Dark Scribe Reviews

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

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

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