Dark Scribe Reviews

The River at Night / Erica Ferencik

Gallery/Scout Press / January 2017
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Four longtime friends—Winifred, Pia, Rachel, and Sandra—embark on what’s supposed to be a rejuvenating hiking and rafting excursion through Maine’s desolate Allagash Wilderness. What could possibly go wrong, right?

Anyone who is familiar with well-tread thriller and horror tropes will be able to spot the set-up from a mile away, but what sets Ferencik’s danger-in-the-woods novel apart from similar tales is her relentless, breakneck pacing. It’s a fast-paced 304 pages that whips the reader to and fro, jostling with its unpredictable plot twists and breathtaking tempo.

Ferencik ably establishes her four leads early on so that their bond—even when the complexities of adulthood threaten its stability at times—is believably strong enough to be their greatest defense once the proverbial shit hits the fan. And hit the fan it does. In the aftermath of what appears at first to be a freak rafting accident that leaves the women stranded, separated from both their raft and supplies, they glimpse a fire burning on the mountainside. This leads them to a ramshackle camp and what appears to be their lifeline. Suffice to say—so as not to give too much of the plot away—it’s not.

The River at Night will immediately call to mind images of wilderness survival films like (most obviously) The River Wild with dashes of Deliverance and Wrong Turn layered in to keep the proceedings appropriately foreboding and, ultimately, bloodcurdling. The scares merge with the adventure elements of Ferencik’s story, imbuing it with a white-knuckle tension that’s the literary equivalent of a spiraling whitewater rafting ride down the rapids. Ferencik’s prose—while economical—is visceral and lush, adding a satisfying literary feel that never detracts from the high-octane action.  

Ferencik is to be commended for the balance she strikes between plot and character. While The River at Night is an adventure story at its core, it also delves into the larger ruminations of women at the crossroads of midlife. At the story’s onset, each of the women embark upon their trip carrying metaphorical baggage with them—addiction, abusive relationships, grief, illness, and loneliness. But the dire circumstances they soon find themselves it cause them to emblematically shed those weighty inner burdens, summoning their individual and collective strength to survive and overcome the extreme physical threats they’re faced with. One of those threats—the raging river and savage terrain of the surrounding wilderness—becomes a central character itself under Ferencik’s steady, guiding hand. And, like all well-crafted characters, it slowly reveals itself—idyllic and serene at first glance but with an unrelenting, raw brutality lurking underneath its verdure on closer inspection.  

The River at Night is the quintessential page-turner and highly recommended reading material for those summertime camping trips. With relatable, well-drawn characters and a high-speed narrative that may leave you breathless at points, Ferencik’s cinematic novel may have you fantasy casting Wini, Pia, Rachel, and Sandra long into the night as this reviewer did.

Purchase The River at Night by Erica Ferencik.

Posted on Tuesday, July 18, 2017 at 11:50AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

The Devil Crept In / Ania Ahlborn

Gallery Books / February 2017
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

The missing child is a frequently used narrative spark in the domains of horror fiction and thrillers. In the hands of lesser writers, it runs the risk of cliché and cheap imitation. Luckily for readers, Ania Ahlborn is not one of those writers.

The Devil Crept In is the Polish-born dark scribe’s eighth novel, a straightforward tale of horror peppered with thriller elements that’s sure to please readers partial to either genre. The story delves right in, beginning with the disappearance of rebellious preteen Jude Brighton, cousin and best friend to the novel’s protagonist, ten-year-old Stevie Clark. Stevie is a gutsy and brilliant choice to be the main voice of Ahlborn’s novel; his verbal tics, clanging, and hallucinations indicating an undiagnosed schizophrenia make him both the quintessential unreliable narrator and a most sympathetic protagonist. He’s the ultimate outsider. More to Ahlborn’s credit is that she’s able to realistically portray young Stevie’s vocal outbursts and repetition without pulling the reader out of her engrossing story.

There are dual narratives running through The Devil Crept In – one present day, the other flashback – and a wonderful undertone of urban legend at work here that compliments the mood Ahlborn sets early on. To give away much more of the plot would be a disservice to the reader, especially since Ahlborn keeps her storytelling tight with no subplots to speak of. Ahlborn’s pacing is solid, yet the story unfolds slowly, which may surprise readers at the end when they realize that they’ve traveled 374 pages along a relatively straight-line continuum. Fortunately, the flashback storyline that provides the origin story for present day events, feels more action-oriented and compliments the slower burn of the main narrative thread.

What really elevates The Devil Crept In is the emotional resonance at its core. While the story appears to be about a boy and his exhaustive quest to find out what happened to his best friend, it really speaks more to the unbreakable bonds between mothers and sons, especially in the face of challenging disabilities – from mental and social disorders to birth defects (exaggerated to horrific levels as they may be here). Ahlborn lays her thematic substance in subtly so that it never clobbers readers over the head or detracts from the horror at hand; instead, there’s a delicate sense of maternal melancholy that saturates beautifully-written passages sandwiched between the more chilling plot turns. Thankfully, the trio of mother-son relationships at the center of the novel ably compensate for Ahlborn’s misfire with an abusive stepfather figure who’s more cardboard cutout than credible character.

Ahlborn is a writer of considerable skill and imagination – both of which are on fine display in The Devil Crept In. She maximizes her tried-and-true dark woods setting, infusing a palpable sense of supernatural dread. The novel is ripe with genuinely creepy, sometimes downright gory imagery, but it’s infused with an uncanny sense of coming-of-age and rites of passage, with scenes calling to mind King’s Pet Semetary and even the film Fright Night. She even manages to pack one wallop of a goosebumps-inducing twist into her very effective epilogue that will leave readers wanting more – the way all great novels should.

Purchase The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn.

Posted on Saturday, May 20, 2017 at 11:59AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Stranded / Bracken MacLeod

Tor Books / October 2016
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

In this well-crafted novel of speculative fiction and suspense, author Bracken MacLeod draws upon the familiar to create something wholly unique. With an accessible writing style that combines the straightforward, stripped-down economy of prose that propels thrillers with the more esthetic refinement of literary fiction, Stranded is a conceptual triumph of style and substance.

The cargo ship Arctic Promise becomes icebound during a frigid polar storm en route to resupply the Niflheim, an oil drilling platform deep in the Arctic Circle. Navigation and communication systems malfunction, leaving the vessel inert in a sea of thick fog and even thicker ice. Right from the outset, the book earns its title.

When a mysterious illness overcomes the crew with crippling headaches, extreme fatigue, and shadowy hallucinations, merchant seaman Noah Cabot— inexplicably unaffected—is thrust into a reluctant leadership role. Faced with dwindling supplies and an increasingly unstable ship, Noah and a group of fellow crewmen set out across the ice-covered terrain toward a shape they spot on the frozen horizon. Adding to the mounting shipboard tension is a contentious, complex history between Noah and the ship’s captain—who happens to be his former father-in-law—that further threatens the well-being of the entire crew.

MacLeod ratchets up the man-against-nature peril by adding a supernatural element that steers the story from what at first offers cinematic shades of Carpenter’s The Thing into a decidedly more Twilight Zone territory. To say more would be a disservice to the revelatory twists that abound, but suffice to say that the payoff is decidedly creepy.

Claustrophobic and violent, the novel’s third act will both reward readers who were patient with MacLeod’s deliberate slow-build and satisfy slasher fans with its considerable bloodletting. The violence of this section, which might at first seem an abrupt change in pacing, feels both logical and inevitable, with the toxic masculinity of the all-male crew—fueled by the abject fear of their surreal circumstances—boiling over and exploding (both literally and figuratively). With Stranded, MacLeod has fashioned a modern genre re-telling of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies—male characters marooned in the middle of large bodies of water, escalating tensions between groupthink and individuality, a central paranoia surrounding a perceived other among them, and an eventual descent into chaos and savagery.

Like Dan Simmons’ The Terror, Stranded uses the unsettling atmosphere of the icy landscape to its full advantage—creating a bleak, white-gray palette that disorients and disarms the reader. Neither the characters trudging across the frozen terrain—nor the readers following them—can see what’s coming next in the absence of linear bends and boundaries. It’s a sensory whiteout that MacLeod pulls off marvelously with his considerable descriptive command. Equally impressive is the meticulous research that went into imbuing passages about maritime life and descriptions of the ship itself with precise details which give the Arctic Promise’s predicament that much more authenticity.

Like the finest writers straddling that line between genre and literary fiction these days—think Helen Marshall or David Nickle or Gemma Files or Helen Oyeyemi—MacLeod layers Stranded with rich, evocative language that brings great humanity to this otherworldly tale. Consider this gorgeous passage, in which the protagonist—dreaming—sits at the deathbed of his cancer-ravaged wife:

He sat beside the bed, holding his wife’s thin hand. Her skin looked like vellum paper. It was thin and delicately wrinkled, pale to the point of translucence. She had always been pleasantly tan, looking like someone who got her color from the sun on her skin while she hiked or rode a bicycle to just lie in the park and read a book. Hers wasn’t color you bought in a salon or sprayed on. And now it was gone. Along with her hair and her childish plumpness. Chemo has desaturated her and left her ethereal, like a photograph left in the light too long, losing its detail. A fading memory of a person.

Herein lies Stranded’s greatest strength and gives it distinction as a masterpiece work of fiction: Elucidation of the humanity within the horror without detracting from it. Man, when cornered by imposing physical strictures, will reveal their authentic selves. MacLeod taps into those revelations, pulling back the veneer of civility, using the existential stressors and unearthly horror to coax out what lies beneath the surface of his literary ice.

Purchase Stranded by Bracken MacLeod.

Posted on Sunday, January 15, 2017 at 11:19PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Lily / Michael Thomas Ford

Lethe Press / October 2016
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

The thirteen-year-old titular character of Michael Thomas Ford’s bewitching new novel has a gift: She can foresee a person’s death by merely touching them. She learns of this strange and terrifying new power on the eve of her own father’s drowning death, which sets into motion a coming-of-age odyssey of self-discovery that takes her from her home in an idyllic fishing village across a mysterious fog-shrouded bridge to the outside world.  Betrayed by her mother, Lily soon finds herself in the company of Reverend Silas Everyman, a charismatic evangelical preacher and charlatan “miracle worker” who quickly realizes the cash potential of her extraordinary power and puts her to work in his circus-like traveling tent revival. As Lily learns the painful truth about the hypocrisy of adults and struggles to find her way back home – and rid herself of her tactile premonitions of death – she encounters a colorful cast of characters, including the ancient witch Baba Yaga from Russian folklore.

Ford has essentially crafted a darkly atmospheric adult fairy tale with Lily, imbuing his teenage protagonist’s fantastical adventure with just enough storybook cliché to keep the proceedings familiar while nimbly creating an entire universe that’s equal parts whimsical and terrifying. Although the novel presents an obvious allegory to puberty – with Lily’s prophetic power emerging just as her body blossoms into womanhood – Ford adroitly balances the narrative simplicity on the surface of Lily with a far subtler thematic complexity within its core. There’s an ambitious deeper layer to the novel that includes a sly and biting commentary on organized religion, a nod to feminism and feminist heroines, an exploration of coming of age during the early years of the AIDS plague, and keen observations on the nature of grief and redemption through self-love. In the hands of a lesser writer, these myriad ideas might jumble up in a thematic traffic jam; fortunately, Ford is a master storyteller whose economical prose enables him to explore these weightier themes with bullseye precision.

The magically haunting world of Lily is augmented by artist Staven Andersen’s stunningly macabre illustrations, which perfectly complement – but never overpower – the lyrical tale Ford tells. Lily will likely conjure mental images of the ghoulish flamboyance of Bryan Fuller’s quirky Pushing Daisies coupled with the imaginative intertextuality of the literary works of Neil Gaiman. It’s a magical, haunting fable told through the eyes of an engaging, resourceful young heroine who trades in hopelessness for hope, self-contempt for self-acceptance, along a fantastical road decidedly less traveled.

Purchase Lily by Michael Thomas Ford in hardcover or paperback.

Read a recent interview with Michael Thomas Ford at Lambda Literary here.

Posted on Saturday, December 10, 2016 at 02:45PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Before the Fall / Noah Hawley

Grand Central Publishing / May 2016
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Eleven people board a luxurious chartered jet on a foggy summer night for a doomed flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York. Without a single mayday call, the jet plunges into the murky waters of the Atlantic after a mere sixteen minutes in the air, killing all but two of the passengers. Noah Hawley—writer and showrunner of the acclaimed FX series Fargo—sets the stage for Before the Fall exquisitely, and what follows is a complex and compulsive page-turner of a thriller.

Right from the outset, the reader knows he’s in good hands with Hawley at the helm of this intricately plotted novel that divides into parallel narratives following the opening crash. At the center of the story is the investigation into the crash itself, detailing the search and recovery efforts for the bodies of the presumed-dead passengers and scattered wreckage and the NTSB’s bid to piece the puzzling circumstances surrounding the crash—and its victims—together with the facts in order to arrive at some semblance of truth. Complicating matters is a bloodthirsty media—personified by an opportunistic, conservative news anchor who sees the tragedy as a means for personal gain and deflection from his own ethics breaches. Braided throughout this primary storyline are chapters that gradually and meticulously explore the back stories of the passengers who were on the ill-fated jet. Hawley deftly navigates between these intersecting storylines and character studies, masterfully adding details—some red herrings, others pertinent. Cleverly, he even manages to have his labyrinthine, non-linear narrative structure mirror one of the novel’s many key observations when his protagonist—a recovering alcoholic artist whose presence onboard the doomed jet brings about a maelstrom of vicious media speculation— contemplates, “What if instead of a story told in consecutive order, life is a cacophony of moments we never leave? What if the most traumatic or the most beautiful experiences we have trap us in a kind of feedback loop?”

Before the Fall is part whodunit and part meditation on the momentum of sudden celebrity and the dangerous pitfalls of an unchecked, biased media:

He thinks of Andy Warhol, who used to make up different stories for different journalists—I was born in Akron. I was born in Pittsburgh—so when he spoke to people he would know which interviews they’d read. Warhol, who understood the idea that the self was just a story we told. Reinvention used to be a tool of the artist. He thinks of Duchamp’s urinal, of Claes Oldenburg’s giant ashtray. To take reality and repurpose it, bend it to an idea, this was the kingdom of make-believe.

But journalism was something else, wasn’t it? It was meant to be objective reporting of facts, no matter how contradictory. You didn’t make the news fit the story. You simply reported the facts the way they were. When had that stopped being true? Scott remembers the reporters of his youth, Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Woodward and Bernstein, men with rules, men of iron will. And how would they have covered these events?

A private plane crashes. A man and a boy survive.

Information versus entertainment.

It’s to Hawley’s immense credit that his weighty thematic exploration of modern media and its distortion of truth for ratings—so relevant in today’s political climate—never overpowers or detracts from the novel’s thriller elements. The pacing is pitch-perfect, notably during the novel’s pulse-pounding climax during which Hawley intercuts between a live, on-air interview and the plane’s reconstructed cockpit voice recording.

Before the Fall—Hawley’s fifth novel—is a puzzle box that’s brimming with intrigue and brisk storytelling. It’s a tale of human tragedy and survival infused with scathing satire and an enthrallingly cinematic feel. Perfect for vacation—but perhaps not optimal in-flight reading material.

Purchase Before the Fall by Noah Hawley.

Posted on Wednesday, August 10, 2016 at 03:06PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Black Creek / Gregory Lamberson

Medallion Press / March 2016
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Gregory Lamberson likes horror movies. No, I mean, he really likes horror movies.

It’s no coincidence then that the award-winning director of cult-favorite films like Slime City and Killer Rack wears his cinematic B-movie influences proudly in is latest novel, Black Creek.

For the residents populating Lamberson’s version of Black Creek Village – the real-life Niagara Falls neighborhood that sits atop the infamous Love Canal, in which 22,000 barrels of toxic waste were dumped in the late 1970’s causing widespread health problems and population displacement – there is less love in the air this Valentine’s Day than there is snow and blood. Lots of snow, lots of blood.

As a winter storm of epic proportion bears down upon them, cutting them off from the rest of the world, those former denizens of Love Canal who never left and instead descended underground where they continued to live – and, worse, breed – for the last forty years amidst all that toxic slime emerge. As anyone who’s ever read Jack Ketchum or Richard Laymon know, these folks generally come out of hiding very cranky – and ravenous.

Just as he demonstrated an affinity for the slasher film formula in his Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel Johnny Gruesome, Lamberson shows that he knows his way around a creature feature with equal aplomb. He adeptly builds tension by using shorter passages to introduce a sizable cast of characters as they go about the mundane tasks of preparing for a winter storm. As the storm approaches and then hits with a wallop, he intercuts between his various literary set pieces, with enough foreshadowing to leave the reader braced and prepared for the underground creatures to strike – yet never quite knowing where or when. That possibility of being struck and knocked off-balance at any moment is half the enjoyment of Black Creek and a testament to Lamberson’s skill as an able storyteller.  

Although Black Creek is an obvious environmental cautionary tale, Lamberson wisely sidesteps the weighty thematic pontifications that often bog novels like this down. Instead, he opts for an old-school, Laymon-light vibe here, reminiscent of the 80’s mass market horror novel boom during which excess ruled. He competently builds his narrative to an all-out assault on his cast of (mostly likeable) characters like the literary equivalent of a Neil Marshall or Joe Dante, with action, blood and guts, and a few surprising kills that might have you shaking your fist at the author in anger.

Lazy reviewers might be tempted to classify Black Creek as a literary retread of Wes Craven’s seminal The Hills Have Eyes, but aside from the environmental effects and inbreeding between their antagonists, the comparison stops there. In The Hills Have Eyes, there is a key element of intrusion, as the hapless Carter family crash lands in the antagonist tribe’s turf. The cannibals attack as a means of both survival and self-protection – a safeguarding of their home, their way of life, the very secret of their existence. In Black Creek, Lamberson subverts this idea of intrusion into invasion. The characters are set upon while going about the normal course of daily business. There is no precipitating event – at least not one triggered by the victims. Conceivably, the long-lost denizens of Love Canal have existed without attacking humans for nearly four decades so their onslaught carries with it a strong element of revenge, taking from those who live above what was once taken from them. The victims here are symbolic.

In Craven’s film, the cannibalistic carnage is opportunistic in nature, both a reaction and result of random circumstance – strangers stumbling into someone else’s realm. In Lamberson’s novel, the action is a deliberate and pre-meditated act of misguided vengeance.

Readers are well advised to grab their popcorn for this one because Black Creek reads like a Saturday matinee, with its propulsive plot, high body count, and just the right amount of pathos to keep readers invested in the plight of its characters. Like Laymon’s The Woods Are Dark and Ketchum’s Off Season, Black Creek explores the inner savage in the everyday man with a ferociously fun – yet genuinely frightening – creature feature mentality. Best read on a snowy night.

Purchase Black Creek by Gregory Lamberson.

Posted on Sunday, April 3, 2016 at 12:24PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

A Head Full of Ghosts / Paul Tremblay

William Morrow / June 2015
Review by: Vince A. Liaguno

Paul Tremblay’s masterful A Head Full of Ghosts is a postmodern homage to horror’s demonic possession subgenre that capitalizes on the reader’s familiarity with its well-worn imagery while employing a meta-modern sheen that toys with—and then skillfully subverts—expectations. It’s quite possibly the year’s best work of speculative fiction.

Fifteen years ago, the Barret family – parents John and Sarah, daughters Meredith and Marjorie – found themselves struggling with the sudden onset of eldest daughter Marjorie’s mental illness. When mental health professionals fail to provide either diagnosis or successful treatment for the fourteen-year-old’s increasingly bizarre behavior, John turns to his renewed Catholicism for answers. Enter Father Wanderly, a local priest, who is quick to suggest that the suffering teen is in the grips of a full-fledged demonic possession and recommends exorcism. When the family’s deteriorating personal finances converge with an opportunistic media, the Barret’s reluctantly find themselves – and their daughter’s impending exorcism – the subjects of a Discovery Channel reality television show, dubbed The Possession. The show garners banner ratings and sets into motion a steadily escalating series of terrifying events that end in real-life tragedy and become the stuff of pop culture legend.

Years later, bestselling non-fiction author Rachel Neville sets out to uncover the truth about what happened inside the Barret’s home on the set of The Possession and finds a willing interview subject with the now twenty-something younger daughter, Merry. As Merry recants the story of what happened to her family, the fine lines that exist between fact and fiction, memory and reality, simultaneously sharpen, blur, and sharpen again. Was teenage Marjorie possessed by a demon, suffering from acute schizophrenic, or faking the whole thing?

A Head Full of Ghosts reads like the literary equivalent of a found-footage horror film, complete with an utterly heartbreaking M. Night Shyamalan-like twist late in the novel’s third act. Tremblay wears the novel’s cinematic counterpart genre influences proudly, with The Exorcist being the most readily identifiable. Employing a framing device similar to Interview with the Vampire intercut with a horror blogger’s astute deconstruction of the reality TV series, Tremblay’s narrative structure is reminiscent of Marisha Pessl’s brilliantly layered Night Film.

At its heart, A Head Full of Ghosts is a work of horror; but in Tremblay’s capable hands it’s also a subtly scathing commentary on the reality-TV pop culture landscape, with a few well-placed swipes at this country’s gross mishandling of mental health problems, the disintegration of the nuclear family, and the Catholic Church and organized religion in general—even a thinly-disguised Westboro Baptist Church makes a cameo appearance.

Come awards time—think the Bram Stoker or Shirley Jackson Award—it will be quite disappointing (and bewildering, frankly) if A Head Full of Ghosts doesn’t rack up the nominations and wins. Tremblay has, quite simply, written a real contender for the year's best work of horror.

Purchase A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay.

Posted on Tuesday, October 20, 2015 at 06:00PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint
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