Book Review – The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey

The Unstrung Harp

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Dark Comedy / Fiction
Publication Date: 1953 / 2000
Publisher: Bloomsbury

“Even more harrowing than the first chapters of a novel are the last, for Mr. Earbrass anyway. The characters have one and all become thoroughly tiresome, as though he had been trapped at the same party with them since the day before; neglected sections of the plot loom on every hand, waiting to be disposed of; his verbs seem to have withered away and his adjectives to be proliferating past control.”

As writers, our beloved craft is often the catalyst of our madness. Our novels drive us crazy. If only it were as simple as writing it down, but even that defies us sometimes. Our stories lurk around in our heads begging and nagging constantly to be written, but when we have the time and materials to do so, they latch their claws to the dark corners of our minds and refuse to come outside, no matter what we try to tempt them out with.

I’ve always gotten the feeling that people who don’t write have no way of understanding this difficulty, even if they read, and especially if they work in publishing. Publishers, ironically enough, seem to have a history of undervaluing and not understanding the very people who keep them in business. It’s cathartic to see the troubles of writing reflected in such a funny, charming book, with Gorey’s signature lovingly detailed, Victorian artwork. Though it can be a little bit depressing how close the trials of Mr. Earbrass and his weird novel that refuses to come out right are to reality.

The Unstrung Harp is a self-aware, very true-to-life portrait of the demon that is writer’s block, among other curses bestowed upon someone just because they were born with the urge to tell stories – pitiful publishers, peer envy, bad criticism, fake criticism, cruel deadlines, the whole gamut. One has to wonder if that’s what Gorey himself had gone through with his early books, and makes me thankful that the indie press has blossomed into what it is.

(Even if it comes with the downside of people trying to pass off shoddily copy-and-pasted Wikipedia articles as actual books.)

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Good Indie Horror Reads

As a side note, I apologize that the rest of the Harvest of Horror reviews didn’t show up in the last five or six days. I had to redo some and fell sick, so was a little too out of it to schedule them back into order. The video game reviews might leak a bit past Halloween, just if you happen to wonder why they pop up. I thought about “back-publishing” them, but eh. There’s no point in that.

Anyway, I love indie books. So much that I’ve written some, even! I appreciate that we are able to live in a world where writers don’t have to be constricted by publishers, and can truly let their whims and ideas free. To be fair to the book industry, mainstream publishing in literature is nowhere near as corrupt and manipulative as say, music or movies, but it can be quite dismissive towards original and off-the-wall ideas, so I like to delve into indie books when I get the chance. These are some indie horror books I’ve read recently that are worth mentioning.

The Bacon Room by Leonard Warren
Genre:
Splatterpunk / Short Stories

The Bacon Room isn’t perfect, but there’s a keen, dark sense of humor and potential from a new author. I got this book for free on a whim, and don’t regret it, though I normally end up disliking splatterpunk and “extreme” horror. Several of the stories have really creative premises, such as the title story, where a woman is kidnapped by a group of people who plan on feeding her piece-to-piece by a demon. The demon talks to her in her sleep and they start conspiring to get revenge on the others. I thought this was a really cool idea – you don’t often see the human sacrifice and the demon they’re being offered to work with each other. Continue reading “Good Indie Horror Reads”

Top 5 Best Original Goosebumps

The Ghost Next Door  (Goosebumps, #10)Welcome to Dead House (Goosebumps, #1)The Haunted Mask (Goosebumps, #11)

R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps is a series of children’s horror novellas that’s recently seen a revival in popularity, along with its more young adult counterpart, Fear Street. I kind of stopped keeping track of Goosebumps after the original 90s run and some of the early 2000s books, because well, I grew beyond the demographic. I still read Fear Street fairly often, and of course I have a huge appreciation for Goosebumps, and all the subtle phobias it instilled in young children.

The original Goosebumps series ran from 1992 to 1997 and consists of about 62 books, most of which I’ve read at some point, though there are several I’ve forgotten about or have never seen. It’s been reprinted a couple of times with new covers, but the classic covers will always be the iconic ones. These are, in my opinion, the five BEST books of the series up to 1997.

5. I Live in Your Basement (#61) – Published 1997
The original Goosebumps series ended on a pretty weak note with #62, arguably the worst in the series. However, the penultimate book before it is spine-chilling. I Live in Your Basement is about more of an adult fear – stalking, with some themes of hallucinations and mental illness, if you want to read into it that way. It pulls out all the stops on the grotesque factor, as well. I suppose this would be a pretty good precursor to surreal horror for kids who would later be into that sort of thing.

4. The Haunted Mask (#11) – Published 1993
Why the long face? It’s not like it’s going to get… melded to a demonic mask, threatening to rip your skin off, right? Well, that’s what this book is about! A girl goes in search of a Halloween mask, and ends up in a very dubious novelty shop, where she steals a disgusting, horrifying mask that grows rather attached to her face. Eventually, she isn’t able to take it off, once she’s left it on so long. The thought of something parasitic latching and welding itself to your face, suffocating you and taking control of your thoughts, I would say is still pretty disturbing.

3. One Day at Horrorland (#16) – Published 1994
Amusement parks have a sort of ominous vibe to them anyway, and it really doesn’t help if it’s run by cannibalistic, sadistic monsters who pit the human fair-goers against each other in an attempt to kill them all. Sheesh. Continue reading “Top 5 Best Original Goosebumps”

Book Review – Card of Fate by The Duke of Quails

Card Of Fate: Poems of a Gambling Addiction

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry
Publication Date: December 7th, 2016
Publisher: Independent

“The card of fate was never to be wagered but intended for you to keep. Dear, to bet or gamble on such a card is to place your soul on the devil’s feet.”

Addiction is a rough path, full of setbacks and dotted with many camouflaged pitfalls and brambles. It’s a nagging, teasing sort of demon who stays hooked in you like a bumblebee’s stinger, poisoning you little by little from the background. Some are lucky enough in their lifetimes to only have to skirt around this path, but most will at some point have to face that personal mire head-on, or risk losing something precious.

Card of Fate is a series of free verse poems from the viewpoint of victims to gambling – an addiction that carries some of the highest risks, yet is tragically easy for anyone to fall prey to, whether they’re a parent, a child, rich or poor, young or old. Desperate or self-assured. True addiction is a devil’s game, debilitating and not the least bit picky in who it takes as its hostages. It’s rarely just the addict who suffers, as well.
Gambling addiction is a resilient and strange monster in that it feeds on so many high, sometimes conflicting emotions at once. The initial happiness and elation of winning quickly turns to greed, which in turn becomes pride if you succeed, and depression if you don’t. And then it convinces you to flip that cycle around again. It’s always “just one more chance”.

The prose in this collection flows easily, and the themes are beyond relatable. I’ve never personally had an issue with gambling, but I can definitely understand the mindset, as would anyone who’s harbored an addiction of their own. Some of the poems are a little repetitive when read in sequence, but I love the concept of different perspectives and drives behind gambling. It’s very personal and seems like a lot of consideration, reflection, pain and heartfelt effort was put into these poems – strife of the past rewritten into a cautionary tale for the future. It reminded me strongly of Requiem for a Dream, except to be honest, I enjoyed this writer’s more concise, straightforward style of prose over Selby’s ramblings in that novel. Card of Fate has a slam poetry feel, moving very fast and cutting deep, and I appreciate that.

Time and money pass like water flowing downstream to the addict, and before they know it, important things have become irretrievably lost. Card of Fate really captures and jibes with that feeling – and who has never felt that way, really? – and I would definitely recommend it if you want to understand more about these personal, emotion and sometimes dark depths of addiction.

“The regret in the word gambling comes from what you have lost: family, respect, and trust that you will never get back.”

[Thanks to the author for the book trade, and for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.]

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My Favourite Horror Collections

Teatro GrottescoNothing Is StrangeSmashed: Junji Ito Story Collection

I’ve always considered horror one of the best and worst genres for short stories. When short horror works, it can breed one of the most haunting, terrifying things you’ve ever experienced. However, making it work is no easy feat. For every disturbing, unsettling piece you’ll find, there will be ten out there that just won’t do it for you. There is nothing that will disturb every reader, though it’s possible to come close, and if you don’t succeed in scaring them, there are still ways to entertain them.

These are my top ten, for the time being, favourite collections of horror stories. I love variety, so there’s a bit of each kind of horror here – dark fantasy, visual horror, bizarro, classic horror – you name it, you’ll find it somewhere on this list. Some aren’t necessarily meant to be straight horror, but have a significant horror flavour to them that I felt qualified them enough to make the list. These are in no particular order. As there were quite a few books, I might include some honorable mentions in a later post.

Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti
Genre: Horror / Dark Fantasy
I would feel confident calling Teatro Grottesco the best compilation of horror shorts I’ve ever read. It remains, several years after I first read it, one of the few books of the genre to legitimately unnerve me. Ligotti’s prose is sinister and elaborate, like a spiderweb with the remains of cocoons dangling through it, yet this book reads very easily. I’d honestly recommend any Ligotti collection, but this one in particular is truly flawless.

Smashed by Junji Ito
Genre: Horror / Science Fiction
I covered this one in-depth not too long ago, so check out my review if you want. Smashed did not get as good reviews as his other recent collections, but I personally like the surreal, cosmic tone of these stories, especially the title story. Who knew a fruit tree could be so terrifying?

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Horror
Arguably, Pretty Monsters is the most somber book on this list. The overall tone of this book is depressive and gothic, as if it’s being told by a series of ghosts who find the whole thing darkly amusing. You really don’t see enough young adult horror anyway, but especially not of this caliber. This is a book that will bury itself in your skull.

Nothing is Strange by Mike Russell
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Nothing is Strange I don’t think was actually intended to be frightening, but well… strange. It’s in the title. I did a review on this and its sequel collection, Strange Secrets, but both reviews need an upgrade. Nothing is Strange can be breezed through in a day or two, but you won’t want it to end. Russell’s ideas are so original and inventive, and the imagery is so perfectly bizarre that it’s difficult to step away from the world he’s created.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Trilogy by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell
Genre: Horror
An old childhood favourite that I’m still fond of. The illustrations are what it’s known for, I mean, just look them up if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Gammell’s drawings still have power and are unsettling to look at as an adult. The stories are fun, too, especially for the folklore aspect. Schwartz was a collector of traditional stories, folklore, and American myths, so his notes on the writing of the trilogy are also pretty fascinating.

Fragments of Horror by Junji Ito
Genre: Horror / Dark Comedy
I’ll probably do a full review on this one later in the month. It would be fitting for the season, yeah? Something I love about Ito is that he can take anything, no matter how small and innocuous, and turn it into something to fear. A phobia. A paranoia. Continue reading “My Favourite Horror Collections”

The Books of the Series (SH Special)

I mis-scheduled the Haunt Me to Sleep preview for a bad time. If you missed it, because I’m pretty sure almost everyone missed it, and want to read it, it’s here in Issue #17. I’ll put the original post back up on Sunday.

So, I’ve been talking about the Silent Hill series for a few days, though I suppose it’s been more like rambling on. I’d planned all this for Halloween, originally, but I already had a slightly better mini-series written out for then. As you probably know, the popular psychological horror series is largely based on books. I actually found one of my all-time favourite authors through Silent Hill, believe that or not. Well, technically it was through one of the creators’ commentaries on the making-of, but still.
Here are the best books I’ve found through this series’ recommendation, intentional or unintentional. They are in no particular order.

Carrie by Stephen King
Genre: Horror / Paranormal
This is considered a horror classic, but truthfully it wasn’t even on my radar until I found out the villains of the first Silent Hill were based off of Carrie and her abusive mother. I didn’t, at the time, really want to read about some poor, socially inept girl getting relentlessly abused and having pig’s blood dumped on her, even if she does take revenge. The idea just kind of made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t regret reading it when I did. It’s King’s first novel, so it has some rough edges, but overall it’s a pretty good book. What makes Carrie so ground-breaking is its sense of sympathy, and a well-written, not conventionally pretty, relatable protagonist at a time when women in horror novels were largely supermodel murder victims. Still an issue that pervades the genre to this day, despite horror arguably being one of the more progressive genres. Continue reading “The Books of the Series (SH Special)”

Book Review – IC in a Sunflower by Mitsukazu Mihara

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Science Fiction / Short Stories
Publication Date: January 9th, 2007
Publisher: TokyoPop

Integrated Circuit in a Sunflower is an interesting title, in more than a linguistic sense. Mihara’s art is lovely, and the delicate sense of innocence it has purposefully works at odds with the cynical, morbid themes the stories explore – the ethics of cloning, dehumanization and abuse, quirks that develop into diseases. There’s not quite enough time given to any of the questions this manga tries to propose for it to brand itself in my mind, though. The stories operate like haiku, poetic yet sinister hints of a larger picture.

I liked most of the stories, particularly the title story and “Alive”, which is about human children being cloned to use as organ donors. Still, I had a similar issue as I did with Mihara’s Doll series, in that I appreciate the importance of what it’s trying to say, in regards to man’s relationship with technology, and how some aspects of scientific progress could easily benefit or corrupt human relationships, depending on the route taken to test them out, but it felt inexplicably dark-hearted and unclear.

This is not as bad for that as Doll was, but that disjointedness is still there and kind of mars my enjoyment of some honestly clever concepts. It’s difficult to explain and probably kind of petty, but it’s like the feeling of a sinking gut – uncomfortable, but in a sense that can’t be pinpointed. I suppose that means it succeeds at horror as well as it does sci-fi, but I’m not sure.

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Books I’ve Read But Will Never Review

 

I have no strict review guidelines, at least not as far as my casual reviews. I used to think it was better to try to make them poetic… which, looking back at some of my older reviews, maybe it wasn’t… But there are some books, while I might have liked them, I don’t feel adequate in reviewing them. I love nonfiction and memoirs, but I slightly dread getting requests to review them, because I’m not often as knowledgeable about the subject as I feel I would have to be to do the book justice. These are some that I probably won’t ever review, at least not in-depth, though some hold a lot of interest for me and I like to discuss them.

The Bible
Genre: Religion
I’ve read the majority of the Bible, and even took a class on theology. It’s a fascinating subject to me, but understandably, I would never feel right “reviewing” a religious text, period, even though it would be more of a general overview than a typical review. How could I possibly? The Bible means so much to some people, and to others bringing it up infuriates them. It’s not fair to either party, and I would need to gather loads of historical information and context to even begin. Not to mention that the only version I’ve read likely is missing crucial pieces. You can also count other religious texts as literature I will never review.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Genre: Magic Realism / Science Fiction
Infinite Jest tested my patience. I don’t believe I finished it. I admire Wallace as a journalist, his nonfiction is amongst my favourite, but I don’t personally enjoy his fiction. If you’ve never heard of this book, it’s a strange science fiction novel about the size of an orca, with about ten squillion characters, each with their own unique narrative styles. I don’t not recommend it, but to me, it wasn’t pleasant at all to attempt. It would be ideal for a specific type of reader, that is not me, but I would definitely download a preview before you buy a copy. Continue reading “Books I’ve Read But Will Never Review”

Book Review – The Coma by Alex Garland

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Psychological Horror / Suspense
Publication Date: July 7th, 2005
Publisher: Faber & Faber

“When we wake, we die.”

Give The Coma a second chance, if at first it seems unclear or confusing. This novel is one of the moody, enigmatic types that likes to be shy with its details on your initial read-through, which gain an eerier significance on a revisit. It’s like an abstract painting in every sense, building up its steady storm of colours with intentions both sinister and serene.

Told through the deterioration of a man, Carl’s, psyche, after he is beaten to the point of unconsciousness on the subway, it’s less a linear story than it is a dreamlike exploration. In the aftermath of supposedly waking up, the pieces of reality that were once there don’t fit cleanly together anymore.

Maybe I’ve made it sound pretentious (a bad habit of mine when it comes to poetic books) but surprisingly, it’s not. Not even remotely. It’s just difficult to put into words. I read this a few years ago and wasn’t quite sure if I enjoyed it or not. I didn’t feel like I’d wasted my time, and remember thinking it was ambitious, but perplexing. I didn’t get it, but it haunted me. Now I think it’s actually a brilliant psychological novella. A philosophy of dream to aspire to, that leaves you with a ravenous need to know, while allowing the reader freedom to come to their own conclusions about what happens.

The Coma kind of hooks you in without your say-so, Garland’s abstract writing always skirting the bare edge of creepiness, like there’s some cosmic, horrifying realization budding under the surface that you know you’re going to have to face.

“I do all this alone. Everything I achieve, I achieve alone, because it’s my head I’m locked into, and I share this space with nobody but myself.”

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Psychological Novels You Should Read

Psychological thriller and its fraternal twin, psychological horror, are hands-down, my favourite genres. It’s the genre I strive to carve my name in, and it’s the one I get the most excited about when seeking new books and movies.
While few and far-between, compared to other genres, the spectrum of dark psychological fiction consistently churns out works of pretty high quality. There are exceptions, of course, but of all the psychological media I’ve watched, read and played, I can’t name ten that were any worse than “mediocre”.

That being said, I believe that the key reason for this, unfortunately, is that the genre is somewhat alienating. You have to be passionate about it to make it, and creating a good psychological work involves an exploration of dark places in the human psyche. Not exactly a fun weekend trip, that. Discovering new works in the genre can be difficult. So, I thought I’d share a handful of diamonds in the rough that I’ve discovered, and loved, in my eternal quest to scour everything the psychological duo have to offer.

The Coma by Alex Garland
Genre: Psychological Suspense
The Coma is like a softer, more sinister Inception, taking place in the mind of a man after he is assaulted on a subway, and wakes in the hospital to find he can no longer hold a grasp on what is real and what isn’t. Everything that was once normal in his life seems out-of-place and has a surreal, stilted tone to it.
I finished this novel over a weekend, and at first wasn’t sure what to make of it, or even if I enjoyed it, but in retrospect, I think it’s excellent. Garland conveys a transfinite reality that can be broken and morphed at will by one person’s subconscious.

Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi
Genre: Psychological Horror
Though its place on the roster shifts now and then, Perfect Blue is one of my favourite novels of all time and will likely remain one forever. It is, as you might have guessed, the basis for the cult horror anime Perfect Blue, but despite that and sharing a title, the film and the book aren’t incredibly similar other than the basic premise, and the creators’ shared disgust with the pop idol industry in Japan, and how those idols are (mis)treated by media and fans alike.
The master of creeps, the unnamed “Darling Rose”, who stalks and attempts to murder the pop singer heroine throughout the novel, is one of my favourite book villains. He is borderline inhuman, yet with an uncanny basis in reality, mirroring the crimes and motives of many real-life celebrity stalkers. Perfect Blue is not for everyone – some may be turned off by the blunt violence and abstract style, but I personally think it’s phenomenal both as a social satire and as a piece of horror. Continue reading “Psychological Novels You Should Read”

Lovecraft Reviews – “Hypnos”

Hypnos – ★★★ 3.5 Stars

Written: Spring 1922

“Death is merciful, for there is no return therefrom, but with him who has come back out of the nethermost chambers of night, haggard and knowing, peace rests nevermore.”

Is it dream that dictates the grey boundary between real and false, blurring and steeling the line at will? Is reality so murky, so mutable that it all might as well be delusion?
Hypnos, if you’ll recall, was the brother of Thanatos, after all. Dream, always so close to death.

This short is about a man who has an encounter with the god of dreams himself in a station, and finds he has something inexplicable in common, maybe a need for escape. They go to the man’s house and begin an opium-fueled trip that turns from a burst of creativity into a reality-warping nightmare, and possibly goes on for several years.

“Hypnos” is tilted more towards psychological horror than cosmic horror, even though Lovecraft uses the same kind of imagery he does in those stories. It’s a familiar paranoia, that sense of dread and conspiracy that spawns out of the blue, forcing you to question what’s real when it’s impossible to ever be one-hundred-percent sure. A vivid nightmare or a fever dream can do as much damage as opium, if not a little more because it’s a raw product of your imagination. When the man in the story sobers up, he is suddenly white-haired and elderly, and his friend has abandoned him. No one he asks believes that Hypnos was ever there at all.

I’m curious if this story wasn’t at least a partial inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. The way Hypnos is described – gaunt, with ghostly pale skin and depthless black eyes, dressed in a black robe – sounds an awful lot like Dream. Kind of a neat coincidence, if not, though I wouldn’t be surprised, since The Sandman uses a lot of Lovecraftian themes.

Most Disappointing Books of 2019 (So Far)

I recently pieced together a rough selection of books that, for the time being, are the most likely to make it onto my “Best Books of 2019” list at the end of the year, so figured I may as well tackle the opposite end of the spectrum, while I’m at it. These are the current contenders for the most disappointing books I’ve read in 2019. If you want to keep up with my books, feel free to follow or friend me on Goodreads, too. Goodreads feels dead as a cemetery lately, so I wouldn’t mind more interaction.

Keep in mind for this list that a novel being disappointing does not necessarily make it “bad”, so if one of these happens to be your favourite, that’s totally fine. Varying opinions are what make people interesting. If they made it on this list, it simply means I didn’t enjoy them, expected much more from them, or expected something different than what I got.

Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar
Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Romance
Books about bullying and how it differs between say, a lower-income public school and a prestigious prep school, carry a lot of psychological baggage for their writer to convey. Or, they should, if they want to remain in good taste. Gossip Girl was too self-indulgent and easy to take unironically for me to even find it a guilty pleasure, like I do the similar series, The Clique by Lisi Harrison. Neither I feel are especially good influences, not for their intended audience.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach
Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Humor
What I expected to be one of the best books, since I loved the film so much, turned out to be one of the worst. Starts strongly enough, but is ultimately made pointless by its ending and comes off as shockingly racist. I usually like to begin reviews with a quote and couldn’t find a suitable one in the actual meat of the text, so ended up having to use an unrelated quote that the novel used as a chapter header. That should tell you something. Skip the book and just watch the movie adaptation, you will have a much more fulfilling experience that way. Continue reading “Most Disappointing Books of 2019 (So Far)”

Book Review – Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Science Fiction / Mystery
Series: Blue Ant
Publication Date: February 3rd, 2003
Publisher: Penguin

“We have no future because our present is too volatile. We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.”

Pattern Recognition is a capsule from which paranoia gradually blossoms. Earth is a microcosm, really, in the great span of things, but the rapid onset of technology and connection have had the ironic downside of making it feel as small as it is, tightly webbed yet somehow immensely lonely.

Predictable as it might be for me to say it, this novel feels eerily prescient and knowing in a way that goes beyond the author’s imagination. It seems to have anticipated that strange lonely closeness creeping in through our screens. There exists a paradox of clarity and riddle, or perhaps reality and falsehood, in its pages that makes it feel like something you’ve actually just watched unfold.

Gibson’s phenomenal writing does outclass the actual plot, I suppose, but it’s a pretty lofty height the story would have to reach in order to match the way it’s told. The writing in itself is a network of intricacy, the edges of deep, impenetrable mystery just visible as it develops the variables of its equation. Gibson uses the raw delicacy of poetry and yet keeps it secretive, an outstretched hand seeming to offer everything upfront but hiding a labyrinth of tiny microbes you’ll never see working against you.
There are stretches, especially in the beginning, that could easy have been boring if it’d been written by anybody else, but instead feel rather like a brief reprise before the catastrophe sets in. Continue reading “Book Review – Pattern Recognition by William Gibson”

The Best Books of 2019 (So Far)

On this day, more of this year is now dead than alive. Normally I cling to time like a miser clings to pocket change, but I will be happy when this year’s over. Not merely happy, but elated. 2019 has worked its way into the official hall of shame in my memories, slightly higher than middle school but slightly lower than the entirety of 2016. And there’s still five long months to suffer through!

One of the few upsides, however, is that I’ve discovered some truly wonderful books. Most of my reading this year has been average, as usual, with only a handful of ones I would call “bad” reads, and a surprising amount that really stood out. So far, these are the best contenders, in no particular order, for the final countdown I’ll be doing around the end of the year. Be sure to check them out if you can. These are books and authors definitely worth their salt!

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette
Genre: Mystery / Thriller
Every now and then, the stars align and produce the exact book you desire at the exact moment you want to read it. This is one of those rare occurrences. The Mad and the Bad is an older, and comparatively obscure piece of noir fiction that is at the same time, far different from any noir fiction I’ve ever read – quirky and outlandish yet with an insanely dark sense of humor and irony. I plan on doing a review of this one eventually, so won’t spoil too much. You should just go out and read it, it shouldn’t take more than a few days to finish it.

Stain by A.G. Howard
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Young adult fiction needs more writers like A.G. Howard. Her writing style is unabashed and intelligent, and wickedly contorts the over-used tropes of fairytales into something brilliant. While I thought Howard’s more famous series, Splintered, was phenomenal, Stain shows a stronger sense of mischievous, calculating cunning and maturity in its development that ultimately made for a deeper story.

Smashed by Junji Ito
Genre: Horror / Short Stories
I am a hardcore Junji Ito fanatic, so pretty much any new work of his, even if it’s a stylish reprint of older stories, will automatically make the Top 10 for that year. Smashed got mixed reviews for being, I suppose, more haphazard in tone than his last two horror omnibuses, but as far as enjoyment of the stories goes, I actually liked this one more than both Shiver and Frankenstein. Continue reading “The Best Books of 2019 (So Far)”

Reviews Revisited – I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Horror / Mystery
Series: John Cleaver
Publication Date: March 30th, 2009
Publisher: Tor Books

“Fear is about things you can’t control. The future or the dark, or someone trying to kill you. You don’t get scared of yourself because you always know what you’re going to do.”

Dan Wells’s debut is an unusual witches’ brew of dark humor, cerebral horror and bleak small-town life. The writing has jagged edges in its beginnings, but I have yet to find another series that I love with so little wavering. This is one of those rarities where I feel it was written specifically for me, with everything I knew and didn’t know I sought in a novel.

Me and this series are like connate flowers. However, John Cleaver really schemed and staked his way into my heart, and was cemented as an instant perma-favourite series to me with the second book, Mr. Monster. I Am Not a Serial Killer suffers from initial uneasiness as Wells gets on his feet with the series, and sudden doses of genre whiplash. The first novel pools its arachnoid feet into many genres, but gives off a flighty self-consciousness about taking the leap from a mystery with paranormal aspects into straight-out horror, which it definitely becomes by the second book. This was the only trait it had I didn’t care for, and I still don’t upon revisits, but the unsure tone actually fits when the main character’s chaos of self. John is never sure what he wants to be.

John “It Doesn’t Matter What Other People Think When You’re Right” Cleaver is a bitter, anxious, antisocial teen with hair-trigger violent tendencies that he struggles to keep from unraveling on those who don’t deserve his wrath, whether it be his mother or his friends. He is pulled between crushing loneliness and craving nothing more than being alone, something that reflected painfully when I first read it. His discussions with his therapist, Dr. Neblin, devolve from him not taking them seriously and trying to freak the doctor out, into panic and emotional decay from trying to hold up the façade of being “normal” and never showing anger, out of fear of what he’ll end up doing.

“I’m on the edge, Neblin, I’m off the edge – I’m over the edge and falling to Hell on the other side. […] I’m down in the cracks of the sidewalk,” I said, “in the dirt and in the blood, and the ants are looking up and we’re damning you all, Neblin. I’m down in the cracks and I can’t get out.” Continue reading “Reviews Revisited – I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells”

Top 10 Scariest Stories to Tell in the Dark (Pt. 2)

Sorry for the delay between this and Part One, which began the countdown of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark I find to be the most unnerving, gruesome and haunting of them all, in light of the upcoming film adaptation. Please read Part One first if you haven’t already, and take into context that these are plucked from the original, beloved Schwartz and Gammell books, not any of the alternate reprints. Gammell’s illustrations (and a decent dose of nostalgia) have a massive effect on the creep factor that is absent from the Helquist-illustrated version.

5. Oh, Susanna! from Book 2
The story itself is disconcerting enough, being about a serial killer who sneaks into a student’s dorm and beheads her roommate while she’s trying to sleep, but the illustration for this is so abstract and bleak and “WTF” that it unintentionally makes it far more nightmarish. It depicts, at least in my personal interpretation, the killer as a skeletal beast severing the head of Susannah, the roommate, which carries the protagonist off into the abyss of horrific realization.
While it does it through grotesque methods, “Oh, Susanna!” is a great point to bring up when discussing cerebral depth in children’s books. This drawing made my imagination go insane and back around again, trying to determine what it meant.

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4. Harold from Book 3
“Harold” is the darling of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and features on most of the new film’s promotional art. Scarecrows are not fundamentally scary. They are big, stuffed dolls with silly faces and button eyes. But that unchanging expression would be disturbing if say, you abused a scarecrow for kicks and it learned how to move like a person just to spite you. And it only gets worse. I won’t spoil this one because the ending is brutal. Most of the Scary Stories library, as far as the actual plots go, would not be upsetting to an adult, but I think this is one of the exceptions. Continue reading “Top 10 Scariest Stories to Tell in the Dark (Pt. 2)”

Book Review – Brazen by Pénélope Bagieu

★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Full Title: Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World
Genre: Biography
Publication Date: March 6th, 2018
Publisher: First Second

There is no more straightforward way to put it – this graphic novel is phenomenal. If you need a boost of vitality and determination in such trying times as these, look no further than Brazen. This book makes you reflect on yourself and say, I could do this too. The obstacles suddenly don’t seem so insurmountable anymore, at least for awhile.

Though if I did learn one important fact in this collection, it’s that most artistic and scientific fields historically have been overseen by, well… bigots and incompetents, and even with the efforts of these wonderful women and others, are still very much in dire need of an overhaul in their bureaucracy and ways they practice. Most, if not all of these women, even those alive in more recent years, have had to struggle for recognition because of these institutions and their staunch attitudes that they can do no wrong. If we hope to make any positive change to this little gloom-ball we live on, sometimes the system has to be challenged.

Bagieu tells the shortened but fascinating legacy of thirty important women, both influential and underappreciated, in all their determination, wit and triumph, giving each of their stories their own unique colour scheme. Not only is Brazen a visually beautiful and charming book, but it never feels anything less than passionate and heartfelt on the artist’s part, and is one of the most inspiring collections I’ve read.

What surprised me is that I actually knew most of these women. I’m very familiar with Tove Jansson, Nellie Bly, Josephine Baker, but I didn’t know the sheer extent of their accomplishments. That’s something a simple search won’t really elaborate on. Some of these women were practically the nucleus of their field, it being nonexistent or a hopeless train wreck before they came along. Continue reading “Book Review – Brazen by Pénélope Bagieu”

Top 10 Scariest Stories to Tell in the Dark (Pt. 1)

Image result for scary stories to tell in the dark illustrations

A few days ago, I wrote some meandering thoughts on the upcoming Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film adaptation, which I’m simultaneously uneasy and excited about, so I thought for the fun of it, I’d do a countdown of my favourites from the classic children’s trilogy. This book series, as I’ve noted, is vital in forming my love of the horror genre. It’s about as important to me as one of my own creations.

These are loosely rated from tamest to scariest. What I found unnerving could easily not be to somebody else, however. I personally find ones with human, or once-human, perpetrators to be the most memorable, rather than the more supernatural shorts. Each of the three books has its own signature “feel” as well, which affected my ratings. Whereas the second book is about human evils and the third about paranormal, cosmic horrors, the first book is more lighthearted campfire horror and hence, fewer stories from it made this list, though I would call it equally as enjoyable as its sequels.

10. Such Things Happen from Book 3
The fear of witchcraft is heavily ingrained in American folklore. In my speculation, it’s a combination of the young country’s large expanses of isolation, which can lead to seeing things that aren’t easily explained, and America’s staunch religious background. Its root is a fear of becoming cursed or damned, and that fear is portrayed with eerie accuracy in this story about a man who accidentally earns the hate of a supposed witch by running over her cat. “Such Things Happen” doesn’t get mentioned enough, as it’s more on the psychological edge and it’s possible there’s nothing paranormal in this story.

9. The Window from Book 2
A woman wakes up late in the night to find a golden-eyed corpse staring in her window. She makes the mistake of running and it attacks her. The woman and her brothers discover that it’s a vampire ravaging fresh crypts in the graveyard and bleeding the living who are unlucky enough to be in its path. What makes this story haunting is the sheer anxiety of looking out the window at night. What would you do if you saw something that wasn’t exactly human anymore?

8. One Sunday Morning from Book 2
“One Sunday Morning” is an extremely short story about a woman who arrives at her church early to find she has intruded on a sermon for the dead, but all you need to care about is this illustration, and where it will show itself in your nightmares tonight.

Related image Continue reading “Top 10 Scariest Stories to Tell in the Dark (Pt. 1)”

Book Review – Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

★ 1.5 Stars

Genre: Romance / Erotica
Publication Date: May 25th, 2011
Publisher: Vintage

Volunteering to read Fifty Shades of Grey is like volunteering to be waterboarded, except with poor writing in lieu of water. Just when you think the torture might be over, another faceful of metaphor slurry and childish dialogue floods into your lungs. You knew what you were in for, and you knew exactly how fun it would be, and yet some irrational seed nudged you into doing it anyway.
In a way, Fifty Shades does succeed at being the ultimate act of sadomasochism. It actively hurts to continue and yet you remain compelled to. This is not so much out of intrigue, as trying to figure out what value anyone could possibly see in the experience. Why was there such a mysticism and phenomena surrounding this chunk of fanfiction? That’s all it is, really, and reading the entire series I imagine would be something akin to spiritual suicide.

At the height of Fifty Shades of Infamy, I saw what I’m pretty sure were middle-schoolers toting copies of this stupid book. Which, by the way, the physical design shocks me. The cover is as aggressively uninteresting as its innards, and looks like an early vanity press churn-out. It has that same plastic, filmy feel and cheap JPEG texture to the design. I couldn’t believe Vintage published this! Their books are typically beautiful. It’s like they were subtly trying to inspire you to avoid it, but were stuck promoting it at the same time.

Fifty Shades of Grey, as you likely already know, revolves around a closet serial killer, Patrick Bate– I mean, Christian Grey, who, in his spare time between being a pompous entrepreneur and being a Criminal Minds villain, seduces a blushing idiot named Anastasia. They get into a relationship that borders on abusive and a series of embarrassing euphemisms ensues. What is supposed to be steamy deflates quickly as it begins to come off as creepy.
The more mundane scenes aren’t much better, full of nonsensical pseudo-economics and a general dull lack of realism I shan’t bother going into, because you might fall asleep on your keyboard. On the other hand, you might accidentally type out a better book than this if you do, so maybe I will…

I am a survivor of Victorian in-joke Irene Iddlesleigh, so in fairness, Fifty Shades is hardly the worst book I’ve ever read. Sure, it’s tedious and insulting, and romance readers deserve better, but it is at least a functional book that humans can read easily using their eyestalks. But that’s a bare essential, not a compliment.
Everything about this novel is boring. “Boring” is the deadliest of the seven book sins. Rarely, the amateurish writing has the good grace to be amusing, especially with the “sex scenes”, which are almost the exact antithesis of sexy, coming off as peculiar, awkward and strangely prudish, despite trying their maximum try-hard level of hardest to be edgy. But mostly, Fifty Shades of Grey is more like Fifty Shades of Brown, because it’s about like watching molasses drip. It’s not even fun to parody, as you’ll notice if you look through the plethora of equally boring parodies that were churned out in its wake. Continue reading “Book Review – Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James”

Book Review – Perfect by Natasha Friend

★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publication Date: September 16th, 2004
Publisher: Milkweed Editions

You are never alone in anything, no matter how it feels. Everyone must face their own tragedy, and deal with their own disorder. Some are just better at seeming composed.

I could read this book about a thousand times and find scarce to dislike. I believe this is one of the absolute best young adult books, especially for girls. Friend, I’ve noticed, takes care to challenge the conventional concept of perfection, and if it’s even necessary. Which it isn’t, spoiler alert. Coming from a staunch perfectionist who’s struggled with abandoning society’s expectations, you know I’m serious about that. At the end of the day, if the goal you’ve reached is the desire of someone who isn’t you, and came at the cost of important facets of your personality, it wasn’t worth it, and will be replaced with a new one to covet tomorrow.

Perfect is about the cycle of unhappiness that spawns eating disorders, though there are a lot of small and traumatic events that usually factor into it. Friend writes in a way that’s easy to approach and never preachy or contrived, letting you come to your own conclusion about Isabelle’s path.
The death of her father led into a depression, and the only influence outside of that is a girl she befriends at school, who despite all appearances as “the perfect girl”, has an extremely damaged self-image and forces herself to throw up so often that she starts bleeding from the mouth. Isabelle sees in her a mirror of her own bulimia, and their relationship becomes a paradox of enabling each other’s disorder and offering a genuine bond based around it. Continue reading “Book Review – Perfect by Natasha Friend”