Dark Scribe Reviews

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

The Doll Collection / Edited by Ellen Datlow

Tor Books / March 2015
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

It’s curious that it’s taken Ellen Datlow—the curator of some fifty-odd genre anthologies and avid collector herself—this long to make dolls the focal point of one of her marvelously macabre collections. Perhaps she was saving a theme for which she has such great personal affinity until she could bring something wholly unique to what’s become a horror trope and sub-genre in and of itself.

In her introduction to The Doll Collection, Datlow proves why she’s the preeminent anthologist of her time. Rather than capitalize on the effectively simple idea of the malevolent doll—as much a horror cliché as thunderstorms, dead phone lines, and cars that never start when you need them to—she tasked her fine assemblage of contributors here with reaching beyond the trope, admonishing them with the editorial caveat that evil dolls needn’t apply. So the writers of the anthology’s seventeen stories—all original to the collection—stretch, twist, turn, and sometimes dismember readers’ preconceived notions about what makes dolls scary in the first place. The result is a creepy, eclectic compendium in which dolls take many forms and the horrors are often external to and independent of the titular figure itself.

Several of the stories Datlow selected for The Doll Collection deserve specific mention.

Tim Lebbon ably sets the mood with his (literal) chiller “Skin and Bone”, in which the story of two lifelong friends hiking across the wintry wasteland of the Antarctic evokes images of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the reader’s mind. As the temperature drops and the story’s tension rises, the reader is torn between hypothermia-fueled hallucination and otherworldly terror as the culprit behind the characters’ increasingly dire predicament.

In “Heroes and Villains”, Stephen Gallagher takes on ventriloquism with this nifty little tale in which the star is Gallagher’s exacting detail. Prefaced around the idea of never lending voice to a dead ventriloquist’s dummy (or figure, as is the proper vernacular), this deceptively simple story of a museum curator interviewing a young ventriloquist for an unpaid gig is brimming with rich specificity. But while a lesser writer could hammer their readers over the head with such research, Gallagher seamlessly works these particulars into the fabric of the story, ultimately lending a grand sense of authenticity to the tale.

Likewise, anthology enthusiasts can always depend on Gemma Files to bring painstaking detail to her own unique brand of storytelling. In “Gaze”, the Canadian scribe crafts a tale of ghostly visitation against the world of eye miniatures with precise period detail.

“The Doll-Master” is quintessential Joyce Carol Oates. Psychologically damaged by unprocessed grief as a young boy, the story’s narrator—likely suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disease—seeks to reclaim his late cousin’s baby doll taken from him by concerned parents. Oates’ spine-chilling story is skillfully crafted on a thematic substructure warning of the danger of gender conformity and unchecked mental illness in childhood development.

Pat Cadigan’s teenage narrator is busted for pot possession and sentenced to community service at the local emergency room at the outset of “In Case of Zebras”. When an MVA victim is brought in and a tiny, lifelike doll falls out of his pocket, the reluctant volunteer stumbles into the ancient world of poppets and sympathetic folk-magic. Not particularly gooseflesh inducing, but an effective story with a decent transmogrification scene that might give you a jolt.

Stephen Graham Jones has become as bankable an anthology star if ever there was one, and his contribution to The Doll Collection is no exception. “Daniel’s Theory About Dolls” is dark and unsettling and highlights Jones’ unique ability to deliver an unpredictable turn of events that leaves you slack-jawed. In this (ultimately) violent and visceral story about a sociopathic boy who speaks to his unborn—and then dead—baby sister and the tragic unfolding of events that follow him and his older brother into adulthood, Jones masterfully finds the tenderness within the tragedy at the core of this macabre tale.

Two additional stories within The Doll Collection really stood out as the crown jewels of the anthology for this reviewer.

The intriguingly titled “Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line” is a luxurious, languid period piece set in mid-20th century England that involves a series of haunting encounters with a little girl and her doll on a seaside train. Author Genevieve Valentine challenges with an intricately odd narrative structure that includes shifts in point-of-view in a story that’s been so precisely constructed that you’ll likely re-read it a second—possibly third—time. There’s an almost sepia-colored tint to Valentine’s tale, which is bolstered by the painstaking symmetry of her words:

On her way to the high street for shopping, she passes a building so sharp and square it reminds her of a tomb. Her husband told her it was a morbid thing to say, but she avoids the corner where she’ll have to turn and see it looming, hated.

Still, to turn the other way and avoid it means passing by the toy shop that lines up dolls in the window on a shelf above the train sets. Their porcelain faces crack a little more every month they sit in the window under full sun, everything about them leaching brightness, so a dress the colour of a robin’s egg slowly gives in to the watery blue of a spring sky, and the doll with the darkest hair is going gray at the temples faster than the wife. One of the dolls had violet eyes that have turned unnervingly pale. She can’t remember the colour of the doll’s eyes in the train car, long ago, no matter how hard she tries.

Brimming with gorgeous imagery and lushly constructed passages, Seanan McGuire’s “There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold” is a sublime piece of speculative short fiction and The Doll Collection’s pièce de résistance. Marian is one of a long line of ancient doll makers—and living dolls who can’t house their own feelings—from an alternate world of the titular kingdom. Incapable of storing her own emotions, Marian creates dolls as vessels for her sorrow, disappointments, and frustrations. When she breaks the cardinal rule of her kind—namely, that no one you didn’t make with your own two hands should be trusted—and things go awry by way of an ill-tempered suitor, she enlists her ailing doll maker father to dole out some delicious dolly revenge. McGuire’s story snaps and crackles with imaginative detail and emotion, and the reader will marvel at the depth of the fantasy realm she’s able to create within the short story format.

The rest of the dolls in Datlow’s Collection cover quite a bit of territory—from dolls doling out justice in a dream court to an old house boobytrapped with malevolent dolls, from marionettes used as weapons when a young theatrical set designer is besieged by a summoned beast to a sad tale of the last doll hospital in Manhattan as narrated by a wizened Shirley Temple doll—with a smorgasbord of dolls represented, including kewpie dolls, fortune-telling dolls, “word” dolls, and even a Godzilla action figure. The wonderful thing about anthologies is that no two stories will appeal to the same two readers in exactly the same way; therefore, any omission or failure to highlight any of the stories in this superb compilation shouldn’t be construed as unfavorable.

With The Doll Collection, Ellen Datlow further cements her status as speculative fiction’s most distinguished anthologist. Her selections offer an intriguing exploration of a classic plaything—and frequent horror trope—through the darkened lens of adulthood. Seen through the literary eyes of her exceptional cast of contributors, readers will find much lurking beneath the plastic, porcelain, wood, and cloth exteriors of these seemingly innocent fabrications from our childhood.

Purchase The Doll Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow.

Posted on Monday, May 11, 2015 at 07:38PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

The Vines / Christopher Rice

47North / October 2014
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

The first shocking moment in Christopher Rice’s latest supernatural thriller comes when you pick up the book itself. Weighing in at a mere 214 pages, The Vines is a surprisingly slim novel. Fortunately, good things often come in small packages. Despite its slender outer spine, The Vines packs a satisfying horror punch, proving the old adage that less is often more. While The Vines may be lean, its storytelling is mean.

Set in the author’s native New Orleans – a setting he’s revisited in several of his works – the novel opens on Spring House, a former plantation that’s the lavish backdrop to a birthday soirée for its current proprietress, an heiress named Caitlin Chaisson. Like all good ghost stories, the restored plantation house – built over the grounds of former slave quarters – drips with atmosphere and a strong sense of pre-Civil War era history.

When Caitlin catches her unfaithful husband with his hands in the proverbial cookie jar – here a shrewd gold-digger named Jane Percival – her ensuing anger and suicidal despair reawaken the vengeful spirit of an African American slave named Virginie Lacroix. Her cheating husband disappears; his mistress loses her mind, and Caitlin slips down the rabbit hole.

Nova Thomas, the antagonistic daughter of the plantation’s longtime groundskeeper, has long held her own suspicions about Spring House’s tainted history. Enlisting the help of Caitlin’s estranged friend, Blake Henderson – who carries his own complicated, emotional baggage over the loss of his high school sweetheart in a brutal, homophobic attack – Nova sets out to uncover the secrets of Spring House and the serpentine vines that serve as conduit for LaCroix’s revengeful, restless spirit. As she notes earlier, we’re "so busy looking for ghosts in the attic, we never think to look in the ground."

Tracing the plantation’s long and poisoned history, the pair slowly uncovers the truth about LaCroix, her ability to commune with and command the earth beneath her, and her dealings with Spring House’s onetime master, Felix Delachaise, whose betrayal of a promise made unleashed a wrath upon Spring House and now seemingly serves Caitlin (and later Blake) in retaliating against her enemies. Rice cleverly employs this idea of supernatural vigilantism as a device to differentiate the blurry line that exists between the concepts of vengeance and justice, which serves as the novel’s overarching theme.

Historical oppression – like the novel’s titular botanical appendages – has deep roots in the South and figures prominently into the story. Nova begrudges what she sees as her father’s codependent servitude to white people and resents the fact that he’s chosen to live and work on a sugarcane plantation built on the blood of slaves. In the hands of a lesser writer, the character has all the trappings of the “angry black female” stereotype, but Rice impressively explores the weightier themes of race relations and gender in a deceptively subtle layer of sociocultural subtext. Likewise, there are thematic nods to classism and privilege – none of which ever feel heavy-handed or forced – that lend some gravitas to an otherwise straight-forward horror story.  

As with last year’s The Heavens Rise, Rice puts his mastery of the thriller genre to excellent use in this second foray into speculative fiction. He structures the novel with the plot intricacies of earlier works like The Snow Garden and Light Before Day, seamlessly weaving in each character’s backstory and then intersecting them in effortless cohesion. With The Vines, he manages to pull off that same feat within a compressed narrative timeframe that lends to the lean, breakneck pacing and yet somehow never detracts from either character development or the heftier themes discussed earlier. He even manages a somewhat grandiose, overstuffed third act, complete with plantation-destroying plants, a sleazy roadside motel besieged by a swarm of killer bugs, and a melodramatic showdown between the past and the present.  

The Vines further establishes Christopher Rice as a master storyteller, one whose horror chops continue to take root and blossom.  

Purchase The Vines by Christopher Rice.

Posted on Wednesday, November 12, 2014 at 10:57AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Bird Box / Josh Malerman

Ecco / May 2014
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

The idea that we have nothing to fear but fear itself – which Franklin D. Roosevelt famously paraphrased in his inaugural Presidential address, borrowing from the line "Nothing is terrible except fear itself" from an essay by Sir Francis Bacon – has been a subconscious thematic mainstay in horror fiction. First-time novelist Josh Malerman builds on this idea of terrors unseen and posits that the imagination may be the most powerful horror of all in his unsettling debut novel, Bird Box.

In a reverent wink to Lovecraft, the apocalypse arrives courtesy of an insanity pandemic that causes the world’s denizens to go stark raving mad and suicidal – a mass descent into personal madness caused by catching sight of something unfathomable that the human mind can neither comprehend nor process. To survive, society turns inward – physically and metaphorically – by retreating indoors, covering windows with blankets and never opening doors without blindfolds.  

Bird Box opens masterfully with the introduction of Malorie – the novel’s protagonist – as she prepares for a rowboat trip under the protective cover of what she believes to be a thick fog blanketing the waterway she must traverse to some unknown, unconfirmed endpoint promising safety. The twenty-mile journey downriver – blindfolded – seems all but guaranteed death for her and the pair of unnamed four-year-olds she’s parent to at the novel’s outset.

Alternating between Malorie’s treacherous trip downriver are the events leading up to it – from learning of an unplanned pregnancy amidst the first reports of global calamity to her seeking refuge with a band of fellow survivors inside a suburban home and adapting to this new apocalyptic reality with her housemates. Malerman uses Malorie’s pregnancy as a countdown device to the events that unfold within the house and – in a mastery of subtle foreshadowing evident from the opening chapter – how Malorie comes to be alone with two children.

Even in these alternating chapters where the group dynamics of the reluctant refugees might feel familiar, Malerman successfully layers the more customary elements of the societal microcosm forced together by circumstance – leadership struggles, increasing paranoia, differences of opinion over which new arrivals to let in or not, collective concerns over dwindling food reserves, debates  over strategies to better their situation – with fresh touches specific to his story (such as learning to travel outside the safety of their house and perform essential outdoor tasks while blindfolded).

Malerman keenly uses the sensory deprivation his characters must endure to heighten the reader’s own sensory experience. He makes the most of his character’s forced blindness, expertly using descriptions of sound and touch to turn a straightforward run to the water well or rowboat excursion into nerve-wracking sequences that make the reader’s blood run cold. This at times unbearable sensory delirium he subjects his characters to disorientate the reader enough to wonder whether it’s hysterical fear brought on by the power of suggestion or nameless monsters lurking within arm’s length that is the actual threat which will ultimately do the novel’s characters in.

Malorie is a near-perfect exercise in character development and execution. Malerman deftly draws her as a mother compelled into her role as a reluctant drill sergeant who relentlessly trains her children over the course of four years to hear with an almost preternatural acuity. In the hands of a lesser writer, Malorie could come off as a hopelessly bleak heroine, a harsh, emotionless parent hell-bent on teaching her children to confront the reality of an unknown “other” well beyond their developing minds’ comprehension without being able to see it. But Malerman nimbly balances the elements of cheerless inevitability that bears down on his protagonist and the flickering hope that powers her forward despite the seeming futility of her immediate situation and the bleakness of the larger dystopian world around her.

Bird Box reads like a master class in fear and suspense, easily belying its debut novel status and elevating it well beyond its novice pedigree.  Malerman adroitly creates tension by stretching moments of terror into anticipatory swells – like a roller coaster that climbs and climbs interminably. He further ratchets up the reader’s overall feeling of unsteadiness by skillfully withholding information, preferring to keep almost every external threat to the characters – from the psyche-shattering creatures they imagine all around them to the actual cause of the mass psychosis that’s rendered the world a global ghost town – ever present but just out of focus enough to be abstract. Malerman uses his characters’ necessary sightlessness to create a literary blindfold that short-circuits the reader’s own processing mechanism that allows them to see through the author’s words. The more he withholds this sense of sight – which runs counter to the human instinct to look even when we’re told not to – he cleverly engages the reader’s own sense of imagination, creating a more experiential read.

Chilling and mercilessly paced, Bird Box is easily this year’s most notable speculative fiction debut. Imbued with an almost elegiac gloom throughout that tints its narrative palette gray, Bird Box drips with an ever-present sense of expectation and dread.  Malerman immerses the reader into his dystopian world by blinding them alongside his characters, ultimately heightening the horror and leaving the reader desperate to open their eyes despite the potential consequences of doing so.  

Purchase Bird Box by Josh Malerman.

Posted on Tuesday, October 14, 2014 at 12:13PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Seeders / A.J. Colucci

Thomas Dunne Books / July 2014
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

For readers, half the enjoyment derived from today’s horror is in the never-ending quest to find the next malevolent source of what’s going to do us in; for writers, it’s the challenge. In an admittedly jaded age when we’ve all been there and read that, the focus has imperceptivity shifted from pure originality in concept to creative reinvention. Supernatural threats in their myriad forms, serial killers with (literal) axes to grind, and flesh-feasting zombies have long been staples in the modern horror author’s arsenal – but readers quickly tire of uninspired rehashes. Even in the perennial recycle bin of ideas, readers want to find gems of imagination and ingenuity.  

A.J. Colucci doesn’t so much invent as she reinvents by dipping back into an older horror mainstay: the eco-horror subgenre. It’s territory she’s explored previously in her debut novel, The Colony, and one with a rich history in horror literature that includes The Rats by the late James Herbert (1974), Killer Crabs by Guy N. Smith (1978), The Portent by Marilyn Harris (1980),  and – more recently – The Ruins by Scott Smith (2006) and Fragment by Warren Fahy (2009).  In Seeders, the New Jersey native’s sophomore effort, Colucci calls to mind films like The Day of the Triffids and The Ruins with a thoroughly engrossing tale of botanical terror. Imagine M. Night Shyamalan’s atrociously misguided The Happening done right.

Upon the death of her botanist father, Isabelle Maguire travels to a remote Canadian island with her two young sons and a troubled teenage girl under her supervision for the reading of her late father’s will. Along for the ride to Sparrow Island are two other heirs to his estate: Dr. Jules Beecher, a plant neurobiologist and former protégé of the late scientist, and Ginny Shufflebottom, an elderly curmudgeon who was the deceased’s paramour and island companion for the last decade. When the reading of the will is dispensed with, it’s clear the three beneficiaries have separate agendas: One wants to re-create the late scientist’s botanical experiments, one wants to find a hidden diamond bequeathed to her amidst a riddle, and one wants to uncover the truth behind her father’s death. Two of these concurrent story arcs eventually thread their way to a satisfying conclusion; while the third feels tacked on to pad the body count. 

Seeders is a decidedly ambitious horror/science fiction hybrid that reads like a Crichton-esque eco-thriller adorned with English cozy accoutrement. There’s a decidedly Agatha Christie vibe that resonates throughout, but instead of bodies piling up in the library, they’re scattered everywhere across Colucci’s fictional, fungus-infested island. And instead of a butler or mistress holding a smoking gun, it’s misunderstood plants doing everybody in with hallucinogenic, mind-controlling mold spores. Hell, there’s even a literary wink to Christie’s beloved red herring device, here in the form of homemade biscuits and a sunken wooden box.

Colucci wisely grounds the novel’s central concept – plant communication with humans – in some accessible real-life scientific theory. It’s this scientific realism that helps the reader excuse the author her convenient genre contrivances – the isolated island setting, the expedient weather event, the self-serving diaries of the deceased mad scientist, a solitary source of communication with the mainland that’s waylaid early on. Even when the reader’s attention is pulled from Colucci’s fast-moving narrative by the occasional heavy-handed environmental sermonizing or the gawky teen love story wedged in here, it’s easy to forgive the author.

Less forgivable is the extraneous character of Ginny Shufflebottom. From the incongruous whimsicality of the character’s surname to her lack of narrative purpose, the elderly Brit seems to be played for either comedic effect or a not-so-subtle homage to Christie’s Miss Marple that – on both counts, unfortunately – miss the mark. As annoying as when she’s on the canvas, it’s even more irritating when she disappears for what feels like chapters at a time. She’s ultimately a character that feels inexplicably appended without function to the cast or larger story.   

Fortunately for Colucci – and her readers – these shortcomings don’t eclipse the nail-biting tension generated in this clever cautionary fable in which human egotism is blindsided by ecological rebellion. Horror aficionados will bask in the gory set pieces while devotees of the thriller format will find much to appreciate in Colucci’s breakneck pacing.

With Seeders, A.J. Colucci reaches into the nature-run-amok arena to craft an imaginative, breathlessly-plotted genre mash-up that thrills, chills, and may just have you taking a kinder, gentler approach with your own houseplants.

Purchase Seeders by A.J. Colucci.

Posted on Wednesday, September 3, 2014 at 11:50AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Netherworld / Lisa Morton

JournalStone / January 2014
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Lady Diana Furnaval, Lisa Morton’s thoroughly engaging heroine at the center of this first book in a planned trilogy, had her humble beginnings in short fiction. She first appeared in “Diana and the Goong-Si”, Morton’s contribution to Midnight Walk, an anthology she also ably helmed as editor back in 2009. Here’s what this writer had to say about his first meeting with Lady Furnaval in his review of the anthology:

“…an exquisitely detailed story of a British noblewoman who travels to China in 1880 in search of her missing husband. Morton crafts a mesmerizing cross-genre tale that blends ancient Chinese culture with the undead and vampirism within an authentic historical context of the late 19th-century opium-for-tea trading industry between Britain and China. Infused with great humanity, ‘Diana and the Goong-Si’ possesses the delicate period sensibilities of The Painted Veil and the hair-raising psychic vampirism elements of One Dark Night.”

Indeed, that introduction to m’lady Furnaval left my literary taste buds watering for more. Morton – perhaps taking the concept of leaving readers wanting more a little too far during the ensuing five-year wait – finally rewards readers with the first of three full-length Lady Diana horror adventures.

Netherworld is a non-stop theme park ride, every bit as kitschy as it is thrilling. Morton writes with a genuine cinematic flair, her background as a screenwriter coming in handy as she plots adventure after adventure for her Victorian-era leading lady. Remaining true to Furnaval’s short fiction roots, Morton keeps the essential backstory intact while expanding on it: Furnaval is indeed a young widow who –having reason to believe her presumed-dead husband is trapped between worldly dimensions – travels from England to India to the Far East of the Orient to America’s burgeoning West on a mission to close supernatural portals and fend off an impending demonic apocalypse. Along for the ride are Lady Diana’s trusted sidekicks – a young Chinese sailor named Yi-kin and a gray tabby with extrasensory prowess named Mina.

As Lady Diana and company make their way (literally) across the globe, they run afoul of myriad monsters and assorted spooky spine-tinglers. All manner of which – from trapped spirits and bloodthirsty vampires to reptilian underground dwellers and a malevolent Hindu goddess – are along for what feels like a deliriously demented ride through an adult version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction. That Morton can also effortlessly weave bits of social commentary into the narrative (classism, racism, sexism…all present and accounted for) without the heavy-handedness that would plague lesser writers helps sets Netherworld apart from its genre brethren.

Morton masterfully opts for a straightforward narrative style in Netherworld, which gives the novel an instant readability that lends to the feeling that the book is marked by a running time instead of a page count. Like a literary set designer, she uses a commanding economy of words to fashion exquisitely grotesque set pieces that lend to the urgency of Lady Diana’s many harrowing otherworldly predicaments while bestowing the novel with a classic horror sensibility. Think Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Dracula with the energy of 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, lovingly brushed with a Tim Burton veneer – and starring Angelina Jolie in her action movie heyday.

Series can be a tricky business, but Morton successfully concludes Lady Diana’s first set of adventures satisfyingly enough (even managing an appearance by a real-life literary classic late in the third act in a wink to the some of the novel’s obvious inspiration) while leaving the door (and more than a few unearthly portals) open for her further supernatural escapades.

Purchase Netherworld by Lisa Morton. 

Posted on Monday, June 16, 2014 at 11:32AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Audrey's Door / Sarah Langan

Harper / September 2009
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Inexplicably, Audrey’s Door – Sarah Langan’s Bram Stoker Award-winning third novel – has languished in my to-be-read pile for far too long until recently. I claim inexplicability because I fell head over heels in love with Langan’s work after The Keeper (2006) and its sequel-of-sorts, The Missing (2007), so it’s a bit of a mystery why I hadn’t moved this one to the top of the pile long ago.

The titular character – surname Lucas – moves into an apartment building called The Breviary. Intrigued by the building’s rare Chaotic Naturalism architecture and drawn to its bargain-basement rent, Audrey seems willing to overlook the fact that the previous tenant in 14B – a famed opera singer – drowned her four children in the apartment’s bathtub before slitting her own wrists. It isn’t long before the haunted apartment building and its creepy denizens – think Rosemary’s Baby meets Cocoon here – begin to command the rising architect to build a mysterious door. As Audrey’s Woody Allen-esque neuroses and obsessive compulsions ramp up to full-tilt, she – and the reader – begin to question her sanity.

Audrey’s Door is an interesting departure from the author’s previous efforts. Whereas both The Keeper and The Missing had a strong, almost claustrophobic sense of place from which the characters had little respite, Audrey’s Door doesn’t immediately give the reader a sense that its characters are trapped or even in grave danger until well into the third act. Despite increasingly outlandish, hallucinogenic nightmares and a sense that she’s losing control, Audrey never seems confined by the building. Her freedom to go to work, travel cross-country to Nebraska to tend to an ailing relative, and even traverse the city mid-hurricane detracts somewhat from that sense of physical isolation that so marvelously plagued the characters in her first two novels. 

But Langan gives the reader a sense of a very different kind of isolation, one that’s less physical and more cerebral, by imbuing her story with the overriding theme of holding on to things that should be long let go of. The notion that what holds us back is a sometimes the overwhelming inability to get out of our own heads drives much of the conflict in Audrey’s Door. The result is paradoxical; the physical haunting caused by The Breviary almost takes a back-seat to the characters’ internal struggles. This lessens the traditional horror elements of the story, yet strengthens the subtler, more universal horrors within the characters themselves giving a more immediate, less fantastical sense of relatability to the characters’ plight. Audrey, a fully-drawn, beautifully flawed heroine, is holding on to her mother – both in memories and the physical sense. Her boyfriend, Saraub, is holding on to a dead-on-arrival documentary project, while his mother stubbornly clings to outdated cultural traditions that prevent her from accepting Audrey and strain relations with her only son. Audrey’s boss at the architecture firm holds on to crippling guilt and regrets about her abilities as a mother in the face of a family tragedy. New friend and fellow Breviary dweller Jayne holds on to long-standing insecurities. Even the kooky assortment of tenants who populate The Breviary are desperately holding on to their youth to grotesque effect. So, while The Breviary is busy exercising its own literal demons, each character finds either doom or redemption by confronting their own.

Langan wisely opts to make The Breviary a character onto itself, both endowing the apartment building with a rich and colorful sense of history and personifying its physical structure to such a degree that it appears to live and breathe. This allows the building itself to be more an active participant in the hauntings it inflicts on others versus remaining a mere receptacle for the malevolence at the center of its history:

It happened so slowly at first, none of them noticed. The walls hummed. The stained-glass birds and mosaics sometimes took flight. The hallways constricted like throats. Hinges creaked. Nightmares flew loose from their authors and inhabited the building like cold air.

That Langan’s work skews heavier toward the more literary leanings of Peter Straub versus the more mass market trappings of, say, Bentley Little makes it easier to overlook the fact that this is dark fiction in which the rewards come in subtle, character-driven moments versus  a series of grisly set pieces or overt shock. Although Audrey’s Door lacks some of the creepier horror elements that permeated both The Keeper and The Missing, the tremendous humanity with which Langan draws even the most minor of characters will enthrall. Read a chapter like “Baby’s Breath” in which one of the characters meanders through the house late at night considering each member of her family and you’ll quickly find yourself pleasantly disoriented, as if you’ve stumbled into a gorgeous piece of literary fiction of the highest caliber.

Audrey’s Door may be indicative of Langan’s greatest strength as a dark scribe: Elevating what’s essentially a tried-and-true horror story at its core to a wholly unique literary hybrid that almost defies categorization.

Purchase Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan.

Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 01:13PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint