I read a few of Tom Piccirilli’s noir novellas (The Nobody, All You Despise, You’d Better Watch Out and Loss) and I absolutely loved them. These dark, nasty books were superbly written. Unfortunately, Piccirilli died a few years ago, and maybe I’m wrong about this, but it almost seems like he’s being forgotten already. His books are not forgettable, but there’s not a huge amount of discussion of his work online. His personal website has been down for a few years now too. Maybe there’s a hidden Piccirilli cult somewhere, and I haven’t been looking in the right places, but my point here is that I think that Piccirilli’s writing should be better known than it is. I loved his crime fiction, so I thought that I had better check out some of his horror too. I read 3 novels for this post.
A Choir of Ill Children
Bantam Spectra – 2006 (Originally published 2003)
This was quite good. It’s about a psychic weirdo who lives in a mansion in a small town with his conjoined triplet brothers and their partner. There’s a bunch of witches and other freaks living in their town too. It was quite literate for a horror novel. There’s narrative shifts and symbolism and lots of that kind of thing. Piccirilli seems to have been a writer’s writer. The inside cover is absolutely full of quotes from other horror authors saying how great this book is. Even Thomas Ligotti sings its praise. I had a very bad cold when I read it though, and it was heavier than what I needed at the time.
Leisure Books – 1999
I like Piccirilli, and I sometimes enjoy occult horror, but this one didn’t really do it for me. A black magician returns to his hometown because his best friend has been locked up in a mental asylum for digging up a corpse and showing it to a kid. Lots of people are going missing, and everyone in town is scared. Demons show up, and things get worse and worse. It sounds like a good story, and parts of it were quite creepy, but it didn’t really work. Piccirilli doesn’t really go in for much exposition, and the reader is left with a lot to figure out for themselves. This is fine in a crime novel, but when goetia, telekinesis and a potentially unreliable narrator are involved, it gets quite confusing. Also, I felt a bit like some of the occultism parts were a bit gratuitous. There’s one scene in which the protagonist beats up the naked ghost of Aleister Crowley. I’m all for fiction about Aleister Crowley being abused, but aside from that ridiculous scene, this book is dark, slow-burning atmospheric horror. Again, this is clearly well written. Piccirilli is good at what he’s good at, but I felt that the plot here just didn’t come together as neatly as I had hoped.
The Night Class
Leisure Books – 2002 (Originally published 2001)
I wasn’t super impressed by either of the above novels, but I wanted to give Piccirilli another go. I chose this book because it won a Bram Stoker award for Best Novel in 2002, so I assumed it would be pretty good.
It starts off with a college student sitting through an uncomfortable philosophy lecture. I spent 4 years sitting through philosophy lectures, so I was immediately able to empathise. This kid gets pissed off by his lecturer, so he goes home. When he gets there, he answers his ringing telephone to be greeted by silence. We then find out that a girl was brutally murdered in his bed while he was on Christmas vacation.
Ok, at this point, I was very much enjoying the book. We’re set up for a murder-mystery. Unfortunately, Piccirilli throws in the following elements, for no discernible reason, and things getting very confusing.
- Caleb suffers from stigmata.
- Caleb’s older sister killed herself and Caleb is haunted by her ghost.
- Caleb’s girlfriend comes from an incest family, and her nephews and nieces are hydrocephalic.
- There’s a mysterious love interest that goes nowhere and adds little to the story.
- Nobody pays any attention to the bloodstains on Caleb’s bedroom wall.
- Caleb’s friend Fruggy Fred is a hippy radio host who sleeps a lot. There are several brief allusions to this guy, but he never actually shows up, and Piccirilli doesn’t give the reader any reason to care about him. Unfortunately, he becomes an important character at the end.
- The faculty of the unversity have sex with the students and kill them (and/or fail them) if they refuse. Are they demons or vampires or just jerks?
Honestly, I really wanted to like this one, but it was a mess. Maybe I’m really stupid and didn’t understand it.
Of the three novels I read, A Choir of Ill Children was the best. It was a good novel, but can’t honestly say I enjoyed it a whole bunch. I far prefer Piccirilli’s writing when it’s concrete and clear. I don’t need my horror to be tidy and entirely cohesive, but the tropes that he uses in these novels (inbred freaks, demons, stigmata…) don’t mix well with the literary, existential horror he’s pushing. These books were more confusing than scary. I’ll very likely read more Piccirilli in the future, but I might stick to his crime stuff for a while.