Michael Alec Rose

Beneath all the fun, Halloween upholds its spooky essence. On a single October night, we celebrate the darkest side of ourselves: our fundamental desire to transcend our natures, to exceed mortal limits, to claim unwarranted power. We let our children don horrific masks and gather loot from neighbors whom they barely see for the rest of the year. As a community, we gleefully become monsters.

Deeper and more durable than trick-or-treating are the delights of ghost stories and horror tales. So many of the classic works in the genre, Frankenstein and Dracula above all, set into high gear the unbridled Halloween impulse to break through the bonds of mortality and assume mastery over life and death. Under the sway of Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker, we seize for real the power to which Victor Frankenstein and Count Dracula fictitiously pretend. Inert matter (ink on a page) comes to shocking life, and that which is dead (the author, for one thing) is summoned from the grave to haunt us and feed upon the lifeblood of our imaginations.

Year in and year out, the horrors are told and retold, retuned, rediscovered and revamped (or re-vampired). The books recommended here offer a splendid quartet of such variations.

A monster collaboration
Most diehard fans of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein come to it in its third edition of 1831. Now, English professor Charles Robinson rips away the veil of the novel’s origins and takes us back to the thrilling night in 1816 when two of the greatest living poets—Lord Byron and Percy Shelley—joined in contest with Shelley’s wife Mary and their friend Dr. Polidori to devise the scariest ghost story. Without any doubt, Mary took the laurel with her story of a “Modern Prometheus” and went on to expand the terrifying premise into her famous novel, first published in 1818.

So far, this history is common knowledge. But Professor Robinson digs yet deeper in The Original Frankenstein. Through close examination of the manuscripts, he has been able to determine that the novel came into being as a sustained and extraordinarily intimate collaboration between Mary and Percy, with Percy’s hand literally evident on almost every page. Feminists need not be concerned: Robinson’s research is not another patriarchal theft of a woman’s achievement. Indeed, the professor gives us Mary all on her own in the second half of his volume—two Frankensteins for the price of one—and it is clear that the wife’s raw, “unhusbanded” text is the more forceful one. But in the other text, Robinson allows us to bear witness to a marriage of true minds. The inspiring collaboration between Mary and Percy is the greatest possible antidote to Victor Frankenstein’s solitary and overweening ambition.

Rewriting history—and fiction
Peter Ackroyd seeks no such remission from Dr. Frankenstein’s colossal error. On the contrary, the acclaimed British novelist and biographer swings the monstrous electrical lever of his fiction to its maximum position, committing every conceivable historical outrage in the process. Leave it to this most distinguished living biographer of British poets to fabricate such a delectable conflation of history and imaginative literature. In Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, the infamous narrator becomes the inseparable chum of (who else?) Percy Shelley at Oxford, and Mary comes to love Victor as a trusted friend. The Shelleys inadvertently abet Victor’s unholy investigations into the founding principle of life, and in the end—ha! Did you think I would tell you? However inured you may think you are to the shocks of horror fiction, Ackroyd will violate your defenses with his diabolical intelligence and his uncanny empathy for both real-life and imaginary characters.

The vampire authority
Anyone who has had the good fortune to visit Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan knows what a paradoxically overpopulated and uncluttered paradise he has created for book lovers. The very same qualities inform Penzler’s work as an editor. His latest collection, The Vampire Archives, presents an unprecedented cornucopia of stories, ranging from pure pulp (Stephen King) to high art (D.H. Lawrence). Even so, the experience of reading the anthology feels like a walk in a beautifully landscaped cemetery, perfectly laid out with varying tactile delights and far vistas. The gigantic bulk of this book is counterbalanced by its lucid editorial touches, including a 110-page bibliography of vampire literature.

Sibling love gone awry
Douglas Clegg has been busy building his own 21st-century empire of supernatural fiction (check out his state-of-the-art website). His latest novel, Isis, is a feat of old-fashioned storytelling. When 16-year-old Iris Villiers loses her beloved older brother in a tragic accident, she will do almost anything to get him back. But, as any wise reader knows, summoning the dead back to Earth against their will often has grave consequences. This brief chiller should be read aloud, in a happy company ready to be distressed, while a surplus of Halloween candy sweetens Clegg’s bitter little masterpiece.

Michael Alec Rose is a composer who teaches at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.

Beneath all the fun, Halloween upholds its spooky essence. On a single October night, we celebrate the darkest side of ourselves: our fundamental desire to transcend our natures, to exceed mortal limits, to claim unwarranted power. We let our children don horrific masks and gather loot from neighbors whom they barely see for the rest […]

Let’s face it: if you read horror, you’re a geek. But there’s a broad spectrum of geekiness, stretching from the literary-historical, to the video-related “gross-out,” to the realm of metaphysical inquiry. These books cover all those bases.

THE PAST THAT WASN’T

“Steampunk” is one of those genre terms that few can properly define. There are a few prerequisites, though: 1) Queen Victoria (or her son Edward) occupies the British throne; and 2) the deadly hubris of Dr. Frankenstein has grown apace, thanks to the scientific advances of the Victorian age. The stories commissioned for Ghosts by Gaslight—from a who’s who of fantasy and horror luminaries—derive their energy from the authors’ surrender to the allure of Stevenson, Kipling, Verne, Wells and a host of lesser-known ghost-story writers of that era, whose obscure productions are the hoarded treasure of a special subset of uber-geeks. In this collection, the fruits of such an old-fashioned harvest are variously ripe or wonderfully rotten. Several stories—for instance, those by venerable wizard Peter Beagle and relative newcomer John Harwood—are dazzling. The brief but encyclopedic introduction from editors Jack Dann and Nick Gevers makes the book indispensable.

WHAT'S LEFT OF THE WORLD

Who could have guessed that the author of Vacation is best known as a video-game writer? Well, duh. Once you’re plugged into Matthew Costello’s apocalyptic novel, there’s no friggin’ way to get off this ride. The unrelenting, staccato rhythm of the narrative perfectly matches the enervating effects of video gaming. So, like, survivors of a global agricultural plague in the near future try to avoid being eaten by the zombie “Can Heads” unleashed by the government’s nefarious genetic testing (dude!). Each horrific confrontation works along a jagged crescendo of unpredictability. The hero isn’t only saving his beloved wife and kids, he’s saving civilization (OK, maybe). If this novel doesn’t appear soon in software format, I’ll eat the next NYPD officer whose car breaks down in my neighborhood.

THE SPECTRAL SEA

All three of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s books, including the chilling Let the Right One In, have blown over the ocean from Sweden to win great acclaim from U.S. horror fans. His new novel, Harbor, establishes a new mythos. With an uncanny gift for local color and a psychological acuity for universal fear, Lindqvist finds horror in the element of water, whose inexorable force overwhelms the damned island community of Domaro. In this maritime variation on the grand theme of sacrificial evil—so unforgettable in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home—Lindqvist presents affectionate portraits of both flawed protagonists and implausibly scary demons: the magus Simon; a father who has littorally lost his little Maja to a cryogenic sea; and a pair of teenage ghosts. Lindqvist grasps instinctively that the most horrible thing that can happen to us has already happened (our being born into this sorrow-sodden world). The rest of the story is up to us. 

 

Let’s face it: if you read horror, you’re a geek. But there’s a broad spectrum of geekiness, stretching from the literary-historical, to the video-related “gross-out,” to the realm of metaphysical inquiry. These books cover all those bases. THE PAST THAT WASN’T “Steampunk” is one of those genre terms that few can properly define. There are […]

These three new publications, taken together (what a good gift idea!), fairly sum up the diverse approaches of nature lovers towards their oversized passions.

POETRY IN MOTION
Possibly the most common attitude of the enthusiastic naturalist is obsession, a loving preoccupation with a single corner of the natural world. Tamsin Pickeral, the author of The Majesty of the Horse: An Illustrated History, exerts the full force of her expertise as an art historian in paying the ultimate lavish attention to every great breed of horse on Earth. The combination of vastly intelligent text and magnificent photographs by Astrid Harrisson turns each turning of the page into a revelation of scientific fact, historical inquiry and visual splendor. Even the titles identifying each breed of horse, along with its origins, seem like little poems in themselves—for instance, “Knabstrup: Ancient—Denmark—Uncommon.” The close-up of this creature’s gorgeous spotted hide on the facing page perfectly embodies the mysterious and immemorial bond between us and the horse.

DISCOVERING OUR ANIMAL BRETHREN
Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide
is the runaway science bestseller of the year in this revised and updated version, and for good reason. Whatever your curiosity about the animal kingdom, whether you’re four years old or 94, this glorious tome will be a pleasure to explore, an entire education between two covers, a delight for the eye and the ever-flowering mind. After so many years of trial and error, Dorling Kindersley has perfected its visual format, whereby a dizzying array of images and text on every page somehow coheres into a lucid fabric of comprehensive knowledge. But there is a further region of book magic, where knowledge ascends into wisdom. As this DK guide proceeds from general facts about animals (evolution, conservation, habitats) into the specific wonders of various phyla, genera and species, it is impossible to sustain the illusion any longer that we are distinct from the quotidian marvels we are seeing and reading about on the page.

INFINITE VARIETY
The poet William Blake invites us “to see a world in a grain of sand,” and there’s no better way to RSVP to Mr. Blake than to treat yourself to the endless astonishments of Giles Sparrow’s The Natural World Close-Up. On the pair of opened pages devoted to “Sand,” Sparrow typically gives us three levels of magnification: a stretch of desert sand dune, a life-sized close-up of a sandy handful, and then a view magnified 91 times, showing a dozen grains of sand beautifully blown up into big irregular asteroids, each one pockmarked uniquely with the ravages of time and wind and infrequent rainfall. The wonders never cease. In the section devoted to insects, we encounter at overwhelmingly close range the cellblock pattern making up a butterfly’s wing, every ward of which seems to be a thought; the manifold ingenuity of light-capture on a fly’s eye; the straightforward miracle of pollen-capture on a bee’s leg; and the Piranesi prison of a spider web. In the same poem, Blake also enjoins the reader “to hold infinity in the palm of your hand.” To do just that, simply hold this book in hand and look the tiny tadpole on page 119 right in its bizarrely developing eyes, magnified 38 times.

These three new publications, taken together (what a good gift idea!), fairly sum up the diverse approaches of nature lovers towards their oversized passions. POETRY IN MOTIONPossibly the most common attitude of the enthusiastic naturalist is obsession, a loving preoccupation with a single corner of the natural world. Tamsin Pickeral, the author of The Majesty […]

The news industry has always threatened to doom horror fiction to redundancy. How can any writer outdo the nightmare reality of the "developing stories" on CNN? Fortunately, masters of the genre don't even try. Instead, they play riffs on the "standards" of horror, and a different kind of news emerges. It's not what you tell that matters, it's how you tell it. That's what horror fans call a "developing story."

David Wong (a pseudonym) is the champion of slackers and couch potatoes everywhere. In This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It, Wong’s hilarious fictive self muddles through a series of epic disasters unleashed by his own slacking. Just as well: Only a full-throttle global apocalypse could relieve Wong’s boredom and absolute societal redundancy. You know you’re in for it when the therapist assigned to “cure” you by the police (because you’ve persuaded them you’re a borderline psychopath) is creepier by far than any of the invisible spiders-who-turn-people-into-zombies which only you and your slacker friend John can see. True to his schlemiel essence, Wong hardly has to lift a finger for all bloody hell to break loose. When it does, he’s invariably caught somewhere between the feelings of “Oh, sh—!” and “Bring it on, man!” As in his first novel John Dies at the End, Wong makes no bones (and there are plenty of ‘em, poking out of bleeding flesh) about annoying every authority figure in sight, including grammar fascists like me. With sublime contempt for literary decorum, Wong not only uses “lay” when he should use “lie”; he then conjugates the error throughout with aplomb. This book is full of slacking: seriously, dude, lay down on the couch and read it.

Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver feels like a grand symphonic variation on Ken Kesey’s horrific “chamber music” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. LaValle makes explicit his tribute to that great novel. At one point, his hapless hero Pepper, an inadvertent mental-ward inmate, imagines himself as Kesey’s “Chief,” busting out of the place by tossing a heavy object through the window. Nothing could surpass the horror of Kesey’s finale, so LaValle gives the reader something else to worry about besides a lobotomy: the possibility that the inmates are menaced by a devil from Hell at loose in the ward. In The ­Devil in Silver, as in every worthy horror story, the threat of the supernatural plays second fiddle to a humane gallery of lovable characters in the ward, all of whom might just be crazier than we are. Pepper’s obvious sanity (like McMurphy’s in Cuckoo’s Nest) exposes the real horror: the insanity of the institution itself.

HISTORY'S HORRORS
The last two novels derive their superior quality from a subtle infusion of 20th-century history, the horrors of which run like a dark conscience through both narratives. With Breed, mainstream author Scott Spencer changes his name to Chase Novak and bursts out fully armed as a knight of horror, dubbed by none other than Stephen King in the cover blurb. King is justified in his enthusiasm for Breed: It’s hard to imagine a more twisted or timely riff on the theme of lycanthropy, whereby the monsters must fend off a desire to devour their own children. Best of all, the novel serves up a vivid allegory on the malaise and corruption of formerly Communist countries in Eastern Europe. Novak may not be doing the tourist trade of Slovenia any good, but he does a shattered world of good for both the tragic history of the Soviet bloc and the geographic legacy of the horror novel.

There is just one word potent enough to describe Stefan Kiesbye’s Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: sublime. The notion of the “sublime”—whatever exceeds our understanding or violates the dictates of our senses, inspiring both terror and wonder—nurtured the poetry of Schiller, the music of Beethoven and (most pertinent here) the bloodthirsty tales of the Brothers Grimm. Born and raised in Germany, Kiesbye digs deep into the sublime vein of his homeland’s literary tradition and comes up with horrific gold. But Kiesbye benefits too from the literature of his adopted United States: The multiple narrative voices of Faulkner work like a dark charm, as four children from a German village bear witness to the fundamental evil of the place, and to their own chilling soullessness. The ongoing rumors of a witch or demon preying upon the village can’t stand up to the comprehensive horror of what transpired nearby, in the barracks, in the crematoria, behind the barbed wire, under the Third Reich. There is no greater horror than this: the sins of the fathers visited upon the children, beyond any hope of redemption.

The news industry has always threatened to doom horror fiction to redundancy. How can any writer outdo the nightmare reality of the "developing stories" on CNN? Fortunately, masters of the genre don't even try. Instead, they play riffs on the "standards" of horror, and a different kind of news emerges. It's not what you tell […]

A survey of a few recent horror movies (The Conjuring, Insidious 2, etc.) suggests that hauntings OF the children, BY the children and FOR the children are in. And why not? There’s really nothing creepier than a threat coming either from a ghostly child or toward a living child from some post-mortem parental entity. Three books investigate this disturbing psychological terrain, with shifting degrees of subtlety and terror. All three authors are wise enough to know that they are on shaky spiritual ground putting helpless children at risk, whichever side of the grave the little ones happen to inhabit. The pleasure of reading these books is how such risks are managed . . . and how they inevitably become unmanageable.

John Boyne already has a track record placing his fictional children into grotesquely horrible circumstances. He scored his biggest success in 2004 with the novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (made into a successful film), about two children living literally on the opposite sides of the fence at Auschwitz. This House Is Haunted retreats to the safer haven of Victorian gaslight, where Boyne’s blithe attitude toward historical accuracy can have freer rein. Boyne seems to have as little reverence for literary models as he does for Holocaust scholarship. Stroke by stroke, scare by scare, this latest novel deliberately sets out to beat Henry James at the diabolical game he played in the best ghost story of all time, The Turn of the Screw. Boyne’s mimicry and mischievous corruption of both the form and the content of James’s tale are surely the book’s most uncanny elements. All the Jamesian paraphernalia is there: the clueless governess at the remote country estate who narrates the story; her predecessors who meet violent ends; the nervous bystanders who infuriate both the heroine and the reader with their stupendous reserve. Then there are the governess’ two charges: the sister, mature beyond her years, who is in close touch with the malevolent spirit of the house, and the brother who cannot understand what the hell is going on, so angelic a soul is he. Boyne has not “done his homework” on James so much as chewed on it like a dog. Literate horror fans will take wicked delight in the unpretty sight that ensues—especially the fact that the ghost of Boyne’s house is none other than . . . no, I won’t say it. It’s too horrible to report in this review (take that, Henry James!).

Susan Hill is a more elegant fashioner of Victorian-style ghost stories than Boyne (this is merely an observation, not necessarily a judgment in her favor). Her allure—whether in these two latest novellas or in her famous 1987 novel, The Woman in Black, adapted for the London stage in 1989 and playing there ever since—springs from the serene decorum of her prose, which remains mellifluous even at the most catastrophic turn of events. This set of novellas provides another “safe haven” for those fans who prefer to take their horror with a smooth pint of bitter. As both The Small Hand and Dolly unfold, one well-wrought paragraph after another provides a placid cupboard for hanging up the very fears the stories are meant to summon.  Susan Hill has the gift at once to spook and to lull to sleep. Fine bedtime reading, just before turning out the light.  

Now, dear reader, turn it back on. I mean, right now. You’re going to need it. The perilous pleasures and imperiled children that await you in John Lindqvist’s magnificent collection of stories, Let the Old Dreams Die, require constant illumination. The darkness of this writer’s imagination is profound, the terrors manifold and the writing merciless in its reckoning of every human being’s worst fears, groundless hopes and bizarre capacity to love against all mortal odds. It would be tempting to call Lindqvist a philosopher, so relentless are the questions his characters ask about the meaning and the meaninglessness of our existence. He’s more than that, though, for the philosophical component of each story is beautifully harnassed to a narrative force which impels events forward at terrific speed, always homing onto to the intersection where goodness is assaulted by death, where both goodness and love must make a choice whether to prevail or succumb. There are worse things than death in Lindqvist’s world: emptiness of heart, to name one. In this collection, the Vampire and the Zombie—and the children who heroically attend them—return from his two most famous novels (Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead). What a gift from Lindqvist to his millions of fans! Here are his most famous deathless creatures, back again from the dead, this time authorized by love to let the right death in, either for themselves or for those whom they have tormented. Having trouble handling the dead? This Halloween, you’ll have no better ally than John Ajvide Lindqvist.

A survey of a few recent horror movies (The Conjuring, Insidious 2, etc.) suggests that hauntings OF the children, BY the children and FOR the children are in. And why not? There’s really nothing creepier than a threat coming either from a ghostly child or toward a living child from some post-mortem parental entity. Three […]

At the scary, broken heart of each of these three novels stands a woman of tremendous courage. It’s a quality she—each of these three very different “shes”—will need in order to face the horrors bent on destroying her. Also marking each heroine is a possibly fatal flaw that draws the monstrous entities in her direction with implacable magnetism. 

A SINISTER FORCE IN THE SCENIC CITY
Cherie Priest is an author who loves the feel of things—tangible objects, especially ones that hold in their heft a heap of history. Her new novel, The Family Plot, has the perfect concept to indulge this enthusiasm: A salvage company from Nashville, Tennessee, is hired by an elderly woman to dismantle and sell off every beautiful thing in her family’s old homestead before the grand house is demolished. And where is this gorgeous edifice, packed to the rafters with so many treasures? Right at the base of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, site of one of the fiercest battles of the Civil War. Dahlia Dutton leads her salvage crew with an appropriately iron hand, but she is dangerously susceptible to the allure of the haunted house she is commissioned to tear apart. The spirits who haunt the place feel her softness toward them, and they respond with diabolical vengeance. It’s an old story. 

The Family Plot delivers a double helping of fun: A prospectus of auction items worthy of Southern Living is served up alongside a tale of gothic suspense woven from the familiar fabric of lost war ballads, flavored with the bitter twang of ingrown family evils and hypocritical Confederate piety. For Priest, as for her vulnerable protagonist, the more traditional the object, the more valuable it’s got to be. 

THEY'RE IN THE BASEMENT
Chattanooga and Tokyo are a world apart in every way. Mariko Koike is one of the biggest names in mystery and horror in her native Japan, and now U.S. readers can share the thrills. Her 1986 classic The Graveyard Apartment, now translated into English for the first time by Deborah Boliver Boehm, is one of the strangest and most terrifying horror novels I’ve ever read, and that’s saying a lot. One reason for the book’s uncanny impact is a cultural one. Japan possesses a vast folklore of supernatural beings, the taxonomy for which is fabulously complex. With acute economy, Koike has distilled this puzzling array of horrible creatures into one great and collective force. That force is concentrating on one hapless family living in a crazy apartment building in a neglected precinct of the capital city, surrounded by a huge graveyard. 

Two factors conspire to make the experience of reading The Graveyard Apartment especially harrowing. The first is a focus on the building’s basement, in which the worst things happen. There is no distancing ourselves from the horror; it could happen to us. The second factor concerns the psychological foundation for the family’s persecution—a painful scenario, all too common, in which a guilty mother heroically and desperately attempts to protect her innocent child. Did the terrible error she and the little girl’s father committed—bringing about both the child’s life and the first wife’s death—somehow lead to these fatal consequences? It is a superbly distressing question, another instance of absolute evil tormenting simple human frailty. 

DON'T LOOK BACK
I have saved the best of the three new books for last, and I’ll say the least about it, mainly to insist to my fellow fans of horror that you must get your hands on this one. The Motion of Puppets is the only novel I know to have fulfilled Robert Aickman’s famous statement about great supernatural tales, that they are the fiction most closely approaching poetry. Keith Donohue (The Stolen Child) has crafted a perfect fable based on the mysterious attraction of the puppet theater. Building upon the archaic superstition (exploited in Toy Story) that puppets have their own emotional lives, the author takes one more magnificent step and ties in the devastating myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Instead of descending to the Underworld, Kay Harper has been magically transformed into a puppet. Her husband, Theo, must try to find her and win her back. Every page of this novel hums with mythic power, pulling on every heartstring.

There’s a delightful variety of heroism, susceptibility and supernatural threat in these three novels. We recommend that you treat yourself to all of them—if it’s a trick you can manage.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

At the scary, broken heart of each of these three novels stands a woman of tremendous courage. It’s a quality she—each of these three very different “shes”—will need in order to face the horrors bent on destroying her. Also marking each heroine is a possibly fatal flaw that draws the monstrous entities in her direction with implacable magnetism.

Get ready for a feast of frights, from gaslight romance to cosmic horror. But beware: The eight books get scarier as you read!


The Widow of Rose House
Diana Biller makes no bones about the fact that Edith Wharton—the best American ghost-­story writer of them all—inspired every aspect of her debut novel, The Widow of Rose House. Even the (putatively) haunted house at the heart of the story is based on Wharton’s stately mansion. And best of all, Biller mirrors Wharton’s genius for revealing the emotional gold lying beneath the Gilded Age, which motivates the novel’s massive romantic turmoil. After years of abuse by an evil (and now deceased) husband, Alva Webster hopes to make a new start in the fashionable community of Hyde Park, New York. It’s 1875, a liminal moment in American history, when the dawn of the age of electricity coincides with a mania for psychic research. These paradoxical currents merge in the heart of scientist Samuel Moore, who wants to understand nature’s deepest secrets, however much darkness it takes to bring them to light. He asks Alva to let him investigate her troubled house—but the investigation goes much further than that.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
Romance takes a contemporary turn in Kate Racculia’s wonderful new novel, set in present-­day Boston. The title—Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts —captures both the book’s dynamic spirit and its delightful ambiguity. Does heroine Tuesday Mooney really talk to ghosts? Is the ghost in question her childhood friend Abby, who disappeared when they were both 16, taken one night from the ocean wharf where she and Tuesday used to hang out together? That’s the awful shadow that hangs over Tuesday’s life, the memory that keeps her from true friendship and true love. But fate has other things in store, arriving in the form of an elderly, eccentric billionaire who establishes a treasure hunt in the terms of his will. It turns out that Tuesday is the one person holding all the pieces of the puzzle, which she puts together with her deliciously campy friend Dex, her precocious teenage neighbor Dorry and the secretive Archie Arches, the key to the old man’s riddles and (naturally) the person made in heaven for Tuesday. As it turns out, the treasure hunt is a bid for these characters’ very souls. Abby’s ghost has something to say about it, too—something much more than “Boo!”

The Saturday Night Ghost Club
In our next novel, horror is outdone by hominess. Even the setting of Craig Davidson’s The Saturday Night Ghost Club is too picturesque to be allowed: Niagara Falls in the idyllic 1980s, a place so nostalgically beautiful that nothing bad should happen there (but of course, it does). Jake is a 12-year-old boy who, along with two new summer friends, gets caught up in the magical world of his Uncle Calvin, a lovable kook who not only tells the kids ghost stories but also shows them the ghosts. One hidden card after another appears from Calvin’s sleeve, until only the ace remains—the death card, the one that holds Calvin’s own secret, which even he doesn’t realize. If you like darkness poured out like molasses from a bucket, you’ll love this novel. 

Last Ones Left Alive
Sarah Davis-Goff has given us a zombie novel with a Celtic twist. Remember how the folks in Riverdance used to clomp around on stage with their arms held down and motionless? In her debut novel, Last Ones Left Alive, it finally makes sense: Those creepy dancers were heralding an apocalypse of the ravenous undead, whose arms have already been bitten off. Irish zombies are called skrake, and our teenage heroine, Orpen, spends her life on a little Irish island hoping never to encounter one. But she, her Mam and their formidable friend Maeve cannot evade the menace forever. Davis-­Goff’s painstaking account of the courage and resourcefulness of these three women dominates the first part of the book, but their solitary ordeal preludes a much grander unfolding of female empowerment, in which they must join forces with the banshees, a company of women who set out to defeat the skrake—and other monstrous beings—and give humanity another chance.  

Imaginary Friend
YA author Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) makes his adult fiction debut with Imaginary Friend. Assuming its length (720 pages!) doesn’t scare you off before you even crack the cover, I’ll keep my review short, so you can get started. Chbosky’s chutzpah is to reimagine the Christian story of the Madonna and Child as a horror story. Kate Reese (like Alva Webster in The Widow of Rose House) is escaping an abusive man, hoping for a fresh start with her son, Christopher, in a little Pennsylvania town called Mill Grove. But Christopher gets lost in the woods and comes back changed, haunted by a voice in his head that threatens and commands him to do strange things (or else). This “imaginary friend” cannot stay imaginary for long (well, OK, for around 500 pages). The voice’s threats turn into a horrible reality, a battle between good and evil, with Mill Grove as Armageddon. 

Suicide Woods
Benjamin Percy’s awareness of his own craft—the terms of which are generously set forth in Thrill Me, his book of essays on the art of fiction—is apparent throughout his new collection of short stories, Suicide Woods. Each tale is a creaking door, hinging on a high concept or an uncanny hook, nicely derivative of weird masters such as Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Aickman. In every case, the gears of Percy’s plots make an audible noise, grinding his characters’ bodies and spirits (or both) into inevitable carnage. In these unrelenting tales, it can be taken for granted that the worst will always happen—that suicidal patients will ironically be terrorized and undone by their larger fear of death; that the apparition of a “mud man” in a fellow’s yard will turn his life into, well, mud; that a trip to the forbidding wilderness of Alaska will—naturally—forbid all joy, hope and life. The virtue of this collection lies in its super-refined telling, thanks to Percy’s efforts to break through the barriers between genre fiction and literature, by hell and high water (and ice and mud and whatnot).

Full Throttle
Joe Hill’s attitude toward the craft of writing could not be more different from Benjamin Percy’s. Hill eats genre fiction like junk food, chewing up the whole disreputable tradition of horror into a new, unique pulp and spitting it out with massively entertaining mastery. He comes by this skill honestly: I mean, gosh, if your dad is Stephen King and your mom is Tabitha King, you’re as good as doomed (read: saved). For us fans, good fortune is dealt in spades in Full Throttle, Hill’s latest collection of stories. Framing a baker’s dozen of tales are Hill’s beautiful essay of appreciation for his parents at the front and story notes at the back, the kind that horror geeks like me drool over, just because they’re so wonderfully self-indulgent. Best of all are the inclusion of two stories Hill co-authored with his father, whose famous love of motorcycles and road trips gone wrong have corrupted his son just right, making these the best tales in the collection.

A Cosmology of Monsters
The seven books reviewed so far go bobbing for scares, each nibbling at terrors real or imagined, each splendidly diverting in its own way. But Shaun Hamill’s A Cosmology of Monsters bites horror to its core. The most influential horror writer of the 20th century is H.P. Lovecraft, whose works offer a vision of the universe as a place of irredeemable misery and meaninglessness. Our lives are ultimately in the merciless hands (and tentacles) of a pantheon of unimaginably terrifying creatures who inhabit the nether regions of the planet. The only problems are 1) Lovecraft is a notoriously overwrought prose stylist, and 2) he despised people—not just individual persons but everybody, including himself. A magnificent tribute to Lovecraft’s vexing achievement, A Cosmology of Monsters redeems both of the master’s flaws. Hamill’s heart-stopping debut novel features exceptionally graceful language and a set of characters we come to worry about, take delight in, grieve for and love. Saturated with endless wonder and horrific consequences, it’s the story of a family marked for special attention by Lovecraft’s Old Ones. How much loss can a good person endure? Lovecraft never cared to ask the question. Hamill cares very much, all the way to the tragic last act. 

Dip into this season’s best horror fiction with eight books that cover the full spectrum of spooky reading!

There are two heroines in Karen Joy Fowler's new novel Sister Noon. One is the city of San Francisco, the other a plain, unmarried society woman living there in the 1890s. In a cityscape of wildly unscrupulous tycoons, and women ranging across the entire spectrum of respectability, Lizzie Hayes carries on her quiet but intense struggles against society's oppressive efforts to confine her activities and define her being.

The special topography and architecture of the city on the bay, and the ups-and-downs of its even more unruly moral landscape in a famously decadent era, become the catalysts for the awakening of the novel's unlikely heroine, Lizzie Hayes. Passionate reader, repressed dreamer, fearful fussbudget and moth to the flame of the city's darker side, Lizzie oversees the finances of an orphanage filled with the throwaways of the merciless empire of capital that was California a century ago. She observes both the magnificence and the tawdriness of her metropolis with an absence of judgment and a desperate longing that mark her as a child of her time.

Only the San Francisco of the Gilded Age could have produced both the eccentric Teresa Bell, a prostitute-turned-millionaire's wife, or the formidable Mary Ellen Pleasant, a former slave who passed for years as a white woman but became wealthy only after she revealed her "true" identity (the quotation marks are a necessity for an inveterate chameleon like Mrs. Pleasant). And only by the Golden Gate could two such women live together in the same house and haunt Lizzie Hayes with their inscrutable histories and their thrilling, terrifying suggestions that "you don't have to be the same person your whole life."

The magic of Fowler's portraiture frequently lies in its contradictions: "Mrs. Hallis was a Methodist with the face of a Botticelli. She believed in culpability, which was not the philosophy of most people with such lips."

Karen Joy Fowler is culpable in only one regard, and that is in conjuring the city and citizens of her novel with such concreteness that her readers gladly take her fable of Lizzie Hayes, spinster of San Francisco, as true (no quotations marks necessary).

Michael Alec Rose is a professor of music at Vanderbilt University.

 

There are two heroines in Karen Joy Fowler's new novel Sister Noon. One is the city of San Francisco, the other a plain, unmarried society woman living there in the 1890s. In a cityscape of wildly unscrupulous tycoons, and women ranging across the entire spectrum of respectability, Lizzie Hayes carries on her quiet but intense […]

Helene Wecker’s debut, The Golem and the Jinni, materialized like magic on the 2013 literary scene. In that startling and scintillating novel, the author gave life to the inanimate clay of one old legend (the golem) and in the same breath gave complex shape to the shifting sands of another (the jinni). The reader’s delight was redoubled by this magnificent synthesis of Jewish and Arabian folklore. The friendship between Chava the golem and Ahmad the jinni in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City seemed as implausible—and as irresistibly alluring—as peace between two immemorially warring civilizations.

Like all great storytellers, Wecker knows we can never have enough of a good thing, so Chava and Ahmad are back in The Hidden Palace. Wecker’s arithmetic is plain: In the sequel, there are now two golems and two jinn. This epic mitosis exponentially augments the story’s narrative power and emotional consequences.

Chava and Ahmad have learned to conceal their true identities in order to live among human beings, so it comes as a shock when the newcomers—Yossele the golem and Dima the jinniyeh (a female jinni)—return us violently to the fearful origins of the legends. Yossele is no more than raw, animated clay, ready to kill anyone in order to protect its maker. Dima is a wild creature of wind and fire, ready to deceive and destroy a human being on a whim.

In Wecker’s novel, real-life events have an inexorable impact on mortal and supernatural characters alike. Whether you’re a monster or a human being, you have no choice but to confront the enormity of the sinking of the Titanic, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or the Great War. From one crisis to the next, a strange and unbreakable alliance develops among many persons and elemental creatures, burgeoning into something even more marvelous than the rabbinical spell and the desert magic that brought the golems and jinn into being. 

As for the “hidden palace”—where and what is it, if it’s important enough to stand as the title? Could it be Ahmad’s grief-stricken, obsessive experiments with metal and glass, after he thinks he’s lost everything? Perhaps. But the author may be daring the reader to participate in the palace’s symbolic creation, to bear witness to its noble construction out of a secret and miraculous communion of Jewish clay and Arabic element. 

Fans of The Golem and the Jinni have waited eight years for this sequel, a minor eternity perfectly in keeping with the precarious immortality of Wecker’s hopeful monsters. It has been worth the wait. 

Fans have waited eight years for this sequel, a minor eternity perfectly in keeping with the precarious immortality of Helene Wecker’s hopeful monsters.

Civil society is always fragile. When it collapses under violent threat, its citizens inevitably reveal their truest selves. With his groundbreaking first novel, World War Z, Max Brooks adapted this timeless truth—the essence of The Iliad, King Lear, War and Peace, etc.—on a global scale (with zombies). In Devolution, the author gives it another go, this time in microcosm.

Greenloop is a would-be environmental utopia (with all the modern amenities) established by a bunch of well-heeled city folks in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest forest. The volcano of Mount Rainier is sleeping nearby, along with a family of sasquatch. Rainier wakes up, and so does Bigfoot. Next stop: Greenloop.

The personnel of Greenloop is the ultimate catalog of urbanite hubris, idealism, cluelessness and dormant heroism. Moral fiber hits rock bottom in the character of Tony, the founder of the community, a charismatic Grizzly Man type whose phony charisma crumbles in the face of disaster. The community’s shining light is Mostar, a survivor of the Balkan conflicts of the last century. She is the prophet, the pragmatist, the ass-kicker. With these characters, and the other Greenloop residents, Brooks demonstrates how a person’s true nature comes to light in a catastrophe, when they must either summon courage they never knew they possessed, or die. Or both.

In Devolution, as in World War Z, Brooks relishes what he calls “forensic horror,” a medium for understanding a disaster retrospectively, through available evidence. The novel is framed by an unnamed researcher into the events, who presents the diary of Kate Holland, a resident of Greenloop. The researcher illuminates Kate’s complex firsthand account through interviews with her grieving brother and a baffled park ranger.

The transformation of Greenloop and its members—especially Kate and her slacker husband, Dan—from self-doubting basket cases into formidable warriors transcends the notion of “evolution.” It’s terrifying. Brooks is not only dealing with the end of humanity; he’s also showing us our further course toward a new, ineluctable, absolute brutality.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Max Brooks shares the inspiration behind Devolution: “We are racing headlong to build a society for comfort and not for resilience.”

Civil society is always fragile. When it collapses under violent threat, its citizens inevitably reveal their truest selves. With his groundbreaking first novel, World War Z, Max Brooks adapted this timeless truth—the essence of The Iliad, King Lear, War and Peace, etc.—on a global scale (with zombies). In Devolution, the author gives it another go, this time in microcosm.

Reading The Warehouse is a kind of nightmare. Its near-future dystopia seems startlingly plausible; the split-narrative structure goes round and round like a Lazy Susan; and Rob Hart’s prose feels as densely claustrophobic as the living conditions he has constructed for the disenfranchised millions now working for the Warehouse, the hideous corporate giant (read: Amazon, a few clicks down the road) that has so benevolently, inevitably and horribly rescued the world’s ruined economy.

The novel doesn’t even bother with character development. Why should it? The only thing that matters in this book is the vastness of the nightmare. For this purpose, cardboard will do just as well as flesh and blood. The three main persons in the story (I want to call them “assets”) would literally rather die than be developed. First, there’s ordinary poor sod Paxton, who can’t pay his bills, so he gets on the bus to one of the Warehouse’s mega-centers, passes the entry exam and starts his job as a security officer, color-coded uniform and all. Second, there’s the smart, anti-establishment terrorist Zinnia, who also passes the exam and decides to enlist Paxton’s help to get the dirt on the Warehouse and bring it down.

And then there’s the third figure of Hart’s novel, who lifts the story out of its landfill of clichés, the only one who speaks to us in first person: Gibson, the founder and supreme leader of the Warehouse. It’s Gibson who transcends the book’s cynicism and obvious agenda. As an up-to-date incarnation of the beatific, ruthless redeemer archetype, Gibson elevates The Warehouse to the zone of indispensable satire and dark spiritual inquiry, the space where Dickens, Kafka, Orwell and Koestler reign. These titans of the genre have shown us what it looks like when evil wears the mask of goodness, how it feels when our salvation asks us to abandon all hope and what happens to us when the shining light of progress becomes an all-consuming darkness.

I hope they don’t make a movie out of this book. It’s already impossible to wake up from.

Reading The Warehouse is a kind of nightmare. Its near-future dystopia seems startlingly plausible; the split-narrative structure goes round and round like a Lazy Susan; and Rob Hart’s prose feels as densely claustrophobic as the living conditions he has constructed for the disenfranchised millions now working for the Warehouse, the hideous corporate giant (read: Amazon, […]

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