End of Summer: Book Review

End of Summer Cover

End of Summer by J. Tonzelli is a book that tries really hard. It wormed into all my comfortable places and I wanted to like it. The thirteen short stories it contains are centered on Halloween, which is a soft spot for most of us in the scare industry. Cool weather, changing leaves jumping off trees, longer nights, kids in costumes: all these things warm our jagged little hearts. This is my favorite time of year and I read End of Summer hoping it would evoke seasonal feelings in me.

The introduction was promising. Tonzelli tries to explain his own love of Halloween and falls a bit short, though in an admirable way. For those of us who love this holiday, the reasons are often ineffable. There are some concrete things, of course, but for the most part, we just fucking adore Halloween. It speaks to something inside and, as clichéd as it is, if it requires explanation, you’re probably not going to get it. Tonzelli captures this perfectly in his intro and I read on optimistically.

Turns out that was my favorite part. Everything after that felt like it was a rehash of an existing story, idea, or theme. Nothing felt original and many of the stories were the same tired old critters we drag out and pet on Halloween.

The opener, “Stingy Jack,” features a typical smooth-talking, tantrum-throwing Devil trying rather lamely to corral the soul of a drunk. Despite being the Devil, he seems at a loss to outsmart the drunk, tripping over a couple of tricks older than apples. Will he eventually win out? Probably. We’ve read these things before.

The final offering, “Dumb Supper,” is a generic Halloween yarn. It’s the sort of thing that appears in every collection of dark tales and would be right at home on the YA shelf. It takes place in the kitchen where a wife is reluctantly hosting her dead husband’s grumpy, asshole spirit for dinner. He can only come once a year, they have to be quiet and sneaky, he’s obviously escaped some dark force for the moment…you know the drill.

The eleven stories between these two are equally exhausted and worked over. It’s material that needs a fresh angle or wide streak of novelty to be interesting again but we don’t get that. Instead, it’s just business as usual. We’ve got our regular-ass, plain old haunted house. There’s a reluctantly evil couple sacrificing their young niece to ensure a bountiful crop. Let’s see, a man who killed his hated wife but is tortured by ghostly visions of her. Oh, and there’s the guy that watched his best childhood chum burn to death on Halloween. He didn’t set the kid on fire himself but he was sort of indirectly responsible and he’s been plagued by guilt ever since. That guy gets revisited by his friend’s smoky spirit every year on Halloween at exactly 12:37am.

While it seems obvious that Tonzelli wants to pay affectionate tribute to the motifs of Halloween that we all love, he seems unconcerned with breathing any fresh life into them. They remain as they were: antiquated; trite; worn at the seams; ready for retirement. Tonzelli turns a few innovative phrases occasionally to spice things up but these are few and far between.

End of Summer certainly isn’t the worst thing you could read this month. If you like curling up by the fire with a warm glass of cider, listening to your spooky sounds CD, and relaxing into comforting familiarity, this is your book. However, if you’re looking for something outside the box, go ahead and skip this one.

The Ritual: book review

The Ritual

The Ritual by Adam Nevill is 240 pages of bad ass horror awesomeness. Unfortunately, the book is 418 pages long.

The premise is simple: four friends head into the remote Swedish woods for a vacation and encounter something dreadful. You know…primordial forest, ancient evil, derelict shacks, profane rites. That stuff. It’s an overdone horror formula and I was worried this was just another shortcut-gone-gruesomely-wrong story.

Balls to that, dear reader. Mr. Nevill has put together some spooky shit here. Yes, the characters are wandering around lost. Yes, they’re low on food and water. Yes, the tension between them is predictably rising. And, yes, something monstrous lurks in the woods. We all know this story. But the atmosphere of this novel is just overpowering. The picture Nevill paints of the forest made my spine prickle. Constant rain, barely a glimpse of sky through the thick canopy, dense trees forcing the characters deeper in – it was fantastic. After just a few pages I felt damp, cold, lost, nervous, and utterly isolated.

Then it got scary. Hey, look! An abandoned house! Let’s stay here, fellas!

Fuck that house. Nevill wove all the standard threads together: creepy shit on the walls; evidence of pagan partying; horrible dreams; hey, don’t go up the stairs. But he did it so deftly it was like I’d never seen the formula before. The author shocked me back into horror virginity.

“Oh, no. Don’t go upstairs, Phil.  Don’t go upstairs!”

And then Phil went upstairs and it was awful. That ambience from the forest was still going strong. Nevill consistently made the old standards terrifying. I was reading this in bed and, when those guys were in the house, I was too freaked out to get up and pee. It was nerve-wracking.

Fine. The author has taken typical, somewhat worn-out themes and invigorated them. Could he keep it up? Could he make me uncomfortable all the way to the end? If you read the beginning of this review I’m sure you suspect the answer is “no.”

The wheels abruptly flew off in the second half of this book. And the vehicle the wheels were attached to crashed into something mildly tragic, like a busload of mimes. I didn’t even know what to do with this thing. It was like a different book that was partially related to the first one. Sort of like the food you eat is related to the poops you take.

It’s not even that the second half did things badly that the first half did well; it didn’t seem to do anything. The story it told was flat and lifeless and just didn’t fit with everything that came before. It had none of the chilling, oppressive darkness that seeped into my bones from page one. The opening whisked me right into the nightmare and I wanted desperately to know what was going to happen. Once the second half started, I had no idea what was happening and I no longer cared.

The front end of The Ritual is a precise tale crafted with true mastery. It showed there aren’t any tired old ideas, just tired old authors. Adam Nevill blew the dust off several of horror’s most banal themes and filled them with black, evil life. A simple story about a monster in the woods made me cower just a bit, under my covers. I semi-cowered. And I loved it.

The second half meandered off to nowhere in particular and I just wanted it to end. But it wouldn’t. In addition to being pointless, it was also overlong and drawn-out. It shuffled along like a zombie in an obstacle course, confused, obviously trapped, but tirelessly in motion. I finished it out of spite.

I cannot recommend the first 240 pages of this book enough. Read them right now. But, whatever you do, don’t read any further. Just turn out the light, pull up the sheets with your trembling hands, and let your imagination finish the story. I guarantee it’s better than what actually happened.

Bird Box review

Bird Box Cover

Bird Box by Josh Malerman is ninety-five percent of the best horror novel in five years. The concept is chilling and the execution is nearly flawless. This book made me anxious and uncomfortable, which is odd enough considering I’m a grizzled horror bastard. But then it creeped the shit out of me, which is rare as dolphin eggs. I finished it in one breathless sitting because I just couldn’t stop. It’s so well crafted I felt like I was suffering the characters’ plight right along with them.

And what a plight. The world’s population has been shredded by violence and the survivors take shelter wherever they can. Said shelter had better have its windows boarded up tight though, and not because critters are going to come crashing through. No one has ever seen the cause of this apocalypse because seeing it is the cause.

Malorie and her group know there aren’t monsters roaming around eating people. They know there’s no virus turning folks into undead freaks, either. But something is out there. Any human who lays eyes on it gets a blistering case of the crazy murder fever. After enthusiastically slaughtering anyone close by, they commit gruesome suicide. The only way to ensure survival is to stop looking at stuff. But what stuff?

Whatever it is isn’t physically dangerous. Malorie and her cohorts aren’t confined to their house. They can go out back and draw water from the well, they can search nearby homes for supplies, they can scour the town for other survivors. They just have to do it fucking blindfolded. It seems perfectly safe to wander outside their refuge so long as they stumble along like Stevie Wonder. Since a glimpse of whatever the hell it is will turn anyone into a murder/suicide machine, the only defense is to be sightless.

Malorie’s two four-year-old kids understand this defense very well. They were born after the mysterious disaster and, despite frequent trips outdoors, have never seen a tree, the sky, or the birds they hear chirping. The entirety of their visual lives has occurred within the blacked-out house their mother wanders like a prison.  Her abject hopelessness threatens to throw its shadow over the children, dragging them into a hell that is, so far, beyond them.

Until Malorie hears a rumor about salvation. A new life may be only twenty short miles away, down the river that flows in their backyard. She’ll have to go blindfolded. With two children, also blindfolded, who have never seen a boat or a river.

Bird Box is told in two storylines, jumping back and forth between Malorie and her post-apocalyptic group and Malorie and her children on the river. The tension in the former storyline is tight. With supplies running low and theories on what causes the madness running high, all relationships are shaky. The resultant alliances, coups, and secret machinations are enough to drive a reader over the edge.

But it’s the latter storyline that really jerks the stress up to eleven. Malorie and her children can hear things as they paddle down the river. But, no matter what they hear, they can’t remove their blindfolds. They could be brushing right up against the things that drive people to kill strangers, loved ones, and themselves, and they’d never know.

This book is flippin’ sweet. The horror it presented jumped right down my throat. It was oppressive, dark, insidious, and, above all, real. The loss of sight is a primal, atavistic fear. Despite the fact that I was reading this thing with my damn eyeballs, I felt as blind as Malorie and her kids, with things drawing down on me from all sides.

Unfortunately, Malerman writes dialogue like maybe he was raised speaking sign language. Every time a character talked it was a turd in my tapioca. This novel relies on atmosphere and gently rising terror to move the story forward. It shoots right along like a macabre missile but every spoken line jerked me out of the flow. This is a spooky-ass machine and the dialogue only served to grind its gears gum up the works.

Also, the ending was balls. After the relentless pace it set, the total shock and awesome it leveled on me, I expected a truly nuclear payload at the end. Instead, it whimpered to a conclusion in the last few pages. It wasn’t bad, mind you. It just didn’t live up to the rest of the book.

Don’t let these two niggling details stop you from grabbing it. In a world that embraces overbearing, formulaic, shock-value horror, Bird Box is an intelligent, subtle entry that speaks right to your spine. Everyone who loves horror should probably be forced to read this and I’ll be right there jabbing you along with a stick. Get your ass to this book.