The Cormorant – Stephen Gregory Valancourt Books – 2013 (Originally published 1987)
This horror novel was reiussed by Valancourt books in 2013, so I knew it was going to be pretty good. It’s about a man who inherits a cormorant, a big dirty bird, from his uncle. I’ve done quite a few evil animal books this year, but I anticipated this one being quite a bit better. It won a Somerset Maugham Award, and I had seen it being compared to Poe’s writing. In ways it was classier than my standard fare, but it also contained more crass swearing and disturbing pervy bits than any of the horror novels about beetles or worms that I’ve read in 2020.
This is suspenseful, creepy, sometimes funny and breathtakingly dark. I’m not going to try any harder to convince you to read it. For the rest of this post, I am going to talk about the plot and give away big spoilers. If you haven’t read it already, fuck off and come back when you’re done.
The narrator repeatedly alludes to his previous career as a teacher, and although he claims to feel that he was never cut out for that job, his actions suggest otherwise. His final acts of vengeance against the cormorant prove that he is extremely efficient at teaching lessons.
The whole way through the book I was expecting him to turn violent against the bird. When he finally snaps, he does so with grace, determinacy and cunning. He hits the unruly bird on the wing with a fire poker, shoves it in a box and then gives it a golden shower. Take that, you filthy beast!
I have nothing else to say other than that the bathtub scene was weird and probably unnecessary and that the ending is unbearably grim. I really enjoyed The Cormorant, and I’ll definitely check out more of Gregory’s stuff when I get the chance.
Earlier this year I read Slither (1980), Slime (1984) and Squelch (1985) by John Halkin. Although these books are about different characters and all take place in separate realities, they are regarded as a trilogy due to their titles and almost identical plots. Each book is about a wave of killer creepy crawlies (worms, jellyfish and butterflies respectively) wreaking havoc on Great Britain. These were not great books, but I found them mildly entertaining. Halkin also wrote Blood Worm, another horror novel about killer bugs, in 1987, and while it’s not considered part of the Slither series, it is frequently mentioned alongside it. I had to read it.
It was terrible.
A bunch of killer beetles start killing and eating people in London. The beetles are extremely dangerous, but the beetle grubs are far grosser. These grubs join together in huge numbers to create giant worms that feed on human flesh. Together, the beetles and blood worms seem to do more damage than the bugs in the Slither Trilogy books. They lay London almost entirely to waste. (I recently noted that the Slither Trilogy seemed like a rip off of James Herbert’s books, and the destruction of England’s capital city in Blood Worm makes it seem even more Herbertian.) Also, the main character in Blood Worm is an ex-soldier, not somebody was was involved in television. Aside from these 3 differences, this book is essentially the exact same as Slither, Slime and Squelch, just a bunch of uninteresting characters in unhappy marriages getting killed by bugs.
Blood Worm is a shit book. It’s uninspired drivel. Halkin wrote a few other horror novels, but they’re not about worms, so I’m not interested. One is called The Unholy, so maybe I’d read it to compare with this book, but I’m sure it’s absolute shit too.
Compleat Vampyre: The Vampyre Shaman, Werewolves, Witchery & the Dark Mythology of the Undead Nigel Jackson Capall Bann – 1995
A few months ago I put out a call for occult book recommendations. I haven’t been as interested in occultism for the last year, and part of me thought that this was from overdoing it over the past few years. I was kindly recommended this book by a pal of mine. It looked pretty cool, so I decided to give it a go.
It’s rather dense, and despite its subject matter, I thought it was very dry. It’s only 180 pages, but it took me a month and a half to get through it. I didn’t take notes as I read through it either, so I don’t even remember much of what the author said in the first half of the book.
This seems like a thoroughly researched book, but the writing does not seem to be very critical. Most of the book is taken up with descriptions of vampires and werewolves from folklore, but the idea that these accounts might not be real is never really discussed. I’m not saying Nigel Jackson believed every word in this book, but he doesn’t do a very good job of clarifying which parts the reader is supposed to believe and which parts are just legends.
Ultimately though, this is presented as a book on occultism rather than one on folklore. Towards the end of the book, the author does give some instructions on how to shapeshift into a werewolf, but these instructions are pretty vague, and one would have to have a detailed knowledge of occultism and ceremonial magic to be able to pull them off.
The most interesting claim in the whole book is that the mysterious large cats seen throughout the English countryside (the ones discussed at length in The Goblin Universe by Ted Holiday) are actually transformed witches and wizards.
Honestly, I couldn’t give a bollocks. I have so little to say about this that I feel bad for wasting your time. I read the whole thing, but reading it felt like trying to paint water. I’d reread the same paragraph 3 times, but I was so uninterested that nothing would stick in my head. “Vampires, shadows, liminal… bleh bleh bleh.” Whatever. I’m not really qualified to judge a book like this. Maybe it’s great if you’re interested in this stuff. I certainly amn’t. I won’t say I’ll never read another occult book, but I doubt that I’ll ever get back into reading 2 a week like I was doing a few years ago.
I read Fahrenheit 451 and a few of Ray Bradbury’s short stories when I worked as an English tutor years ago, and while I enjoyed this stuff, I had Bradbury pegged as a dystopian science-fiction kinda guy. Then I noticed his name popping up in discussions of horror fiction, and I realised I had better take a closer look at his output.
I am really glad I did so. Ray Bradbury was an amazing writer, and he wrote some awesomely dark fiction.
Dandelion Wine Bantam – 1968 (Originally published 1957)
Aside from two separate chapters about a serial killer and a witch, Dandelion Wine has nothing to do with horror. I am including it here because the characters in this book live in the same town as those from Bradbury’s considerably darker Something Wicked this Way Comes. Something Wicked is not a sequel, and you wouldn’t have to have read Dandelion Wine to enjoy it, but Dandelion Wine is a great book and it prepares the reader for the kind of dreamy fantasy that continues in Something Wicked.
Dandelion Wine is quite strange. It’s actually a bunch of short stories that Bradbury wrote and later worked together to form a novel about a young boy’s summertime. Much of it is clearly autobiographical, but there are peculiar parts about a happiness machine and the aforementioned witch that give the book a wonderous feeling. Can you remember dreaming about the summer holidays when you were a kid? Dandelion Wine is full of that majestic uncertainty and childish excitement. I don’t mean childish in a derogatory way here. Bradbury actually takes you back and reminds you of what it felt like.
If anything, this book is almost too sweet. Bradbury wrote it in the 1950s, and he was basing much of it on his own childhood in the 20s. It’s now a hundred years later, and with our pandemic, rising levels of extinction and catastrophic climate change, I don’t know if today’s children can be as full of optimism about their futures.
Still though, this is a beautifully written book, and I strongly recommend reading it before trying Something Wicked.
Something Wicked This Way Comes Bantam – 1969 (Originally published 1962)
This is the story of a strange carnival coming to town months after carnival season. To the book’s 13 year old protagonists, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, nothing could seem more exciting, but when they hear the Carnival arrive in town in the middle of the night and sneak out of their houses to watch the tents erect themselves, they realise something strange is going on.
The boys discover a merry-go-round that can make a person older or younger, a salesman who has been turned into a wrinkled pipsqueak, and Mr. Dark, the remarkably sinister and aptly named carnival leader. Things get quite scary (especially the witch in the balloon scene, yikes!), and although Stephen King lists Something Wicked amongst horror novels in Danse Macabre, this is far more a work of dark fantasy than pure horror. Yes, there are horrific, scary things that happen in here, but there’s also a great deal of adventure and optimism going on.
Dandelion Wine is set during summer time, but Something Wicked is an autumn novel, taking place in the few days before Halloween. The two protagonists’ birthdays are approaching; they were both born within minutes of the 31st. The seasonal contrast between Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked is part of the reason I think you should read both novels. Contrast is a big thing in Something Wicked: the contrast between the two boys, one wild and dark, the other pale and reserved; the contrast of old and young, Will and his father, Jim’s childhood and the adult he wants to be; innocence and evil; hope and hopelessness… I’m not a professor, so I’m not going to discuss the significance of these contrasts, but I found it hard not to notice them as I was reading.
The writing on display in this book is top notch stuff. I planned to read again as soon as I had finished it.
Dark Carnival Hamish Hamilton – 1948 (Originally published 1947)
When Ray Bradbury died, Stephen King released a statement saying, “Ray Bradbury wrote three great novels and three hundred great stories.” I had to include some of his stories in an overview of his work, but Bradbury wrote a lot, and I didn’t know where to start. I discovered that Dark Carnival, his first published collection of short stories, was originally put out by Arkham House, August Derleth’s publishing company. Arkham House specialised in horror and weird fiction, so this seemed like a natural starting point for somebody interested in Bradbury’s short horror fiction.
The original Arkham House edition of this book is extremely rare, and I was only able to track down a copy of the British edition, Unfortunately, this edition omits 7 stories: Interim, Jack in the Box, Reunion, The Coffin, The Maiden, The Night Sets and The Scythe.
The October Country Ballantine – 1956 (Originally published 1955)
In 1955, a second collection of Bradbury’s horror stories was released. The October Country contains 4 new tales and 15 of the stories from Dark Carnival (including 2 missing from the UK edition, The Scythe and Jack in the Box). Some of the stories carried over from Dark Carnival were edited or almost completely rewritten for this collection. These updated versions of the tales are the reason that Dark Carnival is rarely reprinted. Bradbury saw The October Country versions as definitive. (That being said, Gauntlet Press did get permission for a 2001 reprint of Dark Carnival that added a few more tales.)
I’m not going to separately discuss the stories in Dark Carnival and The October Country. To me, the two books are essentially just different editions of the same collection. It would be really nice if a publisher managed to collect all of the stories from all of the editions in one physical book.
It seems kind of pointless to write any more than a few sentences praising Ray Bradbury’s short stories. It’s pretty well established that he was one of the masters of this form of fiction. These stories are from early in his career, but they are undeniably brilliant. They’re creepy too, and some are suprisingly violent (The Smiling People). The Jar, The Small Assassin, The Dwarf, and The Man Upstairs were personal favourites, but the majority of the stories in these books are great.
How talented was death. How many expressions and manipulations of hand, face, body, no two alike. They stood like the naked pipes of a vast derelict calliope, their mouths cut into frantic vents. And now the great hand of mania descended upon all keys at once, and the long calliope screamed upon one hundred-throated, unending scream.
The Next in Line (1947)
Bradbury is one of the few writers I read whose skill with words actually amazes me. Seriously, if you like reading, get a copy of The October Country. This is the good stuff. I know that Bradbury wrote more scary tales, but I don’t think any of his later short story collections are as focused on horror as Dark Carnival or The October Country. Please correct me if I’m wrong; I would love another collection like these.
The Halloween Tree Bantam – 1974 (Originally published 1972)
An October overview of Ray Bradbury’s spooky books would be incomplete without The Halloween Tree. I didn’t realise that this book is actually a novel for children until after I started it. This is the story of a gang of kids whose Halloween night is turned upside down after one of their friends goes missing.
This is more a fantasy novel than a horror novel. It sees the boys flying through time on a kite made up of carnival posters and learning the history of Halloween. I thought the fantasy parts might be a bit too airy-fairy for adults and the historical parts a bit too dry for kids. I’m sure a certain type of nerdy older kid would really enjoy this, but I wasn’t hugely impressed.
Also, as an Irish person, I was a bit annoyed by two things. First off, Bradbury makes Samhain English. I’m pretty sure this is not accurate. Then he goes on to suggest that Ireland’s only influence on Halloween was the potato famine providing inspiration for beggar costumes. Piss off Ray Bradbury.
Honestly, you can probably skip The Halloween Tree. It’s fairly crummy.
With the exception of The Halloween Tree, I was extremely impressed with Bradbury’s work. Some of his short stories are far closer to “horror” than his novels, but these novels are something special. There’s definitely scariness here, but Bradbury presents his world through the eyes of children, and this combination makes these books feel very Halloweeny. This is crucial October reading. Pick up a Bradbury book right now.
Brian Keene is a name I have seen popping up in horror conversations for a long time. I followed him on twitter and asked him which of his books I should check out first, he courteously responded suggesting The Complex and Ghoul.
The Complex Deadite Press – 2016
Long term readers of this blog may have noticed that although I have reviewed countless books about witches, demons, aliens, werewolves, and vampires, I have not done a single book about zombies. I’m not interested in zombies. Night of the Living Dead is one of my favourite films, but even as a kid I thought that each sequel, clone and remake (apart from the 1990 one) was a bit less interesting than the original. The characters and settings change slightly, but the plot is always the same – a bunch of misfits are fighting to stay alive in a building surrounded by a horde of the approaching undead. It is a great concept, but I’ve already seen it 100 times. If you like that kind of thing, good for you, but it’s just not my cup of tea.
When Brian Keene recommended I read The Complex, I started it without reading the blurb. Guess what it’s about!
This is the story of a group of misfits fighting to stay alive in their apartment complex while a horde of bloodthirsty, deranged, naked freaks closes in on them. Perhaps these freaks don’t technically qualify as zombies, but they act an awful lot like them.
Ok, so I feel a bit awkward about this because Mr. Keene was polite to me, and I don’t want to be a jerk, but as soon as things got going I realised that this was exactly the kind of horror fiction that I avoid. I kept going with it though, and I reckon I enjoyed it about as much as I possibly could given the subject matter.
This is well written, action packed, easily digestible fiction. I can see why Mr. Keene would suggest it to a first time reader: it’s fun. I may think that I’m too cool to watch The Walking Dead, but I ripped through this zombie-esque novel in two sittings. It’s not my favourite novel ever, but it certainly wouldn’t put me off reading more books by Keene.
One thing that I did notice was that although Keene is woke enough to include a trans character in this novel, he was not woke enough to avoid fat-shaming the main antagonist of the story. Poor Tick-Tock’s weight is very much a part of what’s supposed to make him repulsive.
Ghoul Leisure Books – 2007
Three boys’ summer holidays are ruined by a corpse eating ghoul that lives in a cemetery. Sounds good, right? Honestly, this felt a bit like Stephen King ripping off Ray Bradbury. That might sound like a criticism, but I like when Stephen King rips off Ray Bradbury. (Think It.) It’s hard not to root for the protagonists when they’re children who like heavy metal. Ghoul was a fun read, but it wasn’t very scary. That being said, I was genuinely surprised at how grim the ending was. The “who’s the real monster?” question that runs through the book is pretty well answered in the final chapter.
In truth, neither The Complex nor Ghoul blew me away, but they were both enjoyable books. Despite my aversion to zombies, I reckon The Complex is the better novel. I thought it was a bit tighter. I’m planning to continue my series of of horror novels about worms with Brian Keene’s Earthworm Gods in the near future.
Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin Pan – 1974 (Originally published 1967)
I saw the movie version of Rosemary’s Baby a long time ago, and I knew that it was considered to be a faithful adaptation, so I wasn’t expecting many surprises when I got around to reading the book. While the book’s plot is pretty much identical to the movie, knowing how things were going to end only allowed me to further appreciate the way Levin structured his novel. There’s lots of seemingly irrelevant little things that happen throughout the story that end up having a big impact later on, and this novel is so masterfully written that it was still exciting to read knowing how it was going to end. The pacing and suspense at work here are awesome. This is thrilling stuff.
Maternal instinct is a primal and powerful thing, and Levin uses it to fuel this high tension nightmare. I remember reading a quote from Kurt Vonnegut about how good authors should be sadists and that a good protagonist must suffer if they are to relatable. I don’t know if Levin got this idea from Vonnegut, but he certainly believes in it. Rosemary is never presented in an even remotely negative light, but Levin forces her through devastating trauma.
I assume that most of my readers know how this story ends, but in case you don’t, I’m going to discuss that now, so read the book before you read the next paragraph.
I had a strange reaction to the climatic ending of this novel. All of Rosemary’s nightmares come true. She has given birth to the spawn of Satan, but that maternal instinct kicks in and she quickly comes to accept her child’s faults and commits to being a good mother to him. My personal response to this was relief. As a parent, I don’t want to read about any child being abandoned, abused or ignored, and while I don’t consider myself a Satanist, I am sympathetic to their cause. I also read most of this book with my kindle in one hand and my newborn daughter in the other. When Rosemary refers to her son as Andy Candy in the book’s final lines, I felt a sense of joy and relief.
Rosemary’s Baby works so well because 95% of the novel is entirely believable. The characterisation is great. A woman’s first pregnancy is an exciting but uncertain time, and it often happens around the same time that she moves into a new home. Apart from the Satan stuff, many, many people have very similar experiences to Rosemary. It’s really only in the last moments of the novel that Rosemary’s fears are confirmed and the supernatural establishes itself as a governing force in the story.
Son of Rosemary Onyx – 1998 (Originally published 1997)
Writing a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby had to have been a complicated process. It was impossible to continue the narrative in the same mundane world where most of the first novel takes place. Some of the events in the original novel, the Pope’s visit to New York for example, actually occurred. Setting the sequel in reality wouldn’t have worked. Readers can’t buy into neighbourly dining room conversations if they know the speakers are warlocks and witches. To deal with this issue Levin sets Son of Rosemary in a weird alternate universe.
In 1999, Rosemary wakes up from a coma after 20 something years. (She had been poisoned by the Satanists after planning to run away with her son.) The world she finds herself in is a strange place. It’s basically the late 1990s as they really were, except for the past few years, everyone on Earth has been idolising a guy named Andy. This Andy chap is being credited with bringing about world peace, and everyone really loves him. Rosemary quickly realises that this is her son, and the two have a high profile reunion on live TV.
The astute reader will quickly realise that Andy is the Antichrist prophecised in the Book of Revelation, but Andy swears to his mother that he has turned his back on evil and has dedicated his life to doing good. I started to see through his ploy once he tried to have sex with his mom.
Yep, a good chunk of this book is this Andy chap trying to get Rosemary to have sex with him.
Ok, I’ll imagine most of you have already read the book or decided not to read it based on what I’ve just told you. If you don’t fall into either of those categories, you might want to skip the next bit because I’m about to discuss the ending. I warn you though, this is a shit book that isn’t worth reading. A spoiler can’t make it much worse.
The ending of Son of Rosemary is perhaps the worst ending to a novel that I have ever read. After Andy has brought about the apocalypse and Rosemary is descending into Hell, she wakes up to discover that everything that happened over the course of the two novels was actually a dream. What the fuck? Ira Levin was a good writer. How the Hell did he think it was ok to end a book like that? Did he contract acute Alzheimer’s as he was concluding the book and revert back to grade 3 writing? It was all a dream? Piss off. If a 12 year old ended a story like that I’d kick them. Honestly, the ending to this was so bad that it actually made me like the original book less. Do not read this insane piece of garbage.
Stepford Wives Signet – 1994 (Originally published 1972)
Before reading the Rosemary books, I read Levin’s The Stepford Wives. This is another very famous book, but I had luckily avoided ever finding out what it was about. It’s a bit like Rosemary’s Baby in that both books finish with a shocking revelation for the female protagonist. It’s the kind of book that works better the less you know about it, so I’m not going to say much else other than that I really enjoyed it. It’s quick, exciting and creepy in a unique way. You should definitely read it if you haven’t already.
I don’t think any of Levin’s other books are horror novels, but Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives were so good that I fully intend on reading more his stuff in the future.
Genital Grinder – Ryan Harding Deadite Press – 2012
A few weeks ago I wrote a pretty scathing review of Edward Lee’s Bullet Through your Face. My main complaint was that the book seemed to exist solely for the sake of being gross and offensive. I read an ebook version, and when I was writing the review, I had to google for a jpg of the book’s cover. In doing so I clicked onto the publisher’s website and saw the cover of another book called Genital Grinder. I was literally in the process of complaining about a text that was too vulgarly disgusting, but a book named after an early Carcass song is not something I could pass up on. I needed to get my genitals ground immediately.
Imagine my concern when I started reading and realised that the introduction of the book was written by none other than Edward Lee. (I do actually like Lee; I just think that the last book I read by him sucked.) In this introduction Lee warns the reader that the stories in this book are real sicko stuff.
He wasn’t exaggerating. This book is vile. He first story is about a man getting stuck under a very fat woman who has just died of a heart attack. You can guess the first thing that happens, but what follows is both hideous and unexpected. Another of the tales is about two truly scummy dudes who find and violate the corpse of a car crash victim. These two gents, Von and Greg, show up in a couple of other stories, both of which involve kidnapping, rape and sadistic murders. The other stories, aside from the last one, are more of the same – lots of kidnapping, rape and brutal violence.
While this is pretty rough going, these tales are actually stories. Harding, while capable of being both repulsive and very funny, avoids the boring vulgarity that ruined the Lee book that led me to Genital Grinder. There’s suspense and plot twists and more high brow literature stuff in here. The last tale in the collection is an artier piece than the others, more in the vein of Koja or maybe even Ligotti. It wasn’t bad, but I thought it felt a bit out of place.
Many of the characters in this book are violent, sadistic, mysogynistic rapists. If you’re going to read a book called Genital Grinder, you probably shouldn’t expect it to be inoffensive, but I have to say, this was really, really rapey. Of all the acts of barbarity that occur in this novel, I don’t think any are performed by a female character. One of the stories features several woman being kidnapped, raped and surgically altered. One has her anus removed, and one has several vaginas implanted on her torso. Some parts of the book are so visceral that it feels like it’s encroaching on that fine line between violent horror and violent pornography. That being said, I understand that this is fiction, and I’m not accusing the author of anything. I just want to warn my readers before they check this out. This book is really fucked up.
This was a horrible, horrible book, but it was decently written, and some parts were quite funny. I would definitely consider reading more by Ryan Harding in the future.
Skinzz – Wrath James White Deadite Press – 2015 (First published 2012)
A splatterpunk novel about violence against racist skinheads? As soon as I found out that this book existed, it bypassed all of the others on my reading list. I read it over a single afternoon. Honestly though, I wanted to like it far more than I actually liked it.
This is the story of a gang of punks and a rival gang of skinheads. The skins beat up some punks and then the punks beat up some skins and so on. The most brutal acts of violence are performed by the racists, and I didn’t feel like they ever got their comeuppance. This was a bit disappointing, but it’s probably realistic.
A few years ago I did a bunch of posts about horror novels centered on rock’n’rollers. A problem I noticed with a few of those books was the authors’ obvious ignorance of the musical genres they were writing about. Skinzz was a little different. This novel is horrifically violent, but there’s no supernatural element involved. This is a book about a rivalry that did and does exist. Realism is more important here, and I was glad to see Wrath James White reference some fairly appropriate bands.
The skinheads listen to Skrewdriver (an overtly racist band) and Agnostic front. I know Agnostic Front had that one dodgy song, but I really don’t think they were ever bona fide racists. That being said, there have definitely been a bunch of racist skinheads who have listened to that band. One of the racist skinheads in this book talks about wanting to go to a Suicidal Tendencies show. I thought this might have been an error when I read it first, but then I realised it was probably intended to make him sound dumb.
The support band at the Suicidal Tendencies concert is called Terrorist Threat, and they apparently have a song called “Guilty of Being white”. “Guilty of Being White” is a real song by a band called Minor Threat, and while its lyrics are painful to read in 2020, I reckon it’s safe to say that Minor Threat probably weren’t hateful racists. I don’t know why Wrath James White chose to change their name for this book when he left the others unaltered.
While the skinheads listen to mostly non-racist hardcore, the punks just listen to Ministry. Ministry certainly aren’t the first band that jump to mind when I think 1988 punk rock, but in 1988 they were still really cool.
Honestly, I wasn’t hugely impressed with this book. It was very straightforward. The punks are good, and the skins are bad. I mean, racist skinheads are objectively bad, but lets be realistic, so are most punks. Mack, the main character, is a bit too likeable. He’s smart, tall, rebellious, strong, sexy, caring, romantic and cool. Have you ever met a punk? They’re rarely any of those things. Most of the punks I know are ugly, disgruntled dwarves. One of the punks in this book is called “Demon” too. Yuck.
I was hoping that the punks were going to kidnap and torture some of the skins, but that never happened. There’s a violent showdown at the end of the book, but it fell short of what I was looking forward too. Between the simplistic plot and characters and the lack of extreme brutality, this book kinda sucked. I genuinely wanted to like it, but it just wasn’t very good. It felt like it needed a chapter at the end where the protagonist hunts down the really bad skin and brutalises him in an unspeakable manner.
I don’t know much about Wrath James White other than that he used to be a fighter, but that fact along with his kindness to his protagonist suggests to me that this novel might be slightly autobiographical. I had heard good things about him before, so maybe his other books are better. This one wasn’t really awful, but I can’t say I liked it a whole bunch. Maybe I’ll give Wrath James White another go some day.
Last complaint: the author and the publisher refer to this book as Skinzz, but isn’t that the Nazi SS rune on the cover? Shouldn’t it be SkinSS?
The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons Simon & Schuster – 1978
Of all the books that Stephen King discusses in his Danse Macabre, Anne Rivers Siddons’ The House Next Door was the one I least wanted to read. The title is dull (there are several other novels with the same name), the cover is a picture of a house, and I had read that this novel was the only work of horror that the author ever wrote. I expected a boring attempt at a haunted house story. I thought I was going to read about chains rattling in the night and books flying off shelves of their own accord. I did not expect a masterfully written work of psychological terror that was almost impossible to put down.
God damn, this book was a good one.
A house is built on a plot of land beside a rich couple’s house in Georgia, USA. Bad stuff happens to everyone who lives in or even enters this place. I won’t ruin the story by revealing details, but I will say some of the unfortunate turns are utterly scandalous!
It was stupid of me to assume that this book wouldn’t be good because the author wasn’t a dedicated horror author. This is probably one of the book’s strengths. The stuff going on between the characters is great, and the story is well told. Also, Anne Rivers Siddons doesn’t use any of the tropes that a dedicated horror author might struggle to keep out of a haunted house book. One of the characters makes a joke about the house being built on ancient Indian burial ground, but that’s about it.
No, this is not vulnerable heroine tiptoeing through the attic by candlelight horror; it’s much more subtle and disturbing. The bad stuff that is going down here is just a few steps past seeming unfortunately coincidental. There’s no single instance that you could really claim was supernatural. Any one (or two or even three) of the events recounted could happen, but as the misfortune builds, so do our suspicions. There is something creepy about this house.
This book probably highlights the actual fears of upper middle class Americans in late 1970s: you find out in the opening pages that the characters in this book are willing to lose their friends rather than their reputations. There’s probably some deeper social commentary in here too, but I’m not overly concerned with that stuff. I read this for entertainment’s sake, and I was thoroughly entertained. This was an awesome book, and it had genuinely creepy moments. I can heartily recommend it to anyone looking for a good read.
Bullet Through Your Face is a collection of three “short novels” by Edward Lee. I’ve read and enjoyed books by Edward Lee before, and I was well aware of his reputation, but this was a disappointing pile of crap.
Ever Nat, the first story in here an extremely unpleasant tale of a man being kidnapped and brutally raped over and over (ever nat) by a pair of hillbillys. Both of the other books I’d read by Lee featured a pair of rapist hillbillys, and I can’t say I was particularly shocked by any of the specific acts of horrendous sexual violence. The problem here is that there’s absolutely nothing else to this story. The other stuff I’d read by Lee had plenty of rape, but it also had aliens, killer worms and a cannibal mutant. This story is 100% rape. Call me a snowflake or a prude, but I didn’t enjoy this.
The next story, The Salt Diviner was about a Babylonian fortune teller showing up in modern times and making friends with a gambler. Oh, and the mystic gets his powers from performing acts of sex or violence. This gets ludicrous pretty quickly, but it was weird and fun. If the whole book had been stuff like this, I would have been happy. This one was very short for a “novel”.
The last, and by far the longest, story in this collection is called The Refrigerator full of Sperm. Now anyone who knows me or has followed this blog for any amount of time will know that I have a pretty high threshold for vulgarity and potty humour, but this story was too puerile for me. The Refrigerator full of Sperm was originally published in a collection called Splatterspunk: The Micah Hays Stories, and all of the stories in that collection are about a particularly randy police officer. That in itself was enough to deter me (I hate reading stuff out of sequence.), but the writing here is utterly horrible too. I don’t just mean the events it’s describing either. The story itself, not just the dialogue, is written in a southern drawl. Ugh. No thanks. One of the characters keeps interrupting the narrative with his lurid tales, most of which seemed to involve “peckersnot” and “cornholing”. I enjoy vulgarity very much, but this book taught me that it can get pretty tiresome when it’s dialled up to 11. I got maybe 20 pages into this before giving up. I was actually reading an ebook version, and my kindle gives an estimate of how much time it’s going to take to finish the book. I have a full time job and a family to take care of, so reading is a luxury for me. I could not justify spending two hours of my precious free time reading this trash.
I was pretty disappointed with this collection. It was nowhere near as good as the other stuff I’ve read by Lee. If you haven’t read any of his books, this would be an awful place to start. Deadite Press released this book along with another collection of short stories by Lee called Brain Cheese Buffet in 2010. (Both were titled by Carlton Mellick III.) That one contains shorter stories, so it’s probably the better of the two. I was originally planning on reviewing both books together, but after this crap I reckon I’ll take a break from Lee for a while.