Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

Read: 7 September, 2018

Something isn’t right at the new Orsk (a knock-off IKEA style store). When the morning shift comes in to find what appears to be poop on a Brooka sofa, three employees decide to come back after the store closes to find out what’s really going on.

This is a high concept horror story, and the publishes have really gone all in with the illustrations. I really enjoyed the way that each chapter begins by highlighting a particular furniture item, complete with IKEA-ese description. Except that these pieces of furniture get creepier and creepier, starting with an ordinary sofa and ending with actual torture devices. It was a neat touch.

I also really enjoyed all the retail-speak. You know, the way you can’t just say “small item”, you have to say “impulse”. Listening to retail workers talk shop is a surreal experience – not only does everything have a special name, there are whole special phrases (like the Orwellian banner proclaiming the value of hard work that pops up a few times in the story).

That’s where this story really shines. I loved the IKEA-ness of it (of referring to all items by their branded name, like consistently calling the sofa a “Brooka” instead of just a sofa), and the retail-ness of it.

Because that stuff is creepy. That’s what horror is made of.

I really enjoyed the horror story aspects, too, when they focused on that theme. When Amy and Matt get lost in their own store because the sections appear to be moving around on them? Terrifying.

But then there’s this whole other book in here, a trite story about some evil prison warden who got off on torturing prisoners so now he, and his captives, are haunting the building that was built over the ruins of his former prison. OoooOOOoooo. Even the half-hearted “big box stores are just like prisons!” message at the end feels cheap and heavy-handed.

Every time the narrative focused on Amy getting out of the latest torture device or being grossed out by swamp smells, I felt so bored. It doesn’t connect thematically – the by-the-numbers haunted house is a totally different story, and it just doesn’t fit with the existential creepiness of retail. Even the characters all seem to have stepped out of your average January release horror movie.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, but not something that I would recommend to friends. Hendrix came up with a great idea, but didn’t follow through.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Read: 30 August, 2018

When I was a kid, The Haunting of Hill House was my favourite book, and is – to date – the only book that I’ve read at least a dozen times. And yet, for some reason, I haven’t sought out Jackson’s other writings. I did come across “The Lottery” in school, but I was rather primed to hate everything that I came across in school.

The Haunting of Hill House has a plot to it, whereas We Have Always Lived in the Castle is more of a meditation. Things do happen, but the main characters actively resist reaction. Even their way of speaking has a certain out-of-timeness that doesn’t seem to quite respond to what has been said to them. In a lot of ways, Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian are living ghosts, all stuck on that day when the rest of their family died.

There’s a mystery of sorts, as we try to figure out just what happened to their family. But while we do get answers, they barely seem to matter when they do come. The point of this story is, rather, the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is very, very creepy.

I really enjoyed this. I thought it would be a bit too long to just evoke a creepy feeling without much in the way of plot, but it does work. And just when it might have started to drag, Jackson gives us a “normal” person to show us just how thoroughly we’ve immersed ourselves in the Blackwoods’ mindsets. Cousin Charles and the villagers all seem irredeemably horrible, like zombie hordes trying to get at the Blackwood sisters. So when the sisters build a barricade in the garden, it seems to make perfect sense.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a feeling, and it’s evoked expertly.

Vampirates #1: Demons of the Ocean by Justin Somper

Read: 29 August, 2018

Eons ago, I spotted a book in the bargain bin of my local bookstore called Vampirates. At that price, there was no chance in heck that I wouldn’t buy a book called Vampirates! I mean, that’s just amazing! I bet Somper is incredibly glad that he stumbled onto the name first. In fact, I bet the name alone has half made his career!

Unfortunately, the Vampirates I bought was Tide of Terror – the second book in the series. I didn’t want to start with the second book, but I also wasn’t intrigued enough by the name alone to justify buying the first book at full price.

Fast forward nearly a decade, and I found Demons of the Ocean on a friend’s shelf. She, also, had seen the amazing title of Vampirates on a book that was on sale, and also decided that it was worth buying for that alone. Between the two of us, we had purchased enough material to judge the series on more than just that incredible name.

And… it’s fine.

It drags a bit, particularly for a children’s book. Within the first few pages, the heroes’ last remaining parent has died and they’ve run away to sea. Only, they’ve capsized and each been rescued by a different pirate ship – Connor by normal human pirates, Grace by the titular Vampirates. And that’s basically it. They each make a friend, they each get to know their captain, and very little else happens. There’s pages upon pages of nothing happening.

On the plus side, there are a few moments of legitimate horror. There is a scene where Grace runs afoul of a Vampirate and I honestly started to wonder if I should be reading it aloud to my kid (it actually wasn’t all that gruesome, and I don’t think he picked up on the rape analogy at all). There’s also some fairly good creepy atmosphere while Grace is still working out what kind of ship she’s on, and I liked Connor’s moral difficulty with the whole pirating biz.

The setting is a little confusing. The story explicitly takes place in the future, but the in-story details all point to a fantasy-infused past. There are hints that there’s been an ecological disaster, and that’s why the society feels so “set back”, but there are no remnants of the modern world. Placing the story in the future adds nothing, while setting up expectations that aren’t met.

All in all, I found this to be much better than a series called Vampirates has any right to be. It isn’t fantastic, by any means, but it’s a solid children’s story with some good adventure and thrills.

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The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike

Read: 20 July, 2018

Written in the ’80s, The Graveyard Apartment is a little dated. Its formula is a staple of the horror genre – family with a rocky history moves into a new home, then the hauntings start. There’s even a dead pet (Pyoko, their pet finch, is found dead in the opening paragraph), a mention of a child dying in a tragic car accident on the family’s route, a scene where one of the main characters goes to the library to research the haunting, etc. Basically, this is a pretty solid collection of horror’s common tropes.

What I liked about the book was it’s pace – slow and creeping. There are few real scares, but the whole atmosphere of the story is quietly oppressive. The sense of dread I got every time the elevator gets mentioned – especially after about 2/3rds of the way through, whenever they’d get into the elevator and the narrator would count off each floor they pass…

The translation, done by Deborah Boliver Boehm, seems pretty solid. She’s managed to preserve something of the Japanese speech patterns and mannerisms, which I appreciate. But then there are some word choices, like when a character is described as “copacetic”. A word like that just doesn’t get used, so it stands out when it is. Given that several other words could have fit in that context, I’m baffled as to its choice. Unless it’s an ’80s thing, and the original Japanese version was alluding specifically to that word. There are a few such choices that struck me as odd as I was reading, but it’s hard to tell whether they were the correct choices or not when I can’t compare them to the original.

My major complaint with the book is that things don’t really tie up together. For example, Teppei’s first wife committed suicide, and it would have been narratively satisfying for that to pay off in the ending in some way. Same with the little boy who was hit by a car while crossing the road to get to the kindergarten (there is an incident where Misao is nearly struck by a car as well, but it isn’t given enough weight to have been foreshadowed deliberately). Maybe that’s unfair, and maybe the sheer randomness of the evil presence was a narrative choice in itself, but it would have been more satisfying for me to see more payoffs.

I also wasn’t a fan of the death-ray toward the end. I get how seeing it happen was traumatising for the characters, but it just seemed rather absurd. There were other ways to make the family feel trapped in the building that would have been much creepier – at least for me. Though the specific mentioning of Hiroshima may be a clue for me that the creep factor of the death-ray is relying on a cultural fear that I simply don’t have access to.

In conclusion, this was a nice creepfest. I didn’t find it particularly scary, but I did like the pace, and I felt quite invested in Misao and Tamao (Teppei I could take or leave). Koike builds a pretty good atmosphere, and I did have moments of feeling legitimate dread. I knew going in that it would feel rather cliched and dated, so I had no expectations to let down, and, as such, I enjoyed the book for what it is.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Read: 8 May, 2018

I read this with my seven year old. About half way through, he told me that the book was giving him nightmares. When I asked him if he wanted to stop, he said: “No. Like, good nightmares.”

And I think that just about sums up the book. Good nightmares.

The Troop by Nick Cutter

Did not finish: 21 April, 2018

This is my first “did not finish” in quite a while! I normally know within a page or two if I’m even going to bother with a book, but I made it a whole 240 pages with this one.

The writing is fine – the gross-outs are legitimately gross, and the characterisations are solid if pessimistic. But then there are the intrusive flashbacks. The characters see something. What do they see? Well, it looked like the balloons they make animals out of at the fair. Little Timmy could remember the last time he went to the fair, it was… Oh my ghawd, just tell me what they see!

The plot reminded me a lot of Lord of the Flies. It had the same savagery.

Which was part of the reason why I didn’t finish. I’m in the beginning stage of one of my week-long anxiety attacks, and I just can’t handle the total lack of likeable characters. Especially combined with the contagion threat, which just hits every single one of my buttons. So it’s not that this is a bad book – as I said, I did make it about 2/3rds of the way through – it’s just a difficult book. And that’s just not something I’m up for these days.

A few content notes: One of the characters is a violent psychopath who literally gets off on causing pain to others. He kills animals (including a kitten, in a rather graphic scene), and deliberately manipulates other characters. Also, Big Bad of the story is a worm-like parasite, so there’s all the content warnings about contagion, infestation, parasitism, and the body-horror that accompanies these things. Also, it’s set in Canada.

The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Read: 4 November, 2017

At it’s most basic, the plot is about a writer who has hermitted herself to get away from a recent tragedy. It’s a common story, but Kiernan handles it well.

I didn’t find the book to be particularly scary or haunted, unfortunately. I found that The Woman In Black got me quite a bit harder with the atmosphere (though Sarah and Constance’s picnic came close), and The Haunting of Hill House did a better job of getting under my skin. But I found The Red Tree compelling from start to finish. Even though very little happens, and we spend most of our time ruminating with the main character, I still had trouble putting the book down until I’d finished.

…and even after. The ending is somewhat abrupt. I was expecting, and would have liked, a follow up from the ‘editor’ who wrote the preface. Just something to give us the reality anchoring – what does the evidence tell us about Sarah’s time in that house, and how does it differ (or not) from her own account of it? Or maybe that would have been spelling things out too much. I did re-read the preface after I had finished the book, though, and there were some interesting details in the wording, but without the answers I had been hoping to find.

But other than my vague dissatisfaction with the ending (which, in addition to being very abrupt, also suffered from predictability), I enjoyed the book on the whole. I would have liked something a little more gut-grippingly scary as my Halloween read, but I’m not disappointed to have picked The Red Tree.

Oh, and the cover design really is very unfortunate.

Jews Versus Zombies edited by Lavie Tidhar & Rebecca Levene

Read: 1 October, 2017

This is a wonderfully “niche” anthology, for that handful of people interested both in Judaism and zombies. Only two of the stories are the kinds of zombie stories you might find in Best New Zombie Tales, though even those have a very particularly Jewish flavour to them. The rest more explicitly use the undead concept to explore philosophy and Jewish identity.

I found that most of this collection is way over my head, and many terms are used that I’m simply not familiar with. This was clearly not compiled with a gentile audience in mind. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reading as a gentile, however – even when I don’t feel like I really grasped a story, I still found something to enjoy in every single entry.

“Rise” by Rena Rossner

This story is essentially “12 Dancing Princesses,” except that the princesses are yeshiva students, and their partners are the corpses of holy rebetzin. While they dance, the zombie partners teach the boys about theology and philosophy. The eroticism and physicality of the learning reminded me quite a bit of some mystic cults.

“The Scapegoat Factory” by Ofir Touche Gafla

The central joke of the story is that all things are temporary – even death. A group of scientists use this assumptions to bring a group of dead back to life as zombies. Only, these zombies can’t simply return to their old lives, and they can’t die either. At the same time, there’s this whole other joke about a company called the “Scapegoat Factory” that supplies willing scapegoats for cold cases, to give the families a sense of closure. The story is very funny, but perhaps has a bit too much going on. The whole Scapegoat Factory bit could be written out entirely without affecting the story much (though, I suppose it would need a new title…).

“Like a Coin Entrusted in Faith” by Shimon Adaf

I think this one went a bit over my head. There are two stories: In one, a woman is chatting with an artificial intelligence when it “dies”. Meanwhile, a midwife is delivering demon babies. These two stories are related through the letters that two characters write to each other. It’s a bit odd, and I had a hard time separating what was reference and what was fiction.

“Ten for Sodom” by Daniel Polansky

The first real “zombie apocalypse” story in the collection, a lapsed Jew grapples with this faith as he faces the end of the world. While short and much more similar to the zombie stories I’m familiar with, this still offers an interesting and uniquely Jewish (albeit lapsed Jewish) perspective on the genre.

“The Friday People” by Sarah Lotz

The zombies are more ambiguous in this darkly amusing entry. The titular Friday People are the younger generation who meet briefly on their weekly visits to their older relatives – many doing so in the hopes of a future inheritance. Except that their relatives just won’t die, no matter what.

“Tractate Metim 28A” by Benjamin Rosenbaum

A lot of this one went right over my head, but it was still extremely amusing. A group of rabbis argue over matters pertaining to the purity of the undead. I’ve seen similar types arguments on the internet, and they are just wonderful.

“Wiseman’s Terror Tales” by Anna Tambour

A young man wants to design rockets, but seems destined to design bras instead. The zombies (again, somewhat ambiguous zombies, who seem far more explicitly metaphorical than they usually are) try to persuade him to choose a career. I enjoyed elements of this story, but something about it just didn’t grip me. Perhaps because the imagery, that would have worked better as a subtle pattern in a novel-length story, was too condensed, too thrown together. The final reveal went a long way to endear me to the story as a whole, though!

“Zayinim” by Adam Roberts

The collection ends with another ‘typical’ zombie story – this time we have some alternate history where Hitler wins WWII and gives everyone except the Jews an immortality drug. When the immortals’ minds degrade and they become zombies, the only true humans left are Jews. It’s an interesting consent, and a novel spin on an old idea. It didn’t hurt that the characters were fairly interesting as well.

Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox & Daniel José Older

Read: 22 September, 2017

This is one of the more consistent short story anthologies I’ve read – there are a few stories that I really didn’t like, but the writing quality is fairly consistent throughout. Like most anthologies, however, there are some stand out great stories, some weak entries, and a lot of somewhat unmemorable middling entries.

I really liked the variety of backgrounds and settings on display, and it was great to see cultures and experiences that I really haven’t gotten to see in fiction before. I also appreciated that the editors chose a variety of authors, from the well-known multi-published, to the first time sale – without compromising on quality.

“Ogres of East Africa” by Sofia Samatar

The collection opens with an interesting idea – the “story” is actually a catalogue of ogres, with the narrative taking place in the marginal notes. The ogres are creative, reminding me of Amos Tutuola’s ghosts, though they don’t have much bearing on the story beyond the set up. The narrative is a bit bare bones. It just presents us with a few interesting characters at a single point in time.

“The Oud” by Thoraiya Dyer

This story reminded me a lot of Wolf Winter. There was the same conflict between the personal story taking place within the household and the big political story taking place at a distance yet invariably spilling into the home. There was also the same competition between the old and the new religion, the same sense of isolation, the same smashing together of peasant and royal lives… It was sad, but in a dreamy sort of way. I really enjoyed this one.

“Free Jim’s Mine” by Tananarive Due

On the surface, this is a story about a young family trying to escape from slavery. But within that setting, Due has woven a fairy tale. It’s an interesting story with solid writing.

“Ffydd (Faith)” by S. Lynn

Set in Wales in the wake of the first world war, a family deals with the aftermath of their experiences. Shoehorned into this setting we get a vampire, who appears to be feeding off the chickens. I believe the family is meant to be Quaker, which I suppose have faced some amount of religious persecution in the past, and I guess you could say the same for the Welsh, but this comes right after a story about an escaping slave. It’s hard to see where it fits in the theme of the anthology. I found the story itself to be a bit of a slog – it just kept going and going, but didn’t have the either the writing or the characters to sustain interest in a “slice of life” narrative. Even the addition of a vampire couldn’t save it. As is, it felt like it was trying to be coy about the vampirism in lieu of having anything interesting happen, and I’ve just seen far too many vampires for that to work.

“Across the Seam” by Sunny Moraine

In this story, a trans coal miner is recognized as a woman by Baba Yaga. I wasn’t gripped by the story itself – it played out a little too predictably and there was quite a bit that I think just passed me by. But I really enjoyed the core premise. Knowing a few Baba Yaga stories, it fits quite well to have her recognize the woman inside the coal miner.

“Numbers” by Rion Amilcar Scott

Mobsters meet sirens! It’s an interesting idea, coming together to become a story about loyalty. The writing is good, just not to my taste.

“Each Part Without Mercy” by Meg Jayanth

The magic in the story happens through the use of dreams, as dreams are used in the conquest of a city, and then in an attempted assassination. I really liked the story, but I didn’t think it worked too well in that format. The world building was so interesting that I wish this were a novel – with more time to develop the characters and explore their relationships. But because the story tried to cover so much ground in such a small word count, it felt like the ending came out of nowhere and story lacked a satisfying resolution. I would gladly read this again as a full length novel.

“The Witch of Tarup” by Claire Humphrey

This one is a simple little story about witchcraft in rural Denmark. There’s no great twist or insight, just a solidly written little portrait. This is another one that I could easily see as a novel, where the author could better explore the relationships and setting. But while I liked the story, I really don’t see how it fits with the theme of the anthology.

“Marigolds” by L.S. Johnson

Lesbian prostitutes in Paris. The magic system is quite interesting – bringing together menstruation and female sexuality. It’s not something that I’ve seen too often in fiction, despite how much it comes up in culture studies. And while it’s lovely to get a story about lesbians with a happy ending, I’m rather put off by the “Paris prostitutes” setting. It just comes up too much and is way too fetishized.

“Diyu” by Robert William Iveniuk

The story begins as an interesting period piece set among the Chinese workers on the Canadian railroad, then gets some good Lovecraftian suspense going when an Eldritch horror appears (particularly satisfying given what a raging racist Lovecraft himself was)… But then the story ruins all of that built up good will by over-describing both the horror itself and its backstory. It even had the alien horror chatting! After such a strong beginning, all suspense was sucked right out of the story and it fizzles to a close.

“Collected Likenesses” by Jamey Hatley

This is a story about retributive magic and generational pain, exploring the aftermath of slavery. I found the second person narrative a bit jarring, as is the glimpse-by-glimpse narration. But despite these, it’s one of the collection’s strongest stories. It’s simple – easily summarised in a sentence – yet has quite a lot going on.

“Angela and the Scar” by Michael Janairo

In the Philippines, locals are losing the fight against the Yanquis until a forest spirit (kapfre) gets involved. This was one of the anthology’s middling entries – not great, not bad. It’s perfect filler. The idea of enlisting the land itself to aid in a freedom conflict is an interesting one (particularly in the context of guerrilla warfare), but the author doesn’t really do anything with it other than have it happen. I did like the way the kapfre was represented – it’s alien, and its help is very capriciously given. There’s a sense that it could just as easily (and happily) turn against the locals as against the Yanquis.

“The Colts” by Benjamin Parzybok

Another middling entry, this time about Hungarian zombies. The story takes place in a moment in time, as the main characters continue to act out the revolution that killed them while putting to rest the remainder of the living selves. The writing is solid, but this is another story that just doesn’t really do anything with its premise.

“Nine” by Kima Jones

I really didn’t like this one. The whole story seems to be exposition, yet I never actually got a feel for either the setting or the characters. The characters are puppetted through the story without appearing to really care about anything.

“The Heart and the Feather” by Christina Lynch

The story is about a family with Ambras Syndrome, or Hypertrichosis, which is characterised by abnormal hair growth over the whole body. This story didn’t really sit well with me. It uses real people and a real condition, but doesn’t really do anything with it – making it a bit of a spectacle. I struggled to see how this story fits with the theme of the anthology. The only thing I can think of is that it deals with the enslavement of the “Other” for entertainment, but the “Other” is presented as bestial, and that’s some very dangerous ground. There seems to be a lesson that the “Other” characters are good while it is the humans who are responsible for the evil happening in the story, but that’s undercut by having the responsible human be an actual, literal werewolf. So then what is the point, other than that some “Others” are fine, some are more at home in nature living as animals, and some eat children? I think this is the only story in the collection that I really disliked.

“A Score of Roses” by Troy L. Wiggins

This is a little story about two (magical?) people meeting and having a baby, and the baby is special in some way. The writing is solid and engaging, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It feels more like a first chapter than a complete story and, honestly, I can recall very little of this story now that a few days have passed since I read it.

“Neither Witch nor Fairy” by Nnghi Vo

This one is another story about a trans woman (or girl, in this case) being recognized by a supernatural creature. This time, the supernatural creatures are Irish. The setting lends a bit of an extra dimension to the self-discovery story, as the main character believes herself to be a Changeling, since she never feels like she fits as the boy she is thought to be. The story doesn’t stand out as anything special or particularly memorable, but it’s a solid entry.

“A Deeper Echo” by David Jón Fuller

This story read like heartbreaking wish fulfilment – a First Nations father, recently returned from fighting for the Canadian government, comes after his children who were stolen first by the schools, and then by a white woman. Oh, and also, he can change into a wolf. I’m attracted to the subject, so that may have carried me through a story that didn’t otherwise stand out. But this is certainly a solid addition to the anthology.

“Knotting Grass, Holding Ring” by Ken Liu

This is the first original story I’ve read by Liu, though I have read a few of his translations, and I absolutely loved it! The writing is lyrical, the setting is vivid, and the characters shone through brilliantly. This was by far one of my favourite stories in the collection!

“Jooni” by Kemba Banton

Another story with a bit too much exposition, but otherwise quite solid. The story takes place in a single moment as a freed slave deals with her trauma and recovers her sense of hope.

“There Will Be One Vacant Chair” by Sarah Pinsker

Hungarian Jews fight in the US Civil War while a disabled brother is forced to stay at home. The magic in this story involves reincarnation. This is another one that I think would have worked better as a longer piece – perhaps a novella. I would have liked more exploration into Julius’s theology.

“It’s War” by Nnedi Okorafor

This is another story that shows us its characters in a single moment, implying rather than narrating all that comes before and after. There’s a girl who can fly, there are women protesting taxation, and it all just kinda gets thrown together without explanation. It had a very similar feel to Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. The writing is fantastic, but I found something lacking in it as a story. I wanted either more about the protesters or more about the girl, but the two threads just didn’t seem to fit together.

“Find Me Unafraid” by Shanaé Brown

Booker warns Charlotte that the Klan is coming and holds her door strong against them. In the daylight hours, he gives her the money she will need to get herself and her family out of the small town where the mob in white sheets prowl. I enjoyed most of the story, but found the reveal at the end to be a little obvious and forced (the dialogue exposition, in particular, was clunky – especially since I had already picked up on most of the information that was being revealed). I’m also not sure how I feel about Charlotte having magical powers as well. I understand why she did, but it felt like a bit too much supernatural in a story that was otherwise more on the pleasantly ambiguous side. Overall, though, I found this to be one of the anthology’s stronger stories.

“A Wedding in Hungry Days” by Nicolette Barischoff

This was one of my favourite stories in the anthology! It’s the story of a ghost girl in rural China who marries a living boy. It’s practical and hard, but also very tender. It’s about caring for one’s family and creating a community. The narrative voice skipped around a bit, which I don’t like much in general and especially dislike in a short story, but that’s really my only complaint.

“Medu” by Lisa Bolekaja

What if Medusa the Gorgon were a black cowgirl? On the surface, the story is about a conflict between two types of magical humans (the Medusa-like and something like a xenomorph), but I felt a strong “natural hair movement” vibe from the story as well.

“Lone Women” by Victor LaValle

Adelaide is a settler heading out to her claim in Montana. With her is a creature, locked up in a trunk. As I was reading the anthology, I tried not to look at the author names or biographies before I read the stories so that my assumptions about their identities wouldn’t colour my perceptions. But when Adelaide turned out to be pregnant from a one night stand, I rolled my eyes and was utterly unsurprised to find that the author is a man. It’s not so much what happens as how, and the way in which it’s told. The story is fine, but suffers from both too much and not enough going on. There’s the story of the four boys, but that doesn’t get the ominous buildup it should have had and feels more like sequel-baiting rather than being impactful to this story. Then there’s the sisterhood angle, that seems to be looking disability and Otherness, but concludes by implying that disabled people are okay as long as they can be useful. I liked some parts of this story, but others made me quite uncomfortable.

“The Dance of the White Demons” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

The anthology ends with a strong story about native South American resistance against Spanish invaders. The story itself is great (and I would gladly read a novel-length version), but it’s also the perfect choice to end the book. It closes the anthology with a message of hope and survival even through times of oppression.

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

Read: 3 September, 2017

I have such a long TBR list that I don’t often get to just pick a book up based on the cover and synopsis and just give it a try. But I had a gift card, I was in a book store, and I couldn’t find any more of the books from my list. I picked Wolf Winter because it’s a Canadian author born abroad, and that’s a niche I’ve been pursuing lately. Plus, I tend to enjoy Scandinavian literary sensibilities.

The story starts as a murder mystery, but in the small settler community of Blackasen, an investigation quickly starts to turn up secrets in every closet. As one character says, the settlers who choose such a harsh, isolated livelihood are all running from something.

The book is slow, and takes the time to build up its dark atmosphere. The mountain always seems to loom, the snow always seem to press in, and wolves stalk the forest. And in all of this is the hysteria that makes ones’ neighbours the greatest danger of all – precisely the kind of atmosphere that makes The Thing (1982) one of my favourite movies.

The characters are all flawed, but feel quite solid. They all make terrible mistakes, but their mistakes are earned.

I loved that the book never talked down to the reader, but never erred in the other direction, becoming inaccessible. It’s a delicate balance, but it really worked. Events will be described in vague terms, in allusions, approached sideways, but clear shapes emerge.

One of my favourite aspects was the handling of magic. I really enjoy ambiguous magic – magic that could be real, but could just be in people’s heads. And this balance is also deftly handled in the book. It’s never quite clear whether Frederika really is able to see ghosts and cast spells, or if she is just suffering from hereditary mental illness. The story works with either interpretation.

To sum up, I took a chance with this book, and it’s an absolute gem. It’s atmospheric and brooding, it’s ambiguous but not pompously so, and it tells a solid story about superstition and family and survival in extreme environments.

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