October TBR

I’ve spent the last two Octobers reading creepy books. The cooler weather makes it feel good to curl up under a blanket and read something scary.

There will be a couple non-scary reviews in October too. I’m behind with NetGalley reviews and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach comes out on the 3rd.

I’ve picked out seven for this month:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I read this back in February and have been sitting on the review. It’s not scary, but seems seasonally appropriate given how Frankenstein’s monster is a common Halloween costume.

 

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I’ve seen both movies—the Swedish original and the American remake—though it’s been a while. I don’t read many vampire books, but this one sounds good. Both movies had some excellent jump scares so I plan to read this with all the lights on.

 

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

I picked this up after the first season of True Detective, but haven’t read it. I tried the first story, but it was weirder and trippier than I thought it would be.

 

It by Stephen King

According to my Kindle, this book is 1,477 pages long. What a doorstop! I wouldn’t have put it on my October list if I hadn’t just finished it because I’m not sure I could fit seven reviews into the month if I had to read 1,000+ page books too. The book is more frightening than the movie; many of the most terrifying/disgusting scenes would be hard to put on film without looking campy/cheap. Still though, if you haven’t seen the new movie—you should.

 

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

The end of this book is strange so it’s been on my reread list since I read it last year. The religious mania in the book creates an uncomfortable, unsettling tone and there are TWO gothic mansions, not just one. That’s twice the fun.

 

Zero K by Don DeLillo

I wouldn’t call the overall story “horror,” but there was one chapter in the middle that made my blood turn cold. I had to set it down and walk away. Zero K taps into the whole fear-of-death thing, though not so obviously as White Noise. White Noise has a repeated refrain of “who will die first” every time the lead character looks at his wife that similarly got under my skin.

 

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

No ghosts, vampires, or werewolves here—just creepy ol’ Tom Ripley who kills his friend and takes over his life. Yikes.

For some recommendations in the meantime, here are links to reviews from previous years:

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Hell House by Richard Matheson

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Shutter Island by Dennis

Slade House by David Mitchell

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

And don’t forget the most terrifying, skin-crawling vampire book of all time: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. ūüėõ

Happy October!

 

 

Review: Slade House

slade-house_coverMuch of the praise I’ll heap on Slade House will sound as though it’s been lifted from my review of The Bone Clocks. The two books share a character, a general theme, and an impressive range of voices.

Back cover:
Down the road from a working-class pub, along a narrow brick alley, you just might find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find you can’t. Every nine years, the residents of Slade House extend an invitation to someone who’s different or lonely: a precocious teenager, a recently-divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside? For those who find out, it’s already too late…

At 238 pages split¬†across five sections, Slade House is¬†ideal creepy bedtime reading. Each section’s abrupt end is chased by a nine-year gap, so they’re the kind of cliffhangers that let you close the book to get some sleep (in theory). Each is narrated by a radically different voice: a 12-year-old boy, a retired cop, a student, and so on. As in all of Mitchell’s books, each voice is natural and convincing. He doesn’t just alter the tone of his writing to create a new voice; he tweaks phrasing, word choice, cultural references, and idiosyncrasies.

The type of monster in Slade House isn’t new, but Mitchell’s portrayal¬†is. Much of the suspense and many jump scares come from the way he subverts expectations of the haunted house genre. Visitors to haunted houses are typically presented with clues or tests that offer an escape or warning, but Slade House doesn’t offer these amenities. I was continually surprised by the cruelty and inevitability that frame each encounter. I don’t find haunted house stories particularly menacing because I tell myself that a) I wouldn’t go into that creepy house in the first place and b) I’d leave at the first indication of weirdness before the walls started bleeding, because c) I’m smarter than these people. But in Slade House, the tricks are nasty and hard to see coming. Being perceptive isn’t a guarantee of safety. Your best bet? If you see a small, black, iron door, don’t go in.

The only tedious¬†part is the villain’s backstory. It’s the only section in which the pacing slows and the weird jargon feels affected and disruptive. Until this point, I had been following the gist of the story even without knowledge of the minutiae and technicalities. I was okay with the level of mystery. Initially, I was excited to get some clear answers, before it veered into let me tell you the particulars of my evil plan, Mr. Bond territory. This is a fine line; I’m surprised Mitchell crossed it.

This paragraph contains a spoiler, but it’s something I knew before reading and it increased my enjoyment. The last section features a deus ex machina in the shape of a character from The Bone Clocks. If you’ve read The Bone Clocks, the instant you see the name (M) you’ll know what’s about to happen. If you haven’t, you’ll say, “Who is this and why are they able to fix things so easily?” Because I knew this going in and was braced for a “cheap” ending, it didn’t bother me even though I hadn’t yet read The Bone Clocks. (If you haven’t read either book, I’d recommend starting with Slade House; it’s a great tease and will give you patience for The Bone Clock’s long tangents.)

Overall: 4.7 Taut, scary, and a great set-up for The Bone Clocks even though just about everyone will tell you Slade House is meant to be read second. I hadn’t warmed to Mitchell before reading it and, if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have found The Bone Clocks half so satisfying.

Translation: Read it. Not by candlelight though.

Review: Hell House

hell_house_coverRichard Matheson’s Hell House popped up in my Amazon recommendations after I browsed horror classics for my October reading. I dropped the others on my list in its favor because Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is, well, legendary. What Dreams May Come is also decent (don’t quote me; I read it too long ago to fully recommend now). As for Hell House… not what I expected. It’s¬†suitably eerie, suspenseful, and intense, but it has a weird 1970’s pulp-porn component¬†with an uncomfortable level of sexual¬†violence and humiliation. It’s over the top in a way that verges on camp, but for something to be campy, it ought to be a little funny and this isn’t.

On to the good stuff. Like Hill House, Hell House features a scientific exploration into supernatural events. Dr. Barrett, along with his wife, Edith, and two mediums (one active, Florence; one repressed, Fischer) hopes to crack into and destroy the¬†vicious power which animates Hell House. The house sports an impressive list of paranormal activities and an intense body count. The windows have been bricked over, the power is sporadic, and it’s populated by a cruel force which smashes furniture and possesses people. Or is it? Dr. Barrett intends to prove that the house is a¬†maelstrom of energy which is only¬†responding to the presence of the two mediums. To him, there are no ghosts, the¬†violence is a product of Florence’s desire to prove herself as a medium and connect with an actual presence in the house.

It’s a great set up. There is a lot of supernatural…stuff, but the mystery of what’s fueling¬†the madness¬†is enough to keep the pages turning. Early on,¬†Matheson has some tongue-in-cheek awareness when the power goes out (because the power¬†has to go out):

“Obviously the generator is too old,” Barrett said.
“Generator?” Edith looked surprised again. “There’s no electrical service here?”
“There aren’t enough houses in the valley to make it worth the effort,” Barrett answered.
“How could they put in a telephone, then?”
“It’s a field telephone,” Barrett said. He looked into the house. “Well, Mr. Deutsch will have to provide us with a new generator, that’s all.”
“You think that’s the answer, do you?” Fischer sounded dubious. (31)

(I wouldn’t get my hopes up about¬†that generator.)

Soon after, a phonograph goes off randomly with Belasco’s voice (Belasco was the house’s former insane owner) welcoming them to his home. The phonograph distracts the group¬†long enough for Matheson to write this shiver-inducing¬†passage:

“Then, again, maybe [Belasco]¬†was invisible,” Fischer continued. “He claimed that power. Said that he could will the attention of a group of people to some particular object, and move among them unobserved.”
“I doubt that,” Barrett said.
“Do you?” Fischer’s smile was strange as he looked at the phonograph. “We all had our attention on that a few moments ago,” he said. “How do you know he didn’t walk right by us while we were listening?” (39)

As for how Belasco rotted the house so thoroughly, he encouraged people to follow their vices. It started with orgies, but moved on from there:

“Still, it wasn’t exclusively sex. The principle of excess was applied to every phase of life here. Dining became gluttony, drinking turned to drunkenness. Drug addiction mounted. And, as the physical spectrum of his guests was perverted, so, too, was their mental.”
[…]
“People stayed here months, then years. The house became their way of life. A way of life that grew a little more insane each day. Isolated from the contrast of normal society, the society in this house became the norm. Total self-indulgence became the norm. Debauchery became the norm. Brutality and carnage¬†soon became the norm.”¬†(58)

The house’s norm eventually included¬†necrophilia and cannibalism—betcha didn’t see that coming! Needless to say, a very ill force haunts the house.

Altogether, I’d say this is a great read. Matheson’s writing is clear and powerful. He leans on a few clich√©s, but does so in a¬†slightly self-aware way that prevents a reader from rolling their eyes too hard. The characters can be frustrating: Dr. Barrett is rigid in his belief that THERE ARE NO GHOSTS; Florence, the house’s plaything, is sweet and devout no matter what happens; Dr. Barrett’s wife is consistently devoted; and Fischer, who should be the most interesting, spends his time shrouding himself from the house’s influence. With Matheson’s flare for writing jump-scares and gore, the story feels like it can go anywhere; it’s not hemmed-in by a reader’s expectation¬†for a happy ending.

HOWEVER, some of the sexual violence is unsettling. Really disturbing. So whatever this blog’s equivalent of a “parental warning” is should be slapped across the front of this book. By the end, Matheson is driving for sacrilegious shock value, so if you’re squeamish or prudish, I can’t recommend this book.

Overall: 4.4 It’s made¬†unflinchingly intense with moments of ridiculous camp, but also with moments of sexual violence and humiliation that will cross a line for some readers. It’s the rest of the book that’s earning the 4.4 rating. If you take out the pulp-porn, this book is what I’d expected from The Haunting of Hill House.

Translation: Read it.