In defense of horror
We all have a postulate buried deep in our minds: that an interest in horror is unhealthy and aberrant. So when people say, “Why do you write that stuff?” they are really inviting me to lie down on the couch and explain about the time I was locked in the cellar three weeks. Stephen King, Danse Macabre (1980)
In preparation for this year’s Freedom to Read Week (Feb 20-26, 2011) I thought I would do my small part and defend a much maligned genre (while reviewing a pretty nasty book in the process). Too often horror in all of its manifestations comes under the cross-hairs of censorship (and the egregious act of book banning). Because it is a genre that constantly pushes boundaries (and buttons) and is often steeped in violence either explicit or implied, horror will remain an easy target of those small-minded individuals who wish to sanitize (and anesthetize) our minds.
Survivor by J.F. Gonzalez was a tough book for me to finish and I nearly threw it down in complete revulsion more than once. Yet there was also something so utterly compelling about the story that kept me riveted and turning the pages to get to the end. Let’s call it the "slowing down to look at the accident" compulsion. In order to survive the worst circumstances imaginable the female protagonist makes a choice no human should ever make in order to save her own skin. It's brutal and calculating and really got me thinking...in the same situation, would I do the same? Could I do the same? And if I did, could I live with myself afterwords? If this book was half as tough to write as it is to read, my hat goes off to J.F. Gonzalez.
Understanding the appeal factor of horror is difficult for some people to comprehend – the same people who will look at you with a wary expression that screams: "how can you read that stuff"? To them horror is illicit, offensive and quite possibly damaging to society at large. Consuming horror in any shape or form should make us feel guilty, as if we are somehow mentally warped or that our moral compass is dangerously askew. Don't worry, it isn't. Horror appeals to many fans for very solid, rational, non-psychopathic reasons.
We love it because it's a genre that probes sensitive, taboo areas and it asks the difficult questions. The best horror fiction reflects back to us our collective cultural fears and everyday personal anxieties. Most importantly, horror allows readers to safely explore humanity's dark side, giving us a place where we can face our deepest fears from a vantage point of complete safety. In his non-fiction magnum opus on the horror genre – Danse Macabre – Stephen King explains that what the horror writer seeks to achieve is to locate societal “pressure points….terminals of fear…so deeply buried and yet so vital that we may tap them like artesian wells—saying one thing out loud while we express something else in a whisper”.
King deftly explains our attraction to the genre this way, and I've yet to come across anyone else who sums it up any better (or more honestly) than this:
Here is the final truth of horror: It does not love death, as some have suggested; it loves life. It does not celebrate deformity but by dwelling on deformity, it sings of health and energy. By showing us the miseries of the damned, it helps us to rediscover the smaller (but never petty) joys of our own lives. It is the barber’s leeches of the psyche, drawing not blood but anxiety....We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones (Stephen King, Danse Macabre).
The Body Farm
“There is a patch of ground in Tennessee dedicated to the science of death, where human remains lie exposed to be studied for their secrets. The real-life scientist who founded the "Body Farm" has broken cold cases and revolutionized forensics . . . and now he spins an astonishing tale inspired by his own experiences.” (Description taken from “Carved in Bone”)
About the Author(s):
Jefferson Bass is the writing team of Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Dr. Bass, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist, founded the University of Tennessee's Anthropology Research Facility—the Body Farm—a quarter century ago. He is the author or coauthor of more than two hundred scientific publications, as well as a critically acclaimed memoir about his career at the Body Farm, Death's Acre....
Jon Jefferson is a veteran journalist, writer, and documentary filmmaker. His writings have been published in the New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, and Popular Science, and broadcast on National Public Radio. The coauthor of Death's Acre, he is also the writer and producer of two highly rated National Geographic documentaries about the Body Farm. (Taken from “Bones of Betrayal”)
About the Books: Although the story and the characters are fictional, the forensic details, methodology and the Body Farm itself are factual (three such farms are currently operating in the United States for those of you interested) and are taken from Dr. Bill Bass’s personal experiences.
Disclaimer: Just a note for you sensitive readers out there, evidently we are dealing with some pretty gruesome issues (i.e.: the very graphic decomposition of dead bodies, mayhem and murder) so this series may not be for everyone.
Carved in Bone
Renowned anthropologist Dr. Bill Brockton has spent his career surrounded by death at the Body Farm. Now he's being called upon to help solve a baffling puzzle in a remote mountain community. The mummified corpse of a young woman dead for thirty years has been discovered in a cave, the body bizarrely preserved and transformed by the environment's unique chemistry. But Brockton's investigation is threatening to open old wounds among an insular people who won't forget or forgive. And a long-buried secret prematurely exposed could inflame Brockton's own guilt—and the dangerous hostility of bitter enemies determined to see him fail . . . by any means necessary. (Product Description)
My Review: Not bad for a fictional debut. I did find this book a little too detail oriented and not in a Patricia Cornwall or Kathy Reichs kind of way…it was more like being lectured at in a university setting, which I guess makes sense given the author’s background. However, there was enough plot and action that carried the mystery and held my interest. At any rate, I thought highly enough of this book to continue on with the series…
Flesh and Bone
Anthropologist Dr. Bill Brockton founded Tennessee's world-famous Body Farm—a small piece of land where corpses are left to decay in order to gain important forensic information. Now, in the wake of a shocking crime in nearby Chattanooga, he's called upon by Jess Carter—the rising star of the state's medical examiners—to help her unravel a murderous puzzle. But after re-creating the death scene at the Body Farm, Brockton discovers his career, reputation, and life are in dire jeopardy when a second, unexplained corpse appears in the grisly setting.
Accused of a horrific crime—transformed overnight from a respected professor to a hated and feared pariah—Bill Brockton will need every ounce of his formidable forensic skills to escape the ingeniously woven net that's tightening around him . . . and to prove the seemingly impossible: his own innocence. (Product Description)
My Review: I enjoyed this rendition of the Body Farm much better than its debut. Bass corrected many of what I felt were the shortcomings from Carved in Bone to make this book on par with some of the other forensic mystery writers out there. The forensic details were just interesting and grisly enough to be interesting but not too “teachy” and the main characters were much more fleshed out. Suspenseful and entertaining, this book was the clincher for me to continue on with the series.
The Devil’s Bones
A burned car sits on a Tennessee hilltop, a woman's lifeless, charred body seated inside. Forensic anthropologist Bill Brockton's job is to discover the truth hidden in the fire-desecrated corpse. Was the woman's death accidental . . . or was she incinerated to cover up her murder?
But his research into the effect of flame on flesh and bone is about to collide with reality like a lit match meeting spilled gasoline. The arrival of a mysterious package—a set of suspiciously unnatural cremated remains—is pulling Brockton toward a nightmare too inhuman to imagine. And an old nemesis is waiting in the shadows to put him to the ultimate test, one that could reduce Brockton's life to smoldering ruins. (Product Description)
My Review: The devil was in the details with this one, as in too many details and plotlines not enough momentum to propel the story. I found myself just waiting around for something to happen which should not be the case in a thriller especially since there was three main subplots all occurring at the same time. Unlike the previous novel, this one was not tightly written or well planned. Bass seemed to have too many balls juggling in the air and thus was unable to fully develop and conclude any one of them satisfactorily. Despite its glowing reviews from all over the place I found this title to be the weakest one in the series.
Bones of Betrayal
The latest Body Farm novel finds forensic anthropologist Bill Brockton looking into an unusual death. A man’s body is pulled out of a swimming pool in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The autopsy reveals that he appears to have died after ingesting a highly radioactive pellet. When Brockton discovers that the victim was a key player in the Manhattan Project—that, in fact, he designed a reactor that was instrumental in the creation of the first atomic bomb more than 60 years ago—he realizes that to solve the crime, he must penetrate the secrets-laden history of the Manhattan Project itself. (From Booklist)
My Review: Bones of Betrayal is by far my most favorite book in the series. Brockton’s wry humour and Miranda’s (his research assistant) quiet insightfulness captures the reader from the very first page. The raw emotions and the unknown danger the characters find themselves in made me empathize with them that much more. I’ll admit, I found myself rooting for a happy ending.
The details in this book not only supplied the reader with the usual forensic information, but unknown historical facts regarding World War II as well. The very, very descriptive autopsy was...well umm…interesting...I could almost smell it! Overall, this forensic mystery was a captivating read with a very unpredictable ending.
Be careful who you slight
Slights by Kaaron Warren
After an accident in which her mother dies, Stevie has a near-death experience, and finds herself in a room full of people - everyone she's ever annoyed. They clutch at her, scratch and tear at her. But she finds herself drawn back to this place, again and again, determined to unlock its secrets. Which means she has to die, again and again. And Stevie starts to wonder whether other people see the same room...when they die (Product Description)
First of all, can I just say how much I love this cover? A bunch of new paperbacks arrived at the library a few months ago, and this immediately caught my eye for its supreme creepiness. For some reason it reminded me of that movie Jacob's Ladder, but I digress.
This is an exceptionally well-written book, with an original premise that's solidly executed, but reader beware: it is a dark, depressing, claustrophobic read that never lets up. It is a richly textured novel, quite literary, but also ruthless in its barbarity. This book will shock you and make you squirm, of that I am certain. It is a mystery wrapped up in devastating family secrets.
Stevie is a villain like no other I've read in a very long time. Getting inside her head is akin to cracking open a log on the forest floor and having all sorts of creepy crawlies come pouring out -- beetles, centipedes, maggots, you name it. The ick factor is off the charts. I wanted to feel sorry for her, find some reason for empathy, but she is just so completely rotten to her core that you can't. I'm telling you, you can't! Just when I felt myself starting to soften, my burgeoning empathy was squashed by a cruel or selfish word, thought or deed.
And it's not just Stevie: no one is likable in this book. There is no one to root for and I struggle with that kind of post-modern existential reading experience. I need a hero, or at least an anti-hero, someone with one redeeming quality to hang my hat on. But everyone is horrible. Maybe it's because they're seen through Stevie's eyes, but it doesn't matter because the end result is the same.
The first half of the novel reads like a coming-of-age story with lots of jagged edges. It's a slow build, but Stevie's reminisces are painful, ugly and uncomfortable to read because Warren's language is graphic, brutalizing, and scalpel sharp. Certainly not for everyone, but an intriguing and impressive debut.
Review: Legends: The Enchanted
Courtesy of the Graphic Novels Blog...
Legends: the Enchanted by Nick Percival
May's Review: Wow! If you prefer your fairy tales extremely dark mixed with steampunk elements, then this graphic novel is for you!
A band of supernatural but very familiar fairy tale characters including as Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, and the giant-killer Jack have been charged with the protecting the lands from the never-ending horde of nightmarish creatures. Unfortunately, this supernatural band of heroes' greatest weapon--their immortality spell--has been broken and now they must race against time to identify and stop their mysterious nemesis before it's too late.
This is an incredibly dark and gritty story with multiple references to torture and sexual violence that may cause some to be slightly squeamish. This is certainly not the "happily ever after" type of graphic novel. The artwork is gorgeous but slightly twisted in a surreal kind of way. Definitely a recommended read for the Fables fan who is looking for a more adult graphic novel series.
By Alex Kava
After Albert Stucky, a brutal and clever serial killer known as "The Collector," escapes from prison, he forces FBI profiler Maggie O'Dell, the agent who originally captured him, to play a deadly game when he targets her and everyone associated with her, pushing her to the very edge of sanity. (Description taken from Fantastic Fiction)
My Review: Split Second is the second installment of Kava's Maggie O'Dell series (after A Perfect Evil) and it is much better than the first. The tone and maturity is evident in Kava’s sophomore novel as the rookie mistakes (i.e.: the amateurish and out-of-place romance scenes) are replaced with a more tightly plotted thriller/murder mystery. Although Nick Morelli makes a reappearance in this book, Maggie O’Dell takes center stage and her character is much more developed than the first. An entertaining read to curl up with on the patio as the days of summer slowly turn to fall.
Review: Is There Such a Thing as Intelligent Zombies?
This review is courtesy of the Graphic Novels Blog.
Deadworld: Slaughterhouse by Gary Reed and Sami Makkonen
Summary: Many humans find themselves trapped in a world of the walking dead and the living who will do anything to survive. The promise of "Safe Haven" reveals a much darker and sinister purpose, when victims find themselves in a medical facility, a "Slaughterhouse," which will stop at nothing to combat the zombie plague, including using humans as guinea pigs. Survivors find that the greatest horror may not be the zombies, but their own kind.
May's Review: One of things that appealed to me about this graphic novel was the promise that these zombies were not the mindless stupid creatures we are accustomed to. Instead, these creatures are highly intelligent, cunning, and above all, very sadistic. In short, this graphic novel looked very promising.
However, I never quite got into the novel. I usually try to avoid jumping into a series midway through. Although this book can be read as a stand-alone, I think fans of the saga got a lot more out of the story than I did. For one thing, I don't know the main characters as well so I really had difficulties trying to follow what had gone in the past and what some of them were doing now. It probably also didn't help that I wasn't a huge fan of the artwork. Many of the panels are shaded black or gray which sets the tone of the work but made it very difficult to distinguish some of the characters at crucial times. I get the point that in this storyline, no one is good or evil. Everyone has shades of "gray" but I think it would be helpful if the reader could at least figure out who was talking or being killed!
I might take another chance and revisit this series, but for now, I will have to content myself with getting caught up with Kirkman's zombie series The Walking Dead. As always, comments about this review are always appreciated.
Review: The Strain
The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
Summary: They have always been here. Vampires. In secret and in darkness. Waiting. Now their time has come. In one week, Manhattan will be gone...
May's Review: There is a reason why Del Toro is such a great fantasy director. He has a certain visual style that immediately captures your imagination and manages to hold your interest throughout even if the story isn't quite up to par. In the case of the book, fans of Del Toro wonder wonder if he can translate his unique visual style without using images or illustrations but rather, with words? I am happy to report that yes, he can. Maybe it's just me but I definitely tell it was patented Del Toro.
His vampires are eerily reminiscent of the über vampires in Blade II--entirely grotesque and frightening but at the same time, strangely compelling. It certainly helps that both author take their time to build up a credible back story for the characters so the audience gets to know them, especially Abraham Setrakian whose has a history with the vampires. The pacing of the book is actually quite fast-paced, almost as if he originally envisioned the story as a movie. If you enjoy reading vampire books, you can't go wrong with this one. In fact, The Strain is the first book in the trilogy so if you really like this storyline, then you will have two more books to look forward to in the next year or so.
Scott Sigler: rollicking, plot driven page-turners
Summary: CIA operative Dew Phillips, working together with CDC epidemiologist Margaret Montoya, race to stop the spread of a mysterious disease that is turning ordinary people into murderers. A former football player who has become infected with the deadly bioengineered parasite may carry the cure.
The Cryptkeeper says: I worried about starting this one. It's tough for a book with so much hype surrounding it to meet reader expectations, but it did that and more. Sigler's writing style is lean and mean. Several scenes rank among the grossest I've ever read, to the point where I'm laughing and cringing at the same time. Funny and scary, my favorite combination.
This book is 90% plot-driven. It moves from one action sequence to the next, and I usually tire of that type of story-telling pretty quickly. But not so with Sigler. What a ride. His powers of description are enormous. If Hollywood doesn't option this for a movie I'll be gob-smacked. So this book won't change your life or anything, but it's a fun, high-octane read, and there's nothing wrong with that. Beware the triangles!
Summary: Picking up immediately where Infected ended, Contagious continues the story of CIA operative Dew Phillips, CDC epidemiologist Margaret Montoya, and the only survivor of the original triangles infection, Perry Dawsey....the disease responds, adapts, using sophisticated strategies and brilliant ruses to fool its pursuers. The only possible explanation: the epidemic is driven not by evolution but by some malevolent intelligence.
The Cryptkeeper says: I really enjoyed this one - not as much as Infected, but it's still a rollicking, rousing read. For readers who like plot driven page-turners, you will definitely want to give Scott Sigler a try. Sigler has a very American sense of humor that reminds me a lot of Stephen King -- it's crass, downhome, good 'ol boy stuff. For example: "Donald Jewell ... did not feel good. Perhaps it was more accurate to say that he felt like a tainted can of boiled elephant ass." This line got me giggling so hard I had to put the book down for a minute. And there's lots of gems like that to look forward to.
Sigler does an amazing job of developing the relationship between the old and crusty CIA veteran Dew Phillips and the young, troubled, violent Perry Dawsey who is desperately trying to outrun his demons. For a book that's mostly action sequences, there are moments shared between these two men that are thoughtful and believable and cut to the heart of what motivates each man. The ass-whupping scene is not one I will forget soon either. Priceless!
For all you hardcore sci-fi geeks out there, Sigler goes the extra mile and explains in great detail a lot of the science and technological components that drive the plot.
A sequel you don't want to miss!
Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations (2009)
Summary: Sam has an extraordinary talent. He has the ability to travel through time. He can use his gift to help the police solve cases, but he must never intervene with the past as it could alter the present in horrific ways. When a woman from Sam's past begs him to help find her sister's killer, Sam breaks his own rule, causing all hell to break loose.
The Cryptkeeper says: I tend not to get too excited about the inevitable multiple sequels the horror genre spawns ad nauseum. Did we really need a Jason Vorhees in space movie? -- I believe that made it Friday the 13th part 10 -- and Hollywood is draining every last bit of originality and purpose out of the SAW franchise this October with SAW VII. Where does it end? Most often in dreadful, lazy movie-making. But every now and then a real diamond appears amongst the dreck.
The original Butterfly Effect released in 2004 and starring Ashton Kutcher is an awesome movie. Ashton Kutcher successfully breaks out of his moronic Michael Kelso / Punk'd persona to turn in a mesmerizing and unforgettable performance. I for one did not think he had it in him. Kutcher plays Evan Treborn, a young man struggling to suppress traumatic childhood events. His recovery of certain memories leads him to believe he can make things better by righting past wrongs -- a dangerous assumption. By altering certain significant details from the past, Evan discovers life changes for everyone in the present, and not always for the better. The more Evan tries to fix things, the more broken they become. The supporting cast is superb, particularly Amy Smart who plays Evan's lifelong love interest, Kayleigh. I've seen this movie several times now, and I take something new away with every viewing. Intense and bittersweet with a heartbreaking ending.
Butterfly Effect 2 (2006) is awful, disappointing on so many levels compared to the original that there is really nothing more to say.
Now along comes part 3, and I thought to myself, "are they mad? what could they possibly offer here other than a great big giant bowl of waste of my time?" I'm glad I watch movies anyway even though I'm positive I'm going to hate them, because sometimes I'm completely wrong and delightfully surprised. Butterfly Effect 3 is a much darker and gruesome departure from the original. It's a gritty who-dun-it police procedural with a time travel twist that works on so many levels. While part of a franchise, it is a stand alone film, and it's not necessary that you see the original before sitting down to watch this one. It's not a classic or anything (or even as good as the original), but well-deserving of 90 minutes of your time.
Just plain weird (and frankly, not all that good)
John Dies at the End New!
by David Wong
It's a drug that promises an out-of-body experience with each hit. On the street they call it Soy Sauce, and users drift across time and dimensions. But some who come back are no longer human. Suddenly, a silent otherworldly invasion is underway, and mankind needs a hero. What it gets instead is John and David, a pair of college dropouts who can barely hold down jobs. Can these two stop the oncoming horror in time to save humanity? No. No, they can't.
The Cryptkeeper's review: I couldn't wait to get my hands on this; word-of-mouth promised a heady, hilarious horror romp. Unfortunately, it did not live up to the hype for me. Think Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure meets Ghostbusters (or depending on your frame of reference, maybe “Ghostfacers” a la Supernatural), with Lovecraftian-style monsters, a twist of Rod Serling and a dash of psychotropic drugs to really mess you up. Sounds promising, no? Brilliantly mad? Genius even? The only problem is it falls way short of sustaining the insanity in any meaningful or satisfying way.
It is moderately amusing in places (I smiled but did not laugh out loud). Our heroes are basically doofuses (and that’s the point) but I wasn’t given the opportunity to really invest in them. The plot is outrageous and just too ambitious. It was like "enough already!!! C’mon!!!" Because the entire novel reads like one long, really whacked acid trip, you never know what’s going to happen next. Normal rules just don’t apply. Everything has a dreamlike (nightmarish) quality. That should be a good thing, but in this case I eventually just got terribly bored – oh look, another creature with eyes on stalks and baby arms for legs. Oh jeez, see that jellyfish hanging from the ceiling? Watch out for the wormhole!!!!
This book had sooo much potential and "Wong" certainly has a vivid imagination, but overall, it boils down to a "much ado about not a whole helluva lot".
About the Book:
John Dies at the End started its life as a webserial in 2001 and an estimated 70 000 people read the free online versions before they were removed in September 2008 (Wikipedia.org). While the novel is no longer available online, there's still a pretty hilarious website up and running -- check it out!
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