REVIEW: Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman

I took an unusual path to this book.

A little while ago, someone who knows of the disdain in which I hold Fantasy novels recommended that I check out The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman. The book, I must say, did not convert me to reading Fantasy but I did finish it because while I found the plot under-cooked and the characters somewhat generic, I loved the writing and the imagery. A couple of months later, I happened upon an amiable  haircut with a YouTube channel who spoke in glowing terms of Those Across the River and while I didn’t necessarily trust the recommendation, the plot synopsis combined with my respect for Buehlman’s sentence-by-sentence writing were enough for me to give him another chance, and I am very glad that I did.

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REVIEW: Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Stories about haunted houses tend to fall into two broad approaches:

Firstly, there are the stories that are all about the haunting and which use their characters as viewpoints through which to explore the haunting and victims through whom the haunting’s destructive power can be felt. This style of story is quite popular in horror films but it also forms the backbone of the occult detective and paranormal investigation sub-genres where the tendency is always to show the audience something frightening and then let that horror blossom through a process of rational contextualisation whereby the spooky thing in the old house becomes a horrific truth about the world.

Secondly, there are stories where the focus is on the human characters rather than the haunting itself. In this style of story, the haunting is not required to make sense as the point of the exercise is to show you a human mind imploding under unimaginable pressure. In some ways, having a haunting not make sense only adds to its power because the characters’ inability to see the edges of the haunting only serves to make it harder to endure.

I refer to these groups as approaches because a lot of great works move between the two. For example, Ghostwatch shuffles back and forth between the approaches, hinting at hidden lore before focusing on the little girl and then moving back to the lore as the true nature of the horror is revealed. Similarly, The Exorcist presents itself as a lore-filled possession story but in reality the power of the film owes less to Catholic myth than it does to the film’s interest in the experience of the little girl and the relationship she has with her mother. Naturally, there are great examples from either form and many of the best works do employ elements of both approaches but the hauntings that stay with me tend to be of the more psychological variety. For me, the greatest ghost story of all time remains The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a novel in which the exact shape and source of the horror are a lot more vague than the beautifully-drawn portrait of a vulnerable woman descending into outright madness.

While any comparison to Hill House is going to be unflattering, Cassandra Khaw’s novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth is clearly a story that is more interested in the haunted than the haunting. More’s the pity then that the story’s human elements never quite snap into focus.

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REVIEW: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

This book will come to be seen as a foundational work of 21st Century literary horror.

Past reviews have found me musing somewhat on the economics of genre publishing and how the industry flooded the markets with so much shit that it has taken literally decades for fans and authors to put literary horror back on a sustainable artistic footing.

While the genre is in better shape now than it has been for many years, this is not the first time that people have tried to rekindle mainstream interest in scary novels. However, because the publishing industry is full of bowtie-wearing imbeciles, the preferred method for rekindling interest in literary horror has long been to compare people to Stephen King.

I have always viewed this as somewhat unfair as Stephen King’s biggest successes were back in the 1970s and not many people compare well to the dude who wrote The Shining.  I mean… The Duma Key is not a bad novel but the guy who wrote it is no Stephen King. Indeed, the last person I saw being compared to Stephen King for publicity purposes was Ian Nevill and while I have read and re-read The Ritual more than almost any book in the last ten years, he’s no Stephen King let alone a Stephen King.

Nowadays, the author who appears to be collecting the most comparisons to Stephen King is Stephen Graham Jones and, for once, those comparisons feels entirely justified. In fact… if horror is due for a return to mainstream success then let this work be the tip of the spear and the yardstick by which all other works are judged because this novel fucks on every conceivable level.

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REVIEW: Dark Hollow by Brian Keene

Contrapoints once observed that the alt-right told on themselves when they adopted the term ‘cuck’ as their favoured insult.

What that choice revealed was a deep well-spring of insecurity. A lot has been said and written about the darker corners of the internet and how lonely, isolated men wind up stumbling into some weird, distasteful, and generally misguided ideas about women. For some, women are puzzles to be solved using a variety of techniques. For others, women are sadistic tyrants with standards so astronomically high that most men have no hope of ever finding love. Regardless of which variety of online misogyny you stumble into, they all share an understanding of women as territory that needs to be conquered and held. If this is how you see women then it follows that there is nothing more depraved and debased than a man who would willingly allow another man to have sex with ‘his’ woman.

The decision to place cuckolds in the lowest level of rhetorical hell speaks of sexual insecurity: A fear that your weaknesses (both physical and psychological) might translate into an inability to pleasure and hold onto a female partner and an even deeper fear that you might actually enjoy seeing your lover reach a level of pleasure and fulfilment that you could never hope to provide. The alt-right spit the word ‘cuck’ at each other as a way of warding off their own demons as well as their own hidden desires.

While the dark corners of the internet may encourage and amplify these fears beyond the point where they erupt in violence, fear of sexual inadequacy runs deep through all forms of toxic masculinity. It is, to a greater or lesser extent, part of the package when you start to internalise those values and forms of self-perception. To be a man is to be fearful that one can never be man enough.

While I love a monster story as much as… well… the next man… my preferred forms of horror are more psychological and rooted in the day-to-day. All speculative fiction is born of asking what if a particular thing were true, or false, or more exaggerated but the best horror takes real fears and turns them into something more concrete and threatening. That desire to make unspoken fears real is what drives Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow.

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REVIEW: The Cipher by Kathe Koja

Unlike a lot of people who write about horror, I will admit that I am not that widely read within the genre. I may have read a load of Stephen King novels as a teenager but I would say that my love of horror comes primarily from the artier end of cinema than literature.

When I decided to start reading horror novels as inspiration for my regular game, I went to a handful of big book-related websites and had a look at their semi-regular posts of books that the publishing industry expects us to get excited about. Based upon these recommendations, I made a few purchases and immediately remembered why I don’t often read books by people who write predominantly for children. There’s nothing wrong with writing books for kids, I just don’t happen to be one of them. Having read and been disappointed by two such novels, I decided to seek out something a bit more… edgy and I am so glad that I did.

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REVIEW: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

Genre publishing is a scene killer.

Back in the 1970s, a successful horror novel could sell in the hundreds of thousands of copies, the best-known writers were house-hold names and Hollywood producers were falling over themselves to sign the rights to anything even remotely decent. These were not just good years, they were fat years.

The problem was that for every world-famous author rubbing shoulders with movie stars on late-night TV there were literally dozens if not hundreds of authors who were… well… shit. When a book hits big, readers will walk into a book shop and say they want more of the same. Sometimes, successful authors will have back-catalogues that can satiate an audience’s desire but more often than not, great books are kind of hard to find. Publishing tries to solve this problem by publishing books that are a bit like something successful. Quite often, the people in publishing won’t be able to tell you why a particular book sold a million copies and so they spend a lot of their time trying to strike a balance between ‘more of the same’ and ‘might actually strike a nerve’. The problem is that, if none of those new books does strike a nerve and break out, the lack of new trends means that publishers wind up throwing more and more money after stuff whose moment has already passed.

One side effect of this strategy is that everything fresh and good inevitably winds up being buried in shit as publishing companies desperately churn out photocopies of photocopies until even the most devoted of readers tune out and the entire scene comes crashing down around their pointy little heads.

This is what happened to the horror genre. Desperate to replicate big successes, publishing companies would put their money behind any old shit with a monster or a murder. While this approach undoubtedly resulted in the publication of some amazing books, it also submerged the horror genre in a river of shit so deep that it has taken literally decades for fans and authors to dig it back out.

Since then, similar things have happened first in the world of Paranormal Romance, and more recently in the world of Young Adult fiction where the vast success of a small number of titles resulted in publishers filling the shelves with so many derivative works that markets collapsed. The rise and fall of Young Adult is a major problem for publishing as a lot of genre publishers pivoted hard towards YA when first the science fiction and then the fantasy genres began to decline. Desperate for a professional life raft, many YA authors have tried to re-invent themselves as adult-oriented writers and many younger authors have reacted with fury to the suggestion that they might ever have considered writing YA.

Genre publishing seems to be in the early stages of a pivot towards horror. This poses something of a challenge as the dark and jagged emotional aesthetics of horror are very different to the uplifting moral simplicity that followed the YA crowd into adult genre publishing. How do you sell horror to people who argue that one cannot depict abuse without endorsing it? How do you sell horror to people who have convinced themselves that morally-upstanding escapism is the only legitimate literary form? I’m not sure that publishing has a solution to this yet; the old world is dying but the new world still struggles to be born.

The Twisted Ones is a novel born of this interregnum. Written under a pseudonym by a Hugo-winning author best known for books aimed at children, this novel feels like fantasy but is being marketed as horror. Unfortunately, despite the dark cover, the evocative title, and the cover blurbs stressing the book’s terrifying affect, The Twisted Ones is more amiably beige than it is dark and disturbing.

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REVIEW: Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall

Here is a prediction: The cracks are starting to form, the mood is starting to change, and the discourse is starting to shift. Give it a year or two and horror novels will be as visible as they were back in the 1980s. Horror will be back again… but we aren’t quite there yet.

Genre publishing moves incredibly slowly and always insists upon chasing yesterday’s trends beyond the point where they cease to be profitable.

The last set of trends to sweep through genre publishing involved pivoting towards young adult fiction and rationalising the consumer base by leaning hard into the tastes of younger audiences and the aesthetics of fan-fiction. Unfortunately for genre publishing, the market fell out of YA around the same time that Hollywood realised that the mass appeal of young adult fiction didn’t really extend much beyond Potter, Hunger Games, and the odd John Green novel.

Since then there has been a rather graceless scramble away from YA and back towards the adult genres. But YA imprints are still a thing and YA imprints are trying to pivot too.

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