The Border (2015) by Robert McCammon

border_10_hcThe Border is Robert McCammon‘s long-anticipated return to the balls-to-the-wall horror of such classics as Swan Song (1987). Unfortunately, the balls are missing, the wall is crumbling and the result is a poor copy of that earlier (far superior) novel.

There’s not a whole lot of originality in The Border. The plotline is pretty much lifted wholesale from Swan Song, with a supernaturally gifted youngster leading a ragtag pack of survivors to a US president hiding in a mountain base. But instead of a nuclear war, it’s an alien war that has devastated the planet. That ingenious difference probably comes from any number of alien invasion movies, video games and TV shows, with Falling Skies being perhaps the most obvious one.

Even overlooking the secondhand premise it’s hard to enjoy the novel; the storytelling drags, forcefully, like the novel had no literary editor at all (some typos and a constant, annoying use of dot dot dot also imply that some quality control was surrendered in the making of this novel). The beginning is alright, but an overlong alien sex sequence (!) segues into a long, interminable bus ride which takes just forever, with basically no breaks in between. I mean, couldn’t there have been at least some attempt to flesh out the world in which these characters live.

Besides the miracle kid Ethan who finds himself turning into a Silver Surfer, only the television evangelist Jefferson Jericho is sketched out in any significant detail; he’s the only character worthy of the title “character” in the novel, the others being basically cardboard stand-ins. The aliens are alien, and particularly one-note creations at that, with a (not at all surprisingly) silly Terminator-like mandroid Vope being the most memorable one, besides the penis-milking alien queen (really can’t get that alien sex sequence out of my mind, sorry).

The single positive thing about the novel and its remarkably undeveloped world are the mutants, the feral Gray Men, who for some reason or other keep attacking the live ones (one assumes it’s because their kind always do that in movies). There’re some moments approaching horror in these scenes, but it’s all by the numbers with no surprises, and of course they all fizzle out and it’s back to the bloody bus and a deus ex machina ending. One almost wishes someone had pushed the reset button much, much earlier.

The other saving grace of the novel is its relatively short length and some semblance of readibility (meaning it’s not the worst horror novel I’ve read, not by far; but I guess that just says something about how many truly crappy horror novels there are). At 400+ pages The Border is mercifully over fairly quickly – and it’s still hefty enough that it can be used as a doorstop or a paper weight. Small mercies, eh?

Skip this one and pick up Swan Song.

** (2/5)

Available now in multiple formats from Subterranean Press. Visit the author’s site and check out his far superior earlier books! Even the fairly recent I Travel by Night kicks some serious butt.

Slade House by David Mitchell

CBpZPA4XIAEohhRThere’s a small iron door in a narrow alley. Beyond it lies a sumptuous garden that surrounds the titular house – Slade House. Through the years, several people enter the house and none check out.

Slade House is a sequel-in-spirit to David Mitchell‘s previous novel The Bone Clocks; set in the same universe, it tells a smaller story, with smaller villains and in a considerably shorter length, but with a similar fragmented structure. Yet it can also be read on its own, as a haunted house story of sorts.

The chapters, set at 9-year intervals, recount the fates of the house’s victims; first a mother and her child, then a detective, followed by several others over the years. Some of the segments are genuinely creepy, such as the increasingly frantic text messages in the second-to-last chapter, slowly revealing that the character has already become trapped in the house. There’s a slight risk the structure of the book might become repetitive, but Mitchell’s solid writing keeps things moving at a brisk pace, with a slow build-up to the finale, featuring one of the familiar faces from The Bone Clocks, swooping in like a proper paranormal investigator.

At about 150 pages Slade House is more like a novella than a novel, but it’s stacked with ideas. A small book it might be, but it’s significantly bigger on the inside.

***** (5/5) 

Published in October 2015. Available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site!

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

thefirstfifteenHarry August lives and dies and is then born again, always restarting his 20th century lifespan with all his memories intact. Not alone with his predicament, the ouroborans (as they’re known) have created societies (the Cronus Clubs) to help their kind through the first difficult years of their new lives. At the end of one of Harry’s lives, he receives a message from the future (handed down from a child to an old person and so on, in a strange chain of death and rebirth) that the world is going to end.

The culprit, it seems, is a fellow 20th century ouroboran hellbent on changing history beyond its usual course – something that tends to throw things out of whack. For its latter half, the novel switches gears from a scifi/fantasy mix to a sort of spy fiction, a welcome change that keeps the story fresh throughout.

There’s a lot of background to cover in the novel (how does it all work and so on) but all the exposition never feels too cumbersome; the timey-wimey logic of it all can induce headaches, but it’s best not to think too much. The idea has legs and the story runs with them through the 20th century, in a most fantastic fashion, several times over.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014, available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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UK paperback cover

It’s Captain Trips all over again; with a sneeze and a fever the world comes to a crashing halt, and only a handful of survivors are left to pick up the pieces. In this desolate landscape a ragtag band of survivors (actors, musicians) travels from settlement to settlement, performing Shakespeare, because mere “survival is insufficient”.

And that’s the idea that lifts the novel above the common postapocalyptic drudgery; sure, there’s a tight spot or two with all the familiar craziness the end of the world brings, and that keeps things exciting. But beneath the usual trappings the message is positive and hopeful. Not only will humanity survive, but so will some of its cultural achievements, from Shakespeare to a lowliest self-published comic book. Little by little things keep getting better: a newspaper appears, and a town is seen on the horizon, lit up by electric lights.

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US cover

The postapocalyptic narrative is interrupted by scenes from before the fall, featuring a famous actor who dies suddenly on the eve of the calamity. Not all parts fit as elegantly into the whole as well as they should, but the realistic, feet on the ground optimism of the novel is, no pun intended, rather infectious.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014, available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site

Phantom (1982) by Thomas Tessier

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US paperback (Berkley)

Tessier’s 1982 novel is all tease and little else; young Ned moves with his parents to a new town on the seaside, hangs out with some old geezers and has a fever dream. Somewhere along the way there are ominous hints about vague horrors… but they never really manifest themselves. Phantom isn’t just quiet horror; it’s mute as fuck.

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UK paperback (Pan Macmillan) opens…

It starts well, though, with a real-life health scare. But that’s all. A ridiculously long dungeon crawl in the middle of the slim novel brings an already glacial pace to a standstill; and to really batter the reader into a coma, the novel soon presents the reader with another dungeon crawl with very little variation.

Now the quality of writing here is excellent, there’s no question about that; but after a while it gets increasingly difficult to enjoy a novel that constantly keeps baiting the reader, yet never goes anywhere.

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…to reveal a second cover.

My disappointment is possibly multiplied by high expectations: Tessier has a great rep, the coming-of-age genre rarely fails, and the US paperback cover has a vague folk horror feel that is utterly absent in the novel itself. On the other hand, quiet horror is an acquired taste, and if it doesn’t tickle your fancy, it just comes across as so much pointless noodling. And Phantom is a stellar case in point.

Ned’s fever dream at the end, with all its surrealism, is slightly reminiscent of H.C. Andersen‘s fable The Story of a Mother. A fine piece of horror, that one. Phantom, well…

** (2/5)

Originally published in 1982. Available in multiple editions.

The Amulet (1979) by Michael McDowell

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UK paperback (Fontana)

Oh glorious paperbacks! Michael McDowell‘s first paperback original is a triumph despite the odds; what could be a run-of-the-mill story about a cursed object becomes a marvel of storytelling.

Long descriptions of an Alabama town called Pine Cone kick off the story about a revenge gone rampant; local man Dean Howell is about to be sent to Vietnam, when a rifle explodes in his face. A rifle, as it happens, built in a munitions factory in his home town. He returns as a silent, bandaged hulk, to be cared by his wife, Sarah, and jealously guarded by his mother, Jo.

Sarah’s already hard life (working at a deliciously menial job at the munitions factory) is encumbered by the obnoxiously unhelpful Jo, who bears a grudge towards everyone for what happened to his boy. Out of the blue, Jo hands Dean’s friend Larry Coppage a black amulet to give to his wife. Soon after wearing the trinket, Larry’s wife kills him and their children. And from there it’s just a matter of who gets the amulet next, and who the wearer will kill, before dying him or herself in a freak accident.

The kill-and-be-killed cycle is something like a better version of the Final Destination film series; part of the charm is knowing that something gruesome will happen, just not to whom and when and how. The amulet changes hands multiple times and leaves a suspiciously large amount of bodies in its wake (the town of Pine Cone runs out of coffins early on). The smart Sarah figures it out soon enough and begins to hunt for the cursed amulet with her friend, Becca. The homespun scoobies even employ a “wee-gee” board to ask spirits for guidance.

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Current edition (Valancourt Press)

It’s in the descriptions, the redneck characters, the rustic dialogue. McDowell’s sharp narrative triumphs gloriously over the novel’s admittedly generic plot and mass market origins. The horror in the story is horrific, but McDowell occasionally laces it with a smirk; even one pig goes murderously crazy after coming into contact with the supernaturally evil amulet. The ending, where the tables finally turn on Jo, is blissfully gleeful and pitch perfect. In lesser hands The Amulet would’ve been nothing special, just another sequence of cheap thrills. But the high quality of the writing transforms it into something special.

***** (5/5)

Originally published in 1979 by Avon Books. Currently available from Valancourt Books.

At Fear’s Altar by Richard Gavin

fearsaltarRichard Gavin channels several classic weird authors in At Fear’s Altar, a collection of 12 stories and a prologue.

The stories come in roughly three types: the homages, the monsters and the psychological. Of the stories in the first category, two are based on early Lovecraft, with Faint Baying from Afar serving as a sequel to Lovecraft’s The Hound and The Unbound taking a go at the legend of The Unnamable. The best of the lot is A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress, a homage to Hanns Heinz Ewers that feels like a lost classic of the weird and not a modern story at all.

Next up are the monster stories; in The Abject, a woman disappears during a hiking trip (into the clutches of a monster). The Plain is a weird western, where a group of men hungry for gold fall prey to the titular plain. The Word-Made Flesh concerns strange, godlike powers gained at an abandoned farm. Annexation follows a woman in search for her grown-up son. And Darksome Leaves is a Halloween story of sorts, about a mask that opens up a whole new world.

With the exception of The Plain, the stories feature modern-day people who stumble into cosmic horrors. The emphasis is on atmosphere and suggestion, as it should, but strangely, the stories tend to end with the big bad being very big and bad. There’s very little room for second opinions of the “what did I really see? if anything?” variety. Yes, it was real, and the monster ate you. End of story. On the other hand, such lack of subtlety is kind of refreshing, so there you go.

The third category goes for the psychological effect instead. Here characters are in denial of their own reality, perhaps because it’s too sad, too horrific or too mundane. There’s (again) a hint of Lovecraft here, with the Celephaïs-style quiet, desperate yearning for something more. Chapel in the Reeds depicts an old man imagining a remote chapel filled with pornography. King Him is the story of two siblings who hear a voice in their heads, spurring them to unspoken deeds. Only Enuma Elish reads like something out of Tim Powers, a fantasy concoction that connects a Babylonian creation mythos to hurricane Katrina. And last but not least, The Eldritch Faith tells the tale of a lonely boy, whose new spirit friend drives him to murder, insanity and a strange alternative reality.

It’s a strong collection, with no bad or even mediocre offerings; the writing is sharp throughout and some characters even manage to transcend their role as monster fodder. One drawback is that it never really lets the reader forget the old masters; they’re always there, lurking in the background. Still, it all somehow works like a shoggoth. But as always with story collections, At Fear’s Altar may be too much to digest in one go; as one-offs the stories would probably shine a lot brighter. Serving suggestion: enjoy in small portions.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2012 by Hippocampus Press. Visit the author’s site! Check out Gavin’s latest project Penumbrae – an Occult Fiction Anthology, released in April.