These Villains, Right?

A review of The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, by Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber Capsule Review: Less meta than Deadpool but highly endearing, we follow five misfit villians trying to make it to the big time as the Sinister Six. Comedy hijinks ensue. Would you read a series about comic book villains where the heroes […]

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The Gothic and the Grotesque: Sherry Decker’s Hook House and Other Horrors

 

hookhouseandotherhorrors_audio1Once upon a time, I read and reviewed books for www.HorrorReader.com. That site has been gone for almost nine years now (yikes). However, I had a great time contributing content to it. One of the authors I reviewed for HR recently dropped me a line, asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing her first novel (due out from Elder Signs Press). As it turns out, I am delighted to do so. While I am involved in giving that a read, I thought it might be fun to take a second look at Ms. Decker’s first collection, Hook House and Other Horrors. My opinions have not changed all that much since I first read and reviewed it.

Obligatory disclaimer: This book was given to me years ago for an honest review, and much of what follows is the honest review I wrote (years ago) returned from the graaaaave.

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In Sherry Decker’s first collection, we find several stories of the mysterious and horrific, which first appeared in markets as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, City Slab, Cemetery Dance, and Black Gate.  They are all intense and interesting reads, with more than half of them falling into the camp of jewels that deserve to be reread and savored for their meticulous craft and exemplary use of language.

Some of the stories initially appear simple or even simplistic.  However, they reward reflection.  A little bit of consideration reveals fine levels of depth to almost all of the contents.

9781933511092_p0_v1_s192x300In the titular “Hook House” what might have been another gothic, haunted house yarn develops into a meditation upon family legacy, the importance of names, and a study of how the past shapes the present.

“Hicklebickle Rock” is ostensibly a story about murders affecting a small town.  However, told from a young girl’s perspective, it reveals itself to be a subtle sketch of the destruction of innocence.

On the surface, “The Clan” is about the rivalry between a vampire and a witch.  However, the story seethes with a cheekiness, a sense of humor targeted at the petty feuds found in many neighborhoods and the oftentimes outrageous escalations of events accompanying these feuds.  In some ways, it echoes stories like Richard Matheson’s classic “The Distributor,” though it avoids a direct comparison to this story  by removing itself from the photorealistic hatreds and applying, instead, a fine coat of the fantastic to ease the bitter taste of its similar medicine.

These are just the first three.  Each of the eleven stories is rich with subtext. Close attention reveals some interesting motifs.  Checkbook balancing appears in a couple of the tales as a symbol for orderly minds.  Family legacies often reveal and revel in violence.  Witchcraft is a thing for neighbors, punished when it ceases to be useful.  The past and the present blend to create a sense of removal from time itself.

cg1tukpugaa-d9wExtreme horror fanatics, please take note: the horror in these stories is not found in the blood ‘n guts or prolonged scenes of physical torture that populate the works of Bryan Smith, Matt Shaw, or Tim Miller.  Instead, it results from Jamesian brushes with the supernatural.  It stems from relationships and prolonged scenes of emotional torment. As in the works of Melanie Tem, say, brutality is present, but it is delivered in a quiet voice. Quiet, perhaps, but no less affecting.

This collection is not quite perfect.  Some of the dialogue in “Tarissa” does not flow smoothly, I did not find “Twisted Wishes, Twilight Dreams” to be as effective as Saki’s “Monkey’s Paw” (though the final image is certainly killer), and I found some character motivation in “Jessica Fishbone” to strain credibility.  This is a first collection, after all.  The author is still growing, and I am eager to see the next phase of her literary evolution.  This collection is a small and flawed but still a remarkable addition to any genre.  In fact, this volume belongs on the shelves of readers who enjoy either Joyce Carol Oates or Flannery O’Conner.

With Hook House and Other Horrors, Sherry Decker has established herself as a writer to watch.  I look forward to considering the author’s upcoming novel.

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Boys Will Be (Gone) Boys: Paul Tremblay’s The Disappearance At Devil’s Rock

27064358Elizabeth Sanderson is a single mom, mother of two. Years ago, her husband fucked off to do his own thing and ended up in a fatal accident. Since then, the remaining family unit has been trying to recover. In Chapter 1, Elizabeth is roused from sleep by one of those middle-of-the-night calls, the kind that ask “Do you know where your son is?” Things break down pretty fast after that because, you see, the call is from the boy her son was supposed to be spending the night with. The last place Tommy Sanderson was seen alive was in Borderland Park, drinking beer with his friends at the weird locale known as Devil’s Rock. Tommy has unexpectedly run off, vanishing in the woods.

Over the subsequent days of grief, frustration and terror, some downright weird events occur around the family abode. A figure is seen in dark rooms. The all too familiar smell of Tommy’s hair occasionally permeates the air, intense for moments and then petering off. Persons unknown leave scraps from a journal . . . Has a ghost materialized in this house, or are these phenomena coming from more mundane sources? Only by delving into the Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and uncovering each shocking revelation about Tommy’s increasingly bizarre secrets will Elizabeth find out the truth.

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So many reviews of this book point out that it tackles “Every parent’s nightmare!”, which (if you’re wondering and apparently skipped the synopsis above) is not teen pregnancy but a lost child. Unfortunately for those reviewers, I’m not a parent. Therefore this review is for the rest of us, and it asks “Does this novel have any nightmares to offer non-parents?” The answer is not really. Well that was a short review!

I jest. Kidding. Sheesh. Insert your favorite smiley faced emoticon here. Just because the book in question deals with a heavy topic does not mean all reviews of it must do likewise.

Obviously, the book has something to offer people like me. Paul Tremblay tells a creepy story that can appeal to anyone who has cared about or for another human being. It has echoes of his previous novel, and if A Head Full of Ghosts touched a nerve with readers (as it did with me, check out my review here), then this book is likely to do so as well.

Let’s get into the meat of the matter.

51rup7pbwfl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Paul Tremblay’s follow up to his enormously popular literary horror novel from last year visits another broken family dynamic in New England. This time around, instead of a family’s disintegration during a questionable demonic possession, we watch an already shattered family discover the unexpected depths of its own dysfunction.

The Disappearance at Devil’s Rock shares some thematic elements to the author’s previous novel. We again find a work concerned with a family bearing and sometimes failing to bear the powerful stresses and strains of horror. We observe the effects horror has, pulling mothers, daughters, and granddaughters together while tearing at them in other ways.

All of this can be boiled down to the author’s expressed belief (in an introduction to the Phantom anthology he coedited for Prime Books) that the literary component of literary horror can be understood as a work’s ability to evoke and grapple with characters’ psychological landscapes as they are shaped by and in turn shape the horror elements. We should not expect simple boo and shock stories of sturm und drang but explorations of the darker regions of the human spirit, mind and body.

phantomfinalIn addition to a plotting/character level, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock shows quite a few tips of the hat and nods to A Head Full of Ghosts on a structural level as well. In that earlier work, we got the story from three perspectives, a modern day bit about a survivor returning to her family home where weird shit went down, a flashback story when the survivor was a little girl, and a series of blog entries about the television show made about the weird shit that went down. Through those three lenses, readers were given intimate glimpses of a family’s breakdown. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock gives us a third person narrative for the most part. However, interspersing this work are artifacts, statements to the police and a hand written (and illustrated!) journal from the missing boy which is revealed a few pages at a time. Through this multitude of methods, we get the story here as well.

Tremblay’s strengths in giving us interesting children characters again comes to the fore. Where A Head Full of Ghosts delivered a pair of well-developed and fascinating sisters, Disappearance offers up a brother and sister as well as Tommy’s coterie. While it might have been easy to make one of the members of that latter group stand out and the rest serve as secondary/tertiary tier characters, Tremblay gives us many equally interesting voices, and while the characters all share history, their perceptions about the disappearance are as different as those of Rashomon‘s witnesses to an assault.

I should not specify children as Tremblay’s characterization strength. All the characters endure different emotional journeys and their conclusions are honest, realistic. As well as the boys, Elizabeth, her mother, and Tommy’s sister are given quite a few nicely done touches and moments to shine, but this story is ultimately Tommy’s. Despite only being in it (physically) as a flashback for most of the book, his presence looms large over everyone and everything. Tommy haunts this work metaphorically, whether or not his spectral presence does so. It is valuable to note how clearly distinct these characters are. These are not the cast of one of Bradbury’s, King’s, Harper Lee’s, or some other author’s novels thinly recast. They are decidedly Tremblay’s. They think differently, sound differently, and engage in different ways than another author’s characters might.

Like A Head Full of Ghosts, which drew some inspiration from The Exorcist and the works of Shirley Jackson, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock has plenty of influences that it wears on its sleeves. These come in cinematic versions, such as some shouts out to Lake Mungo (one of the “Afterdark Horrorfest: Seven Films to Die For!” series of releases from a few years ago), a found footage B-movie shocker centering on a camera crew’s tackling a documentary about a family’s grief over their missing daughter. On the literary side, readers will find a few touches from Joan Lindsay’s lyrical 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock (itself adapted into a 1975 film by Aussie director Peter Weir) as well as Gary A. Braunbeck’s works, such as The Indifference of Heaven (aka In Silent Graves), which also tackle the grief and sometimes ghostly goings on found in the aftermath of disappearances and child death.

Hopefully, Tremblay’s next work will continue his efforts to break new ground in the horror/suspense genre. He has a talent for building nightmares that can startle in strongest daylight. Whether his future works sticks to the horror/suspense category or moves to a different genre, I am sure it will deliver more of the same: solid characterizations, subtly lyrical prose, and an engaging plot that will resonate with you, whether or not the popular reviewer summation “Every parent’s nightmare!” holds any meaning for you.

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