dismisses any form of rape apology based on fashion choices or intoxication, this potential relationship cast a shadow of statutory rape over the story. While the novel has an interesting premise and a quirky main character, the above issues left me with serious reservations.

You Know What You Have To Do

Cover image for You Know What You Have To Do by Bonnie Shimkoby Bonnie Shimko

ISBN 9781477816424

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

Maybe I am in hell and just don’t know it.”

Mary-Magdalene Feigenbaum lives in a funeral home with her young mother, Roxie, and her elderly step-father, Harry. She has a couple friends at school, but Lester won’t stop asking her out, and Abigail is on the verge of leaving her behind to become one of the in-crowd. Everyone in their small town knows that Maggie’s mother slept around in high school, and that her biological father, Lonnie, is in jail for beating his mother to death. So it comes as no surprise that Maggie is a bit odd, and is even in therapy for night terrors. Maggie continues to go to therapy because she is more than a little in love with her therapist, Dr. Scott, but she will never tell him her secret: there is a voice in her head, a voice that tells her to kill people, and punishes her when she disobeys. Maggie does her best to cover her tracks, but murder doesn’t keep, and soon her life is on the verge of collapse under the weight of guilt, lies, and ill-kept secrets.

You Know What You Have To Do is an unusual and slightly uneasy mix of teen drama and psychological horror, as Maggie’s ordinary teenage problems are complicated by her second life as a serial killer. Ultimately, the thriller aspect of the story takes a backseat, so that the story is more of a dark coming-of-age tale for a peculiar teen. There is no detective hot on her trail, although there are certainly a few errant witnesses to her impulsive acts of violence. As hinted by her full name, Mary-Magdalene’s story arc is more about the possibility of repentance than the fulfilment of justice.

Maggie is a difficult and somewhat unpleasant companion who judges everyone harshly, while simultaneously trying to justify her own murderous actions. Thanks to the book’s first person narration, we are subjected to her constant barrage of sarcasm, petty judgement, and self-righteous sexual morality. She is made only slightly more sympathetic by the fact that her victims are often violent and abusive themselves, making the story slightly reminiscent of Dexter. However, her victims are very flat characters, who do little more than hand Maggie her excuse to kill them.

Although Maggie is in therapy, and eventually a mental hospital, the book skirts around the issue of mental illness. Even after having a major breakdown, Maggie refuses to discuss the voice with her doctors, so that it remains unclear whether Maggie is a tired caricature of mental illness, or merely has an unusual coping mechanism for dissociating herself from her darker thoughts. However, both portrayals are problematic and left me somewhat uncomfortable with the ambiguous conclusion of this novel.

Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes

Cover Image for Preludes and NocturnesWritten by Neil Gaiman

Art by Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III

ISBN 978-1-4012-2575-9/ 978-1-4012-3863-6

“I find myself wondering about humanity. Their attitude to my sister’s gift is so strange. Why do they fear the sunless lands? It is as natural to die as it is to be born. But they fear her. Dread her. Feebly they attempt to placate her. They do not love her.”

Preludes and Nocturnes is volume one of ten in the Sandman tradepaper slipcase set released by Vertigo in November 2012.  It contains the first eight issues of the Sandman comics, which were originally published between 1988 and 1989. The edition has been recoloured, and includes the original issue covers by Dave McKean. The first seven issues tell the story of Dream (also known as Morpheus), a member of the Endless who is captured by a magician and held prisoner for over seventy years. The artefacts that give him power over sleepers and the Dreamtime are stolen and lost. When he finally escapes from his captors, he must track down his lost artefacts and reclaim control of the Dreamtime. To do so he must travel through the earthly realms and to the gates of Hell itself. The eighth issue is the odd story out in this volume, as it introduces Dream’s sister, Death, the intended victim of the magician’s spell in issue one.

The series gets off to a slow start, as Gaiman explores the implications of imprisoning Dream, which manifests as a strange sleeping sickness. The action begins when Dream’s patience pays off and he is able to escape and begin his quest to find his lost objects of power. He meets a number of DC Universe characters, including John Constantine, The Scarecrow, and members of the Justice League. Overall, these comic book heroes and villains feel out of place in Gaiman’s darker, more mythology based world. The highlight of this initial sequence is issue four, A Hope in Hell, in which Dream must travel to Hell to try and find the demon that now possesses his helm. Here we are first introduced to Lucifer Morningstar, who co-rules Hell with Azazel and Beelzebub. Sam Keith’s dark, oozing Hell has a sickening aspect, but it is also perhaps the only section of the book which is not greatly improved by the recolouring work done for this edition.

The eighth issue, The Sound of Her Wings marks a turning point in both the art and the tone of the story. Mike Dringenberg, the inker for issues 1-5, became the penciller beginning with issue 6. His version of Dream is more solid and present, whereas Sam Keith’s Morpheus always seemed to be on the verge of melting off the page. Gaiman also hits his stride, blending the dark ruminations on mortality with light references to Mary Poppins in his strangely happy-go-lucky version of Death. For new readers, this story is an awkward place to end a volume, as it doesn’t fit with the previous issues, and offers little idea of how the story will proceed. However, for fans of the series, it is the story in which Sandman begins to stand apart from the DC Universe, for the better.

Physically, the tradepaper editions are much less appealing than the Absolute Sandman editions. The glue bindings are much less sturdy, and as is common with box sets, it becomes harder to fit the volumes back into the slipcase after reading. However, the paperbacks are much more reasonably sized and priced than the Absolute Sandman volumes, making them a good value proposition.

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2012

These are my favourite fiction titles read (not necessarily published) in 2012. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. My top 5 non-fiction titles for the year will go up Thursday.

1Q84 (978-0307593313) 

Cover image for 1Q84In 1984, personal trainer Aomame disembarks from a taxi in the middle of a Tokyo Expressway and climbs down an emergency exit in order to make an important appointment. But the world at the bottom of the emergency exit is subtly different from the world she left behind. Also in Tokyo, author Tengo is approached by a publishing contact with an offer to ghostwrite a beautiful and unusual fantasy novel written by a peculiar seventeen year old girl with a troubled past. Haruki Murakami weaves elements of mystery, fantasy and dystopia together brilliantly to reveal the connection between Aomame and Tengo and their seemingly disparate stories.

Categories: Fantasy, Dystopia


Cover image for Lamb by Christopher MooreWith his signature wit and humour, Christopher Moore brings a bright new perspective to the life of Christ and the many myths surrounding it by retelling it from the point of view of his dedicated and clumsy childhood pal, Biff. Biff has been reincarnated to tell the tale of the missing years of Christ’s life, between his childhood and his ministry. Their travels through Asia might more aptly be styled misadventures, but they all lead back to the fate that waits for “Joshua” on Calvary. Moore’s Gospel according to Biff is irreverent and hilarious.

Categories: Humour, Mythology

The Night Circus (978-0307744432)

Cover Image for The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternTwo great magicians with a long-standing rivalry pit their apprentices against one another in a battle of skill and wits with an unusual setting: a magical black and white circus which operates only at night. Celia and Marco are bound to the struggle but their growing feelings for one another and frustration with their mentors cause them to rebel against their fate. And the luminous circus setting in which they face off has serious consequences for the other denizens of the circus as the competition stretches on. Erin Morgenstern brings the circus to life in the mind’s eye in stunning detail.

Categories: Fantasy, Romance

The Wolf Gift (978-0-307-59511-9)

Cover Image for The Wolf Gift by Anne RiceReturning to the world of supernatural fiction, Anne Rice puts her own spin on the legend of the werewolf. Reuben Golding is a young reporter from a wealthy San Francisco family. He has a budding career and beautiful girlfriend, but his life is turned on its head when he is invited to Nideck Point, a majestic and isolated manor on the Mendocino coast. His hostess is murdered, and he is ravaged by a werewolf. When he transforms himself, he is compelled to answer the cries of suffering innocents, and is left to struggle with the moral implications of the violence he inflicts on their tormentors. Anne Rice blends philosophic introspection and supernatural mystery along with her unusual talent for describing houses and landscapes. The sequel, The Wolves of Midwinter, has been announced for October 2013.

Categories: Fantasy, Horror

Song of Achilles (978-0062060624)

Cover image for Song of Achilles by Madeleine MillerThe legend of Achilles and his role in the fall of Troy are exquisitely reimagined by Madeleine Miller, told from the perspective of his dedicated companion, Patroclus. Former prince Patroclus is an unwanted exile in the court of King Peleus. Despite his dark past, Patroclus is gentle and disinclined towards the martial arts he is expected to master. Achilles is a natural warrior, destined for great conquests by the ambition of his goddess mother, Thetis. Their opposing natures bind them together into a steadfast friendship that grows into a romance that will see Patroclus follow Achilles to the walls of Troy, despite Thetis’s determined efforts to drive them apart. Miller delivers a moving tale of friendship and romance doomed by its setting on the stage of history.

Categories: LGBT, Mythology, Romance

The Wolf Gift

Cover Image for The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice by Anne Rice

ISBN 978-0-307-59511-9

For fans of Rice’s early work who may not have not enjoyed her more recent offerings, The Wolf Gift is a homecoming to the world of supernatural fiction. The story begins, much like any other werewolf tale, with an accidental bite and a monstrous transformation. However, the similarities largely end there, as Rice puts her own distinctive spin on werewolves by blending the tension between theology and science with a touch of the traditional superhero narrative. Reuben, a young reporter, ­becomes a man-wolf whose transformations are driven not by the cycles of the moon, but by the scent of evil and the cries of the victims who desperately need his help. The transformation causes a slew of changes in his behaviour and personality which strain his relationship with his mother, Grace, a brilliant surgeon; his father, Phil, a university professor; his brother, Jim, a doubt-ridden Catholic priest; and his girlfriend, Celeste, an up-and-coming lawyer. The change is artfully illustrated by the subtle difference in Reuben’s narrative voice between when he is in his human form and when he is roaming the forests as the man-wolf.

Rice has a particular talent for evoking topophilia in her work; she has famously brought New Orleans and the Louisiana bayous to life in her Vampire Chronicles and the Mayfair novels. In The Wolf Gift, she lavishes this attention on San Francisco and the great redwood forests of northern California. This skill is important as Rice begins the novel by carefully establishing the tone and setting of the narrative, while the characters and the plot are revealed more slowly. Rice’s riveting ability to render place is key to holding the reader’s attention through the limited action of the first two chapters. Similar attention is invested in describing the house at Nideck Point where much of the action takes place.

Although The Wolf Gift marks Rice’s return to the horror genre, issues of religion and morality remain central to the narrative. For example, Reuben uses the Seal of the Confessional to take his brother into his confidence. Reuben’s transformation into the Man-Wolf only heightens the natural human desire to understand our purpose, and further complicates the already difficult questions of morality. In this he is not unlike Rice’s vampire protagonist, Louis. Although Reuben is eventually able to uncover some answers as to the origin of the Morphenkinder, the question of the morality of the Man-Wolf is largely left open for exploration in a future novel.