I just read: Dissolving Classroom

I’m a big fan of two of the Junji Ito’s other two horror comics, Uzumaki and Gyo. So I was excited to try his latest manga.

Ito has a very distinctive style. His ideas feel like they were written by a demented 7th-grader, but that helps him maintain a sort of allegorical mood—and his stories always feel claustrophobic in their dream-time logic. His pen-work can be alternately beautifully dainty and creepily off-kilter, and that also fits the day-dream-to-fever-dream his tone.

Dissolving Classroom is a collection of stories that follow a strangely polite young man, Yuuma, and his gonzo little sister, Chizumi. Both are unique characters, and their both up to some sinister stuff. But I have to say that I found Yuuma much more interesting. He’s a sort of diabolical version of toxic friend. He’s very well-mannered—almost subservient at times—but beneath that bland exterior lurks an ardent devil-worshipper. Literally. Yuuma kills small animals to lure the devil to him. He keeps in constant mental contact with the devil, and those bad vibes he shares can rot away at his new friends, dissolving their brains and their bodies. He’s like a walking Fukushima, and he’s in a continuous state of demonic meltdown.

It’s not entirely clear whether or not Yuuma enjoys the effect that he has on people. He is constantly apologizing for the harm he has done—and will do—but it soon becomes clear that Yuuma’s apologies are his most common M.O. for melting people down. If Yuuma falls to his knees and starts repeating, “I’m sorry… I’m sooo sorry…” you need to run away from him immediately. Early on, it’s revealed that he’s not actually apologizing to the people around him, he’s apologizing to the devil. And those direct transmissions to Hell interact with the human body in the same way a microwave oven reacts with a popsicle.

The concept doesn’t 100% make sense to me. Why is Yuuma apologizing to the devil? Yuuma’s helping to sow death and destruction, and it becomes clear that the devil likes this. But as I mentioned, this is where dream-logic kicks in, and on some gut-level I really synced with this idea of there being something sinister about apologies.

I definitely fall in the camp of people who might say, “Don’t say you’re sorry, do something to prove it.” And of course, no one likes groveling. But Ito shows effusive apologizing to be a passive-aggressive act of self-gratification. Like I said, this idea really struck me as ‘true’ on a gut level. Maybe I needed a Japanese writer to help me grasp this idea—like how the German language helped us define a concept like Schadenfreude, which most Americans had never really thought about before, but innately realized was a real thing.

Anyhoo… The ‘Dissolving’ concept is definitely not a one-trick-pony. With each story, Ito finds new ways to draw out drama—and creeps—from stiff Yuuma and wild Chizumi. The final story is not as disturbing, but it wraps up the saga in a perfect way that left me feeling surprised but also thinking, ‘I should have seen that coming!’

If you’re a manga fan or a horror fan, I’d say check this out!

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I just read: The Fireman

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-11-02-42-pmLet me start by saying that I loved Joe Hill’s book Horns. It was definitely in my top-five books for the year that I read it (2013? 2014?). It was the perfect horror novel, with all the right tropes and a few good twists and deviations in plot structure. Any time a horror/paranormal novel clocks in at over 400 pages, I expect it to be a bit too sprawling. I think the best spooky novels are oftentimes fairly short-and-sweet. But Horns had just that right amount of ‘sprawl’ to it. It bounced back and forth through some classic coming-of-age flashbacks; established a good mystery with some solid red-herrings; established a great, unique villain; and set up the reader for some devastatingly heartbreaking moments. Awesome.

On the other hand, Hill’s latest horror novel, The Fireman, left me with mixed emotions. It’s over 700 pages long, so I can definitely say it felt too long. There’s a lot of stuff stuffed into this book. (OK, not my most well-crafted sentence.) A plague, a near-apocalyptic setting, a psycho ex, escaped convicts, a ghost, a potential psychic, sci-fi exposition involving brain chemistry, a religious cult, a murder mystery, two or three secondary mysteries, a budding romance, car chases and gun fights, whew!

Here’s the basic premise (which definitely drew me in): humanity is being decimated by a plague of spontaneous combustion. The plague is caused by a fungal spore called Dragonscale. The Dragonscale grows on skin in glittering black patterns, like tattoos, but those pretty tattoo patterns can burst into flame when the infected feel stressed. The story follows a recently infected (and recently impregnated) nurse named Harper Grayson.

In the first act of the novel, we follow Harper, seeing the beginnings of the outbreak through her eyes. Hill establishes another great villain in Harper’s husband. He starts off seeming fairly nice, but quickly we see how self-centered, misogynistic, and brittle he can be, especially once Harper becomes infected. Harper makes like Julia Roberts in Sleeping With the Enemy, and we’re off to ‘Act Two!’

This is where the story became too bloated, in my mind. Harper falls in with a tight-knit community of Dragonscalers who have found a way to tame their infection—to stave off a fiery death. I wanted to skim through parts of this section, which introduced over a dozen characters. Too benign, too boring. Too many corny references to Mary Poppins, 80’s music, and MTV VJ Martha Quinn (Martha Quinn?!? Really?) But of course this is Hill building up a sense of complacency. Just as Harper’s husband revealed his dark side, eventually her new friends show their ugly sides.

My favorite part of this section is Hill’s sci-fi explanations of how the spore interacts with the minds of its hosts, how it has a biological imperative to punish stress and to encourage a harmonious ‘group-think.’ Hill relates this to oxytocin, which is a real-life hormone, and a pretty scary concept in its own right.

The Dragonscalers are being hunted by ‘Cremation Squads,’ who want to end the contamination with a holocaust of their own. So Hill sets up a interesting conflict where we get to see both sides of a mob mentality. The Cremation Squad are xenophobes (violently rejecting outsiders), and yet the people who are supposedly on Harper’s side are too prone to cultishness (tightly controlling insiders).

I love books where close-knit or desperate communities devolve into totalitarianism. The Beach, Lord of the Flies (sort of), Walking Dead, even Watership Down (which is mentioned a few times in this novel). But once again, there’s maybe a few too many scenes, and few too many story elements, and there are points where it seemed like the plot might collapse under its own weight.

I think part of the reason I felt restless was because I expected the xenophobes vs. zealots storyline to play out and climax at the very end of the book. So when I was about 80% through the book, I was thinking, ‘Whoa, I have a long way to go before all this stuff is resolved.’ But no, Hill surprised me by changing the status quo earlier than expected.

I won’t talk too much about ‘Act Three’ to avoid spoilers, but I will say I enjoyed it. I could definitely understand why some people might find it slow, or a bit anticlimactic, but I appreciated the change in structure, as a sort of thoughtful, hopeful denouement. Also, I truly didn’t see the last twist coming, and I liked that part very much.

So, overall, I think I’m finding that I like the book more than I thought I did. Just one last comment: Hill tries that trope of taking a fairly banal lyric or rhyme and framing it in a horror context so that it comes off as creepy or bad-ass. But I’m sorry… there’s nothing creepy or bad-ass about Mary Poppins quotes. ‘Spoonful of sugar.’ ‘Chim-chim-cher-ee.’ Ugh. It just reminds me of being forced to watch 60s Disney movies on the last day of school. Although there is a scene that used the Christmas carol, ‘Old Come All Ye Faithful,’ and that scene was very creepy.

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.

My top ten beach reads

The sign of a true nerd: He or she doesn’t remember a beach trip based on bitchin’ waves or a hot summer fling. Nerds get nostalgic over beach reads.

Here are the top ten favorite books I’ve read at the beach (in no particular order).

The Scar by China MievilleThe Scar by China Mieville
This was my first—and still my favorite—Mieville novel. The Scar is an autonomous novel set in the ‘New Crobuzon’ universe. Actually, it takes place on a floating city of ships connected together into Venetian-style neighborhoods. The book is teeming with Mieville’s typically brain-bending fantasy, and his eye-crossingly dense (and fascinating) prose. But don’t let bulk of the craft discourage you. At its heart, The Scar, is a rollicking-good adventure yarn. Kick off your flip-flops and prepare to have your buckles swashed!

The Perfect StormThe Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
Some people might say that this book isn’t conducive to beach reading, what with its painstaking and painful recreations of what it’s like to drown. I say it’s never a bad time to dust off this classic narrative nonfiction account of a fishing vessel that, in 1991, disappeared in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of lethal storms.

Gyo_volume_1Gyo by Junji Ito
Or, as it’s subtitled: ‘The Death-Stench Creeps.’ Okay, at this point you’re probably questioning my taste in beach books. This Japanese comic is told from the POV of a boy who finds out his girlfriend is haunted by a horrible fishy odor. (Umm. Whuh?) That’s pretty creepy in and of itself, but then her island home is overrun by chimeric sea-creature zombies.

Ito writes weird, truly disturbing, stuff, and illustrates it beautiful. If you’ve never heard of it, do yourself a favor and Google one of his other classic series, the Uzumaki Manga.

Gyo Shark

91icZ9KND7L._SL1500_We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
A young-adult book that I read recently on a trip to Jekyll Island. It follows the teen progeny of a wealth New England family who own a private island estate. A very clean, lyrical writing style that builds to a surprising and haunting end.

Killer EliteKiller Elite by Ranulph Fiennes
Here’s me when I read this book: “Whoa! I can’t believe this stuff really happened!” Well, it seems that this novel, ‘based on true events,’ is too good to be true. The story is sparked by a modern Arab royal who is pressured into fulfilling an ancient tradition of vengeance on the specific British soldiers who may or may not have killed his sons during a military engagement. He reluctantly hires an all-star team of hitmen, who carry out the vendetta to vary degrees of success. Their final target was is the author himself. (Umm. Double Whuh?) Their appears to be a mire of controversy surrounding this book, and I had a difficult time parsing through all of it. It seems that most of the assassins’ targets are real British veterans who died of seemingly accidental ways, and the many Britons are upset that Fiennes would conjecture that foul play was involved.

hornsHorns by Joe Hill
Maybe my favorite straight-up horror read (of the last few years anyway). Ig is wholeheartedly devoted to his girlfriend. He’s devastated when she’s killed, and more devastated when most people in his hometown (including his own parents) believe he is the murderer. Ig’s despair turns blasphemous, and he finds himself cursed with horns growing out of his forehead—and strangely blessed with inhibition-negating superpowers which might help him find the true killer. Joe Hill covers a lot of ground, flipping between time-frames and POVs including a switch from the bedeviled protagonist to a whole section of the book that follows a creepily realistic (and narcissistic) villain.

817OxAm5WrL._SL1500_Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden
Like The Perfect Storm, this is another famously riveting example of narrative nonfiction. Bowden ‘un-splinters’ the stories of dozens of U.S. Army Rangers caught in a chaotic firefight that covers a full day and a few city blocks in the Somalian port city of Mogadishu. You’ll often have to refer to the index of names at the end of this book, but cross-referencing has never been so exhilarating.

 

512pvHV6z9LA Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
What nerdy book-list would be complete without a little George R.R. Martin? This was the second book in the epic series, featuring the Battle of the Blackwater, which was a scene I read while in watching container ships pass by in Hilton Head.

 

 

51bD1E1t-DLSpin by Robert Charles Wilson
A sci-fi story that is uniquely character-driven and earthbound. Our planet is trapped in a gigantic bubble, glued in time, while the rest of the universe whizzes by, millions of years per day. This book, written in 2010, finds some fascinating ways to play with the passage of time. One of the most serious dilemmas facing the young main characters: At this rate, the sun will die of old age before they do.

 

81hdZB3eJ9L._SL1500_Beach edited by Gideon Bosker and Lena Lencek
A collection of stories about (you guessed it) beaches. There are some great classics in here: Salinger, John Cheever, J.G. Ballard, Rachel Carson, John Updike, and John Steinbeck. If you’re a fan of short stories, or the Golden Age of ‘Modern’ literature (1930-1970), you can’t go wrong with this one.

 

Ken Doll Crotch = Evil

rocker_strainIf there’s one thing that popular media has taught me in the last 10 years, it’s that you can’t trust a man who is anatomically incorrect. Recently this universal axiom was exposed again on Guillermo del Toro’s FX series, The Strain.

Here are a few other examples of genital-free villains:

dynamicman_twelveDynamic Man – “The Twelve”
Spoiler: If you made it to the end of this comic series (12 issues were published over a span of 58 months), you were probably too numbed to care that Dynamic Man turned out to be a sexless android.

 

 

carver_niptuckThe Carver – “Nip/Tuck”
I won’t completely spoil this serial killer plot from 2005. Let’s just say that a Ken Doll Crotch is involved

 

 

julie_yourhighnessJulie – “Your Highness”
Ew, gross! Toby Jones plays a spy whose mean streak isn’t revealed until he does some streaking of his own.

 

ken_toystory3Ken – “Toy Story 3”
I couldn’t complete this list without mentioning the granddaddy or glandlessness, who took a villain turn in the last Toy Story movie.

 

 

Putting Toy Story 3 aside, I wonder why the Ken Doll Crotch seems to be such a popular  scare tactic? Is it the fact that it plays on the Freudian fear of castration? Or just a profane way to shock an audience while implicitly maintaining a PG-13 or TV-14 rating? And when will this trend stop? Won’t someone please think of the poor special effects teams that have to mold and apply these fake crotches? Someone should call the union!

I Just Read: Annihilation

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeerA team of four women are tasked with charting the mysteries of an isolated coastal wilderness called Area X. Area X seems to irrevocably change any human who enters it (those who are lucky enough to leave). And Area X is spreading.

Reading the description of this book, I knew it fell squarely in my wheelhouse. The actual book fell obliquely; then skidded to a stop in a corner of my wheelhouse than I hadn’t expected, a secluded, Lovecraftian corner. (OK, I’ll drop the wheelhouse euphemism. What the Hell is a wheelhouse, anyway?) I expected to read something sparse and allegorically apocalyptic (The Road), but the book reminded me a lot of Albert Sanchez Pinol’s quasi-Lovecraftian novel, Cold Skin.

That’s not to say that this slim novel isn’t sparse and allegorical apocalyptic. Characters are only signified by job title or role, never by an actual name (the psychologist, the surveyor, the husband, etc.). The overall tone of the book is distant and clinical. The story is told in first person through the journal of a biologist. As a new writer, I’m always struggling with the yin and yang of showing vs. telling. First person POV seems particularly liable to lead to dreaded ‘telling.’ As I read each exceptionally crafted paragraph, it seemed to me that each chunk of prose was at least 60% exposition. But something about this narrative detachment—this fact-to-fact-to-fact storytelling—served to heighten the creep-factor, not buffer the reader from it. The book is punctuated by quite a few skin-crawling moments.

The biologist wanders pine forests and marshes (Man, I love me some maritime settings!) and encounters some typically Lovecraftian horrors of the indescribably monstrous variety. (You know the horrors are ‘indescribable’ because that’s always the first word H.P. Lovecraft used to describe them.) Toward the end of the book, the narrator shifts from detached observations of effed-up, unexplainable events to far-sighted hypotheses of what is actually happening, and that’s when the book takes a step backward. (Midi-chlorians, anyone?) This book is Part One of a three-book series, and I hope the next two books don’t shed too much light on this ephemeral mystery that Vandermeer has created.

One more thing: the covers of this series are kick-ass.