REVIEW: The Vessel by Adam Nevill

After an absurdly long fallow period, literary horror is showing signs of a return to commercial success and cultural visibility.

As you might expect of a cultural milieu that is only just starting to re-imagine itself as a thriving creative community, critics and literary historians have looked back to by-gone eras of commercial success in search of insights into what went right and what went wrong. For example, see Grady Hendrix’s Paperback from Hell for a wonderful overview of the publishing industry’s increasingly desperate and doomed attempts to ride on the coat-tails of Stephen King.

As wonderful and satisfying as this narrative may be, it is worth bearing in mind that there have been a number of failed attempts to re-ignite popular interest in horror literature and most of them ended in failure. Multiple generations have discovered and re-discovered King’s work but the industry has always struggled to find a second or third author towards whom King’s readers might be channelled.

About fifteen years ago, Adam Nevill (a.k.a. Adam L.G. Nevill) was the next big thing in literary horror. It turns out that fifteen years is a long time.

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REVIEW: The Hole by PYUN Hye-Young

There is a tendency for journalists to write in the passive voice. This is most obvious when journalists are writing about atrocities and crimes perpetrated by those allied to or acting on behalf of the status quo: The police never kill an unarmed Black man just as the Israeli military never shoot peaceful protestors. Instead, the unarmed Black men are always killed after someone calls the police. Similarly, Palestinian protesters wind up dead after a tense encounter with the Israeli defence forces.

The problem is that active voice implies not only cause-and-effect but also guilt and responsibility. To say that the police killed an unarmed man implies that the police took out their guns and murdered a man who posed little to no danger. Similarly, to say that the Israeli military killed hundreds of peaceful protesters implies deliberate cold-blooded murder. It’s not that these things do not happen (because they manifestly do)… it’s just that saying that they did can be both legally and politically embarrassing.

This critique is not new, people are well aware of the tendency to report the actions of institutions in the passive voice, but what of using the passive voice to describe the actions of a single person? What about a life described entirely in the passive voice? Are we responsible for our actions or do things just happen to us? This is a question raised by the winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award. Written by the South Korean author PYUN Hye-Young and translated by Sora Kim-Russell.

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REVIEW: The Spirit by Thomas Page

The Spirit is a short (but not particularly lean) novel about two ostensibly very different men coming together to hunt Bigfoot. In terms of genre topography, the novel owes less to traditional horror and more to the kinds of films that used to be made by people like Walter Miller. Think Deliverance, Rambo: First Blood, or Southern Comfort and you have the precise vibe of this novel. This is a book of low budgets, simmering male rage, and just enough insight to lend a sense of gravitas and poignancy to what could so easily have wound up feeling like a load of ludicrous nonsense.

The Spirit was first published in 1977 and is one of a number of weird-and-wonderful novels to have been re-discovered and re-released after receiving a positive mention in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell. I mention this as awareness of the book’s publication history is really useful when trying to understand what it is that this book set out to achieve. Indeed, while The Spirit can definitely be understood as a Bigfoot horror novel, the book is a lot more interested in the men doing the hunting and how Bigfoot mythology is shaped and re-shaped by the needs of different sets of people.

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REVIEW: Woom by Duncan Ralston

I decided to write about Woom in an effort to think my way through certain tensions that exist within my knowledge and appreciation of horror. Woom is a short novel with a reputation for being rather extreme in both its themes and its imagery. It is this extremity that attracted me whilst also giving me reasons to pause.

 I would be surprised if mine was the first review of Woom to start in such terms as we are living in times when even the people who are not bothered by extreme imagery and transgressive themes feel obliged to bracket their appreciation with a variety of caveats and pre-emptive apologies designed to ward off the evil eye of social media. My issue is not that I feel guilty or worried about expressing an interest in transgressive media; it’s more that many previous attempts to find works of extreme and disturbing horror have often left me feeling rather bored.

Part of the problem is that, as a child, my parents showed no interest in moderating my access to media and so I’m pretty sure that I started encountering works like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre before I was even a teenager. While this meant that, by the age of 18, I was pretty much impossible to shock, it also meant that a lot of genre horror wound up sitting in a mental drawer marked ‘adolescent’. In fact, it wasn’t until my interest in art-house film lead me to the works of people like Gaspar Noe that I re-discovered an interest in horror-inspired imagery and associated transgressive themes. The problem with this approach to extreme imagery is that if you re-discover transgressive imagery in the context of films with a degree of psychological and thematic sophistication then it’s kind of difficult to stay interested when that imagery leads you into trope-driven narratives involving cannibals and serial killers.

While I would never say that literary extreme horror is nothing but stories about generic cannibals and murderers, that approach to extreme horror is far more common than the approach taken in something like Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next-Door, where the extremity of the visuals are rooted in a set of themes and psychological observations that make the darker parts of my brain light up with pleasure. Even recent well-received works with extreme imagery like Nick Cutter’s The Troop left me rather bored as hundreds of pages of disgusting shit is actually quite tedious when the book manifestly has very little thematic heft. All of which to say that I approached Ralston’s Woom with a degree of trepidation as I wanted it to be disgusting but I also wanted it to be smart.. And I must say that Ralston definitely manages to pull it off albeit not in a way I had either expected or hoped for.

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REVIEW: Some of Your Blood (1961) by Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon is an author whose work is starting to fade from view. Once a big wheel down at the SFF factory, his name may continue to ring out but that name has become unmoored from any particular works of fiction.

This is partly a product of the way in which media franchises dominate the cultural landscape and partly a product of the fact that Sturgeon was a writer operating at a time when normal people still paid attention to short fiction. If you want to get into Sturgeon here in the 21st Century, you can choose between PDFs of a small selection of not-particularly famous short novels and a seven volume anthology set aimed at collectors and academics. To be honest, I’ve been reading science fiction since I was a teenager and the only reason I hit upon this novel is that it was being made available for free on Audible. So Yay Jeff Bezos and Boo SFF publishing as this is one of the most enjoyably psychological horror novels I have read in a long time.

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REVIEW: Things Have gotten Worse since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca

As I worked my way through Eric LaRocca’s second novella Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, I kept amusing myself with the idea that someone was going to cancel LaRocca for committing an act of cultural appropriation against people with picrew avatars. Well… it turns out that I was pretty much bang on the money.

Things is an interesting example of how the market for horror rebuilding itself by seeking out new audiences and creating new systems of cultural reproduction. Published in June 2021 by Weirdpunk Books, LaRocca’s novella found its way onto subscription services that seem to be more interested in Instagram and Tiktok than Twitter or Facebook. By avoiding traditional avenues of bookish publicity, the book wound up getting pushed into the faces of people who were perhaps not all that familiar with the more extreme forms of literary horror and so people unaccustomed to that kind of literary affect got angry and tried to argue that LaRocca was smearing and stereotyping lesbians by writing a book about an insanely abusive and co-dependent online relationship. It is now a year later and the calls for cancellation have been buried under a flood of gleeful disgust but it is worth acknowledging that Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is not only an enjoyably gross and fucked-up horror novella, it is also an incisive piece of social satire inspired by spaces where the language of acceptance often masks the reality of social bonds with hidden costs.

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REVIEW: Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Nearly sixteen years after her untimely death, Octavia Butler is having a bit of a moment. Over the last few years, a concerted effort has been made to re-discover and re-claim the legacy of the first ever science fiction author to receive a MacArthur fellowship.

It is not hard to see why this would happen… Though widely-respected and a winner of various awards during her lifetime, Butler’s name has started to fade from view for the simple reason that she was never one of the four or five (predominantly white and male) authors whose continued sales keep the lights on for genre publishing. The institutions of SFF publishing are barely interested in live mid-list authors, so why would they give a shit about dead ones? Especially when the dead mid-list authors in question write books as difficult, problematic and profoundly unfashionable as Fledgling.

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