I just read: We Are All Completely Fine

weareallcompletelyfineFrom Dracula to NOS4A2, from The Exorcist to Friday the 13th, a lot of plots in the Horror genre follow a well-trodden path. A person (or group of people) are targeted by a mysterious and malicious force. The protagonist(s) pass through a phase of disbelief and/or denial, Then they suffer through an increasingly awful series of circumstances that force them to come to grips with the unthinkable. Oftentimes, this is where a savior or advocate figure enters the story. In the final climax, the protagonist(s) face their fear, and they either triumph or they fail.

I have to admit that my own Horror/Paranormal novel, Line of Descent, follows this structure. And I’m sure that most genres (Romance, Mystery, Fantasy) have dozen of examples of great stories that follow the same conventional, comfortable story-beats. Still it’s always refreshing when an author breaks the mold.

That’s just what Daryl Gregory does with ‘We’re All Completely Fine.’ Gregory creates a unique slant on Horror convention by introducing a simple and brilliant premise. ‘What if the characters who survived some of these typical Horror stories came together to form a support-group?’

As we meet the clients in Gregory’s therapy sessions, we pretty much don’t need to know their full stories—although Gregory drops in some skin-crawlingly creepy details. There’s Stan, who survived your typical back-woods cannibal scenario. And Barbara, who was tortured by a sadistic madman. And Harrison, the former teenage monster-detective who helped to foil a demon apocalypse. (If you’re interested in learning more about Harrison’s YA-ish exploits, you can read about them in Gregory’s latest novel, Harrison Squared, which I reviewed here before I realized it was a prequel.)

To say that each of these characters is a short-hand representation of a horror cliche would be selling them—well—short. The ways that Stan and Barbara deal with their post-trauma lives are truly memorable and deeply human. Gregory is the type of author who comes up with ideas that make you say ‘Whoa! I never saw that coming!’ and then moments later, ‘Of course that’s what would happen!’ And this story is no different. And, of course, as we learn more about each group-member’s scarred life, we learn that the incidents that have ruined their lives are all connected in sinister and serendipitous ways.

I really enjoyed this book, and for most of it, I really couldn’t predict what would happen in the next chapter. I recommend it for any fan of the genre.

I just read: Harrison Squared

harrison squaredDaryl Gregory is one of favorite modern writers. Every time he has a new book come out, I know it will be unlike anything else he’s ever written. Like China Mieville, he’s a speculative fiction genre-hopper. Or genre-hybridizer? Mieville seems to value syrupy prose and mind-blowing ideas over character (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Seriously.) Gregory’s books, on the other hand, are bright and personable—and surprisingly heart-warming, for stories that involve zombies, disfigurement, and demonic possession. And some of Gregory’s ideas are just as trippy as Mieville’s, which is high praise indeed.

For his latest, Gregory has tried his hand at young-adult fiction.
Not as interested in that.
Young-adult fiction based on Lovecraft.
OK, I’m in.

The book is called Harrison Squared. Right off the bat, I have to give Gregory props for introducing a teen protagonist, Harrison, who is an amputee. There’s not enough books out there (young-adult or otherwise) that have a main character who is ‘differently abled’ in some way, unless that difference becomes the main crux for the story. Harrison’s leg is just something he deals with; it doesn’t define him. And he’s not particularly angsty or self-conscious about it, which is refreshing.

Harrison is a well-rounded character. He’s supernaturally gifted. He has one parent who died mysteriously. He’s grappling with some anger issues. And he’s just enrolled in a new school that is very, very strange. Does that sound like any other YA protagonist you can think of? OK, Harry Potter lost both his parents in mysterious circumstances—but there are some definite similarities. In fact, if you are a Harry Potter fan, and you’re looking for something similar but just-different-enough, I think you’ll enjoy the happenings at the Dunnsmouth Secondary School.

Here’s the basic set up: Harrison and his mother, a marine biologist, have moved to the town of Dunnsmouth, on an isolated and eerie section of bluffs on the Maine Coast. On his first day at his new school, Harrison is introduced to a half-dozen strange characters. Perhaps none are as strange as the students themselves, who are all homogeneously somber, antisocial, and goth-pale. At first, Harrison’s classmates seem to be a cross between the Addams family and the Children of the Corn. But looks can be deceiving, and the children of Dunnsmouth are friendlier and more sympathetic than they seem. Which is good, because Harrison is going to need all the help he can get. Soon he is wrapped up in the town elders’ plot to unleash their cult’s ancient ocean god upon the world. Holy Cthulhu, Batman!

stygian_witches_11My favorite parts of the book are the descriptions of Dunnsmouth Secondary and its faculty. There’s the trio of lunch ladies, hunched over their cauldron of stew, and sharing one pair of glasses—like the witches of Greek mythology (or of ‘Clash of the Titans’). There’s the swim coach, who is described like some kind of were-walrus. There’s the love-lorn (and spaced-out) Nurse Mandi. Then there’s Harrison’s friend Lub, whose strange affinity for Aquaman is NOT the strangest thing about him. The characters are creepy and amusing. Another stand-out is Harrison’s glamorous aunt from Manhattan, who is sharp-tongued, smugly used to getting her way, and also surprisingly magnetic and charming.

Overall, I felt the plot was pretty straightforward. Perhaps that was a result of Gregory writing for the young-adult market. There were a few surprising developments among secondary characters, and a few narrative devices to create mystery and suspense. And the end had a bit of a twist to it that I wasn’t expecting, which sets up nicely for a possible sequel.

If you’ve never read Daryl Gregory’s stuff, and you’re not that into young adult, I’d suggest The Raising of Stony Mayhall, and Pandemonium.