The Big Adios

Because we all go a little crazy sometimes… meditations on all things noir and hard-boiled.

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I wanted to take some time to appreciate some of the immensely talented indie authors you may not have heard of yet. The world of independent publishing has been a wonderful boon to writers, but getting their works out to the public can be a Sisyphean challenge for writers seeking an audience.

Doing my part to support other indie authors, here’s a short list of novels I’ve found that tickled my terror bone and left me with a sense of wonder at the largely unsung talents striving in the much-neglected world of indie authorship.  Read these wonderful writers and enjoy the shudders to follow.

 

HOUNDED: ELLIE DOUGLASS

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I don’t know what it is about dogs that can inspire such primal fear. I’ve been a dog lover my entire life and have a wonderful, lovable old Akita who is my constant companion. But still… there are moments when I realize that the loving pet in my home could rend me to pieces if the situation were different. Ellie Douglass has tapped into that primal fear and produced one of the scariest, goriest, all-out canine horror-fests I’ve ever encountered.

Douglass’ Hounded is a zombie novel, but unlike most, the zombies aren’t human. Something has turned the dogs of the world into slavering, ravenous zombies. The pandemic virus SB 16 has sent over two thirds of the global population into irreversible comas while turning the canine population into savage beasts. A small band of survivors try to fend of the hideous furry beasts, and then a stunning twist sends the novel spinning into a nightmare beyond the nightmare.

And a nightmare it is. Douglass rides that oh-so-fine line of balancing wonderful writing and fully-developed characters with fascinatingly intertwined backstories and grisly gore.  Those who poo-poo ultra-violent novels without giving them a fair chance should really discover Douglass. Her writing is fresh, vivid, and graphic. This is a novel for both gore-hounds (pun intended) and lovers of exquisitely crafted prose in horror fiction. I give my highest recommendation (even though I envy her for her talent in lending class and pathos to the splatter novel).

 

SECOND CHANCES: AARON D BRINKER

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I’m a huge fan of the thriller/horror genre, but the books I like best are the ones that ground the thrills and scares in psychological and ethical issues. Second Chances does just that. Chaun Hutchins is a man haunted by many things in life: a dysfunctional marriage, anxieties over becoming a father, and a fateful few words before a tragic accident that follow him through the novel like vengeful ghosts. There are ghosts in this novel, to be sure, but the most potent and horrifying haunting is the haunting of regret, resentment, and trauma.

This is a novel of quiet horror, horror for readers who enjoy having their minds played with by a talented author with a keen sense of suspense and pacing.  A stunning achievement for author Aaron Brinker.

THE CIMMERIANS: THERSA JACOBS

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Theresa Jacobs’ The Cimmerians is a wonderfully eerie novel that had me fighting the urge to look over my shoulder while reading. The opening poem that begins the novel is wickedly eerie and sets the tone for the ghosty and ghastly events that follow. I was taken by the central character, Emersyn, from the beginning as she attempts to leave her troubled New York Past behind and begin anew in a small Midwestern town. Unfortunately, she quickly discovers that the house she moved into was the scene of a suicide ten years prior. Rumors around town were that the young woman killed herself in a state of grief and shock after discovering a grisly scene at the home of her boyfriend. As Emersyn digs deeper into the mystery, she discovers hints of shadowy figures who may have been haunting the deceased. As she peels back the layers of the onion, she unwittingly releases an ancient evil and finds herself in a frantic fight for her life.

This novel has all of my favorite things: ghostly figures, a haunted house, a compelling mystery, and strong characters that I truly cared about. A wild ride through a landscape as surreal as the paintings of the main character, Crowley’s Cult twists and turns through multiple realities of horror, sacrifice, occultism, and erotic extremes. If you like a good shuddery tale well told, give this one a try.

CROWLEY”S CULT: ANDREA MERCHAK

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A wild ride through a landscape as surreal as the paintings of the main character, Crowley’s Cult twists and turns through multiple realities of horror, sacrifice, occultism, and erotic extremes. Renowned painter Zane Kelly is forced to flee with fiancee Olivia from a terrifyingly omnipresent stalker and winds up unwittingly involved in the resurrection of ancient and malignant forces. The novel’s breakneck pace took me on the wildest of rides through scenes of surreal mystery and depraved violence.

The occult themes in the novel are exquisitely portrayed, as Zane and Olivia descend ever deeper into a world turn upside down. Balancing the line between the truly perverted and the gorgeously poetic, Merchak’s writing reminds me very much of the young Clive Barker, who explored the Janus face of pain and pleasure like no other before. Crowley’s Cult has well earned a special place in the pantheon of erotic horror.

 

THE DEAD GAME: SUSANNE LEIST

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Susanne Leist’s The Dead Game offers a new take on an old horror trope.  The novel is set in a world of fascinating polarities represented by the idyllic-sounding Florida beach community ironically named Oasis and the aptly named End House. While very quickly in the novel, readers find that the hopes connoted by the name Oasis prove to be a shimmering mirage obscuring the hideous forces at work, End House couldn’t have a more apt name.

The town’s pristine beaches become stained by corpses that have a disturbing habit of washing up on shore. People disappear on the town’s dark streets. An abandoned haunted house looks down on the town, holding untold horrors within its walls. A plethora of vampires (a combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly) find themselves locked in a chilling game of strategy, vying for survival and control.

Leist combines so many fascinating elements of the horror genre in this novel that the end result is an all-out assault on the nerves: vampires, a haunted house, betrayal, romance amidst the paranormal chaos, a sleepy beach community that hides a terrible secret, creatures out of your worst nightmare.  Those are the ingredients for a cracking good horror tale, and Leist serves up a deliciously chilling and thrilling meal with this one.

Leist’s strong, intelligent female characters add much to this chilling breakout novel, and her wonderful attention to detail and uncanny description add much depth to the compelling narrative.  As I’ve said above, I’m a reader who is willing to follow authors damned near anywhere as long as they give me characters that I can believe in, who are well-developed and engaging.  Leist scores high marks on all points in this regard.  I took in this novel in one great gulp, not setting it down until the heart-stopping conclusion.

Read, if you dare, and enjoy the nightmares that follow! And please remember to write an Amazon or GoodReads review.

 

 

In a shameless act of self-promotion, here’s a sample chapter of my werewolf thriller Blood Moon Fever. In the novel, FBI agent David Goodwin isn’t having a good month. Sent on a manhunt after escaped felon ‘Hard Time Jake’ Griffon, he finds he has bitten off more than he can chew as he moves from the wooded Northern California wilderness to the mean streets of LA in pursuit of a man who has become something beyond human.

During Griffon’s bloody prison break, something happened in the woods of the Modoc Forest. Something inhuman. Something evil. Something terrifying.

Now, as the full moon prepares to rise over the City of Angels, Goodwin must piece together elements of a puzzle involving a fugitive on the run, a crooked lawyer, a violent drug cartel, and a string of bloody corpses left in the wake of an ancient terror now awake and hungry for fresh carnage.

Below is a sample chapter…

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Goodwin sped through the night, weaving in and out of traffic as Chiha gripped the dashboard tightly, his face expressionless.

“He will be gone before we get there.”

Goodwin kept his eyes on the road, scanning for gaps between the cars as he blew past.

“Probably good. Forgot my silver bullets, anyway.”

“That is part of your mythology. If you shoot him in the head or heart, he will die the same as you. The type of bullet is not important.”

“You can be killed like that?”

Chiha considered.

“It is not easy. On your own, he will kill you before you even get to fire. He is as intelligent as you, but faster and stronger than you can imagine. But even a pure blood can be killed if wounded badly enough. We heal faster and can survive wounds that could kill a man, but we are mortal.”

“So you can kill him?”

“Yes, as he can kill me. But neither of us will get the chance to kill the other if we cannot find him. In the forest, I can track him anywhere. In this city … it is more difficult. I cannot find him without you.”

Goodwin pulled a hard right from the far left lane, leaving the squeal of tires and angry honking of horns in his wake.

“We’re stuck with each other, then.”

“It would appear so.”

***

Goodwin pulled up sideways in front of the Sons of Leather. Police cars and two ambulances blocked the right lane. Officers were questioning bar patrons and keeping onlookers at bay in the flashing red lights. A large man dressed in a shirt emblazoned with the bar logo sat on the curb while a young paramedic tended to a gash on his head while a patrolman took notes.  Goodwin listened in as he approached.

“I wouldn’t believe me either, man. But you didn’t see his face. Ask anyone, man.” He swept his arm to the shell-shocked witnesses huddled in groups on the sidewalk. “He jumped backwards on the bar like a fuckin’ cougar, then jumped halfway across the fuckin’ room. An’ his face … it fuckin’ changed, man. There some new drug on the street? ‘Cause whatever it is, count me fuckin’ out.”

The paramedic and the cop exchanged glances.

“C’mon guy. You got a concussion.” He helped the bouncer to his feet. “We’ll get you checked out, okay?”

Goodwin looked at Chiha. The paramedic walked the bouncer to the ambulance and helped him inside. Goodwin walked over to the detective, holding up his ID card.

“Special Agent Goodwin. This was Jake Griffon?”

“We don’t know exactly. The description that was called in fits, but then we show up and we got wits giving us conflicting descriptions of his face. All we know is the guy was leaping around the bar like Superman, took out three guys, jumps on the bar, then hightails it out the back door. One in the morgue, two in the hospital. We got cars combing the area looking for him.”

“How long’s he been gone?”

“Maybe twenty minutes.”

“Shit. Clothes?”

The detective flipped back a few pages in his notebook.

“Jeans. Sweatshirt. Baseball cap. No one’s sure of the colors. You know how it goes.”

“Thanks.” Goodwin turned to leave.

“Sure. One other thing though.”

Goodwin turned back to him.

“People think he was on some new kind of drug. Not just because of how he moved, but because his face … shit, I don’t believe this myself.”

“What about his face?”

“They said his face was … rippling. That’s their word, not mine. Rippling like waves. Fuckin’ crazy, huh?”

Goodwin said nothing, grabbing Chiha by the arm and steering him towards the bar.

“He ran out the back about twenty minutes ago. The cops have a rough description and are looking for him. From what they told me about his movements and energy, he’s probably sprinted to the city limits by now.”

“No. He will be tired.”

“What?” Goodwin asked, pulling him to a stop.

“When he becomes angry or frightened, he has already begun to change. But after, he will be weak. He will feel sick almost to the point of death. He may be close by, hiding until his strength returns. If we find him soon, he will be easier to take.”

“That’s great, but if the cops get to him first, they won’t know what they’ve got.”

“Take me into this building where he was fighting.”

“Why?”

“I can track him.”

“This is the city. There won’t be any tracks to follow.”

“I don’t mean footprints.” The irises of his eyes grew slightly larger, and his nostrils flared.

“Fine,” Goodwin hissed and steered him towards the bar.

Inside, a forensics unit was busy searching for evidence, anything that would positively identify Griffon as the instigator of the violence earlier that night. The band’s equipment was still on stage, the instruments laying where they had been dropped in the panic that set in once Griffon, if in fact it was him, had let loose. Goodwin steered Chiha to the bar.

“According to the witnesses, he jumped up on here before fleeing out the back. Apparently, he’s not too…”

He trailed off, staring open-mouthed at Chiha, who lowered his head a few inches off the bar top. He took a long, slow breath in through his nose and held it. From the other side of the room, the forensics people stopped what they were doing to stare. Chiha exhaled and moved towards the back door.

“I know,” he said.

“Know what?”

Chiha didn’t acknowledge the question, moving purposefully to the door. Goodwin followed as he pushed open the door and walked into the dark alley behind the bar. Chiha paused, holding up one hand. Goodwin stopped, opened his mouth to repeat the question, then closed it. Chiha slowly rotated his head from right to left, bent at the knees, and squatted on his haunches.

“You know what?” Goodwin asked again, irritated.

Chiha stood to his full height and peered into the darkness at the east side of the alley.

“It was him. I know which way he went.”

The back door banged open and one of the forensic team stepped into the alley.

“Who the hell are you guys?”

Goodwin held up his ID.

The man looked at the ID, then to Goodwin, and finally to Chiha.

“I know you’re a fed, but that guy sure the hell isn’t. What’s he…”

“He’s with me. Get back inside and do your damn job. Every minute you waste asking dumb questions, Griffon gets farther away.”

The forensic man blustered, “Yeah, but he isn’t supposed to be in here.”

Goodwin strode up inside his personal space, jamming the ID under his nose.

“This tells you all you need to know. The Bureau’s running this one, and I don’t have time for lab geek bullshit. I said he’s with me. Now get the fuck back inside.”

The forensic man stammered and blushed, then retreated back into the bar, no doubt headed for one of the detectives.

“I hope you know the hell what you’re doing,” Goodwin said as Chiha walked off down the alley and into the night.

Thanks for reading. Blood Moon Fever is available as a paperback on amazon or on kindle. https://amzn.to/2CZNKuy

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I had originally conceived of this as a one-shot blog post about an underrated movement in horror films, but an unexpected deluge of reader requests prompted me to do a second installment.  Sticking with my original self-imposed limit of one film per director, here are four more wonderfully twisted and perversely beautiful mumblegore films for Halloween.

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Honeymoon

Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon is a film that creates a disquieting effect on viewers. It’s cinematically gorgeous and meticulously composed, while also a brutally taboo-crossing exercise in body horror and paranoia. Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway play Bea and Paul, a young couple embarking on their honeymoon in a remote woodland cabin.  Leslie and Treadaway manage to create fully-realized and engaging characters, and the quiet moments in their new relationship are charming. Like West’s The Inkeepers, Honeymoon takes its time setting its audience up for the horrors to come by presenting realistic characters who are flat out interesting to watch.  The beginning of their honeymoon is romantic, sometimes funny, and honestly sweet. I found myself so taken by their story that for a moment, I somewhat forgot I was watching a horror film, which speaks to Janiak’s talent as a filmmaker.

When things begin to go wrong, my guard was already mostly down.  Strange lights appear in the woods at night.  Bea and Paul have a Kafkaesque encounter with the owners of a local restaurant.  Bea begins sleepwalking, then suffers odd moments of functional memory loss and gradual changes to her personality. And things only get worse from there. There’s a moment of extreme body horror between Bea and Paul that I won’t give away, but I will say that I’ll never get that cinematic moment out of my head.

At its core, Honeymoon is a film about the quiet horror of discovering that the person you initially fell in love with may be more complicated that you originally saw through the eyes of new love.  It speaks to the dangers of idealization and the willful blindness with which many of us enter new relationships. That personal, quiet, relational horror is at the core of mumblegore films, and Honeymoon is one of the best.

 

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Baghead

Jay and Mark Duplass’ Baghead is one of the earliest mumblgore films, and to this day it has a polarizing effect on audiences.  Some find it a refreshing break from the conventions of studio horror, others claim it is a waste of celluloid—nothing more than a group of people with a camera and no idea what to do once it’s rolling. Clearly, I fall into the first category. For me this film was a breath of fresh air trying to find an audience in the wake of the big budget but largely soulless remake-heavy year of 2007 (Saw 4,The Hills Have Eyes 2, and Hostel 2).

Baghead is so much less about plot and special effects than it is about character. Four aspiring film actors/directors head off to a cabin in the woods to hole up and write a film that they can write, direct, and act in as a group. One of the group (mumblegore favorite Gretta Gerwig) has a nightmare about being menaced by a man with a paper bag over his face, which provides the seed of an idea that they try to write a script around. Unfortunately, the ideas don’t come. Then odd things begin to happen. The cars are vandalized. People begin seeing a bag-headed figure in the woods.  Is it all a prank? Is someone stalking them? We don’t know until the conclusion, but we also don’t care.  What’s really in the spotlight here are the secret (and not-so-secret) desires and insecurities of the characters.  Resentment and desire make for strange bedfellows, and that is what lies at the core of this micro-budget film.  This is a horror film for cinephiles everywhere.  Sometimes, as an artist, the most frightening thing isn’t a masked maniac with a bag over his head, but the realization that you are out of ideas, or even worse that you never had the good ideas to begin with.

 

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Silver Bullets

Joe Swanberg is a bit of an oddity on this list.  A Midwesterner who began making micro-budget mumblecore films in 2005, his strongest mumblegore credits come from his performances in You’re Next, A Horrible Way to Die, V/H/S, and The Sacrament. But his 2011 psychological thriller Silver Bullets is a classic of its kind.

Silver Bullets tells the emotionally claustrophobic story of a director named Ethan (Swanberg) whose girlfriend Claire (Kate Lynn Sheil) takes a role in a werewolf horror film directed by Ben, one of his competitors (played by mumblegore director Ti West). Ethan is perversely jealous of Claire’s involvement in the film and out of spite casts her best friend in his own highly sexual film.  Tensions and simmering jealousies fester and eventually erupt, and Claire begins having odd fantasies/hallucinations that mirror the plot of the werewolf film in which she’s acting.

What I like best about this film is how Swanberg takes the archetypal figure of the werewolf ( a figure often representing the barely submerged inner beast in us) and uses it to weave a tale of obsession, pathological narcissism, and psychotic possessivism. This is perhaps the most excruciatingly inward-looking horror film on my list. Watching it is like undergoing the most painful psychoanalysis. It’s not pleasant at the time, but in plumbing the depths of our collective neuroses, it offers the hope for growth and transcendence.

 

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Blue Ruin

It took much inner wrestling to come up with only one film from Jeremy Saulnier for this list. Green Room was astounding for its punk ethos and aesthetics as it told a gripping tale of a punk band who witnesses a crime at a Nazi club where they are billed. Hold the Dark, Saulnier’s latest film makes use of the themes of violence, revenge, and trauma common to his body of work, but adds a mythic quality to the gritty realities of his films. But ultimately, I decided on Blue Ruin, an earlier film that is lacking a single wrong note in its painful depiction of the old adage that resentment is like drinking poison and hoping that the other person dies.

Blue Ruin tells the story of Dwight (the wonderful Macon Blair), a homeless man who gets word that the man who murdered his parents when he was a child, is about to be released from prison. The news shakes him out of his isolated existence living in his car on the beach and prompts him to take revenge on the man who sent him spiraling into a life utterly ruled by untreated trauma.  What would, in other hands, be a conventional revenge-thriller, becomes something very different in Saulnier’s film.  There is violence, make no mistake about that.  But Saulnier goes far deeper in examining the prison-house of masculinity in our culture, the cyclic nature of violence, and the impossibility of exacting a satisfying revenge.  Plans unravel, assumptions pile up and blow back on characters, and the bonds of family that supposedly bind us end up imprisoning us unless somehow broken. This may well be the bleakest film I’ve seen that ends on the very real hope for redemption.

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Ever felt the horror of being in a social situation that suddenly took a turn for the worst? Felt uncomfortable by an off-color comment made in the assumption of like-minded thinking? Tried to be polite in the face of creepily insistent and unwanted attention? If so, then you may relate to the wonderful small films usually lumped under the genre category of mumblegore.

This is, to say the least, a challenging topic to tackle with any depth in a blog. To talk about the sub-sub genre mumbleGore requires an exploration of mumbleCore, the somewhat larger genre from which it was birthed. But trying to go in-depth about mumblecore filmmaking is to dive headfirst down the rabbit hole of guerilla film, low-budget auteur stylistics, post-mumblecore trajectories, and end up all the way back to the French New Wave.

Whew! Time to take a breath and skim over some things before getting down to the meat of the subject. Mumblecore, as many of you film junkies already know, refers to an overall attitude towards filmmaking that started with a group of young directors from the East Coast who emphasized dialogue and character over plot and action, eschewed detailed screenplays and storyboarding, and relied heavily on improvisation by largely non-professional actors. Naturalism was the main theme, with dialogue often overlapping and heavily conversational in a group setting. The fact that many directors usually included in the genre outright reject the term only stirs an already overbubbling pot.

Mumblegore (note the g), more specifically, refers to a handful of directors, many of whom come from the West Coast, who applied the basic elements of mumblecore films to horror and noir-ish themes.  The result has been a watershed of wonderful, creative, intelligent films that explore the darkness that surrounds us. What’s perhaps most refreshing to the horror genre is mumblegore’s insistence on respecting the intelligence of its audience. Think of it as art-horror without some of the pretensions. Whether dealing with small group gatherings or isolated individuals, mumblecore films give you the sense of being a fly on the wall at moments that are intimate, private, awkward, and downright terrifying.

A particular theme in the films also coalesce around awkward outsiders and highly awkward social situations. The horror of the personal sets the stage for the larger horrors (whether supernatural or psychotically human) that slowly take over the narrative. This is a genre for everyone who has ever felt not-quite a part-of, those who never had the feeling of fitting in, being smooth and articulate in all situations. In short, a genre to which all but the most narcissistic among us can relate. These films touch us in our most personal inner spaces, reach in and wrench us in a Kafkaesque sense of absurdity and quiet horror.

I’ve put tight restrictions on myself here, only picking four films from this genre that I hope you enjoy. I’ve also limited myself to one director only, otherwise this would turn into a Ti West/Adam Wingard lovefest. And those two marvelous directors deserve much love, so by all means check out their other films.  Here are four chillers that you will definitely thank me for watching.

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The Invitation

Karyn Kasuma’s film is perhaps the ultimate in West Coast “encounter moment” horror. A man gets a dinner invitation to his ex-wife’s stylishly modern California home and fatefully decides to come, bringing his new girlfriend with him.  To say anything more about the film would be a travesty, as the less you know, the better. All I will say is that Kasuma has an incredible talent for finding malevolence in the smallest of details… a glass of wine, a dropped phone call, a torturously endless confession in an awkward situation. This is the one film on my list where I say to go in blind, if you can. Skip the trailer, skip the reviews, and get right to the movie. And yes, I’m not going to go into spoiler territory here. Suffice it to say that this is by far the most amazing film about a supremely uncomfortably social situation I’ve ever seen.

But allow me to linger over the non-essential details.  Logan Marshall-Green’s performance as Will is simply spectacular. Playing a man tortured by a horribly tragic event in the past, he is every bit the man consumed by a grief he cannot escape. Emayatzy Corinealdi, playing his girlfriend, finds the perfect touch of incredulity and decisiveness as the horror plays out.  So much of the film’s deep structure of economics, race, and cultural division are so deftly touched on that they are almost invisible, ghostly reminders that haunt the privileged dinner party like … well, the unquiet dead hand of history.

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Cheap Thrills

E.L. Katz’s Cheap Trills is a visceral and cerebral trip through Hell, laced with subtle commentary on economics and the void separating the haves from the have-nots. The set-up is simple, but steeped in pathos.

Pat Healy plays Craig, a family man with a wife and toddler son who wakes from pleasant dreams to the living nightmare of his life. He’s so far behind on the rent that he finds an eviction notice taped to his front door, then arrives for work and is let go due to the downward spiraling economy.  Too ashamed to return home, he stops at a bar to drown the sense that his life is controlled by forces that he can’t even comprehend. There he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), and old high school friend whose life has taken a different turn. Vince is a leg-breaker for a local loan shark. The two old friends share a drink together, and Craig finally opens up about the secrets he’s been keeping. From that moment, everything goes straight to Hell and beyond.

The two characters represent opposite strains of masculinity in the early 21stcentury: the struggling (and failing) writer forced to do oil changes at a local garage, a living death of paycheck to paycheck that can’t even begin to support his family. Vince is a man of violence who forces those in debt to pay up with his fists, while his nameless boss takes most of the profits without getting his own hands dirty. Vince hides his intelligence and compassion behind a wall of violence; Craig hides his pride by keeping secrets, hoping for a miracle to pull him out of his crisis.

The miracle comes in the form of a wealthy couple (Sara Paxton and David Koechner) slumming it in the dive bar. They invite Craig and Vince over for a drink, and then the games begin.

And games they are. What starts out as a simple series of bets orchestrated by Koechner ($50 for whoever downs his shot first, $100 for whoever can get the woman at the bar to slap him in the face) soon turns darker, then completely black (think “how much money would it take to sever a part of your body with a meat cleaver?”).  Koechner and Paxton get their kicks from making wagers with the working poor to do dangerous, embarrassing, and increasingly humiliating things.  And as the wagers escalate in severity and financial payoff, Craig and Vince find out just how far they’ll go to crawl out of their financial holes.

The violence in the film is underscored by the subtextual friendship between Vince and Craig, but the most important relationship always comes back to money.  A wonderful allegory of the haves and the have-nots, on class warfare (the wealthy keeping the workers fighting amongst each other to shore up their economic structure of power), and ultimately on friendship and family. The film may be called Cheap Thrills, but the thrills come at a high price, indeed.

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You’re Next

Adam Wingard’s You’re Next is probably the best-known film on this list, having caused a major splash upon its release. The film took the festival circuit by storm and became a minor crossover hit, deservedly so.

Set in the isolated vacation mansion of a very large and very wealthy family, the film sets off as a “this is your life in Hell” version of a family reunion. Unspoken resentments and tensions simmer from the get-go and quickly boil over at a tense dinner scene that is interrupted by an explosion of violence from outsiders intent on killing everyone in the house. The group of assailants, all wearing odd and disturbing animal masks, seem to have no motive other than to kill for the sake of killing.

As chaos break out and panic rules the day in the house, secrets are slowly revealed to show how no one is really who they seem to be, and the ultimate threat is not from the outside, but from within.

In case you haven’t seen this one, I won’t reveal more. Suffice it to say that the twists in this story are original and well-structured. Wingard has a knack for underscoring the violence in his films with a quirky sense of humor that rides the line between torture-horror and black comedy without tipping fully one way or the other. This matches the film’s subtext of greed, privilege, and the arrogance of economic self-confidence, resulting in a gripping thriller with direct parallels to class and gender games in contemporary American culture. For God’s sake, watch this film if you haven’t seen it yet!

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The Innkeepers

 Ti West, another enfant terrible in the mumblegore ensamble, is best known for his wonderful 2009 House of the Devil. He followed that film with my personal favorite in his portfolio. The eerie, touching, and definitively quirky The Inkeepers.

A less-than-fashionable Boston hotel on the last day before closing for the season is the setting for one of the best ghost stories in years.  The hotel, now only housing two guests and staffed by two workers (Pat Healy and Sara Paxton of Cheap Thrills again), has a reputation of being haunted by the ghost of a 19thcentury bride who hung herself in one of the rooms after being jilted at the altar.  Legend has it that the owners hid her body in the basement to avoid scandal, and her spirit remains trapped in the building.  Paxton and Healy are amateur (very, very amateur) ghost hunters convinced that if they capture her ghost on video, their ghost hunting website will become famous.

Although the ghost story is marvelously (and terrifyingly) played out, what struck me most about the film were the honest, engrossing, and so deeply real performances by Healy and Paxton. Their relationship is complex and loaded with subtle shadings of their repressed feelings, self-doubts, and general sense of not having a place in the world around them. In fact, if this were a straight indie drama without the ghost story, I would have been equally engrossed.

But ghosts are more than just spirits of the dead. A ghost can also be a metaphor for something that is present when it should be (or is wished to be) absent. Memories, feelings, desires, and all of the things that make up that heady Freudian stew we call the unconscious have a way of returning when ignored or repressed.  It’s at that intersection of the real and metaphorical ghosts where this film shines. It also lingers in the mind, like a ghost itself, to haunt the viewer.

 

If you haven’t crossed the cinematic bridge to the weird, witty, and wonderful land of mumblegore films, do yourself a favor and check out these films and other similar spooky, emotionally-wrenching, and deliciously quirky horror gems.

 

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I’ve been meditating on the great paperback horror boom in the ’70s and ’80s lately, having just listened to Jim Moon’s wonderful run-down of Grady Hendrix’s new book Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. If you haven’t yet discovered Moon’s podcast Hypnogoria at http://hypnogoria.libsyn.com, do so immediately. Jim is a wonderful podcaster with a sense of humor that matches his encyclopedic knowledge of everything from folklore to 19thcentury Gothic novels to comics to film.

Listening to Hypnogoria podcasts always puts me in a nostalgic mood, and his discussion of Hendrix’s book got me pulling through my bookshelves searching for some of my favorite horror novels, books that I first discovered because of their glossy, wonderfully-conceived paperback covers. Setting aside some of the more famous titles, I selected a few lesser known novels (well-known to devoted horror readers, less so to dabblers in fright fiction).  These novels still have the power to stand up today in our world of internet connectivity, virtual reality, kindle readers, and hypertextuality. They harken back to the days when the musty smell of an old paperback could provoke the same nostalgic response as Proust’s madeleines.

So settle back in a comfy chair, put on your favorite nostalgic guilty-pleasure ’70s album (mine would be Al Stewart’s The Year of the Cat… yes, mock me if you will), and take a trip back to the golden age of the horror paperback.

Off Season -Jack Ketchum

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Jack Ketchum writes as though he somehow channeled the ghost of Ernest Hemingway by way of Jim Thompson while polishing off a fifth of Jack Daniels. His landmark (and highly controversial) novel Off Season caught me totally by surprise. I had heard Stephen King reference Ketchum in a speech and tracked down a paperback copy with qualified high hopes, but nothing could have prepared me for the stark horrors to follow.

This slender novel begins at a breakneck pace and never lets its foot off the throttle. From the opening, in which an up-and-coming book editor from the Big Apple enters an isolated cabin on the coast of Maine, waiting for family and friends to arrive, this novel pulls you in with the artful precision of a sniper. Before the bloody horror show begins, Ketchum draws sympathetic, finely-drawn characters with an economy of prose that is remarkable. And that only serves to make the atrocities to follow all the more devastating. When a feral family who has been prowling the rocky Maine coast for years invades, the violence and terror to follow are difficult to describe.

In Ketchum’s hands, the slaughter that occurs on the fateful night in this book reaches a level of art. And, yet again, it’s the quality of the prose, the assurance that as a reader, you are in the hands of a master–although perhaps a demented one– that keeps you turning page after blood soaked page. There isn’t an unnecessary word, a half-handed turn of phrase, or a single cliche in the book (hence the Hemingway similarity), and the extreme violence in the book is justified by the characters and their motivations.

This is not a novel for the faint of heart… or stomach. After reading one particularly grisly section, I knew I’d never be able to look at a fish hook the same way again. But Ketchum explores the heady question of what different people will do to survive with an acid wit. His novel slices like a scalpel through questions of what it truly means to be human, and to what length humans will go to survive given their respective environments. And besides that, it’s one hell of a horror novel.

The Hyde Effect -Steve Vance

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I have to admit… I like my werewolves on the traditional side.  I can enjoy a well-written werewolf-romance novel, and although I have found exceptions, I don’t particularly care for my werewolves to be heroic (although I have to tip my hat to Clive Barker and Nicholas Pekearo for creating superb heroic werewolves). I grew up in the shadow of the Lon Chaney Jr Wolfman, and I shall likely forever remain in that shadow. For me, the tragedy of the werewolf story is the helpless human who, due to a curse, is forced to change into a monstrous beast under the full moon, a beast who commits acts of savagery that are beyond unspeakable. Steve Vance has written one doozy of a novel in that vein.
Vance’s story, remarkably original for its time, is of a savage werewolf terrorizing a rural community outside of Los Angeles. In this sense, it is the perfect werewolf novel… horrific murders committed every full moon, a disbelieving police force, a determined, rag-tag group of people imaginative enough to see what is really happening, and the pandemonium that ensues once the monster is captured in human form and placed in lock-down to study. But the capture of the beast is undercut by the hubris of the scientists studying it, and to say that all hell breaks loose would be a remarkable understatement. It’s a grand epic, full of grisly details of lycanthropic mayhem and supernatural sleuthing.

Vance’ gift for narrative tension and power is considerable and more than makes up for dialogue that occasionally lapses into stilted exchanges. As much as I found myself staying up far later into the night that I had planned devouring the pages, I often found myself cringing at the awkward dialogue. But it is to Vance’s credit that I found myself not caring, captured by an old-fashioned werewolf novel of nostalgic power. This novel novel, quite simply, turned me into a kid again, feverishly reading pulpy neo-Gothic writing and finding myself scared silly, just as I was when I read the Marvel Comics “Werewolf by Night” series under the covers with a flashlight when I was 10. As a reader, I treasure such moments, moments that transport me back to the joys of childhood. And despite my previous grievances regarding Vance’s prose abilities, I truly thank him for that.

If you, like me, are a reader who grew up watching Hammer horror films and Vincent Price thrillers or read Manly Wade Wellman and R. Chetwynd-Hayes under the covers, you will likely enjoy this novel and forgive Vance for his faults. And you just might find yourself sleeping with the light on.

The Night Boat -Robert McCammon

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McCammon’s earlier fiction can be a bit hit and miss, but this novel is as gripping as anything he has written and shows the tight plotting and breakneck narrative pace that marked his later, more mature writing. This is a zombie novel of old… no fast-moving hoards of zombies in a post-apocalyptic world here. The undead of this novel are the zombies of old: staggering, shambling, and relentless. From the harrowing opening scene in which a Nazi U-boat sinks a ship in Caribbean waters through to the white-hot, page-turning conclusion, this novel begs to be read from cover to cover in one sitting.

Jumping to the present day, the sunken U-boat resurfaces and represents not only a return of the repressed in terms of the evils of Nazism, but a very real return of the undead U-boat crew, who set about devouring the island inhabitants with relentless abandon.

For readers like me, who grew up in the 1970s, this novel was a refreshing break from the end of the world zombie-plague novels being published today (not that I dislike those … Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and M.R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts are among my favorites … but there was a special, nostalgic flair in this book that warmed my heart). Set on a forgotten Caribbean island, the blend of an undead U-Boat crew, voodoo, and a claustrophobic sense of island isolation brought me back to the old days of exotic horror settings and the trope of the war dead who won’t stay dead.  Although I’m sure many would argue the point, this is my favorite of McCammon’s early books.

The Nightwalker -Thomas Tessier

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I’ve saved what may be my favorite for last. Tessier’s The Nightwalker is a classic of its kind. While most of the famous movie monsters had their start as 19th century novels (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), the werewolf was largely a pop-culture product of Hollywood. Although earlier werewolf novels existed (most notably Guy Endore’s Werewolf of Paris), there was never a truly classic werewolf novel until Tessier published this book.

And what, perhaps, makes this novel so unique was how Tessier altered the cinematic genre conventions to draw a starkly realist portrait of lycanthropy. By the year of this novel’s publication, the werewolf had been so overdone by Hollywood that nothing but cheaply made B-movies existed. Tessier reinvented the genre with The Nightwalker, creating a character who is simultaneously sympathetic and appalling.

Bobby Ives, a very troubled young man in London, has either fallen under a werewolf curse or is slowly and inexorably going psychotically insane. His shadowy movements through the seedy London underbelly are as gripping as they are bleak, and he is haunted by dreams of a past life in which he lived on a Caribbean plantation, haunted by a voodoo curse. These dream sequences, drenched in the humid summer nights of the Caribbean, are some of the high points of the novel.

The shockingly realistic violence of the book is underscored by the sense of tragedy in which Ives desperately reaches out for help from a professional… with horrifying results.  The novel’s horror is underscored by the pathos through which we witness Ives’s slow retrograde evolution into something between beast and human. Tessier’s novel stands today as perhaps, perhaps mind you, the best werewolf novel ever written.

Lord knows, I read many eBooks on my trusty iPad, but if you’ve never given in to the pleasure of holding a tattered copy of a paperback horror novel, felt the satisfying crispness of turning a paper page, or inhaled the intoxicating aroma of wood pulp and that odd hint of vanilla unique to the printed page, then give an old paperback a try. Trust me … you’ll thank me for it.

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What do you get when you cross a hard-boiled private eye story with a paranormal horror tale? Well, you certainly get me as one of your readers. Having just finished Stephen King’s latest paranormal mystery, The Outsider, I’ve found myself musing on the weird and wonderful world of occult private eye fiction.

The explosion of paranormal mysteries over the past fifteen years has created a literary boom for all readers looking for a tough-talking, hard-hitting private eye who finds him or herself battling forces far more sinister than the most wicked crime boss or earthly psychopath.

While the genre has been around for quite a long time (William Hope Hodgson’s occult detective Thomas Carnacki dates back to the early twentieth century, followed by Manly Wade Wellman’s John Thunstone and others), the formal blending of the existential hard-boiled PI and the otherworldly menace of occult fiction is a more recent trend.

Rather than scan the much larger genre of paranormal mysteries, I’ve selected a few of my favorite novels that have one foot planted in the gritty urban world of the smart but tough private eye – characters who shoot as fast from the lip as they do from the hip—and the dark and terrifying otherworld of the occult.

Falling Angel -William Hjortsberg

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I was a latecomer to Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel, Falling Angel, having only tracked down a novel in a used bookstore in Missoula, Montana many years after seeing Alan Parker’s 1987 film version, Angel Heart.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began reading, but was sucked in from the opening lines as Hjortsberg’s meticulous ear for dialogue and driving plot took me on a tour of the seedier side of New York as private eye Harry Angel found himself becoming more and more engrossed in his latest job: tracking down flash-in-the-pan singer Johnny Favorite for a mysterious client with a contract to enforce. No one in the novel, from the mysterious client Louis Cyphere to Johnny Favorite to Harry Angel himself is who he seems, and the conclusion is as devastating as it is satisfying. Tough, gritty, and utterly terrifying, Falling Angelwas a novel years ahead of its time, and remains my favorite occult mystery to this day.

Down Solo -Earl Javorsky

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Serendipity brought me to Earl Javorsky’s smart and quirky hard-boiled paranormal novel, Down Solo.  I ran into Javorsky, who lives in my neck of the woods, in a local coffee house. We got to talking mystery and horror novels and films and the craft of writing, and he was kind enough to lend me a copy of his first novel. I was unfamiliar with his work, but when I saw the blurbs on the back from best-selling heavies like T. Jefferson Parker and James Frey, I was more than intrigued.  What I found was a tight, smart hard-boiled novel with a wicked paranormal twist: Charlie Miner, a down-on-his-luck gumshoe with a nasty heroin habit finds himself embroiled in the ultimate existential mystery… his own murder.  From the opening lines in which Miner wakes in a morgue with a rather large bullet hole in his head, Down Solo grabbed my attention and turned my expectations upside down.  A wonderful blend of dark humor and classic detective work, the novel has Miner digging back through his latest, unsolved case while trying to figure out the new rules for living as the undead.  Fresh, funny, and full of double-crosses, red-herrings, and some wonderful banter, Down Solo is an acid-trip through the hard-boiled crime of the past and the paranormal horrors of today.

Every Dead Thing -John Connoly

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The first in Connolly’s series centering on former NYPD detective turned private investigator Charlie “Bird” Parker, Every Dead Thing remains my favorite. Parker, heavily on the skids following the ritualistic murder of his wife and daughter by a hideous serial killer named the Traveling Man, wrestles with his own guilt and devastating sense of loss as he struggles to make it as a PI in the Big Apple.  His latest case brings the haunted past fully into the present as he slowly becomes convinced that supernatural forces are at play and the Traveling Man is still up to his savage tricks.  Connolly’s prose balances hard-boiled banter with gorgeously poetic turns of phrase as the novel takes several mind-bending turns deeper and deeper into the terrifying occult. Ranging from the brutal mean streets of New York to the Gothic, deeply-haunted South, Every Dead Thing is as thoughtful and emotional as it is gripping.

Greywalker -Kat Richardson

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Kat Richardson’s tough-as-nails and witty PI Harper Blaine finds herself thrust into a world she never knew existed in Greywalker, the first in a terrific series featuring the character. Having technically died for two minutes after a beating from one of the suspects in a case, she is revived, but comes back with part of the land beyond life with her.  Now able to see things she wishes she couldn’t—odd shapes and creatures enshrouded in a creepy fog—Blaine at first resists accepting that her life has inexorably changed. Now a “Greywalker,” one who inhabits the liminal space between the world of the living and what lies beyond, Blaine slowly begins to learn how to use this terrifying new ability as her new cases take her deeper into the shadowy underworld inhabited by revenants who prey upon the living. Hard-hitting and at times truly unnerving, Greywalker is a breakout novel not to be missed.

So many great books in this genre, so little time.  These are only a few of my favorites, and I am well aware that I have left so many worthy others out of this blog.  What are some of your favorites? What have I overlooked?

 

 

Having been laid low for several days with a nasty case of the flu, I took the opportunity to get caught up on my shuddery reading, looking back on some standout novels from the past few years that delve into two tried and true figures of the horror genre: the vampire and the werewolf.   If you haven’t had the chance to check out these horrifying and literate chillers, do yourself a favor and dive in now.

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Enter, Night is a novel that I found to be both refreshing and nostalgic… no easy feat for an author. The novel is refreshing in its treatment of the vampire legend, one that eschews the more modern vampire romance/Byronic hero trope as well as the “tween-fiction” Twilighty approach. The vampires in this book are evil, vapid, soulless… and very thirsty.

It’s also nostalgic in its return to the great vampire heyday of the 1970’s, similar in many ways to King’s ‘salem’s Lot, but also The Night Stalker and the vampires of the great Marvel comics (in fact, one of the central characters is a young boy who eagerly awaits each new edition of a vampire comic at the local drugstore). Even the setting, an isolated town far up in remote Northern Ontario in 1972, adds to the nostalgic atmosphere of a simpler time before cell phones, the internet, and global communities.

As for the plot, recently-widowed Christina Parr and her teenage daughter Morgan return, with her exiled gay brother-in-law Jeremy, to the mining town of Parr’s Landing. Left penniless due to her husband’s death, Christina has no choice but to throw herself at the mercy of her stern and unforgiving mother-in-law, who is also the town matriarch. But another traveler is heading to Parr’s Landing– a psychotic killer drawn to the town by an ancient evil that lies buried, but not truly dead, deep within the abandoned mines. And when that evil is released, a vampire plague roars through the town like a wildfire, leaving only Christina, Morgan, Jeremy, and a resourceful young boy to stand in its way.

For me, what makes a horror novel stand out is in how it develops its characters, to what degree I believe in them and care about them… and Rowe excels here. The deeply sympathetic portraits of Christina, Morgan, and Jeremy Parr–and the emotional traumas they faced in the small-minded town of Parr’s Landing–would make for a compelling enough story alone. But how Rowe interweaves their own suffering into a much larger tale of an ancient evil lurking in the town’s history and under its very soil is page-turningly brilliant.

I also appreciated the way Rowe blended so much of the colonial history of Northern Canada into the tale, bringing the history of Jesuit missionaries, the myths of the Wendigo and Manitou, the very real horrors of Indian Boarding Schools, into a dark secret that stretches all the way to the Vatican… and works very nicely as a metaphor for the historical horror of European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere.

Smart, historical, nostalgic… and very damned scary. That makes for a winner in my opinion!

 

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And for another fresh twist on the vampire tale, Susanne Leist’s The Dead Game offers a new take on an old horror trope.  The novel is set in a world of fascinating polarities represented by the idyllic-sounding Florida beach community ironically named Oasis and the aptly named End House. While very quickly in the novel, readers find that the hopes connoted by the name Oasis prove to be a shimmering mirage obscuring the hideous forces at work, End House couldn’t have a more apt name.

The town’s pristine beaches become stained by corpses that have a disturbing habit of washing up on shore. People disappear on the town’s dark streets. An abandoned haunted house looks down on the town, holding untold horrors within its walls. A plethora of vampires (a combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly) find themselves locked in a chilling game of strategy, vying for survival and control.

Leist combines so many fascinating elements of the horror genre in this novel that the end result is an all-out assault on the nerves: vampires, a haunted house, betrayal, romance amidst the paranormal chaos, a sleepy beach community that hides a terrible secret, creatures out of your worst nightmare.  Those are the ingredients for a cracking good horror tale, and Leist serves up a deliciously chilling and thrilling meal with this one.

Leist’s strong, intelligent female characters add much to this chilling breakout novel, and her wonderful attention to detail and uncanny description add much depth to the compelling narrative.  As I’ve said above, I’m a reader who is willing to follow authors damned near anywhere as long as they give me characters that I can believe in, who are well-developed and engaging.  Leist scores high marks on all points in this regard.  I took in this novel in one great gulp, not setting it down until the heart-stopping conclusion.

Read, if you dare, and enjoy the nightmares that follow!

 

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I was about to write that if William Faulkner ever wrote a horror novel, it would be very similar to Those Across the River… then I remember that Faulkner did write horror novels, of sorts: Sanctuary certainly qualifies, as potentially does Absalom, Absalom. So perhaps easy, pretentious comparisons aren’t fair to Buehlman, who has written a Southern Gothic of tremendous quality and originality.

I really can’t convey how fully engaged I was while reading this book. Buehlman’s prose is exquisite, his character development astounding, and his ability to convey a perfect sense of time and place is to be envied.

The book’s narrator, a WWI veteran haunted by his experiences in the trenches, has inherited a plantation estate in rural Georgia in 1935. A former history professor who found himself unemployed and unemployable in his field for an adulterous affair with the wife of a colleague, Frank Nichols moves in with the idea of writing a history of his ancestor who owned the plantation, a murderous slave holder so vile that he refused to free his slaves after the Civil War and was killed by them in retaliation. But writing this history requires him to journey to the plantain ruins, located in a dark stretch of woods across the river… a journey he is advised not to take by the town folk who offer a monthly ritual sacrifice of livestock to whoever–or whatever–lives there.

I hemmed and hawed about whether to write about what lies across the river, as the book has no true twist, but rather gradually builds to the answer to the mystery, and the more well-versed in classic monster lore the reader is, the quicker she or he will figure out what lies in wait there.

Perhaps what most impressed me about this book is the vivid representation of a small Georgia town in the Great Depression, small details in characterization and landscape that bring the book whole and breathing to life. This is no simple pulp horror tale… it is a work of profound insight into the nature of trauma, the hold the land has on those who make their living off of it, and the power of history to haunt the present in powerful and tragic ways. And, above all, it is a story of duty and relationship. The final lines of this wonderful novel have haunted me more than any in recent memory. I just can’t recommend this book highly enough. For God’s sake, read it!

 

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Nicholas Pekearo’s The Wolfman stands alongside Thomas Tessier’s The Nightwalker and Christopher Buehlman’s Those Across the River as one of the finest werewolf novels ever penned.

The novel read like a strange mash-up of the hard-boiled detective fiction of Jim Thomson, the serial killer as avenger show Dexter, and the gritty back-woods Gothic of Joe R. Lansdale. It’s a mash-up straight from heaven… or from the fires of Hell, if you prefer. The novel’s narrator, aVietnam veteran with a troubled past, serves as a rather unique amateur private eye… for he also just happens to be a werewolf. Haunted by a family curse, Marlowe Higgins has drifted across the country for years, trying to reign in his monthly lycanthropic violence and limit the damage done to the innocent. He is a character haunted deeply by the grisly deeds in his past, determined to harm no innocent souls if he can manage, keeping as much to himself as he can. But then after landing a job at a diner in a small Tennessee town and finding a reasonable peace, he becomes embroiled in the horrific legacy left by a savage serial killer… the perfect target for his inner beast.

Higgins is a wonderfully drawn character, a man trying to live with an abominable curse as best he can in a world that would never believe in his malady. He is imperfect, deeply flawed in fact, but his heartbreaking history of suffering through the monthly transformations without hope for an end while he struggles desperately to kill only the worst, most predatory members of society is heartbreaking. In a genre far too often populated by cardboard cut-out characters, Higgins stands out as a character to be feared, pitied, and rooted for.

As a detective novel alone, the book sings loudly. It’s a breathtaking mystery with enough twists and turns to satisfy any mystery fan. And the full moon horror of the protagonist werewolf is counterbalanced by the atrocities committed of the man known only as The Rose Killer, a serial killer who intentionally preys on the weak and innocent. I just can’t praise the stunning virtuosity of Pekearo’s writing enough… and all I can say is buy this book and read it as soon as you can.

As a sad end note, author Pekearo was killed in the line of duty shortly before the book’s publication in his role as an NYPD Auxiliary Officer. The savage act of a real-life criminal monster cut short his life at so young an age. Who knows what more fine contributions Pekearo could have made to the horror genre if he had lived?

 

Pay tribute to these fine authors by paying for their books… you’ll thank me for the sleepless nights and chills up your spine.

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“While we scream and perish, History licks a finger and turns the page.”

-Thomas Ligotti

 

While the name Thomas Ligotti may be unfamiliar to the occasional dabbler in horror fiction, he is a legendary figure to readers and writers devoted to all things weird and worrisome.  Ligotti’s tales fall under the category of Weird Fiction, that specialized genre that combines elements of the outright horror story and the mythical realm of the occult and otherworldly.  Notoriously difficult to define, Weird Fiction usually combines a sense of aesthetics derived from realms of consciousness that stand outside of what Jonathan Letham termed “consensual reality.”  The artist in Lovercraft’s “Pickman’s Model,” and Clarke and Raymond in Machen’s The Great God Pan find that both artistic inspiration and scientific inquiry can open holes in the walls separating consensual reality and other realms of the occult and supernatural.

Flowering in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the tradition moved from the pulps closer to the mainstream though the works of Clive Barker, Angela Carter, and Stephen King before experiencing a revival in the new works of Kathe Koja and Adam Nevill, as well as the smash first-season hit of HBO’s True Detective.

But largely absent from mainstream readers’ discussions of the weird in literature and film is the name Thomas Ligotti.  Listed by numerous horror authors and screenwriters as a seminal figure in the development of horror fiction in general in the 1980s, he remains as much a figure of the shadows as the reclusive and isolated characters he created.

The connection between Mathew McConaughy’s character in True Detective and Ligotti’s pessimism and gorgeously worded horror tales brought a brief flame of interest to his writing a few years ago, introducing him to readers previously unfamiliar with his work. That flame of interest began to wane, sadly, after the frustratingly disappointing (and unrelated) second season of True Detective.  Ligotti is too influential a writer to let return to obscurity, so now let’s return to his landmark collection of weird tales, rituals, madness, and murder.

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I first discovered Ligotti in high school, coming across a copy his then recently published Songs of a Dead Dreamer one winter afternoon while haunting my local library.  Having already read my way through Lovecraft, Machen, and Algernon Blackwood, I thought I was prepared for what Ligotti had to offer.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Ligotti’s tales started off down familiar dark paths: unreliable (and unhinged) narrators, inexplicable events, dabbling in secret societies and arcane rituals.  But the contemporary settings and frequent turns to metafiction brought a new level of slowly-creeping dread along with brilliant mini-treatises on the history of horror literature and the art of the short story.

The stories “Vastarian” and “Les Fleurs” offer Lovecraftian dream journeys into terrifying realms of existence only discoverable to souls insane or curious enough to attempt lucid dream traveling, both ending in madness and murder. “Dreams of a Manikin” offers a fresh take on the uncanny, where dolls represent humans and humans represent dolls.   The anthropologist at the heart of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” finds himself setting off on an academic exercise only to be trapped in an archaeology of the mind as thorough and many-layered as sediments on a research dig. “The Frolic,” which opens the collection, presents one of the most chilling and disturbing serial killer story I’ve ever read, blending the vicious and perverse crimes of a killer of children with a poetic, opium-dream language that I couldn’t shake off.  For Ligotti, it’s not the gory details that make for horror, but the blend of the poetic and esoteric language and nasty subject matter that produce the kind of creeping horror that gets under the skin and stay there.

In all of these stories, Ligotti takes the nightmare landscape of nightmare worlds and turns them inward, representing a dark and terrifying inner landscape of the self. But my favorite story in the lot is the stunning “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story.”

What begins as what seem to be notes by a horror author on how to approach a horror story from different perspectives (the realist, the Gothic, and the experimental) is like a master class on the craft of writing. The narrator brings the reader through the application of each approach on a single idea: a man preparing for a first date buys an exquisite pair of pants that, unknown to him, were last worn by a man who died in them.      As he leaves for his date, his car breaks down in a nasty neighborhood and he finds that not only can he no longer move his legs, but that his legs are, in fact, rotting away beneath the pants.

Each approach brings out different aspects of the story, the multi-layered symbolism of the pants, a wristwatch, and an overcoat; the eccentricities of the main character, who becomes more or less sympathetic under different treatment; the body horror and  psychological violence; the doubling and redoubling of identities.  At the conclusion, readers discover that this has been much more than an academic exercise, as the narrative voice shifts fully into the world of the waking nightmare.

Reading (and rereading) the story taught me much of the art of writing an effective horror story, and also provided a blood-chilling story in its own.  Read it and learn… and try not to have nightmares after.

 

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I have to admit,I’m a sucker for a good ghost story.  Ever since stumbling across a tattered paperback copy of Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings one summer in my youth, I’ve been hooked on all things ghostly.  Give me an isolated location, some restless and malevolent spirits, and a dash of grief and guilt, and call me a happy reader.  That said, April A. Taylor’s The Haunting of Cabin Green sucked me in from the first page.

Opening with a near-accident on a fog enshrouded road in the woods, the novel moves from the literal landscape fog to plumb the depths of the metaphorical fog of memory, history, and grief. What impressed me with this novel is both its attention to Gothic atmosphere and its examination of grief, loss, and depression.

I enjoyed the non-linear narrative, the way Taylor sutures events from the past with the ongoing story of Ben, the central character, as he visits a remote cabin in the woods hoping to find time to reflect on the death of his fiancee. But, as with all great Gothic tales, that inward turn to self examination leads to a slow invasion of the paranormal into the “real” world.

And the “real” world isn’t so real after all.  I won’t reveal the twist that occur over the course of the novel, but suffice to say that once lulled into complacency by the standard Gothic trappings of the opening, Taylor pulls the rug out from under her readers as reality becomes more of an illusion mutually agreed upon rather than an objective fact. As the sense of claustrophobia steadily increases to an almost unbearable degree, the seemingly random temporal digressions begin to point to a well-structured and integrated climax.

I read this book in one sitting, staying up late into the dark night and frequently pausing to listen for sounds in my home and fighting the urge to turn on all the lights. If you’re a fan of ghost novels like Matheson’s  Hell House, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Simmons’ A Winter Haunting,  or Siddon’s The House Next Door you will love this one!

Horror films always rely on manipulation of the senses. As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.”  And the keys of that cinematic piano often revolve around the senses.

Who could forget the infamously slow eyeball impalement in Fulci’s Zombi, the ear-jarring screeches of Hitchcock’s The Birds, or the ghostly clapping hands in Wan’s The Conjuring?

While horror films rely on both tactile body horror and the psychological terror of the mind, a few films work the manipulation of the five senses into the themes of the films themselves. Here is a brief list of some of the “sense horror” standouts and the senses they manipulate:

SIGHT:

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Terence Young’s 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark is a masterful film that not only highlights the terror of a young blind woman being tormented by a psychotic killer and two crooked cops, but places the audience in her position by staging the terrifying climax in her darkened apartment. Trapped inside by the evil Harry Roat Jr. (a chilling performance by Alan Arkin), she breaks every light in the place, trying to put them on even terms.  The chilling moments of darkness throw audience members into a very dark place, indeed.  Young also plays brilliantly upon two forms of blindness: physical blindness and cognitive blindness stemming from assumptions and misapprehensions of character and ability.

 

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2016’s Don’t Breathe puts a new spin on Wait Until Dark by reversing gears mid-movie, with the would-be home invaders becoming the hunted as their mark, an aging blind recluse, emerges as a very capable and hideously monstrous villain with a dark secret locked away in his basement. Director Fede Alvarez plays masterfully with audience identification with protagonist and antagonist, leaving viewers lost in the dark as to who, if any, of the characters they could identify with.

 

 

SOUND:

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This year’s standout thriller A Quiet Place plays heavily on sound, not just for effect, but as an integral component of the story.  In a world that has been invaded by an unknown and likely extraterrestrial hoard of creatures who hunt solely by sound, silence is not only preferred; it is the only means of survival.  The opening ten minutes of the film are eerily devoid of sound, resulting in a slow build of tension and dread that finally explode when the first noise shatters the silence.  Actor/director John Krasinski transforms the much-used conceit of using a scene of silence to place the audience firmly on the edge of their seats before a jump scare into a template for the entire film.  Unnerving and often poignant, the resulting film is both eccentric and terrifying.

 

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Hush, a 2016 independent film that premiered at the SXSW Film Conference before being picked up by Netfilx, uses a similar restriction and manipulation of sound in its tale of a young woman who can neither hear nor speak who is terrorized by a masked stalker in her secluded home.  Director Mike Flannagan makes great use of ambient sound and striking visuals, especially when the stalker realizes that he doesn’t need to hide from his intended victim.  His assumptions about what he perceives as her disability ultimately lead to his downfall, as Kate Flanagan’s character proves to be anything but helpless.

 

 

SMELL:

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2016 was a great year for smaller, offbeat horror films, to which Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts stands as testimony.  A fascinating and subversive twist on the zombie story, the film is set in the British countryside after a bizarre strain of pathogenising fungal infection has turned most of the world’s population into ravaging cannibal crazies.  The twist is that the fungal infection crosses the placental barrier, and has resulted in a second generation of “hungries.”  Several of the children are kept in a secure (or, as it turns out, not-so-secure) military facility, where they become test subjects for a possible cure.  The children are capable of rational behavior unless they smell the human scent, which is masked by the soldiers and researchers with a chemical perfume.  Upon detecting the true human scent, they dissolve into rabid cannibals.  With smart commentary on evolution, ethics in medical research, and the militarized policing of refugee populations, The Girl is both smart and scary.

 

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And on the subject of scent and perfume, 2006’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer take the obsession with scent to a new level of horror and revulsion.  Set in 18thcentury France, the film concerns the life and crimes of an odd and disturbing man named Grenouille.  Born and instantly abandoned among the filthy fish stalls in the equally filthy and stinking city of Paris, Greouille grows up in an orphanage before realizing that one of his monstrous qualities is that he has a superhuman sense of smell.  This discovery leads him into apprenticeship among the perfumers of the city, where he becomes obsessed with procuring and possessing the ultimate human scent … a distillation that requires murder to complete.  Along the way, he realizes that while possessing the finest sense of smell in the world, he himself has no natural odor.  This witty twist on the Cartesian dictum, I think; therefore I am (I smell; therefore I am, for Grenouille) precipitates an ontological crisis that turns him into a serial killer as he goes to further and further extremes to extract the scent of humanity from his victims.  Based on Patrick Susskind’s international best-seller, this is a very overlooked gem.

 

TASTE:

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Yet another entry from the great year of 2016 deals squarely with taste, and the attendant associations with cravings, physical desires, and transformation was the international hit RawRaw is not your typical cannibal-gross out film.  While shocking and revolting, the film has an intelligence and philosophical dimension that lifts it to a lofty position.  The story of a young veterinary student who is a vegetarian turns into a hazing-gone very wrong parable as she is forced to eat raw meat at school, eventually releasing a craving for animal –and ultimately human—flesh.  Horrifying, oddly beautiful, erotic, and disturbing, Raw made many “Best of” lists for horror films that year.

 

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Antonia Bird’s 1999 horror/suspense film Ravenous is similar to Raw, this time moving the setting to the mid-19thcentury Sierra Nevadas.  A film that draws on the 19thcentury histories of the Donner Party and of cannibal prospector Alferd  (no, NOT Alfred) Packer, the legend of the Windigo, and sly comparisons of cannibalism and U.S. Imperialism, Ravenous is a blackly comic horror film involving an outbreak of mystical cannibalism in a remote Federal outpost in the high Sierras.  The film’s tagline: You Are Who You Eat, sets the tone for a smart, violent, and irresistibly humorous critique of the Frontier Myth in the U.S. cultural imaginary. A cast that includes Guy Pierce, Neil McDonough, Robert Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones, and David Arquette brings considerable talent to this often overlooked and quite savagely funny film.

 

TOUCH:

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Clark Gregg’s 2008 very black comedy Choke may not technically be a horror film, but there is certainly enough trauma, hopelessness, and alienation to qualify it for this list.  Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Choke tells the story of a deeply alienated sex addict who cons people into giving him money by pretending to choke in restaurants and allowing them to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him.  After believing they saved his life, he tells them of his dire financial situation caused by the need to pay for his deathly ill mother’s medical bills.  As he drifts into a relationship with another sex addict pretending she is someone else, the moments of physical contact when being given the Heimlich become the only true moments of physical contact for him, substituting hugs and touches of affection.  Weaving addiction, impotence, and the illusions of identity into a strange and provocative film, Gregg turns Choke into a bizarre film worth watching.

 

 

And for a second entry in this category, I leave it to you.  What horror films can you think of that work touch (or its absence) into their themes? Which of your favorites have I overlooked?