Michael Alec Rose

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.

Believe it or not, Max Brooks’ sensational new novel of anthropological horror, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, is about the real world.

“It basically came out of the idea that we are racing headlong to build a society for comfort and not for resilience,” Brooks says. “And in order to have those comforts, we’re gutting all the safeguards that previous generations worked so hard to build for us.”

“We are racing headlong to build a society for comfort and not for resilience.”

After the global zombie apocalypse of his bestselling World War Z, Brooks now focuses his catastrophic lens on a microcosm of inevitable collapse. In Devolution, a small group of highly civilized individuals has created Greenloop, a perfectly fabricated environmentalist utopia in the woods of Washington state, in the shadow of Mount Rainier’s dormant volcano. When the mountain erupts, the community of Greenloop—now cut off from contact with the rest of the world—utterly breaks down.

Then a family of sasquatch drops in. And they’re hungry.

Greenloop goes to the very heart of our era’s technological hubris. Brooks describes the organization as the brainchild of Steve Jobs and Timothy Treadwell—the famous “Grizzly Man” who was mauled and eaten by a grizzly bear. “At the height of the Iraq War, I had an epiphany,” Brooks says. “Americans are dying, a whole country is going down in flames, the world order is collapsing. A couple of generations ago, our country’s best and brightest would be working on trying to solve that problem. And instead, we get a turtlenecked P.T. Barnum crowing about how the greatest new invention is the ability to watch ‘The Office’ on our cell phones.”

Brooks is effusive about what he has learned from his parents, Hollywood icons Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, who were part of the generation that confronted the existential threats of the early and mid-20th century, and who imparted to him their values. “The stories I grew up with were Great Depression and World War II stories,” Brooks says. “They were about people digging inside themselves, finding the grit and courage they didn’t know they had. Because they had to.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Devolution.


That noble American generation is a far cry from Devolution’s characters Tony and Yvette Durant, the charismatic leaders of Greenloop. The Durants epitomize what Brooks sees as our civilization’s delusional belief in technology’s capacity to save us. “You have this divorce of the intelligentsia from the real world,” he says. “The problem with a lot of the environmental movement is that it comes from urbanites who have no idea how the natural world actually works. They have their own version of it, reliant on a kind of technology that allows you to have it all, no sacrifice, no compromise. That is so American.”

The novel’s narrative is framed by a scientific researcher’s investigation into the mysterious occurrences at Greenloop, guided by entries from a found journal that belonged to one of its inhabitants, Kate Holland, and rounded out by interviews with witnesses of the site after the massacre. “I’ve always loved forensic horror,” Brooks says. “For me, the scariest moment of Aliens is when they get to the colony, even before they’re attacked. Devolution is a new version of the lost colony of Roanoke, Virginia. To me, that’s very terrifying.”

The oldest and youngest characters at Greenloop are Mostar, an elderly woman who survived the late 20th-century Balkan Wars, and Palomino, a girl adopted by her two mothers from a Bangladeshi orphanage. Mostar and Palomino seem to be the only characters prepared for the horror that arrives at Greenloop. Brooks agrees: “Exactly. They know how bad things can get, as opposed to everyone else who is living in a bubble and simply can’t believe it can get that bad.”

Kate’s husband, Dan, is an urban-bubble guy: no direction, addicted to the internet, a huge chip on his shoulder. Brooks admits that he grew up inside a similar version of that bubble in west Los Angeles, even with all his parents’ powerful stories from the past. “It took me a long time to find out what the world was really like,” he says. When he finally did, he was ready to imagine how easily the bubble could burst.

“It took me a long time to find out what the world was really like.”

Reading about Kate’s (d)evolution into a person who confronts the ravenous sasquatch on her own terms is so exciting, so devastating, so delightful, it doesn’t even matter if Bigfoot really exists. By the way, Brooks says, the jury is still out on that question.

“I’m just exorcising my own fears,” he says. “I’m scared of zombies, and I had a lot of questions. If there was a real zombie plague, how would it really go down? And if Sasquatch was real, how would it exist? I’m always just answering my own questions.”

Max Brooks pierces the illusion that technology can save us in his bold new novel of anthropological horror.

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!

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, […]

There are a handful of novelists from the past century whom I think of as sorcerers. Like Merlin of Arthurian fame, such authors (T.H. White, A.S. Byatt and others) find a way to inhabit vast stretches of time, accounting for everything that’s happened before and what’s to come, making past and future converge with vertiginous force onto the present moment. Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and both Shelleys, Blake and Byron all worked this time-dissolving magic as well, weaving into a single spell the opposite principles of ancient myth and modernity, city and countryside, nature and the supernatural, individual history and collective fate.

Still in his 30s, Max Porter has securely joined this order of poets and novelists with two short novels. In Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (2015), a widower with two little sons suffers the shattering visitation of Crow. There is no way around grief, Crow instructs; you must grind through it, all its bitter nonsense, derangement and chaos. Now, in Lanny, Porter turns this same screw of his imagination, offering the ultimate incarnation of nature and its pitiless sovereignty: a being who haunts the edges of a village, chronicling every word uttered in pub, house or street. It calls to the sweet, brilliant boy Lanny, drawing him into the woods, away from his parents’ home and from his kind old friend Mad Pete. The creature summons little Lanny to a doom we cannot know or understand, even after we’ve read this magnificent story.

This awful, awesome personage—this human-hungry thing—goes by many names, such as Dead Papa Toothwort, Pan, Oberon or the Green Man. Toothwort sings the ancient, recurrent Song of the Earth, rising above a chorus of perplexed and panicked human voices. Boy, mother, father, artist, the entire village—all must face the music. All are done for. 

Lanny is one of the most beautiful novels of the past decade.

There are a handful of novelists from the past century whom I think of as sorcerers. Like Merlin of Arthurian fame, such authors (T.H. White, A.S. Byatt and others) find a way to inhabit vast stretches of time, accounting for everything that’s happened before and what’s to come, making past and future converge with vertiginous […]

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