The Six Weeks of Halloween isn’t just for movies, it also includes some season’s readings. In accordance with this year’s record-setting pace of movies watched, I’ve also set some sort of record for number of books read. This is due to basically the same reason, which is that there’s a raging pandemic on and thus I’ve got more time for reading/watching. I love books and movies, so it’s not the worst thing in the world, but I’d rather not do the same next year! I’m going to try to get through all of them in this one post, so they probably won’t be as in-depth as normal (not that these recap posts are usually that in-depth, but still).
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Season’s Readings
Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin – Struggling riverboat captain Abner Marsh receives a too-good-to-be-true offer to supervise the construction of and co-captain the grandest steamboat the Mississippi has ever seen. While wary of the mysterious benefactor making the offer, one Joshua York, a pale aristocrat who keeps strange hours, Marsh ultimately can’t resist. As the boat makes its way down the Mississippi, Marsh starts to notice even more suspicious behavior from York and his strange friends.
This was definitely the best thing I read all season and maybe even this year. While not quite as ambitious or intricate as his Song of Ice and Fire, it holds plenty of similarities. Lots of historical detail, this time placed on the 19th century riverboat trade. Strong, likable characters facing malevolent villains you love to hate. And of course, plenty of lovingly described feasts for our main character. Look, some of the digressions might rub folks the wrong way, but Martin is a consummate storyteller and it shows here. He also manages a spooky atmosphere that was perfect for Halloween season. Take this line, thrown off early in the book:
Once a raft came by, a fire burning on its deck, and they heard the raftsmen calling out to them, vague faint cries that echoed over the river before the gray swallowed raft and sound both.
So spooky. As usual, Martin has his historical ducks in a row, and he references all sorts of riverboat lore that is no doubt fascinating all on its own (i.e. the phantom steamer of Raccourci is briefly mentioned, and it turns out that it’s a real thing), then adds his own twisted tale of chills to the misty river. Plus, unlike the Song of Ice and Fire, this one is self contained and has a satisfying ending. Recommended!
Night Shift by Stephen King – Speaking of consummate storytellers, this collection of short stories was a pretty solid read during the season. Here’s the thing with Stephen King: Even when I don’t like the story, or the characters are awful, or something silly is happening… King finds a way to pull me in and turn the page. Only a few of these stories really standout in my mind as great, but all of them are supremely well written.
This is one of the reasons that so many King adaptations fail to translate on the screen. A lot of times, the story itself is rather silly (i.e. “Trucks”, “Battleground”, “The Lawnmower Man”, etc…), but King is such a virtuoso writer that he can make them work… That makes it difficult to adapt, for sure. Still, some of these stories are great. I really loved “The Boogeyman”, “The Ledge”, and “One For the Road”, but really almost all of them were interesting in one way or another. I go back and forth on Stephen King and short story collections are often uneven, but this book has convinced me to check out more of King’s short story collections.
14 by Peter Clines – Nate’s a down-on-his-luck schmoe who lucks into a cheap apartment. The only problem is that his apartment has some odd features. Weird mutant cockroaches, a light fixture that only emits blacklight. And hmmm, it looks like his neighbor’s apartment also has a mystery or two. And so does his other neighbor. Soon, Nate and his new friends are full-on investigating the mysterious building. What shall they find!?
It’s a fun little read. Take J.J. Abrams Mystery Box concept, apply to an apartment building, and sprinkle a little Lovecraftian cosmic horror on top, and you’ve got a fun little dish to eat for Halloween season. It’s not going to blow you away and the characters, while not exactly deep, are a likable enough bunch. The conclusion gets a bit kooky, but hell, it’s far better than the ending for Lost! It’s sorta perfect audio-book fodder.
The Fold by Peter Clines – In the same universe as 14, this is a mostly independent story (there are a couple of brief mentions of some of the events in 14 and some characters show up, but otherwise completely separate story). Mike Erikson is whip smart and he’s got an eidetic memory. That’s why he’s hired to audit a team of DARPA scientists who have invented a device they call the Albuquerque Door. It’s basically a teleportation device. It appears to work perfectly, but the team is not very forthcoming with any details and they refuse to release to the public until they complete some additional tests. Mike’s job is to figure out if they’re blowing smoke or really onto something. Naturally, the device doesn’t quite work perfectly, and soon, more mysterious and troubling things come to light.
Like 14, this is a fun read. It veers a little more into science fiction territory this time, which might not satisfy the hardcore SF reader, but should hit the general audience just fine. For my part, the moment someone mentioned that the Albuquerque Door relied on some sort of Quantum Mechanics, I know almost down to the last detail what was wrong with the project. That being said, Clines is a decent enough storyteller to keep things moving along and entertaining, even to a dork like me who thinks he knows everything. There are apparently additional books in this series that are out (or coming soon), and I’d actually be curious to check them out, which is usually a good sign. Again, not going to blow you away, but it’s entertaining and fun and again, good audio-book fodder.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay – When fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display aberrant behavior, her family tries everything to help, eventually turning to the Catholic Church for an exorcism and hiring a reality television crew to document the strange happenings. Fifteen year’s later, Marjorie’s younger sister recounts the whole experience to an interviewer.
I can certainly see why this book turned some heads (it infamously garnered high praise from Stephen King), and there’s a lot to like about it. I can’t say as though it hit on all levels for me, but I’ll give it points for ambition and putting a new spin on a hoary old tale. Tremblay manages this both with plot devices but also an unconventional narrative structure, which includes straight recapping of the possession, interview segments, and blog post excerpts reviewing the television episodes. It’s an effective mashup of stylistic elements and story, with an ending that I did not see coming. Ultimately, I’m not sure it worked perfectly for me, but I’m glad I read it.
Weaveworld by Clive Barker – Barker has long been a staple of my Halloween season’s reading, but I’ve long since exhausted his excellent Books of Blood short story collections, so now I’m working back to novels that I haven’t caught up with yet. This one features a lot of Barker’s appeal… but it also feels a bit like an inferior take on several of his other stories. In particular, I remember Imajica being a much better version of a similar sort of tale… But then, I haven’t read Imajica for decades, so the details escape me.
Still, this book about a hidden world and various attempts to capture or protect it, has some interesting things going for it. A meditation on memory and the past’s pull on the present, it hits those themes hard. However, it does perhaps drag on a bit too long and while Barker is always stylistically impressive, it’s not quite enough to save the flabby plot. Clocking in at over 700 pages, it somehow feels even longer than that, without really justifying the length. It became repetitive at times, and I dunno, maybe I was just turned off by the more fantastical elements, which aren’t particularly well defined here.
I didn’t hate this or anything, and maybe if I had read less Barker in the past, it would have hit me better… Still, I’ll probably continue to explore Barker’s oeuvre and dammit, wait for the third Book of the Art (which he’s been talking about for going on three decades)…
The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron – Another short story collection, this one a bit less successful than the King, but then, that’s a high bar. Still, this is my first experience with Laird Barron, and I’m not entirely sure I’m on his wavelength. The collection starts out strong, with the story “Old Virginia,” a creepy tale of a CIA project in the 1960s that touches on the Roanoke Island disappearance and eventually gets into cosmic horror. Next is “Shiva, Open Your Eye,” which is short but all style over substance, again with the Lovecraftian cosmic horror element that’s actually pretty effective.
From there, things start a downhill slide. Some of these should work, but almost all of them go on for far too long (even for short stories, they feel more like novellas sometimes) and aren’t quite as satisfying. The only exception would be the titular Imago Sequence, which is a strong way to end the book.
So I didn’t love all the stories, but there’s plenty to like, even in some of the lesser stories. Lots of creepy imagery and Barron’s overly descriptive style sometimes helps accentuate the scares. There are some commonalities to the stories as well. Tough guys who are normally competent getting thrown for a loop when presented with cosmic horror. Curiosity killed the cat, and apparently also leads humans to investigate things beyond their ken. There’s a cyclical feel to a lot of these stories. Stuff that’s happened before and will happen again. Unfortunately, that last aspect, while sometimes neat, isn’t always particularly satisfying, especially when you don’t like the characters involved. Ultimately, I’m a bit mixed on this book, and despite the stories that I liked, I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to read more Laird Barron (though it’s not completely out of the question, I guess).
Draculas by Blake Crouch, Jack Kilborn, Jeff Strand, and F. Paul Wilson – Man is this book just totally trashy stuff. A rich guy on his deathbed purchases a creepy old skull found in the Romanian countryside. It’s a strange archeological find and the rich guy basically just grabs it and rips his own throat out with it. His nurse and research assistant act quick and take him to the hospital, where he turns into a vampire and starts turning the staff/patients.
From there on out, it’s pure trashy action. Lots of blood and gore and there’s a clown vampire and people who take down vampires with chainsaws and so on. It’s not really good, but it’s trashy and fun. It might be more fun if I liked some of the characters more, but whatever, this book really isn’t that concerned with being realistic or anything like that. Not the worst thing in the world, but probably not something I’d recommend.
Hunted by Darcy Coates – A woman disappears while on a hike. Her camera is discovered with a series of strange pictures that vaguely suggest she was being stalked by… something. As her family and friends head into the woods to find her, a detective starts to piece together other parts of the puzzle. Not a bad setup and I will admit that it gets better as it goes, but wow did this thing start off on the wrong foot.
In particular, there’s this character named Todd that is just… why on earth would we ever want to have anything to do with this guy? He’s basically a stalker who is in love with the woman who disappeared, but is so creepy that I think she’d be better off not being found. Honestly, all of the characters are just awful stereotypes and caricatures and I don’t especially like any of them, except maybe Carla, the detective. She’s got all sorts of baggage that the author thinks will help us like her, I think, but it’s so cliched that I didn’t really connect with her until she started actually doing her job. Which she’s actually good at once she starts doing it, and thus the book does end much stronger than it begins. The twists at the end are welcome, I just wish that I cared about the characters at least a little bit.
Still, the whole exercise really isn’t worth it, and you’d be much better off watching The Wolf of Snow Hollow which had a similar vibe and is much, much better. In the end, it’s a pretty silly book, and unlike Stephen King, Darcy Coates can’t quite sell the silliness.
Phew, that’s a lot of spooky books. We shall return to our more SF inflected reading soon enough…