Friday, February 29, 2008

Dark Fantasy, Thriller, and Horror Novel Reviews

by Gary A. Braunbeck

People send books to me all the time, be it for review, as a gift, or to read for award consideration, and while I am always happy to receive the gift of the written word, my schedule (both writing and work-related) is such that I end every year in the red, reading-wise; I rarely have the chance to read every book that comes my way throughout the previous 11 months. But that's okay; I feel a little bit like that character from Chet Willimason's wonderful novella "The House of Fear" who believes that, as long as he goes to bed every night without having finished the book he's currently reading, he won't die in his sleep, because the unread pages of the book will protect him.

So, without further ado, here are some short reviews of novels I've enjoyed lately.

The Pressure of Darkness by Harry Shannon: Not only is this a first-rate thriller, a first-rate mystery, and a first-rate action-adventure, it is, hands-down, the best horror novel Shannon has yet written. One of the things I've come to admire about Harry Shannon's work is that it's among the most muscular and unpretentious being written in any field, and Shannon heartily embraces Gary's Golden Rule of Writing Good Fiction: Forget Genre. Shannon will use any element necessary in order to tell his story the way the story demands to be told, so it's no surprise that The Pressure of Darkness blurs nearly every genre line you can name. At a hefty 440 pages, it reads like a book half that length.

Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry: Everything you've heard about this impressive first novel is true; it's haunting, lyrical (God, is it lyrical), suspenseful and scary (the two are not the same thing), and, most of all, deeply humane in the depiction of its characters. This is the first book in a trilogy from Maberry, and I for one can't see the release of the second book soon enough. The atmosphere throughout this wonderful novel (which can hold its own alongside the Silver John tales of Manly Wade Wellman) is so rich and textured you can almost feel it with your fingertips.

The Nightmare Frontier by Stephen Mark Rainey: Hurt my widdle bwain trying to figure out something better to say about this novel than I said in my blurb for it and failed miserably, so I'll just repeat myself: "Remember what it was like to read a horror novel that actually made you sweat with dread and your hand shake ever-so-slightly as you turned the page? Remember what it was like to feel your heart thud against your chest as the plight of the characters became your own? Remember what it was like to have a story cast a spell over you rather than ram everything down your throat? If so, you've reason to rejoice; if not, then you need to discover what that's like. In either case, Mark Rainey's The Nightmare Frontier delivers the goods. This is the Good, Real Stuff. From its powerful opening in the jungles of Vietnam to its nerve-wracking finale, this novel never releases its grip on the reader's nerves, brains, and heart." Rainey is Old-School (Like Huigh Cave and Robert Bloch, thank God) and nowhere is his craft more refined than this novel. Get it, get it now.

Bloodstone by Nate Kenyon: Kenyon's debut novel has been compared (not without justification) to the early works of Stephen King, in that it deals with a malevolent force that all but consumes a small town populated with the usual array of small-town characters; think It but on a smaller and more intensely-focused scale. The one quibble I have with this novel is that -- unlike many debut horror novels -- it actually needed to be a bit longer. There are times when Kenyon seems to packing a little too much into his 354-page narrative, but his writing style is so clean, his confidence in his story so strong, and his overall narrative arc so compelling, that in the end, my quibble is actually a compliment: it's better to leave the reader wanting more than to leave the reader feeling his or her time has been wasted. Your time will most definitely not be wasted with Kenyon's excellent debut.

The Keeper by Sarah Langan: Horror as social commentary the way it ought to be done, with the agenda hidden in the background and illustrated by the actions of the characters rather than in long-winded didactic speeches. While I felt that the overall story arc wasn't as strong as it could have been, Langan's exquisite prose more than makes up for any perceived shortcomings in its plotting. Along with Mayberry's Ghost Road Blues, this novel overflows with prose so effortlessly lyrical there are passages where the words threaten to shimmer right off the page. Langan also understands that, in the end, it's the cumulative effect of building terror that remains with the reader, rather than the quick shock; she also knows the difference between genuine human tragedy and the merely tragic, and her fine debut packs quite an emotional punch because of it.

Forever Will You Suffer by Gary Frank: Even if I hadn't found Frank's central character immensely likable, even if I hadn't found the story gripping, and even if I hadn't found his writing style strong and assured throughout, I would still put this book on the list because Frank pulls off a remarkable balancing act with this novel; he combines dread, tragedy, pathos, and fall-on-the-floor-laughing humor so well that you not only don't know where this story is going to go from one chapter to the next, you often can't predict where it's going to go within a single scene. The book switches gears so fast you sometimes feel like you're in the last 3 laps of the Indy 500, but never once does it hit any bumps. I admired the hell out of that; that the rest of the book had me laughing, holding my breath, and even fighting a lump in the throat once or twice (something that's not easy to do to me), was just the trophy at the end of the race (to play out the less-than-subtle racing metaphor).

Again by Sharon Cullars: If you're one of these folks who have avoided reading so-called "Paranormal Romance" novels because you think all they are is bodice-rippers with ghosts, no single book could more prove you wrong than Cullars's luminous, eloquent debut novel. Reading like a collaboration between Toni Morrison and Jack Finney, Again announces the arrival of a fresh, distinct voice, telling a story that is romantic, sensual (in the dictionary sense of the word), frightening, genuinely erotic, heartbreaking and, ultimately, life-affirming, with a final line that is pitch-perfect -- as is the rest of this lovely, heartfelt, deeply affecting novel.

Eyes Everywhere by Matthew Warner: Yes, I have a certain bias when it comes to this novel, I'll admit it -- but consider: if I had not thought so highly of this dazzling psychological horror story and its unflinching depiction of an Everyman's rapid and tragic descent into paranoid schizophrenia, I wouldn't have agreed to write the Aftwerword for it, would I? Light-years beyond Warner's debut novel, The Organ Donor in both plotting and execution (i.e. the quality of both the macro- and microwriting) -- and I say this as one who thoroughly enjoyed The Organ Donor.

Headstone City and The Dead Letters by Tom Piccirilli: Yeah, two superb novels in the same year. I considered not including either one because I have now decided that I hate Piccirilli -- no one should be this consistently excellent. I then realized that he's much bigger than I am, knows where I live, and could tie knots in my spine without breaking a sweat; so, here they are. Not only is each novel a fine reading experience in its own right, but if you read them in the order they were published (which is the same order in which they are listed here), you'll note the further evolution of Piccirilli as a story-teller; while both novels contain supernatural elements, those elements become increasingly downplayed as you move from one novel to the next; to the point where, in The Dead Letters, they're peripheral in the story yet essential to it. Piccirilli has been reaching the height of his power for the last few years; with these two stunning novels, he's even closer to the summit. The world will shake when he gets there, so hang on.

Lisey's Story by Stephen King: Like Bag of Bones (to which this novel serves as the companion piece), Hearts in Atlantis, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and From A Buick 8, King's Constant Readers are divided about this one; I have no such quibbles. When King puts his heart and soul into something, he can be devastating, and Lisey's Story is one of the most unflinching explorations of grief, love, and unachieved potential you'll ever read. The "secret language" of marriage that is grappled with throughout this book has made more than a few readers grit their teeth, if not abandon the book altogether. Their loss. This is, in my opinion, King's finest achievemnt as a novelist, genre be damned.

Pandora Drive by Tim Waggoner: Though much less serious in its intent and execution than Waggoner's previous Leisure novel, Like Death, Pandora Drive is nonetheless further proof that Waggoner, intentionally or not, has picked up at the torch where Clive Barker placed it before he took a left turn into fantasy. Often wildly over-the-top (especially in an exhilarating, funny, shocking, and endlessly creative 115-page set piece right smack in the middle of the book) but never succumbing to the outright ridiculous, Waggoner's second Leisure novel is marred only by a less-than-satisfying conclusion, but not so much that it taints the rest of the story that has come before. If you go into this expecting a serious and terrifying horror novel, you won't make to the halfway point; if you go in knowing that Waggoner has turned the surreal comedy dial all the way to 11, then you're in for one hell of a ride. Just don't be eating anything once you hit the midway point.

The Conqueror Worms by Brian Keene: Good old-fashioned, gross-out, breakneck-paced, gross-out, fun, gross-out, pulp horror, period, delivered by the writer who's arguably revitalized the extreme horror sub-genre. You'll think twice about what you use for bait when fishing season comes around. Did I mention gross-out?

Breeding Ground by Sarah Pinborough: Following on the heels of her wonderful debut The Hidden and its follow-up, The Reckoning, Sarah Pinborough has fast become my favorite new horror writer. Now, more than ever, I am convinced that Pinborough was not born, but rather created in a lab by some literary-minded scientist who decided to combine the DNA of Jane Austen, Shirley Jackson, and Angela Carter. Breeding Ground contains the same eloquent, richly dense prose as The Hidden while building upon the flair Pinborough displayed for the dreadful and shocking with The Reckoning. Imagine Rosemary's Baby as a 3-way collaboration between the hosts of Pinborough's DNA and you'll have some small idea of the scope and subject of this terrific, often electrifying novel.