The Horror of the Past, the Horror of the Present

In an essay recently published at LitHub, Rebecca Solnit  shared some thoughts on what it takes to be a writer, and I found myself nodding along with a lot of it. I almost suffered a spinal injury while nodding at this:

Read good writing, and don’t live in the present. Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches.

“Co-signed,” I say. My reading has included plenty of horror and weird fiction and fantasy and such, but also: a ton of history, folklore, literary criticism, foreign (German, Greek, Latin, more) literature in the original and in translation, poetry, and a large, non-representative thwack of 20th century U.S. fiction. And for as long as I have even flirted with the idea of writing seriously, I’ve encountered poets and writers the same age as me who shrugged at the idea of reading books older than they were, or outside their area of specialization. Unfortunately for a lot of them, it showed in their writing. Almost to a one, nobody wanted to hear “you should read some Henry James,” or “have you tried Seneca,” or “dude, Christina Rosetti.”

valancourt book of horror stories coverAll of which brings me to the first volume of The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, [B&N | Amazon | publisher] edited by the publishers of that esteemed house, James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle. If you have any interest in horror fiction, I urge you to give this book a try. Two-thirds of the names in the Table of Contents were either unfamiliar to me, or very nearly so, and the stories in this volume come from across the last two centuries of the tradition of Anglo-American horror. Some are early 18th century, some less than ten years old. You’re not going to find Blackwood, Brite, Stoker, King, Langan, Rice, or the like in this book, which is kind of the point. Tread these waters, and you’ll encounter new voices and new stories, told in forms and rhythms that may just change you.

One of the supposed joys of reading anthologies is that you encounter a range of authors, a kind of heady stew that takes you in new directions. In practice, many’s the anthology I go to read where 50-90% of the authors are familiar to me, and sometimes that’s exactly what I want. This anthology, however, not only introduced me to new authors, but to authors whose work I intend to seek out (some of which can be found in Valancourt’s catalogue): Michael McDowell, Stephen Gregory, John Trevena, M.G. Lewis, and Charles Birkin.

This book contains many gems, from Christopher Priest’s transgressive “The Head and the Hand,” to Mary Cholmondeley’s “Let Loose,” a proto-vampire tale that plays with various conventions of the vampire tale seven years before the publication of Dracula. Michael McDowell’s “Miss Mack” is a tale of dread and female friendship, with a strong Southern flavor in keeping with the author’s background.

If I had to point to one story I liked best, I’d say Stephen Gregory’s “The Progress of John Arthur Crabbe.” The story is excellent and elliptical, and I’ve already read it several times. This is a case where I had not only not read the author, but hadn’t even heard of him, as best I can recall. He’s a Welsh author of horror fiction, with a number of books out there and is still publishing. I’m grateful to Valancourt Books for this collection in general, but in particular for opening  such promising new rooms to me in the mansion of horror fiction.

Fifteen Fabulous, Frightful Novels

The other day a friend asked what my top ten-fifteen horror/suspense novels were, and I said I’d give a try to listing them. Time is passing, and I’d better do it before Halloween’s gone, so here they are in unranked format. I’ve limited myself to one book per author, so keep your salt shaker handy, but if you haven’t read these books, well, you know the drill…

scott smith the ruinsThe Ruins, by Scott Smith. You know that one about how things go bad sometimes? But you know that, somehow, one way or another, they’re eventually bound to turn out all right? Scott Smith never heard it. This is one of the novels that comes to mind for me when people talk about “unrelenting” books. A holiday in Mexico takes a disastrous wrong turn and exposes young people in the prime of their lives to multiple terrors. Spoiler: they don’t come back! Part of Smith’s amazing accomplishment with this book is that you know pretty early on that it’s over for them, and that their only escape is going to be death, and yet you still care, still want them to survive.

cover of the dark halfThe Dark Half, by Stephen King. This novel is one of many I could have picked by King, and it’s less cited as an influence than a dozen (Hell, two dozen) other things he’s written, but it’s tight, grim, well plotted, and the characters are real. If someone asks me which King book I recommend, but they don’t like reading long books, I usually say either this one or Salem’s Lot, and the latter gets enough love.

the red tree coverThe Red Tree, by Caitlín R. Kiernan. Among the best novels I’ve read that deal with haunting, in every sense of that word. It’s clear by novel’s end that something has gone deeply wrong for the protagonist, but the reader may never fully know the nature of that wrongness. I got goosebumps writing that sentence. Ignore the cover, which was a mind-bendingly terrible choice for this book, and doomed it to a lower profile in the market than it might otherwise have attained. In another timeline, this was the book that scooted Kiernan out of genre and into a Shirley Jackson-like mainstream position. Speaking of which…

cover for we have always lived in the castleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Shirley Jackson’s influence looms over this list in a dozen ways. People like to point to “The Lottery” or The Haunting of Hill House as her masterpieces, and I’d say each is respectively her most well known short story and novel, but this novel is the one that rocked my world. I am an inveterate re-reader of books I love, stretching to dozens of reads for some titles, but I have never been able to finish this book again in its entirety. Amazing.

cover of the howlingThe Howling, by Gary Brandner. This werewolf novel was part of what turned me on to horror. It spawned a series of movies that range from good to regrettable, but if that’s the only thing you know, check out the book. It’s a zero-fucks-given kind of novel, with no visible pretensions to greatness, nor aspirations to literature, part of the secret to its excellence. Brandner omitted needless words in writing it, and it’s a taut, frightening book. Also, it’s the first book I remember reading that might reasonably be called “erotic,” though I don’t think it’s the most commonly used label for the book. Despite the, uh, very large fang on the cover.

cover of midnight sunMidnight Sun, by Ramsey Campbell. Campbell is the horror writer’s horror writer, a living master whose novels and short stories will be teaching lessons long after he himself has left this vale of tears. It wasn’t the first Campbell novel that I read, but it was the first where I felt everything click together into an awe-inducing whole. I’d read some Algernon Blackwood by that point, to which this book owes a debt, but here I found a blend of mysticism, ancient rituals, and fearsome nature all wrapped up into a novel. The prose is the typically wry, seemingly light stuff that the author regularly uses to build dread with each word.

sheltering sky coverThe Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles. Okay, this arguably falls into the “trying too hard” category, in terms of putting books in the “horror” box, but insofar as horror is not a genre, rather an emotion that certain novels arouse? This counts. Bowles’ fiction is a grand mash-up of exoticism, orientalism, and postwar nihilo-primitivism (is that a thing? I’m saying it’s a thing) that blends worlds. I’ve always thought of the characters in this novel as the wounded, latter-day equivalents of the group in The Sun Also Rises, searching in vain for meaning away from Europe, indulging in cheap vices and increasingly hollow acts of civilization en route to brutalization and death.

cover of silence of the lambsThe Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris. Is there a more well known contemporary suspense novel? Well, yes, because this novel’s just shy of thirty years old, so presumably something by Gillian Flynn or Stieg Larsson would fit the bill and be contemporary, but Thomas Harris’ masterpiece hangs over its successors like the shadows of giant moth wings. This novel sits at the outer rim of suspense, as it’s the last time Hannibal Lecter is left to bloom in the darkness, unrationalized and terrifying for what the reader doesn’t know about him. I loved the television show Hannibal, but it was a very different kind of story than this book, and the Lecter novels that Harris wrote following this one were not, to put it midly, on the same level.

the house next door coverThe House Next Door, by Anne Rivers Siddons. Ranks among the best haunted house novels out there. My appreciation for this book has only grown over time. It was creepy and terrifying when I read it as a teenager, but as time passed and I understood how Siddons mapped the terrors onto class slippage, I started to think this novel as actually great. Beyond which, having now lived in the South for almost a decade, I feel like I know the people she’s writing about, and that I have on occasion been to or seen their houses. The exact location is never quite articulated, but that works here. Siddons pays obligatory attention to the mechanics of the haunting, but they aren’t the focus of the book, not really. The terror, and the horror, are the focus.

cover of rebeccaRebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

And that’s really all there is to say. If that doesn’t remind you of your regard for this excellent novel, or drive you to learn who or what Manderley is, you’re probably reading the wrong list.

cover for the killing kindThe Killing Kind, by John Connolly. Third in the author’s Charlie Parker series of books, I read this one first, and it’s my favorite. Mass graves, spiders, terror in the Canadian wilderness. It’s a lot to handle. It also pulls off the trick of being readable in its own right outside of the series, which I always appreciate. The terrors and suspense here are ratcheted up by prose that moves smoothly, gliding shark-like through a narrative that could have gotten bogged down by many things. It doesn’t.

dracula coverDracula, by Bram Stoker. What am I going to say that thousands of readers, reviewers, critics, and yahoos haven’t already said? Not a lot, friends, not a lot. It’s a book that keeps on giving, year after year. 120 years after its publication, this novel keeps going and going, finding new audiences and new adaptations, literary and cinematic. The driving anxieties of the book—immigration, class anxiety, disease, women’s roles, insanity—are no less in play now than they were in Stoker’s time, although the stage on which they play out has shifted.

rosemary's baby coverRosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin. The best novel ever written about witches. Yes, The Witch of Blackbird Pond is great, likewise The Witches and The Witching Hour, but none are as good. Also, the basis for the best horror movie ever made. Need I say more?

 

something wicked coverSomething Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. This novel captures childhood, the Midwest, carnivals, and nostalgia in a way that no book before or since has managed to do, and its magic is as alive today as it was when it was new. I expect Cooger and Dark will be entertaining people for years to come.

Another year, any of the following might have made the list: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Interview with the Vampire, It, Frankenstein, Threshold, etc. The list is notably lacking writers of color, as well as (mostly) authors outside of North America or the U.K., and I expect I’d be writing a different list if I’d been born twenty years later, or indeed twenty years from now. Let’s do this again in 2036, hmm?

What’s that? Oh, right! Fifteen.

cover the hellbound heartI’m going to cheat here and say The Hellbound Heart, by Clive Barker. It’s not a novel, but a novella, by almost any definition. Barker’s written other novels, but I feel like The Hellbound Heart has gone on to a novel-like life of its own far exceeding that of most of his other books. Part of that’s the transmedia Hellraiser franchise, but honestly the book itself is simply that good. Strange, elliptical, and balancing very well Barker’s narrative urges and his descriptive urges, it’s a story that deserves to be read in its own right, and appreciated for the terror that it delivers.

Finding Critical Reviews of Horror and Weird Fiction

man on motorcycle

Turn left at Amazon, stop at Goodreads, go three sites north…

Early in October I asked friends to weigh in with recommendations for the sites they liked to visit to find critical reviews of horror or weird fiction. This question was inspired partly by having read too many “reviews” that consist of plot summary or praise, and partly by having read a really thoughtful critical review that, while imperfect, was judicious, engaged at length with the text, and seemed to me to fulfill the basic requirements of a critical reviews.

When asking people I mentioned my habits, which include…

People replied with a number of sites, blogs, etc., some of which I visit occasionally, some of which were new to me, some of which don’t publish regularly.

Please feel free to suggest other sites in comments. Please don’t suggest sites that are there primarily to publicize self-published fiction, sites that don’t review books at length, sites that have never given a book less than a glowing review, etc.

Note: I welcome suggestions of resources that review underrepresented writers and writing: women, racial or ethnic minority, translated horror/weird, LGBTQIA, non-English language, etc.

To Pierce the Chancre of Darkness out of Time and Space

cover of I Am ProvidenceNick Mamatas is to blame for many things: on that I think we can all agree. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he’s also to be praised. If there were not a Nick, he would have to be invented. That’s part of the theme of his latest book, I Am Providence [Powell’s|Amazon|B&N], wherein characters careen madly around Providence at the Summer Tentacular convention in the wake of Panos Panossian’s murder. They’re all busy creating themselves, their arch-enemies, and their hothouse-nuthouse social milieu. Toward the end of the book we’re treated to an extended eulogy for and fight over Panossian, and here we come to the meat of the matter. Following Panossian’s circumlocutory lead, however, let’s pause a moment

I Am Providence is a literary murder-mystery, stamped with “Horror” on the spine, that you’ll maybe find on the Fantasy & Science Fiction shelf, maybe in the General Fiction. It’s always one thing at the same time as something else—whodunit and fan culture send-up, meditation on mortality and gonzo thrill-ride—all welded together to form a living, breathing work of fiction. The strengths that will keep this book alive for years to come are its sharply, mercilessly honest observations of human behavior, combined with the cold ratiocination of a mind fading into darkness. It’s fundamentally Lovecraftian and Ligottian, and it is disquieting.  Praise or blame for how well it hews to the conventions of mystery, or horror, or whatever are almost beside the point: it is a Nick Mamatas novel.

This book is also, as you probably already know, a roman a clef: a satire of the community of fans, readers, writers, scholars, and hangers-on who school around things Lovecraftian, Cthulhoid, etc. Recognizable caricatures of well-known Lovecraftians fill the book, as well as composite characters and versions of generic types. It’s the funniest thing I can remember having read in years: embarrass-yourself-while-reading-it-in-public funny. Gales of laughter. My wife repeatedly came to check on me from the other room to make sure I was OK when reading at home. If laughter’s the best medicine, I just added a couple years to my life.

While I hate (I mean really fucking hate, will-cross-you-off-my-decent-human-list hate) being told that’s there’s anything I simply have to read… you have to read this book. And you have to read it now. If you are even vaguely in, around, near, tangent to, or participating in the eternally brewing celebration/maelstrom/shitstorm that is the Lovecraftian community, this book will make you laugh like hell, but mark my words: for all that it’s a good book, the roman a clef aspects of it have a shelf date. Yes, they will still be funny in five years, but people will fade from the scene, eventually Facebook will vanish, the archives of Usenet will disappear, and so on. While bits and pieces of that which is being mocked here will remain, you won’t be able to click twice and find a two-month-old fight on the web between characters in the book.

Which brings me to the point that this book is hilarious not only because it’s funny, but because the fanfic is already out there in the form of crazed screeds and ridiculous Twitter spats. The I Am Providence reading experience, if you are not yet acquainted with the principles and their conflicts, can continue through days and weeks of voyeuristic Googling. Get it while the getting is not merely good, but actually uproarious.

Some reviewers have taken this book to task for being too hard on geeks, and that’s simply not true. This book is kind of like reading the mean girls’ secret yearbook notes, true, but it’s only so mean, and it’s certainly no worse than anything you can find said by most of the principles in this book.  One reviewer described it as “loving,” and I think that’s actually not far off the mark, given how much nastier this book could be. The Fangoria review is much better, and worth a look. Now… I say all this not having seen myself in the book. I imagine that some people out there are decidedly not amused, and are stopped from bringing the lawsuits they have already contemplated primarily by the embarrassment that would be necessitated by having to prove in court that they have been unfairly slandered. And are not, in fact,  as loco, snooty, self-important, racist, sexist, megalomaniacal, deluded, or fundamentally creepy as they are portrayed in the book.

The one negative review I’ve read that makes sense to me is the one review I’ve seen that names some names. I disagree about the overall quality of the book, but there is some truth to the charge that, well, it’s not piercing enough. Many of the recognizables in this book are utterly, entirely ripe for skewering and petard-hoisting, and really they don’t come off all that badly. The same could perhaps also be said for the protagonst, Colleen Danzig, and the saner characters, all of whom get off easy… though I have seen none of them engaged in the displays of mouth-frothing, poo-smearing social maladaptation that lend this book its side-splitting humor.

Thing is? I don’t know when this novel was submitted for publication, but Yog-Sothoth knows the last two years have been full of tempests, including people in every sociopolitical corner of Lovecraftville behaving in crazed and (dare I say it) at times deplorable ways. There have been Lovecraftian dust-ups before and there will be Lovecraftian dust-ups again, but I cannot remember events as public as the recent year or so’s brouhahas that have made it to the mainstream media. And, of course, if you read this book and find yourself wondering why the man who wrote Insults Every Man Should Know did not write an even meaner book, remember that he of necessity bears some love for things Lovecraftian. However well we think of ourselves, however dramatically we may roll our eyes, we can all catch a glimpse of Asparagus Head if we look in the mirror on the right day.

Now go buy I Am Providence.

Finding Women in Horror and Weird Fiction

Lately I’ve seen lots of “there are no women in horror”/”why are there no women in horror?”/”go read women in horror” around social media, and I thought that I would engage in serious mansplaining offer some tips on finding historical and current horror/weird fiction by female authors. Helping people find information is the sort of thing I do all day long, specifically helping people conduct research in the humanities, so hopefully this will be helpful to someone out there. I’ve divided it up into “Basic” and “Advanced” sections, to help people who are new to researching authors and to help people who are somewhat experienced in researching authors.

Basic

Women are often absent from “best of” lists in horror fiction, or only present in small numbers. I am writing this post with you in mind, to help you locate more female authors & their works. Most any book listed below you can find at your library, on Amazon, or via used book dealers/sites like Abebooks. Please note that, over the years, many kinds of language have been used to describe this literature: Gothic, horror, weird, supernatural, etc.

the weird by the vandermeersRead anthologies. Anthologies are collections of stories by multiple authors, although some lists and stores will actually class single-author short story collections as “anthologies.” Some large anthologies, like Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird, contain a wide range of authors from a broad span of time, giving you a taste of authors you might not otherwise have read, like Margaret Irwin, Leonora Carrington, or Jamaica Kincaid. Anthology editors assemble their books carefully, and if they found an author worth reprinting, it’s usually worth your time to find other stories by the same author. Sometimes an author writes only one or two horror stories, but usually… where there’s one, there’s more.

cover of aickman's heirsRead themed anthologies. Some anthologies are made up of stories on a theme, like cats or tarot cards or a beloved author (“tribute anthologies”). A few recent examples of these are Aickman’s Heirs, Shadows over Main Street, or Tales of Jack the Ripper, all of which contain stories by female authors.

cover queering stoker's draculaOther themed anthologies are arranged according to the writers included: race, sexuality, or some other aspect of identity as the unifying factor. Recent examples include Dreams from the Witch House, Night Shadows: Queer Horror, or Suffered from the Night: Queering Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Bonus: be on the lookout for special issues of short fiction magazines that focus on female authors.

year's best weird fiction 2Read best-of anthologies. Some anthologies are made up of selections from a given year’s stories, published in magazines or single-author collections. Some series only last a few years, others go on for decades. The Best Horror of the Year, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror are some of the most well-known, but there are many out there.

Look at lists available online. There are often lists available on sites like Wikipedia that will be of some help, though they can be very long, and they are usually put together as labors of love. Because this topic (“women in horror”) is one that is important to many people, many articles have been written on the subject in recent years (like “Top 25 Women Horror Writers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of (But Should Know)“) . You can also find a lot of information about many authors at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB).

Women in Horror Month. Women in Horror Month is February. It’s designed to celebrate women involved with the field of horror, and I urge you to go read all about it.

Ask an expert. Your local public librarian or bookseller has more advice for you! If you walk in the door and say you want to read “horror by women authors,” or something like that, they will happily help you find new things to read. These people are paid to help you find things to read, so don’t be shy.

Advanced

This section is aimed at readers who already do all of the above. When you want more information and know the field, sometimes you can get help by asking around on social media or in conversation for ideas, but this has some challenges.

We’re social animals, and we tend to recommend based on personal biases and preferences. Writers, publishers, editors, etc. want to make money, and they have to get the word out about their stuff, so there’s a lot of actual signal out there before you even hit noise. People also tend to recommend books they’ve read recently and/or that jump to mind. That tends to mean the stuff that’s available, and the market inevitably pushes older books out of sight, so finding any of the thousands of horror novels or stories written more than a decade or so ago takes effort.

gina wisker horror fictionRead surveys and studies of the field. Think you know horror? Maybe you do, but the odds are pretty good if you’re reading this that you don’t have a Ph.D. focusing on horror literature, or have otherwise acquired systematic knowledge of horror literature. Try a book like Gina Wisker’s Horror Fiction: An Introduction to get a look at the breadth of the field. Have you read Vernon Lee (AKA Violet Paget)? May Sinclair? Fay Weldon? If not, check it out and see what else you’re missing, or books like Danse Macabre, etc.

cover of encyclopedia of fantasy and horrorUse encyclopedias and other reference books. Once upon a time, libraries almost always had robust reference sections, with many specialized works that helped locate, describe, define, and index information. A lot of those are gone now, replaced by the internet and Google, but some are still in libraries’ reference sections, or are still published and you can check them out. Representative titles include Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: an Encyclopedia of Our Worst Nightmares, St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, or the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Horror Fiction.

spratford book coverUse tools that librarians use. On the one hand, there are books specifically designed to get librarians some familiarity with a field, reader’s advisory guides like The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Horror. Such books are one of the many tools librarians use to become familiar with fields they may not themselves read in for their own pleasure.

On the other hand, when you’re using library catalogs, look at the catalog record for the novels, anthologies, and short story collections you are reading. They often will have descriptors, tags, or subject headings to find related works, if the library uses such tools to collocate fiction. Not bulletproof, because many libraries don’t really do this for fiction, but it’s worth checking. Sometimes you’ll a helpful Library of Congress heading, such as “Ghost stories.”

kelly linkRead what your heroes have read or are reading. Not everyone leaves behind a treatise like “Supernatural Horror in Literature” to articulate what they’ve read and/or consider important for the field, but authors and editors regularly give interviews or lectures, or are profiled. They will often list or discuss what they’re reading, and women generally talk more often in equal or greater numbers about female authors than men do. Currently I’m reading short stories by Joan Aiken, based on the recommendation of Kelly Link in a talk I saw her give earlier this year. I probably would not have sought out Joan Aiken without Kelly Link’s advice to do so. I’m grateful for it.

Speaking of Gratitude, Part One: I appreciate your reading this far. If you find this post useful, please consider reposting, RTing, or sharing it.

Speaking of Gratitude, Part Two: If you feel more materially grateful, as in “wow, this was really useful, and I’d like to do something to show my support,” please purchase one or more books by or featuring a living female author of horror or weird fiction. And if you like it? Tell someone about it.

Cheers.

Updates, Honorable Mentions, and the Warping of Young Minds

richmond young writers logoThis summer marked the first time I taught (twice, even!) creative writing for young writers. I was delighted to serve as guest author for the good folks at Richmond Young Writers, and had the pleasure of working with Julie Geen, whom I’ve known for a couple years now, at VCU and from around town, James River Writers, etc. The kids were great, it all seemed to work out well, and I’d love to do it again one day.

Photo of H.P. LovecraftThis autumn I’m going to be presenting some of my Lovecraft scholarship in an academic venue. More details on that down the road, but I’m darn excited. My other scholarship on literary horror, HPL, and weird fiction continues apace.

In a not unrelated vein, I’m excited for the publication of “His Knife, Her Shadow,” in the second issue of Thinking Horror this autumn. My piece is a confessional memoir of sorts, all about how I came to horror as a child in the early 1980s. Writing it proved unexpectedly harrowing, and I hope it’s of interest to the readers of Thinking Horror.

Finally, in further exciting news, I was delighted and honored that Ellen Datlow noted two of my short stories for her long list of Honorable Mentions for Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 8:

“Hunger Full and Lean,” The Lovecraft eZine 34 [free online]
“Mercy’s Armistice,” Big Bad II [$2.99 on Kindle]

The Ransacking of Expectations

cover tanzer pleasure merchantI went into Molly Tanzer‘s most recent outing, The Pleasure Merchant [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads], with delighted anticipation. Molly (disclosure: my friend) is the kind of author who is interviewed in Locus, noted by NPR for her steampunk genderswappery, and publishes whatever she wants. You liked that werewolf short story? Have some incestuous Lovecraftian twins. You liked incestuous Lovecraftian twins? Have a wigmaker’s apprentice. It’s kind of like that with her: if you like her writing, you have to follow where she goes, without too many expectations in terms of precisely what she’ll be writing. Because she writes well, it’s an unmitigated joy, but—baby—if you like More of the Same?—if more of the same makes you feel comfortable?—Molly Tanzer don’t care. (Although I’m perhaps a bit of a liar on this, as word on the street is that she does have a Vermilion sequel forthcoming, so British/Chinese  psychopomp Lou Merriwether will ride again.)

The Pleasure Merchant is hard to classify, as reflected by the fairly tentative level of genre-tagging over at Goodreads, and Amazon’s robots are reasonably sure that it’s “genre fiction,” but aren’t quite clear what kind of genre it is. Whatever! It’s an amazing mashup of history, fantasy, horror, and… well, “bawdy” is actually a great way to describe it. Is there sex? Reader, it’s one of those amazing books where there’s copulation, libidinal exultation, and naughty language around every corner, and yet it’s not particularly pornographic: everything on the page serves a purpose beyond titillation, whether advancing plot or revealing character.

This novel takes the Pygmalion story and embeds it in 18th century England, exploring class and gender and medicine along the way. I read it with the kind of eye that one has with historical fiction, curious to learn more of historical norms, practices, events, and culture, along with a well-told story. The Pleasure Merchant does not disappoint, following the aforementioned wigmaker’s apprentice through the turns and reversals of fortune, weaving in and around picaresque set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in Fielding.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly to people who like novels. A particular genre of novel? Not really, although it might not suit prudes very well. To enjoy this book you have to have a taste for living characters inhabiting a pleasing narrative that occurs in well-depicted settings. It has the scope and sprawl that we seek in novels, and the interweaving plots and themes. In a literary world that is overcrowded, featuring so many books that feel virtually write-by-the-numbers,  The Pleasure Merchant is a strange and wondrous journey that should delight all readers.

adam nevill the ritual coverIn a rather different thematic vein lies Adam Nevill‘s The Ritual [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads]. I knew that I was in for something other than a monster-and-rituals-in-the-wilderness sort of narrative, but—augh, reader!—the opening half of the book is so compelling I sank into it and found myself developing unwarranted expectations. The parts of this novel set in the up-near-the-Arctic-Circle Scandinavian wilds are gut-wrenchingly tense portrayals of people degenerating in harrowing circumstances. It was like Scott Smith rewrote “The Wendigo” as a novel and gave it to Mary Oliver for a line-edit. Strange and beautiful.

And then, halfway through, the type and pitch of the narrative changes utterly. It goes from one kind of harrowing to another, and this was the point where the pace at which I read slowed considerably, and it never picked up again. I think this is in part because the arc of the narrative follows a more or less standard set of peaks and valleys, and then it hits Norwegian black metal cultists and the needle starts flying all over the place. I knew from the book description that this turn was coming, but when it did, it became (for me) a much different book. My investment waned along with the tension and dread that Nevill so carefully built in the powerful first act. Comments on Goodreads, Amazon, etc. suggest that some readers have a similar experience, though many others didn’t have any problem with this.

I recommend The Ritual to people who are versed in literary horror of the weird stripe looking for a flip-the-script sort of experience. It features notes that will appeal to readers of Algernon Blackwood, James Dickey, William Golding, and perhaps Joseph Payne Brennan. It’s not a book I would offer to someone new to the genre, as I expect that many readers will wind up thrown for a loop without awareness of the themes that it varies, and some knowledge of the subgenres it’s mashing up. That said, I enjoyed it enough to recommend it here, and I urge you to give it a try and come to your own conclusions.