Jen’s Favorite Books of 2015: Horror

Fun fact: as a child, I was the world’s biggest wimp. If I saw a spider, I screamed. If I was stuck in the dark, I screamed. If I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I screamed and had unending nightmares for a month of orange-faced little people in psychedelic tunnels while chickens were beheaded. So it’s somewhat surprisingly that as an adult, I’ve fallen in love with the horrific and grotesque. According to my all encompassing spreadsheet of book stats, I read 5 horror novels in 2014. That number doubled in 2015.

Like with most genres, what I find compelling is not always the immediate go-to standard of the genre in question. I’ve read my fair share of King, but the horror I’m most drawn to tends to be less flashy and more subtle. I enjoy my horror creepy and off-putting vs. slashy and in your face. That’s not to insult the type of horror I dislike, it very clearly has its audience and it’s well earned its praise. But don’t expect Stephen King or his offshoots on this list.

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The Girl with All the Gifts, M.R. Carey

I couldn’t bring myself to make a straight up “top ten books” list for this year, but if I had, The Girl with All the Gifts would have definitely been in the top 3. It might have been my favorite book of the year; it’s certainly been my most recommended book of the year. Several of my friends made new years resolutions to read more in 2016 and when they asked for recs, this book has been on every single list.

I went into this book completely blind. I had remembered reading the summary at some point and knew it sounded interesting, but I thought the book was going to be much more similar to a darker version of X-Men, with the “gifts” they mentioned being superpowers of some sort. Protip: that’s not the plot of this book. Unfortunately, I cannot fully articulate the actual plot of this book. I’m going to need to write a spoiler-filled extended thoughts on this one, but it takes a sub-genre I thought dead, and somehow makes it feel completely new and fresh. Every single character in this book undergoes an arc of some sort and has aspects to them that the reader will find both sympathetic and repulsive.

So much of this book is the journey of learning the exact situation Melanie and the other children find themselves in, and what has happened to the world. Your feelings on who you find to be good and who you think is bad change throughout the book as you learn more things. Everyone is complex and interesting, and even the characters I never truly liked as people I could understand and relate to on some level. And all of this amazing character building is taking place in a truly horrific setting that again, can’t elaborate on due to spoilers. If you haven’t read this book, you really owe it to yourself to give it a shot. Seriously.

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

The Girl with All the Gifts might have been my most recommended book of 2015, but Bird Box is hands down the best horror book I’ve read, period. There’s something outside. Something that if you look at it, you will be compelled to gruesomely murder those around you before taking your own life. No one knows exactly what it is, where it came from, or how to stop it.

Our main character is Malorie, mother of 2 young children living in a world where this presence exists. They live in a barricaded house, its rooms empty and floors stained with blood. They only venture outside with blindfolds on, and have learned to rely solely on their non-visual senses to survive the world outside. But the house cannot be their shelter forever. Malorie knows of a compound where other people live and where they might be safe. But to do that they have to traverse the now desolate city. While blindfolded. Down a river.

The story jumps back and forth between Malorie and her children’s dangerous journey to hopeful safety and Malorie’s past when people first started seeing the presence. We see the changes Malorie undergoes in order to survive in such a world, meet a variety of people attempting to cope with the horrific situation they find themselves in, and slowly learn the specifics about what the presence can and can’t do. All the while you’re left wondering how the Malorie of the past becomes the Malorie of the future in 9 short months of her pregnancy and 4 short years of child rearing.

The old adage with horror films is that less is more when it comes to your monster. You want the audience to catch glimpses, letting their imagination do the work until the final climax. Bird Box masters this brilliantly. The reader learns along with the characters how to infer what’s happening without any visual cues. The descriptions are full of sounds and touch, Malorie groping around the floor, checking to see if the thing is in the room with her; checking whether or not it’s safe to open her eyes. I highly recommend the audiobook for this one. Hearing a narrator amplifies the experience, in my opinion. Any horror novel in the future is going to have a tough road ahead of it to surpass Bird Box.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

So on goodreads, I don’t technically have a “horror” shelf but instead file things under “dark/creepy.” I feel that description above anything else is where Broken Monsters falls into. It’s not horror in the way Bird Box is, is not meant to cause the reader to be scared, or have a wayward spirit causing trouble in a haunted house, it’s just extremely dark and creepy. Reading Broken Monsters gives you a constant feeling of unease at its imagery. It takes place in the real world as we know it, no world ending event transforming society as we know it, but it has just enough of the strange and unnatural to keep the reader uncomfortable and unsure.

The book starts off with Detroit Detective Gabriella Versado being called in to a crime scene where a very….unusual… body has been left. The legs of a young boy, not older than 13, have been left, fused together to the torso of a deer like a grotesque art sculpture.

Lauren Beukes is a master of multiple storylines interweaving in one coherent story. Her previous work, The Shining Girls, featured a dozen or so different points of view as different girls in different time periods are being murdered by a time-traveling serial killer. The same craft and care is shown in Broken Monsters. Gabriella Versado might be the first character we see, but she is by no means the only or primary character. The book also follows her teenage daughter, engaging in a catfishing scheme to try to apprehend a man preying upon young girls via chatrooms. There’s an increasingly desperate and rather obnoxious journalist turned youtuber named Jonno and his girlfriend, who are trying to get whatever scoop they can find. There’s a homeless man named TK, trying to help out the members of his ill-begotten community and keep his fellow homeless safe. And finally, there’s the killer himself, crazed and seeing visions that drive him to create this “art.”

Beukes maintains all of these competing storylines seemingly effortlessly, interconnecting them at key moments so that the reader is slowly able to piece together what is happening just before the characters do. Not once did I feel a pang of annoyance to return to a certain character or leave another. They were all interesting and had their own plotpoints that I genuinely cared about. As the killer’s plan unfolds and his deeds become more and more terrifying and otherworldly, I felt legitemate fear for our characters, knowing that any one of them could fall victim to the killer’s schemes, in more ways than one. If you enjoy murder mystery and don’t mind the story having otherworldly elements not based in our reality, Broken Monsters should be on the top of your list.

 

Well then. All the dark and scary stuff is out of the way. How about something a little lighter? How about ~*~**~ROMANCE~**~*~? Wait, why are you all running away? COME BACK, DON’T YOU WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE KISSING BOOKS????

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Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

You ever have one of those books that you go into expecting one thing and about 50 pages in figure out that your brain was tricked at some point and the book is something tonally different than you expected? That was me with Maplecroft. I’m not entirely certain where in life I was misled, but when I picked up this book, I was quite certain this was going to be a fun, quick read about Lizzie Borden on a vendetta against the paranormal, somewhat similar to the tv show Supernatural. So I settled in, ready to be entertained by a somewhat dark but in the end popcorn-level book of fun undead axing. Turns out, there was one small but very specific mistake I made. Lizzie Borden, infamous axe murderess from the late 1800s/early 1900s, is definitely chopping up unearthly beings in attempts to protect her family and town, but they aren’t demons with snappy one liners. Nope, instead it’s Lovecraftian fish people.

This mistake might seem inconsequential to those not familiar with Lovecraftian horror, but it changed the entire tone of the book. Lovecraft is slow and meaty text, full of lumbering monsters from unknown depths and serving unfathomable Eldritch Gods. A physical threat exists, but it’s much less important than the threat to our minds. There is a sense of hopelessness and despair to Lovecraft, where even the smallest glimpses of the horrors beyond our world can drive the sanest of men mad and where any solution found is only a bandaid put on top of a severed arm.

This tonal shift transformed everything about this book for me, and I was delighted. The book no longer felt that we were making light of historical figure Lizzie Borden’s (probable) murderous actions to tell a fun and entertaining jaunt making her the hero figure of the story. Instead, Lizzie’s actions are slow and eclipsed with a sense of ongoing dread as we have to watch more and more townsfolk falling victim to the Eldritch horrors that are slowly transforming them into crazed fish-people.

Speaking of fish people, Maplecroft seems to have drawn the majority of its Lovecraftian influence from The Shadow Over Innsmouth, one of the more well-known Lovecraft works. In the story, our unnamed narrator relays his investigation into the small Massachusetts town of Innsmouth, and the strange goings on there. He describes with first a strange curiosity and later abject horror at the transformation the townsfolk seem to be undergoing, along with their continual obsession with the sea and the “deep ones” that reside in it.

Similar to many Lovecraft stories, Maplecroft is told via letters and journal entries, although unlike the story it has drawn from, there is not one sole narrator telling this tale. Instead, we get the POVs of multiple characters ranging from Lizzie to her ailing sister to the mind of a professor slowing going mad due to the eldritch influence of the deep ones. This helped with the unsettling atmosphere and sense of dread, as you could watch throughout the book as different characters begin their transformation, or react to the transformation of others. Down side of this writing style, however, was that the passage of time is solely conveyed through journal entries at the beginning of each chapter and several times I got lost about how much time had actually progressed since we last heard from our characters.

Another positive of this being influenced by Lovecraft as opposed to actually written by him is that you get to avoid some of the author ickiness surrounding his works. I greatly appreciated having multiple female POVs as our primary voices, something which Lovecraft himself would have balked at. There weren’t random lines about how inferior black people or women are to startle me out of the dread I was experiencing with a stark reminder of how incredibly racist Lovecraft was. Instead, I got to experience all the thematic elements of a proper Lovecraft Horror with more relatable and somewhat diverse characters (or at least more diverse than Lovecraft would have ever written).

Unfortunately, the ending of the book didn’t quite land for me. Around the time where a certain character begins to succumb to the strangeness surrounding the town, the book seems to come to a stuttering halt. Time seems to be passing more quickly going by the journal dates but nothing much is happening story wise. A large section near the end felt like we were sitting around just waiting for the finale to start, and once it did start, everything seemed to happen at once. The pacing of everything seemed off, and not deliberately. Characters start behaving in more illogical ways but you can’t tell if the author intended this to be a sign of their oncoming madness, or if it’s just inconsistent character writing.

That being said, I still greatly enjoyed this book. The actual ending (not the build up to the ending that I struggled with) felt very fitting for the Lovecraftian style, and I came away from this book feeling small and hopeless, but in an intended way. I’m unsure if I’ll read the next book in the series, although that’s not a condemnation of this book. Instead, it’s because I enjoyed this book so much that I don’t want to read the next one. Coming back to this world and the horrors within it seems to destroy the point of this book. The hopeless note we ended on was so fitting and perfect, telling any sort of continuation or epilogue seems contrary to the book’s thematic influence. Regardless, Maplecroft was a wonderfully dreadful book of horror and hopelessness and I’m very glad to have read it.

Pre-teens are the worst, a review of The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop follows 5 boy scouts and their Scout Leader partaking in a yearly camping trip up in the Canadian wilderness, on an isolated island. While on the island, an emaciated man devouring everything he can find (dirt, algae, animals, etc) stumbles across Tom and his scouts and then all hell breaks loose. One by one, the boys and Tim begin to realize that the man was infected with some sort of creature, a creature that they are now exposed to with no way to escape the island.

Look, I don’t want to beat around the bush, I hated this book. About 50 pages into the book I figured out that I hated this book and was too stubborn to just put it down and walk away. And so I continued on, flipping page after page, hoping at some point everything would click and my ever growing loathing of our main characters would dissipate. Surprising no one, this did not happen. Mainly because our main characters continued to be intolerable to be around.

Imagine a stereotypical 11-13 year old boy. Puberty is about to hit, hormones have begun to course through children’s bodies and they aren’t anywhere near mature enough yet to realize how horrible and obnoxious they are being. And in adolescent boys particular, you get an unhealthy mix of aggression and alpha male dominance as they try to figure out who will lead their social circle. Their sex drive is revving to life and so now the previous gross out talk of boogers and poop become masturbation and well, we still are talking about poop except now we’re calling it shit because WE’RE MEN. And unfortunately, these are our protagonists for the entire book.

That’s not to say every 11-13 year old boy is the Absolute Worst TM but the characters in this book have no nuance.

Kent is the “leader” of the group, alpha male complex in full effect due to his cop father giving him a heightened sense of self-importance. He refuses to show Tim the scoutmaster any respect because “adults are f**ked anyway.” He bullies the other kids and asserts his dominance in stereotypical insulting ways.

Ephraim is the kid with anger management problems. Constantly about to fly into a rage, hates life, hates everyone around him, fantasizes about hurting them.

Max is Ephraim’s best friend and polar opposite, quiet and unassuming. He’s reliable and probably the least horrible of the bunch.

Shelley is creepy. That’s his defining characteristic. No one really likes him because everyone picks up on the unsettling vibe he always gives off. He hangs around in the background until he does something particularly strange to remind everyone that he probably will grow up to be the teenager who sets up cameras in the girl’s locker room.

Finally, we have Newton our nerrrrrddddddddddddd. He’s fat. He’s constantly bullied by everyone else. His mother calls him a “sensitive boy” and babies him. He brings up facts and rules in a pitiful meek voice and gets beaten for his neediness.

In a horror book or film, normally the readers should be endeared to at least one of our protagonists. We know pretty much everyone is going to die and don’t care about half of them, but there should be a couple character who we like and want to see succeed. And unfortunately, I don’t care about any one of these blundering idiots. They’re just too one-dimensional and that dimension is simplistic teenage boy. We have a conversation early on with all the boys arguing about whether they’d want to jerk off a donkey or “finger bang” a girl in their class who is rumored to have given someone else a hand job. Everyone picks the donkey because LOL. EVEN ANIMALS ARE BETTER THAN SLUTS AMIRITE???

::sighs::

If you don’t mind caricatures of over masculine teenage boys then you might like this book. The pacing and atmosphere when the creature was doing it’s thing was well developed. Descriptions used to set the eeriness of the creature were genuinely unsettling. With other characters, I would have better enjoyed the way the boys start observing each other for the slightest hint of infection with increasing suspicion. Someone’s stomach is rumbling, is that legitimate hunger or signs that the creature is slowly taking over and turning him into an ever consuming and dangerous fiend? But unfortunately every time we got hints and threats of infection, I was simply glad to know that we’d soon be eliminating another idiot from the troop.

The Girl with All the Gifts: a review

For all her albeit short life, Melanie’s days begin the exact same way. She wakes up in her cell and waits for the Sergeant to bark “TRANSFER.” She then gets up, sits in her chair while Sergeant and his men strap her in, legs, arms and head. He wheels her down the hallways so she can attend classes with her fellow children, all also in their respective chairs, learning about a range of subjects from Greek mythology to the population growth of local English cities. She must never be touched. Every sunday she and the children receive intense chemical baths and sit in the dark, waiting. Occasionally the head of the compound, Dr. Caldwell, requests to see some of the children.

They never come back.

Melanie yearns to know more of the outside world, but her only friendly confidante, her teacher Ms. Justineau, has been getting more and more depressed, and Dr. Caldwell’s requests have been becoming more frequent.

If this summary at all sounds interesting to you, and you enjoy sci-fi/dystopian/horror-esque novels you should read this book. I would love to say more, in fact will say more, but here I have to put up a spoiler warning. Normally I don’t consider plot points to be spoilers if they happen in the first quarter of the book, but normally also those plot points are mentioned somewhere in the book summary and don’t change your worldview on what’s happening. About a quarter of the way through this book, a reveal is made about the world we’re in and why the children are being treated the way they are. I loved this book. It was an excellent exploration of the price humanity pays in order to protect itself and the moral quandaries that comes with that price. Butttt…….. to talk at all about why I loved it so much, I have to let you know about that one reveal. So if you will be bothered by that or want to go into the book blind like I did, stop now, know that I loved the book, and come back if you want AFTER you’ve finished it.

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The Hollow City by Dan Wells, ft. Giorgio A. Tsoukalos; a review

Man, this book was a massive disappointment. I have a strange fascination with stories about serial killers, both real and fictional. I ate up the first two books in Dan Wells previous series, the John Cleaver trilogy–which revolved around a sociopathic teenager who is trying to suppress his murderous tendencies by hunting down an actual serial killer within his hometown. I also love stories with an unreliable narrator and how much more unreliable can we get than a paranoid schizophrenic who can’t differentiate between his hallucinations and reality? Needless to say, my expectations going into The Hollow City were pretty high.

Michael Shipman is a young man in his early twenties who police find on the side of the road, sitting in his own filth, sink faucets in his pockets and no clear memory as to what happened over the past two weeks. While at the hospital, it becomes apparent to the medical advisers that Michael is suffering from some kind of psychosis. He is paranoid to absurd levels, believing he doctors conspiring with agents as part of the Plan relating to him. They are trying to get at him through technology, through a person’s cell phone, through the medical equipment monitoring his heart rate, even though the desk clock. Faceless men are following him, agents of The Plan. Michael is diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic and sent to a psychiatric ward to receive treatment until such a time that he is lucid enough to answer police questions because, during the same time that Michael can’ remember, someone known as the Red Line Killer has been exacting a horrific murder spree cutting off people’s faces. Rendering them faceless men, if you will.

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We started off great! The entire book is told from Michael’s perspective and we really get to go on a journey with him as he works through his psychosis. You’re just as confused as he is as to whether or not things he’s reacting to and people he’s interacting with are actually real. Is that reporter lady he’s talking to real? Well, she conveniently “hid” in the bathroom as soon as the doctors were returning. Was she actually there hiding or did Michael’s brain come up with a reasonable explanation as to why the doctors wouldn’t have seen her? What about Michael’s girlfriend? He’s apparently been in a relationship with her for about a year and would have met Michael’s dad but what if his brain is just making up past memories of her? And all the while there’s that nagging suspicion that Michael might actually be the Red Line Killer. He doesn’t want to be the killer, and is horrified by the crime scene photos but more evidence starts to cast doubt in his mind. The Red Line Killer removes the faces of his victims. Michael’s primary psychosis involves men whose faces are blurred out. All of the victims were somehow connected to a cult named the Children of the Earth. When Michael was a baby he was kidnapped by the cult and his mothered murdered by them, a clear revenge motive. As hard as he tried he cannot remember what he did in the two weeks the Red Line Killer was most active in, only vague memories of a “hollow city” empty and abandoned, come to him.

And so the majority of the book continues with Michael in the psychiatric hospital, working through his paranoid delusions one at a time. One of the highlights of the John Cleaver books was seeing John’s reactions to certain scenarios and you as the non-sociopathic (assumedly) reader recognizing his behavior and thought processes as unhealthy. John would be getting ready for a social outing and explaining away why he should carry knives with him. You completely understood his thought process but also understood its true purpose, that John was coming up with reasons to have knives simply because he enjoys hurting people. This same reader/character disconnect is present in The Hollow City, but with much less subtlety. Once identified, Michael’s hallucinations start outright talking about what is and isn’t real and how is brain might be interpreting different stimuli. It’s still engaging and interesting, but much less rewarding than in the John Cleaver books.

Unfortunately this is where I need to put up the spoiler warning. As my entire opinion of the book is heavily affected by the last 1/3rd, properly explaining my feelings requires me spoiling the entire ending of the book. If you want to stop here, know that the ending takes a dramatic shift in tone that came out of nowhere and left me very dissatisfied with the book. If you want to know why, keep reading… Continue reading