The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones

The String DiariesTitle: The String Diaries
Author: Stephen Lloyd Jones
Published: 4 July 2013; my edition published 1 July 2014
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, thriller
Rating: 4/10

The story of The String Diaries is set across three time periods. In the present, Hannah Wilde drives frantically through the night to a remote safehouse in Snowdonia, Wales. Her husband Nate is bleeding to death on the seat beside her, and their daughter Leah is asleep in the back. It’s now Hannah’s responsibility to keep them safe from Jakab, a monstrous man who has hunted her family for over a century.

In 1979 in Oxford, Professor Charles Meredith meets a beautiful young woman studying Hungarian history. He finds himself inexplicably captivated by her, only to find that she’s spent her life running from an old enemy described in a collection of diaries bound up in string.

In 1873 in Hungary, an awkward boy from a wealthy family resists the demands of his birthright. He is “hosszú életek”, one of a race of aristocratic shape-shifters blessed with longevity and other supernatural skills. For some reason, he’s always struggled to use his powers, and he knows that he will be disgraced in front of his peers at their coming-out ceremony. He chooses to break away from the path laid out for him, with brutal consequences.

At the start, The String Diaries is a tense thriller. We’re given lots of intriguing little hints about the underlying mystery, and the villain Jakab has a terrifying power – he can take the form of any person. Hannah and her family have learned to ask questions to verify people’s identities, but it’s hard to keep your guard up all the time. If a friend goes out of sight for even a few minutes, it might be Jakab who comes back, wearing their face. He could do all sorts of terrible things by posing as an ally, and one of the scariest possibilities involves him killing a loved one and taking their place. There’s also a bit of plot in the backstory that I quite liked, about how Jakab’s actions turned Hungarian society against the hosszú életek, leaving a trail of dark stories in the folklore.

The hosszú életek is a great idea for a thriller and the novel works pretty well with it for a while, but the more we learn, the less exciting it becomes. When Jakab’s motives are revealed about halfway through the book, the tension starts to dissipate until there’s nothing left. By the end, I was thoroughly bored.

I had a lots of problems with the story. Firstly, Jakab’s motives are unconvincing. The entire thing started with the loss of his first love and somehow develops into a crazy attempt to reclaim the happy life he had for just a couple of months. It’s hard to believe that this was enough to drive Jakab to torment a family for over a century, because another problem is that he doesn’t get much time on the page, and we don’t have a proper understanding of his psychology. He does some terrible things and then feels bad about them, but the boy who commits the acts and the one who feels guilty don’t seem like quite the same character. He goes from being a troubled boy to an obsessive psychopath, and exactly how this happened is left to your imagination. It’s one thing to go a little loopy after losing your first love and another to stalk, torture, murder and rape people because of it. As a reader you just have to accept that Jakab is a nutjob and get on with the book. Personally, I find villains who are just generically crazy to be pretty boring. I prefer to get inside their heads and get intimately acquainted with their madness.

But Jakab’s backstory ends far earlier than I expected it to and we’re left only with the vague and insipidly evil modern version. He’s scary at first, but gets increasingly dull. His powers should make him terrifying, the way he uses them is not as impressive as I thought it could be. One of the characters says she thinks Jakab is getting better at what he does, but on the contrary I think he’s crap. Even if he spends ages studying someone well enough to imitate them, he almost never manages to keep up the persona for more than a few hours. Usually he gives himself away with a stupid mistake. I was expecting some brilliant and unnerving twist where it’s revealed that Jakab has been hiding in plain sight for ages or something, but he’s not nearly that clever. It’s more like Jakab’s greatest power is his insane capacity for relentless pursuit, with his abilities to shift and heal himself as added extras.

As a result, the story degenerates into a more mundane thriller. It’s also bogged down by an excess of personal drama and unnecessary detail. I got tired of hearing how difficult it is for Hannah to keep her husband and daughter safe, how much she loves them and will do anything for them, how much she wants to kill Jakab, etc.

Towards the end, Jones incorporates this totally pointless subplot that adds nothing to the story but a few more guns. Then, at the climax, he starts pulling all sorts of silly tricks out of a hat to achieved the desired outcome. Which, I probably don’t need to say, was disappointing. To add to that I’ve got lots of little niggles, like sloppy writing, contrivances, flat characters and cheesy expressions of emotion. Overall, it didn’t come close to being the thriller I was expecting.

Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

 

The Shining Girls MulhollandTitle: The Shining Girls
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
review copy published by Mulholland Books; originally published by Umuzi
Published:
 15 April 2013 by Umuzi; review edition published 4 June 2013 by Mulholland
Genre: 
fantasy, science fantasy, crime thriller, historical
Source: 
review copy via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

Kirby is a bright girl bursting with life, despite her troubled childhood with a single mother whose “default state of being is absent” and the constant upheavals as they move from one home to another.  It Kirby’s sense of promise, the fact that she’s a “shining girl”, that draws Harper Curtis to her. He visits her for the first time when she’s six years old. He gives her a My Little Pony that hasn’t been invented yet. Fifteen years later he returns to kill her in a brutal attack, as he does with all the shining girls.

Harper is a serial killer travelling through time in the city of Chicago, drawn to girls who ‘shine’ with potential and determination. It’s his destiny to snuff their lives out. It’s the House that drives him. He was living in the shanty towns on the outskirts of Depression-era Chicago when fate delivers him a key that unlocks a seemingly abandoned house. Inside is a room full of objects and women’s names written on the wall in Harper’s own handwriting. The names of the shining girls. The objects are what will lead him to them, and Harper knows that he has to find them and kill them.

But he didn’t kill Kirby. Four years after his attack, she starts tracking him down. She joins the Chicago Sun Times as an intern for Dan Velasquez, the reporter who covered her case. He’s writes for the sports desk now, but Kirby will do whatever she can to find the man who nearly killed her, even if she has to waste time compiling baseball scores.

Kirby gets everything she needs, but Harper still presents a seemingly insurmountable challenge. He started killing in 1931, and with the House he can leap across the decades before returning to his own time, untraceable. Any evidence he leaves behind offers only impossible conclusions, allowing him to murder the girls unhindered.

The Shining Girls is the third of Beukes’s novels, and I think it’s now my favourite too, trumping Moxyland. Beukes writes with a very snarky, edgy style that I loved at first but tired of in Zoo City. The Shining Girls feels more mature, more refined, and offers a better story as a result. That’s not to say it doesn’t have that signature style or that Kirby isn’t smart-mouthed and bold enough to stand-up to her counterparts in Beukes’s earlier novels; it’s just toned down in a way that feels more natural and helps the story flow.

Mind you, it takes a fair bit of concentration to keep a firm grasp on the narrative, because the time-travel aspect means there’s a time shift with almost every chapter. The chapters are short too, keeping you on your toes. The key is to take note of the names, dates, and locations that comprise the chapter headings. I tend to ignore most chapter headings as unimportant, but I quickly learned that these are vital. The story is composed of multiple POVs in various times. Harper’s story begins in November 1931 but constantly moves between that time and 1993 as he hunts the shining girls. I think his story is actually relatively linear, but it doesn’t feel that way because what he experiences as linear time involves multiple time shifts, while the House itself is a atemporal space – a place that exists in all times and no time.

Kirby’s story begins in 1974, when Harper first contacts her. We see her as a child and a teenager, but usually as the scarred (literally and figuratively) 25-year old in 1993. The 1993 narrative is also told from Dan Velasquez’s perspective, as he tries to help Kirby out of his growing respect and affection for her. Then there are several minor POVs, including the shining girls and a junkie named Malcolm who tails Harper in the hope of getting some cash for his next hit.

It sounds overwhelming, but it easy to adjust to. The characters are distinctive and memorable, and there was only one chapter where I was confused about the POV. It’s not essential to understand everything in strict chronological order anyway; the most important events will come together smoothly. Beukes also employs an elegant tactic, using the objects in the House as narrative devices that tie the stories together: “Shining stars linked together through time. A constellation of murder”. The House is an atemporal space where the objects are always present, even when Harper takes them out. We see the links when objects in the room turn up in the shining girls’ stories, or when Harper takes an object from one girl and leaves it with another. Besides their practical narrative function, the objects are also just a pleasure to spot, like putting a puzzle together.

How they came together in the House, however, remains a mystery. The novel leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but in a way that intrigues rather than frustrates. There are hints and ideas that seem to lead to understanding but never quite get there, leaving the reader pondering the possibilities. There is no how and why for the House. We don’t know how it enables time travel, how it came into being, or why it is focused on killing the shining girls. It’s not clear what exactly motivates Harper either, even though we spend so much time in his head. He avoids taking responsibility for his acts, blaming his victims for shining:

“It’s not my fault, sweetheart,” he says, “It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.”

There’s also a sense in which he’s driven to do what he does by the objects, the House itself and the time paradox it’s entwined him in. The objects call to him and shine in ways that show him what to use and when.

He tells himself he is only looking around, but he knows one of his girls is here. He always does. It’s the same tug in his stomach that brought him to the House. That jolt of recognition when he walks into someplace he’s meant to be. He knows it when he sees the tokens that match the ones in the room. It is a game. To find them through different times and places. It’s a destiny he’s writing for them. Inevitably, they’re waiting for him.

The force exerted on him by the House and the object sometimes makes him uncomfortable, hurts him even, suggesting that he’s being coerced. He certainly doesn’t choose any of the victims himself; they’ve already been chosen and he’s just drawn to them. On a personal level though, Harper is a sadistic psychopath. It’s obvious that he wants to kill and takes a perverse pleasure in contacting his victims as children and then murdering them as adults, destroying the potential that makes them shine.

I will definitely be in the minority here, but Harper is my favourite character. Which isn’t to say I like him – he’s utterly despicable and I like all the other characters a lot more, with the possible exception of a hipster who wants to film Kirby having sex with him so that she can “reclaim what happened to [her]”. Harper disgusts me, but I love a good villain. He’s not especially smart, but he has an intuitive understanding of the House and eschews all gasping disbelief that characters typically go through when fantasy invades reality. When he steps into the House he claims his destiny as if slipping into a perfectly tailored suit. The way Harper hunts and kills the shining girls is so sick and brutal that I find him fascinating and repulsive in equal parts.

The shining girls are wonderful characters too, by virtue of the qualities that make them ‘shine’. Their roles are small, but they would be strong enough to drive an entire novel themselves. Each of them shows a rare sense of determination, typically in defiance of the racial and sexual discrimination prevalent in Chicago across the decades. Zora is a young black woman doing hard manual labour in a shipping yard to support her four children after losing her husband to war. Alice is a transsexual; Willie a lesbian. Some of them shine because of the difference they make in society. Margot arranges safe abortions for girls and women who can’t afford them. Jin-Sook is a social worker changing lives in black communities. Others shine because of their talents. Willie is a promising architect who fought her way into the field at a time when women weren’t normally given such jobs. Mysha is a brilliant botanist.

What makes Kirby shine seems to be something a bit different – her ability to defy Harper, and her potential to find him and stop him. She is the very reason there is a story. Surprisingly though her part of the narrative moves quite slowly, focusing on character development, her internship with Dan on the baseball desk, and his growing affection for her. The investigation takes a back seat. It seems a little odd, given Kirby’s fervour, although we later learn that she’s spent most of her free time trawling through old newspapers and police reports looking for clues and patterns. Nevertheless, it’s not until we near the end of the book that Kirby starts to make real progress, much of which is dismissed because it seems impossible. The book is by no means boring, but I think it relies heavily on Harper and the other shining girls to drive the narrative until Kirby’s story is ready to get into gear for the climactic ending.

The advantage is that you’re kept in prolonged suspense wondering how the hell Kirby is going to find Harper, the seemingly unstoppable serial killer. I didn’t particularly like the way this happened – through chance, rather than Kirby’s deductions – but I can’t deny that the ending was pretty tense and exciting anyway.

There is much to appreciate in the interim – Beukes’s awesome writing, the horror that is Harper, the stories of the shining girls, Kirby’s relationship with her mother, Kirby’s relationship with Dan. I also waited very patiently but with growing anticipation for the chapter where Harper tries to kill Kirby. As much as I’d hyped it up by the time I got to it, it still managed to be shockingly brutal and evocative, leaving me stunned with one of the saddest and most painful images in the book.

The Shining Girls collectors edition

Umuzi Collector’s Edition

One final thing I want to mention is how impressive the depiction of Chicago is. Beukes has obviously done extensive research (don’t ignore the acknowledgements; it’s worth seeing how much work went into this). The plot traverses six decades, and in the relatively short space of 298 pages we see several of Chicago’s historical and cultural faces as the city shifts and grows.

I’m glad that I bought the Umuzi signed and numbered collector’s edition hardcover of this. It’s a great story and one of the best South African novels I’ve read. I love its mysterious take on time travel and the way Beukes uses it as a plot device that brings a fresh perspective to both historical and crime fiction. The Shining Girls deserves its status as one of the most talked-about books at the moment, and strongly encourage you to read it and join the conversation.

Review of Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell

Murder as a Fine Art by David MorrellTitle: Murder as a Fine Art
Author: 
David Morrell
Publisher: 
Mulholland Books
Published: 
7 May 2013
Genre: 
historical, crime, mystery, metafiction
Source: 
NetGalley
Rating:
 6/10

London, 1854. A killer steps out onto to the streets to create a masterpiece of murder, a perfectly planned tableau of horror designed to evoke great pity and utter terror. His work is a realisation of the gruesome essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” by Thomas De Quincey, which details the brutal Ratcliffe Highway murders “that terrorised both London and all of England in 1811” but portrays them as a work of art.

Thomas De Quincey himself is in London with his daughter Emily, promoting his books because he desperately needs money. De Quincey became famous – or infamous – with his autobiography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, detailing his addiction to laudanum – a combination of 90% alcohol and 10% opium that in Victorian times was commonly administered as a painkiller, even to children and babies. De Quincey’s addiction is partly responsible for his literary success – he claims that laudanum opens up other realities, showing him new perspectives that he puts into his writing.

But it’s also affected his health and he currently drinks enough to kill several people. Considered by many to be a degenerate, he’s the first person that Detective Ryan and Constable Becker of Scotland Yard suspect. But as Emily – a strong, outspoken woman – points out, her father is too old and frail to go around murdering entire families. In fact, De Quincey might be part of the murderer’s plans – he and Emily are staying in London at the expense of a mysterious benefactor who lured De Quincey with the promise of resolving a very personal mystery for him. And of course, the murderer has been inspired by De Quincey’s writing.

Although Ryan and Becker are shocked by De Quincey’s laudanum addiction and more than a little horrified at his fascination with the murders, they are sensible enough to see past De Quincey’s reputation and Victorian sensibilities. With De Quincey and Emily’s help they hunt down the master serial killer whose unbelievable acts of violence are reducing London to a state of terrified chaos.

Murder as a Fine Art is a metafictional intersection between historical fiction and commercial crime thriller. Morrell’s inspiration comes from the “novel of sensation”, a literary trend that was surprisingly popular in the conservative Victorian era, bringing the darkness of Gothic fiction into the homes and neighbourhoods of ordinary citizens, as he explains in his introduction. And that’s what this novel does, placing a particularly violent killer in the midst of London’s society. It’s full of historical trivia and passages describing the scene – the “notoriously thick fogs” composed of mist and smoke, the noise of farm animals amidst the sound of carriages – and although Morrell tends to reply heavily on info dumps, I found them quite interesting. The novel also offers the satisfaction of unfailingly good protagonists (even De Quincey’s laudanum addiction is useful) chasing after an irredeemably evil villain.

It’s all very black and white, but I didn’t mind as far as the good guys were concerned. While I prefer twisted heroes, sometimes it’s comforting to have the fantasy of smart, dedicated people always doing the right thing and sacrificing themselves for the greater good, barely undermined by their weaknesses. De Quincey’s the troubled genius, the one whose best equipped to track down the murderer but also so incapacitated by addiction that he could be an easy target. He wasn’t quite as memorable as I expected him to be – he’s the major historical figure driving the narrative after all – but he’s likable and amusingly snarky at times. Detective Ryan is a committed policeman, but he’s Irish and he has to struggle against the prejudice that tends to arise when the Londoners spot his red hair (his deliberately coarse appearance doesn’t help either). At one point he is attacked by an angry mob that assumes that the murderer must be a foreigner and goes after Ryan when they see the colour of his hair.

Becker, who plays the good cop to Ryan’s bad cop, actually looks much more respectable than his superior. He’s so determined to earn the rank of Detective that he risks his life just to protect a set of footprints that Ryan asks him to guard.  Emily is particularly charming as a forthright, practical woman despite Victorian constraints imposed upon women. One of the most memorable things about her character is her very practical decision to wear “bloomers” under her dress instead of the complicated and very heavy whalebone structure that respectable women don. The bloomers allow Emily to move easily but are considered scandalous because it means the movement of her legs is visible under her dress. Emily doesn’t care; she chooses function and comfort over silly sensibilities. The downside to her character is that she’s the ‘exceptional woman’ and the only interesting female character. Nevertheless, she was my favourite.

I was less pleased with the irredeemably evil villain. The fact that he’s thoroughly evil doesn’t bother me; it’s the way he’s progressively degraded as the story progresses. At the beginning, the artist is ruthlessly organised and controlled, but also able to think on his feet and adapt to unforeseen circumstances. His justifications for the murders are ‘pure’ – it’s not about revenge or monetary gain, but something more philosophical. He’s enacting and enhancing De Quincey’s rendering of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, in a ways that evoke the greatest level of pity and sorrow, thereby throwing society into tumult.

In his first set of murders, he chooses a shopkeeper and his family because of how sad and unfair it is that innocents and honest, hardworking people should be killed so horribly. He closes all the doors in the house so that whoever comes in will uncover a series of horrific sights one by one. He knows that the community will be driven to panic by the apparent senselessness of the crime; anyone could be the next victim when its got nothing to do with money or revenge. Considering all this, the murders do seem like artworks in a way, and the murderer like an artist.

Once the artist’s identity is revealed however (or once you guess; it becomes increasingly obvious), his image starts to deteriorate. His motives are muddied by personal obsessions. His intellect and slick control are too easily undermined by our unfailingly smart and noble protagonists. He becomes boring. I often see this trend in mainstream film, probably to cater to a longing to see evil fail under the forces of good – a previously powerful villain is reduced to a pathetic, desperate mad man. That’s understandable, but I don’t find it particularly satisfying because I love a good villain. I love it when they’re highly intelligent and focused. Even when I expect or want them to be defeated I don’t want them reduced to fumbling dopes just so the heroes can kick just them in the teeth.

But, as I said, this is still a commercial crime thriller; it’s not going to be unconventional. And as commercial crime thrillers go, it’s not bad at all, with its well-researched historical setting, social critiques, and metafictional intersections. It’s a quick fun read, but with substance. Recommended, if you’re looking for a strong crime thriller.

Up for Review: Murder as a Fine Art

David Morrell, the creator of Rambo, has published 29 novels, 6 works of non-fiction, and numerous short-stories and essays. His latest novel is a historical murder mystery featuring  real-life author Thomas de Quincey. I’ve never paid any attention to Rambo, but this sounds quite good.

Murder as a Fine Art by David MorrellMurder as a Fine Art by David Morrell (Mulholland Books)

NetGalley blurb:

GASLIT LONDON IS BROUGHT TO ITS KNEES IN DAVID MORRELL’S BRILLIANT HISTORICAL THRILLER.

Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, is the major suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders identical to ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier.

The blueprint for the killings seems to be De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Desperate to clear his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his devoted daughter Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives.

In Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell plucks De Quincey, Victorian London, and the Ratcliffe Highway murders from history. Fogbound streets become a battleground between a literary star and a brilliant murderer, whose lives are linked by secrets long buried but never forgotten.

 

Murder as a Fine Art was published on 7 May 2013 by Mulholland Books.

Links
Goodreads
Mulholland Books
Conversation with Morrell and De Quincey scholar Robert Morrisson
Pretty much everything else is covered by the novel’s page on Morrell’s website. Click through for links to the book trailer, interviews with Morrell about the novel, and buying options.

About the Author
David Morrell is the critically acclaimed author of First Blood, the novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a Ph. D. in American literature from Penn State and was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His numerous New York Times bestsellers include the classic spy trilogy The Brotherhood of the Rose (the basis for the only television mini-series to premier after a Super Bowl), The Fraternity of the Stone, and The League of Night and Fog. An Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee, Morrell is the recipient of three Bram Stoker awards from the Horror Writers Association as well as the prestigious lifetime Thriller Master Award from the International Thriller Writers’ organization. His writing book, The Successful Novelist, discusses what he has learned in his four decades as an author. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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Review of Breed by Chase Novak

Title: Breed
Author: Chase Novak (pseudonym for Scott Spencer)
Published: 
04 September 2012
Publisher: 
Mulholland Books
Genre: 
horror, science fiction
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
6/10

Alex and Leslie Twisden have a lifestyle that most can only dream of. He is old money, the descendant of a prestigious New York family that has blessed him with a life defined by wealth, and a magnificent house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When he married the younger, beautiful Leslie, many thought of her as his trophy wife, but in truth they were deeply in love. They have successful jobs, a luxurious lifestyle, and are utterly happy together. The only flaw in this otherwise perfect picture is the absence of a child. With his grand his family legacy, Alex is determined to produce an heir, but the couple cannot conceive and Alex is too old-fashioned to consider adoption. They spend a fortune on endless fertility treatments that yield nothing but wasted time and emotional exhaustion.

Leslie is on the verge of giving up when they learn about a dubious and ludicrously expensive treatment from a doctor in Slovenia. The desperate couple blindly submit themselves to the doctor’s painful treatment, which involves injecting them with a cocktail of animal DNA. Leslie falls pregnant shortly after, but the couple’s happiness is marred as the horrific consequences of the treatment become manifest.

Ten years later, the Twisden twins, Adam and Alice, live in fear of their parents. They are forbidden from speaking to others about their strange home life, and every night they are locked into their bedrooms. Adam spies on his parents with a baby monitor, and hears disturbing sounds and unsettling conversations from their bedroom. Terrified, he and Alice run away from home, only to have their ferociously loving parents hunt them down.

 

Breed is one of those horror novels that are conceptually scary, rather than genuinely unsettling. I had mixed feelings, as there were some things that I really liked, while other aspects were a bit flat. I’ll start with the good stuff. I liked Alex and Leslie. I liked the fact that, whatever their problems (and they have some really bizarre, repulsive problems), they love each other and they’re happy together. This is true throughout the book.

Aside from a few creepy moments, I didn’t find the book very scary, but I loved the idea behind it. Alex and Leslie are essentially turned into violent animal/human hybrids, making it increasingly difficult for them to function in public. Everything in their lives starts to break down – appearance, work, their magnificent home. Alex’s house is filled with valuable antiques that get sold off as the couple struggle to make the kind of money they’ve become accustomed to. They lose their grasp on language and memory, and Leslie is particularly bad. At the start of the novel she works in publishing; later, she can’t remember common words or how to use them, and her speech is peppered with malapropisms.

Some of the most disturbing changes are in the couple’s feeding habits and sex life. Adam and Alice have long stopped getting attached to any pets that enter the house, and the sounds that come from Alex and Leslie’s bedroom make it clear that their passion for each other is now suffused with brutality.

And yet, you have to admit that the Twisdens are loving parents and spouses. This is not a simplistic descent into evil and violence. The Twisdens are all forced to fight an internal battle between instinct, emotion, and reason. Alex and Leslie adore their children; that much is obvious. However, they can’t help the fact that they are also longing to eat them alive. The animal DNA in their blood makes it impossible for them to shake off this urge; they can only fight the longing to give into it. Ironically, the only fertility treatment that worked is the one that makes them want to murder their kids.

Adam and Alice know their parents will eventually kill them, but they have to fight against an instinctual urge to trust and obey them. They love their parents, and want to be with them, but arm themselves with small weapons in case of an attack. And although the children are the victims here, you can’t ignore the fact that they share their parents’ bizarre genetic makeup. At age ten, they already show signs of a beastly nature. What will they be when they grow up?

All these contrasts and contradictions lend a sense of pathos that I haven’t often found in horror, where the emphasis on gore and terror typically leaves little opportunity to feel truly upset about the people involved and the conflicts they’re struggling with. Alex and Leslie were my favourite characters, not just because they were savage, but because they wanted to be good and they made a wonderful (if weird) couple. At the same time, their savagery is so vile that you can’t ever ignore it. I always appreciate an author’s ability to make me tussle with conflicting feelings.

But now the bad stuff. I thought Adam and Alice were rather flat characters in contrast to their parents. They naturally won my sympathies – you have to feel sorry for ten-year olds being hunted down by their cannibal parents – but I never cared for them all that much.

I also didn’t like the wild children the twins encounter when they run away. Apparently there are plenty of wealthy, barren New York couples who turned to the Slovenian doctor, and their kids now run around in some kind of feral gang (if they don’t get eaten, that is). All these additional characters seemed to dilute the plot. Theoretically, it’s more horrific that so many couples are turning themselves into violent animals just so they can breed, but in practice it suddenly seems too common to be all that devastating.  I also think the book could have been much more tense if the story was focused on the Twisdens and the few other supporting characters, with perhaps one other family to give us an idea of how much worse things could get. Instead, the wild boys help the twins escape when they can, and the chase feels less threatening. Finally, some of the plot strands were left hanging, which is always annoying and unsatisfying.

So once, again, I find myself with a horror novel that didn’t really scare me. On the bright side, I’d much rather read a novel like Breed, which is a decent book in itself, than the more stereotypical kind of horror novel, which is pulp drenched in gore. Breed has it’s share of bloody violence, but Novak uses it sparingly, so that it shocks without feeling gratuitous or cheap. I give the novel a solid 6/10, and the search for terrifying horror continues.

 

Buy Breed at The Book Depository

 

Review of Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

Title: Edge of Dark Water
Author:
Joe R. Lansdale
Published:
25 March 2012
Publisher:
 
Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown
Genre:
 adventure, thriller, drama
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Sixteen-year-old Sue Ellen lives in a small town in the old American South, a place characterised by poverty, racism and domestic abuse. One day she and her friend Terry find the body of another friend – May Lynn Baxter – at the bottom of the Sabine river. She’s clearly been there for a while, weighted down by a Singer sewing machine ties around her ankles.  Sue Ellen’s father and uncle want to push the body back into the water and forget about it, but she and Terry convince them to call the police. When Constable Sy reluctantly drags his bulk over to the scene, he asks why they didn’t just push May Lynn back in. Everyone could just have assumed she’d followed her dream and run away to Hollywood. No one wants to go to the trouble of finding out what happened to her and no one is obliged to bother. She had no family except a drunken father who probably hasn’t even noticed she’s missing.

To honour May Lynn, Terry suggests that he, Sue Ellen and their friend Jinx burn the body and take the ashes to Hollywood. The journey will also give them the chance to escape their miserable home town and the dead-end lives they’re living there. It’s a daunting endeavour and they have almost no money, but then May Lynn’s diary leads them to buried treasure – a stash of stolen money from a bank robbery. With the money and a stolen raft, the trio head down the Sabine river, joined by Sue Ellen’s mother, who’s decided that she no longer wants to spend her days being either beaten by her husband or passed out drunk in bed.

But in making their escape, the three friends have made enemies. Constable Sy and Sue Ellen’s Uncle Gene are after them. May Lynn’s father wants the money and sends a man known as Skunk to track them down. Skunk is the stuff of nightmares, a psychopath who lives alone in the woods and can be hired to hunt people down. He finds pleasure in causing pain and death, and he chops off the hands of his victims to take back to his employers as proof. No one ever gets away from him.

It only took a few pages for me to decide that I liked this book. It’s told with rich Southern wit, bringing a very dark humour to the harsh realities of life in the American South and the dangers of the journey that the main characters embark on. Sue Ellen makes for an excellent narrator who picks up on those little details that make a good story great, like how she takes a thick piece of wood to bed at night, in case her father tries to come into her room, or how the wire around May Lynn’s ankles was tied in a bow. She also has personal qualities that immediately made me like her:

I’d already been doing women’s work for as long as I could remember. I just wasn’t no good at it. And if you’ve ever done any of it, you know it ain’t any fun at all. I liked doing what the boys and men did. What my daddy did. Which, when you got right down to it, didn’t seem like all that much, just fishing and trapping for skins to sell, shooting squirrels out of trees, and bragging about it like he’d done killed tigers.

 

I didn’t like that Mama thought she deserved that ass-whipping. She thought a man was the one ran things and had the say. She said it was in the Bible. That put me off reading it right away.

Accompanying Sue Ellen is a strong cast of characters. My favourite is Jinx, a black girl who seems to have been strengthened rather than crushed by the racism of the society she lives in – a particularly ugly prejudice that his novel frequently exposes. Unlike the other characters, Jinx has a relatively happy home life, with a loving, hard-working parents. She’s reluctant to leave them, but knows that if she stays she’s “gonna end up wiping white baby asses and doing laundry and cooking meals for peckerwoods the rest of my life”. According the Sue Ellen, Jinx has “a sweet face, but her eyes seemed older, like she was someone’s ancient grandma stuffed inside a kid”. She’s highly opinionated and never hesitates to share her thoughts, like when she tells a Reverend what bullshit she thinks religion is. Jinx is so sassy that she refuses to hold her tongue even when there’s a gun in her face. Terry, although he’s white, has to deal with prejudice as well, because there’s a rumour that he’s a “sissy” (gay). We also learn a bit about May Lynn, who possessed an angelic sort of beauty, but is by no means glorified just because she’s dead. We learn about her flaws as well, such as how she could be manipulative and self-centred.

I like the antagonists too. They’re all utterly loathsome men who enjoy violence and cruelty, but they’re good characters in that Lansdale really makes you feel the threat that they pose. The most dangerous of course, is Skunk. That man is creepy. The kind of creepy that makes you wonder what that noise upstairs is and double check that the doors are locked. This isn’t what I’d call a horror novel, but Skunk undoubtedly brings that element to it. He’s like a myth – some people don’t believe he exists, while the stories about him have surreal, disturbing details. We don’t actually ‘see’ very much of him, but for most of the journey he exists as a sinister presence, watching, chasing and preparing to attack. When he does attack, the results are always gruesome.

In terms of plot, the journey and the river serve traditional literary purposes as life-changing forces for the main characters. Initially I thought this would be a mystery novel (who killed May Lynn?), but it’s not. It’s more of a dark adventure and character drama with a touch of horror. My only complaints are that there are times when the narrative drags, but mostly I just enjoyed Lansdale’s storytelling. It’s well-written, detailed and has emotionally engaging characters. I’ve heard several times that this is a new direction for Lansdale, who typically writes horror and mystery novels. If he brings this kind of quality and disturbing atmosphere to those genres, I’d very much like to read more of his work.

Buy a copy of Edge of Dark Water at The Book Depository