In Dennis Lehane’s creepy and suspenseful Shutter Island, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck arrive on Shutter Island to find a missing inmate from Ashecliffe Asylum. What seems like a routine investigation is swiftly put off the rails by the uneasy atmosphere at Ashecliffe, and all of the secrets the people in charge seem to be keeping. Teddy has his own demons to work though at the same time, having recently lost his wife.
I can’t believe I’m only getting to this novel now. I never saw the movie, either, so the ending remained unspoiled for me. I enjoyed the dark, film noir feel of this, with the tortured war veteran and his dark past, his solitary nature, his desire for revenge. He’s a great character, flawed yet remaining sympathetic.
The plotting of this novel is so intricate and so well-constructed. I can’t out-do the Kirkus reviewer on this one: it’s a “lollapalooza of a corkscrew thriller.” You start questioning your own sanity by midway through, and I mean that in the best possible way. The twist is revealed in one of the best scenes I’ve read lately, where the stakes are high for everyone involved and the emotion of it all seems very real.
The setting is fantastic, both gritty and Gothic, perfect for the story. Ashecliffe is depicted as a brutal relic from another century, and its maximum security isolation on an island is perfect.
Lots of diverse readalikes present themselves for this one, depending on what you enjoyed the most. Noir and crime fiction from the 1950’s might really appeal to you, if you liked that aspect of the story. The grittier the better. There’s also something very Gothic about the creepy atmosphere and sense of danger at the asylum. You might enjoy John Harwood’s The Asylum (I talked about it here). I also thought of The Boy Who Could See Demons while reading this, which you can read more about at this post.
If you want just a smidge more of the Nazi subplot, some aliens, and a ton of Sarah Paulsen, you might want to check out the second season of American Horror Story, which took place at an insane asylum in Massachusetts. Here, I can show this clip on a family-friendly blog (trust me, the entire season is just as nuts as this, but in different ways).
Expect to see this one again next Halloween. Alfred Hitchcock presents: Stories That Scared Even Me.
I picked this up on a whim because I’m a sucker for creepy short stories, particularly those from the 1950’s and 1960’s. There’s a certain quality to mid-century tales of the macabre and grotesque which make them unique. The matter-of-fact prose, maybe. The atmosphere of the uncanny and foreboding, but without the Gothic touches. Or maybe it’s the way they usually present the weird colliding with the everyday. They’re suspenseful and play with your mind and expectations.
Men Without Bones had a weird Heart of Darkness vibe. The creepy, icky melancholy of A Death in the Family by Miriam Allen deFord had me freaked out for a day after reading it. Party Games was just…ugh, man. Murder, adultery, aliens, evil kids, monsters, dimension-bending cameras that can send you to hell…this collection has a bit of everything. Including the complete novella Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham.
If you’re after a short story collection to creep you out in small doses, this would be a good one to try. Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson fans should have a look!
A group of teens, an escaped serial killer, and an ancient evil in the woods. An opening line which reads: “The week I saw seventeen people die didn’t begin with blood, monsters, or a sadistic serial killer. It began with a baseball game.”
I regret only that I didn’t read this in time to put it on my Scary Reads list. The story is about a small town in Indiana called Shadeland, home to Will Burgess. Will is a seventeen-year-old in a rough situation–fatherless, mother addicted to painkillers, responsible for his little sister Peach.
On top of that, the notorious Moonlight Killer has escaped from prison and made a beeline for Will’s town. And as if a serial killer lurking weren’t enough, there’s an even more ancient evil lurking in Savage Hollow, the area just beyond Will’s house. Monsters of all types collide, and it’s up to Will to save everyone he cares about.
The narrative voice is strong, the characters are likable, and the horror is built with atmosphere and building tension as well as some nicely gory scenes. Part human horror and part monster story, this is a scary novel with plenty of blood and a very high body count. The open, foreboding ending is great, too. It’s also got its funny moments to relieve some of the tension. If you like slasher flicks and monster movies this time of year, give this a try.
Careful out there, fellow Halloweenies. Don’t let the Wendigos bite.
Longtime readers of this blog might remember last year’s McMahon-binge. Do read that post for my
fangirling discussion of the appeal of her novels. McMahon’s latest, The Night Sister, has all the same twists and turns, intricate plotting, moody atmosphere and mounting tension of her other work. What sets it apart is the presence of monsters.
Like The Winter People, The Night Sister has overt supernatural elements. In her earlier books, there was always just a touch of that, a sort of glimmer around not-so-nice realities. All-too-human monsters hide behind magical facades. In this book, as with The Winter People, you’re not quite sure how real the supernatural elements are until pretty far into the story, which helps build the suspense.
This particular story centers on two sets of sisters a generation apart. In one past narrative, Piper and Margot and their friend Amy are growing up around the Tower Motel, once a big tourist spot in rural Vermont. By the time the three girls were kids, the Motel had fallen into serious disrepair. One summer they uncovered a nasty secret that blew their friendships apart. In the other past narrative, there’s another set of sisters, Sylvie and Rose, who grew up at the motel in the 1950’s, and who both have something to do with the mysterious secret of the motel, and of Amy’s background. The third narrative is set in the present, where Amy is accused of murdering her entire family, and Margot and Piper try to uncover the truth.
Secrets abound in this story, and the suspense comes from the desire to find out what’s really going on at the Tower Motel. As I mentioned, the paranormal is overt in The Night Sister, but it plays so well into the dark family story that it doesn’t feel too much like fantasy or horror. Rather, it’s a story about sisters and friendships and family secrets, and when you stop to think about it, the old-world monsters aren’t all that monstrous (though there is some deftly written well-placed gore).
But still, this is a compelling, darkly atmospheric tale, creepy and absorbing with well-crafted characters and relationships. If you like your monster stories with a fairy-tale kind of feel, give this a try.
Horror Month 2015 brings us yet another installment of Marie’s Favorite Scary Books! It’s an official franchise now! Maybe someday Marie’s Favorite Scary Books, Part IV: Scary Book Massacre will be a name spoken in the same breath as Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and Bride of Chucky.
One can hope.
Here are my favorite scary reads from the past year!
Marie’s Favorite Scary Books Part IV: Scary Book Massacre
The House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill
Antiques valuer Catherine is sent to the Red House to catalog the collection of World War I veteran M.H. Mason, a taxidermist known for his dioramas of preserved rats enacting battle scenes from the Great War. Soon she finds there’s a darkness still lurking in the house, a mysterious secret that Catherine is drawn into and unable to avoid uncovering. A stifling and dark atmosphere, a pervasive sense of dread, and horrifying images that leap from the page make this a book to read strictly in the daytime. You can find the blog post about it here.
A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan
A real estate agent keeps the keys to every house he’s ever sold, and makes himself a frequent visitor in the now-occupied homes. Sometimes when the residents are there, never realizing they have company. It’s a creepy set-up with an unbalanced narrator, an understated horror offering.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
When Merry was a little girl, her older sister was possessed by a demon–and her cash-strapped family made a reality-TV show about it. In the present, Merry is the only surviving member of her family, and she’s agreed to let an author write a book about her. Tons of references to the horror genre (especially Shirley Jackson!), a wonderful narrator, and truly scary scenes, this is one of the most compelling scary books I read in 2015.
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
These pieces have been collected under the umbrella of being unsettling (hence the title). Each tale wrongfoots you in a different sort of way. There’s darkness, there’s humor, there’s deep understanding and wisdom. His characters feel timeless. There’s an ease to his style, and he can work in so many mediums and different styles that it’s amazing all this work comes from one imagination. For a lighter not-so-horrific read this Halloween, give this collection a try. You can read more here.
The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon
Like The Winter People, McMahon’s newest novel has full-on supernatural elements. It’s a monster story, but also a story about sisters, friendship, and growing up.
The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
I’ve recently rekindled my relationship with Shirley Jackson, and it’s been wonderful to enjoy all over again how creepy and menacing and atmospheric some of her pieces are. This collection is classic and contains some of my favorite dark pieces.
Have a horrific time with these!
So I’m only just slightly behind the times. At least I got to Mr. Mercedes eventually, just in time for the second in the planned trilogy to arrive on shelves (Finders Keepers hit the street last week).
Bill Hodges is a retired detective considering suicide when the novel opens. He spends his days watching bad TV, eating too much, and playing with the idea of putting a gun in his mouth. One day, Hodges receives a letter that snaps him back–it’s a missive from a mass killer styled “Mr. Mercedes,” who killed eight people when he drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd.
The Mr. Mercedes case had belonged to Hodges before he retired, and he never solved it. Now he’s determined to do so, before Mr. Mercedes can kill again–as Hodges is certain that he will.
Mr. Mercedes is a cinematic and suspenseful crime novel. It’s also an engaging examination of an aging man who thought he was finished being given a renewed sense of purpose. And it’s also a creepy, morbidly fascinating examination of the background and creation of a killer.
This novel has a lot of cross-genre appeal. Horror fans, particularly those who enjoy human horror, will find a lot to like in Brady’s storyline, as well as the well-placed gore. Crime fans will probably respond to the well-constructed cat-and-mouse game as Hodges hunts for Mr. Mercedes. Suspense and thriller fans might appreciate the slow, encompassing build that comes together with ever-increasing pace and urgency.
The one genre group I’m not positive about is straight-up mystery fans, oddly enough. One note I kept finding online was that King himself calls this a “hard-boiled” detective novel. I’m not entirely sure that it is.
You feel the looming threat because you know what Brady is up to, but this world isn’t bleak. There aren’t mean streets. As ever with Stephen King, the streets are regular (if depressed) streets, which makes the horrible things that happen so much scarier and so much more imaginable. Hodges is a nice man, a smart guy who clearly was a crackerjack detective, yearning for a sense of purpose and people to be there for. All through the story he gives off an avuncular sort of vibe. Perhaps it was my reading, but I never got “gritty” or “world-weary” or “streetwise” from this guy. This story is a battle between good and evil (another King hallmark), and never once do you doubt what side Hodges is on.
Your mileage may vary, but I think you might be a little disappointed if you go into this book hoping for a traditional hard-boiled story. You also know the entire time whodunit, and the suspense comes not from a puzzle but from seeing how the criminal will be foiled. Stephen King also is never one to leave his universe entirely at rest and at peace, so you won’t find any traditional justice being served here.
All that said, this is a compelling read with twisted yet appealing characters, a creepy tone, and enough crazy that even citizens of Derry might arch an eyebrow. If you like King’s work and haven’t tried this one yet, or if you want some crime that’s dark and twisty but very readable, definitely pick it up.
Just look at this cover.
Orsk is a furniture store that feels like a prison to many of its employees. It’s the sort of retail hell that’s designed to never let you leave. As the story opens we learn that merchandise is being damaged overnight. There are Orsk company inspectors on the way, so the store manager has to get to the bottom of the mystery quickly. So the devoted-to-the-company manager puts together a small crew to wait overnight so that they can catch whoever is responsible for messing with the inventory.
Unfortunately, weird things begin to happen once night falls. Graffiti appears on the walls that references “the Beehive.” Stains and mold and scratches appear on normally flawless surfaces. Then the shadowy figures start to appear. Turns out the store was built on the swampy remains of a notorious prison.
Horrorstör is clever, fun, and pretty darn creepy–I snorted with laughter even while being scared. Think Shaun of the Dead style, where the gore is paired with a laugh. Actually, there are lots of horror movie references and tropes here. This novel is particularly cinematic in pacing and tone and, because of the catalog framing device, relies a lot on visuals. So it’s even more like a horror movie than it might be otherwise.
The catalog device is very well done, especially in the chapter-heading ads for furniture (which morph into something altogether different as the story goes on). The phrasing for the merchandise description is spot-on. And so is the corporate-speak of the employee manual and the more devoted employees.
Retail, man. It can trap you.
If you’re a fan of clever creepiness with a quick pace and a nice foreboding ending, give this one a try this month. Here’s the book trailer:
Two years ago I did a Halloween tribute to R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books. For many readers my age, Goosebumps was THE scary book series. There were many imitators, never any duplicators. R.L. Stine was our introduction to Horror. That series opened up the gates of scary for us.
Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell pulled the gates the rest of the way open. And a lot of us have never fully recovered.
Shwartz used ghost stories, urban legends, and even a few creepy songs to create his Scary Stories collections. All are scary enough on their own. But it’s the illustrations, oh dear sweet Saint Jerome the illustrations, that will keep you awake at night. Kids would literally dare each other to look at these when I was in elementary school. If you could handle Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, you were a tough cookie.
Let’s take a peek into Gammell’s view of mind-bending terror, shall we?
I am so not even kidding you, if you are delicate DO NOT continue reading this post. If you’re not sure whether to be afraid or not, do a quick Google of “Stephen Gammell.”
Yeah, that’s what you’re in for. Never say I didn’t warn you.
I talked about Liz Jensen and her fantastic ability to create unique and original character voices in my post about her bawdy romp My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time. She certainly delivers another great narrator and another great set-up in The Uninvited.
Here’s the story: Hesketh Lock, an anthropologist who suffers from Aspberger’s syndrome, works for a firm called Phipps and Wexman. His primary duty is to do PR troubleshooting–when something goes wrong at your firm, Hesketh comes in to identify what went wrong and to make sure nothing like it happens again. At the start of the book, he’s investigating a case of corporate sabotage in Taiwan.
At the same time, there have been several murders committed by children. It is always the children attacking their parents and grandparents, always in something like a fugue state. Eventually, the problem becomes almost apocalyptic–to the point where children everywhere seem to have been somehow possessed. Even Hesketh’s own stepson succumbs to this bizarre behavior.
Hesketh’s talent is in solving puzzles and connecting dots. Over the course of the story he discovers the link between the corporate sabotage and the murderous children, and then has to deal with the consequences.
I don’t want to give too much more away than that about the plotline. Part of the interest of this novel is trying to figure out the connections and then to uncover the implications. This really is not an altogether straightforward narrative, and that’s a good thing.
This is a dystopian novel with a twist. The apocalypse has happened, but it’s not the one we think or the one we expect. The kids are there to give a warning to the grown-ups, and it’s ignored at our own peril. It’s sort of an inverse apocalypse story, an original take which is really refreshing in this our apparent golden age of new-wave sci-fi dystopia novels (Hunger Games, etc.). The Uninvited feels more old-school, a lot more like A Canticle for Leibowitz or Earth Abides.
In all, I found this to be compelling, creepy, atmospheric, and very nicely plotted. I enjoyed the emotional distance Hesketh offers as a narrator. I also loved the rather open ending. As a dystopian novel it hits all the marks, including raising philosophical and moral questions about the future of humanity.
If you enjoy dystopian fiction and are after something that feels pretty new and fresh, definitely give this a try.