Hi! My name is The Book Omnivore and I am a few months late to the Cannonball Read party. I hope that’s ok. I’ve participated in CR a couple of times before but I always hesitate to join because some years I read loads of books and other years my brain refuses to read anything more complicated than the instructions for how you make tea, and I never know what kind of year it’s going to be. But having already read 27 books by May tells me this might be a good year – so I’m jumping onboard, even if a little late!
Anyway, I will be reviewing the books I’ve already read this year before I start on any new reviews, so I tried to divide them into categories. Now, if you asked me if I am a horror fan, I would have said that I like it, yet I’m not drawn to it more than to any other genre. But the numbers don’t lie! 9 of the 27 books I’ve read so far this year are horror. Maybe I am a horror fan. I certainly enjoy it!
A head full of ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Merry is an 8-year old girl living with her big sister Marjorie (14) and her parents. Marjorie is her idol and they have a lovely relationship. Until Marjorie’s mental health takes a turn for the worse. Their father suspects that a demon has possessed Marjorie and brings in a priest to perform an exorcism and, while he’s at it, a tv crew to document the exorcism and give them the money the family so desperately needs.
I enjoyed this book very much because it played around with the tropes of possession stories and provided a meta-commentary on what was happening. It was a heartbreaking story because we witnessed everything through the eyes of an 8-year old who loves her sister and has to watch her unravel. The parents are not just passive observers but through their actions (and inaction) let this happen. I could feel the trauma inflicted to Merry and Marjorie in my very core. Unlike other reviewers, I found Merry’s 8-year old voice to be authentic, and this was probably what made it so soul-crushing for me. ****
The elementals by Michael McDowell
Apparently a classic in horror literature, this book describes a summer in the lives of two families who are united by the bonds of both friendship and marriage. When the matriarch in one of the families dies, the rest gather at Beldame, a collection of 3 houses situated in the coast of Alabama, at the end of a long sand strip. Each family owns a house there, and the third one belongs to…nobody? It’s been standing empty for decades and is slowly being covered in sand.
The genius of this novel is not just the beautiful descriptions and language. It is the environment itself, that introduced me to the subgenre “Southern gothic”. Isolated from the world during high tide, mercilessly scorched by the sun, seemingly standing on the edge of the world with the ocean at their feet, the houses appear small and insignificant, a last stand against something greater. The families don’t grieve for the matriarch, who was by all accounts a not-very-well-liked person, but they spend their days idly lying in the sun or around the house doing nothing. The third house is not to be ignored, however. Its presence seems to be calling to the younger of the residents, India, and she soon makes the discovery that all is not as it seems.
To say more about the plot would be spoiling it. Some very important, heavy topics are at the heart of this book, hidden under the surface. Despite the humour in the dialogues, there is a persistent feeling of melancholy that permeates the book. I loved it. ****
Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix
This was a fun ride. Amy is an employee at ORSK, which is “inspired” by Scandinavia and IKEA (but cheaper). Struggling to make ends meet, she agrees to take an overnight shift together with her manager and another employee to investigate some strange going-ons in the store after closing time. Soon, what initially seems like a prank reveals itself as something much darker and old, very old.
I really like Grady Hendrix. He manages to create creepy worlds but still write fun dialogues that make you laugh out loud. His Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is perhaps my favourite book of his, but this is a close second. His description of the superstore after dark is so detailed that it feels like you’re there (unfortunately for you, because it is a very scary place). When bad things happen, you feel as if they’re happening to you, and in such a claustrophobic environment it chokes you. We care about the people in Horrorstör, even though they are flawed or maybe exactly because of it – they are human, they make mistakes but in the end their good side prevails. In the end, what this book is about is that the weird and scary are always there, even in broad daylight (if you’re like me, the prospect of a visit to IKEA is enough to make you hide under the covers. What can I say. I don’t like crowds). Grady Hendrix is somewhat of a connoisseur of horror and it shows in his books. More Grady Hendrix please. ****
Later by Stephen King (audiobook)
Oh Stephen. We used to have such a good time. Remember The Stand? Or Stand by me? Or IT? What happened?
The good thing about Later was that it was short. It also starts off in a good way, with the protagonist’s voice reminding me of the kids in older Stephen King books. The narrator for the audiobook was also very good.
Then something happened. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it was that the story had been done before. Maybe it felt formulaic. Maybe it’s this persistent feeling I’ve had about Stephen King the last, oh, 10-20 years? that he’s mass-producing books and his heart is not in it anymore. Maybe I am judging this book too harshly, comparing it to King’s early work. But it just failed to grab my attention. I also thought it was as if King couldn’t decide what kind of book this would be. Obviously he’s the master of horror, but Later felt less like horror and more like a detective story with some paranormal elements. Not my cup of tea. **
The Sun Down motel by Simone St. James
It’s the 80s, and Viv Delaney leaves home to make her way to New York and become an actress. On the way there, she somehow gets stuck in a small town, working at the Sun Down motel. Strange things happen at the motel at night, and soon Viv disappears without a trace. 35 years later, her niece Carly returns, determined to find out what happened to her aunt.
This was the second book I read by Simone St. James. I hadn’t liked the first one (Broken girls) but when I bought this one I somehow didn’t realise it was by the same author, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought it. I am glad I did, because this is a much better book. It’s tense, it has bad-ass female protagonists who are afraid but still do what needs to be done, and it’s creepy. The motel feels like its own living and breathing entity, and as a backdrop to a horror story it’s perfect. The sense of fear that something is about to happen never left me, and it is the kind of fear that is real: women get attacked all the time, this is a normal kind of fear and not a paranormal one. Also, anger. Anger at this fact.
This was a quick read but don’t take this to mean that it was an insignificant, easy one. ****
The only good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
Ugh. I hate to do this to a book that so many others loved, but I really struggled to get through it. This is a revenge story. Four American Indian men are involved in the slaughter of a herd of elk, involving a female one that is pregnant at the time she gets shot. Said elk comes back to haunt them, although one could argue that their lives suck enough even without the presence of a supernatural (?) being.
The story is a very interesting one and I’m all for a good “Nature will exact its revenge if you don’t respect it” plot, but the language was very hard for me to follow. English is not my native language so I suppose it might be because of that I struggled, but I found the narrative disjointed, the dialogues confusing. I did, somewhat perversely, like the gory scenes because they packed a real punch, and the idea was great, but the execution was less than good for me. **
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Noemí, a socialite in the 1950s, suspects that her beloved cousin, who recently got married and lives in a remote village in Mexico, has either fallen ill or going through something terrifying. So she sets out to visit her and live with her for a while. Soon she discovers that something sinister is at play in the strange house her cousin’s husband and his family own, but helping her seems impossible.
The descriptions of the setting make for 90% of the brilliance of this book. Isolation, both in physical terms (the house is up in the mountains, connected to the village only by a treacherous road that can be traveled only if the conditions are right) and in psychological terms (Noemí is not allowed to go into the village whenever she likes, she needs permission and a driver) would be enough to drive anyone crazy. The horrors of the house, when they are finally presented to us, are perhaps not so scary in themselves, but an underlying, constant presence that cannot be avoided. I loved Noemí’s character who, driven by her love for her cousin, does everything to help her out of this situation, even though she herself is afraid. But she is brave, determined, and a strong female. I have Gods of Jade and Shadow on my TBR list because Moreno-Garcia made a very good impression on me. ****
The hunger by Alma Katsu
A retelling of the story of the Donner party, where a group of pioneers try to make their way west past some mountains but are snowed in and have to resort to cannibalism to survive. I believe this to be a well-known story and there are records of what truly happened, but in The hunger Katsu imagines other forces at play than just a survival instinct. As if cannibalism is not horrific enough, Katsu tells of some unknown terror hiding in the woods of the mountain that thrives on dividing and conquering the group of pioneers.
The Hunger received mixed reviews judging by its Goodreads rating, but I really enjoyed it. True, changing the point of view from one person to another did make the pacing drag at places and it was frustrating to suddenly abandon one person’s story to see what happened to someone else. The characters also felt distant because of this, distant in time as well, as sepia photographs, but this is not necessarily bad in itself seeing as this book is pseudo-historical in nature. In general it was a compelling read and, once again, the setting was a big reason why. Imagine getting snowed in in the mountains, and lacking the skills to survive the winter. Isolated from the world by meters of snow and no food. A true horror story even without the supernatural elements, which I thought were done well and did not feel out of place in the story, as they might otherwise have done if they had been randomly inserted in the telling of true events. ****
Lovecraft country by Matt Ruff
Meh. I watched the show before I read the book and perhaps it coloured my perception of the book in its turn. But the show starts off strong and ends in meh, and so did the book, only the book doesn’t contain the strong visual elements of the show. Set in the 1950s, the story mainly follows Atticus as he tries to track his father down first, and then to dismantle a weird sect.
The book deals with issues of racism and white supremacy and I learned a lot from it. There is something to be said though about a white author writing about these issues but I will let other, more well-read readers on the topic discuss this. In general it was well-written and the characters popped out, but it was a strange book that didn’t hold my attention as well as I would have liked. For a horror book with Lovecraft in the title, it wasn’t scary but as with other horror books, the true horrors are not the monsters but the every day occurrences that get normalised (in this case, racism). I’d hesitate to recommend this book because I think it’s one of those that you either like or you don’t, so 3 stars ***
So there you have it! My first 9 reviews. Many more to come but that’s it for horror for now. If you have any book recommendations for Southern Gothic, please let me know as I really did enjoy the setting of The Elementals!