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Nonfiction

Book Reviews: January 2021

Read This! Volume 15
New Horror Fiction You Should Know

In October of 2012, the month Nightmare Magazine published its first issue, if anyone had tried to a summarize the last four years’ events as an elevator pitch for a dystopian SyFy channel movie, they would have been laughed out the door. In an America run by a reality TV star and failed businessman with the full support of white supremacists, a global pandemic is ignored while the president divides the states into supporters or traitors—and denies economic and health aid to the states he doesn’t like . . . Who would buy any of that? (Of course, that was before the Sharknado series, where I expected a cameo by Trump to the end.)

Yet . . . here we are, at the end of a presidency that rolled into office on a wave of lies that America’s cities were crime-ridden and burning when they weren’t, who then made its fear-mongering true by its last year. After the killing of George Floyd, I watched video after video of vocal but peaceful demonstrators being assaulted by officers hired to protect and serve that public, as if it was another Purge sequel. Video after video of masked white supremacists breaking windows to spur looting, and tossing Molotov cocktails into stores to make protestors look like violent thugs. The resulting footage gave Trump more fuel for his fire, an inferno that James Baldwin predicted some time ago.

Almost half the voters in the last presidential election fell for Trump’s snake oil show, a four-year-long act of misdirection staged in rage-inducing speeches and tweets that filled the news while his party picked the pockets of enthralled spectators. After losing, the Trump administration howled all the way to oblivion, furious, and did its best to take our democracy down with one last trick, to make millions of votes disappear. It nearly succeeded, but recount after recount and court case after court case closed the show.

It is a new year, with a new administration.

As the world hopes new vaccines will bring a solution to the Covid crisis, as America faces a changing of the guard, this publication celebrates its 100th issue. I wondered what I could possibly review for this issue’s column that might sum up these times, could capture the essence of the Trump era and what we had become under him well enough to be worthy.

I found two novels that echo the emotional intensity of our age. One harks back to the nightmarish Satanic sex abuse scandals of the ’80s, the other is a vampiric tale of gothic horror rooted in a classic. Both provide a slow motion car crash suspense, a growing sense of dread that builds to forgone conclusions with a grim inevitability.

Though we may think we know both endings, and their final destinations may seem predestined, the journey to reach them is not, and it’s the telling of their passages that held my attention.

Whisper Down the Lane
Clay McLeod Chapman
Hardcover / Ebook
ISBN: 9781683692157
Quirk Books, April 2021, 304 pages

The Satanic Panic was a phrase used to describe collective claims of organized child sex abuse in the eighties and early nineties. Almost all of those accused were eventually exonerated, except for those still imprisoned who pled guilty to lesser charges to avoid life sentences, even as they asserted their innocence. In all of the cases a single charge was escalated into a far-reaching conspiracy by the investigators who interrogated the children. They steered stories told by confused kids into increasingly bizarre directions, backed up by suggestible children who agreed to anything adults said. From simple sexual abuse, cases grew to descriptions of animal and baby sacrifices, satanic rituals, digging up corpses, evil clowns…

All of which brings to mind current claims made by Q Anon.

Decades after the Satanic Panic was refuted as overwrought community hysteria we’re back where we were then. Donald Trump and right wing extremist commentators from Alex Jones to Rush Limbaugh, those at Fox News, and now One America News Network have made anonymous unfounded accusations commonplace. Irrational conspiracies are now taken seriously by more people than 2016’s Pizzagate “scandal,” a far-fetched conspiracy theory that accused the Clintons and leading Democrats of organized child abuse (also thoroughly refuted). In truth, the idea that the Democratic Party could organize anything, much less keep it secret, seemed proof enough of their innocence to me.

Q Anon is part of a witch-hunting culture, the equivalent of the anonymous poison pen letters that once tore apart small town communities with random accusations that couldn’t be easily refuted. In a rational world the perpetrators would be investigated or dismissed, the accusers sued for slander. Instead, a rabid side to social media has let it grow until millions embrace Q Anon claims, and voters now elect politicians who openly espouse its beliefs. It’s all just a distraction from the real dangers out there. Children need protection, but from real predators on the Internet, in their families, and in their communities, instead of wasting our efforts and resources chasing down rumors of cabals of Satanists sacrificing babies to their dark god.

It takes facts to resolve and remove the real threats and until then we repeat the mistakes of the past. The repercussions of those errors, and how they come back to haunt us years later, is the inspiration for Chapman’s sadly timely tale. Whisper Down the Lane is another name for the game of Telephone, where a statement is whispered from person to person down a line until it is completely distorted by repetition, the root of the protagonist’s troubles.

The novel starts with a dead rabbit taken from a local classroom, its bloody intestines ritually arranged around it on the grass. It’s discovered by Richard, a grade school art teacher, as he makes his daily walk to work. He reports it, but fails to tell the police about a birthday card in an envelope he found in the animal’s bloody open torso, addressed to “Sean” in crayon.

From there we meet Sean, a six-year-old boy fleeing an uncertain past with his mother. She’s a fearful woman, on the run from a relationship that must have been wildly toxic, from her plainly visible terror of being caught and returned to it. They arrive at a new home in a new town, and she starts a job as he starts school. Her fears about leaving Sean alone with a neighbor after school escalate as the woman he stays with begins to fill Sean’s head with Old Testament beliefs, like calling his mom a Jezebel.

When Sean’s mom sees bruises caused by a bully, he’s silent, terrified that telling the truth will only get him beaten worse by his tormentor during the rest of the year. He slowly follows his mother’s lead as she offers possible explanations. It’s a line of questioning that reluctantly leads him to one of his teachers. Once his mother reports her fears about him to the school, the wheels of investigation carry Sean from one small lie to bigger ones. Other kids are pulled in to be questioned, equally young and impressionable, equally confused. It isn’t long before the psychologist conducting the interviews has led all of the students, their parents, and law enforcement down the rabbit hole of her assumption of their teacher’s guilt, as the accusations engulf other teachers in the school.

The stories of Sean in 1983 and Richard in 2013 are told in parallel, and as the events of the past unfold, Richard’s connection to them is revealed as he recalls his chaotic past and how he became who he is now. As the story of the scandal at Sean’s school escalates with tragic consequences, Richard is slowly suspected of the same crimes as Sean’s teacher. The scope of the threat in both times grows from simple molestation to unholy rituals that encompass the community. The novel exactingly breaks down how that’s done, includes pages of interview transcripts with Sean that makes clear how he was manipulated into condemning his teacher, then other teachers. His answers to questions build from fondling to ritual abuse beyond imagining, yet it’s all entirely believable to the interviewer who then convinces the growing mob of popular opinion.

Richard’s new marriage to Tamara, a fellow teacher, is threatened as her six-year-old son Eli and a girl classmate tell tales similar to Sean’s to explain mysterious bruises on them. Both are students at the same school that Richard and Tamara teach at, and each day brings a new nightmare revelation.

Whether the forces punishing Richard for Sean’s failings are mystical or mortal becomes moot. He begins to break down, torn by having concealed his past from his wife and everyone else. His tormented guilt over that omission and how to resolve it makes it look like he’s hiding the truth about accusations from the police, the school, and his wife. Richard begins to break down as his life falls apart, looking for enemies in all directions until the real source of his woes is finally revealed in a fateful confrontation.

The real growing horror of the novel is not so much what might be happening to the children, but in what actually happens to innocent people when an uncontrollable shadow of suspicion obscures the truth. Retractions to front page scandals are lost in the back of the news, and all anyone remembers are the headlines. It becomes a chilling illustration of what happens when people are more committed to joining mobs taking up torches to burn imaginary witches than having each parent in the crowd properly taking care of their own children, as well as those of others.

The Route of Ice and Salt
by José Luis Zárate (translated by David Bowles)
Paperback / Ebook
ISBN 978-1927990292
Innsmouth Free Press, Jan 2021, 196 pages

Another aspect of the last four years has been the horrendous increase of intolerance for any form of difference, in gender, sex, race, religion . . . It was as if all the freedoms this country has been known for around the world have been reversed with the rest of the Obama era regulations protecting the public from corporate and institutional abuse.

Though upheld by a conservative majority Supreme Court, LGBTQ rights have suffered on a street level. The same kind of violence that’s been directed at unarmed Blacks committing minor infractions by police is directed by both officers and the public at trans men and women, at gays and lesbians with the temerity to commit public acts of affection, or demand equal rights. It’s a pattern of abuse as old as humanity, and José Luis Zárate’s novel is infused with the longing and frustration of secret desires subverted by restrictive social norms, limits that have risen again.

He reaches into the past to set his story in a sort of nautical locked room mystery. Most horror readers know that Count Dracula came to England on a notoriously doomed ship, The Demeter. Its discovery at the dock, empty except for the dead captain tied to the wheel, rosary in hand, is the opening scene of many movie adaptations. It’s remembered as a plague ship, rats flowing down its gangplank on arrival to infest the city. Dracula’s entrance is accompanied by a rabid disease that spreads through London. It is never made clear in the novel or any film versions if it’s an actual infection, or if Dracula and his brides diminish the local populace so rapidly that authorities can only explain the rising deaths as by contagion.

The novel opens with loading the ship at the port of Varna, the work performed by a group of Tziganes, barbaric tribesmen who work with uncharacteristic focus. Long carefully crafted wooden boxes said to contain earth for scientific research soon fill the ship’s hold. Their stewards are silent, strong men, muscular in a way that stirs desire in the ship’s captain. He’s a man torn by passions he must contain to keep his job, possibly even his life. Haunted by a lost male love he recalls in more pensive moments alone, his ghost is echoed by another shade that has stowed away on his ship, a dimly perceived form that comes to him in the night after they set sail. Its presence fills him with deep desires he’s had to deny, seduces him, and takes control even as it slowly drains his men.

The convergence of vampirism and homosexual desire is used as a way to show how both are seen as an equivalent by the people of that time, and then to point out the difference. The anonymous captain tells his story in first person in a private log. As he remembers his lost love and how he was lost, it becomes clear that for his people they’re the same kind of atrocity. Homosexual relations with one man spurs sex with another, they find new partners, those partners find new partners, and so it spreads, like a sodomitic pandemic… the same way victims of vampires create more of their kind.

Monsters all . . .

The accusations against the captain’s lover are as exaggerated as those against Richard and his old teacher, with similar consequences. The captain’s guilt over his part in his lover’s loss leads him to sink into a conspiracy of silence with his mysterious incubus, overlooking obvious signs that something is seriously wrong on his ship until any chance for its salvation is lost.

Bowles’ poetic translation captures a period sense of style without seeming old fashioned. It has the same contemporary sound that the original novel still has, even today, and in that way makes a good adjunct to re-reading that classic, or discovering it if you haven’t. The crew’s descent into thrall to a demonic being that feeds on fear as much as blood, trapped on a doomed ship that’s become a floating prison, is handled as sinking slowly, inescapably, downwards, as subtly disturbing as my first selection.

Together, the two novels capture for me the sense of gradual disorientation that was the last four years, watching local and world events change beyond all recognition, with no control over any of it. For me it explains the fervor of Trump supporters at his rallies. He feeds them the illusion that they have control, that they have power through him, even as Trump and his party wipe out the programs and protections their constituents need to survive.

The threat of mob rule and a slow drain of our power as a united nation is the legacy we’re left with, and making lemonade with that is the challenge of the next four years. It will take time, patience, and some kind of clarity to accomplish a full recovery from Trump’s divisive lies and Covid. We’ll see how much has changed by the 200th issue of Nightmare Magazine.

We can only hope America and the world is better by then.

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.