A Cosmology of Monsters takes pains to warn its readers up-front that “happy endings” and other narrative conventions don’t apply to real life. The novel swerves and ducks reader expectations throughout – sometimes in ways that dazzle, sometimes in ways that are profoundly frustrating. While the book’s headers are taken from Lovecraft, and his influence hovers over the work (including a beautifully-realised eldritch location, the City), Hamill wants to explore the way horror fiction, haunted houses and monsters intersect with family life. It’s a bold mission and creates a book which I suspect readers will either love or hate.
Survivor Song was written before the coronavirus pandemic: this feels inconceivable. Within the first few pages, we’re plunged into an all-too-familiar scene from the confusion of lockdown. What does the government’s guidance even mean? Should we listen to everything we hear on Facebook about the virus? There’ll be several hours’ worth of queues at the grocery store, and our protagonist – Natalie – has already stress-eaten all the candy in the house. Tremblay’s novel places us in a nightmare vision of 2020, in which New England is caught up in a 28 Days Later-like “rage virus”, and we’re in the twitchy-curtained first few days of the outbreak.
I’m a huge fan of the short story. There’s something immensely satisfying about being able to settle with a book, knowing the story will be wrapped up within an hour or so. Of course, there is an art to it – the introduction, development and conclusion of a plot and ideas in a minuscule space – and I tip my hat to those who try, including Erik Hofstaffer in Isidora’s Pawn, a novelette spilling over with grand themes such as unrequited love and deceit.
Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis comes beautifully packaged in a VHS-style slipcover with a faux rating/advisory (“nerve-shredding tension, nail-biting thrills”); the book itself is styled as a VHS cassette. Something of an odd choice for contemporary YA, where – notwithstanding the recent boom in 80s nostalgia – a large part of the target audience may never have played a VHS tape. But with its darkly satisfying tale of a controlling and obsessive horror auteur, a town stuck in its past as a 1920s film set, and the secrets of generational abuse, Harrow Lake is a compulsively readable treat for horror fans of all ages.
There are all kinds of phrases I want to use to review this book: relentless, unstoppable, outrageous. And I want to see them all under five stars on a billboard-sized movie poster because that is the kind of book this is. Incredibly enjoyable, the only caveat I can provide is that, perhaps like an action movie, while you are in the midst of it you are unable to step back and work out whether it is purely playing with your adrenaline and your heartstrings, or if it is reaching your mind too.
Stephen King’s The Shining is a modern gothic masterpiece, containing many of the core aspects which constitute gothic literature’s skeleton. The Overlook hotel is the monolithic, ruined castle riddled with malicious spirits; Jack Torrance succumbs to madness, ultimately becoming a doppelgänger of himself; monstrosity overtakes the mundane, particularly to Danny Torrance; Jack holds a quasi-religious reverence for historical items and locations, and also feels a sense of fallen society. While these attributes have been discussed at length, there is less discussion about its Female Gothic qualities.
If It Bleeds is Stephen King’s most recent collection of the macabre, released earlier than originally planned this year in response to the desire to escape into new Stephen King fiction felt by many Constant Readers practising social distancing. Each of the four novellas within this collection – including “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone”, “The Life of Chuck“, the titular “If It Bleeds”, and “Rat” – feel like a return to vintage King, though each accomplishes this feat through very different means.
Kev Harrison’s debut novella delivers an enchanting folkloric story with an eco-warning sting in its tail: be kind to nature, or destroy it at your peril.
Kathe Koja has been writing in multiple genres since the publication of her first novel, The Cipher, in 1991, but a consistent thread within her work – whether it’s in a dark fantasy vein, veering towards gothic historical fiction, or exploring the more surreal edges of horror – is its focus on characters who are fragmented, driven, and obsessive. In contrast to horror and weird fiction that involves fairly normal individuals being confronted with forms of the unknown, Koja’s characters frequently seem to harbour something strange and unsettling within themselves. The weird, in many of Koja’s tales, works from the inside out, not just the outside in. And her new book, Velocities: Stories (Meerkat Press), continues this theme.
Boy In The Box opens with the main protagonist, Jonathan Hollis, waiting in line to kneel before the coffin of his former friend, Gene Hendrickson. Two other mourners, the Braddock brothers, share a dark secret with Jonathan, one which led Gene to take his own life. The four men, friends since childhood, lost touch with each other following a hunting trip a decade earlier. A trip intended to be a stag party turned into something altogether darker, ending in tragedy and leaving each of them haunted in their own separate ways by memories and overwhelming guilt. Now the three survivors must return to the Gulch or their deed a decade ago will be discovered, destroying each of their lives and families futures forever.