Read This! Volume 3
New Horror Fiction You Should Know
As the end-of-year holidays start to roll in again like a jolly tsunami, ready to wash away all opposition as we surge from Halloween through New Year’s Eve, my thoughts go to spending time with friends and family . . . to what family is, what it gives us and asks in return. People are pack animals. We all have families, whether we’re born into one or build it from those around us. After reading this month’s offerings, a Tor family double bill, as it turns out, I was surprised to find that the mingled lives of unorthodox family groupings, how they survive outsiders and each other, are shared themes of both.
Horror is often associated with bloodlines, cursed or special, with protagonists who return to abandoned homesteads to pay the piper for their family’s sins or to avenge their loss. Family is where our stories start; it’s what makes us who we are as soon as we embrace or reject its legacy. Either choice still defines us in relation to our relations. It’s the one bond that can’t be erased, even after family members are gone. The connection extends beyond the grave, haunts us in our actions and reactions to deeds done and gone long ago, still burning brightly in us. You can stay or walk away, but you can never really leave family behind.
Winter Tide (The Innsmouth Legacy, Book 1)
Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Tor.com, April 2017, 368 pages
Winter Tide is named for a seasonal holiday celebrated by the people of the water, worshippers of Dagon, the few that remain. The story is set in our world as described in H.P. Lovecraft’s literature, one where the United States government tried to literally bomb the Hell out of Devil’s Reef off the shore of the New England town of Innsmouth in 1928. It was ordered after amphibious human hybrids were found worshipping a pagan god they called Dagon, mingling in unspeakable ways with inhuman monsters they summoned from deep beneath the sea . . . depending on your point of view about the events that took place there.
To some, it was just home.
By 1948, Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb may be the only survivors of the ruined village of Innsmouth. We meet them as they are invited to Miskatonic University’s collection of forbidden books to help uncover an ancient secret of their people for the Federal Government. The university’s library contains journals and bibles confiscated from their town and home they’ve been trying to see and recover for years. Now Ron Spector, a federal agent who consulted with Aphra on an earlier related case, uses access as a lure to get her to work with him again. A Russian agent may have learned the art of switching minds between bodies from Innsmouth’s old texts and rituals. If so, the military needs to know how to stop them. Of course, as the coming Cold War is warming up, the idea of getting this kind of power for Uncle Sam eventually outweighs any other motive as more agents arrive.
The race to find new supernatural weapons begins.
The story is told with prim lyricism in Aphra’s voice, self-described as a plain young woman born and raised in the faith of an ancient family that came to America with the early settlers, clinging underwater to the hulls of their ships. She’s seen her church and home in Innsmouth destroyed, parents and neighbors murdered. The survivors are rounded up and placed in internment camps, nearly forgotten until World War II rises and Japanese-Americans are interned with them. By the time they are released, Aphra and her brother are the only members of their community left alive. Their history is told matter-of-factly as she describes older members of her underwater tribe who live offshore in fully amphibious form. Unable to help their land-bound relations during the attack, they are the so-called monsters the military did their best to destroy. The kind Aphra will become one day, when she sheds her current form to become a sea dweller that lives for untold millennia, long past the end of mankind’s time on Earth.
The Earth’s aeons-long history is recorded by the time travelling Yith, who leap across the ages from body to body to make sure none of it is lost with a skill that exceeds anything the FBI fears. They store their knowledge in the far future, distant past, or possibly both. It’s nicely reminiscent of the theosophist’s Akashic record, stored on the etheric plane, of everything that’s ever happened.
While that information’s doled out only in small glimpses to other species, all higher forms of life but us live knowing the beginning and end of all cultures on this planet. From the first five-winged eldermost of the Earth, all the way to the chitinous ck’chk’ck, and after them the Sareeav, sculptors of ice and magma . . . A Yith crosses our heroes’ path, and as they are quite cross by nature, it offers reluctant but invaluable aid in a critical time of crisis.
Knowing objectively that all things are temporary, the Dagonites live in the now, whether good or bad. That timeless perspective gives Aphra and her kind a calm center. It’s maintained in the ritual of the Inner Sea, a meditation that bonds participants in a shared astral state that reveals essence in spiritual union.
Aphra’s expressions of her faith are gently strong and poetic, like Sufi koans. It’s a philosophy that bends not to break under pressure yet retains its strength. Hers is a religion based not on faith, but direct contact with the deific. When she talks of ageless beings, like her underwater relatives, she’s communed with them. Earth’s many civilizations are plain fact for her, taught in texts from children’s books to church missals as she grew up.
In time, Aphra reunites with her aquatic grandfather and his court for the first time in decades, on the shoreline of empty Innsmouth. She introduces her new human friends “of the air,” as she is “of the water,” as much a part of her new family as Neko, who she calls sister, daughter of the Japanese-American family that adopted Aphra and her brother in the internment camp. Terrible in their beauty, the pureblood Dagonites possess powers to heal or kill, with severe consequences for an uninvited intruder.
One of Emrys’ deftest accomplishments is fleshing out fully formed cultures from the bare bones of the informal mythos Lovecraft left us that lets us see Aphra and her people as human beings and not monsters. Like Blade Runner’s replicants, she becomes “more human than human” in her understanding of others and her compassion. Despite being rounded up into an internment camp after the bombing of Innsmouth, Aphra’s memories are painted in faded pastels and nostalgic watercolors, not the garish hard-edged pulp palette of its source material (much as I love that, too). The prose has a quiet simplicity that achieves complexity and elegance, rather as Aphra did as I got to know her, as she pulled me in and made me see my world through the eyes of someone whose otherness exceeded my own, a woman not quite . . . normal by our standards. Like any newly integrated minority of the day, plagued by misinformation and public misconceptions, Aphra must delicately remind people throughout, even friends, that she is human, just a different kind that adopts a new form in its final life cycle.
Because of that and their religious beliefs, her people have been treated as cruelly as the Japanese-Americans later interned with them, victimizations that echo other crimes against humanity. That the author is able to risk comparison of the fate of Aphra’s people with true histories as personal and painful to us as others, without diminishing the rest, is what makes her world work so well. Aphra’s own story of suffering feels as authentic as that she tells of the adopted family who sheltered her and her brother in the internment camps, took in the orphans when they were all released. The correlation is simply there from the start, as she describes her physical differences from the “norm” in the same neutral tones she describes Japanese-American features, her own with the thick neck and bulging eyes of the legendary Innsmouth look. My initial response to her plea for equal rights was, but she’s a . . . Then I had to stop, realize what I was saying, shut up and listen to what she had to say as I quickly fell in love with her.
Many authors have re-presented literary monsters as sympathetic figures, but not even Wicked’s worker rebellion in an oppressed Oz quite matches the delicate sleight of mind that Emrys accomplishes here. Her amphibious heroine literally repelled me when I first realized she was one of those Marshes, and then she established a lasting rapport. In following my own path from repulsion to affection, I realized that I’d experienced what some may have felt upon meeting me. It took an amphibian protagonist for me to feel the same visceral first impression of the unfamiliar. “Humanizing” Aphra’s world is one of the greatest accomplishments of the novel. As Miss Marsh gathers a formidable circle of allies over the course of the novel, her new friends are added to an already extended family as she resolves to begin a real search for other survivors of Innsmouth, and to revive their dead village with her brother.
It’s also to Emrys’ credit that while many characters of assorted natures and abilities (effortlessly diverse in a variety of ways), are introduced and embroiled in the narrative, it reads as the supernatural mystery it is and not an origin story for what is to be a continuing series.
Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Tor Books, June 2017, 368 pages
In the spirit of full disclosure1, Steven Barnes is married to one of my good friends, Tananarive Due, my sister from another mister, appropriate to the familial theme of this column, though I haven’t seen him as often as I have her. I’ve been introduced to him at least three times over as many years. As the last was on a three-day upstate New York shoot in the mud for their black zombie short film Danger Word (which I also edited), I think he’ll finally remember who I am the next time I see him.
One night during the shoot, I had a long debate with Barnes over whether or not horror requires the promise of a cathartic ending. For me, horror stories show us a metaphorical way through the darkness in life, and don’t revel in terror for its own sake. A roller coaster is no fun for me unless I know it will come to a safe stop after the screams. I can withstand any level of fear in fiction as long as I know evil will be defeated by the end. We disagreed, though I concurred that a satisfying ending doesn’t always mean everyone survives . . . He argued that without reasonable doubt of peaceful resolution, you can’t generate authentic suspense. I kept his approach to the genre close to mind as I read Twelve Days.
At the beginning we meet three unconventional family groups, formal and informal. There is a single black working mom with a thirteen-year-old daughter who helps care for her autistic eight-year-old brother. A military band of brother vets bound by blood in warfare, planning a revenge-driven big score to retire on. A spiritual guru and martial arts master who mothers her growing flock as she plans to murder the world as we know it. How they become entwined enough to change each other is a tale that swerves between action-adventure and horror, back and forth.
The book opens bluntly with an anonymous online announcement addressed “TO THE PEOPLE OF THE WORLD” that quickly becomes known as the Dead List. Each day for the next twelve days until Christmas, the one true God will kill the unfaithful, starting with one and doubling each day. Two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two . . . By the twenty-fifth, thousands of the world’s most evil people will be dead, with the rest of the unredeemed to follow closely.
It’s a staggering claim that’s almost dismissed until the first deaths, of a corrupt Mexican governor and drug trafficker, grisly and almost instant, on live television. The rest occur day-by-day in locations ranging from public to locked away under increasingly high security. There is no indication of how the killings are accomplished, only that they are deliberate and unstoppable. It didn’t take long for me to figure out who’s behind it from among the characters I met, but how her plans come to center on an autistic child was the mystery I had to unravel with the others.
The two main protagonists are star-crossed lovers relatively new to Atlanta, there for different reasons. Olympia Dorsey, widowed journalist and mother, and Terry Nicolas, an Iraqi Special Forces vet, pulled together again a year after a brief and fiery affair ended because their secrets pushed them apart. Terry’s one of the few people Olympia’s spectrum disorder son Hannibal has ever responded to, though her daughter Nicki seethes with distrust over his motives. They seem perfectly suited in every way—sexually, intellectually, and emotionally, and the possibility that they might somehow extract a happy ending from the spiraling nightmare they’re sucked into is the carrot Barnes dangles to keep us moving through the escalating danger.
His three families engage in betrayals both perceived and actual, fall apart and pull together, as the world around them descends daily into deeper planetary panic over the mystery deaths of the damned. The President of the United States herself is coming up soon on the Death List, and midway through the novel, a happy ending for any of the fragmented families looks less and less likely.
And yet, where there is love, hope persists . . .
What I found most enjoyable was Barnes’ use of his extensive knowledge not just of martial arts, but Eastern philosophy, combining them to make his early action scenes an illustration of the main antagonist’s theological justification for rebuilding the world to suit her beliefs. Indra’s demonstrations of physical skill are simply a measure of the spiritual strength achieved by each combatant; her physical superiority the proof she has the divine right to judge the fate of all those lesser than herself.
Throughout, Barnes references actual esoteric and scientific principles and adds invented texts to blend elements from quantum entanglement to the Shiva Sutras so seamlessly that there’s no way to tell if what he cites is true or false, as I so love to do in my own work. The goal, achieved here at a breakneck pace, is to go beyond what could be real in the story to what is true. Where that truth leads, I will let you discover on your own. Just remember there are no seatbelts on this ride.
I feel that I’ve now spent enough time with these families to prepare for the coming holidays with my own. At least my time will be less harrowing than the family gatherings I’ve just read. Knowing that, I face my own with more fortitude, and wish you the same with yours.
1. Though we’re rapidly increasing in number, the POC community of published genre writers is too small for us not to know each other, by reputation if not over drinks at conventions. Inevitably, you have to review writers you know to cover the field accurately. Some reviewers won’t, but that keeps me from talking about too much work to ignore, so it just means that anyone I cover can’t review me, without establishing a conflict of interest. I’m fine with that.
Spread the word!