Wednesday: Finnegan’s Field by Angela Slatter

Wednesdays are short-story days. My recommendation this afternoon is ‘Finnegan’s Field’ by Angela Slatter, a dark fantasy published on Tor.com in January. I love posting about Tor’s stories simply because they each have their own cover art, and I like this quaintly eerie piece:

finnegansfield_storyfull2

The girl in the picture is Madrigal Barker, who somehow reappears, without explanation, three years after she disappeared from her tiny hometown. The town is in Australia but the population is of Irish heritage, and they know that “when children go under the hill, they don’t come out again”. Except Madrigal. Everyone’s happy about it and quietly ignores the fact that she hasn’t changed at all in three years, but Madrigal’s mother, Anne, doesn’t think that the daughter who’s come back is the same one who was lost. And of course she’s dead right.

What follows is partly the horror story you’d expect, but it eschews tired convention by turning into more of an investigation as Anne tries to figure out what exactly it is that’s different about Madrigal and track down the person who took her. Even though she has, in fact, spent the past three years in the other world of fae mythology and there’s nothing Anne can do about that, Maddie only ended up there because a human led her to the doorway in the hill. And Anne is determined to find the culprit.

Besides being a quick, satisfying mystery, I also like Finnegan’s Field because it’s a touching story with relatable characters and some tough, haunting choices. Angela Slatter knows how to pack an emotional punch and I find her horror thoughtful and elegant.

Thursdays … The Pride of Strathmoor

Aaand I’m home alone, late at night, watching horror to find something for today’s short film post. As with yesterday’s short story recommendation, I found what I was looking for in the American gothic genre. The Pride of Strathmoor is creepy as fuck, not so much because of the story, but because of the deeply unsettling animation and the whispered narration. That voice sounds so very … close.

Please note that this short film may cause seizures if you’re sensitive to flashing/flickering content.

Wednesdays: Razorback by Ursula Vernon

I’ve decided that Wednesdays will be dedicated to short fiction.

On Sunday I had the displeasure of spending seven hours at a small community market trying to sell books and jewellery and making no money whatsoever. The day would have been a total failure but it presented me with one of those increasingly rare occasions where I have nothing to do but read. I had expected as much, so: Kindle, short stories.

Apex-Magazine-80

My favourite was ‘Razorback’ by Ursula Vernon, in issue 80 of Apex Magazine. It’s a retelling of a folk story known as Rawhead and Bloody Bones. An odd thing about this piece of folklore is that it has two very different incarnations in the UK and the American South. The story originated in Great Britain, where Rawhead / Tommy Rawhead / Rawhead and Bloody Bones is a bogeyman with a scalped head who is used to frighten children.

Somehow, when the story migrated to the American South, Rawhead became a razorback hog befriended by an old witch. When Rawhead is killed by a hunter, the witch is devastated at the loss of her only friend, and brings him back to life as a bloody-boned skeleton with a skinned head to take revenge. Ursula Vernon recommends reading S.E. Schlosser’s version of the tale, which is a proper piece of folkloric horror that borrows from Little Red Riding Hood: “[W]hat have you got those big eyes fer?’ the hunter asks, when the undead Rawhead comes for him, and the boar replies, ‘To see your grave’.

Vernon’s version, based on the American tale, is more heartfelt tragedy than horror. It’s not as gory and, like most retellings, ‘Razorback’ brings a sense of humanity and realism to the folklore, which Vernon does it particularly well. Rawhead is an unexpectedly charming, polite boar, as the witch Sal finds out, since she has the capacity to hear him speak:

“I see your momma raised you to be respectful,” said Sal, rocking.
Have to be ma’am. If you aren’t, she rolls over on you and squashes you flat.
“Huh!” Sal rocked harder. “Not a bad notion. Know a few people who couldn’t used a good squashing back in the day.
It does make you think before you speak, ma’am. He rolled a beady little boar eye up at her. You cook good cornbread, ma’am. Can I stay with you a little while?

When Rawhead is killed, Sal is not merely an angry and vengeful witch – she’s a lonely woman in mourning for a dear friend. The resulting story is not straightforward: things don’t go as planned and because she’s not accustomed to using violence or black magic, none of it comes easily to her, regardless of her determination. The horror elements are there, but the story is touching rather than creepy; one of those wonderful pieces of fiction about animal–human friendships. Readers who dislike or are wary of horror won’t have a problem with ‘Razorback’.

I also like Vernon’s take on witches, which I’ve also seen in her other fiction: they’re rock solid, independent, knowledgeable women who provide valuable but often taboo community services (like abortions) and are frowned upon as a result.

People want a witch when they need one, but they don’t much like them. It was a little too easy, when you saw Sal go by, to remember all she knew about you. […] She was a good witch and a decent person, but decent people aren’t always easy to live with.

“Razorback’ is accompanied by an in-depth author interview by Andrea Johnson (the Little Red Reviewer), so you can get a bit more insight into the story, which I always like to do. The edition also features a novelette by Ursula Vernon, titled ‘The Tomato Thief’. It’s also about a witch, so yes please.

Under Ground by S.L. Grey

Under Ground hbTitle: Under Ground
Author:
S.L. Grey
Publisher: 
Pan Macmillan
Published:
 July 2015 (UK); August 2015 (SA and Commonwealth
Genre: 
horror, thriller, mystery
Source: 
ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

The world freaks out over a deadly new super-virus, and when the first confirmed cases hit the US, five families rush to their condos in The Sanctum – a luxury survival bunker situated fifty feet underground in rural Maine. The Sanctum is designed to be self-sustaining, stylish and comfortable. Besides offering fresh food, clean air and water, sanitation and maximum security, it also has a gym, medical bay and recreation room, as well as TV and internet access so the residents can stay in contact with the outside world (and watch the apocalypse go down) for as long as possible.

In theory it’s a brilliant idea. For the owner, Greg Fuller, it sounds like a fantastic way to make a ton of cash off the rich and paranoid. For the few with the cash to buy in, it’s not only a good bet for survival but an opportunity to avoid the apocalypse altogether.

But it also means getting locked up with paranoid strangers in a confined, sterile space (where everything is obviously going to go to shit), and a lot depends on who those people are and how they handle the situation. James and Victoria Maddox are a pair of yuppies with marriage issues who rock up in designer clothes, carting Cristal and crates of gourmet dog food for their shih tzu. Cait, an au pair, is supposed to fly home to Joburg, but all the flights get cancelled and her boss, Tyson, basically kidnaps her by dragging her along to The Sanctum without even telling her where they’re going. It’s a blessing for Tyson’s daughter Sarita, at least: her mother died recently and Cait’s been caring for her while her father becomes increasingly distant. Jae is a gamer who, besides having to deal with lagging wifi, is worried about his mother’s health problems and the fact that his father almost never leaves the house. And then there are the Guthries – the racist, fanatically religious, gun-toting rednecks…

Of course everyone arrives at a frightening, high-pressure time, and their paranoia is particularly apparent when the final family arrives late with a sickly old woman whose presence sparks fears of infection. And once they’re settled, it becomes obvious that the owner, Greg, has been cutting corners and The Sanctum isn’t quite the haven they paid for.

Then a body is found, and everyone faces the prospect of being locked in a bunker with a murderer who could pick them off one by one.

I really like the way the novel uses this fairly simple premise of a locked-rom mystery to explore all the complex ways in which the characters and their relationships shift or shatter under the pressure. It’s why I asked Louis Greenberg for a guest post on the characters he and Sarah Lotz chose for The Sanctum, and it’s something I wanted to expand on in this review.

As always in these sorts of stories, you’ve got a couple of decent, sane people who mostly get along and try their best to handle a difficult situation. There’s one in each family and they are our POV characters (the chapters alternate between them). There are a few weak people who, to the cold-hearted, will look like a liability. There are a couple of idiots and assholes who whine or put others at risk with their histrionics. And then there’s the real trouble – the Guthries.

They represent a whole package of threats – racial violence, religious fanaticism, sexual assault, physical violence. Father, Cam and son, Brett were not happy about having to hand over all their guns after arrival, and everyone wonders if they’re still hiding a few. They treat the dilemma like a combat situation, arming themselves with knives and standing guard as if they were soldiers. Brett unabashedly refers to Jae as “the chink” (he’s half Korean) and stares at Cait with such naked lust that she’s afraid of running into him alone. At one point, as she furiously debates whether or not it’s safe to use the swimming pool, she reflects on how she’s never had the luxury of worrying about monsters because real men like Brett have always been the bigger threat. Bonnie Guthrie went into some kind of Christian overdrive after Cam stole her inheritance to buy into The Sanctum (he doesn’t take kindly to criticism from women, so now she just prays more), and she’s worried about the unholy influences the neighbours might have on her daughter Gina (the only decent person among them).

The Guthries are the worst of neighbours and the most hateful of characters (except for Gina), but that also makes them crucial to the plot, simply because they’re so provocative. It’s not just about the rednecks vs the rest though; the novel really digs into the way all sorts of tension plays out between the characters. There’s the sexual tension of a budding relationship, a secret affair, and the desperate sex borne of fear and loneliness. Wealthier characters lord it over others, or are assumed to. Bullies like Brett and Cam might be obvious threats, but it gives their victims suspicious motives for retaliation too.

In this claustrophobic space where survival suddenly depends on the relationships you have with the people around you, all the little details of human interaction have ripple effects – an act of kindness, a rude word, a glance that lasts too long. What I enjoyed most about the novel is the way this all plays out while conditions in The Sanctum get progressively worse. It’s not quite what I’d call horror (although it definitely would be if I were actually locked up there), but it’s exactly the kind of psychological thriller I love to get wrapped up in.

I never guessed who the murderer was though, and that’s another plus. Mystery novels have to work pretty hard to keep their secrets hidden, and this one managed to surprise me. I think the ending might divide readers, but I liked that it made me stop to think about the book and go back to look for the details I’d missed.

So, overall, Under Ground is a gripping, well-written thriller from S.L. Grey. These guys know how to write characters and make them suffer in all the right ways.

Guest Post: Louis Greenberg on who to trap in locked-room horror

slgrey-ug-photo

S.L. Grey is the collaboration between SA authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. They published their first horror novel, The Mallin 2011 and followed it up with The Ward (2012) and The New Girl (2013) – a collection that became known as the Downside. Now they’re trying out a different style of horror in Under Ground – a locked-room mystery set in a luxury survival bunker called the Sanctum.

It’s a tense thriller that relies, not on gore or otherworldly monsters, but on the ways in which different kinds of people clash in a confined, sterile space. I love stories that exploit the most interesting aspects of their characters in tough situations and strained relationships, so I asked Louis to about how he and Sarah chose the characters who populate the Sanctum and what they hoped those people would bring to the story.

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Under Ground was always going to be S.L. Grey’s stab at Agatha Christie. With maybe a bit of Cluedo thrown in. I grew up watching Christie movies: the elegant glamour of Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor. Murder of the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack’d terrified me and Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile strangely titillated me. When Sarah and I settled on locked-room mystery for our fourth novel together, we knew it would involve a similar large cast interacting against the rather less exotic backdrop we came up with.

Under Ground hbClassic locked-room mysteries are all about the inevitable conflict between different types of people, and they use both the characters’ assumptions about one another and the reader’s assumptions about the characters to create dramatic surprises. Under Ground was our homage to the form. It involves a group of fairly disparate people all rushing to The Sanctum, an ostensibly luxurious survival bunker, to escape a devastating super-virus.

When we started plotting the novel, we assembled a cast of around thirty characters, but soon realised that would be unwieldy and culled several before they even got into the story. There were a few more characters we wrote into our early drafts, fully imagined and with their own plot arcs, who also had to disappear (along with Michael Bay-style helicopter flights and other cut scenes better not spoken of).

We eventually levelled off at five families making it to their apartments in The Sanctum and two individuals who help run the place. We knew that we’d tread a fine line between strong, differentiated characterisation and stereotype in this locked-room structure. Especially with a plot that demanded all-out action pacing, there wasn’t much space to develop characters with internal monologue or flashbacks or much humanising detail. How they react to the crisis at hand is all that matters to the story. As much as we could, we subtly modified some of the characters, and allowed them to act and react in surprising ways that might either subvert or confirm expectations.

Under Ground pbWithout giving too much away, some characters experience a crisis of faith or ideology, while others are forced to push themselves beyond their predestined limits, some crack under the pressure, some blossom. One of the fun things about imagining life-threatening crises is putting yourself into characters’ position and wondering how you might react – this is something that’s entertained us through all our novels: putting normal people into abnormal situations. Would you become a hero, would you try to keep your head down, would you take advantage of others’ weaknesses?

In choosing our character set, we also selected characters who would create good tension when played off against each other. Tension between rich people and poorer people; between people who consider themselves the Chosen – whether by nationality, religion or gender – and those they think don’t belong; tension between leaders and followers; between outsiders and insiders; and of course a bit of complicated sexual tension. This led to a fairly wide variety of inhabitants and it was fun to play these different combinations off against each other.

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Thanks so much for your time and insight Louis!

Under Ground was published in the UK in July, and will hit SA and the Commonwealth in August. If you’re keen to splurge on a hardcover, this one has a gorgeous debossed black-on-black spine:

UG debossed

I’ve got a review of Under Ground in the works, so check back later this week!

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersTitle: Broken Monsters
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
Umuzi
Published:
 July 2014
Genre: 
fantasy, crime, horror
Source: 
Umuzi
Rating:
 
8/10

I think Lauren Beukes has hit her stride with crime fiction, or at least her distinct brand of crime fiction – a kind of character-driven, urban-fantasy crime thriller with elements of horror. The Shining Girls was like no other crime novel I’d ever read, and now I’m glad to find something similarly fresh but with a totally different story.

Like The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters juggles multiple POVs, a large cast of great characters, and explores the intricacies of an American city (this time it’s Detroit). Beukes uses the killer as a POV character again, which means there’s no mystery as to who he is, but you do have the opportunity to see him work and experience his insanity more intimately. And, like Harper Curtis in The Shining Girls, Clayton Broom is driven by a force he doesn’t understand and cannot control.

This time though, the killer isn’t trying to snuff out brilliance but create art. The figure on the cover of the South African edition is a representation of the body that sets the story in motion – the top-half of a ten-year-old boy, fused to the bottom half of a deer. But the cover achieves what the killer does not – it is art, with a sense of beauty and magic and life. The boy in the novel is dead and butchered and he’s never going to leap like the killer intended.

Detective Gabriella Versado investigates the crime scene after a rookie discovers the body, and she’s put in charge of the case. Gabi is a single mom and has a slightly uneasy relationship with her teenage daughter, Layla. They can get on pretty well, but Gabi’s always working, and Layla is a typically feisty teenager going through more than the usual troubles. Her best friend Cas has cooked up a scheme for trapping an online sex predator, and you just know it’s not going to turn out the way they expect it to.

TK is a homeless guy who survives by scavenging the abandoned buildings of Detroit. He’s a good man who tries to help others and makes an effort to improve himself, but you know that, sadly, he’s never going to get over the rough start he had in life.

Jonno is, in some ways, like his polar opposite. While TK does meaningful work, and makes real connections with people, Jonno made a living as a blogger writing the kinds of clickbait lists we see on the internet everyday: “‘10 Rules for the New Gentleman’s Guide To Dating’ […] It’s all chum to pull in the likes” (57). He recently fucked up his life and his career, and now he’s in Detroit, ransacking the pretentious hipster scene for the edgy content that will rack up enough likes for his ex-girlfriend to notice.

If TK comes across as an unassuming, unrecognised hero, then Jonno is a kind of thoughtless villain. He isn’t the murderer, but when he finds out about the bizarre killings, he sees his chance to become a social media celebrity. He jeopardises Gabi’s investigation in his relentless bid to make the most horrifying, sensational information public, meanwhile spouting bullshit about finding the truth for the sake of the people.

Social media is a major theme in the novel and forms part of the structure of its narrative. Beukes uses chats, texts, Facebook messages and other digital communication – sometimes in text-speak and/or barely coherent ranting. Issues of privacy in a social media age become important plot points and have profound effects on the characters and their relationships.

The novel also happens to be a great police procedural, capturing the realities of being a cop in “The. Most. Violent. City. In. America” (9) and getting into the weirder information required for the investigation, like the meat glue used to fuse the boy and the deer, or the process of taxidermy. Beukes has clearly done her research, and it pays off.

Equally well-crafted are the characters. If shows like True Detective or Broadchurch appeal to you, where the narrative takes its time to develop the characters instead of focusing only on the murder investigation, then you might like Broken Monsters for the same reason.

Rather than give you a general overview, I thought I’d take an in-depth look at a few small details. On the very first page, while Gabi is checking out the body that sets the whole story in motion, we learn a lot about her relationship with Layla. She happens to think about the myth of “mothers and daughters bonding over fat-free frozen yoghurts” and counters it with her own feeling that “the best conversations she has with Layla are the ones in her head” (9).

So there’s a longing for Gabi and Layla to be a cute, quirky mother-daughter pair, perhaps something like the Gilmore Girls, but we’re immediately told that that idea is a fantasy. When we later see Gabi and Layla together, it’s clear that they could make a great team (I love the line “don’t forget the code to the gun safe, beanie, just-in-case” (26)), but there’s always a fundamental disconnect between them.

This is illustrated on the other two pages of the brief opening chapter. The hybrid body reeks, and Gabi is with a rookie cop who is hanging back because of the smell. She offers him some fruity lipgloss that she bought for Layla, to smear on his upper lip:

“Here,” she offers, fishing a small red tub of lipgloss out of her pocket. Something she bought at the drugstore on a whim to appease Layla. A candy-flavoured cosmetic – that’s sure to bridge the gap between them. “It’s not menthol, but it’s something.” (10)

Again, I love what this says about the characters. Gabi is trying to be thoughtful by buying her daughter a little gift, but she doesn’t hesitate to give some of the lipgloss to a colleague. When she later gives it to Layla, her daughter immediately scoffs, pointing out that it’s just a scam and doesn’t do your lips any good. At the same time though, she’s thinking about how she’d actually like to use some of the lipgloss. A few lines later, she complains rudely that she doesn’t want to hear Gabi’s cop stories, while texting her friend Cas and admitting that she actually likes the stories.

Another interesting thing about the lipgloss detail is that it plays a role in the depiction of Gabi’s character and her relationship with the rookie cop. She’s not actually trying to help him – as Layla snarkily points out later, rubbing menthol or whatever on your upper lip won’t cover the smell of a body (she watches the crime channel). Gabi’s playing a prank on the rookie because he’s an FNG – Fucking New Guy. Because the lipgloss has glitter in it, the squad ends up calling him “Sparkles”. At first Gabi tries to brag about her prank to Layla (who isn’t interested) but later she feels bad about embarrassing the guy because he proves to be a conscientious, observant police officer. That affects the way Gabi treats him later in the story, and subsequently affects the way she thinks about herself, so that that random thing with the lipgloss ends up being meaningful all the way to the end of the novel.

I really appreciate this sort of writing – it’s clever, it’s thoughtful and it makes good use of the words (and thus of the effort we put into reading them).

Oh and, in case you were wondering, this is definitely a fantasy novel. I haven’t gotten into the details of how it’s fantasy, because for most of the story it’s quite a subtle thing, hovering between symptoms of madness and the decidedly supernatural. Sometimes I only realised later that a certain event had had a supernatural influence. If this isn’t enough of a fantasy element for you, then just be patient and brace yourself for the ending.

Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

Harrison SquaredTitle: Harrison Squared
Author: Daryl Gregory
Published: 24 March 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: YA, horror, adventure
Rating: 8/10

Thirteen years ago, Harrison Harrison was out on a boat with his parents, and a tentacled monster attacked them, killing his father and ripping off Harrison’s leg. He nearly died from an infection, and in the years that followed he covered up his memories with a more rational explanation than a Lovecraftian monster.

Now Harrison is sixteen and accompanying his mom on a scientific expedition to the little coastal town of Dunnsmouth. Rosa Harrison is a marine biologist who specialises in massive creatures like whale sharks and sperm whales, and her latest obsession is the colossal squid.

Harrison (H2 – Harrison Squared – to his mom; scientist humour) thought tagging along would be better than the alternatives, but Dunnsmouth is set to prove him wrong. The town takes the concept of “parochial” to new levels of creepy. There is no internet connection or cellphone reception (Harrison complains about being “involuntarily Amished”), so there’s no way of calling for help from the outside world. The school Harrison has to attend looks like a giant tomb, he sometimes hears chanting as he wanders through the labyrinthine hallways, and the swimming pool is in a subterranean cave. Some of the staff members look kind of… aquatic. The principal also happens to be the priest of the town’s arcane religion, and while Harrison is “used to being one of the few public atheists in school” he’s a lot less certain about being “an army of one against the One True Faith of Dunnsmouth”. Also, all the kids look weirdly similar, they’re unnervingly quiet, and they’re all white, which is worrying for a mixed-race kid like Harrison in a small town.

And what Harrison’s mom hasn’t told him is that this is the same town where he lost his leg and his father thirteen years ago, and that she’s returned to find the monster that attacked them. This is something that Harrison is forced to discover on his own when Rosa goes missing at sea on their second day. The townspeople don’t seem to think there’s much hope of finding her (or don’t want to), but Harrison is convinced that she’s still alive so he mounts his own investigation. No matter how distorted his memories of the attack thirteen years ago, he knows that his parents saved him, so he refuses to abandon his mother. Along the way, Harrison finds some unexpected allies, including a boy from a race of aquatic humanoids; encounters a terrifying murderer known as The Scrimshander; and finds out exactly how creepy Dunnsmouth’s weird religion is.

 

I jumped at the chance to read this after reading the novella We Are All Completely Fine, which features an adult Harrison in group therapy with several other people who’ve had to deal with monsters in their lives, including a woman who’d had images carved on her bones by the Scrimshander. That book had its flaws – most notably an unimpressive ending that didn’t do the rest of the book justice – but I was seriously impressed by the characters Gregory wrote, and that was more than enough to make me want to read this book.

It didn’t disappoint; Harrison Squared has a fantastic cast of characters and even the minor ones are well-written. Sixteen-year-old Harrison is an even more enjoyable character than the adult version, perhaps because he’s funnier and more optimistic. He’s got a great sense of sarcasm and is generally a nice, well-rounded kid. He’s so capable with his carbon-fibre prosthetic leg that his disability never seems like much of a disability, although it’s still very much a part of who he is and how he functions. He does, however, have two serious problems – he’s afraid of going in the water, and he has a “volcanic” temper in contrast to his otherwise “calm and analytical” nature. His water phobia has never been an issue in daily life, but of course he’s going to have to deal with it if he has any hope of saving his mom in a place like Dunnsmouth. His temper has been more problematic, and although he’s learned to handle it over the years, the current situation threatens to break his control.

I also loved Harrison’s Aunt Sel, who comes to stay with him after his mother disappears. Selena was initially dismissed as a potential caregiver for being a snooty urbanite with no interest in kids. When she turned up I was expecting her to be an uncaring bitch, but she was superb. She’s definitely not the mothering type, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about Harrison; it’s just that she doesn’t show it in any kind of conventional motherly way. She strides in, dramatic and impeccably dressed, effortlessly gets her way with almost everyone, and refuses to take shit from anyone. Harrison eats well if only because she’s used to having the best (lobster dinner?) and he’s warmly dressed on some of his later night-time excursions partly because she finds his one-hoodie style tiresome and is dying to buy him some new clothes.

Sel also doesn’t care if Harrison doesn’t go to Dunnsmouth’s weird school or that he sneaks around at night, which is perfect in these circumstances because it means Harrison is free to do whatever he needs to do to find his mother.

As far as the plot is concerned, Gregory does a better job than in We Are All Completely Fine. Harrison Squared reads like the best kind of YA adventure horror, which is to say that it’s wonderfully fun and creepy, thanks in part to the immense pleasure of being able to root for a character like Harrison. The climax felt a bit abrupt, but no matter; I had a great time with this and I want more books like it. The ending provides the setup for a possible sequel, so I can only hope that there will be one.