harmony_bites (harmony_bites) wrote,
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Just In Time for Halloween....

I've been reading off this list from The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Ultimate Reading List. I just finished the The Horror list. Thirteen of the 44 below are vampire novels. Go figure... I'd tried at least half of these before--but then many of the below fit other genres from thrillers with no element of the supernatural (Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Koko, Meg, Andromeda Strain, A Prayer for the Dying) or dark fantasy or urban fantasy such as works below by Kelly Armstrong, L.A. Banks, LK Hamilton, Charlene Harris, Kim Harrison, Tanya Huff and Carrie Vaughn.

Several below are classic literature such as Frankenstein, Dracula, "The Tell-Tale Heart," and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And I'll admit Stephen King is actually a favorite author. Some horror classics, indeed, are missing. Where's Henry James Turn of the Screw or Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray? And among dark fantasy and urban fantasy writers not listed I've enjoyed books by Anne Bishop, Mercedes Lackey, Robin McKinley (her vampire book Sunshine is the anti-Twilight) and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro--but the post below does seem to cover most of the well-known authors. A friend also recommends as original takes on vampires Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon, Fevre Dream by George RR martin, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and The Austra Books by Elaine Bergstrom.

John Farris' The Fury and Bentley Little's The Store, recommended on the list, aren't available in my neighborhood bookstores or through the library. I have three books on the list on hold at the library that haven't yet come in:
Caitlin R. Kiernan's Threshold, and Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying. Another friend of mine recently read and raved about A Prayer for the Dying so I'm particularly eager to read that one.



Our Ratings

= Outstanding! Strong characters and involving plot told with style. Worth buying and keeping on your book shelf and recommending to others--even give as a gift. I'd read other books by this author - these might make good introductions to the genre.
= Exceeds Expectations. Likable characters, interesting plot, readable style with aspects that make this book stand out within the genre - a good, fun read, or if parts are a slog, nevertheless worth it.
- Acceptable. Mostly enjoyable. I made it through the entire book and didn't consider it a waste of time or money, though it's not getting shelf space and I can't see ever rereading it nor does this make me want to rush to read more of the author. Worth a try if the subject appeals.
- Not terrible, but it didn't hold me and I stopped reading--or I finished it wanting to hurl the book against the wall. Someone else might find it more appealing.
= Dreadful - I don't get how this tripe got published or on a recommendation list. Or how anyone could like such crap.

Alten, Steve, Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror - Proof that bigger is not better, "Meg" is short for megalodon--a Jurassic Age shark four times as large as the Great White, but this isn't anywhere near as good as Jaws. That book and film by giving us a extant creature stalking people where we all play during the summer allowed us to easily imagine we could be a victim. Jaws's Chief Brody is an everyman. Meg's Jonas Taylor? A flat Marty Stu--and the style is flat too, with lots of head-hopping and truly clunky writing. And the female characters in this book? Especially Jonas' wife? Man, it's so misogynistic a portrayal it's hard not to speculate the author has issues with women. I couldn't take much of this one, so I skipped to the end... and found just about the most ridiculous exit since the explorers of Journey to the Center of the Earth rode out of the Earth's depths by floating on an exploding volcano...

Armstrong, Kelly, Bitten - More urban fantasy or paranormal romance than horror. I love Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series, first person narratives by various supernaturally gifted women. If I were rating the series as a whole, I'd give it five stars. However, I'm glad I didn't pick up Bitten first, which begins the series, or I might have stopped there. It isn't a bad book; Armstrong has an enjoyable and fairly clean style, it's well plotted and I liked Elena, the protagonist and narrator. I enjoyed it more on a reread years later; the problem is that the premise itself is rather a deal-breaker for me. Before the start of the book, Clay had bitten Elena in werewolf form without her consent, making her into a werewolf. To me this scenario reminded me too well of those bad romances where the hero rapes the heroine and she winds up loving him anyway. That's not to say Elena is a doormat--but for me Clay never recovers from that act. The series isn't just centered on Elena or Clay though, so even if you don't like them, give another book in the series a chance, such as Dime Store Magic whose narrator/protagonist witch Paige Winterbourne is a favorite of mine. Most of the novels seem self-contained to me, even if reading them out of order would mean you'd encounter spoilers for earlier books.

Banks, L.A., Minion - Awful writing full of romance aisle descriptions and ridden with cliches and mixed metaphors. The prologue is hysterical--both in tone and hilarity, albeit unintentionally. A preacher's wife discovers her husband in what seems an embrace. With a man! So naturally, leaving her baby with the prayer vigil, she goes out to perform a demonic ritual to get him back. Soon after we're introduced to her baby girl all grown up! The "chosen one" and "vampire huntress" (sound familiar?), Damali Richards, a rapper by day and this is one of her introductory bits of dialogue: "Aw shit--you the one!" Damali spun around and gave the people standing near her a high five. "All this time I've been coming in this place, gigging and doing my thing... and the Marlene Stone just rolls in here with brother 'Bazz? Daaaaym! Y'all really think I'm good and have a shot?" Damali aka Mary Sue got on my one nerve right there. All throughout, besides the charming S-word there were f-bombs going off to the left and to the right of me. So I ducked and covered and threw this back on the store shelf before fifty pages had passed.

Barker, Clive, Books of Blood - This is an anthology of 16 horror short stories and novellas, ranging from around 4,000 to 17,000 words. I tried all the shorts in the first volume of Books of Blood and didn't want to read more. The short that opens and gives the title to this book, "The Book of Blood" is an unremarkable haunted house story. I outright disliked the second story, "The Midnight Meat Train," set in the subways of New York City surrounding a serial killer. I'm a native and resident of New York and it didn't evoke my city for me. The story "The Yattering and Jack," about a demon trying to gain a soul, did strike a welcome note of humor, but didn't strike me as all that clever. Ditto the grotesque "Pig Blood Blues" with its sow, the predictable "Sex, Death and Sunshine" centered on a theater company and the rather silly "In the Hills, the Cities" set in Yugoslavia. Lots of gratuitous and graphic sex and gore here as befits the author and director of Hellraiser if that's your sort of thing. It's not mine.

Benchley, Peter, Jaws - Scary and suspenseful in parts, but imo this is one of those rare cases where the film is better than the book--much better. The plot is tauter; The film's characterizations are even better--such as Quint gaining a motivation for his vendetta by making him a survivor of the USS Indianapolis and generally the characters are much more likable, so you actually care if the shark doesn't eat them. There's also one bit of business in the book not in the film I'm glad isn't part of the film: Brody's wife in the book is involved with the ichthyologist, Hooper, and I don't think it adds anything to plot and characterizations being there. The film has more humor, wittier lines, is scarier and more suspenseful. So, although I do think this is a good...beach read, *ahem* I think you're better off renting the DVD instead.

Blatty, William Peter, The Exorcist - So much of the supernatural has religious underpinnings, but much fantasy and even genre horror novels underplays or eliminates that aspect. Witches are lovable like Tabitha and Hermione, werewolves have a "furry problem" at worst, vampires are smexy. The Exorcist, on the other hand, brings me back to my Catholic upbringing where you take those things that go bump into the night very seriously. So, so you need to be a believer to take The Exorcist seriously enough to enjoy? Well, it probably helps. However, if you are religious (or not), you might find yourself sickened by the graphic sex and violence in the book that goes well beyond head spinning, projectile vomiting or the use of profanity. If the film had been true to the book, it would have earned much harder than an "R." All that said, although I wouldn't call it particularly well-written (more than one metaphor in the book struck me as overreachingly clumsy) it certainly kept my interest, and the central characters of Father Damien Karras and Regan's mother, Chris MacNeil felt real.

Campbell, Ramsey, Nazareth Hill - This one took a while for me to get into; I almost stopped at fifty pages where nothing had happened yet but a truly boring tenants meeting However,the setting of modern Northern England as written by a British writer had an inherent fascination for me. Nazareth Hill is where witches once danced and where an insane asylum once housed them once witch hunts went out of fashion--and there are strange happenings going on there--ones witnessed by several people, particularly a fifteen year old girl, Amy Priestly. She's a typical teenager, in ways I could imagine being maddening if I were her parent: body piercings, shaved head, plays loud music, smokes marijuana, pigsty of a room, sullen and uncommunicative; her father has good reason for concern. Yet the core of the horror of this book is how easily isolated and vulnerable Amy is, to his authority as a parent since she's not yet of age, as he becomes increasingly controlling and prey to a zealous religious mindset that may be influenced by the dark forces surrounding them. The tension between them and suspense becomes more and more unbearable to take as a reader, especially in those last hundred pages. Particularly hard for me to read, since I do find frustrating the kind of story where no one believes the protagonist. This was well-written, literate, with characters that felt all too real--although be warned, it's also brutal and heartbreaking.

Crichton, Michael, The Andromeda Strain - Microbes from a crashed space probe wipe out a small town in Arizona, and team "Wildfire" is assembled to find a cure. This is more science fiction than horror; a lot of the writing is very technical, is filled with scientific concepts, reports, data, charts, graphs, figures, maps and even references in the back. The book was written in 1969, but as far as I can tell as a layman the science is still accurate and plausible. What really dates it is, besides all four of the scientists on the team being male, was that the gender biases of the language stood out to me. Otherwise the style seemed smooth enough, even if a bit dry, and the plot had a neat scientific resolution. What keeps me from rating the book higher was the characters--bland and forgettable and we learn little of them beyond their bare names.

Due, Tananarive, The Between - A page turner that inhabits the gray spaces between dark fantasy and psychological thriller. Hilton James has felt since childhood that he needs to make his life count, because his grandmother lost her life saving him from drowning. Now his family is in danger; they've been getting death threats from a dangerous racist touched off by his wife's election making her the only black female judge in Miami--and Hilton seems to be losing it, caught up in disturbing nightmares. I liked the portrait of Miami and the way it handled difficult topics (homelessness, racism, drug addiction, AIDS, marital problems) It's hard not to root for Hilton and his family, which ups the suspense since you care what happens to them.

Endore, Samuel Guy, The Werewolf of Paris - Written in 1933, this is framed as the account of an American who found a discarded manuscript about the werewolf, Bertrand Caillet. Set in France in the late 19th Century, this is to werewolves what Dracula is to vampires, filled with lots of werewolf lore. The novel doesn't gloss over the original legendary nature of werewolves as savage, uncontrollable and dangerous, not just smexy men running in a pack with a furry problem... There are risque and disturbing elements--rape, incest, etc, yet the story is shot through with dark humor. The secondary characters are finely drawn and the historical backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune well-detaied. However, it often has tedious, rambling parts that have nothing to do with the story--mostly in service to the rather obvious communist point-of-view. Way too much of the material about the Paris Commune has nothing to do with the werewolf.

Hambly, Barbara, Those Who Hunt the Night - I vaguely remember reading and enjoying this years ago, but it's no longer in print or in circulation in the NYC public library. So I'm giving it three stars on my memory of enjoying it--yet another Vampire novel, set in Victorian England.

Hamilton, Laurell K., Guilty Pleasures - This is a sometimes scary and creepy but throughout very entertaining book that straddles the line between dark fantasy and horror, with an appealingly kick-ass heroine and fine world-building. Anita Blake is the first person voice of this tale--a zombie animator and vampire slayer with the smart ass voice of a hard-boiled detective. When her friend is threatened, Anita must solve a string of vampire murders and deal with some of the most powerful and dangerous vampires of St Louis in a new era where vampires are out in the open and have legal rights--a world that also includes zombies, ghouls and shapeshifters. Hamilton's vamps have "animals to call," "human servants" and there is a whole subculture attracted to vampires including a religious cult...and oh, a vampire stripper club called "Guilty Pleasures" that features a smexy owner, Jean Claude, who is one of the most intriguing and prominent characters in the series. And the most chilling monster of all may be a human--Anita's sometime ally and colleague Edward. However, if you're the kind of person who, if you like the first book in a series, can't stop reading the others even once it jumps the shark... Well, you may hate you took me up on my recommendation. The series badly, badly jumps the shark in the tenth book, Narcissus in Chains, of the jaw-dropping, book hurling kind. But yes, this first novel is good. A guilty pleasure.

Harris, Charlaine, Dead Until Dark - This is the first of the Sookie Stackhouse books that are the basis for True Blood. If you know Sookie by that HBO series, well, from what a friend tells me of them, they're quite different in overall feel and characterization than the books. These are first person accounts of a world where vampires and shapeshifters are more or less out in the open. At the start of the series, vampires anyway, since a synthetic blood developed by the Japanese allows vampires to live among humans without preying upon them. The books have vampires more in the Anne Rice smexy than Stoker/King ravening monsters vein. Set in a small Louisiana town, the Sookie books exude a lot of charm and feature a lot of humor. It's part of the appeal that you get to know the town of Bon Temps as if it's a character all it's own. I also love Sookie. She's very down to earth--for her the appeal of the vampires is that for her they represent peace. You see, Sookie has what she considers a "disability." She can read minds; it gets very noisy and she learns far more than she wants to know about people. So when in this book Bill, the first Vampire she's ever met, comes into where she works at Merlotte's as a waitress and she can't read him--she's smitten. Her life gets very complicated for her from there--but it's a fun ride for the reader.

Harris, Thomas, Silence of the Lambs - A thrilling read and meditation on evil, with among the most chilling villains (Dr. Hannibal Lector) and strong heroines (FBI Agent-Trainee Clarice Starling) around. In fact, Hannibal Lector is more than a villain, he's a monster--a much scarier predator than a Great White Shark. Before we ever meet him he's built up in two ways--examples given both of his extraordinary intellect and his incredible viciousness. This serial killer Hannibal "the Cannibal" doesn't just kill, he devours--and we know he's incredibly dangerous just by all the precautions taken where he's incarcerated. Small details when he's first introduced stroke up the menace. He has a sixth finger on his left hand. His eyes are described as reflecting "the light in pinpoints of red" and those "points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center." He's built up as bestial, demonic--but then in his conversation with Starling shows the insight and sharpness of a Sherlock Holmes. Now, there's a lot more to this novel. It's a murder mystery and an incredibly suspenseful, nail-biting, unputdownable thriller and Lector's not the main focus here. This really is more police procedural as the FBI seeks to find another serial killer. But it's Lector who freezes you at the bone and makes this book unforgettable. What I've heard of the sequel, Hannibal, and how the relationship between Starling and Lector develops there means I'll never read that book. But this one I certainly highly recommend. (And some tell me the prequel, Red Dragon, is even better, so that one I might try some time.)

Harrison, Kim, Dead Witch Walking - A blurb inside from Jim Butcher describes the heroine of this book and series, Rachel Morgan, as a blend of Stephanie Plum and Anita Blake. I think Rachel's more reminiscent of Plum than Blake, even though she's a witch in a world of vampires, weres, trolls, leprechauns, fairies and pixies. A "living vampire" Ivy and a pixy, Jenks, are her partners in bounty hunting. Rachel is more soft than hard boiled in her first person voice that carries this narrative and a lot of humor in the beginning is based on her goofy mess ups. The book is set in an alternate world contemporary Cincinnati. In her world supernatural creatures came out after an apocalyptic plague caused by genetic engineered tomatoes wiped out half of the "norms" leaving the supernatural "inderlanders" a substantial part of the population. Rachel is "dead witch walking" since she dares quit her position with Inderland Runner Services--and that gets a price placed on her head. The book is written decently enough, readable. I appreciated the light humor and the imaginative world Harrison created, even if I could pick at some aspects. At first I found Rachel irritatingly whiny and Too-Stupid-To-Live. I don't know that I can say in the end she changed my mind--but I did like several of the secondary characters, including her partners and especially Nick. I also liked the very fact that they have her back--that friendship and learning to work and live together is part of this--a lot of other urban fantasy heroines seem very on their own--Anita Blake--even Sookie doesn't seem to have important friendships. So given that aspect, the light touch, the interesting world--and because I read this series gets better--I might go on to the next book sometime.

Huff, Tanya, Blood Price - Blood Lines, the book recommended, is actually the third in the series and you should start with the first book, Blood Price. Like the books by Hamilton and Harris and Harrison, these are urban fantasies featuring smexy vampires and featuring a female protagonist. (Although in this case the story is told through rotating third person, not first person narration.) In this case it's Vicky Nelson--former Toronto police officer turned private detective--and going blind. I liked Vicky's partners in her investigations very much: Her former police detective partner, Mike Celluci and Henry Fitzroy, 450 year old vampire, illegitimate son of Henry VIII--oh, and a writer of cheesy bodice-ripper historical romance novels. The three of them play off each other well. I have a friend who put this book down from the first scene. She thought Vicky acted recklessly and stupidly. I frankly didn't notice, even though I can understand that reaction--and Vicky definitely has issues. I liked this book though. The Blood books are not particularly innovative or imaginative--these are traditional vampires. The villain in this book was one-dimensional. The prose isn't extraordinary but is clean and a smooth read. But as urban fantasy comfort food, I found the books in this five-book series enjoyable. (There is a related trilogy focused on Tony Foster, a character in this novel, but I just didn't find him a compelling enough character to hold me even through the first of his books.)

Jackson, Shirley, The Haunting of Hill House - Jackson is the author of "The Lottery" a short story assigned me when I was in high school and still one of the most chilling stories I've ever read, so I expected this to be good and stylish and I wasn't disappointed. The only thing dating the story (it was published in 1959) was the use of the word "gay" to men light-hearted. The story has a lot of leavening humor, wit, banter and reads very quickly--it took me a few hours. The house itself is, of course itself a vivid character--an enormous Victorian, built purposely off-center, with a veranda surrounding it--furnished with statuary, drapes with tassels, mounted animal head, and plenty that goes bump in the night. Dr John Montague seeks to investigate Hill House, which has a reputation of being haunted, so invites people with a psychic connection to spend the summer with him as observers--two young women, Theodora and Eleanor, accept his invitation. Also present is Luke, a representative of the family that owns the house. Eleanor, a woman who spent her youth taking care of her recently deceased mother, is the main character through whom the story is told. Awkward because so long isolated, fanciful, she's a sympathetic, even if troubled figure who as a child had experienced poltergeist-like phenomenon. In the end I'm not sure if Hill House haunted her, or she haunted it. The kind of story that lingers even after you finish reading.

King, Stephen, The Stand - Stephen King is a favorite author of mine. This just isn't a favorite work of his. Now, if you want to read the scariest horror books ever written, then go get The Shining (a better book than the film) or his vampire book, Salem's Lot, where vampires are still monsters, not a dream date. And I think he's at his best in his short stories and novellas. Now, having said that, I do know people that love The Stand. I personally find it just bloated--unbearably long and I've tried twice to finish it, each time feeling like a bicycler who just can't get over this steep hill. Part One about the plague was compelling, but King lost me both times in Part Two. In the introduction King explains how, since back then he didn't have the clout he has now, he was forced to cut the original draft by 150,000 words (about 500 pages--half the length.) I can't help but feel this might have been a better book if the cuts had been allowed to stand. There are some great lines, ideas, characters here, but in terms of keeping my interest it probably doesn't help that I'm not fond of post-apocalyptic literature.

Koontz, Dean, Watchers - I find Koontz reliably entertaining. I don't know I'd call him exactly a favorite author, because too many of his books blur in my mind, feel too alike. But this novel happens to be my favorite, and if you're a dog lover at all I think irresistible. You see, the most memorable character--arguably the protagonist, is "Einstein" a very intelligent genetically enhanced golden retriever. He can't talk--but give him a stick he can spell... This does belong in horror--that dog isn't the only genetically enhanced creature on the prowl. But this particular book is also filled with love, warmth and humor. Koontz has a clean style, storytelling skill and great pacing. This is a quick, engrossing fun read.

Kostova, Elizabeth, The Historian - The first time I tackled it I gave up quickly--finding this a bore. The opinions of friends who have read this novel have been mixed. I know some that think it a great, literate read. Giving this a second try I can understand that. The descriptions of different locations from Amsterdam to Istanbul, from France to Greece and Romania are vivid and evocative; there's some great imagery in the novel. The author obviously did her research on these countries, and on the history and legend of Dracula. But I still found this hard to get into on second try, with wide stretches I found tedious. I think the basic structure didn't help. This isn't just first person--it's first person inside first person. The main narrative for 650 pages is "as told to" by a girl's father, interspersed with quite a few letters. Although I appreciated the nod to Bram Stoker's Dracula in this structure, at times it wasn't transitioned well and not immediately clear which "I" was telling the story and I never felt the voices were distinct. I also found several points rather implausible--and I don't mean the supernatural aspects--such as all the fuss made about getting a copy of Dracula out of a library or it being dangerous to own when the book can be found in any bookstore. Or how a person could disappear and travel across international boundaries without documentation. Then there's the unsatisfying ending. Another friend who was enjoying it up to the end told me she wanted to hurl the book against the wall when she found out exactly what it was Dracula wanted. While I wouldn't exactly say I felt the same, I would say the ending seemed pretty anti-climatic in more than one respect after several hundred pages.

Laidlaw, Marc, The 37th Mandala - The style is smoothly competent even if not remarkable and the premise pretty original for the genre. Mandalas are symbols used for mediation in Eastern religion. When a New Age con artist, Derek Crowe, encounters some occult lore concerning them, he makes them the subject of his latest book, ignoring and twisting the warnings of their dangers--and when his readers, such as Michael and Leonore, use them, they tap into a destructive malign force. I think my main problem with the book, why it never rises beyond the usual B-movie fare for me, are the characters. They're a mix of crackpots and grifters. The naivete and the minutia of New Age craziness of characters like Michael and the predatory cynicism of Derek got on my one nerve. For me to find a novel suspenseful, I have to have something at stake with the characters, and I just couldn't care for any of them.

Levin, Ira, Rosemary's Baby - Having seen the film might taint my judgment and enjoyment of this novel, and certainly cut any factor of suspense. Despite that, I did enjoy the book, partly for it's look at my neighborhood, New York City's Upper West Side, in the mid 1960s. Although in 2010 it's much harder to see witches as evil satanists rather than good-hearted New Age Pagans than it would have been when it was published in 1967, the book doesn't feel dated. I think this is one of the cases where the film is better than the book, which is not to say the book is mediocre, just that the film is excellent and deftly captures the book so well, I was constantly reminded of the film while reading. The book conjures up its time and place very well, and Rosemary, the young wife and mother-to-be of an up and coming actor makes a very good Everywoman. The style and pacing is so smooth, it seemed a minute from opening the book I was looking up blinking, five hours had passed and the book was finished.

Lewis, Matthew G., The Monk - Published in 1796, according to the introduction this is one of the foundational novels of the Gothic genre and thus horror. Interestingly, Lewis was only 19 years old when he wrote it, the same age as Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein. The novel involves three intertwined stories, Ambrosio, the monk of the title and his fall from grace; Don Lorenzo and his attempts to gain the hand of Antonia, and the struggles of Don Raymond and Agnes to overcome the obstacles to their union. The narrative often sounds old fashioned, and the plot is often absurd, yet the novel is engaging--enough to keep my interest through the 300 odd pages The author definitely has issues with the Catholic Church that often took the plot and many characters over the top, and there are misogynist comments at times--yet some strong female characters as well. Filled with ghosts, evil monks and nuns, bandits and pacts with Satan himself--it's also full of wit and verve, lurid, cheesy, but great fun.

Long, Jeff, The Descent - I wasn't twenty pages in before I suspected I had a stinker on my hands: The dialogue, the characterizations, the plotline was of trainwreck dimensions. We open with too-stupid-to-live mountaineers in Tibet, led by Ike Crockett, following a gold coin trail to hell--literally. Next we turn to the Kalahari and from central casting, a "beautiful" nun working among lepers, leaving no B movie cliche unused. The book is reminiscent of Journey Into the Center of the Earth as it posits there's an underworld of continents and seas inhabited by creatures that inspired Gargoyles and demons led by Satan himself. Except, well, it's easier to believe that premise in 1864 than in 1999, the date of publication. I gave this about 100 pages, where he kicked off this ridiculous, unconvincing war between the modern military and the underworld, before giving this a pass.

Lovecraft, H.P., "The Rats in the Walls" - This is a short story of 7,974 words written in 1923 you can find online here. Lovecraft did write one novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but otherwise his works are short. He's supposedly a very influential author for fantasy and horror writers. However, I found the evident racism in this tale hard to take--that's even ignoring the use of the N-word as the name of the cat (according to notes named after his own, so this wasn't a comment on the racism of the first person narrator.) Even making allowances for the 1923 date of publication (and setting of the story) there's a creepy racialism, if not racism, at the heart of this tale about horror found by an American in the crypt of his ancestor's ancient seat in England. My first Lovecraft work--and almost certainly my last.

McCammon, Robert R., Swan Song - Published in 1987, the back cover praised this book as "prescient" but its nuclear holocaust scenario, involving the Soviet Union and blaming the "Star Wars" initiative struck me as "dated." That said, the depiction of nuclear destruction, particularly the part set in my own New York City, was chilling. And that only takes you about 100 pages into this 850 page doorstopper. The book centers on three groups. One is a group of survivors from New York City led by a former "bag lady" who finds a magical glass ring in New York City's ruins. Another follows a creepy little boy who has fallen in with a group of survivalists in Idaho. And finally, there's Swan--Sue Wanda, a nine year old girl with special powers. Throw in a confrontation between good and evil, each neatly identified, and given my attempts to read Stephen King's The Stand, I felt very been there, done that. If you're fond of post-apocalyptic literature such as The Stand, you might find this book more compelling than I did--McCammon's style is decent, although his characterizations to me felt too facile and stereotyped--the homeless women who went mad when her daughter died, the wrestler with the heart of gold, the angelic child with powers, the crazy evil military survivalists, etc.

Moore, Christopher, Practical Demonkeeping - A mix of horror and humor about a ravening demon, Catch, trying to free himself, his demonkeeper, Travis, trying to keep him from eating (people) too much, a djinn trying to send the demon back to hell and quirky inhabitants of Pine Cove, California who find themselves involved when the demon comes to town. The author reminds me in his charm and wacky humor of a Pratchett or Douglas Adams, American style. Moore doesn't engage in the the same kind of word play as those authors do, nor does this dazzle with an amazing created world a la Discworld, but like Pratchett this features a kind of humor that makes you believe the author has an affection for his characters and humanity in general. (If I have any criticism, it's that, if anything, he's a bit too easy on some characters who get more than they deserve.) The book is zany, warm, with a gift for making you like his characters; this zipped past--all too quickly.

Kim Newman, Anno Dracula - This grew on me. It's an alternate universe of Stoker's Dracula, where he survived Van Helsing and marries the widowed Queen Victoria. I had some resistance to this premise--this was an age where a constitutional crises was caused by Victoria wanting to retain her ladies in waiting--I couldn't imagine her being allowed to marry Dracula, or the changes that followed which are written of being started by the crown--nor could I understand why it didn't touch off war, civil and international. However, it's a great romp, in the spirit of the best fan fiction, and I don't mean that disparagingly. Characters that appear include many historical figures and fictional characters from the world of Sherlock Holmes such as Inspector Lestrade, Mycroft and Moriarty and Colonel Moran, Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Welles' Dr Moreau, Merrick the "Elephant Man" the poets Swinburne and Oscar Wilde. I'm sure I didn't catch a quarter of the historical and literary allusions. Also, in vampire works you tend to have either monsters or very humanized creatures--this had an interesting mix of both, as it was posited there are different blood lines of vampires, and that of Dracula was corrupted. Dracula himself appears only at the end, but it particularly memorable, an image out of Dante. I liked the main (I think) original characters, Genevieve, a vampire from the time of Joan of Arc, and Beauregard, one of the "warms" who has yet to turn. This is part of a series I'd certainly be interested in continuing, although a friend whose judgment I trust say they don't hold up to the charm of the first book.

Poe, Edgar Allen, "The Tell-Tale Heart" - A classic short story of 2,210 words written in 1943, you can find it here. Poe has only one completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which is considered one ancestor of science fiction. Poe is otherwise famous for his short stories and poetry. Several of those short stories fall into the horror genre such as "Berenice," "The Black Cat," "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Ligeia" among others.

Preston, Douglas and Child, Lincoln, The Relic - I was predisposed to like this book. It's set in New York City's Museum of Natural History. I'm a New York City native who lives within walking distance of the museum; it has been a favorite place since childhood--so I got a kick out of the descriptions of the museum's rooms and of the neighborhood. This one is also as much science fiction as horror. It doesn't have the mind-blowing or thought-provoking quality of the best of that genre, and I have no idea how plausible is the science in the book, but I did like that the underpinnings of the "museum beast" wasn't supernatural. The book ended with a good twist too. Don't look for depth here--the style and characters aren't anything special--I can't see this as a keeper I'd ever want to read again. But it was very entertaining and if you need to pass some hours on a plane or train this would make a good pick. I particularly liked the Sherlock Holmes-like Agent Pendergast who is a recurring character in other books by this author. There is a direct sequel to this book as well--Reliquary.

Reese, James, The Book of Shadows - Like Rice's Interview with the Vampire, this is sensual and sexual and interweaves a subject of the horror genre--in this case witches--with well-crafted historical fiction. Set in the France of around 1830, this is mostly the first person narrative of Herculine--the very name was a hint of her nature given the famous French hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin. She is a man, a woman--and a witch. I found this novel a page turner--the details are lush and vivid without being flowery or overdone, making you feel transported to another age, and in parts so suspenseful it was hard not to skip ahead to find out what was going to happen. I was particularly impressed with how the author used the lore of witches, both of the traditional kind that has converse with demons, graveyards and curses and the neo-pagan kind that can "draw down the moon." The story, though telling the tale of Herculine's mentor, her "soror mystica," Sebastiana and her companions, the incubi Louis and succubi Madeleine, ranges from the "Burning Times" of the 1600s to the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution to the Bourbon Restoration. A Book of Shadows, we are told, is "a record of life's lessons" and this one makes for an unusual coming of age tale, sometimes deeply weird, but one I found engrossing.

Rice, Anne, Interview with the Vampire - I was drawn in from the first page. The conceit is that Louis, made a vampire by the sinister Lestat in 1791 New Orleans, is telling his life--or rather after-life story to an interviewer known only as "the boy." One of the reasons I found this a riveting read is that Rice writes in a clean, transparent style, yet one lush with sensory detail--very atmospheric in ways that brought alive 18th century New Orleans and 19th Century France. Another part of what makes this vampire story unusual is that it is about the education of a vampire in what he is and how to survive. Few vampire stories I've read are from the vampire's point of view. They're either books of those trying to flee or fight them or those in love or lust with the glamorized, eroticized version Rice did so much to promote. Louis is interesting in that he never fully gives up his humanity. This makes him an apt narrator into the vampire world he shares with Lestat--and later his companion Claudia, a vampire they made forever trapped into the body of a five year old girl. That last is one of the creepiest aspects of the novel--the adult, sensuous and sexual person within a child's body. And goodness, Louis can be tediously emo at times. But it's mostly a good read and seminal in the genre and still strikingly original in several respects--I'm glad I read it. I'm not however motivated to read more in this series.

Saul, John, Nightshade - The story centers on a family (literally) haunted by a dead family member. This was my first novel by Saul, and given that what stopped me reading was the clunky style, above all, I imagine it will be my last. I hated Saul's way with point of view. A true, good omniscient point of view needs a strong voice and masterful style, or it comes across as just sloppy head-hopping, which is what we have here, as well as frequent rhetorical questions and other cheesy flourishes and melodramatic prose.

Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein - In the edition I read an Afterword by literary critic Harold Bloom states the book "affords a unique introduction to the archetypal world of the Romantics" and it's amazing how many of its hallmarks I found. The book famously was the result of a rainy day challenge that included the poets Lord Byron and the author's husband, Shelley, it mentions Coleridge and quotes Wordsworth and includes encomiums to nature. Framed as a letter by a ship's captain to his sister about his guest, this is mostly the first person narration of Victor Frankenstein about how his scientific ambitions led to the creation of his monster and his ruin. I find Victor Frankenstein a rather despicable character. He abandons his creation at it's "birth" simply because it's ugly. He keeps evading responsibility, even allowing an innocent women to be executed rather than try to own up to what he had done, and even at the end calls himself "guiltless" and not "blamable." The surprise for someone whose impression of the story comes from popular culture is the monster himself. This isn't some shambling animal, but an articulate creature who formed his view of life from Werther, Plutarch's Lives and especially Paradise Lost. He's capable of kindness and craves love--despite his acts, I have much more sympathy for this unnamed, lonely creature than I have for Frankenstein. It seems the sin of the scientist in this tale, isn't creation, but abandoning it. I don't feel Shelley achieved her purpose "to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart" and the flowery, melodramatic style sometimes made me roll my eyes, but this novel that can claim to be one of the first science fiction stories is a thought-provoking, disturbing tale worth a read.

Smith, Scott, The Ruins - A blurb on the cover from Stephen King calls this "the best horror novel of the new century." It is a very well-written story in a line-by-line sense--literate, with a masterfully done omniscient point of view--yet ultimately couldn't hold me. The reason was the characters. In terms of them feeling rounded and real I couldn't fault the characterizations of Jeff and Amy, Eric and Stacey, two couples who carry the narrative between them. The problem I think, that I found this a tedious read and impossible to care about them is that they were incredibly, inexorably, too stupid to live. They make a friend, Mathias, while vacationing in Mexico. When his brother goes missing at an archeological dig, do they call the police? No. They go looking for him. When, after encountering unfriendly natives and a path hidden by palm fronds, do they go back for the police? No, they press onward. One of their party, Pablo, falls down a mine shaft and Eric goes down after him. The rope is short 20 feet. Does he allow himself to be pulled back up so they can lengthen the rope? No, he tosses himself down because he doesn't want Pablo to feel deserted. They establish Pablo has broken his back. They know its inadvisable to move someone with a back injury. Do they do their best to make him comfortable where he is? No, they decide to haul him back up. And so on and so forth and all I listed doesn't even take us up to the first 150 pages. No way then I was hanging around for the next 200 pages to watch as they were taken down by the creeping, menacing vines.

Stevenson, Robert Louis, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - This story of a doctor who splits off his dark side with a potion might have been much more impressive in its psychology of duality when first published in 1884. The novella kept me reading from start to finish, without really moving me--the story is kept at one remove until it's last few chapters by being seen through the perspective of Utterson, Dr Jekyll's friend and lawyer, a rather bland figure. The last two chapters are letters from a friend and colleague of Jekyll, then finally Jekyll himself, but it feels like an abrupt end because we never get Utterson's reaction to the revelations in those letters. A novel that did actually impress was a modern retelling, Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin, telling the story from the perspective of Jekyll's maid, who is unnamed and only briefly mentioned in the original.

Stoker, Bram, Dracula - Ah, no sparkling here. The classic that started it all, and still arguably the spookiest. It sure hooked me when I first read it, and didn't impress me as some stodgy "classic." Mind you, I have two friends whose tastes I trust who found it "dull" so I tried rereading it and found myself still sucked in. I suppose it might be a matter of style--this is a product of the late Victorian age and is told through journal entries, letters, and even a newspaper article. The first chapters are the journal of Jonathan Harker, who visits Transylvania to meet his mysterious client, Count Dracula. I thought the tension developed well, as was the tension between an ancient horror from a land full of superstition compared with a modern world that will combat the undead not just with garlic and crucifixes but blood transfusions and telegrams. I found not just Dracula but his adversary, Van Helsing vivid and unforgettable characters.

Straub, Peter, Koko - The book recommended was The Throat, but since Koko is the first book in the "Blue Rose Trilogy" I thought I'd start here. I wouldn't call this horror, more mystery/thriller--there's not much more of a hint of the supernatural to the novel. This features a smooth, skillful style and well-drawn characterizations. For quite a while I couldn't warm to those characters though, and the plot was slow to develop, but the plot engaged me enough I stuck with it, and some of the characters grew on me, as they themselves grew in the course of the story, so that about half way through I cared enough about them I knew I'd stick with the book, which had more than one unexpected twist and turn. (One major character I hated from beginning to end, but I finally realized we're pretty much supposed to.) The plot is centered on four American Vietnam War Veterans who go in search of someone in their unit they suspect might be committing a series of murders connected to events in the war over a decade ago: Michael Poole, a pediatrician; Beevers, a lawyer, who was the lieutenant of their unit; Connor, a carpenter and Puma, a restaurant owner. The search takes them to Singapore, Thailand, Milwaukee, and the author skillfully portrays each, as well as their past in combat in Vietnam. I'd definitely try more Straub--maybe Ghost Story sometime.

Vaughn, Carrie, Kitty and the Midnight Hour - I like urban fantasy with its female protagonists. Hey, I'm a big fan of Buffy after all. Too many in this genre run to formula I'll admit--down to the first person point of view. This isn't any exception--Kitty is a disc jockey/talk show host who also happens to be a werewolf and our narrator. I liked several aspects of this book at first and thought I'd wind up enjoying this. It had an interesting take on pack dynamics--Kitty in this book is struggling to remain human and her own person and to not be dominated by everyone else in the pack even though she's no alpha. Her "alpha" exerts a "right" to have sex with her at will and she's giving him kickbacks so he'll permit her to keep a job she loves. I found her efforts to change that dynamic and grow out of her role as a submissive "cub" interesting. But then... well, there's an assassination attempt on Kitty and 1) The hit man warns her he's coming for her NOW on air 2) She's able to talk him into to standing down when he's nearly in view. 3) She doesn't press charges. 4) The police let him go despite his on-air threats and confession he's a hired killer. 5) She develops an attraction for him! And at that point, about 100 pages in, I went "Oh, please" and stopped reading because even in a story about werewolves and vampires I don't want things to be utterly ridiculous.

Wilson, F. Paul, The Keep - This is a good, solid horror thriller. Interesting riff on the vampire legend. (In Transylvania! With Nazis!). It features good pacing, sympathetic characters you worry over and evil ones you can hiss at, a nice element of romance. (I have to agree with one reviewer though, who observed that Woermann, the conflicted officer trying to save his men and serve his country while hating the Nazi regime, is a more interesting character than the purported hero and heroine.) Though not anything extraordinarily memorable, the novel is a good spooky tale told in a deft, clean style. It's the first of a series, the "Adversary Cycle" I might try more of. I'm actually more impressed by the author's not as well-known science-fiction, such as The Tery, Dydeetown World, Wheels Within Wheels. But if you're looking for a entertaining Halloween read, this fits the bill.


Tags: books, reading, reviews, ultimate reading list
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