Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Book Reviews: July 2022

Read This! Volume 21
New Horror Fiction You Should Know

The first horror comedy movie I remember seeing was The Raven, with veterans Vincent Price and Boris Karloff as dueling magicians, with a roly-poly Peter Lorre in a secondary role as the titular raven after an unfortunate transformation. It was good silly fun. I likely watched it on my maternal grandmother’s big old black and white TV on a visit, since my father wasn’t a fan of the medium and only allowed a small twelve-inch set in the house.

Back then there were movie presentation shows on New York stations. Gloria DeHaven hosted movie matinees for ladies; hosts like Zacherly and Elvira mocked their terrible old horror movies long before MST3K jumped on that tactic. Admittedly, most of the laughably bad movies I grew up on did their work for them. Many unintentionally, but a few were deliberately funny, to varying degrees of success. Little Shop of Horrors was an early entry, as were the awful Abbott and Costello and Bowery Boys comedies. Sam Raimi’s hilariously terrifying Evil Dead and Landis’s An American Werewolf in London paved the way for Reitman’s Ghostbusters which raised the laugh ratio. Since then more recent if uneven fare like the Scary Movie franchise, and more successful TV series like Ash vs. Evil Dead and What We Do in the Shadows have kept us spooked and amused to varying degrees.

I’ve often said horror and comedy are kissing cousins with the same mechanisms used to different ends. Misdirection and building expectations only to reverse them can give characters a pie in the face or an ax to the throat. Which it is determines our reaction: laughter or screams. Combining them only doubles the pleasure for me. Whether movies, TV shows, short stories, or novels, I have always enjoyed a chuckle with my chills. The bigger the laughs, the scarier you can get, with much needed relief already built in.

I tend to watch more of them than I read. Whether good dumb fun like Critters or the more sophisticated thrills of Ready or Not, with Samarra Weaving dodging Satanic in-laws as her wedding gown is reduced to rags, it’s easy to lie back and let the images carry you. Verbal comedy comes from another part of the brain, and style is as important as events to achieve a satisfying end.

In looking for the literary equivalent, I found two books that hit the right balance of both for me.

If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe
Jason Pargin
Hardcover
ISBN: 9781250195821
‎St. Martin’s Press (October 18, 2022), 432 pages

I’d spent much of the last decade bemoaning the death of original horror, both film and print filled with stereotypical stories that weren’t being reimagined or rejuvenated enough to keep me interested. I railed in defense of the ending of Cabin in the Woods as a battle cry demanding death to the old, that it would be better to end it than continue down the dreary path we were on to an eventual extinction of horror fiction, buried by the weight of its own tropes.

It turned out I wasn’t alone.

The classic directors of my youth were either dead like Wes Craven, gone mainstream like David Cronenberg, bless him, or in a strange state somewhere in between like John Carpenter. Stories that occasionally went off the rails in new directions began to appear. I tracked the changes first in newly favored films like The Babadook or Hereditary. Occasionally a director I’d started following when they were as young as I was would release something new and surprising.

Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis was an oddly expansive morality horror play, played out in the jeweled puzzle box of a luxurious limousine. New directors like Jordan Peele mined unconventional fears overlooked by the mainstream. One night when I needed entertainment I found a title online that caught my eye: John Dies at the End. Kind of seemed to give it away. How could I resist? I discovered it was based on a novel of the same name, from an author with the same name as John’s friend David Wong. Huh? It was my pick for the night as soon as I saw it was directed by Don Coscarelli who created the Phantasm franchise. He directed three out of the five—the odd numbered films, which I think is appropriate as his were the oddest.

John Dies at the End is a supernatural buddy picture about two friends who would have been called slackers in the Clerks era. Too sloppy to be contemporary hipsters, John and Dave’s pursuit of unnatural events is less a vocation than an unintentional lifestyle. Things just seem to happen around them.

They live in a decaying American town reminiscent of the entropic city of Bellona in Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren. Like molting feathers, letters fall from signs and are never replaced, so all local stops have eccentric nicknames like Doll Enema, the former Dollar Cinema, so called because of the missing A, R and C.

Everyone knows them as the guys to call when things get weird. And it’s always when, not if. In their anonymous hometown abnormal is the norm. John and Dave have assorted abilities and wield weapons ranging from the traditional a shotgun or machete to occult editions. When all else fails, by the fourth book Dave seems to have found the means to transform into something truly horrific, even if we’re not told exactly what.

So—now I have to read the first three to find out . . .

John Dies at the End is arguably Coscarelli’s best film work so far, neck to neck with BubbaHoTep, with Bruce Campbell as a very much alive Elvis living in a nursing home after switching identities in the ’70s with the Elvis impersonator everyone thinks he is, sort of The King and the Pauper, if you will. He shares the home with Ozzie Davis as a man who claims to be JFK turned Black, then abandoned, after he healed from his headshot. Both have made me a bigger fan. Coscarelli went from creating a series of horror films that were classics of surrealist horror, to satirical scares with Lonsdale and Pargin, authors whose work has taken him down a fresh path to a new voice that’s as enjoyable and individual as his old.

In the movie David Wong explains to a “reporter” played by Paul Giamati that he legally changed his name to stay obscure, off the radar of those who would eliminate him as a threat. He says that Wong is the most common name in the world, and being one makes him nearly invisible.

He’s the titular author of the first three books, their real author revealed in the fourth to be Jason Pargin. Among other things, he was the former executive editor of the humor website Cracked.com. On his own site he posted an annual Halloween webisode, which over time grew into the first novel by David Wong.

He says in the afterword that the four novels can be read independently, and I had no trouble dropping into the latest, though admittedly the film adaptation had given me insight into his world. I let it play on my big screen on the far wall while I read the new book. I’d not seen the movie in long enough that the images I glimpsed intermittently while reading were hilariously mystifying, but very much in line with what I was reading. When I was done with the fourth book I rewatched the film of the first, enjoyable again, if not more so because I felt a deeper understanding of the characters.

ITBEYITWU opens with the police dumping a man on John and Dave’s doorstep. The guys immediately see—as the snickering police couldn’t—that the hallucinatory wife the man is talking to is actually a projection from an insectile alien parasite on his head.

Amy, who John and Dave met in the first book, doesn’t see it. She lost a hand and her parents in a car accident as a child. In her first adventure with the guys her phantom limb is used to open an invisible door to a parallel universe that only they can see. Despite that, she seems to have stayed around, getting better at glimpsing what they can. That even dimensionally dysfunctional Dave is able to find someone to love should give us all hope.

For me to even try to describe what happens next is to drag you down an infinitely deep rabbit hole into increasingly macabre layers of existence and events that resemble little I’ve encountered before. It’s easier if you just read it.

As I did I kept looking to see how many pages were left, wondering how Pargin could possibly sustain the breakneck pace of his opening chapters for that much longer. After the parasite situation seems to be settled—oh, don’t they wish—a wealthy wife hires them to investigate a suspicious toy her son gave to his younger sister.

It seems to be demanding more than just the digital feeding offered in the accompanying app. Her little plastic egg wants freshly pulled human teeth, and its appetite and demands for larger body parts increases with each meal cycle. As it nears hatching time, what will eventually come out starts to sound less and less likely to be the promised baby bird, and more like an apocalyptic atrocity that will wipe out humanity.

For a start.

The book jumps from POV to POV of its primary protagonists, who all have varied ideas of what’s happening and why. The author’s style is casual and calculated at the same time, like a smooth boat ride down a complex winding river with hidden rapids. There’s a casual likability to the ragtag crew and how their tale is told that made me wonder how, with all the writers I know, why I’ve never met one like him who seems to get exactly how my brain works, and hits all the right buttons.

I heard a story in the ’80s about how a group of Black musicians, writers, filmmakers and artists met at an office at Columbia University to explore how to convey ideas to people in a way that said the same thing to most of them. It would be the perfect form of communication, with total clarity, and as they progressed they discovered it had the potential to do more than deliver information. It could be used to control minds, to program them with contagious words that could spread ideas, like William Burroughs’s concept of language as a virus from outer space. The program was disbanded after the office was raided by covert agents they assumed were from the government looking for tactical mental tools.

In connecting the dots of a serial story first published over time online, Pargin had the advantage of access to his comments pages. Like the Columbia group he was able to refine his manuscript until it is presumably bulletproof, written and rewritten to have the same effect on the majority of its readers. The result is a giggly and chilling drug of a book that can leave you lightheaded, almost giddy, but a little paranoid, like any good trip. Now that I want more at least I know there are three more fixes.

He just needs to finish the next book before I’m done.

Suburban Hell
Maureen Kilmer
Paperback
ISBN: 9780593422376
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (August 30, 2022) 336 pages

I’ve lived in the suburbs of Cincinnati, New York, and Los Angeles, and am sure Jean-Paul Sartre spent time in some in France before penning, “Hell is other people” at the close of his existentialist play No Exit. There is no control over who you live around or near, and the best you can hope for is to find a circle of friends who hate everybody else there as much as you do.

Amy has found such a group, and Liz, Jess, and Melissa, her ladies who lunch, share drinks and gossip frequently. It’s a bond important enough for them to decide to build a clubhouse—a “She Shed,” their equivalent of their husbands’ man caves. Liz’s backyard has the space, but once she starts excavating, they discover she has something else there as well. The groundbreaking unleashes a nauseatingly rank stench that foreshadows a growing calamity that’s rapidly revealed to be supernatural in origin.

The close circle of friends is made up of diverse personalities that work in tandem to make them all something bigger than they are individually. This is the true nature of our social circles. They expand our horizons and our minds with new restaurants and shops, but also new ideas that make us bigger and better than we were alone.

You know your friends, and you know when something is wrong with them. When Liz shows up at a garden party atypically dressed to the nines with a fashion sense and cool assurance she usually lacks, it’s the start of her separation from the group. What begins as a makeover becomes her unmaking, as she drops out of sight, her hair falls out, she loses weight, and acts in ways that go beyond weird. As Amy tries to discover what’s really affecting her friend, she uncovers a grim past of the property they all share. Murders buried over a century ago have been unearthed, along with their cause, and with that hidden past comes fresh horror.

The wry humor Kilmer uses between shocks comes not just from the incongruity of ancient terrors unleashed in a dully idealized suburban setting, but the way the characters react to them. There’s not a lot of time wasted trying to figure out what’s happening; Amy catches on quick that this is more than a “bad mom day” for Liz. It doesn’t take her long to convince the others, especially as they watch Liz’s decline, and their pragmatic first reaction is to put their homes up for sale rather than fight a demon to stay. It’s a cold-hearted solution, as I’m not sure presale home inspections spot possession as easily as black mold, but reasonable under the circumstances. Melissa, easily the most efficient of them all, has a potential buyer and is ready to move almost immediately.

Amy watches her comfortable community break down as she fights to save her friends and their friendship. The dangers that face them are easily dismissed by their disengaged husbands as those of a typical housewife’s hell; overindulgence, depression, job hunting, PTA projects. Once they dig up the truth, literally and figuratively, what they face is revealed to be all too real. Amy’s daughter gets visits from a dead girl’s ghost, baby bunnies are shredded, and the appearance of each family pet after that makes you worry for their welfare. What begins as an simple attempt to provide a safe space by the end builds to a full scale exorcism. How is that not funny?

On Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Captain Pike explains the human tendency to laugh at other’s misfortunes to a young Spock with “Sometimes . . . things go so badly, you just have to laugh.” I have always found that to be true. In a current age that seems so utterly horrific in so many ways, reminders that laughter is still the best medicine are welcome, and I look forward to more of them.

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.