Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

Bird BoxI had intended to read Bird Box during RIP but didn’t get around to it in time. I thought I might save it for next year, but then a spooky mood came over me and I started reading it right before a camping trip. Perfect, I thought, a creepy read in a creepily lit tent!

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out quite the way I intended. The beginning parts were indeed sufficiently creepy, and I ended up reading most of the book before I even left for my camping trip. The story, if you’ve missed out on it, is that in the near future a Terrible Thing happens and people start killing themselves or going on murderous rampages and then killing themselves, all because of a Something that apparently lives outside. If you see it, it makes you go insane, so nobody knows what it is to go kill it or whatever. So, that’s terrifying.

Also terrifying is the main character’s decision to take herself and two small children into the outside, for reasons that are explained later, down a river on a boat with the Something potentially RIGHT NEXT TO THEM OMG.

More terrifying are the backstory scenes that lead up to this big decision, wherein you find out why this woman is living with these two kids, alone, in a house covered in blood. Spoiler: people are just as creepy as unknown Somethings, sometimes.

So, sufficiently creeped out, I snuggled into my tent to read the last parts of this book by lantern-light, only to have my lantern, with its four heavy D batteries, fall right on my face. After ascertaining that I hadn’t chipped a tooth or bled all over the place, I decided that the camping gods really just wanted me to go to sleep, so I did. Then I got up with the sunrise and decided to read while I waited for my husband to wake up.

And so, not unlike The Family Plot before it, I found myself reading the end of a spooky book in the calmest, quietest, most tranquil setting possible. Which is a terrible way to read a horror book, let me tell you.

It also didn’t help that the story changes a bit toward the end; where at the beginning it’s all questions and creepiness and Bad Things and whatnot, the end is full of answers (well, not the big answer) and resolution and possibly no more Bad Things, which, boring. I literally do not want to know whether or not these people survive. And I guess I don’t, but I have a pretty good idea.

But, on the other hand the writing is really good and the horror is largely psychological and I certainly did want to avoid going outside while reading this. I’m still not a fan of the ending, but that’s not really unusual for me. I would definitely recommend this if read only with spooky mood lighting at midnight in an empty house et cetera.

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The Family Plot, by Cherie Priest

The Family PlotRIP is almost over, but you’ve got plenty of time to read this book before (or during!) Hallowe’en. I picked this up late on a Saturday night, spooked myself until I fell asleep, and then woke up and finished it on a Sunday in the light of day. Good life choices?

I don’t even remember why I picked this up — it must have been on a list of creepy reads somewhere and I saw “house” and “ghost” and “American Pickers” and then magically the book was on hold for me! Man, if only I did have a ghost that picked out my books, that would make life super easy.

Or super scary, I guess. The premise behind this book, as you may have guessed above, is that a merry band of pickers set off to spend a week in a creepy old house while they gut it for dollars. Things are weird from the beginning, with weird footprints in the floor dust and doors randomly locking and unlocking themselves, and then the actual ghosts come out in full force. That’s right, there’s no wondering here; this house is haunted and it would really like you to know that. Our Fearful Leader decides that her picker band can totally weather the ghosts for a few days because Arbitrary Reasons for Not Getting the Heck Out of There, and things get much worse before they get better.

I had a lot of issues with this book, starting on the first page when I thought the writing style might make me roll my eyes so hard they’d become ghosts haunting the editor’s house. It’s very… faux-noir, can’t decide if its homage or satire, super casual but also kind of formal… it’s weird. But, I wanted to see some ghosts, so I kept going.

The ghosts were pretty okay; as I said on Goodreads, there’s this running creepy shower business that had me seriously contemplating skipping the shower that Sunday morning, but my respect for others’ noses won out. Flashes of yellow dresses and small children running around are most sufficiently creepy.

But then I ran into the same problem I had with Heart-Shaped Box, wherein I went to bed right at the spookiest part and so my second sitting with the book was like 75% less creepy. Dang it! Don’t get me wrong, there was some pretty weird and scary stuff in that second part, but in the morning light it just wasn’t the same. Also, spoilers?, the ending of the book is super anti-climactic and a little too explainy for my tastes, so I didn’t leave with a great impression.

BUT, for all that I’m down on the book now, I really did enjoy reading it and probably would have enjoyed it much better if I could have consumed it in one sitting, in the dark, with one of my husband’s creepy video games providing background noise. If you, like me, heard “house”, “ghost”, and “pickers” and your ears perked up, you’ll probably have a decent time with this book.

Weekend Shorts: Locke & Sandman

Last week I talked about bingeing on single issues on hoopla, but this week I’m going to talk about a couple of trades that I read and loved and probably the only thing stopping me from binge-reading the rest of the already completed series is that I wanted to come tell you all about them first. Darn you, internet persons!

Sandman, Vol. 1: “Preludes and Nocturnes”, by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III
Sandman, Vol. 1Sandman has been on my list of comics to read for a very long time, even before I considered myself a “comics person”. And since the whole series is on hoopla, that’s totally going to happen. Eventually.

This first volume is interesting. It’s essentially the story of Dream, who is accidentally summoned instead of his sister, Death, by some less-than-great summoners. The first issue covers the bad things that happen when you trap the god of dreams in the mortal world — people who sleep forever, people who can no longer sleep — and what happens when that god gets out — revenge in the form of eternal waking. Remind me not to piss off a dream god, is what I’m saying.

The rest of the volume follows Dream as he recovers from his imprisonment and hunts down his stolen tools. This part is a little weirder, as Dream meets not only Cain and Abel but also John Constantine and weird demons and some Justice League people I don’t know and a weird crazy villain guy… There’s a lot going on.

I think my favorites of the issues are the first one, which sets everything up, and the sixth one, which pits a bunch of people against each other as their minds are controlled and which is quite well done in terms of story and art.

I wasn’t as super sold on this series as I’d hoped I’d be, but I recall from my initial interest in the series that the first volume isn’t necessarily the place to start so I’m pretty sure it’ll get better. I just need to find time to read nine more volumes!

Locke & Key, Vol. 1: “Welcome to Lovecraft”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key, Vol. 1This volume, on the other hand, was awesome sauce from beginning to end. I’m a sucker for a creepy murder story and also for a creepy supernatural story, and this is both!

The book starts off with the horrible murder of a high school guidance counselor by a bright but very troubled student, flashing back and forth between the murder and the aftermath. The counselor’s family makes it out alive, but they decide to pack up all their stuff and move into the counselor’s childhood home, called Keyhouse, with his brother. As these things go, though, Keyhouse is not necessarily a safer place for the family — the house is full of secret places and mysterious keys and an apparition who seems to be running the whole show from the bottom of a well.

I love the way this book plays with its creepy elements, interspersing them perfectly with the mundane to make everything seem almost normal. I also love the characters; Hill does a great job of showing their love for each other even while they’re still a bickering family. And that chick in the well, well (HA), she’s veeery intriguing and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

Weekend Shorts: Put Your Hands Up!

Why, yes, it’s time for yet another round of “Read all the single issues lying around Alison’s house!” This is a super extra long post today because I have been reading ALL THE COMICS lately, so let’s just jump in, shall we?

Sparks Nevada, #3-4, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and J. Bone
Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars #3Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars #4Okay, so, who even knows where we left off here, but we pick up in the midst of Sparks and Croach rescuing the Johnsons and Felton from what turns out to be a space bounty hunter who thinks that Mr. Johnson, the lemon farmer, is a highly dangerous alien outlaw. This seems suspicious to Sparks, but if you’ve been ’round these parts before, you know things are never quite what they seem. There’s varmints and fightin’ and shootin’ and snarky talkin’ and so much onus and some quick retconning to make sure it all fits in with the show continuity. I loved it, and I’m sad to realize there aren’t more to come! (Yet? Please?)

I don’t remember from the first two issues, but these issues are particularly interesting in the way they play with the panels, with lots of two-page spreads and inset panels and sometimes it worked, with the speech bubbles guiding me through the maze of panels, and sometimes it really didn’t and I had to read a page (or two pages) over again a couple times to figure out what the heck was going on. But it made for some very pretty pages, so I’m not complaining too much! More? Please??

Back to the Future, #3-5, by Bob Gale and various artists
Back to the Future #3Back to the Future #4Back to the Future #5I’m ever so thankful to this series for having self-contained issues. Instead of being like, where did I leave off here, I can just say, hey, five cute little stories! Win!

In these three issues, we get our stories in the form of Marty’s parents seeking some relationship intervention from Marty but getting Doc instead, future Biff taking that almanac back to young Biff, Marty learning to stand up for himself (and getting the girl in the process), Doc visiting the future for the first time, and Doc and family preparing to travel… back to the future. Haaa. As always, they’re not the greatest comic stories ever written, but they are fun and well-drawn and catnip for Back to the Future-lovers like myself.

If I remember right, these issues were supposed to be the end of a little mini-series run, but then people bought so many they decided to make more! I’ve got issue #6 waiting for my next round of catch-up, so we’ll have to see if and how they change the setup.

Survivors’ Club #1, by Lauren Beukes and Dale Halvorsen
Survivors' Club #1I picked this comic up back in October with a couple other spooky Hallowe’en-y picks in a fit of RIP inspiration. I wonder if it would have seemed spookier if I had read it back then…

The premise of this series, it seems, is that there’s a mysterious list of mostly dead people, and one of the “survivors” on that list rounds up the other still alive people to try to figure out what’s up. She thinks that everything is related to an equally mysterious video game whose current incarnation is making people, including the survivors, go a little (or a lot) crazy. I didn’t really understand what was going on, and even the extra-creepy little end bit wasn’t enough to make me wish I had more issues handy. This is something I might check out if it ends up in my library, but probably not any sooner.

Descender #1-2, by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen
Descender #1Descender #2This series, on the other hand, had me super hooked. I had the first issue in my pile of things to read, and then I read it and I was like WHERE IS MORE and then I remembered that I had bought the second issue sort of accidentally and may have said “Hooray!” out loud. As you do. And now I need all the other issues. To the comics shop!

I wasn’t too sure starting out, though, as there is a Bad Thing that happens at the beginning that is not super well explained and then we flash forward ten years and several planets away and I was like wait, what? But then there’s this kid who’s been asleep for 10 years and everyone else on his planet is dead and I’m like, wait, seriously, what? but then of course he’s a robot and that makes more sense. Anyway, so, there’s this robot kid with a robot dog alone on a mining outpost, and he gets attacked by mercenaries but something something awesome robot fighting and in between there’s some flashbacks to how this robot came to be out here in the boonies and also there’s some stuff about a scientist back in the first place whatever ROBOT BOY. I love it. I can’t help myself.

Weekend Shorts: Comics in Space and also Ghosts

We’ve got a space spoof, a space western spoof, and an incredibly sarcastic horror spoof in the lineup today. Clearly I am taking this weekend very seriously. How about you?

Galaxy Quest: The Journey Continues, #3-4, by Erik Burnham and Nacho Arranz
Galaxy Quest #3Galaxy Quest #4So, yeah, after last time I was not exactly in a rush to finish off this series, even though it’s been sitting in my house staring at me for a while now. I just thought, you know, if I don’t read it, it might be good! But I needn’t have worried, as apparently this mini-series should have just been three issues instead of four, kicking out that terrible second one.

In the third issue, we get right down to it, showing up at the alien planet, making some wisecracks about science fiction conventions (not… not like cons, but like, tropes and stuff), and fighting a giant alien monster. Woo fighting alien monsters! It’s all very exciting and also a little super gross. In the fourth issue, our heroes finally make it to the thing they’re supposed to destroy and, spoilers, destroy the heck out of it. But with style! Lots of style, and wisecracks. Style, wisecracks, and potentially terrible mistakes. And then there’s a not-quite-cliffhanger at the end to pave the way for future issues.

I have to say, except for that terrible second issue, this was really super delightful. I love Galaxy Quest and many of the things it spoofs, and if you do, too, there’s no way to go wrong with this. But I’m thinking if another mini-run shows up at the comic store, I might hold off until the trade shows up. Those filler issues are rough!

Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars, #2: “The Sad, Sad Song of Widow Johnson, Part Two”, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and J. Bone
Sparks Nevada #2Let’s be real, I love Sparks Nevada (and Sparks Nevada) and this issue could have been just him saying “I’m…. from earth” in every panel and I would be stupidly amused. But this was even better than that!

We pick up with Sparks’s party turned to glass and the bad guys chasing after him and Croach while also striving to be respectful of Mars’s culture and natural features. So considerate! There’s bad guy infighting, careful onus calculation, a trip through the never-before-mentioned (or possibly I wasn’t paying attention) Martian underground cities, trampolines, and some weird Martian planet thing that is, according to Sparks, sogross. Poor, poor Sparks.

Beyond Belief, #1: “The Donna Party”, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and Phil Hester
Beyond Belief #1Woo! It’s finally time to send the little ones to dreamland and see what those lovely Doyles actually look like! Unsurprisingly, Sadie looks rather like Paget Brewster, but it only now occurs to me how completely incongruous it is that she and Frank, perpetually dressed to the nines and carrying martini glasses, would be fighting ghosts. You’d think Sadie’d at least change into a comfy pair of pants or something.

But, regardless, they take their natty selves where they are needed, and in this issue they are needed at the home of Sadie’s friend Donna, who has moved into a house that is absolutely delightful except for the part where it’s haunted. Frank and Sadie arrive to discover a host of creepy-pants dolls ready to have a never-ending tea party with them, but of course they figure out the root of the problem and send one poor, beleaguered spirit and his slightly crazy spirit wife back to where they belong. Then there’s a little lead in to what might be the next issue, which will be weird if it’s true because the podcast story is mostly self-contained. We shall see…

And, as in the first Sparks Nevada issue, there is an extra issue #0 tacked on to tell the story of how Frank and Sadie met, which I must admit was a little strange and underwhelming. I much prefer their vomit-inducingly adorable current relationship to any other way they might ever have acted, so I’m gonna stick with it.

Normal, by Graeme Cameron

NormalDon’t you just hate it when you think you know what a book is going to be and then you’re wrong in the worst possible way? Like, you think a book is going to be pretty decent and then you’re just staring at the pages wondering how you even got here?

Yeah, that’s this book.

To be fair, it’s not the worst book I’ve ever read. That would be very difficult at this point. But the only reason I finished it is because it took me like three hours to read and I was already two hours in by the time I realized it was not going to get better.

It started off so promising, though, if you like a certain kind of story. It’s a book about a dude with a girl trapped in his basement who then meets a girl he doesn’t want to trap in his basement, and now he wants to go straight but a) can he and b) can he before the cops show up? And I really did want to know the answers to these questions, at the beginning.

But then I started learning more about our unnamed weirdo narrator, and I was like, wait. Because it’s one thing to empathize with or root for an unrepentant serial killer or whatever, but it’s another to root for a guy who just kind of… does stuff? And this guy just does too much stuff. At the beginning of the novel he’s killed one girl and is dismembering her body when her friend shows up and so he kidnaps the friend and takes her to his well-built and well-hidden basement dungeon thing (the builder of which is buried nearby), and then brings her a friend to play with whom he then takes out into the woods to literally hunt with a bow and arrow, and then later he’s gonna maybe kidnap some girl but he doesn’t and then he’s not gonna kidnap some girl and then he kills her instead and forgets to bury her and I am like DUDE. Pick a thing and stick with it. It is a great surprise to me that he evaded the law for more than ten minutes ever, but he does it for days in the course of this novel.

It feels to me like the author just watched a bunch of Criminal Minds (not that there’s… anything wrong with that) and picked out all the criminals he liked or whatever and made them one dude. And then he picked out some choice FBI interactions with criminals and threw those in, too. There’s just no internal consistency for how anyone is acting, and it obviously bothers me SO MUCH.

On the plus side, I loved the ending, in which (are spoilers spoilers if I don’t want you to read the book anyway?) weirdo dude completely effs everything up, still manages to nearly get away with it, and then one last final thing ruins him. This part of the book is almost satirical in its humor, and if the rest of the book had felt like that I think I could have been completely on board with this as the funniest psychopath story ever told. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what he was going for (based on the interview at the end of my copy of the book), so.

At least I got it over with quickly (which basement friend cannot say).

Recommendation: For those who watch way too much crime drama and who remember not to take this book as seriously as it takes itself.

Rating: 4/10

The Devil’s Detective, by Simon Kurt Unsworth

The Devil's DetectiveY’all already know that I’m a sucker for detective stories with a twist (see: The Last Policeman, The Manual of Detection, etc.). So when this book, whose title is no misnomer, crossed my path, I knew I needed to read it.

But I almost didn’t. I picked up the book and started reading about angels coming down to hell to negotiate moving some of Hell’s souls up to Heaven, and I was like, hold on, this is a detective book, right? After I reassured myself that there would somehow be a murder, in Hell, I went back to reading and things got just even weirder. It turns out that the twist in this detective novel is that it’s also a horror novel, which I somehow managed not to guess from the title, and so in addition to police procedures there is also gruesome sex and violence and a lot of creep factor. Not my cup of tea, usually, but there’s enough other stuff to focus on that you can tune a lot of the gross stuff out.

Unsworth’s premise is a Hell wherein Dante-like punishment has been replaced by toil and drudgery, where human souls are fished out of a sea and formed into beings whose profession — whether prostitute or Information Man — and life in Hell is preordained. When humans die, their souls go back out into the sea for the chance of another go-around, until maybe someday they are randomly chosen to go to Heaven.

Once the murder plot came in, the book picked up quickly for me. Our hero, Thomas Fool, is an Information Man, tasked with solving crimes but usually not bothering to, unless it’s deemed really important. The crime that starts off this novel is really important — a human is dead, but not like regular dead, where his soul goes back into the sea to try again, but like super dead, where is soul is completely and totally gone. This is new in Hell, and both the humans and the demons are wary of whatever demon has managed to accomplish this feat. Fool is tasked with solving this crime above all other priorities, and he soon learns (of course) that Hell isn’t quite what it seems.

This book is fascinating mostly for its setting and world-building, laying out a Hell not terribly different from regular life and changing up the rules that we and even the angels of this world are used to. The mystery was not super difficult for me to figure out, but Fool’s troubles with it pave the way for the intriguing ending (that I believe is leading into a sequel) and allow more time to learn about this strange afterlife, so I guess I can give it a pass.

I’m glad I came into this book fairly blind, because I might not have read it otherwise and it’s actually a pretty decent book! If they publish that sequel, I will definitely check it out.

Recommendation: For fans of not-quite-detective stories and those who are not or don’t mind feeling squeamish.

Rating: 8/10