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

A Halloween Special: But What IS Horror Anyway?

Happy Halloween to all you spooksters out there! I’ve been wanting to take some time out and talk inanely about what “horror” means to me for a while now, and everyone finally rolled their eyes and gestured for me to go ahead. Alex described the concept to me very succinctly a short while ago by saying that “horror is the fear of a loss of agency.” I thought that was an incredibly profound and direct way of looking at what causes the sense of horror and prompted me to get this piece hammered out. If you’ve ever wondered why it was that someone liked a type of horror you think sucks, or if you’re just curious about my thoughts on what makes things scary and why, buckle up. If this isn’t your thing…well it’s only Halloween once a year so buckle up anyway because we’re about to dive in.

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Body HorrorThe fear of our own mortality.

Anyone who is afraid of the sight of blood or has felt squeamish at the thought of how their body truly works will be intimately familiar with this type of horror. Body horror, in essence, is the utilization of humanity’s natural disgust response to affect the reader or viewer in a physical way. When a person flinches as someone is stabbed by a murderer or feel sick to their stomach at the description of a parasitic infestation, they are reacting to a type of body horror. This is one of the most fundamental and easy to access types of fear reactions in people, as there is very little build up required. Describing the “gory details” can force people to react, even without a great deal of empathy for the characters, which is part of why this type of horror is so frequently associated with lower quality stories, or if not lower quality, then lower effort.

In her research paper on disgust, “Disgust As An Adaptive System For Disease Avoidance Behavior,” Valerie Curtis states that “Disgust is a fundamental part of human nature.” She points out that Charles Darwin was the first thinker to propose the universality of disgust, and builds upon their reasoning that the feeling of disgust originally arose in order to protect us from parasites and other disease vectors. This idea goes a long way to explain some of the most common themes in body horror. Witnessing bodily torture, parasites crawling under the skin, decaying bodies, these are all common tropes and frequently used within horror to elicit a physical response in the viewer or reader. It’s not hard to make the connection between these “scary” ideas and the fact that they act as disease vectors, that we are programmed to our core with a deep and unavoidable abhorrence for the reminder that our bodies are frail and easily disrupted systems that are keeping “us” alive.

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Paranormal The fear of our lack of understanding

I still remember the first time I was exposed to the idea of solipsism. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, solipsism is the theory that an individual can only ever be completely sure of their own inner self. At a surface level that seems like a fairly obvious insight, but once the idea is picked at some troubling questions can emerge. How can anyone be sure that what they’re seeing is reality? What evidence do we have that our perception of the world is shared by anyone else? The feeling of uncertainty and dread that tends to follow from an examination of this idea is at the core of what drives paranormal horror.

Humans by our physical nature are restricted to an infinitesimally limited view and understanding of the universe we operate within. Limited to our (fairly poor) senses, we can see a fraction of the colors that exist, smell almost nothing, hear a tiny range of frequencies, and touch only what we imagine to be physical. On top of all that we have a mushy organ that tries to interpret all of this information and build a cohesive narrative out of it. The understanding of how limited and non-comprehensive our experience of reality is can lead to the obvious question of “what are we missing?” It is this question that lives at the heart of paranormal horror. It is the attempt to tap into that sort of fugue state of existential dread at the realization of how much reality we miss as we go through our lives and that if we’re missing so much, there must be something we aren’t even aware that we’re missing. Whether that takes the form of ghosts, demons, or simply a house that really doesn’t like being lived in doesn’t matter as much as the idea behind why these forces are scary. We are unable to experience their true nature and it is horrifying for us to be reminded of our limitations and frailties.

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Psychological The fear we create for ourselves

I bet you’re thinking that this is a silly way to categorize horror. “All horror is psychological,” you say, “it’s all in your head.” You’re right, but so is everything else and that’s not even what I was going to say, so maybe you should let me finish. The nerve of people these days.

Why is it that so many people, myself included, can much more comfortably read horror than experience it in other types of media? I have an active and vivid imagination, so I can assure you that it is not due to some lack of ability to see horrifying things in my mind’s eye. It has to do with the atmosphere of horror and how that atmosphere is used to affect the person consuming said horror. It is important to note that all horror relies on atmosphere and as such there is always some attention paid to ensuring that atmosphere has horrific elements.Creators within the audiovisual space have a more expansive toolkit, and have the ability to evoke a terror response in a number of different ways. By coordinating different techniques, including auditory cues and sharp visual jump cuts, creators can trigger the flight or fight response within their viewers in order to cultivate a more subconscious atmosphere for the horror to thrive within. It is these involuntary responses that makes horror movies and games, at least for me, much more physically affecting and difficult to enjoy. In this sense the jump scare and spooky music are acting as a laugh track, placed there to ensure that even someone not paying attention to anything knows “this is the scary part.”

In contrast, horror in literature is stripped of these tools that are always so near to hand in film. Psychological horror in the written word must make careful use of writing technique, prose, and word choice to slowly drip feed the atmosphere to the reader. If done right, the writer can build empathy for the character and their situation, having the horror burrow further into the reader’s mind. There’s no payoff in seeing the “monsters” in The Shadow Over Innsmouth if you hadn’t spent the previous pages of the story exploring the town through the main character’s eyes, whereas a scary prosthetic or animatronic monster can frighten people at any point in a film with the right music and editing. It is the careful push and pull of giving the reader just enough information to lure them in but not so much that the reveal is spoiled at the climax of the book that is so impressive when authors get it right.

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Cosmic HorrorThe fear of our own insignificance

Imagine for a moment there was a world ending asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Nothing can stop it and we can’t get away, but it’s not supposed to hit for months. What do you think the overwhelming feeling would be? I doubt “screaming terror” would be the prevailing emotion. I imagine that most people would describe it with one word, “dread.” Dread at the inevitability of destruction due to something that cannot be reasoned with or understood as a motivated actor. Cosmic horror is the elevation of this event from an act of nature we don’t understand, to a god like consciousness we don’t understand. It is the exploration of the idea that the asteroid has motivations of its own, and chose to head this way, but not for any reason we could claim to understand.

Humans have spent all of our recorded history at the top of what we think of as the food chain here on Earth, but there was a far greater amount of time when modern man was just another species hiding in the dark from predators and struggling against extinction. The idea of a threat to your existence that threatens not out of personal enmity but instead its fundamental nature is one that has a significant amount of historical significance to humans, and it is easy to see that stories recalling this feeling can impact us so deeply to this day. The concept that a Cthulhu or the Worm Gods or Hastur could unintentionally destroy us all on their way to doing something else and not even notice is powerful, frightening, and reminds us of how insignificant we are in the grand scale of the universe. Cosmic horror beckons every time we look up at night and remember that each point of light is a star bigger than we can begin to comprehend.

In conclusion – So why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we seek out things that will haunt and unsettle us in the small hours of the night and come unbeckoned when we finally fall asleep? I can’t speak for everyone who reads horror but I personally view it as a type of desensitization. Similar to cognitive behavioral therapy for mental illness, horror as a genre allows individuals to seek out, explore, and come to terms with both the things they knew they feared and the ones that were bubbling under the surface. “Face your fears” is a common refrain and piece of life advice because it encourages you to stand up to something that frightens you and grow past it, or at least learn how to not let it control you. Horror allows a safe place to do this standing up at whatever pace works best for the reader. If you can’t do one thing that scares you every day, try to read one thing that scares you instead.

Let me know all of the problems you’ve had with this thought piece about what scares us in the comments and thanks for making it this far.

-Will

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – A Subway Ride You’d Rather Stay On

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Why did it have to be a novella? QTL readers familiar with my other reviews will know that I tend to harp on authors for padding their stories out to novel-length. It has historically been one of my largest pain points in reading horror, as I personally feel that the genre tends to be at its best when it remains lean, punchy, and shocking. Cue the gasps when I reveal that, at least for The Haunting of Tram Car 015, I wish it was a novel. In fact, I wish this was book one of a fifteen book series reminiscent of the old Spenser detective books. I devoured this story, and as much as I tend to appreciate and advocate for affecting stand-alones, this world cries out for more exploration than it’s received both here and in P. Djeli Clark’s short story “A Dead Djinn In Cairo.”

The Haunting of Tram Car 015, set in Cairo in the early 1910s, follows a pair of supernatural investigators looking into what they’re initially told is a haunted tram car. Through a series of trial and error mishaps, bargaining, intimidation, and a small bit of cross-dressing, the two investigators eventually work out the nuts and bolts of the case. The novella doesn’t tread any fresh ground for the detective genre through its story, and anyone looking for surprises here is going to be disappointed. As someone who grew up reading the Spenser books and loves a good mystery, it was very solid, if by the numbers, detective fare. 

Our main characters, Agents Hamed and Onsi, once again follow a format we’ve seen before in the genre. Agent Hamed is a cynical but effective investigator who’s been on the job for quite some time and is a little stuck in his ways. While anyone who’s read detective stories or mysteries before will have seen this dynamic play out, I thought that Clark managed to imbue the characters with just enough that was different that they still seemed fresh. Agent Onsi is fresh out of the academy and has an air of Carrot about him, for those familiar with the Discworld books. Enthusiastic, intelligent, and extremely devoted to each individual letter of the law, much of the comic relief comes from Onsi’s inability to stop talking or read the room. His reading out the specific statues violated by the possession of the tram to the spirit haunting it was hilarious to me, and Hamed’s inner monologue as it was happening was a great moment of levity.

While the characters and story may at least feel familiar to readers, what truly sets The Haunting of Tram Car 015 apart is its setting. The Cairo described within the text is a bustling and diverse megacity due to the re-release of magic into the world about 50 years prior by the Egyptians. This changed the course of history as we’re familiar with it and elevated Egypt to world power status immediately, freeing them of their colonial shackles and putting them at the very forefront of the world stage. During the events of the novella the shockwaves of this are still being felt throughout the world. The integration of Djinni and other magic beings is discussed at length, as well as domestic and foreign views of how the remainder of the world is handling the fact that Egypt is now (once again) a major player in world politics. I especially enjoyed the conflict Hamed experiences in his traditionalism in regard to his view of women and how to treat them in public in contrast to his progressivism when it comes to the spiritual denizens of Cairo. In addition to all of the larger worldwide political exploration, the story takes place at the same time as the country is about to vote on women’s suffrage. The added bustle of the city increases the stakes during several moments of the plot, and I felt that Clark did a good job exploring how the events of the prior 50 years have changed the culture in Egypt to the point that the women’s suffrage movement is both possible and extremely popular. I wasn’t expecting this going in, but I felt like it added a great deal to the sense that this story was taking place in a real world inhabited by real people, regardless of how magical and otherworldly it seems on its face.

With a title like The Haunting of Tram Car 015, I expected some elements of horror. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed in this particular case. While the story is “spooky” in that it revolves around a haunting and there are things adjacent to ghosts in it, I never really felt scared by any of the descriptions or events. There was always a distinct sense of threat and consequence if things went wrong, and the final conclusion of the story was very much edge-of-your-seat stuff, but I was left wishing I had felt more scared by things, rather than unsettled. This certainly may not be the case for everyone, though depending on what it is that you’re scared of there are some moments that could give people the heebie-jeebies, but it just never really happened for me.

Even with the lower level of spooks than I personally prefer, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 left me wanting so much more. Normally I would say that to mean it didn’t reach the heights it could have and I was left disappointed on that account. In this instance, I wanted about 300 more pages of worldbuilding and exploring this version of Cairo. I adored the world Clark built and felt something akin to whimsy as he described the workings and machinations that keep such a unique city running. I will be overjoyed if we ever get to see more of Agents Hamed and Onsi, but I’m glad to have spent even a brief period following them on a romp through a city I’ll never forget.

Rating: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – 8.5/10

Our Top 7 Horror Short Recommendations

I bought a jacket this past spring and have been looking at it occasionally with a longing that can only be matched by temporarily separated lovers. As such, you can only imagine my joy when the temperature here in Chicago finally dropped to numbers starting with “4,” and I could put it on. Because this is a review site, I will give my jacket five stars out of five. I loved it and will use it regularly in the future. What this dropping temperature and (awesome) jacket weather really means, though, is that it’s October! Spooky month is finally upon us and with it comes recommendations for horror short stories. I’ve put together a list of short stories and novellas from a variety of places that top my list of the best shorts out there, and I hope you take some time in the dark and grey evenings of this month to seek some of these out and enjoy them. I want to stress before we get going, however, that these are in no particular order and simply sum up some of our favorites here at QTL.

The Colour Out of Space by H.P. Lovecraft

I wanted to start the list strong, so I’ve chosen the horror short that I hold all others up to in comparison. The Colour Out of Space exemplifies and embodies the true core of cosmic horror for me. Taking place on the farm of Nahum Gardner, the story describes the slow descent into madness that the inhabitants of the farm undergo due to a strange meteorite falling next to their well. The single best part of this story to me is the complete lack of “monsters” or any other frightful beings with ill intentions. Lovecraft distilled the essence of atmospheric dread down to its purest form, describing in a languid and predatory style the cascade of small events that start seeming “off” before inevitably leading Nahum and his family on an unstoppable journey to horror and death. It is the very fact that the “antagonist” of this particular story is a meteorite that perfectly sums up the sense of impersonal and unlucky inevitability that the finest cosmic horror creates. The Gardners were not personally targeted by this meteorite, and the effects it causes are not purposeful. Instead, the fundamental nature of the stone is so inimical to life on earth and humans that its simple presence acts as a corrupting influence and brings with it a pure and distinct sense of an “other” that doesn’t just not care that it’s causing suffering, it doesn’t even notice.

Proboscis by Laird Barron

I love when stories decide on a specific theme and explore that idea as deeply as possible. Proboscis is either the story of a man losing his mind or a deeply unsettling revelation as to an aspect of our world better left not understood. Told through a framing device relying heavily on entomology and proboscises, shocking I know, this story features a thrilling psychological aspect that I think elevates it beyond most of the genre. Barron sprinkles the narrative with details that unsettle effortlessly and invite the reader to make connections that may or may not actually be there. The use of insects to poke at the primal disgust that they engender in humanity, and the suggestion that the protagonist is actually losing his mind coalesce and create a bubbling atmosphere of mounting dread and constant unease. While I obviously will not spoil anything in this brief blurb, I will say that the ending of this story is the single most memorable conclusion to a short story I’ve ever read, and it still makes me shiver.

A Song For Quiet by Cassandra Khaw

One of the two entries on this list that is closer to novella-length than short story territory, A Song For Quiet is probably my least favorite of the stories here. I wanted to get that out there because that should help readers understand that when I say I’m including this for one main aspect, it’s because that aspect is so unbelievably good that it nearly erased all my other foibles with the book. A Song For Quiet is on this list due to the sheer weightiness and luxuriance of Khaw’s horrific descriptions. The prose used during the songs Deacon James plays in the narrative is stunning. I was instantly impacted by the sheer terror of what I was reading, the way it was described and Khaw’s choices of words for events. Specifically her ability to describe events that are by their nature difficult to understand and purposefully “Weird with a capital w” is incredibly impressive. This story is one of those tales that makes you want to read the rest of the author’s catalogue regardless of genre. Cassandra Khaw has a way with the horrific that I’m startled and impressed by, and while this is the second of the two current Persons Non Grata stories available, I would recommend starting here with her work.

Procession of the Black Sloth by Laird Barron

This lovely little tale from Laird Barron is probably one of the more haunting stories I’ve read in the past couple of years. Barron fills every sentence with a creeping dread that is impossible to ignore. It follows a modern Pinkerton type investigator as he is sent to a factory in China to monitor the local disgruntled workforce. Unfortunately, there is a little exotic orientalism that seems to drive some of the horror, but a lot of aforementioned dread is built upon the transgressive nature of the protagonist. He is a voyeur through and through, expanding his work into a hobby as he spies on others through his hotel window. In my experience, Barron relies heavily on the lone gruff male stereotype, but this story is the one time I felt that this archetype is analyzed through the horror, instead of being an easy entry point. The protagonist feels creepy, but his need to watch pulls the reader into the mysteries he sees. He’s a bad guy, but the narrative is infectious through his eyes. Barron’s patient execution of the story kept me pulling at the string, needing to know more. He did not rush to reveal the terrible kernel, allowing the mystery and the protagonist’s need to investigate without revealing himself drive the story. I could not pull my eyes away from the page until the last word, and even then I still feel trapped by its trance. In some ways the story itself mirrors the reader’s fascination with the horror, but luckily for us we can’t become the story. We can only be consumed with the terror that the one true way to understand something is to be a part of it.

My Heart Struck Sorrow by John Hornor Jacobs

Here it is. Any of you who have been reading the site lately have probably stumbled on my review for A Lush and Seething Hell, by John Hornor Jacobs. This was my personal favorite of the two stories, and while I will encourage you to read the entire review here, it would be rude not to at least briefly go into why this story hit me so hard. Jacobs manages to infuse a story that is steeped in the terrifying and built to unsettle with something adjacent to wistfulness for a different and more magical time. There was something so powerful in Cromwell’s sense of longing, his need to find out whether the story of Stagger Lee was true, his need to find anything that will distract him or give him a sense of belonging or meaning. The flavor of this story was so piquant and unique, while being so familiar and almost nostalgic at the same time that I was sucked into the riptides of its narrative, completely lacking control or a sense of the time as I struggled to stay afloat. This story ripped me out of the well worn tracks of my day to day life and spat me out somewhere unsettlingly familiar, like going to your childhood home and finding that the furniture is all the same but has been moved around slightly. It’s a feeling I’ve been unable to shake since, and I highly recommend any tales with that kind of staying power.

A Long Spoon by Jonathon L. Howard

I’ll probably be punished by “true” horror fans for including this one on the list, but they’re nerds anyway, so what are they gonna do about it? Nothing, that’s what. More humor than horror and more laugh-inducing than limb-rending, the Johannes Cabal series more winks to the world of horror than explores it, but I can’t help myself but include my favorite tale from that world in this list. Taking place just before the last of the numbered entries in the series, A Long Spoon tells the tale of how Cabal meets Zarenyia, a devil of hell. Not the devil, though they have met on occasion before, long story. After being forced to ask her “nicely” to guide him into the darkest depths of hell, the two embark on a zany and mildly horrifying romp into said dark depths. I am a huge fan of all things Cabal, and these are 32 of the most enjoyable pages I’ve read involving murder, mayhem, and women who are giant spiders from the waist down. If any of that sounds like something you can get into, go read the 4 main series books and sundry short stories and novellas leading up to this, then read it. I know that sounds like a lot, but the Cabal series is one of those palate cleansers that you can read pretty much anytime and have a great experience.

How the Day Runs Down by John Langan

Is it wrong to include a short story that’s actually a series of vignettes in a list about short stories? I don’t think so and anyway I need to talk about this somewhere as it’s just so odd. How the Day Runs Down is a horror short story being told from the perspective of the Stage Manager, a character in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Doling out small-town wisdom and anecdotes about the characters living in this small town as he discusses their successes and failings as the town falls to the living dead, there is a surreal and eminently memorable atmosphere that drips from this story from the first page. It’s even written partly as a screenplay, which creates a sort of hushed collaboration between the Stage Manager and the reader, in that we too know what’s about to happen to these characters and have an opportunity to stop it (or at least it’s shown that the Stage Manager does, when he chooses to). The culpability of watching all the events within the story unfold weighed heavy on me, and made me feel a sense of guilty voyeurism as I, we, did nothing. It was an experience I’ve never forgotten and is one unique to zombie horror at least, if not horror in general. 

And with that we’re done with the list. There are hundreds of incredible stories that didn’t make the cut, and if I missed your personal favorite please let me know in the comments what it was and why you think it should be here. I hope you all have a spookily good October and find exactly the level of terror you’re looking for.

Middlegame – I Didn’t Quite Go Cuckoo For It, But Still Great

71e9du8wynlI wanted to start this review with a reference to Changes by David Bowie, but maybe that’s a little too on the nose? What about The Future’s So Bright by Timbuk 3? Probably still not quite right, and due to my lack of pop culture references to alchemy I may have to change my angle of approach. See, I know all of this may stick out as odd to you now but if you actually go and read Middlegame by Seanan McGuire you’ll notice the super-hidden and not obvious at all references I’ve made to the fact that the book is about time travel. It will also become obvious to you that they weren’t very funny and I should probably just review the book itself. The fact that I’m about to do that is another coded message to you that I hear your constructive criticism, that I’m listening to you. I’m always listening to you.

Middlegame starts in media res with our two protagonists in the midst of failing to save the world, one of them bleeding to death and the other unable to do anything about it. Through some magic that is essentially the entire premise of the book, everything is reset and we get to experience the story that led them there, sort of. This is a somewhat difficult story to parse critically without ruining a lot of the feeling of discovery, as the idea that our protagonists can essentially reset their current timeline in order to go back and try to fix something that went wrong means that we are often given information that either quickly becomes obsolete or that has significantly more importance than we’re originally led to believe. As such, I’ll try to give the barebones rundown of the setting before we move on. The world is nominally the same as ours but for the fact that the magical practice of alchemy is real. This has led to the formation of a shadowy organization called the Alchemical Congress, and it is because of their unwillingness to go along with the plans of one of their members named Asphodel Baker that our story is set into motion. Baker, in pursuit of godlike power, writes a set of children’s books that contain coded messages relating to a large number of important alchemical MacGuffins, and it is this act that sets our story into motion.

If it sounds like I’m handwaving the magic a little bit, it’s on purpose. I didn’t feel like the restraints of alchemy were really all that consistent within the text, and it felt more to me like the means to an end of telling the story McGuire wanted rather than a cohesive and living framework in which the characters lived. I don’t, however, think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as it led to a somewhat whimsical and unique feel to the magic that I enjoyed quite a great deal. McGuire’s choice to write portions of the narrative in the style of Baker’s children’s stories goes a long way to making that aspect of the story feel fundamental and coherent. The magic feels like storybook magic, which fits the story McGuire tells in Middlegame.

The characterization of our two main protagonists is great. Not only does McGuire do a great job of writing the protagonists, Roger and Dodger, she also does a great job of exploring the unique powers that the two were born with and grow into over time. I suppose I should have expected this in a book about using time travel to fix the mistakes you made in the past to save the future, but I was extremely surprised by a number of the twists and misdirects in the book. Each setback for the pair feels real and is written well enough to instill a sympathetic sense of loss in me when I think back on them. I thought McGuire did especially well writing the pair as children, their dialogue and internal monologue was believable without being over the top and really helped cement the two as real people in my mind.

I wish I could say the same for the antagonists. My main gripe with the book is that neither Reed, our main antagonist and the homunculus made by Baker, nor his assistant feel like real people. I’m guessing that’s on purpose due to the fact that they’re both constructs made by other alchemists, which McGuire takes pains to point out throughout the course of the book. While that is something of a mitigating factor, and I did enjoy getting to see the inner workings of their heads and their descriptions of how they interact with the world, they were always just a little too arch, just a skosh too pantomime evil to ever truly feel real. I enjoyed reading their segments the same way I enjoy laughing at Skeletor in images of the old He-Man show. Regardless of how close they come to succeeding, or how much danger they put the protagonists in, their motivations never feel like something I could understand or be threatened by.

I was enchanted by Middlegame. The world felt inhabitable in a very inviting way. I enjoyed the somewhat “take it as it is” magic system, I liked the protagonists a lot, and I thought the time travel mechanic that McGuire uses was a clever and unique twist on that style of story. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel at some point down the line and will absolutely pick it up if it comes to be, though in my research I haven’t turned up any mention of whether that’s actually planned or not. I wouldn’t necessarily bump other stuff out of your to-be-read queue, but definitely try to make some time for this book.

Rating: Middlegame – 8.0/10
-Will

A Lush And Seething Hell – If This Is Hell I’ll pass On Heaven

91dsajyop2lI am not a religious man. Despite my Catholic upbringing and coming of age in the American midwest, the world of the spiritual has never called out to me. I’ve never felt the rapture of religion or the whisper of the divine. As such, I find myself sorely lacking in vocabulary to describe my experience with A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs. Comprised of the novellas The Sea Dreams it is the Sky and My Heart Struck Sorrow, this “anthology-lite” as I’ve come to think of it is beyond normal description for me. Had I truly submerged myself in the dogma of Catholicism, with its near-magic and incensed ritualism, I might be able to better put into words how these stories affected me. As it is, however, I can only imagine that this is what people who have had spiritual revelations felt like in the aftermath: my nerves are raw and frayed, and I feel as if I have been exposed to something separate from me and all the experience I’ve had up to this point.

I know that sounds rather overwrought and excessive, but so much of this book has infused me and singed the edges of all that I am that there’s no other way to describe it. The book’s cover art slowly wore away from my fingers as I read it, and over the week it took me to read and re-read and really digest the depth and weight of the stories it contained, I would find little black spots on my hands and forearms from the ink wearing away. It was almost as if I was physically consuming the book as I read it. I’ve received and reviewed a decent number of ARCs at this point, and while they’re never quite as well put together physically as a release copy of a book, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. I felt personally connected to the stories of Isabel and Cromwell, and felt that I was being marked just as they were by something incomprehensible and vast and somehow more than the paltry world I had experienced to that point. Jacobs uses the phrase “collapsed-time” in both stories to describe the fluidity and lack of form of time when experienced through a period of great pain or emotion, and that is exactly what I felt during my time with the stories. Time as I had known it ceased to act for me in the way it always had, and I felt myself separate from it in a fundamental and indescribable way.

I’m normally more lighthearted in my reviews and take less care in my attempts at mellifluous descriptions and language, but I don’t know that I could review something that I felt so profoundly without all of this extra…everything. I’ve waited to start writing this review for weeks now to see whether the feeling would change or stick with me, and if anything my experience with these stories has grown more profound in retrospect. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a novel or anthology or anything else that will impact me quite the same way. I never have before.

The book begins with The Sea Dreams it is the Sky, a tale about Isabel, an exiled teacher from the made-up South American country of Magera. While the country described in the story is imaginary, the trials and tribulations it undergoes at the hands of a totalitarian regime supported from behind the scenes by the United States are all too based in history. She meets her country’s most famous (or infamous) exiled poet Avendano, who is believed by most to be dead after being captured and tortured by the government. When he tells her that he must return to the country under strange circumstances, he gives her his apartment and access to his unfinished translation of an ancient and obscene text. In the process of continuing the translation she is drawn back to her country to search for Avendano and to try to reconcile what is currently happening to her with what has happened and continues to happen to her country. The story becomes more dreamlike and terrifying as it continues and Isabel is drawn further into the horror that has subsumed her home, horror of cosmic and sadly mundane nature. While there are great and unknowable forces at work in Magera, they are contrasted against the totalitarian regime of Vidal, and I found this comparison to be remarkably profound. Cosmic horror relies heavily on the fear of the unknown, that the forces at work against the protagonist are so vast and alien that the horror happening in the story is actually impersonal, because why would an ancient being with the power of gods actually care about a single individual? In stark relief against this is the specific pettiness of the horror Vidal’s government inflicts on its own people. Teachers, students, Marxists, and regular citizens who know the wrong people are intentionally targeted and disappeared in ways horrific enough that the description of Avendano reacting to the tortures that aren’t themselves described was enough for me to be truly unsettled. It is a trip down a rabbit hole into a twisted surreal wonderland that I wanted to leave but couldn’t get enough of.

My Heart Struck Sorrow, the second story of this anthology-lite, is a more classic cosmic horror tale of a researcher discovering a work of art that tells a story humans aren’t meant to understand. I want it to be clear that my description of this as “more classic” is not meant to imply that this is in any way less scary or meaningful for that fact. With as much horror as I read, it’s rare for me to be physically affected by a story, but in three pages my scalp was tingling and the hair on the back of my neck was raised. This story masterfully mixes both supernatural horror and terror of a mundane nature and is stronger for not relying on one or the other. Following a music researcher, Cromwell, as he explores recordings left to the historical agency he works for as part of an old woman’s estate, My Heart Struck Sorrow is a mysterious and haunting story about the magic the world used to, and may still, contain and a man’s desperation to tap into that regardless of the personal cost. I will say no more about the story, but, “He’s a bad man, Stackalee.”

I need to wrap this “review that isn’t really a review so much as me pouring my heart out about something that filled it too much” up. I’m sure you can tell from everything up to this point that I absolutely loved this book. I have never been impacted by stories the way I was with this, and the very act of reading cast a sort of glamour over me and my life for both the week I was actively reading it and each day since. Maybe it was the mindset I had going into the reading of this book. It could have been a strange cosmic alignment that changed me and made me more receptive to it. I’m not sure, but I had as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever felt while reading this, and to anyone looking for another great cosmic horror writer, look no further than John Hornor Jacobs.

Rating: A Lush and Seething Hell – 10/10 (I would give it more if I could)
-Will

Ghoster – Too Substantial to Properly Spook

ghosterI don’t have a lot of experience with dating apps, having been in a long term relationship until recently, and as such have viewed them with the same amused indifference granted to most of the technology I don’t interact with. Having spoken to friends that have used them, and through some low-level environmental exposure, I have, however, picked up on some key facets. All of this personal information none of you care about is here to explain that I have not personally experienced “ghosting,” but I do understand what it is through the cultural zeitgeist of modern dating technology, and have a general understanding that it is “bad.” Pretty great lead-in to the review of Ghoster by Jason Arnopp, eh?

Ghoster is a Schrodinger’s Book for me, a story that appears to have been written directly for me and one that is so far outside my normal sphere of enjoyment I would never pick it up on my own volition. A horror story about a relationship gone wrong written through the lens of modern technology and dating apps is very much not my normal fare and with the cover on the ARC we received displaying a text messaging screen, I began reading with no little apprehension, steeling myself for what I was fairly sure would be more toil than enjoyment. I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by Ghoster. While not without its faults, there are some very strong foundations to this story, and I came out of this reading with a fresh lesson in not judging books by their covers.

In Ghoster we follow Kate Collins as she moves across the UK to begin living with a new boyfriend, Scott. It should not be surprising based on the title, cover art, back of book blurb, and the fact that this is advertised as a horror book that the move-in does not go according to plan and Kate finds herself “ghosted” by Scott. This already fraught situation is complicated by two large problems. Firstly, Kate is a social media addict (and something of a stalker), and has gone cold turkey from digital media in general, trading her smartphone in for a simple texting device. This complicates her search for Scott’s whereabouts and forces her into more and more outlandish actions to try to find him. Secondly (and arguably the less weird problem), Scott’s apartment that Kate has recently moved into appears to be haunted.

Let’s start with the phone stuff. I’m not going to get into the believability of having such a severe addiction to social media that you revert to what is essentially an old Nokia brick, I’m sure there are people out there like that, but I did find it hard to sympathize with Kate a lot of the time due to the nature of her character flaws. I’m sure that says something about me, but while I like my protagonists to be flawed I did feel like this particular issue was pretty overblown. Additionally, and I think this is probably the biggest issue with the book, the references to specific apps and reliance on current technological jargon means this story will age poorly. Not every book needs to be a classic, and there is a time and place to pig out on popcorn, but if you’re looking for a full meal (excuse the metaphor) I would recommend another choice.

The thing that really bugs me about the issues I had with the technobabble and constant references to dating app etiquette, is that I honestly don’t think it was necessary. If the tech addictions and more romance-heavy aspects of the book were removed, I think the horror story at its foundation would be stellar. The bones of this book, the novella that lives within this full-length novel, is outstanding. I did not see the twist coming and the ending goes toe-to-toe with a number of horror shorts I place at the very top of my list. I was expertly misdirected, and the pacing of the horror elements, as well as what information is given, is fantastic. I wish I could say the same for the pacing of pretty much everything else.

The climax of the story happened so quickly that I’m fairly certain it was purposeful to instill a sense of shock in the reader, and while it did have something of a shocking effect, I felt more bemused than anything. Additionally, there’s a fairly long final chapter that seems almost like a postscript to explain all the things that got sidelined during Kate’s search for Scott. Once I finished and closed the book for the final time I was struck by how much more coherent and enjoyable the story would have been to me if it had a runtime of 100-150 pages and stripped all the fat from its bones. There is a story in here that I think would win awards if it were distilled to its core, and I think that a lot of what’s in there distracts from what could be a truly terrifying tale.

I’m conflicted about Ghoster. I went into it expecting a painful trudge through a horror-romance and ended disappointed in an entirely different way. I did truly enjoy my time reading it, which is more than I was expecting, but was left unsatisfied by the heights it failed to attain. There are aspects of this book that will remain memorable for a long time, but a large portion of the book has already slipped from my ability to recall. I sense that the parts I liked will eventually be all I remember of the book, and I wish Arnopp had written a novella or short story with just those bits, but this book probably isn’t really for me, and as such I will take the enjoyment I received and selectively remember it as shorter and scarier than it ended up.

Rating: Ghoster – 6.5/10
-Will