Dark Scribe Reviews

Goblin / Josh Malerman

Earthling Publications / October 2017
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

It seems like only yesterday when reviewers and readers alike where raising a collective eyebrow in admiration of a new kid on the block named Josh Malerman. DSM has certainly sung the praises of both Bird Box and Black Mad Wheel, a pair of exemplary works of speculative fiction that accurately heralded a major genre talent. These previous novels checked off all the right boxes: original, moody, compelling, tightly-plotted and written. 

It’s no surprise then that Goblin, a collection of six novellas that segue masterfully into a full-length novel, will make this three-for-three for Malerman. Reading like a literary equivalent of Michael Dougherty’s modern Halloween classic Trick ‘r Treat fused with Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies and framed within a Creepshow-style anthology narrative, Goblin is Malerman’s bid to universe-build, much in the same way Stephen King has done with Derry, his fictional Maine town that’s served as the setting for novels like It, Bag of Bones, and Dreamcatcher, and been referenced in countless other King works. In Goblin—the town and the book—Malerman constructs a lively topography complete with apocalyptic rains, a cemetery where the dead are buried standing up, haunted woodlands inhabited by a whispering witch and glowing-eyed owls, and a weirdly robotic-alien police force straight out of an unaired episode of The Twilight Zone.

Unlike Bird Box and Black Mad Wheel, which were both decidedly darker and unbearably tense at times, Malerman lets loose a little on Goblin, imbuing each of the six novellas with larger-than-life characters in ghoulishly exaggerated situations.  Among the more memorable denizens of the titular Michigan town that readers meet: A lovelorn outcast who mails body parts to the object of his affections; an overworked tour guide who mixes up his places of employment with tragic consequences; a man so terrified of encountering ghosts in his apartment that he rips out all the walls; a little boy enamored of magic and magicians who sneaks out of the house for an ill-fated midnight magic show; a wealthy, egocentric big game hunter whose narcissism is trumped by an unlikely source; and a grieving widower whose intricately-carved topiary maze holds the literal and metaphorical key to release from his sorrow.  The six novellas that comprise Goblin are bookended neatly between a prologue and epilogue that tell a seventh story involving an out-of-town truck driver making an unusual delivery in the dead of night that hooks into the town’s rich and bloody history.

Malerman once again shows a singular imagination, conjuring imagery that’s at once familiar and fresh. Whereas Bird Box and Black Mad Wheel used sensory deficit to engage the reader’s own imagination to fill in the descriptive blanks, Malerman seems to reward readers here for all that hard work by laying out a lush, garishly-colored palette of flamboyance and visual excess that’s as vivid as an Argento Blu-ray behind the mind’s eye. It’s all a marvelously fun affair, with stories weaving and intersecting—like an amusement park ride through Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. Goblin strikes the perfect balance between its ghastliness and gallows humor, making it both an ideal Halloween destination and a place readers are going to want to visit again.

Purchase Goblin by Josh Malerman.

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

Black Mad Wheel / Josh Malerman

Ecco / May 2017
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Following the widespread acclaim that accompanied his 2014 debut, Bird Box, Josh Malerman had two choices: Follow suit with an equally accessible tale or go outside the (bird) box and craft something entirely dissimilar. With Black Mad Wheel, he opted to do both. The result is a satisfying sophomore effort that feels in some ways more authentic if not as immediately arresting at the outset.

Black Mad Wheel’s authenticity comes from the fact that Malerman merges two real-life worlds he knows intimately—music and fiction. As the frontman of the indie Detroit garage-rock outfit The High Strung, Malerman—the writer—is able to deliver the fictional goods in this story of Philip Tonka, the lead singer and pianist of a fictional Detroit-based rock band called The Danes who wakes up in a seemingly unremarkable Midwestern hospital literally smashed to pieces following the band’s sojourn to an African desert in search of the origin of a mysteriously evil —and powerful—sound. Got that? Yeah, it’s a weird—almost dauntingly ambitious—set-up on the surface, but wise readers who trusted Malerman enough to take them down a river blindfolded should strap themselves in and go along for this ride, too.

Black Mad Wheel rolls out in parallel narratives that move between Philip—with the help of a kindly nurse named Ellen—waking up in the mysterious hospital and slowly piecing together recent events and what happened to him and his bandmates in the Namib Desert. Fascinatingly, Malerman develops a palpable narrative rhythm with these crisp, concise alternating passages that seems to reinforce that—at its heart—Black Mad Wheel is a story about the dueling benevolent and malevolent power of music. The rhythm of the novel picks up as later chapters shorten, building to a feverish intensity in the third act.

Malerman is as comfortable within the novel’s post-WWII setting as he was in the post-apocalyptic landscape he created in Bird Box, proving that he’s no one-trick pony as an architect of setting. And while he throws plenty of weird fiction clichés into his Black Mad Wheel stew—military conspiracies, mad doctors, creepy hospital corridors—his application of such tropes make them feel wholly unique.

If there was one criticism this reviewer could level at the novel, it’s that it feels underdeveloped at times—like it was plucked from its literary branch before it fully ripened. The character of Ellen, for example, and her ensuing romance with the novel’s protagonist, feels rushed, tacked on. As a result, it never quite gains traction for this reader. Likewise, the grand reveal deep in an abandoned diamond mine falls flat. While Malerman toys with and teases some cosmic horror elements, they don’t materialize and the payoff—although it hits the target—misses the bullseye.  

With Black Mad Wheel, and Bird Box before it, Malerman has established a new speculative fiction niche—sensory horror—and firmly positioned himself as its maestro. In his previous novel, he explored sight—and its opposite, blindness—and used sensory deprivation to create fear. In Black Mad Wheel, he dissects and deciphers sound, imbuing it with its own distinctive subset of senses and sensations. Here, the horror derives from sensory overload. Sound is kinematic and visualized as geometry of motion—rippling waves of translucence that have heft and vibration. It leaves you wondering which sense Malerman may take on next; just imagine what he could do with taste or smell.   

Black Mad Wheel cements Malerman as a strikingly original literary talent. With a weirdly unnerving setup that’s perhaps a notch or two better than the novel’s less inspired payoff, Malerman crafts an absorbing musical analogy of the cyclical nature of war and how history—for all we learn along the converging roads of life—is doomed to repeat itself like an overplayed pop song.

Purchase Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman.

Posted on Thursday, September 21, 2017 at 05:02AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Final Girls / Riley Sager

Dutton / July 2017
Reviewed By: Vince A. Liaguno

It was hard to escape the pre-release buzz for Final Girls, the debut novel of pseudonymous author Riley Sager. As early as December of last year, Stephen King tweet-proclaimed that the book was “the first great thriller of 2017.” And if the King gives something his bloody stamp of approval, it’s got to something special, right? Disappointingly, not so much in the case of Final Girls, a competent-enough, by-the-numbers thriller in which concept outperforms execution.

The set-up is strong and pulls the reader right in: Quincy Carpenter, as sole survivor of a bloody woodlands massacre, is a reluctant member of an elite “club” dubbed Finals Girls by the media. Readers familiar with slasher films will immediately recognize the term, coined by noted film scholar Carol Clover to denote the survivor (almost always female) of said film’s carnage. The other two members of the Final Girls are Lisa Milner, survivor of a sorority house massacre, and Samantha “Sam” Boyd, last girl standing after a mass murderer known as “the Sack Man” butchers staff and guests of a seedy motel. When one of these final girls ends up dead and another on the doorstep of Quincy’s swanky New York City apartment, the mystery begins. Unfortunately, the thrills do not.

While thriller and horror movie fans alike may be drawn to Final Girls initially, the book’s plodding first half may present a challenge to readers. Plagued by interminable passages during which the heroine bakes muffins and cupcakes in between popping Xanax and swigging grape soda, the first half of Sager’s novel seems hell-bent on clobbering readers over the head to reinforce two key points: Quincy may not be the most reliable of narrators and Sam may not be all she seems. What little action the novel’s first half does present shuffles back and forth between late night conversations in Quincy’s Upper West Side apartment and some later-night silliness in Central Park that feels forced and extraneous to the plot. These early proceedings have a YA feel to them, and this reviewer was struck with the idea that the intended audience may be teenage girls more than once. Indeed, a puerile food fight at what should have been a crucial dramatic juncture moving into the book’s third act does little to dispel this feeling.  

Thankfully, the novel’s decidedly better-paced second half kicks in with earnest gusto. Although savvy thriller readers will have spotted the novel’s biggest plot twist (there are several of varying merit) early on, Sager does an excellent job ratcheting up the tension and reveals leading up to it as Final Girls enters its third and final act. Sager displays far better command of this more action-oriented thriller portion of the novel and readers will find themselves sucked in again as dread mounts and shocks abound.

Regrettably, the strongest camaraderie Final Girls shares with slasher films is its reliance on convenience (Oh, look…a mental hospital out in the middle of the woods near that isolated cabin!) and people doing illogical things. While there seem so many missed opportunities for winks and nods to fans of slasher movies (who will be drawn to Final Girls), there is a nice subversion of one of the genre’s fundamental playbook rules that’s nicely executed. Think: Cherry Falls.

Books like Final Girls are a peculiar thing. Like films with deafening pre-release buzz, it’s a novel whose enjoyment may be filtered through a lens of greater expectation than it’s capable of delivering. It wears its Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train influences proudly—if not a bit obviously—but readers may be expecting something more. Alas, the only icing to be found in Final Girls is used on the heroine’s cupcakes. Taken as a solid—if slightly formulaic—thriller, Final Girls succeeds. Ultimately, it may prove a case that its eventual movie adaptation will prove better than the source material.

Purchase Final Girls by Riley Sager.

Posted on Saturday, August 5, 2017 at 02:35PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

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 his authentic self. 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
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