The Luminous Dead – Dark, Bleak And Lively

I have not engaged with a lot of horror on the written page. I enjoy watching horror movies, good or bad, and sometimes play survival-horror games, but I rarely read it. I have Edgar Allan Poe’s collected works and got turned onto Laird Barron by our resident horror reader Will, but beyond that, I am lost. I think my fear is that the kind of horror novel that would pull me in is harder to find on my own, and the effort I would have to expend feels like it would not have enough of a guaranteed payoff. I want to engage with someone’s psyche and see how they deteriorate under pressures of their own making. I want to feel them spin out of control with no options besides pushing forward, edging closer to their own insanity. So when I heard this book was reminiscent of The Descent, a horror movie I adore, I had to read it. Caitlin Starling, in her debut novel The Luminous Dead, explores the depths of a character’s mind through a haunting and unnerving sci-fi trip that focuses on personal relationships to increase the horror.

Gyre Price is willing to go to any length to escape the life she’s been given. Her mother abandoned her while she was young, and now all Gyre can think about is getting off the backwater mining planet she’s on and maybe find her mother. An opportunity opens up in the form of a cave diving position. Gyre leaps at the chance, sure of her ability to overcome the risks to receive the big paycheck at the end. As she is not a caver, she fakes her resume, surgically alters her digestive tract to conform with the diving suit’s needs and hopes that those hiring will not find out. With the amount of money on the line, Gyre is sure she will have a skilled support team, guiding her every step of the way. Instead, she is stuck with Em, a woman who is unwilling to compromise and will use whatever is at her disposal to make sure Gyre gets the job done, even if it means drugging her at a moment’s notice to make her sleep or force an adrenaline rush. But Gyre signed the contract, and the only way out is down.

The characters and the atmosphere are the shining stars in The Luminous Dead. Starling’s writing allows the reader to slip into Gyre’s head with ease. She also makes sure you stay there, unable to see the world outside of Gyre’s senses. While Gyre is rough around the edges, she is relatable in her need to escape her dreary circumstances. She has a nearly indomitable will that permeates through her every action. Her thoughts center very much on the task at hand, and she is not written to impress the reader. In a refreshing twist, Em is not the opposite of Gyre. She possesses a similar will but has issues with control. As Gyre learns more of Em’s history, the more she questions her intentions, feeding into her own instability which undermines Em’s need for control. Their tensions are only exacerbated by the fact that their communications are through radio, and to the reader’s knowledge, they have never met in person. This strained relationship weighs heavy on Gyre’s frail but stubborn psyche throughout the book, taking the reader to some dark places.

The horror is subtle and creeping. Starling paces the moments of dread well throughout the book, never quite showing her hand. She relays everything to the reader through Gyre, and it becomes impossible to really know what is happening. As Gyre starts to lose sleep, small nagging thoughts become larger, and what may have been slightly weird before now feels like a conspiracy. I kept waiting for Starling to pull back and show me what was really happening, but she never did. Gyre’s journey deeper into the planet is paralleled by the reader’s dive into her psyche. I never once felt that Gyre was overreacting to the environment or Em’s decisions. It was unnerving to consistently feel the need for Gyre to look over her shoulder, but frustratingly I couldn’t make her. Her suit is designed to completely encase her body, shielding her from the elements and hiding her from local fauna. But it also means she is completely reliant on supply capsules left by divers before her. This leads to another question for Gyre’s mind to play out: who was down here first? Where are they now? And so the vicious cycle of thoughts and lack of information continues.

To add to the tension, Starling made the interplay between resources and physical needs symbiotic in a way I had not seen written before. Missing or broken equipment reduced Gyre’s food and power supply, forcing her to move faster and take bigger risks. But by doing that she depleted her body’s and suit’s energy faster. She slept less, letting her mind wander in the darkness of the cave. As this cycle perpetuates itself, her drive becomes stronger while her mental acuity loses focus, and she becomes less mindful of her surroundings. As I have mentioned in other reviews, I love watching systems play themselves out. But to watch something like that happen on such a personal level was a treat and a terror. It made me root for Gyre, but also fear the reality that she might not make it.

I have barely mentioned Em, even though she is arguably close to half of the story. And as much as I want to talk about her, I think it’s better for the reader to discover her for themselves. But in lieu of that, Starling did write one of the more dynamic relationships I have read recently. The way Gyre questions Em, oscillates between liking her, hating her, finding herself attracted to her, and bounces to dozens of other emotions that made their way into Gyre’s head about Em. The sheer volume of thoughts and feelings was astonishing. How do you deal with someone who your life depends on, but they have gone out of their way to feel unattached to you? Can you forgive someone after they have manipulated your body against your will? Can a personal relationship blossom from a clearly contractual agreement of who is in charge? Watching these two women wade through these questions was probably the reason I read all the way through the book. After years of hardening oneself against the world, the horror of beginning to know someone else, and having them know you in turn, felt stronger than the psychological dread of being trapped underground.

The Luminous Dead is a welcome respite from the galaxy-ending science fiction I am used to. It is a deeply personal story that digs deep. It had its share of slow moments, and I felt I had to push myself through at some points, but Starling stayed true to her characters. They never felt off-base to me, which in this case became more important to my experience than how often I felt fear. There are plenty of metaphors littered throughout, as if Starling left several trails of breadcrumbs, asking the audience to dive deeper on their own. It is a purposefully disorienting read, forcing the reader to explore the darkness with Gyre, but it is worth the journey.

Rating: The Luminous Dead – 8.5/10

-Alex

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Pet Sematary – Sometimes Read Is Better

Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 9.06.19 AMStephen King’s Pet Sematary plunges readers into a deep well of terror that provides a steady supply of eerie atmosphere, horrifying happenings, and a look into their effect on human relationships. The novel wrestles with death, grief, and human nature, bleeding dark themes onto every page. Pet Sematary transformed me from a hesitant first-time King reader to a horror rookie who can appreciate the power of scares and omnipresent creep-factor. Over the course of the book’s ~400 pages, I eagerly read from chapter to chapter hoping to learn something new about the characters, the small town Northeastern United States setting, and the mysterious goings-on that drive the story to an incredibly satisfying end.

Protagonist Louis Creed moves his family from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine on the heels of a job offer at a nearby university’s medical center. On the day of their move, Louis, his wife Rachel, and children Ellie (5) and Gage (2) meet their neighbor Jud Crandall. Jud’s lived in Ludlow his entire life, and he strikes a friendly, pseudo-father-son relationship with Louis. The two drink beers on Jud’s porch and shoot the breeze almost nightly, and Jud eventually brings Louis and his family to the eponymous Pet Sematary, a graveyard kept (and spelled, notably) by children for the pets they’ve lost, many of which were killed by trucks speeding down the main road where Louis and Jud reside. It’s after this incident that Pet Sematary reaches a boiling point that only rarely cools to a simmer. Rachel is visibly shaken by the place while Ellie is intrigued and starts asking questions about death. An accident at Louis’ medical office kickstarts a series of events that intertwines his life with the Pet Sematary and turns the creepiness up to max volume. Turns out Native American burial grounds don’t take kindly to being trifled with–but that’s all I can say before giving away the book’s juiciest and scariest moments.

King’s shining prose won me over almost immediately, cementing Pet Sematary as a quality reading experience. He condenses lofty ideas into short, digestible sentences. He keeps the reader interested with effortless descriptions of Louis’ train of thought. He introduces supernatural elements so smoothly that they feel tangible. It feels dumb even typing this about an author who’s written more than 50 novels, but it’s true. Every paragraph serves a purpose, whether it’s exploring a motif or driving the story forward at a breakneck pace–there’s nothing missing here, nor is there any excess fat. King weaves his tale with Goldilocks-zone accuracy: it’s juuuuust right.

That paragon prose empowers King and his story to present vivid imagery and starkly accurate portrayals of family life, friendships, grief, death, and sanity (or lack thereof). Pet Sematary, told through the lens of Louis Creed’s psyche, offers a darkly radiant panorama of addled minds and the power of death over the human brain. As the nefarious events of the novel unfold, each character deals with them in ways that feel undeniably true to form. When death pops up around a corner, Ellie, a child, grows curious. Rachel remembers the traumatic death of her sister. Louis and Jud tell each other stories and do their best to keep one another afloat in grief-stricken waters. Every relationship and conversation in Pet Sematary rings with authenticity; never once did I feel disconnected from the novel due to a stray cheesy line or over-the-top description. Just as he does with his prose for readers, King gives his characters exactly what they need to keep the story compelling.

All that said, I thought Pet Sematary’s single shortcoming was the protagonist himself. Louis Creed is a Doctor who has a new job, a loving wife (sure, they fight once in a while), two kids, and a friend in Jud Crandall. But he’s the shallowest of the cast, to the point where it becomes easy to read Pet Sematary as a self-insert novel, the main character becoming a link between the reader and the world. Some may prefer this approach, but I wanted a multi-faceted Louis over the one-dimensional conduit who lends his senses to readers on their Pet Sematary journey. Still, this is a matter of preference, and despite my misgivings, I breezed through the book.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Pet Sematary for me was that I enjoyed it so much even without overwhelming supernatural or fantasy elements. Don’t get me wrong–they’re plentiful. But instead of a horror onslaught, King gives readers a steady drip of scares that builds to a steady stream. By the novel’s conclusion, readers are subjected to a terrifying deluge of scares and unsettling imagery. They’re effective moments, but their impact is multiplied tenfold by King’s restraint. Once again, he gives us exactly what we need–no more, no less.

I read the last words of Pet Sematary and noted a distinct connection to one of the book’s earlier moments. The novel’s final moments are as powerful as those that built to it, and Pet Sematary is punctuated by a deftly written conclusion that left me rattled, with an intense and newfound appreciation for the King of Horror.

Rating: Pet Sematary – 9.0/10
-Cole

A First-Time Stephen King Reader Walks into a Pet Sematary…

…and the punchline is an 850-ish word essay about his inaugural experience with The King of Horror, which Google tells me is one of Stephen King’s nicknames.

9781982115982_p0_v3_s1200x630It’s admittedly difficult to kick off a piece like this knowing full well that Stephen King has a body of work large enough to be called a pantheon (58 novels!) and a following loyal enough to produce curated meme listicles, “read this if you like Stephen King” listicles, and other clickbait about the guy’s storytelling prowess. Case in point: Stephen King has a fanbase that rivals the likes of Tolkien or Rowling, and for good reason. As a first-time Stephen King reader, Pet Sematary (review to come) acted as the Jud Crandall to my Louis Creed, leading me into a world of creepy spooky stuff that I don’t fully understand.

I closed out Pet Sematary with a newfound appreciation for an author whose work I should’ve started reading years ago. And it’s still early, but to borrow some corporate jargon, I have three key takeaways.

Practice Makes Perfect Prose

There’s no way around it: the dude can write. Pet Sematary boasts a heavy plot and complex themes, but King navigates those rough waters with breezy prose. His writing bears telltale signs of a seasoned veteran. King can describe human thought and stream of consciousness with unmatched skill. When you write as much as King does, you’ll inevitably learn a few tricks of the trade, and that firm grasp on the craft of writing radiated throughout my first foray into King’s work. I won’t belabor the point here, but check out my coming review for more on the technical aspects of his writing.

On a more conceptual level, King’s wordsmithery does wonders to destroy barriers of entry into the horror genre. Despite the wishes of Will, The Quill to Live’s resident horror expert, I’ve steered wildly clear from anything remotely scary because one time I watched The Conjuring and couldn’t sleep for three days. Pet Sematary may not have prepared me for a deep dive into the vast pool of horror writing, but it’s moved the needle from “Absolutely not” to “tentatively excited about the genre’s prospects.” King’s prosaic guidance into an unfamiliar branch of literature opened my eyes to new possibilities. Perhaps more importantly, he convinced me that the horror genre can play host to meaningful explorations of difficult concepts and lofty themes.

Motifs, Mo’ Problems? Not Quite

Speaking as a reformed Fantasy purist with a years-long preference for Young Adult writing, I’ve read my fair share books that simply present ideas without deeply exploring them. Now, following my reformation, I’ve ventured into new literary territory and learned the difference between merely presenting concepts and actually grappling with them. Pet Sematary fortified my relatively recent love for complex adult (no, not that kind of adult) fiction thanks to King’s thematic prowess.

Reading Pet Sematary, I felt the crushing weight of death on my shoulders. It’s omnipresent through the novel, and it rears its head in unique, intriguing ways. The doctor protagonist’s no-nonsense attitude toward death balances exquisitely with his wife’s terror at a minuscule hint of it. His young daughter’s reluctance to accept it as a possibility rests in the middle of her parents’ views, neatly filling in the spectrum.

When death rears its ugly head, which happens at various points in various ways, I feel prepared to analyze the events through the lenses Stephen King so elegantly builds. His motifs rise in volume chapter by chapter in a deft crescendo of prose that feeds directly into the novel’s climax.

King treats all of his motifs with equal care. And while death plays a starring role, others join the fray to create a food-for-thought tapestry that’s punctuated by the terrifying story that lies beneath.

Creepy>Scary

It’s one thing to make me jump in my seat with a well-timed scare, and it’s another thing to inject a sense of looming dread and doom into every paragraph. In Pet Sematary, King does both quite well, but his appreciation for balance makes this one of the most powerful tools in his arsenal.

There were three very specific moments in Pet Sematary that scared me enough to raise my heart rate and compel me to look around the house for intruders. These scares are spaced out and surprising, even when I sensed something scary around the next narrative corner. I literally hesitated to pet my own cats as I read the book.

The story that resides in between these scares, though, is violently eery. King weaves a narrative that’s laced with horrifyingly unsettling moments, concepts, and occurrences that had me on edge, turning digital pages as fast as I could.

This probably boils down strictly to personal preference, but King’s foundation of creepy atmosphere sprinkled with truly jump-worthy scares is a recipe for page-turning greatness.

(Read the) Rest in Peace

Pet Sematary expanded my literary horizons into the realm of horror, and I have King’s skilled craftsmanship to thank for it. Reading one of the lauded author’s titles has me amped up for more, seeking that next rush of adrenaline, thought-provoking concept, and layered prose. If you’re somehow on the fence about Stephen King, do yourself a favor and jump down to the “I’ll give him a try” side.

-Cole

The Reality Dysfunction – Patience Is A Virtue

51uakgft9jl._sx323_bo1204203200_The writers of The Quill to Live are undertaking a small project this year – we are reading a book series as a group and recording an audio discussion for each installment. The series in question is The Night’s Dawn Trilogy by Peter Hamilton. The books, starting with The Reality Dysfunction, are absolutely massive, clocking in at over 1200 pages of dense reading apiece. As such, there is a ton to unpack and discuss, especially given that our reviewers did not agree on how we felt about the book. Expect to see that audio discussion sometime this month, but if you would prefer to just read a short review of the first book, we have you covered. Please keep in mind that these are just my (Andrew’s) opinions, and the other site reviewers do not necessarily agree with my review (as you will hear in the coming discussion).

So what is The Reality Dysfunction? To begin with, it is Peter Hamilton’s first book – and as someone who has read most of the larger body of his work, it is interesting to see how far he has come as a writer. Hamilton is one of my favorite science fiction writers, though I think some of his books are definitely better than others. In particular, I am a massive fan of his Pandora’s Star duology. Hamilton brings a degree of anthropology to his books and likes to explore how new technology and information permeates society and how it changes the human experience.

The Reality Dysfunction takes place in a future human confederacy. Our race has spread to the stars, colonized a number of new planets, invented a number of new technologies and cultures, and met a few alien species. We are happily spreading among the stars until an unlucky group of colonists essentially accidentally starts a spiritual plague. People begin to become possed by otherworldly beings and sit spreads across humanity like a strange plague. We view these events through a wide and diverse cast of characters. The lead, if there was one, is Joshua Calvert – a young space captain, and notorious sex fiend (we will come back to this). There are also a number of other scientists, leaders, colonists, criminals, and blue-collar workers spread across a number of worlds. Each of these POVs gives you insight into different parts of Hamilton’s world and comes together to build a massive holistic experience.

Reviewing The Reality Dysfunction was hard because while I really enjoyed the book overall, I had a mixed experience with each element of Hamilton’s storytelling. For example, the worldbuilding was incredible. Hamilton, over hundreds and hundreds of pages, slowly and beautifully pieces together a massive human empire that feels like a complex living machine. He does this through insane attention to detail when it comes to economies, environments, cultures, and people to paint what feels like a possible future for our species. On the other hand, Hamilton says the Confederacy is a collection of hundreds of worlds, but we only find ourselves hearing about five – which made the universe feel a bit empty (especially compared to his other books where the galaxy feels a lot more vibrant).

Then we have the plot. The book begins with almost twenty unrelated POVs that take place across the galaxy. As the book progresses, Hamilton hooks you with more than ten exciting subplots that had me coming back for more. At about the midway point in book one, the spirits make an entrance and we start to see how the different subplots are related. I think the biggest sin that Hamilton commits in this book is that the subplots were more interesting than the major possession plotline. That is not to say the possession story is bad, it is just that I was insanely invested in these smaller stories and it almost felt like the possession story was unnecessary. There is A LOT going on in this book (which is unsurprising at page count over 1200). I just wish that Hamilton had done a little more with the main plot to make it feel more integral to the characters’ stories.

Next, we have the characters, which are a little uneven. I called Joshua the theoretical protagonist, but that is only because he is clearly Hamilton’s favorite. Joshua is a walking cyclone of Gary Sue-ness, and the reviewers and I collectively started referring to him as Joshua Hard Penis (JHP), as he fucked literally everything with an orifice in this book. The characters collectively were a wonderful, diverse, and complex cast. However, I feel it could be argued that there might have been some subtle sexism in Hamilton’s writing. The female cast often feels a little less capable and more focused on being sex objects. That being said, I’ve read my fair share of Hamilton and never once felt his writing was sexist. This being his first book, it’s apparent he had yet to work out the sexual kinks.

Following up on this, one of Hamilton’s strongest abilities as a writer is that everything he does is visceral and intense. His descriptions suck you in and make you feel like you are there, his action gives you an adrenaline rush, his torture haunts you for days after you read it, and his sex scenes make you feel like you DEFINITELY shouldn’t be reading what feels like erotica on your subway ride. His writing is extremely evocative and it gives his novels a deep and lasting impression and helps you immerse yourself in his worlds. Most of his books have a respectable amount of sex, but it was super clear that Hamilton was trying to use smut to sell his debut novel. There is so much god damn sex in this book. We are talking anti-gravity sex cages, weird astral projection orgies, and super genetically enhanced genitals. If you really like your sci-fi to have a lot of steamy sex, this book might be your fetish. But, for a lot of people, I suspect that there is simply a little too much sex in this book. All of his later work is a lot more toned down in this area, and I am hoping it will level out in the second book in the series.

The Reality Dysfunction takes a little patience to read, but I think it is worth it. I loved this book, but I do think it is slightly bogged down by first-novel jitters. Having read his later work it is clear that he grew a lot after writing this first book – but The Reality Dysfunction is still a very solid science-fiction novel that will delight most readers. Its biggest hold up is honestly probably its prohibitive size, and I suspect a number of readers will be scared away by its density. For those of you who might be holding out, Hamilton is an expert in taking you to new worlds and I highly recommend you set aside a chunk of time and dig in.

Rating: The Reality Dysfunction – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Atrocity Archives – If You Gaze Long Into IT, The IT Also Gazes Into You

51zhglnwgul._sx308_bo1204203200_Show of hands, how many of you out there have worked for a large corporation before? For those of you sitting at your desk with a hand raised, likely sipping a lukewarm coffee that may or may not have been the last cup before the carafe needed to be refilled (you think we don’t know?), put your hand down. You look ridiculous and your colleagues are beginning to talk. Those of you who had your hands raised, and are now feeling a little self-conscious, The Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross, is going to make sense to you. It shouldn’t, because the contents are mind-warping, strange, and surreal, but it will. I’m sorry.

As I was saying, today’s review is The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, a book that is actually a long novella and a short story combined into one printing and kicks off the Laundry Files series. As of the writing of this review, there are 9 fully numbered entries in the series, so there’s clearly a readership. Considering it’s essentially about an IT guy who’s really good at math trying to contain gibbering extra-dimensional entities it seems like I may be the kind of person who’s a member of that readership. Review spoiler, as is tradition, I am.

The Atrocity Archives is written from the POV of Bob Howard, who starts the series as a low level IT guy working for Capital Laundry Services, the UK’s secret agency for all that goes bump in the night. The back blurb gives away that he quickly “gets noticed” and is bumped up to being a field agent. He subsequently goes on a few adventures, sees some scary stuff, and is generally annoyed by the proceedings. His first few (mis)adventures are told with an interesting but slightly repetitive window-dressing, in that about halfway through the action we fade to him in a staff meeting briefing his superiors on what happened next. I thought that it was funny the first time, but I think it wears a little thin on repeated use. Luckily this disappears for the most part as the story goes on, but it did stick out to me.

I don’t really hold it against the book overall, though, as one of the main selling points of the story is the way it examines and takes apart the day-to-day trappings of working for a soulless (maybe literally in this case) bureaucracy. Bob’s life as a secret government field agent who is licensed to use deadly and high-grade occult weaponry is mainly occupied by staff meetings, corporate liability training, and other equally terrifying drudgery. Bob’s inner monologue as he sits through yet another staff training exercise he’s overqualified for but had to attend because his office had the budget to send someone is dry, funny, and will spring to mind during my next conference call.

I was also very impressed by Stross’s handling of the actual horror scenes in the book. A great many crossover horror books tend to actually be a fantasy or sci-fi book with a little bit of lip service to horror in the form of a mention of Nyarlathotep or some gore and flickering lights. I can honestly say that there were multiple scenes in The Atrocity Archives where I was truly unsettled. I really can’t get across, without spoiling specifics, how effective Stross managed to be with his horror.

One thing that stuck out to me in a less-than-positive way was how juvenile the hacker culture aspects of the book were. I’ve waffled from one perspective to the other on this, and since I read this book rather than listened on the audiobook, I can only infer what Bob sounded like when he used terms like “pwnz0r3d” in casual conversation, and since I enjoyed all the other aspects of the book so much I’m choosing on a personal level to believe that Bob is so unremittingly sarcastic that he’s joking when he says it. In the interest of fairness and honesty I have to inform you that in choosing to believe this I’m ignoring some other questionable evidence (e.g. his roommates names being “Pinky” and “Brains”, though again this may just be another in-universe joke for them, it was hard for me to tell).

I liked the book. I liked the book so much I immediately bought the second and read seven chapters before reminding myself I have other books on my schedule and it can wait. That being said, I think that the writing itself is pretty much just okay, and my enjoyment of it was heavily influenced by the fact that it was written for someone with almost exactly my interests and history of media consumption. I don’t really think this is a “recommend this to anyone and they’ll love it” book, I don’t even think it’s really a “recommend this to anyone and they’ll finish it and still have faith in your recommendations, at least” book. If you have a good grounding in the Cthulhu mythos, but really wanted to experience it from the perspective of a late-twenties British IT guy who’s pretty funny most of the time I’d recommend you pick it up.

General Audience Rating: The Atrocity Archives – 6.5/10
Will Audience Rating: The Atrocity Archives – 9.5/10
-Will

The Ballad Of Black Tom – Not Going To Dance Around This One

51y55ipp1jl._sx311_bo1204203200_I’m certainly not a prolific reviewer – you can take a look at the history of the blog and see that without too much difficulty. At the same time, since joining The Quill to Live I’ve reviewed a decent amount of horror stories. I’ve come to some conclusions on what attributes great (or just my favorite) horror tales share. These are certainly not commandments written in stone from on high, but when I truly enjoy a spooky story it tends to share the following traits.

Great horror stories are short. I’m not saying something needs to be five pages long to be scary, but the longer you spend on a subject the more it tends to move out of “horror” and into being just “scary”. I find the sweet spot is right in the novella length, somewhere between 70 to 150 pages, long enough to unfurl the entirety of itself but short enough to leave you uncertain what it was that you just experienced. I find in the longer stories you tend to be left with a few scary moments, rather than a truly horrifying experience.

There are no “Good Guys” in great horror stories. The very existence of a Good Guy in a horror story means that it’s a scary story, not a horror story. Any kind of tale can be scary, all it requires is a distinct kind of tension and discomfort. To be truly horrifying a story needs to be bleak, hopeless even. In a great horror story, the characters who survive to the end haven’t won, they’ve merely prolonged their role in the tale.

You can’t “win” a great horror story. Regardless of the outcome, whether the big bad ostensibly won or lost, everything is worse at the end of a horror story. Sometimes there is no right answer, and the best in horror makes sure there isn’t a happy resolution.

An awful lot of whinging for what was ostensibly a review of The Ballad of Black Tom, the novella by Victor LaValle, right? With a lead-in like that there are only two potential opinions I can have on the book. One: I loved it, and this is all an elaborate way to review the book without actually saying anything about it. Two: I hated it, and this is all an elaborate way to lead into me tearing this book to shreds with visceral glee.

It will put LaValle’s mind at rest, in the vanishingly small chances that he’s a member of our loyal readership, that Black Tom firmly falls into the first category. I absolutely loved the story and wish I could talk about a number of things that I’m unable to without ruining some of my favorite aspects of the narrative. I shouldn’t need to, but will regardless, say that Black Tom is perfectly pithy and short, the characters are complex and flawed, and the story ended in a compelling and chilling fashion. I won’t say anything else here, as I don’t want to influence you going into the book. It really is a frightening story in the style of the old weird authors, and manages to twist the telling of the story in a way that I think makes it all the more interesting and adds a sense of realism to the otherworldly horror that makes up the majority of the narrative.

If you don’t enjoy frightening short stories and the mention of Cthulhu is enough to make you put a book down, this book won’t change your mind and I don’t think you should pick it up. If you enjoy stories that leave you paralyzed by doubt, discomfort, and distress on their conclusion, I think you’ll find this one to be right up your alley.

Rating: The Ballad of Black Tom – 9.0/10
-Will

The Brothers Cabal – Turns Out Horst is Back

51j2c226w2lI’d like to start this one out with an apology. I’m four books into this five book series and I have officially run out of ways to make the “Cabal [method of transportation]” joke. I’ve spent kind of an embarrassing amount of time trying to come up with a way to make it work and I just can’t. I’m sure this is a personal failing on my part, and a better (funnier actually funny) writer could do it. I bet you’d still be actually laughing out loud at it. For that, I apologize. I’m the worst and I’m sorry. (Hey, side note, there’s gonna be mild spoilers. Please see the title for an example.)

Moving on to the actual meat and potatoes, we’re reviewing The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard, the 4th book out of 5 in the Johannes Cabal series. You can find my reviews of the previous three books here, here, and here. I’m guessing if you’re reading a review of a book this far into a series you’re either already reading it yourself or are still somehow trying to convince yourself to buy the first one by seeing if the series is worth it overall. Well it is. The first two books are fun, the third book is where the series really hits its stride, and this book is a culmination of all of the best elements of the series. I cannot recommend reading the exploits of Johannes Cabal enough.

On the topic of Johannes Cabal, well at least relating to him, is the matter of the title. Readers of the first book will be very familiar with Horst Cabal, Johannes’ brother. Through a set of circumstances that were entirely the fault of Johannes, Horst became a vampire prior to the events of the first book. He was an absolute highlight of the first novel and was immediately elevated to one of my favorite characters in general.

SPOILER ALERT

He also died at the climax of the first book. Believing himself to have condemned Johannes to death and eternal damnation for the sins and general atrocities he’d committed throughout the book, he watched the sun rise and turned to ash, dying permanently.

Or so we thought! I was toying with the idea of just not talking about the title and playing this close to the chest, but the book has been out for four years at this point and I didn’t think being coy was worth it when the first chapter is literally Horst waking up from being resurrected. He obviously plays a huge part in the novel and is as good a POV character as he was a side character in the first book. He is the perfect foil to Johannes and the scenes where they verbally spar are beyond excellent. It’s too bad the series has to end, as I would devour a smaller episodic series featuring the brothers Cabal having misadventures until the end of my days.

SPOILERS DONE

I hope you read that regardless of spoilers because otherwise this next paragraph isn’t going to flow at all. The humor that has been prevalent throughout the series is at its peak in this book. Johannes continues to be drier than the Gobi, the supporting characters are shocked and amused by him in turns, and Howard continues to make almost Pratchett-like commentary on the ways of the world. I could gush for pages on how funny and amusing the book is, but I think this snippet sums up the moment to moment voice and almost insouciant humor in every page:

One of the women was watching the engagement through her own pair of binoculars. She looked up towards the castle, and their gaze met through several sets of lenses and prisms. The sergeant had a faint premonition that this meeting did not bode well. The woman lowered her glasses and looked directly at him. She had a very intense look about her, and she seemed to be mouthing something.

The sergeant was just noting that she was a very handsome woman, from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean he would guess, when his eyes unexpectedly burst into flames. This distressed him, and he staggered around, blood-red fire erupting from the sockets, while he explained the degree of agony he was enduring and how much he would appreciate assistance of an unspecified form from those present. Then his head caught fire and his conversation became very scream orientated.

I don’t really know how else to exhort you to read this series if you aren’t currently. The plot is tight and fun, and the ending of this book sets up the fifth and final book perfectly. The series has grown into itself and Johannes Cabal himself has had an incredibly enjoyable character arc from cold, uncaring, soulless necromancer to…well, cold, mostly uncaring, soul-possessing necromancer with a soft spot for ghouls.

I just really like the series. I really like this book. I’ve never read something that felt so much like it was written for me and my personal taste, but this series really just nails it. If you have a dry, morbid sense of humor and enjoy a good action tale that features a morally dubious but good-hearted-in-the-end character, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not reading the Johannes Cabal series and The Brothers Cabal.

Rating: The Brothers Cabal 10/10
-Will