Halloween Read: “20th Century Ghosts” by Joe Hill

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A troubled teen awakes and finds himself transformed into a giant insect.  An inflatable boy deals with schoolyard bullies.  A girl haunts the movie theater where she died.  A boy is locked in a cellar with a phone that connects to the afterlife.

The stories in 20th Century Ghosts are a fantastic blend of horror, weird fiction, and dark fantasy.  Several of them have references to classic works, like Dracula and The Metamorphosis (and those are just the most clear-cut ones).   They’re all very subtle and strange, and have a range of tone and mood.  Hill’s style, as always, is incredibly absorbing and completely readable–he puts you right there in the tale he’s telling, and he can create a world of amazing detail in just a few pages.

This is a fantastic collection for readers who enjoy their Halloween reads more on the weird fiction end of the Horror spectrum.  If you’ve enjoyed Hill’s novels, give these stories a look!

 

 

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Marie’s Reading: “Homesick for Another World: Stories” by Ottessa Moshfegh

homesickHere’s a collection of grotesques if ever there was one.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection of short stories, Homesick For Another World, presents a series of people who are each alienated and disconnected in their own ways.  Each of them are desperate for some kind of connection with the world or with another person.  The ways they go about forging these connections, however, are weird and damaging and dark.

Only one word comes to mind at first: Grim.  Grim grim grim.  After that comes bleak, I guess.  But there’s also dark humor and a sense of compassion.  The weird, unfulfilled, and misguided characters in these stories aren’t being mocked or gawked at.  Instead, they’re simply presented with all their flaws and desires, with a concise style.

Moshfegh has a real talent for delving into the darkness and coming up with something human.   These stories aren’t always easy to read, but they’re compelling in their strangeness and in their insight.  Each one has an ending or an image or an idea that will sit with you for days.

I loved Moshfegh’s novel Eileen, and you can read my post about it here.  What I said about that book applies to this collection, too: “This is a stark, bleak, sometimes ugly book, but it’s also compulsively readable and deeply affecting.”

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me”

Expect to see this one again next Halloween.  Alfred Hitchcock presents: Stories That Scared Even Me.

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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!

–Marie

 

Halloween Read: “Every House is Haunted” by Ian Rogers

everyhouseishaunted

Every story in Every House is Haunted is like an eerie short film.  There are haunted houses, sci-fi experiments, and psychic powers.  What ties everything together is Rogers’ cinematic, absorbing style, and great ear for dialogue.  You’re dropped into these little snapshots of surreal horror, which makes them all the weirder and memorable.  It’s like watching The Twilight Zone.

A cat goes to great lengths to be of service to his household.  An odd sort of spider infests a house through the TV set.  A haunted house is so dangerous it’s on a paranormal watch list.  A group of explorers set forth into the gray boundary between life and death.  A mysterious facility in the desert deals in ancient, dangerous boundary-breaking.  A man inherits the old family house…along with its long-buried secrets.

And that’s just a taste.  There are twenty-two stories in this quirky collection.  A lot of them would be perfect Halloween read-alouds.  Surreal, entertaining, deftly told, this collection has a Halloween treat for everyone.

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “Pond” by Claire-Louise Bennett

PondPond is a collection of first-person stories, told by a woman who lives in a tiny cottage on the outskirts of a village.  Every piece is full of her observations, thoughts, and the detail (sometimes microscopic) of everyday life.

Slowly, page by page, phrase by multi-layered phrase, the narrator’s character is revealed.  She has secrets, she has perhaps something more than just odd habits.  The sense of time is confused, as are the other people the narrator talks about.  There’s a lot left for the reader to piece together and figure out about her.  At the end you’re left with an impression, a feeling, more than anything else.

The narrative voice and the style are wonderfully off-key, just slightly out of tune–the feeling really is one of being trapped inside the head of someone who’s alone way too much.  Or maybe trapped in a small room with that same person, and they will not stop talking at you.

Bennett does such strange and beautiful things with words.  It’s like poetry, almost.  You have to pay attention to every word.  This isn’t one to skim.  Here’s a quote, to give you an example of the voice and style:

“Look here, it’s perfectly obvious by now to anyone that my head is turned by imagined elsewheres and hardly at all by present circumstances–even so no one can know what trip is going on and on in anyone else’s mind and so, for that reason solely perhaps, the way I go about my business, such as it is, can be very confusing, bewildering, unaccountable–even, actually, offensive sometimes.”

Detailed, poetic, at times uncomfortable, Pond is a great choice if you enjoy reveling in language.

I was reminded of The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry while I was reading Pond, mostly because of the first-person, perhaps slightly unhinged narration.  The Divry book is more humorous in tone, though.  I also thought of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, for the loneliness and anger in the narrative voice, though that one is a linear story.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Wonder Garden” by Lauren Acampora

wonder gardenI found out about The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora book during last month’s meeting of the Simply Books! book club at the library.  The reader’s description piqued my interest (quoted from our meeting minutes):

 This novel is made up of a series of linked stories set in an old-money suburb called Old Cranbury.  Each story focuses on the  various eccentricities of the rich and weird inhabitants.  It’s elegantly written, and Acampora manages to inhabit each character fully.

The reader also went into a bit more detail about the “eccentricities”–the artist who creates realistic-looking foamboard insects to cover a house in the neighborhood as part of an art installation, the father-to-be who has a mystical experience while building a tree house that leads him to a spirit quest.  I was hooked.

It’s Winesburg, Ohio for a new era.  A book of grotesques, just like that one, people who strive and want and are stuck in different ways.  But add the oppressive wealthy suburban aspect, the kind that demands conformity.  And then there’s the creative element, humor, and deft characterizations that Acampora brings to Old Cranbury.

Acampora delivers a lot of insight about society and what it’s like to be under scrutiny in one way or another.  To have your own little reality behind your windows, where you can create your own little world safe from prying eyes (like the woman in The Virginals, who, along with her husband, speaks, dresses, and decorates her period home as though it is forever 1740).

Each story blends humor and pathos, the everyday takes on a creative spin or is presented from a different angle, and the attention to detail is great.  These are small, intensely focused stories (none more so than the one where a real estate agent is stuck at an intersection, and starts to see it as a welcome break), reflecting the tightly narrow focus of the characters.

The Wonder Garden is darkly funny, populated with wonderful characters, and incisive in its depiction of the needs and preoccupations of moneyed suburbia.

If you enjoy this book, I’d suggest you try Rebecca Makkai’s work.  The quirkiness and pathos would be a good fit, particularly in The Hundred Year House.  As the reader from book club said, John Cheever would be a good choice, too–there’s that same bleakness and dark humor, some weirdness, and focus on the lives of middle-class suburbanites.  Try The Stories of John Cheever to dip a toe in.  Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, about a lawyer’s wife in 1930’s Kansas City succumbing to boredom and loneliness, might be good as well, as would Sinclair Lewis’s work (Main Street or Babbitt).  I already mentioned Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, which might also appeal if you like the “book of grotesques” angle. If you want to go darker and more hopeless, you could try the disturbing but poignant Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, which focuses on the sad, poor population of a small Midwestern town.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl” by Mona Awad

13 waysWhen I put down 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, I felt like Mona Awad had exposed something deep and true and uncomfortable.  By turns when reading I was amused, disgusted, pitying.

The book is a series of interconnected stories about Elizabeth, a woman on a quest to lose weight.  We follow her from her teenage years up through her twenties, getting snapshots of where she is on her journey.  She’s never happy with herself, always afraid to have her picture taken, always obsessing over every morsel consumed or piece of clothing worn.  When she does start to lose weight, she still can’t see anything but a fat girl.

Through black humor, sometimes surreal descriptive power, and biting nastiness, Awad examines women’s relationships with their bodies.  I completely agree with the blurb, which says, in part:

Mona Awad simultaneously skewers the body image-obsessed culture that tells women they have no value outside their physical appearance, and delivers a tender and moving depiction of a lovably difficult young woman whose life is hijacked by her struggle to conform. As caustically funny as it is heartbreaking.

I think Elizabeth comes off as “lovably difficult” because of her obsession with her body image.  Most women will get it–get precisely where she’s coming from, why she’s so worried and angry and compulsive and mean, constantly judging herself and other women.  Even if this doesn’t reflect everyone’s personal experience completely, we can all understand it at least in part.  The twisted relationship with food and enjoyment, the competition and joylessness, the never feeling quite good enough.  Most people will find something that rings true.

Most of the stories are told through Elizabeth’s eyes, her view of herself and her struggle with weight and her perception of herself.  She even goes so far as to constantly change the name she’d like to be called (Lizzie, Beth, Liz, etc.).  But even when the point of view is from those close to Elizabeth, mostly men, the focus is squarely on her body and how they perceive it, how it does or doesn’t measure up in their eyes.  Elizabeth as person inside that body barely even registers.  And that is pretty  heartbreaking.

Not an easy read, but one with lots going on and really fantastic use of language.  Awad strikes a deep chord, and does it with humor and incisiveness.

–Marie