Atmospheric New England supernaturalism from not-Stephen King, but a latter-day disciple who deservedly earns the master’s praise.
Nurse Spandex is a size-10 woman in size-two garb, but that doesn’t keep her from making a career of seducing the docs on the floor of the Rhode Island hospital at which she works. Bad idea, since one fervent night, a newborn goes missing from the incubator, with a big scary snake wriggling around in the baby’s place. Cue screaming and jiggling, for as Dobyns (Eating Naked, 2000, etc.) rightly and elegantly notes, “Surely fear is the oldest emotion. Not love, not pride, not greed. The emotion urging you to run is older than the one telling you to embrace.” True that. Woody Potter, world-weary local cop and damaged Iraq veteran, has not just the case of the substitute snake to worry about, but also that of a dead insurance agent. MacGuffins abound, but then so do red herrings: Does the key to the mystery lie with a local funeral-home denizen who has suddenly taken to communing with the coyotes and is a rather surly chap (“What the fuck would I hang a cat for?”), with the neighborhood Wiccan coven, with Ouroboros worshippers or with James Earl Jones in his Conan the Barbarian role? Well, the last doesn’t figure, but with Dobyns’ catholic approach to possibilities, he might just as well. Finally, Woody pulls together enough evidence to lead him in a different and altogether more sinister direction that, suffice it to say, may make a reader think twice about spending a night in the hospital. An utterly believable tale, and Dobyns isn’t above scaring the reader silly with surprise twists and turns.
Nicely done—and you may never look at doctors the same way again.
This eagerly anticipated novel (based on Black’s short story of the same name) bears little relation to the sparkle-infused vampire tales of the last decade.
Ten years ago, a vampire “started romanticizing himself” and went on a rampage, turning people until new vampires were everywhere. As much as possible, they are contained in walled Coldtowns, along with humans who idolize them—or were trapped when the walls went up. Outside, people avoid going out after dark, watch endless feeds from Coldtown parties and idolize vampire hunters. When nihilistic Tana, whose emptiness seems to stem from events surrounding her mother’s infection with vampirism, wakes up in a blood bath to find her ex-boyfriend infected and a terrifying but gorgeous vampire chained beside him, she is determined to make things right. What follows is a journey that takes her into Coldtown and out of the grief that has plagued her for years, with plenty of sharply observed characters and situations that feel absurdly, horribly believable. There’s dry humor and even a relationship (to call it a romance would be too easy; this is something entirely more complex). Perhaps most unexpectedly, there is no happy ending, just a thread of hope in humanity.
You may be ready to put a stake in vampire lit, but read this first: It’s dark and dangerous, bloody and brilliant.
(Horror. 14 & up)
An inventive—if brooding, strange and creepy—adventure in literary terror. Think Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King meet Guillermo del Toro as channeled by Klaus Kinski.
In her sophomore effort, Pessl (Special Topics in Calamity Physics, 2006) hits the scary ground running. Filmmaker Stanislas Cordova has made a specialty of goose bumps for years; as Pessl writes, he’s churned out things that keep people from entering dark rooms alone, things about which viewers stay shtum ever after. Cordova himself hasn’t granted an interview since 1977, when Rolling Stone published his description of his favorite frame as “sovereign, deadly, perfect.” Cordova is thrust back into the limelight when his daughter is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in Chinatown. Scott McGrath, reporter on the way to being washed-up, finds cause for salvation of a kind in the poor young woman’s demise. McGrath’s history with Cordova stretches back years, and now, it’s up to him to find out just how bad this extra-bad version of Hitchcock really is. He finds out, too; as one of the shadowy figures who wanders in and out of these pages remarks, ominously, “Some knowledge, it eats you alive.” Oh, yes, it does. Readers will learn a thing or two about psychotropic drugs, to say nothing of the dark side of Manhattan and the still darker side of filmmaking. And speaking of hallucinations, Pessl’s book does a good imitation of a multimedia extravaganza, interspersed with faux web pages and images. All it needs is for a voice to croak out “boo” from the binding, and it’d be complete unto itself.
A touch too coyly postmodern at times, but a worthwhile entertainment all the same.
“Things are not what they seem.” If Murakami’s (After Dark, 2008, etc.) ambitious, sprawling and thoroughly stunning new novel had a tagline, that would be it.
Things are not what they seem, indeed. A cab driver tells a protagonist named Aomame—her name means “green beans”—as much, instructing her on doing something that she has never done before and would perhaps never dream of doing, even if she had known the particulars of how to do it: namely, to descend from an endless traffic jam on an elevated expressway by means of a partially hidden service staircase. Aomame is game: She’s tough, with strong legs, and she doesn’t mind if the assembled motorists of Tokyo catch a glimpse of what’s under her skirt as she drops into the rabbit hole. Meanwhile, there’s the case of Tengo, a math teacher who, like Aomame, is 30 years old in 1984; dulled even as Japan thrives in its go-go years, he would seem to have almost no ambition, glad to serve as the ghostwriter for a teenage girl’s torrid novel that will soon become a bestseller—and just as soon disappear. The alternate-universe Tokyo in which Aomame reappears (her first tipoff that it’s not the “real” Tokyo the fact that the cops are carrying different guns and wearing slightly different uniforms), which she comes to call 1Q84, the q for question mark, proves fertile ground for all manner of crimes, major and minor, in which she involves herself. Can she ever click her heels and get back home? Perhaps not, for, as she grimly concludes at one point in her quest, “The door to this world only opened in one direction.” It’s only a matter of time before Aomame’s story becomes entangled in Tengo’s—in this strange universe, everyone sleeps with everyone—and she becomes the object of his own hero quest; as he says, “Before the world’s rules loosen up too much…and all logic is lost, I have to find Aomame.” Will he? Stay tuned.
Orwellian dystopia, sci-fi, the modern world (terrorism, drugs, apathy, pop novels)—all blend in this dreamlike, strange and wholly unforgettable epic.
The embattled relationships among the people of a city mysteriously struck by an epidemic of blindness form the core of this superb novel by the internationally acclaimed Saramago, the Portugese author of, most recently, The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1997).
A driver stalled at a busy intersection suddenly suffers an attack of “white blindness” (no other color, or any shape, is discernible). The “false Samaritan” who helps him home and then steals his car is the next victim. A busy ophthalmologist follows, then two of his patients. And on it goes, until the city’s afflicted blind are “quarantined” in an unused mental ward; the guards ensuring their incarceration panic and begin to shoot; and a paternalistic “Ministry” runs out of strategies to oversee “an uprooted, exhausted world” in a state of escalating chaos. But then, as abruptly as the catastrophe began, everything changes in a wry denouement suggesting that what we've observed (as it were) amounts to an existential test of these characters’ courage and mutual tolerance. But Blindness never feels like a lesson, thanks to Saramago’s mastery of plot, urbane narration (complete with irreverent criticisms of its own digressiveness), and resourceful characterizations. All the people are nameless (“the girl with the dark glasses,” “the boy with the squint”), but we learn an enormous amount about them, and the central figure—the ophthalmologist’s wife, who pretends to be blind in order to accompany her husband—is triumphantly employed as both viewpoint character and (as a stunning final irony confirms) “the leader of the blind.” Echoes of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and images hinting at Holocaust experiences enrich the texture of a brilliant allegory that may be as revolutionary in its own way and time as were, say, The Trial and The Plague in theirs.
Hipster Murakami (Coin Locker Babies, 1995, etc.) follows a sex tour guide through the sleazy demimonde of Tokyo’s worst streets during three nights on the town with a serial killer.
Kenji has one of those jobs you just can’t tell your mother about. As a “nightlife guide,” he basically spends most of his evenings shepherding American tourists through strip clubs and brothels. At 20, Kenji is young enough to try just about anything—except, to his family’s chagrin, college—but even he is kind of grossed out by some of his customers. His latest is an overweight American named Frank, who is not just gross but weird. Alternately servile and truculent, Frank claims to be a Toyota parts importer from Manhattan, but he shows little interest in cars and doesn’t seem to know much about New York. That’s not so surprising in itself—most of Kenji’s customers lie about their backgrounds—but Frank doesn’t seem terribly interested in sex, either. And the fact that he changes hotel rooms every few days makes Kenji wonder whether he might not be connected in some way to a string of grisly murders that have been terrorizing Tokyo for the last few weeks. Most of the victims have been girls involved in “compensated dating” (i.e., prostitution), so everybody in the sex industry is pretty much on edge. Kenji’s 16-year-old girlfriend Jun thinks he’s overreacting, but she advises him to drop Frank anyway just to be on the safe side. Of course, that would be too simple and, as it turns out, too sensible. Soon Kenji finds himself at the bottom of something uglier than even he could ever have imagined. Maybe, if he makes it out okay, he’ll consider going back to school after all.
A blistering portrait of contemporary Japan, its nihilism and decadence wrapped up within one of the most savage thrillers since The Silence of the Lambs. Shocking but gripping.
For his fifth and most enjoyable novel, Ellis has found the perfect anti-hero: himself.
We start with an overview of his life and oeuvre. The author/narrator, a narcissistic, self-pitying drug fiend, gets a shot at redemption when movie star Jayne Dennis, an old flame, offers to marry him. The deal is that he must now connect with Robby, the son he has shunned for 11 years. The father-son relationship is the novel’s major theme and plot pivot; the 1992 death of Bret’s difficult father was traumatic. Bret jumps at the offer. How will the celebrity author handle marriage, fatherhood and life in the suburbs? He can’t hack it. He loses his desire for Jayne in his drive to seduce Aimee, a student at the local college; he quickly reverts to his cocaine and vodka habits (Brat Pack buddy Jay McInerney shows up for a druggy Halloween party); and he resents his cold, distant son. This is all as fascinating as a car wreck and is frequently very funny. Then things get weird. Terby, the mechanical bird doll owned by Sarah, Jayne’s daughter by a different father, comes to sinister life. Bret receives mysterious e-mails from the bank where his father’s ashes are deposited. Boys in the neighborhood disappear, and there is a wave of grisly murders modeled on those in American Psycho. The story of a doomed marriage blends with a satirical take on upscale suburban angst, a campy horror story about a haunted house, a Frankenstein-like case of a monster unchained and a serious rumination on the damage fathers can do to sons. Ellis stirs these elements into a steamy witches’ brew and works his way through to a marvelously elegiac ending, displaying real artistic discipline. “Every word is true,” declares Bret—but then again, a writer’s life is “a maelstrom of lying.”
Even his harshest critics may now have to acknowledge that this versatile, resourceful writer has formidable skills.
Oates (Sourland, 2010, etc.) finishes up a big novel begun years before—and it’s a keeper.
If the devil were to come for a visit, à la The Master and Margarita, where would he turn up first? You might not guess Princeton, N.J., long Oates’ domicile, but there “the Curse” shows up, first in the spring of 1905, then in June, on “the disastrous morning of Annabel Slade’s wedding.” No slashing ensues, no pea-green vomiting; instead, the good citizens of Princeton steadily turn inward and against each other, the veneer of civilization swiftly flaking off on the edge of the wilderness within us and, for that matter, just outside Princeton. Woodrow Wilson might have said it differently when he reflected on his native Virginia: “The defeat of the Confederacy was the defeat of—a way of civilization that was superior to its conqueror’s.” It just could be that the devil’s civilization is superior to that of America in the days of the Great White Fleet and Jim Crow, for Wilson—a central figure in the novel and then-president of Princeton University—is no friend to the little people. But then, none of Oates’ male characters—some of them writers such as Mark Twain and Jack London, others politicos such as Grover Cleveland, still others academics plotting against the upstart Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its “devilish business”—are quite good guys: Representatives of the patriarchy, they bear its original sin. The Curse is the one of past crimes meeting the future, perhaps; it is as much psychological as real, though Oates takes pains to invest plenty of reality in it. Carefully and densely plotted, chockablock with twists and turns and fleeting characters, her novel offers a satisfying modern rejoinder to the best of M.R. James—and perhaps even Henry James.
Though it requires some work and has a wintry feel to it, it’s oddly entertaining, as a good supernatural yarn should be.
Before an alcoholic can begin recovery, by some lights, he or she has to hit bottom. Dan Torrance, the alcoholic son of the very dangerously alcoholic father who came to no good in King’s famed 1977 novel The Shining, finds his rock bottom very near, if not exactly at, the scarifying image of an infant reaching for a baggie of blow. The drugs, the booze, the one-night stands, the excruciating chain of failures: all trace back to the bad doings at the Overlook Hotel (don’t go into Room 217) and all those voices in poor Dan’s head, which speak to (and because of) a very special talent he has. That “shining” is a matter of more than passing interest for a gang of RV-driving, torture-loving, soul-sucking folks who aren’t quite folks at all—the True Knot, about whom one particularly deadly recruiter comments, “They’re not my friends, they’re my family....And what’s tied can never be untied.” When the knotty crew sets its sights on a young girl whose own powers include the ability to sense impending bad vibes, Dan, long adrift, begins to find new meaning in the world. Granted, he has good reason to have wanted to hide from it—he still has visions of that old Redrum scrawl, good reason to need the mental eraser of liquor—but there’s nothing like an apocalyptic struggle to bring out the best (or worst) in people. King clearly revels in his tale, and though it’s quite a bit more understated than his earlier, booze-soaked work, it shows all his old gifts, including the ability to produce sentences that read as if they’re tossed off but that could come only from someone who’s worked hard on them (“Danny, have you ever seen dead people? Regular dead people, I mean”). His cast of characters is as memorable as any King has produced, too, from a fully rounded Danny to the tiny but efficiently lethal Abra Stone and the vengeful Andi, who’s right to be angry but takes things just a touch too far. And that’s not to mention Rose the Hatless and Crow Daddy.
Satisfying at every level. King even leaves room for a follow-up, should he choose to write one—and with luck, sooner than three decades hence.
Bram’s great-grandnephew teams up with Dracula buff Holt to reclaim vampire lit from the unholy, unlettered legions churning out today’s fang-and-cloak stuff.
This big, blood-filled kitchen sink of a debut boasts a vast cast of characters: Bram Stoker himself, as well as his nefarious Count, Jack the Ripper, Jonathan Harker, Dr. Van Helsing, Oscar Wilde, “blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory, a mysterious Eastern European actor and a whole bunch of extremely hot (but also extremely cold, being dead and all) vampire chicks of uncertain gender preference. Bathory is definitely the heavy of the story, and it seems she’s spoiling to outdo the number of grisly murders she is said to have committed in life, aided by a coterie of spidery bloodsucking assistants. As befits a multigenerational saga that springs from a book that had few survivors, some familiar characters are on the other side of the live/dead line, and some—well, some are indeed in the undead camp. There’s lots of good old-fashioned polymorphously perverse degenerate romping (“Every orifice in her body became his plaything”). Stoker and Holt are careful not to go too far afield from the conventions of the original; Van Helsing, for instance, comes armed with “crosses, wafers, holy water, a wooden stake, a Bowie knife, and a crossbow armed and ready to fire,” rather than some postmodern substitute for all that good wood and metal. Yet this competently (but no more than competently) written sequel—endorsed by the Stoker family, the publisher assures—has plenty of contemporary twists, including a weird Darth Vaderish turn at the end that some Bram-faithful readers may find magnificently silly.
Flies and spiders, master! Big, messy, lots of fun—and not Stephenie Meyer.