Summer Reading Roundup

I tend to read a lot in the summer and slow down in the fall. The extra sunlight fuels my desire to escape, and books provide the easiest way to slip off to another place for a little while. There’s also no football in the summer. Without further ado, here is a roundup of some of the books I enjoyed this past season.

 

The Invention of Ghosts by Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn Kiste is one of my favorite writers, and I was delighted to have gotten the 100th copy of The Invention of Ghosts. The proceeds for this chapbook went to the National Aviary, and the book has fantastic illustrations throughout. Like the previous work I’ve read by Kiste (And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe and The Rust Maidens), the prose is imbued with poetic beauty, and the story contains a moving emotional core. Anyone who has ever had a friend they’ve lost touch with will be wanting to call that person after reading this. It will also get Donovan’s Season of the Witch stuck in your head.

 

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

By pure chance I happened to watch Deer Woman, an episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror, not long ago. I was writing a werewolf short story, and I had revisited An American Werewolf in London and happened across Deer Woman as a result. Both works share John Landis as a director, and I should note that Deer Woman is set in the same universe as An American Werewolf in London because the protagonist of Deer Woman references the events of An American Werewolf in London. Anyway, Deer Woman was at least part of the reason why I decided to check out The Only Good Indians, which focuses on similar mythological elements. This novel by Stephen Graham Jones is a lovely, weird romp. Basketball, Native American Reservations, and youth’s sins all factor into why this book is so good. The point of view changes a lot in here, and you even get some chapters from the monster’s perspective. This keeps you feeling uncomfortable and stops you from being able to blindly root for the monster’s demise. These choices by Jones make this book unique.

 

Reanimators by Pete Rawlik

For a while, I’d been thinking, why hasn’t anyone done a story that pulls together a bunch of Lovecraft’s connected mythos into a singular tale? Well, I had somehow foolishly missed out on Reanimators existence until recently. The novel weaves the tale of Dr. Stuart Hartwell, a contemporary of Herbert West, as he moves through the years in and around Arkham. In the narrative, Hartwell encounters several of Lovecraft’s most famous characters and even intersects with several of Lovecraft’s best tales. This was a ton of fun to read, and I can’t wait to dive into the sequel. Maybe one day I’ll do a post trying to diagram out all the references and Easter eggs. Indiana Jones even pops up in the text.

 

Sefira and Other Betrayals by John Langan

I’ve already written pieces on two of John Langan’s previous works, The Fisherman, and The Wide Carnivorous Sky. I loved both of those, and I also enjoyed Sefira. In this collection, some of my favorites were In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos, The Third Always Beside You, and At Home in the House of the Devil. At Home in the House of Devil was particularly fun because I happened to be writing a paper about Young Goodman Brown while I read it, and there are connections to be made between the two tales. I should also say I’m currently reading John’s latest collection, Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies, which was recently released from Word Horde.

 

The Croning

Laird Barron weaves an interesting tale of dark fantasy and horror here. I especially loved the opening, which is a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story in cosmic horror fashion. The protagonist in this novel has memory problems, to say the least, and that makes the narrative intentionally disjointed, but when the ending comes, it makes all the reader’s disorientation serve a ghoulishly good finale where the secrets are revealed, and the debts must be paid.

 

Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King

Silver Bullet is one of my favorite horror films of all time. A big part of why I love this movie so much is tied to the fact that I saw it at a young age, but I also think it’s a brilliant gem. The way the movie builds dread as it slowly progresses toward the climax, the excellent performances, and the way the werewolf’s killings impact the small town of Tarker’s Mill combine to make Silver Bullet special. So, it was only a matter of time until I read Cycle of the Werewolf. While I enjoyed the novella, I felt the story worked better as a screenplay. The close bonds between Marty and his sister, and Marty and his uncle, weren’t present in Cycle of the Werewolf, and they’re a major reason why I love Silver Bullet. The story felt hollow without them. Although, the movie didn’t have the stellar art by Bernie Wrightson.

 

Three other books I read this summer were The Color Out of Time, The Ancestor, and A Cosmology of Monsters, but you can find my thoughts on those tales by checking out the links above. It was an excellent summer for horror. Now here’s to the spooky season.

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The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies

The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous GeographiesThe Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies by John Langan

I loved The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies. The book collects nine of John Langan’s short stories, some original and some reprinted. I first encountered Mr. Langan’s work in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, which I have been slowly devouring since I bought it back in 2016. While I was at the beach this past summer, I read his tale, Outside the House, Watching for the Crows, and I loved it as much as this collection. I marveled at his ability to use nostalgia in the service of telling a good horror story. About two weeks later, I encountered Mr. Langan in person.

Soon after my beach trip, I was lucky enough to present my academic paper, The Shadow Over Horror Tropes, at NecronomiCon 2019, in Providence, Rhode Island. It was there that I listened to Langan speak during the Outer Dark’s State of the Weird Podcast. Afterward, I ended up crossing his path a few times during the convention, but I didn’t realize he’d written Outside the House, Watching for the Crows until I got back from Providence. Somehow, my brain failed to make the connection that I’d read his work, even though I had my copy of The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu with me, and I saw his name tag multiple times. Suffice it to say; I’m still annoyed at myself for not getting his signature. Reading The Wide, Carnivorous Sky has only intensified my regret over missing the chance to pick Langan’s brain about his fantastic prose.

In my opinion, the tales in The Wide, Carnivorous Sky can be divided into two types. There are those where Langan experiments with the conventions of telling a horror story, and there are those that are more traditional. As a reader, I loved all these tales, but as a writer, I especially loved the avant-garde ones because they showed Langan’s narrative creativity.

I felt that four of the nine stories in this collection fell into the experimental category. The first was How the Day Runs Down, a tale in the form of a play concerning the zombie apocalypse and the afterlife. The mundanity of what happens after we die in this story was especially spooky to me. This is one I’d love to reread in print since I listened to The Wide, Carnivorous Sky on Audible. Immediately following How the Day Runs Down is Technicolor. This is a tale in the form of a lecture that concerns Poe’s exceptionally wonderful story, The Masque of the Red Death. Of course, writing this now, I can’t help but realize that How the Day Runs Down and Technicolor are both tales masquerading in other narrative formats.

The most avant-garde of these stories is The Revel. It’s a meta-tale told from a narrator dissecting the Werewolf story in progress by explaining all the elements, from the monster to the characters. It’s a unique take on the subgenre and another one I’d love to revisit in print form. The last tale to mix up narrative conventions is the final one in the collection, Mother of Stone. Langan uses the second person to tell a story about local lore and exorcisms. This one made my spine tingle quite a bit. As a writer thinking about craft, I wonder how much of that was due to hearing the narrator refer to “you” instead of a third person protagonist?

While I’ve devoted a little extra page space to the experimental tales, the five traditional tales are just as fun. The collection opens with Kids, a short and visceral story about a teacher dealing with, let’s say, unruly students. The collection’s namesake, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky, is a fun twist on vampire mythology. It also reminded me of the science fiction horror classic Predator, because it concerned a group of soldiers confronting an alien foe with military strategy and good old-fashioned moxie.

Possibly my favorite tale of the entire collection, City of the Dog is amazing. The story uses nostalgia in a similar way to Outside the House, Watching for the Crows. The major difference is that City of the Dog connects with H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos, specifically his famous tale, Pickman’s Model. Langan’s story is a masterclass on creating a believable character. The protagonist is extremely well developed, and I loved the haunting ending, which leaves the protagonist filled with fear and regret. I think this tale perfectly illustrates how vital a character’s regrets are to a good horror story.

Another excellent tale that deals with Lovecraft is The Shallows. This story explores what the world looks like after Cthulhu has risen. It’s effective in a similar way to City of the Dog, as regret is a core part of the tale again, but the tone is bleaker since the world has been wiped out. It’s full of the quiet moments of contemplation that I think good post-apocalyptic fiction requires. Lastly, there is June, 1987. Hitchhiking. Mr. Norris, a fictional account of an incident in the writer Laird Barron’s life (I just reviewed his exceptional collection, Occultation and Other Stories, last month). The story concerns a car designed to draw occult symbols using human blood to summon horrible monstrous entities. So, naturally, I loved everything about it.

If you like horror, weird fiction, or anything in between, you should read or listen to this collection. All the tales are unique and entertaining. Langan even mentions my favorite superhero team, the X-Men, in a few of his stories. I highly recommend checking out The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies. And since I just listened to three short story collections in a row on audible, I think a return to novels is warranted. So, I may follow-up Langan with more Langan by reading his 2016 novel, The Fisherman. What better way to start 2020, then with a healthy dose of horror?

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Occultation and Other Stories

Occultation and Other StoriesOccultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron

At one point, I assumed Laird Barron was a peer of Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber because his name came up so often when I researched Lovecraftian writers. Of course, I realized my mistake, but I think that informs you about how esteemed Barron is in Lovecraftian circles. So, it was only a matter of time before I dove into some of his work.

In Occultation and Other Stories, Barron presents an array of macabre tales that manage to avoid easy categorization. The story that spooked me the most in this collection was The Broadsword. It’s a tale where the protagonist is an older gentleman hearing people talk about nefarious doings in his apartment’s vents. Things get freakier from there. I enjoyed a ton about this tale, but what stuck with me the most is the fact that The Broadsword effectively recreated the feelings I got while devouring The Whisperer in Darkness for the first time.

Catch Hell and Mysterium Tremendum worked in similar ways for me. They conjured feelings I associated with classic horror stories, but Barron made them feel fresh in his voice. It was also a lot of fun to see “The Black Guide” used in Mysterium Tremendum after reading about it in Paul Tremblay’s Growing Things and Other Stories last month.

Two stories that felt intensely unique were Strappado and – -30- -. Strappado is essentially a tale about a man seeing a Banksy gone wrong. While – – 30 – – deals with the ecology of an area that has something unknown wrong with it. It reminded me a little of Jeff VanderMeer’s (who is thanked in the acknowledgements section) Annihilation, but this was published four years before that. Barron does some of his most effective work when he writes about nature, and I assume that his time living in Alaska probably gave him a unique perspective on the subject.

Lastly, Barron often challenges traditional Lovecraftian tropes. His protagonists come from different ethnicities and genders and go beyond the typical Lovecraftian type, and he deals with sex and sexuality in every story, something often avoided in Lovecraftian yarns. Besides sex, insects also seemed to show up to some degree in every story in this collection, but I’m not sure if that’s a coincidence or not. Bugs certainly play a huge role in Occultation’s first story, The Forest. In that opening story, Barron also has a character named Toshi, whom I assumed was partially inspired by famed Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi.

Overall, I enjoyed all these stories, and I’d like to revisit them to work through the nuts and bolts of how Barron writes. One of the pains of working forty-hour weeks and listening to everything on audible is that I don’t get to underline and mark up the text in front of me. Perhaps I’ll seek out a physical copy of Laird Barron’s Occultation and Other Stories to do just that.

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