{Book} The Changeling

The Changeling

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

Apollo Kagwa has had strange dreams that have haunted him since childhood. An antiquarian book dealer with a business called Improbabilia, he is just beginning to settle into his new life as a committed and involved father, unlike his own father who abandoned him, when his wife Emma begins acting strange. Disconnected and uninterested in their new baby boy, Emma at first seems to be exhibiting all the signs of post-partum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go far beyond that. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts. Apollo then begins a journey that takes him to a forgotten island in the East River of New York City, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest in Queens where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. This dizzying tale is ultimately a story about family and the unfathomable secrets of the people we love.

Summary via Goodreads

I really enjoyed LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and was looking to read more from him. I believe I put The Changeling on my TBR list when I was looking for successors to Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. As I was reading I thought that The Changeling was like a cross between War for the Oaks and the movie Hereditary, so I guess it scratched that folklore-in-the-mordern-world itch!

I didn’t know where this book was going to take me and I really enjoyed that. I don’t know how much I want to say about the crux of this book because it surprised to me and I really don’t want to spoil it. There was a really great interplay between technology/social media and old world folklore. To me, if you’re going to tell urban fantasy stories, that’s what’s needed to be more than “Hey, look! A werewolf in the streets in the year 2018!” (Note: werewolves are an example here. There are no werewolves in this book.)

But, my other comparison is Hereditary. The Changeling is definitely horror. There are some horrific things, but also a pervasive sense distrust and wrongness throughout the story which makes it tense and discomfiting. The story is slow to get going, but that’s because LaValle carefully lays a base for these characters. Their pasts matter to the story; not just in making the reader care for them, but giving them reason for acting the way they do and what situations they find themselves in.

In general, I haven’t enjoyed a horror novel this much since Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Child. Victor LaValle is fast becoming one of my favorite “new” authors.

Publication: Spiegel & Grau, 2017
My Copy: Overdrive/Kindle edition, Tempe Digital Library
Genre: horror

{Book} Meddling Kids

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

1990. The teen detectives once known as the Blyton Summer Detective Club (of Blyton Hills, a small mining town in the Zoinx River Valley in Oregon) are all grown up and haven’t seen each other since their fateful, final case in 1977. Andy, the tomboy, is twenty-five and on the run, wanted in at least two states. Kerri, one-time kid genius and budding biologist, is bartending in New York, working on a serious drinking problem. At least she’s got Sean, an excitable Weimeraner descended from the original canine member of the team. Nate, the horror nerd, has spent the last thirteen years in and out of mental health institutions, and currently resides in an asylum in Arkham, Massachusetts. The only friend he still sees is Peter, the handsome jock turned movie star. The problem is, Peter’s been dead for years.

The time has come to uncover the source of their nightmares and return to where it all began in 1977. This time, it better not be a man in a mask. The real monsters are waiting.

Cover and summary via Goodreads

Meddling Kids has been on my TBR list for a while, but I decided to read it now because it was the June pick for the Occult Detective Book Club.

I wanted to like this book more than I did.

I’m not a huge Scooby-Doo fan, but it was one of my favorite cartoons as a kid and has probably had an out-sized influence on the way I see the world. While I like reading about the supernatural, I don’t actually believe in it. Scooby-Doo is kind of the opposite of occult detectives: the mysteries investigated look supernatural, but aren’t. It sits firmly in a skeptical space. I was a skeptical kid and I’m a skeptical adult.

But as I said, I do like reading about the supernatural, so I was looking forward to the twist of Meddling Kids. The gang, grown up, face a paranormal mystery. Additionally, the story is set in the Lovecraft-verse.

I liked the setting, but I wasn’t very attached to the characters. I liked the majority of the plot. The reversals were nice and I like a good dead-friend’s-ghost advisor character. Unfortunately, the real hurdle for me was the writing.

There are a lot of winks and nudges. Zoinx River? Jinkies. While Arkham is mentioned by name, H. P. Lovecraft is referenced as an author named Howard. According to Wikipedia, Meddling Kids is also inspired by Enid Blyton’s the Famous Five series that began publication in 1942. The Famous Five are Julian, Dick, Anne, Georgina (nick-named George) and their dog Timmy. I had no idea about this series, but the nods are obvious, especially since Meddling Kids is set in Blyton Hills, Oregon. And it comes off as a little too clever for its own good.

Also in that too-clever category, some of the writing seems stunt-like. Kerri’s hair being sort of cartoon-sentient was…weird. (I have curly red hair. It isn’t that fun.) Some of the adverbs choices were odd. A candleflame silence, a flock of hair. Then there was the page and a half long sentence that was part of an action scene. Kind of the equivalent of a long one-shot in a movie. Speaking of movies, sometimes the dialogue would slip into screenplay-ish format. What is that about? Maybe I’m old and boring, but it was a little too much for me.

I didn’t totally dislike Meddling Kids. I did finish reading it after all, and it was a fast read, but it didn’t quite live up to what I hoped it would be.

Publication: Doubleday, 2017
My copy: Tempe Public Library Overdrive edition

{Book} The Beetle

{Book} The Beetle by Richard March

‘It changes its shape at will. It compels others to do its bidding. It inspires terror in all who look on it…’

Eminent politician Paul Lessingham is the toast of Westminster, but when ‘the Beetle’ arrives from Egypt to hunt him down, the dark and gruesome secret that haunts him is dragged into the light. Bent on revenge for a crime committed against the disciples of an Egyptian goddess, the Beetle terrorizes its victims and will stop at nothing until it has satisfaction.

(via Goodreads)

Hey, finally a Classics Club book that I (mostly) enjoyed! This is not a comment on the virtue of classics, it’s just how it shakes out when you make up a list of 50 books. Some of them you like, some of them you don’t. I managed to pick three “eh” books in a row from my list of 50.

The Beetle was published in 1897, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Unlike Stoker’s novel, The Beetle was first published as a serial, starting in March and lasting through June. (Dracula was published in May.) It’s said that The Beetle initially outsold Dracula. While one book is about a vampire and the other is about a cult of Isis, there are actually quite a few similarities.

The Beetle is split into four parts, each part a narration by a different character. We start with Robert Holt, the Renfield of this piece. For creepiness, the second chapter of this book blows away pretty much anything in Dracula. Holt is mesmerized/possessed and ordered to break into the house of a politician, Paul Lessingham, and stealing some letters. The second section is narrated by Sydney Atherton, a scientist and fickle romantic. His scientific specialty is chemical warefare. This isn’t entirely science fiction in 1897, but the use of such a horrible weapon was a societal worry. Atherton seems enamored with the idea of killing many people at once… He’s (currently) in love with Marjorie Lindon, who is engaged to Paul.

Marjorie is the Mina/Lucy here; she’s a good woman and everyone is in love with her. The third section of the book is from her point of view and Marjorie is just great. She’s smart, she’s snarky, and she has no time for men driveling all over her. Unfortunately, there has to be damsel in distress and Marjorie is the only damsel around. (She would hate being called a damsel.)

The last section is narrated by Augustus Champnell, a character who hasn’t really been part of the story, but is a friend of Atherton’s. We finally get some information from Lessingham about his past. When he was travelling in his youth, he was seduced by a strange woman who is the high priestess of a cult of Isis. (Queue Victorian Orientalism, not that the book wasn’t chock full before this…) After months of sex and human sacrifices, Lessingham overcame the priestess and escaped. (Similar to Jonathan Harker in Dracula.) There is a surprising amount of nudity mentioned in The Beetle, so maybe it isn’t surprising that it outsold Dracula in its time. It’s now three years later. The priestess has hunted down Lessingham for revenge, and kidnapped Marjorie.

It seems like Marsh wasn’t sure how to end this novel because this last section is padded out with Champnel, Atherton, and Lessingham chasing around and being tripped up by people of lower class. Eventually Marjorie is rescued by deus ex machina.

The Beetle is perhaps most notable these days for its interesting look at gender identity. The priestess of Isis is a shape-changer, able to take the form of a beetle, but also being able to present as both/either male and female. Of course, since she’s a white-lady-sacrificing, Englishman-corrupting monster, this is not progressive. When Marjorie is mesmerized into going along with the priestess (or “Arab” in her male form(?)), she is disguised at a young man—her hair is cut off and she’s made to (gasp) wear pants. When word gets back to our trio of pursuing men that the Arab is now accompanied by a young man (and they’ve already found Marjorie’s dress and her cut off hair), it takes them way too long to even consider the disguise.

For scares, honestly, The Beetle does better than Dracula, but the latter is a much more well-crafted novel. I’m glad I read it though. A shape-shifting Egyptian priestess is a nice change-up.

  • Genre: horror
  • Publishing info: serialization as The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man in Answers, 1897
  • My copy: ebook via Project Gutenberg

{Book} Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
Lovecraft Country has been on my TBR list for quite a while. There has been a plethora of literature riffing on Lovecraft’s mythoi that is a reaction to Lovecraft-the-author. I don’t know if this has occurred with any other problematic author. Maybe it’s time and distance that has allowed it to happen (thanks to the public domain*) or the acknowledgement that the worlds Lovecraft created have been undeniably important to fantastic fiction and shouldn’t be abandoned due to the dubious philosophies of their author.

HBO is producing a Lovecraft Country series that premiers in August and their trailer reminded me of the book, which was available from the Tempe Digital Library. I read the first couple pages and pretty much ditched everything else I have been reading to go on a ride through Lovecraft country.

*Well, Lovecraft’s works are probably in the public domain. There are issues

Characters
Every once in while, I open a book and it is the characters that immediately hook me. I think the last time it happened was with the Last Policeman series. Hank Palace and Atticus Turner are similar characters in some ways. Both are competent men who remain stolid despite the bizarre circumstances they find themselves in. These are the kind of characters I love.

Plot
In an interview, Matt Ruff said he originally conceived of Lovecraft Country as a sort of anthology series with each character getting their own story, but all the stories interconnect. As a result, each chapter of the book focuses on a separate character, advancing the plot along from the first chapter which is entitled Lovecraft Country. And this works! I hope the HBO series preserves that.

Setting
Ruff does a good job with the setting: the real world of 1954 with a twist. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Robert Block, Ray Bradbury, and other authors are all authors in this world. When Atticus goes to “Lovecraft” country, he’s going to the New England he’s read about in Lovecraft’s stories. But of course, there are differences. Cabals of wizards for one. The Safe Negro Travel Guide is also a fiction also, though based on the real Negro Motorist Green Book. For the most part, the real and the fictional work together rather well.

Overall
The most common criticism I’ve seen of Lovecraft Country is that it isn’t very Lovecraftian. Indeed, this is not a Lovecraft pastiche. It only tangentially hints at cosmic horror, and then takes more of a science fiction approach to it, while still having ghosts and cults and “natural sciences.” It is exactly the bits I like about Lovecraft, divorced from the pulps and given to good characters inhabiting a more realistic world.

Original Publishing info: HarperCollins, February 16, 2016
My Copy: OverDrive Read, Tempe Public Library
Genre: horror

{Books} The Vampyre & Dracula

The Vampyre: A Tale Dracula

The Vampyre: A Tale by John William Polidori

A young English gentleman of means, Aubrey is immediately intrigued by Lord Ruthven, the mysterious newcomer among society’s elite. His unknown origin and curious behavior tantalizes Aubrey’s imagination. But the young man soon discovers a sinister character hidden behind his new friend’s glamorous facade. (via Goodreads)

Legend has it that the inspiration for The Vampyre was the same Lake Geneva trip the spurred Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. Polidori, Shelley, the other Shelley (P. B.), Lord Byron, and Claire Clairmont all shared a chateau and ghost stories. Byron produced “Fragment of a Novel,” which Polidori riffed off of to write The Vampyre, giving Byron the credit. Or something like that. It seems utterly reasonable that Byron’s name on the cover was a shrewd publishing move.

Polidori’s Lord Ruthven is perhaps the first gentleman vampire. Instead of being the glorified ghoul of folklore, Ruthven has charisma and schemes. He is cast in the form of the Gothic mystery men that preceded him. His past is a secret that will bring darkness to those around him, in this case it is presumably because he’s a vampire.

I was expecting more from this story. It felt more like the summary of what could have been a much longer, more involved Gothic novel. On the other hand, Polidori isn’t much of a writer. A 600-page version of this story would have been a slog. (What isn’t a 600-page slog is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas—he includes Lord Ruthven as a cameo character.)

Dracula by Bram Stoker

‘Alone with the dead! I dare not go out, for I can hear the low howl of the wolf through the broken window’

When Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to help Count Dracula with the purchase of a London house, he makes horrifying discoveries about his client and his castle. Soon afterwards, a number of disturbing incidents unfold in England: an unmanned ship is wrecked at Whitby; strange puncture marks appear on a young woman’s neck; and the inmate of a lunatic asylum raves about the imminent arrival of his ‘Master’. In the ensuing battle of wits between the sinister Count Dracula and a determined group of adversaries, Bram Stoker created a masterpiece of the horror genre, probing deeply into questions of human identity and sanity, and illuminating dark corners of Victorian sexuality and desire. (via Goodreads)

There are many, many vampires after Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, but none (even Ruthven himself) are as famous as Dracula.

This is the third or fourth time I’ve read Dracula. I suppose I like it well enough because I like the characters. Oh, everyone’s adoration of Lucy and Mina gets a little old, but Stoker at least gives us a look into their inner lives.

One of the things that struck me about this go-through: Mina is the one who takes all the information that the man have and put it together. Without her stitching together the narrative, Dracula would have run rough-shod over London. Further, when the men leave Mina out, for her own protection, they (and she) suffer a huge setback.

I read The Vampyre for Classics Club and Dracula because it felt like a good time for a reread.

{Book} Taaqtumi

This book was provided to me by Myrick Marketing & Media, LLC via NetGalley for review consideration.

Taaqtumi: An Anthology of Arctic Horror Stories

Taaqtumi: An Anthology of Arctic Horror Stories, compiled by Neil Christopher

“Taaqtumi” is an Inuktitut word that means “in the dark”—and these spine-tingling horror stories by Northern writers show just how dangerous darkness can be. A family clinging to survival out on the tundra after a vicious zombie virus. A door that beckons, waiting to unleash the terror behind it. A post-apocalyptic community in the far North where things aren’t quite what they seem. With chilling tales from award-winning authors Richard Van Camp, Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, Aviaq Johnston, and others, this collection will thrill and entertain even the most seasoned horror fan. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
I’m always on the lookout for stories set in places that are far from my usual. Arctic horror stories sounded like a great concept.

What Did I Think?
According to the summary taaqtumi means “in the dark.” And, man, these stories are dark. Maybe I just haven’t read horror in a while, but I wasn’t quite prepared for this level of nihilism. If you want happy endings, you’re not going to find many here.

In the realm of horror sub-genres, Taaqtumi has a little of everything. Ghosts, cosmic horrors, zombies, folk horror, natural horrors, post-apocolyptic, and even a science-fiction/horror mashup—Sean and Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley’s “Lounge,” which I found to be one of the standouts of the anthology.

On the whole, I really enjoyed these stories. I wanted to read this analogy for the setting, and Taaqtumi delivers. The writers are all from northern Canada, many are indigenous people and the stories include a tapestry of Inuit lore and legends.  “Wheetago War II: Summoners” by Richard Van Camp is one of the more “modern” tales of horror in terms, well, weaponry, but its told in the style of recorded oral tradition and has excellent voice. The cold, the extremes of daylight and nighttime, the push and pull between modern and traditional are all present in each story.

Original Publishing info: Published September 10th 2019 by Inhabit Media
My Copy: Adobe Digital Edition via NetGalley
Genre: horror

Deal Me In, Week 2 ~ “Light And Space”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“Light and Space” by Ned Beauman

Card picked: J
Found at: The Guardian

Shortly after midnight on Christmas morning, a night watchman discovered me standing by Feretory with a fire axe held over my head. I am, or was, a senior member of MoMA’s curatorial staff, with a special interest in the Light and Space movement of the 1960s, and so naturally I’ve been called upon to give an account of why I should wish to destroy such an important work. My only reply is that in fact I wanted nothing less than to destroy it. Even after all that’s happened, I still recognise Feretory as a masterpiece. Destroying it would have been no more than an unavoidable consequence of what I really hoped to achieve with the axe that night.

The Story
This is one a several “Christmas” ghost stories that The Guardian ran in 2013. I bookmarked them probably in 2018, so I haven’t been sitting on them for *that* long. But it’s always fun to see where seasonal stories end up when you’re picking randomly.

Conroy Glasser is a 1960s “light and space” movement artist who worked in blocks of resin. His masterpiece, Feretory, is an impossibly seamless pillar of translucent plastic. What makes this sculpture even more mysterious is that the formula for the resin was proprietary, cooked up by Glasser and “a sympathetic polymer salesman from Hudson Plastic.” And also that Glasser’s wife disappeared around the time the sculpture was poured. And that Glasser committed suicide a few months later. And that in 1989 a curator of his works ended up in an mental institution after one of his assistants turned up dead. And that a collector of Glasser’s works from the same period as Feretory also committed suicide. The curator we meet in the quote above was also planning a new showing of Glassers, until he begins to suspect there are dark truths behind Glasser’s works.

In the real world there is no way that there wouldn’t be a thousand podcasts and YouTube videos about the (obvious) curse of Conroy Glasser and his art…

Conroy Glasser is fictitious, but the  Light and Space art moment is a real thing, involving minimal and abstract works that focused on the interplay of light, objects, and color. (That’s probably wildly inaccurate. I know very little about art.) Do an image Google search on Light and Space. You won’t be disappointed.

Also, a feretory is:

1. A receptacle to hold the relics of saints; a reliquary.
2. An area of a church in which reliquaries are kept.

The Author
Ned Beauman is a new author to me. He’s a British novelist, journalist, and critic. I enjoyed this story and I am tantalized by his novel The Teleportation Accident, “a hilarious sci-fi noir about sex, Satan, and teleportation devices.”

Pick a Card, Any Card

I’m not entirely sure if Light and Space can be accurately produced in two dimensions, but the back of these horizon playing cards might come close.

Horizon Playing Cards at Kardify
And at Kickstarter