The Helm Of Midnight – A Steep Hike With A View

The Helm of Midnight, by Marina J. Lostetter, is a book with a lot of ideas. The first entry in The Five Penalties series, I find myself at a loss as to whether to recommend it or not. On the one hand, Lostetter has built a world just brimming with interesting rules and magic. On the other hand, getting into that world felt akin to wading through concrete. While I ended up wanting to continue the series by the time I finished Helm, there were a ton of instances where I almost quit the book and relegated it to my DNF pile. Yet, through clever writing, compelling mystery, and plot lines that I just had to see come together, Helm managed to keep its grip on me to the last page.

The back of the book will tell you that Helm is a story about chasing a killer who has donned a mask of one of the world’s most infamous mass murderers in order to gain his powers of destruction. Once I got into the book and started digging around I found this preview to be laughably oversimplified. Helm is a world of rules. The first page you will read shows the dictates of the five gods who rule over reality and what they expect of you. Violating any of their decrees will result in a horrific penalty, which is where the series gets its name. Existence in the world of The Helm of Midnight is more malleable than our own. The magic of the world allows people to store abstract concepts and emotions in physical objects. For example, emotions like joy and despair can be imprisoned in gems and then worn to evoke the desired feeling. When a person dies, their skills and abilities can be captured in a death mask that allows a wearer to recall their abilities. Oh, and the entire world exists in a giant bubble dome that keeps out apocalyptic flora and fauna that would obliterate humanity in a heartbeat if it got in. The only thing the barrier doesn’t keep out are the vargs – which are sort of like werewolves with special abilities depending on their breed. Some can teleport, others can read your mind, others can turn invisible. Vargs represent the largest threat to the world as they can’t be killed, only reduced to a mist that is then captured in bottles and stored in vaults. All of this just scratches the surface of the minute detail and whimsically grim nature of Lostetter’s world, and on top of all of this we have an intricate plot.

The story is split into three POV’s in three different time periods. We have Krona in the present, a cop who is trying to track down a lost mask of a serial killer and stop whoever is wearing it from killing more people. We have Melanie in the near past, a young girl who is trying to save her mother by wearing the masks of healers. Finally, we have Charbon in the distant past, the aforementioned serial killer who is living his life as a successful doctor.

The three timelines act as set up, catalyst, and execution of the mystery of the book. In Charbon’s period, we see a talented and kind doctor trying to save everyone and we wonder how this man became the mass murderer we know him to have been in the present. In Melanie’s period, we see new elements and rules introduced that start to change how we perceive the world to work and open up new possibilities. In Krona’s period, we get to see the payoff of all of the setup, but mostly we get to see her talk to her CI about nothing for a whole lot of pages. Maybe I just don’t like cops, but I struggled to be invested in Krona’s story – which is a bummer because her POV is easily the one with the most page space. I felt like nothing ever happened in her segments, while with Charbon and Melanie I was constantly learning more about the mystery that permeates the story and about the world that it takes place in. All three plot lines eventually do all come together, and I felt the book picked up massively at this point. However, this nexus is deep within the story and I wouldn’t be surprised if people dropped out halfway through.

Part of the problem is that while Lostetter’s worldbuilding and themes are fantastic, the prose can feel lackluster. She excels at grim imagery and violence but somehow seems to struggle with imbuing her worlds with excitement and feeling. Many scenes were objectively horrifying in their nature but had little resonance with me as I struggled to empathize with multiple members of the cast. The characters are wonderfully complex with a ton of potential, but it can feel like a lot of that potential is left on the table thanks to the language.

The Helm of Midnight is certainly a unique read with a lot of new imaginative ideas. If you feel bored by the current sea of fantasy offerings and want something off the beaten path, this book will definitely scratch the itch. But, beware of the slow ramp-up speed. The series is definitely going somewhere, it just hasn’t quite gotten there yet. The first book provides an interesting blueprint, but I mostly see the potential of something to come instead of something concrete I can hold onto.

Rating: The Helm of Midnight – 7.0/10
-Andrew

A Broken Darkness — When the Light at the End of the Tunnel is But a Candle

Beneath the Rising was one of the early Dark Horses of last year, and boy, oh boy did it pack a punch. I wasn’t expecting a sequel, but Premee Mohamed decided to grace us with one anyway. If her debut novel had my curiosity, the follow up has my attention. A Broken Darkness is a strong follow up that builds on the foundation of its predecessor and delivers strong writing through great characterization. This review is primarily for those who have read the first novel, though some spoilers have been avoided. So if you haven’t I would recommend checking out our review of Beneath the Rising here instead.

Following the events of the first book, A Broken Darkness follows Nick Prasad on another dark adventure with his estranged friend and world renowned genius Johnny Chambers. They had managed to seal away the Ancient Ones, but their friendship was destroyed in the process. Johnny has another amazing reveal, promising the future of clean energy, and Nick is sent by the Ssarati Society to witness the event. While there, something happens that shouldn’t have, They have returned and in an even stronger fashion than before. Johnny says she didn’t know and was sure she sealed them away forever. However, Nick has his doubts, while also fearing that she may be the only one to save them once again.

Mohamed does a great job diving right back into the fray with A Broken Darkness. Nick’s head is just as jumbled as it was before, and in some ways he’s even worse off. The revelations of his relationship to Johnny at the end of Rising have clearly fractured his mind, and his choice to walk away from her only splintered it more. He constantly seems at war with himself, trying to convince himself that Johnny has every intent to save the world again, while having trouble with the fact that she has previously let him down. At times it gets a little repetitive, but Mohamed approaches it freshly enough that it didn’t feel like it was dragging. It helps that Nick’s mind and his body feel completely separated. He thinks one thing, but acts another in front of her, as if he can’t quite break the hold she has on him. This is excellently conveyed through their great chemistry, and his constant berating of her within his head. It’s painful to watch, but easily conveys the nature of their toxic relationship and feels realistic given their history and the events they are living through.

The story is still rip-roaringly fast. Nick and Johnny are globetrotting again to new places and also seeing some familiar faces. It’s fun, and at times scary. The lengths they go through to find the information they need are astounding. Mohamed is pretty good at reminding readers who specific beings are, and what purpose they had in the previous story without taking you out of the flow too. The writing is still incredible, specifically within Nick’s head. There are a few times where the dialogue was a little much, particularly when Nick and Johnny would share references to each other. There were times when it felt purposefully out of place, like Nick was caught in the trap of Johnny’s presence and needed to please her. Other times it just felt like it was filling space. Overall it wasn’t that big a deal to me, even with the pop culture references, because they felt real for the most part. It’s as if the only way to close the distance between them is through a shared superficial past. Darkness is filled with moments like this that remind you of who Nick wants to be, while constantly reminding you of who he is and how it’s directly tied to Johnny.

Rising was great at highlighting the racial and class tensions between Johnny and Nick, and Darkness is no different. In fact, Mohamed doubles down on the race and class aspects, making them impossible to ignore. The ties between these two tensions run incredibly deep between the two books and it’s impossible to cover them without spoilers. To avoid them, I want to highlight a few ways Mohamed weaves them into the narrative, keeping the story going while alluding to the darker themes hiding in the shadows. The phrase that reverberated through my mind as I read this book was “she can’t keep getting away with it!” Johnny constantly thinks she can do whatever she wants to save the day. Many times the Ssarati Society, a secret organization of watchers that Nick now belongs to, tries to foil her plans, but often Nick gets in the way. Johnny can never be defeated, and often brushes Death’s shoulder while pulling off some grand scheme. And Nick, for all his internal bluster, lets her get away with it and fights for her, even though he hates her. It leads to a somewhat baffling but terrifying climax that doesn’t attain the heights of the previous book. However, it made me do a double take so I could be sure I read it right, and it really clarified the rest of the book for me.

If you enjoyed Beneath the Rising, I am sure you will enjoy this one too. In some ways it’s a little more of the same, but Mohamed has gotten sharper. It’s semi-repetitive nature feels like a feature, begging to be examined instead of brushed off. Nick’s point of view is messy and it’s hard to trust him and those he embeds himself with. There were fewer moments of dread from the Ancient Ones this time around, but it felt far more tailored to Nick and Johnny’s relationship, and Johnny’s hubris. The ending is definitely worth the read on it’s own, but the journey only makes it more horrifying. While it does not break new ground in the way it’s predecessor did, A Broken Darkness still represents a great addition to this story. If you haven’t picked up either book, and are curious about Lovecraftian inspired horror with a modern twist, I implore you to read them.

Rating: A Broken Darkness – 8.0/10
-Alex

Mostly Void, Partially Stars – Shines Bright In The Dark

41mlamwkznl._sx331_bo1204203200_I am a latecomer to Welcome to Night Vale, much to my shame. If you are unfamiliar with the famous podcast by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, it’s a humor-based series about a small American town replete with supernatural happenings. The character who narrates the series is a small local radio jockey who does his best to report on the happenings and people of Night Vale. His delivery is dry as a desert and as ridiculous as possible.

The podcast has been going on for years, and there are hundreds of episodes, but the team has also put out a few books (the first of which is Mostly Void, Partially Stars) that contain written versions of sets of episodes. I decided to investigate both the first collection (MVPS) and listen to a number of episodes after I finished so that I could both review it as a novel and see if I missed anything by sticking to the written word. I discovered that both forms of the story are phenomenal, definitely worth your time, but have different strengths that will appeal differently depending on your taste.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars’ brilliance comes from two places – the masterful humor and the anally consistent worldbuilding that ties it all together. It makes the story something more than a series of jokes. The situations and scenarios of Night Vale are bizarre and the deadpan delivery is impossible not to laugh at. The first episode of the series talks about a new dog park that was recently installed by the town council that no one is allowed to enter, look at, be near for extended periods of time, and does not contain dogs. The delivery of this information made me laugh out loud while reading, which is quite rare for me.

But the real magic of the story is that there IS a story. While each chapter/episode of Night Vale feels like a standalone joke, there is a very clear through-line to all of them that starts to quite rapidly build a cohesive world, set of characters, and plot. It’s easy to use outlandishness to elicit a laugh, but it’s hard to do it while also being extremely consistent and meticulous in your outlandishness. I was very surprised when I started to get a very strong sense of the town and its inhabitants and started adjusting to the new normal of how they behaved and went about their day. That dog park I mentioned in the previous paragraph felt like a complete throwaway at the start of the series, but it continues to resurface and get updates as the series progresses until you are hoping that the next episode will contain a new hint of what the dog park actually is.

As to the differences between reading the books vs. listening to the podcasts, there are a few things to keep in mind. I ended up liking the books more because I liked the control of the pacing and digestion of the content. There is something about being able to control how I took the story in that made it resonate better with me and upped my enjoyment. However, there are elements of the podcast that you definitely do lose when reading instead of listening. Each episode of the podcast has musical components done by a huge range of artists and they really do add a lot to the ambiance. In addition, the delivery of the narrators in the podcast is masterful, and no voices I made up in my head will top the talented people that were selected to voice the characters. Which of these methods of consuming Night Vale most appeals will vary by individual, but I definitely do recommend you try it no matter which you fancy. You can’t go wrong.

The only hang-up I had with Night Vale was I found it hard to binge, despite wanting to very badly. The standalone nature of the episodes means they are ideal to be consumed here and there or once in a while, not in one 5 hour sitting. Discovering answers to the riddles of the town requires a very long term investment that will see you spending tens to hundreds of hours consuming content. That’s not a bad thing, as the content is very good (and funny) – it just means that if you are looking for quick answers, you are going to be disappointed.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars is fantastic. It was funny, weird, and had a surprising amount of depth. I know most of you have likely already tried, and enjoyed, this cult phenomenon already – but those of you who haven’t should give it a shot. I now have over a hundred podcast episodes in my library waiting to listen too so I suddenly find myself looking forward to car rides in a way I haven’t in a long time.

Rating: Mostly Void, Partially Stars – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Outside – Seeing the Forest Over the Trees

51ti-w7znslI hate missing books. Sometimes they just come out during a crowded release season, or I’m feeling too burnt out to give the book its proper due. Whatever the case, there is a satisfaction you feel when you finally get to it regardless of the book’s quality. However, there are those perfect moments, when your anticipation is rewarded and the story is more than you could have dreamed. Such is the case with this book. The cover was alluring with its grey negative space punctured by the red space suit, and the large yellow block lettering for the title. Its synopsis pulled me in closer and whispered its potential for dark secrets into my ear. The Outside, by Ada Hoffman, is a monster of a book that capitalizes on its premise and left me needing more.

The story follows Yasira Shien, an autistic scientist on the verge of inventing a new energy drive. In the midst of an experiment, the device explodes, allowing Yasira to see beyond the limits of her reality. However, the space station is destroyed and her fellow scientists are killed in the accident, and she is brought before the AI Gods, who shepherd mankind, and her work is deemed heretical. For penance, they offer her the chance to serve Nemesis, the god who hunts heretics and keeps humanity safe from the Outside. But Yasira wouldn’t hunt anyone, instead she needs to bring home her mentor in order to please Nemesis. As her search progresses, however, she begins to question the nature of her reality and begins to doubt who has her best interests at heart.

This book was quite the ride, annihilating my expectations. I don’t even know where to begin, because there are so many goodies packed in. The characters are top notch, the story is thrilling, the horror elements are creepy, and the way Hoffman handles her themes is just…magical. I think I’m also burying the lead on this one, but the lovecraftian horror is…out of this world. I couldn’t help it, this book just makes me want to sing about it, and if I had a singing voice, you’d be hearing this instead of reading it.

Let’s get beyond the gush, though, and highlight what makes me love this book. First off, Hoffman’s take on AI Gods guiding humanity through space is fantastic. There is a deep history here that carries a sense of weight, and the various characters really feel like they live there. The Gods themselves, while virtually all powerful, need humans and their souls in order to continue existing and projecting their miracles. There is this foreboding sense too that they want humanity to develop a specific way, allowing them to experiment in limited ways, but also restricting their own benevolence to avoid coddling. They maintain a sense of order through a structured hierarchy involving angels and other servants. These servants are, more often than not, augmented humans who have become more machine than human. Akavi is one of Nemesis’ angels, and he’s an utter delight as he tries to get Yasira to bring him to her former mentor through whatever means are at his disposal.

Hoffman utilizes this premise to maximum effect in regards to character, story and themes. I don’t want to get into too much detail about one particular thing for two reasons. One, the story itself is just a joy to read blind. Two, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Every piece is like a gear in an intricate clock, winding through an elegant dance that encompasses the whole story. The push and pull on Yasira as she does Nemesis’ bidding while wrestling with the mind-opening teachings of her former mentor is astonishing. Every plot point felt like a new door being opened into understanding everything else that came before it while also breaking down your understanding of Hoffman’s world. It was enchanting, and I was enthralled from beginning to end. An end which synthesized everything before it and feels complete in its own respect.

There are a few issues I had with the book, but they are mostly small and not worthy of a deeper dive. They weren’t fundamental problems that slowed the ticking of the clock and rarely pulled me out of the experience. It’s a hard novel to dissect because it works on the grander scale that the little pieces get subsumed by the whole. It feels like reading about the inner workings of Big Ben and then going to see it and all your knowledge about it is overtaken by awe, allowing you to appreciate it on all of its levels. I truly got lost in this book, and I can’t wait to read more from this series. So open your door and then your mind, it’s time to go to The Outside.

Rating: The Outside – 8.5/10
Alex

The Troupe And American Elsewhere – The Bennett Backlog

I recently moved from NYC to the suburbs. In preparing to depart the city, I made an effort to request a number of more hard to find books on my TBR pile that the NYPL had, but a smaller library would not have access to. Two of these books were The Troupe and American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett. If you know anything about this site’s preferences, you likely know that we love RJB and consider him one of our collective favorite authors – he is even an NPC in our group Dungeons & Dragons campaign. His Divine Cities trilogy is one of our absolute favorite series ever, and The Founders Trilogy is climbing its way up there as he puts out more books. But, there are a number of his older books that we have never gotten to. Thus, I set out to complete my experience with all of his books and found myself reading two separate standalone novels of his in a single week.

71xhdsor41lLet’s start with The Troupe. This book tells the story of sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole. George is a very gifted pianist who has established himself in the vaudeville community in an attempt to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change. Because there is a secret within Silenus’ show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their very lives.

The Troupe, despite my love of vaudeville acts, is likely my least favorite of all of Bennett’s work I have read to date. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it feels like it lacks the sophistication and creativity that every one of his other novels has on full display. The characters are interesting, but not engrossing. The world is magical, but not wondrous. You can see the beginnings of the style that I have come to love in his more recent works on display, but his signature creativity of worlds and cleverness of themes are not quite present. One thing I did enjoy about The Troupe is that it feels a lot closer to horror than most of Bennett’s other work, and horror is something that Bennett does very very well. But there is an odd clash of atmospheric cues, as George feels like a more simplistic character out of a young adult novel, while the supporting cast feels like twisted adult characters that have complex pasts. I really enjoyed the characterization of the troupe’s members, but George fell very flat for me as a protagonist. George does grow, but he does it in these awkward lurches forward that feel like watching bad actors read off lines. I like where he ends up, but I don’t like how he got there.

On the positive side, the plot of The Troupe was very surprising and original. The ending, like all Bennett books, was powerful and meaningful and did a lot of the work to charm me, despite my lukewarm feelings about the rest of the book. Bennett clearly had some big thoughts that he wanted to build this story towards like a staircase into the sky, but I think there are just a few steps missing. All in all, I think The Troupe is a fascinating case study for someone who is already a fan of Bennett’s work, or a great book for someone who loves horror and vaudeville, but not the first book I would hand to an RJB newcomer.

bennet_americanelsewhere_tp1American Elsewhere, on the other hand, is absolutely a book I would give to anyone without reservation. This book is Bennett’s take on the small, sleepy American town that’s hiding big secrets. Wink, New Mexico – a perfect little town not found on any map. In this town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things. Our story follows Mona Bright, an ex-cop who inherits her long-dead mother’s home in Wink. And the closer Mona gets to her mother’s past, the more she understands that the people of Wink are very, very different.

American Elsewhere is Bennett’s interpretation of the American dream, and it is simply brilliant. It’s about answering the question, “what would happen if extraterrestrial beings took the promise of America at complete face value?” It’s strange, terrifying, poignant, and playful, and I had an absolute blast reading it. The narrative hops between two foci. The first follows the main cast as it tells this sweeping story that is part science fiction, part horror, and part thriller. The second is these little vignettes of the ‘aliens’ trying to find their own slices of America and how those interpretations go horrifyingly wrong. The two narratives mix extremely well to paint this vivid alternative take on the American dream and it surprises and delights. The themes are well-realized, the characters are deep, and the plot is gripping. There isn’t a lot more that I can ask from a novel, though there are one or two places for improvement.

While I love the majority of the characters, Mona herself felt a bit flat. While Bennett leaves her open to the experience, giving the readers a self-insert, there wasn’t enough to her character to build contrast with the themes that make people fully invest in her story. She just doesn’t feel like she has a lot of thoughts, feelings, or reactions to things, sorta like she’s just on autopilot. I just didn’t feel as close a connection with her as I have with other Bennett characters. In addition, the pacing of American Elsewhere is a little wonky. There are certain sections that can feel very slow and lose the momentum of the story. However, other than these two complaints, I very much enjoyed every other part of the story.

In the end, both The Troupe and American Elsewhere are compelling reads for Bennett fans, but Elsewhere does a much better job at standing alone as a strong novel. I would recommend either book to a reader who feels drawn to the subject matter and I feel like it is pretty hard to go wrong with Bennett regardless of which of his books you pick up. Whether you are simply looking for more content after you finish The Divine Cities, or feel a hankering for a decent standalone novel because you don’t want to commit to a series, these books are for you.

Rating:
The Troupe – 7.5/10
American Elsewhere – 9.0/10
-Andrew

House of Leaves – A Maze of Our Own Making

I am not equipped to write this review. Honestly, I’m not sure if anyone would be. I mean maybe if I had an English degree and an understanding of western literature beyond high school, I might be more confident, but we work with what we have. My desire to read House of Leaves started a few years ago, back when book club was still a thing we got together for, and House of Leaves popped up when I searched for a horror book to suggest. The premise intrigued me: a house full of secrets that is larger on the inside than the outside. A tale about the deep siren’s call of obsession that entwines the reader’s need for answers with the protagonists’. Fortunately, for the club, and my budding reading habits, this book was vetoed. It lingered in the back of my mind for years until right before COVID hit the U.S. I saw a single copy of it in the bookstore and the longing to read it surged in my chest. Of course I purchased it, and then when I opened it, I saw the madness within and shelved it. I had too many spring books to review, sothis had to wait a few more months. October rolled around and ‘twas the season, so I cracked this tome open and ventured into the unknown.

For those who don’t know, House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, is a modern horror/surrealist piece of literature that defies any real description. It’s a story several times removed from the story featured in the synopsis. Essentially, the book is a documentary about a family that buys a haunted house and explores its dark depths. It’s also the story of a blind man’s attempt to explain the documentary as it is, offering symbolic meaning and providing psychoanalysis through a series of footnotes that cover western mythology as well as critical reception of the film. This is then commentated on by yet another man, who happens upon the manuscript after said blind man dies, and he discovers it while rummaging through the dead man’s apartment while drunk. It’s part textbook, part story, part diary, and all nightmare. It’s truly a monster of a book, and we haven’t even touched the formatting of the different sections that heighten the tension.

I can hear you now, “what the fuck are you on, trying to talk about this weird book?” Honestly, I don’t even know why I’m writing this. I feel uncomfortable even recommending this book to anyone who isn’t already interested. In some ways I am driven by my obsession to talk about it so that I may find the end of the maze internally. There is something special about this book, and it gnawed at me until the very last page. I want others to experience it for themselves. I found it nearly impossible to put down, and I wouldn’t have except for the fact that I had to sleep, work to make a living, and eat food so I could continue to read this book. It wormed its way into my brain, feeding on the ends of my neurons that weren’t dedicated to it. The obsession took hold of me like a rabid dog burying a bone. I felt connected to the book in a way I hadn’t really felt connected to a piece of fiction before. I needed to know every little detail. I wanted to satiate my curiosity while applauding my own intelligence for catching on. I wanted to be swept away, and my to be breath taken from my lungs when major revelations occurred. I yearned to know every detail of these people’s lives, know how they ticked, and understand why they were the way they were. And the book just fed my desires, making me think of my own experience in relation to Johnny Truant, the man who finds the manuscript. I craved to know how Johnny related to the Navidsons, the family who bought this home and set upon themselves the task of discovering its mysteries.

The formatting felt like a drug. I turned the book upside down, diagonal, sideways. I read pages while standing in front of a mirror. I read backwards through pages I had already read forwards. There was no challenge presented by the changing format I did not meet. I had to know everything. My boat had left the docks and I let the wind take me wherever it was blowing. The initial fear I felt when I gazed upon the complex maze of letters and words was replaced with the joy of exploration. I felt an intense desire to pick up every morsel left by the conglomerate of authors, worried that missing one little piece would degrade the effort put in. The changing landscape of the text only fueled this passion, giving the book a geography that is so rarely seen. The little cracks and crevices provided so many rewards, so many pats on the back, it was as addicting as it was fulfilling.

Until it wasn’t. There was a moment in the book where my hunger became an emptiness. I knew I needed to fill it, but the story was over. It just ended. The characters, the Navidsons, Johnny, the women Johnny talked to, all their lives just go on. There are no conventional conclusions to their story. There were one hundred fifty pages of appendices, full of letters, photographs, and scrap art. I just had to digest it all, and yet the rewards were missing. I read four hundred pages of the six hundred and fifty pages in a single sitting, and I felt dead. I spent roughly forty five minutes translating a code in one of the end letters. Once the book was over I just sat there. I asked myself, was it me? Did the book just lose its magic? Was I not getting it? Then I remembered one of the first pages of the book, in an iconic typewriter font, somewhat off center, the phrase This is not for you appears. And it all started to come together for me in a brilliant understanding and while that emptiness brought on by the book never really left me, I felt satisfied.

Again, I ask myself, and probably you too, dear reader, why do I bring up this book? Why am I giving you an outline of my experience? Describing my feeling about a book that defies explanation, or tidy description. A book that requires a larger than healthy level of effort, and a frankly ludicrous amount of buy in mentally. Something that isn’t quite fantasy, and not really science fiction either, and barely horror? Those words echo in my mind This is not for you, as I try to come up with a reason. This is not for you, This is not for you, This is not for you. And, maybe therein lies the answer.

Rating: House of LeavesThis is for me./10
-Alex

Psycho – Scares From Page To Screen

Robert Bloch’s Psycho is one of those iconic stories that summons a deluge of mental images with its name alone. It’s a flagship horror/murder mystery tale that defines its genre and earns countless homages in various mediums. Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation is undoubtedly the first thing that springs to mind when anyone mentions Psycho, thanks largely to the classic shower scene, replete with nails-on-a-chalkboard-esque violin screeches and chocolate syrup masquerading as violent spurts of blood. Hitchcock’s adaptation itself is the very reason I read Robert Bloch’s Psycho. The book and its big-screen sibling were the latest topic of discussion on my Page2Screen series with Kicking the Seat founder and movie critic extraordinaire Ian Simmons. Bloch’s novel of addled minds and murder mysteries is simultaneously prescient and a surefire product of its time. If you’ve missed the book or the movie, here’s your requisite spoiler warning before I dive in. 

Psycho puts Norman Bates centerstage. Bates runs a motel on the side of a now-defunct highway that receives very little traffic. His only constant companion is his mother, who hovers over him and prevents him from truly growing into a functioning adult. Norman, as any reader will quickly discover, suffers from some undefined mental ailment. His mother has been dead for 20 years, and Norman has carried on as though she’s right beside him, and in a way she is. Mary, a beautiful young woman engaged to a hardware store clerk she met on a cruise ship, steals $40,000 from her boss and makes a run for it, hoping the money will help her pay off the debts of Sam Loomis, her fiancé. She makes a wrong turn and ends up at the Bates motel for an evening. Norman welcomes her and checks her in, but his mother’s influence takes over. Norman’s “mother” kills Mary and buries her car in the swamp behind the Bates house near the hotel. The story that follows is told through alternating POVs: Norman Bates as he tries to cover up the damage he’s done and Sam Loomis, accompanied by Lila, Mary’s sister, as they try to track Mary’s whereabouts. 

Psycho offers a chilling dissection of psychosis via Norman Bates. It’s a thin tome–my paperback copy has 176 pages–and the story moves along briskly. The plot itself is fine, and the book’s pace is surprisingly nestled between fast and slow, right in the middle. I won’t waste any space detailing the intricacies of what actually happens, because that’s the crux of the book. Instead, I’ll discuss a few aspects of Psycho that left me uncertain about whether it’s worthy of a recommendation. 

I’ll start with the good. Psycho’s treatment of authorities is hauntingly relevant to our current social climate. Lila believes from the start that Mary’s disappearance bears signs of overt criminality. She finds Sam Loomis and asks him for help, but he is hesitant to bring in the police. A private investigator joins the hunt for Mary and asks for 24 hours before they contact the authorities. Sam and Lila agree. It’s fine to shrug this off as a plot device. But when the 24 hours expires and Sam and Lila do contact the sheriff, he does virtually nothing, sweeping Bates’ crimes under the rug. I actually found this the most haunting aspect of Psycho: the police are unwilling to solve a clear issue, instead choosing to fuel the fire by completely ignoring the problem altogether. Self-interest reigns supreme, especially if it means the guy with a badge doesn’t have to answer for his wrongdoings. I’ll leave it there to avoid delving into more social commentary, but I enjoyed Psycho for its honest look at authoritative complacency and its consequences. 

Psycho faltered when it came time to truly scare the bejeezus out of me. Norman Bates? Terrifying, but as a concept. The things he does? Horrific. His mental impairment (which is explored later in the book)? Tragic, with chilling results. Psycho has all sorts of fodder for a terrifying and suspenseful experience, but I think it’s too much a product of its time to offer any real jump scares or true tension. When I read a book billed as “Icily terrifying!” on its back cover, I want hair-raising horror moments. I want to be scared to head downstairs to my unfinished basement just to do a load of laundry. I’m no horror connoisseur, but I think Bloch’s writing comes from a time when “telling” was the norm and “showing” hadn’t quite snuffed it out as the dominant storytelling device. It’s hard to say this, though, because Psycho excels in many areas, and I appreciate it for its place among influential literary achievements. I just wasn’t bowled over by the prose.

This problem peaked at the novel’s conclusion, when loose ends are tied up neatly with a few pages of blatant exposition. Again, likely a product of the book’s time, but I left unsatisfied. On the other hand, the final pages brought me the only jump-scare-worthy moment of the entire book. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s one many first-time readers will likely predict and enjoy despite expecting it. 

From a genre point of view, Psycho seems to teeter between horror/thriller and the slightly supernatural. For me, Psycho felt like a precursor to authors like Stephen King, who blend the mystic with the real and package it all in a tight story. Psycho does just that, though with a few hiccups along the way, making it a worthwhile read for SFF fans. 

Psycho first published in 1959, and Hitchcock’s cinematic retelling released in 1960. I highly doubt a 2020 review will do much to sway newcomers one way or the other. Psycho exists in a weird sort of limbo where the horror elements age poorly but the social issues contained within can still resonate 60 years later. If you’re a horror/thriller or murder mystery fan, Psycho is worth the read if only to understand how it influenced the genre. If you want a modern and tense thriller, you may be better off finding a different read. 

Rating: Psycho – 6.5/10

-Cole

The Shadow Saint: Out Of The Shadows, Into The Limelight

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Okay, let’s do a checklist here of things I like that The Shadow Saint has in it, yeah? Krakens attacking ships: check. Skeletons with dry senses of humor: check. Horrifying surreal imagery: big ol’ check. Ghouls: still a check there too. I could keep going for a while but I think you all get the idea, The Shadow Saint ticks a lot of the boxes of things that I like in a book, and I really, really liked it. Sorry for the review spoiler, but get over it, or don’t, whatever.

The Shadow Saint, by Gareth Hanrahan, is the second book in The Black Iron Legacy series. Given that it is the second book, you probably shouldn’t be reading a review or a synopsis of it if you haven’t read the first book, The Gutter Prayer, but I’m not your dad so you can do whatever you want, man. You can find our review of Prayer here if you are wondering if it’s for you. That said, spoilers lie ahead for the first book and you should venture forth at your own peril. 

Our story picks up soon after the close of the first novel, with our previous protagonists mostly either dead or fundamentally changed by their experiences. The appearance of the New City, due to the Gutter Miracle from book one, and the fall of the alchemical stranglehold of the guild and their Tallowmen, have thrown Guerdon into chaos. For those familiar with the city, it’s pretty much business as usual. Unfortunately, that is about to change when the Godswar finally comes to Guerdon. 

One of my minor complaints in my review of the previous book (still here), was that the rest of the world felt a little underdeveloped compared to all of the information and history we received about Guerdon and its place in the world. We knew that there was a death empire called Haith, but little else about it. We knew that Ishmere was perpetrating a “godswar” that was causing a massive influx of refugees, but outside of a couple of chapters and descriptions of the various horrors, we never got a chance to experience them. In The Shadow Saint, all of that changes. It almost felt as if Hanrahan heard the (very mild) criticism, and decided that if we wanted to know about the rest of the world, then we’d best buckle up for book two. Saint packs so much worldbuilding and information into its runtime, without feeling bloated at any point, that I am frankly amazed. I have a much better understanding of the world and how it functions after this book, and it all felt surprisingly important to the overall plot. Ishmere is the one small exception to this because while we did get more of a glimpse into individual Ishmerians and their choices and beliefs, the actual society still feels a little blank. 

On the other hand, we have the empire of Haith. Normally I would briefly go over all of the various factions in my paragraph about worldbuilding, but I am so enthralled with and enraptured by the idea of Haith that I just need to gush about it for a little bit. Haith is an “eternal empire” run by necromancers (necromancers are so hot right now). Instead of worshipping gods, their power instead comes from the creation of magical artifacts they refer to as phylacteries. These phylacteries are held by the head of an individual noble house and contain the souls and accumulated knowledge and experience of all those who have held the artifact before. Think Avatar the Last Airbender, with each phylactery granting the holder knowledge of thousands of their greatest ancestors rather than the previous avatars. The moments that we see this in the book are incredibly cool and I loved the descriptions of how the character going through this moment experienced it personally. As I mentioned before, only the previous wielder of the phylactery can transfer their soul into it and become Enshrined, the highest class in Haith. Beneath the Enshrined, we have the Vigilant; individuals whose souls are bound to their bodies after death and become magical living skeletons forever working toward the betterment of the Empire of Haith. Needless to say, the concept of legions of skeleton warriors led by necromantic superhumans against a nation of mad warring gods is pretty far up my alley, and I absolutely loved it.

I also loved Hanrahan’s improvement in terms of the plot. I mentioned in my last review that while The Gutter Prayer was a fun ride, I felt the plot could be directionless and meandering at times before it finally found its stride. The Shadow Saint felt like it noticeably addressed this issue with a much more cohesive and streamlined plot. I’m not sure how much of it was my preexisting knowledge of the city of Guerdon and the characters that live there, and how much of it was Hanrahan smoothing out the hiccups from the previous installment, but the pacing and engineering of the plot is spot on in The Shadow Saint. However, I did feel that the actual climax happened rather quickly – but I think that was more a result of the sheer amount of things happening than any mechanical failing on Hanrahan’s part.

I’d like to wrap up with a note on the prose and descriptions. Hanrahan has a gift for describing the miraculous and horrifying in a way that makes it easy to imagine and hard to forget. In a book that is about warring gods and saints, miraculous massacres of undead bone soldiers, and a living city that was created by magic everything still manages to feel real and weighty. I could envision every stilling of the waters by the Kraken, and the descriptions of the Smoke Painter drawing glowing sigils in the sky that turned those that looked at them mad clicked with the part of me that loves cosmic horror and the rabbit hole of the SCP Foundation wiki. I need more of this world in my life, and I hope that Hanrahan decides to continue this world’s story whether it revolves around Guerdon and the characters from this series or not. I had a ton of fun reading this book. The Shadow Saint is a stellar sophomore effort and I can only hope that Hanrahan continues his skyward trajectory from here. I will be on the lookout for more news on the world of The Black Iron Legacy, and I desperately hope that I get the opportunity to return to this world sometime in the future. As it stands, we already have two fantastic books and I cannot recommend highly enough that you bump this series to be next in line on your reading schedule. 

Rating: The Shadow Saint – 9.0/10

-Will

 

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The Name Is A Trap It’s Actually Scary

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Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to judge a book by its cover. I occasionally see cover art so striking that I want to buy the book just for display, regardless of whether the content is all that good. Christian McKay Heidicker’s novel Scary Stories for Young Foxes is one such book. With expressive and stunning cover art and the promise of similarly styled illustrations for some of the stories, I knew I’d pick this book up just for how pretty it was, and I hoped that I’d end up enjoying the story as well. Luckily for me, Heidicker absolutely knocked it out of the park, and I will feel absolutely no shame placing this front and center on my bookshelf. 

Scary Stories for Young Foxes is a collection of eight short stories that are thoroughly interconnected and serve to tell a single overarching tale. Told through the window dressing of a group of fox kits sneaking out to hear scary stories from a nearby older fox, the novel strikes an interesting balance between outright horror and old-time fairy story morality tales. Each of the so-called scary stories is meant to teach the kits an important lesson while still having a distinct “stories around a campfire” spookiness to them. I thought that the individual stories were all very good as self-contained narratives while clearly building toward an overarching tale, and though the “twist” was incredibly clear from almost the beginning of the book, I did enjoy the slow reveal that went on over the runtime.

I was very interested to find out exactly where on the horror spectrum this book would land, what with the title including “for Young Foxes” and all. Particularly with the whole storybook illustration style and the campfire story window dressing, I was ready for this book to be mildly scary but mostly cute. Boy howdy, I was not prepared for what I got. Scary Stories doesn’t pull punches at all, and the first story absolutely wrecked me. The final three paragraphs are pretty much burned into my brain. Heidicker’s ability to scare through describing sounds is absolutely fantastic and really plays into the overall aesthetic of the book. You can imagine a good storyteller making the klikklikklak sound as the flames from the fire jump around them, and even on the page these descriptions just drip with suspense and terror. Not every story really spooked me, but most of them did, and there are a couple that were absolutely terrifying and would feel at home in any horror collection out there.

While slightly less stellar than the spooks, the characters were still very solid. We follow two foxes named Mia and Uly as they are separated from their dens as kits. Over the course of the novel we are shown them growing into adult foxes and experiencing a variety of frights in the process. All of the characters, main and side, felt well distinguished and unique enough to easily discern them from one another. Clocking in at 272 pages and containing eight distinct stories told by a third party to the events, this isn’t the book for you if you’re looking for in-depth character profiles, but I didn’t think the remainder of the book suffered for it.

After a chapter or two, I was ready to complain about how I would have preferred eight totally unconnected stories and how the fact that they were all related to each other would diminish the scariness and impact of the plot. As I read, though, I realized that wasn’t really the type of horror story I was in for. While I enjoy extremely dark stories and generally have found the “no one made it out okay” type of tale to be my favorite, I really enjoyed having Mia and Uly’s story slowly unravel for me. I thought the pacing was fantastic and felt that the breaks for the illustration and quick pauses where the storyteller talks directly to the listening kits were timed perfectly to add suspense. In addition to heightening the mood, I thought that the notes each of the stories ended on, upbeat or dark, were very well planned out and thoughtfully used to impact how I felt while I was reading it. It all added up to a sense of supreme intent and careful construction.

I think that Scary Stories for Young Foxes is great. I had a blast reading it and would recommend it to readers of nearly any age. Not leaning on “adult” themes of horror while remaining dark, scary, and impactful is a difficult trick to manage, and Heidicker pulls it off with aplomb. I would highly recommend giving this book a try, and while I am a devout Kindler would recommend even more reading it in paper to enjoy the fantastic illustrations that are included. 

 

Rating: Scary Stories for Young Foxes – 8.5/10

Cold Storage: More Like Lukewarm but Still Comfortable

I’ve had no small amount of difficulty deciding how to rate this book. Cold Storage, by David Koepp, is a horror novel that essentially takes Richard Preston’s nonfiction book, The Hot Zone, and jazzes it up with sentient mushrooms instead of Ebola. 

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It’s a choice that should have fallen firmly within my wheelhouse but, spoiler alert, my reaction at the end was fairly tepid. To me, this type of scary situation is served better through a sense of realism, where it can remain firmly grounded and can subtly suspend the reader’s disbelief. While I enjoyed the moments that felt over the top, I definitely felt like this was more of a Michael Bay take on the “scary disease outbreak” genre. This may resonate with some, but for me, it feels as if it misses the point of good horror as it doesn’t remind the reader that scary stuff happens all the time and more importantly, that scary stuff can happen to them.

Beginning with a brief first look into the story 32 years before the events of the meat of the book, Cold Storage introduces us to one of our main characters, Roberto Diaz, in what appears to be a very trying time in his life. Tempted to cheat on his wife with a colleague and on his way to Australia with her and his partner, he is given a first-hand look at what Koepp has named Cordyceps Novus, the “villain” of the book. A mind-controlling fungus familiar to anyone who has watched the docuseries Planet Earth or played the video game The Last of Us, Cordyceps is a parasitic mushroom that infects the brain of (currently) insects and turns them into zombie suicide bombers. After the mission to Australia Cordyceps Novus is contained and put into, you guessed it, cold storage in the United States. Fast forward 32 years and, you guessed it again, Cordyceps Novus has somehow managed to breach its containment and start infecting stuff. Cue a mostly grounded and fun adventure with a few absolutely eyebrow-raising moments.

These moments are experienced by the aforementioned Roberto Diaz and a pair of civilians, Teacake and Naomi Williams. I found the parts with Teacake and Naomi to be the most fun parts of the book. From their perspectives, we are given an exciting and fun story that starts as a fun mystery and quickly moves to abject horror. After finally meeting while at work on the night shift at the storage facility, they hear a beeping and, since they’re characters in a horror book, decide they need to check it out. This leads to a really fun story of hijinks and “don’t do that!” moments reminiscent of watching a horror movie in a theater. Diaz’s story, on the other hand, didn’t really ever click for me. I liked the idea of a run-down and retired superagent having to be reactivated for the return of his biggest boogeyman, and I thought there was a lot of potential there. Unfortunately, this part of the story made it very difficult to suspend my disbelief. I was willing to go along with a lot of stuff, I’m reading a book about a horrifying mushroom zombie parasite outbreak, but there were things so ridiculous and absolutely impossible that I actually put the book down for a minute. It was strange to read something that seemed so far outside the bounds of the realism that the rest of the book seemed to strive for, and it really left a sour taste in my mouth.

Swinging back into the positives, I really enjoyed the descriptions of Cordyceps Novus and the thought patterns that the infected were going through. The way the parasite evolved through the book and Koepp’s reasoning for it struck me as very realistic while still being alien enough to frighten. I felt that the pseudo-scientific reasoning for the paths the fungus took while mutating was really interesting and served to build a really interesting villain out of what is a replicating colony of spores at the end of the day. I really wish that the book had either been longer or that this had been at least a duology, as I don’t think that Cordyceps Novus really had enough runtime to shine as a true threat and exciting villain. What we got was good, but I wanted more.

That feeling of wanting more plays into a theory of mine about this book. I think this was a screenplay that was a difficult sell to production companies after the zombie genre collapse, and Koepp decided to flesh it out to a full-length novel. The over the top action scenes and buddy/romance story between Naomi and Teacake, the superagent gearing up scenes, and the final climax all seem more like they were written for the big screen than as a novel. I don’t think this is a bad thing, and what we got was a fun and exciting ride for the runtime, but I couldn’t shake that sneaking suspicion and when I looked recently at the back of the book there is a blurb specifically touting Koepp as a screenwriter and not an author, which I found somewhat edifying to this theory. I hope that Koepp continues writing for the page, though, as this was a fun time.

Cold Storage was not a masterpiece. However, it was a very fun, easy, and quick read that I immediately recommended to my friend in the car when I put it down. It reads like a novelization of an action-horror movie, and as such is a really great popcorn book to turn the critical parts of your brain off and have a good time with. If you’re looking for retired government agents, some pretty legit body horror, and a zombie deer riding elevators then look no further than Cold Storage.

Rating: Cold Storage – 6.5/10