Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Book Reviews, February 2022

Read This! Volume 19
New Horror Fiction You Should Know

I grew up loving horror.

Immersed in forties and fifties monster movies during long stays at my maternal grandmother’s home between moves from one Air Force base to another, I routinely spent Saturdays rolling from a day filled with filled with kids’ cartoons to a long thrilling night of Chiller Theatre and Creature Features while my parents packed up our most recent home without me and my sister underfoot.

I avidly read Grandma Gladys’ collection of comic books, Fangoria and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines, and her hardcover library of classic fairy tales and myths. They all exposed me to a more just world than the one I lived in, where good always triumphed over evil and bad guys were punished by the end.

That all shifted as the ’80s arrived and successful films and novels became more profitable series, their evil antagonists triumphing at each climax to return over and over, ticket sales assured. The sole purpose of horror for me, catharsis, temporary relief from the fears of my own life, was subverted for profit.

Fortunately, it took only until their third film for the producers of the Nightmare on Elm Street series to prove that they could satisfyingly defeat Freddy Krueger and still bring him back to kill time and again. Sadly, once the option of a more defeatist ending was available, more and more films left their heroes in the dark along with their viewers, trying to be trendy. These were not your basic EC Comics/Tales from the Crypt style terrible things happening to horrible people stories we all love, but a nihilistic world view in which good people could still be overwhelmed by their circumstances even when they did the right thing.

I lost interest in the genre as it lost its imagination, almost every film’s twist the same kind of tacked-on “bad guy wins” ending as the first Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy victorious in the final moments, all hope lost, to sell sequels that satisfy no one. A fellow writer once argued for that approach, saying that it’s impossible to scare your audience if they’re assured of a safe ending. They can’t know the outcome going in or they stay complacent, overly comfortable.

I replied that knowing there’s a satisfying resolution ahead doesn’t assure the safety of any character or place in any story, and the horror of not knowing the individual losses is every bit as suspenseful as not knowing if the evil will be eradicated by the end. That trust lets you push harder, delve deeper to the heart of suspense and terror. If your audience is assured that even if you drag them over the brink of the abyss you’ll always hold tight and pull them back safely, and keep them from falling in, it makes it safer for them to look more closely for longer, at worse.

By the time the movie Cabin in the Woods was released, with its satiric suggestion that if we had to stay stuck in a cycle of standardized tropes for horror to survive it deserved to be wiped out so we could start over, I was on board. Seeking novels to recommend for this column, I’m always annoyed at how hard I have to look to find something original of interest to me . . . a story that doesn’t start with someone going back to their sinister old family home/town to confront childhood demons, or a traumatized cop investigating a case they finally can’t deny is absolutely supernatural, a mysterious childhood friend returning to disrupt someone’s life, the isolated boarding school that’s not what it appears to be, the starship that answers a distress call to an uncharted planet . . . the list of tired tropes goes on long enough to devote a website to them. They can all be made new by the right writer, but there are so many more possibilities in the world left unexplored.

In the last decade, my interest has been renewed by those who dig deeper than surface conventions, find fresh ways to unsettle us with a broader range of subject matter from a wider base of writers. “Diversity” as a description is so overused and misinterpreted that it fails to encompass the changes I see that are finally undoing the one change I could not support—the decision to stagnate, to stop developing the art of horror based solely on the delusion that inertia is preferable and more profitable than evolution and growth. I think what’s happening now is revelatory, as writers of varied backgrounds and viewpoints become increasingly available, offering new chills and thrills to a world that sorely needs them.

This doesn’t make everyone happy.

In my last column I discussed the inevitability of change. That gives me an opening here to look at the equally inevitable resistance to it. There were many who raged against new work by writers of assorted genders and colors in genre fiction, innovative films, stories and comic books that they claimed ruined their own enjoyment. I won’t waste space promoting the groups or individuals who led the assorted movements dedicated to holding back the clock, if not the calendar. You either know, or don’t need to . . .

When I became aware of the issues, I decided to see exactly what these protestors had lost in comics, fully understanding how connected someone could get to characters they’d literally grown up with as part of their lives over decades. Instead of losses I saw only additions to canon. Tony Stark is still Iron Man, his light undimmed by Riri Williams’ Ironheart. Thor has returned to his role as Thunder God after Jane Foster’s tenure as the more worthy. Steve Rogers is no less Captain America for Sam Wilson’s time holding the shield before returning it to him and moving on, like Jane Foster, to fulfill his own destiny. The many other changes I saw there, in film and print, only expanded existing worlds, made them bigger, richer and fuller by the inclusion of other cultures and considerations.

That is change I can endorse.

The two books I’m reviewing in this issue share the kind of fresh perspectives new voices are able to bring to the fiction of fear, along with a use of well- and lesser-known historic events to explore grim aspects of human nature, reflected in deadly supernatural forces. Both feature intrepid reporters who ultimately team with concerned citizens to uncover uncomfortable truths, but there the resemblances end as each author weaves their own uniquely rich tapestry from threads of traditional folklore.

The Night Lady
Debra Castaneda
Paperback / Ebook
ISBN: 978-1735342085
Second Rodeo Books (November 19, 2021), 323 pages

Living in the Park Slope-adjacent neighborhood of Gowanus in Brooklyn, I am more than familiar with gentrification, and even aided it by buying a loft here with a wave of artists who left soaring Manhattan rents behind in the 1980s. Decades later, after a surge of post-9/11 relocations, what was a cheap borderline industrial area is now part of a New Brooklyn of luxury housing, trendy shops and pricey restaurants, expanding outwards through the borough like mold.

But losing communities to gentrification has been an issue in America for over a century, long before Seneca Village was devoured to build New York’s Central Park. In the early 1950s, Palo Verde was one of several Hispanic communities in Los Angeles ironically bought out using eminent domain to create low-income housing . . . that never happened. Eventually the land was turned into a new baseball stadium for the Dodgers, no doubt of great comfort to the displaced families.

In 1950, while local homeowners argue with the city over the proposed changes, a film crew shoots a Western in and around a nearby ravine, provides jobs to locals that include Espy Gaten. A widowed young Mexican-American seamstress working with the wardrobe department, she’s dating a white crew member. Another local on the crew, a young man named Angel Ramirez, is found dead, naked and strangled, with a rose inserted into an obvious if unconventional orifice. As police investigate the bizarre circumstances of his death, a newspaper reporter is sent out to get the story. New to Los Angeles and the paper, Robert Cleary is not just a fish out of water, he’s a babe in the woods, rushing to learn office politics as well as the community he finds himself relying on to get a story that could get his new career off to a good start.

The film crew and neighbors provide a fair share of assorted suspects to mislead us as the body count increases to include a third victim from the crew, the first non-Latino. The police turn up the heat at the death of a young white man who was popular on set, no great surprise for the times, and a naïve mistake by the well-meaning reporter lands the wrong suspect in jail. Her subsequent death unleashes a nocturnal visitor, the titular Dark Lady, whose appearance precedes a new wave of deaths caused by a nightmare of unnatural plant growth that endangers workers trying to tear down the buildings that have been bought.

The story slides from the search for a suspected serial killer to something more rooted in the supernatural, impossible events that are strangely familiar to a local community with brujas who practice magic both sacred and profane, from cures to curses. The hidden sins of the neighbors and crew are gradually revealed as parallel plot paths are followed to track both an all-too human killer and an almost unimaginable force that demands bloody vengeance for those crimes and others perpetuated on its people.

The Fervor
Alma Katsu
Hardcover / Ebook
ISBN: 978-0593328330
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (April 26, 2022), 320 pages

The American internment of Japanese immigrants and natural born citizens of that descent during World War II is freshly shocking to me each time I encounter a story about it. Last year, I arranged an hour-long interview with George Takei for my day job producing on-air fundraising for public television. It was to air in breaks for a documentary series on the general history of Asian-Americans, but the majority of what he had to say for us was about his seven year-long childhood ordeal in the camps and the aftermath.

Granted, my sole contact with him over the years has been in purposed media, and his own words on stage in plays and in print. Still, that someone could survive such an experience and come out of it as generous and loving as he seems to be never ceases to astonish me, and invalidates any negative propaganda about the character of the Japanese in America. It was pervasive and so strong that my mother admitted late in life that she had avoided buying Japanese products well into adulthood because of what she was told about them while growing up.

That taught hatred is a major factor in a novel that blends the horrors of science and the supernatural as well as it does fact and fiction. Like Castaneda, Katsu starts with historic events, then layers them with elements that shift meanings and motives, the fantastic blended with false facts about mysterious explosive Japanese balloon attacks. They bring with them almost microscopic translucent spiders with a lethal infection, one that causes violent madness that fans the flames of already festering wartime race hatred.

Meiko is an Issei, a Japanese immigrant, married to a white American away flying bombers in the war. A friend was supposed to shelter them, but his reluctant betrayal leaves Meiko and her daughter Aiko stranded at the Minidoka camp. Her husband’s family doesn’t even know about her, estranged for reasons revealed late in the story. Without a sponsor, they’re stuck there at the mercy of hostile inmates who resent her marriage to a white man and the slight privileges they think that gives her.

Fran Gurstwold is a “woman of a certain age,” as they used to say. We meet her in the midst of a fading affair with her married newspaper editor, unable even with that advantage to get her byline off the women’s pages to the front.

When a hot air balloon explodes in the woods near the remote cabin where they’re having a secret tryst, it changes their lives and those of the the Mitchells who camp nearby. The Reverend Archie Mitchell is the friend who betrayed Meiko, and his wife is the reason he did.

While they investigate the explosion, Fran’s lover touches a white powder on the shredded balloon and catches a mysterious infection that starts with a rash and rapidly progresses to hostility and violent behavior. The contagion spreads rapidly through the area. It increases the aggression of a white supremacist group with secret ties to local law enforcement, raising the stakes as Meiko, Fran, and Archie are slowly drawn together to battle multiple enemies. One is human and the other either a disease or a curse, the manifestation of jorōgumo, an ancient spider demon that lays its evil eggs in men’s minds.

Katsu deftly dances between potentially demonic visitations in the camp and surrounding woods, and the growing menace of a militaristic movement that deliberately feels all too similar to those seen at the Capitol on January 6th and before, countering Black Lives Matter demonstrations. She manages to mirror our world without distorting the past. Its slogans and methods, though frighteningly familiar, all ring true to their time. The imminent threat to her characters is very real, even without the addition of plagues and political predators.

These two novels made a nice pairing in that both do what genre fiction can do better than the mainstream, speak frankly across cultures about social issues without preaching, using compelling stories to engage us in issues through characters instead. The vintage old school subtlety of Southern California discrimination taken for granted in The Dark Lady makes a fitting contrast to the explosive and overtly aggressive rage rising in The Fervor. Both show us aspects of ourselves that reach to the heart of so much going wrong today during a critical transition from a traditionally exclusive path to success to an open road we can all one day share.

I grew up being taught all aspects of American history, good and bad, and it hadn’t occurred to me when listening to those who complain about “race theory” taught in schools that all of what I learned might have been dropped from the curriculum since then. Stories of our flawed past are what show us how to grow beyond them, to become what we say this country is, a land of opportunity for all, not a select few.

If we can’t, we need to stop using that promise to lure in new victims to be bled dry before being discarded. While we have not always have been better than that, there is no question that we can be, and that is the hope held out in both novels as well. Seeing our past clearly isn’t condemnation. It’s therapeutic and can be healing if we do it right.

I can only keep loving America by believing we can.

Terence Taylor

Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. After years of comforting tiny tots with TV, he turned to scaring their parents. His first published short story, “Plaything”, appeared in Dark Dreams, the first horror/suspense anthology of African-American authors. He was included in the next two volumes, and his short stories and non-fiction have appeared in Lightspeed and Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. Terence is also author of the first two novels of his Vampire Testaments trilogy, Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. He is currently writing the conclusion, Past Life. Follow him on Twitter @vamptestaments.