All hail the glow cloud as the weird and wonderful town of Night Vale brings itself to fine literature.
Creators Fink and Cranor offer fans of their (oc)cult podcast Welcome to Night Vale a fantastic addition with a stand-alone tale of the mysterious desert town that also offers loyal listeners some interesting clues about the nature of the place. Readers who are unfamiliar with the podcast shouldn’t be put off—they still get an eccentric thriller with a specific sense of humor that mimics the omnipresent spookiness of Twin Peaks. Artist Kate Leth, who collaborates on the podcast, once described the project this way: “It’s like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman started building a town in The Sims and then just…left it running. For years.” Fortunately, the writers are firmly confident in their creation. “Look, life is stressful,” the book tells us. “This is true everywhere. But life in Night Vale is more stressful. There are things lurking in the shadows. Not the projections of a worried mind, but literal Things, lurking, literally, in shadows. Conspiracies are hidden in every storefront, under every street, and floating in helicopters above. And with all that there is still the bland tragedy of life.” The main plot largely centers on two characters and their search for a hidden city. Perpetually 19-year-old Jackie Fierro runs the local pawn shop and is perplexed when A Man in a Tan Jacket gives her a note reading simply “King City.” Meanwhile, PTA mom Diane Crayton loses her teenage son and must join forces with Jackie to find this mysterious place. It’s all pretty far out there on the weird-ometer, but the novel is definitely as addictive as its source material. The book also pays fan service by punctuating its chapters with original broadcasts by Night Vale narrator Cecil Gershwin Palmer and cameos by fan favorites like Old Woman Josie, Carlos the sexy scientist, and the aforementioned Glow Cloud.
A delightfully bonkers media crossover that will make an incredible audiobook.
A suspenseful thriller about mysterious music and a violinist's fear of her child.
Julia Ansdell is a violinist with a 3-year-old daughter, Lily. While in Italy, Julia buys an old piece of sheet music titled Incendio by an L. Todesco, whom she’s never heard of. When she plays the composition at home in the U.S., Lily appears to go crazy, killing their cat, stabbing Julia in the leg with a shard of glass, and causing her to fall down a flight of stairs. Does the music possess an evil quality? Or does the problem lie within Julia herself, as her husband, Rob, thinks? “I know how absurd I sound,” she says, “claiming that a 3-year-old plotted to kill me.” Afraid Rob wants her committed, she flies to Italy to try to learn more about the music’s origin. In a parallel story, Lorenzo Todesco is a young violinist in 1940s Italy. He practices for a duet competition with 17-year-old cellist Laura Balboni. They play beautifully together and know they will win—perhaps they’ll even marry one day. But this is Mussolini’s Italy, and a brutal war is on. As the plotlines converge, people die, and Julia places herself and others in mortal danger. In fact, the stakes are even higher than she knows. A friend tells Julia, “The seasons don’t care how many corpses lie rotting in the fields; the flowers will still bloom.” This stand-alone novel has no bearing on the author’s Rizzoli & Isles series, but the crafting is equally masterful. For example, the musical descriptions are perfect: “The melody twists and turns, jarred by accidentals.…I feel as if my bow takes off on its own, that it’s moving as if bewitched and I’m just struggling to hang on to it.”
Clear your schedule for this one—you won’t want to put it down until you’re finished.
Graphic gothic horror and 19th-century American caste politics meld with unsettling force in this (often literally) scorching whodunit.
It is the autumn of 1881 in the American South. President James Garfield is dead, and so is Reconstruction. The city of Atlanta wishes to mark its gradual ascent from the ashes of its Civil War ravishment-by-fire with its International Cotton Exposition, which may even include a visit of reconciliation from its one-time scourge, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman himself. But just before the festivities begin, police find grotesquely mutilated corpses of African-American entrepreneurs with capital letters carved into their foreheads. Desperate for a quick, timely solution, a cabal of prominent businessmen, known as “the Ring,” discreetly hires a discredited, disillusioned ex–Atlanta detective named Thomas Canby to investigate these bizarre serial killings. Since the Ring’s suspicions settle primarily on the city’s segregated black population, Canby is aided in this task by pious, prim Cyrus Underwood, Atlanta’s first duly authorized constable of color, who Canby soon finds is a lot steelier than he seems. And they both soon find that there’s far more to this gory series of murders than meets the eye, as white corpses, each with foreheads bearing bloody single letters, join the black ones in what another character likens to a accursed “spelling bee.” Guinn’s previous period mystery, last year’s The Resurrectionist, was an Edgar finalist for its thoroughbred-racing momentum, and with his conscientious attention to historic detail, and vividly ghoulish imagery, he could conceivably cross the finish line with this ripsnorting follow-up, an intricately woven page-turner whose subtext of class and racial animus ingrained in the American psyche reinforces James Joyce’s assertion of history being the true nightmare from which it’s impossible to awaken.
Imagine a sequel to Birth of a Nation as conceived, written, and directed by David Lynch. Too much of a stretch? Wait till you see who—or what—is behind the mayhem.
At the end of life, does a writer’s every word flash before his or her eyes?
One might be forgiven for wondering just that on reaching the last page of Mitchell’s (Cloud Atlas, 2004, etc.) delicious ghost story—which is more than just a ghost story, it being Mitchell’s world in which readers are merely living, and more than delicious, too. When we meet sensitive, confused 13-year-old Nathan, a target painted on him for every schoolyard bully and hauled from place to place by a Valium-popping, near-berserk, newly divorced mum, he’s fretting about having to dress up for a fancy do: “If Gaz Ingram or anyone in his gang sees me in this bow-tie,” he mopes, “I’ll find a poo in my locker, guaranteed.” Perhaps better a poo than what awaits Nathan at Slade House, where possibly malevolent, certainly scary forces await in the form of a brother and sister who, as said brother assures us, “are a different species….We pass ourselves off as normal, or anything we want to be.” Ghosts or monsters or possibly aliens or even vampires, Jonah and Norah Grayer and their eldritch doings are not the most interesting part of this book. The more compelling aspect, for Mitchell fans, is to watch him shape-shift and narrator-shift across the body of his work, beginning with circumstances reminiscent of Black Swan Green and ending with bursts of language befitting Cloud Atlas (“This system o’ the Grayers, it won’t run off the mains. It runs off o’ psychovoltage. The psychovoltage of Engifteds”). There are even a few characters who drift in from other books, including Marinus from The Bone Clocks, who turns out to be a nervous Nellie in the face of the banjax suckers….
Though there’s something of an inside joke happening on every page, Mitchell serves up a story that wouldn’t be out of place alongside The Turn of the Screw. Ingenious, scary, and downright weird.
In Inspector Gamache’s 11th outing, the sheltering forest around his small village of Three Pines is revealed to be a hiding place for unexpected evil.
Armand Gamache, former head of homicide at the Sûreté du Québec, is learning to let go and be happy with his new life in Three Pines, far from the evil that ate away at him for years. His former colleagues and friends poke fun at him, saying the great inspector will never truly hang up his hat, but these jokes turn deadly serious when an imaginative 9-year-old boy named Laurent is murdered shortly after telling what seemed to be a tall tale about a massive gun wielded by a monster in the woods. When it’s discovered that the boy was not exaggerating even in the slightest, Gamache’s mind quickly switches back to questioning his surroundings and the people who inhabit this space—many of them his close friends. Chief Inspector Isabelle Lacoste and her right hand, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, take up residence in Three Pines, and with Gamache’s sideline help, they begin to find out what sort of darkness lurks just outside of town. Penny uses her well-known, idyllic setting as the center point of a mystery with global scope and consequences, spanning decades and implicating many, including series veterans. What makes this story most magical, though, is how the many aspects of this spiraling tale can be connected by a Bible verse and related lines from a Yeats poem: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” It’s with this eye for detail that Penny sketches the “nature of the beast”—evil that has the potential to grow even in the most unexpected places. An especially terrifying character returning from Gamache’s past is the perfect reminder of the dark side of human nature, but that side does not always win out.
Penny is an expert at pulling away the surface of her characters to expose their deeper—and often ugly—layers, always doing so with a direct but compassionate hand.
A young woman cursed with a powerful paranormal ability takes drastic action to escape her fate.
The prolific and often profane Wendig (Zeroes, 2015, etc.) originally published this novel in the U.K. in 2012, and he seemed to catch readers by surprise with the foulmouthed, punk-rock girl at its heart. The first in a series, this delightfully vicious and bloody urban horror novel provides a perversely entertaining introduction to a dangerous fugitive with a little something special up her sleeves. Miriam Black is a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, deeply paranoid runaway who's been living with a unique curse for eight years: whenever she lays a hand on someone, she sees exactly, precisely when and how they're going to die. Sure, it freaks her out, but she doesn’t let it stop her from dropping in on perverts and low-lifes at the moments of their demises to lift their wallets. “The rule is, it’s one and done,” she tells one amateur sleuth. “I get the vision once. It doesn’t keep happening over and over again—though, I’ll tell you, some of the really bad ones will keep a girl up at night.” Miriam is disturbed when she touches Louis, a seemingly normal truck driver, only to discover that the last thing he says at the moment of his death is Miriam’s name. Soon, there are killers after her, and in order to survive the experience and figure things out, Miriam must go to extremes to learn whether fate can be beaten or not. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea—Wendig spins his story with Tarantino-esque multiplicity, and the book’s pyrotechnic profanity, bloody ultraviolence, and lack of romance are unlikely to appeal to fans of Laurell K. Hamilton or Patricia Briggs. But for those who like their noir with a twist of horror, this novel provides an engaging blend of occult surrealism, nihilism, and startling violence.
A lean, mean fantasy novel that’s likely to leave readers dented and bruised.
In which unthinkable calamity propels a nation—and a family—into a rapidly imploding dystopia and slow-motion apocalypse.
It begins with what seems at first like a plane heading for the Golden Gate Bridge, except that it’s “too bright” to be a plane but more “like something cosmic come at high speed through the atmosphere.” Whatever it is, Skyler Wakefield, a 20-year-old college student and aspiring novelist, sees it shatter the bridge and bathe everything around it in near-blinding radioactive heat. Years after San Francisco and most of its inhabitants perish, America is a tense, fragmented society of colonies, territories, and prairie internment camps for Muslims. (Early reports alleged the words “Air Arabia” could be seen on the projectile that hit the bridge.) Skyler’s baby brother, Dorian, is 12 years old and haunted by dreams of a dead sister who the rest of his still-traumatized family insists never existed. Meanwhile, the family’s next-door neighbor, a 71-year-old veteran of something called Gulf War III, has made his way to one of the detention centers to adopt a Muslim orphan named Karim, who’s the same age as Dorian—who, as it happens, is cultivating a hard-core prejudice against Muslims. His impromptu expression of an ethnic slur at a backyard barbecue leads to a bloody fight between him and Karim. More grievances accumulate, leading to more bigotry and malign conspiracies on both sides of the American and Arab divide...and greater horrors to come. Hrbek’s (Destroy All Monsters, 2011, etc.) engagement with themes of loss and recovery and his vibrantly lyrical prose style reach a peak in this dark, allusive fantasy, which seems intended as a metaphor for the anxieties still lurking in our post–9/11 universe. As one of the book’s characters says, “What are we living in now, if not fear?” Which, as Hrbek implies (and FDR once famously proclaimed), may itself be a worse enemy than any other we can find, or contrive, for ourselves.
If you want a hint of where Hrbek is going, thematically, with this story, look to the title of a short story collection written about 80 years ago in an America far different from ours: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.
Ending the rampage of two sadistic serial killers may depend on a substance-abusing homicide detective facing an old lover and an unknown nemesis in this raw and utterly readable thriller.
Behind the nom de plume is Glen Duncan (By Blood We Live, 2014, etc.), last seen spewing bloody ink in the wrap-up to his toothsome werewolves-and-vampires trilogy. In a different vein here, he cooks up mayhem among mortals, creating a duo from Of Mice and Men by way of Thomas Harris without the fava beans. Inspired by some horrific child abuse, Xander and Paulie are on a mission to rape, torture, and murder a certain number of women, aided by a serrated fishing knife, an iPad, and a combined IQ maybe in the high double-digits. Detective Valerie Hart leads a San Francisco team confronted with at least seven victims and zero clues. Black sets parallel narratives in motion when the latest murders send a teenage girl into hiding and a new potential victim hands the Hart team its first break—once underway, the police work is crisp and convincing. Meanwhile, the former lover complicates Valerie’s chilly, vodka-fueled efficiency while an FBI operative seems to lie behind several incidents undermining her. Compared with the explicit gore of the trilogy, there’s some writerly restraint here amid much nastiness. But nasty it is, and it’s made more so by the author’s deep dives into the mind of a victim, especially when her terror is stoked by the iPad’s gruesome video records. An especially fine piece of staging has the injured teen and the writer crippled by sciatica with whom she has taken refuge awaiting unlikely rescue on a dead-end road.
Aficionados may fault Black for allowing the police at least one major oversight, but most readers will likely be too engrossed or happily grossed out to do anything but whip through the pages.
Twenty-four years after a traumatic disappearance tore a Georgia family apart, Slaughter’s scorching stand-alone picks them up and shreds them all over again.
The Carrolls have never been the same since 19-year-old Julia vanished. After years of fruitlessly pestering the police, her veterinarian father, Sam, killed himself; her librarian mother, Helen, still keeps the girl's bedroom untouched, just in case. Julia’s sisters have been equally scarred. Lydia Delgado has sold herself for drugs countless times, though she’s been clean for years now; Claire Scott has just been paroled after knee-capping her tennis partner for a thoughtless remark. The evening that Claire’s ankle bracelet comes off, her architect husband, Paul, is callously murdered before her eyes and, without a moment's letup, she stumbles on a mountainous cache of snuff porn. Paul’s business partner, Adam Quinn, demands information from Claire and threatens her with dire consequences if she doesn’t deliver. The Dunwoody police prove as ineffectual as ever. FBI agent Fred Nolan is more suavely menacing than helpful. So Lydia and Claire, who’ve grown so far apart that they’re virtual strangers, are unwillingly thrown back on each other for help. Once she’s plunged you into this maelstrom, Slaughter shreds your own nerves along with those of the sisters, not simply by a parade of gruesome revelations—though she supplies them in abundance—but by peeling back layer after layer from beloved family members Claire and Lydia thought they knew. The results are harrowing.
Slaughter (Cop Town, 2014, etc.) is so uncompromising in following her blood trails to the darkest places imaginable that she makes most of her high-wire competition look pallid, formulaic, or just plain fake.