The Big Adios

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

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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