The monsters inside us: a review of The Isle of Blood

“You may think I’m stupid, you may call me a madman and a fool, but at least I stand upright in a fallen world. At least I have yet, like you, to fall off the edge into the abyss.”

The Isle of BloodRick Yancey’s third Monstrumologist book, The Isle of Blood, is my favorite in the series so far. I expected ghastly creatures, vile dissections, and the sick thoughts of morbid men — as usual — but I wasn’t prepared for the frightening transformation of a small boy.

The Isle of Blood is, from start to finish, one of Yancey’s best. I found the previous book, The Curse of the Wendigo, a little slower paced as it focused more on character than action. This novel maintains the quality of Yancey’s signature descriptions, so gruesome and rich in detail, but also seamlessly combines internal character developments with nonstop, heart-pounding events.

I was a little disoriented because The Isle of Blood doesn’t begin where I thought it would, given the previous novel’s cliffhanger. But I quickly traded confusion for fascination as a mysterious “nest” of human flesh and matter arrived on Dr. Pellinore Warthrop’s doorstep, along with the desperate man delivering it. This nidus, as it’s called, curses all who so much as touch it or someone afflicted by it. It blinds them, turns their flesh to rot, and carves their souls hollow. They become hungry creatures, servants of a foul master.

Will Henry, the doctor’s young assistant, almost becomes one.

Warthrop himself is absent for a portion of the book. He trots off in search of the source of the nidus, the magnificum, the Faceless One, with an eager colleague who seems to know much more about the doctor and his secrets than he should. But The Isle of Blood is Will Henry’s tale — a look at what envy and loneliness can do to a boy so consumed by the obsessions of a man who is the closest thing to a father he’ll ever know, only the role of parent and child are reversed: Will Henry too often the parent, Warthrop the child. They’ve become so tied to each other that even a taste of a normal life cannot free Will Henry or save him from his descent into darkness, where he chases after Warthrop and becomes lost himself.

Once again, Yancey continues to deepen the strange and pained relationship between Warthrop and Will Henry — their obligations and responsibilities toward one another, and their guilt. Warthrop, so cold and unlikeable, becomes a warmer and more human character in this book while Will Henry, only a boy, finds monsters in himself that never existed there before. Yancey doesn’t shy away from them; sadly, neither does Will Henry, who, having never enjoyed such freedom, embraces their sinister power.

Yancey’s real accomplishment of story here is the way he dissects the truth and meaning of monsters: Are the ones we hunt in the world, the creatures that go bump in the night, more horrible than what man himself is capable of? What does that dark compulsion to find them, that life-long pursuit of them, do to the mind — to the fertile imagination and fragile psyche of a young boy? What monsters do we create in the search for monsters? When do the footsteps we follow become our own?

Grade: A

Love bites and growls and howls at the moon: a review of Sharp Teeth

We are all china barely mended,
clumsily glued together
just waiting
for the hot water and lemon
to seep through our seams.

Sharp TeethI’ve never been the biggest fan of poetry. I think it’s beautiful, but I’m not a big reader of it, and I don’t write it. Sharp Teeth is that wonderful exception.

Written in free verse, Toby Barlow’s debut novel combines the mysteries, passion, and eloquence of poetry with the accessible storytelling of prose. The Wall Street Journal likened it to “Romeo and Juliet, werewolf-style,” which is partly accurate. The different lycanthrope packs of Los Angeles are like the familial houses that rule the city, the members brothers and sisters, bound by the magic in their blood and the secrets of their transformation. Between them are a pair of unlikely, star-crossed lovers: the dogcatcher and the wolf. Only he doesn’t know what she is, and that ignorance rubs against her bottled-up knowledge and heats the friction between them.

There’s tragedy, like with Romeo and Juliet, though not all is lost. The book is part modern crime drama. A cop named Peabody investigates a murder: the evidence a river of blood and the unmistakable trail of red paw prints that leads him into the heart of gang rivalries that are only human some of the time. An old pack, a wild pack, and a rebel pack. All three with different outlooks on life but one insatiable hunger to own the town, to devour it.

These werewolves don’t change by the cycle of the moon: “That’s as ancient and ignorant as any myth.” Rather:

The blood just quickens with a thought
a discipline develops
so that one can self-ignite
reshaping form, becoming something rather more canine
still conscious, a little hungrier.
It’s a raw muscular power,
a rich sexual energy
and the food tastes a whole lot better.

That’s Sharp Teeth in a nutshell. These people have reasons for turning wolf. They were recruited because of their strength and loneliness, the sense that the world had wronged them, abandoned them, and now is the time to rip its throat out. That desire turns to blood lust, as primal as the sexual drive that burns with it. Sex and love. Canine and human. Almost one and the same, and the beauty is how they flirt and intermingle, that violence and passion spilling out like guts on the page.

It’s a dog’s world. Barlow ponders the tameness of man’s best friend as much as he does the wolves those mutts might be as they wait and watch with knowing, human eyes. Blending in as regular dogs is how these packs stalk the town, how they get away with murder, how they infiltrate the enemy’s forces and convert and initiate or betray. They operate by animal rules and live by human needs for revenge and companionship and possession. Barlow weaves these two sides together with grace and sadness and a just a lick of happy-ever-after.

You’ll never look at your dog the same way again.

Grade: A

Ask an author: 5 horror novels everyone should read

I Am Legend cover

Halloween may be over, but that doesn’t mean the scares have to end. One of my favorite authors, Dana Fredsti (writer of excellent zombie novels Plague Town and Plague Nation), shared with me a few of her favorite scary books — and answered a very important question about the genre itself. Because who would know horror better than a horror author?

How many of these have you read?

What are some of your personal favorite horror books that you wish everyone would read?

Haunting of Hill HouseThis is such a tough question for me because I love so many books for so many reasons, and I could spend hours and much of your blog space writing an endless list. I feel guilty when I leave anything off! But I’ll content myself with a sampling of some of my favorites and go with the ones that spring to mind first:

The Shining by Stephen King — One of the first books that scared me when I read it, and this was during the daytime. We’re talking skin-crawling, don’t-look-under-the-bed type shivers. I can’t say that about many books or movies, so no wonder The Shining popped into mind first!

Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson — One of the best haunted house stories ever written (and the film adaptation — the original; not more recent CGI crapfest — remains the scariest movie ever made without a hint of gore), and it stands the test of time.

DraculaWhere the Chill Waits by T. Chris Martindale — This book prompted me to write my first ever fan letter to the author. An excellent and creepy novel about the wendigo, a flesh-eating Ojibwa demon that either drives its victims insane and infects them with a craving for human flesh or just eats ’em.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson — The story of the sole survivor of a plague that turns its victims into vampires, this novel spawned three film adaptations (Last Man on Earth, Omega Man, and I Am Legend) and inspired George Romero’s classic movie Night of the Living Dead.

Dracula by Bram Stoker — It’s a classic for a reason. I read it once a year starting when I was 10 years old.

There. Start with those, and when you’re done, come back and I’ll have more for ya!

Why should people who enjoy a good scare or horror movie try picking up a horror book instead?

The human imagination can conjure up more horrific and subtle scares and images than any film can do for us. When you read a well-written horror novel or story, your mind does so much more work to scare you than any movie can do, especially in this age of CGI, when it’s so easy to tell something is fake. Reading sparks the imagination in a way that no film can ever hope to emulate.

Thanks, Dana! Be sure to check out her books, Plague Town and Plague Nation (they’re both so good!). She’s currently working on the third in her Ashley Parker series, Plague World.

Postscript: The legend of the wendigo

Postscript is a new ongoing feature here on the blog that explores themes raised in the books I’ve read and reviewed. My first is a follow-up to Rick Yancey’s The Curse of the Wendigo, which presents one version of the wendigo monster myth.

I encourage you to suggest other books or topics you’d like me to discuss in the comments.

The Wendigo - CharmedI’m a junkie for television shows on Netflix. My most recent addiction is Charmed, which I used to watch as a teenager. (Don’t judge me.) I must have started viewing the show later in its run because boy, are some of the characters (cough cough Andy) and events of the first season confusing considering what I know. [Update: Scratch that. I thought Ted King and Julian McMahon were the same person. They look EXACTLY ALIKE.]

The other day, I came upon the episode “The Wendigo” — which is, surprise, about a wendigo. This monster (pictured left) was more like a werewolf, but whatever. Anyway, it was an interesting episode for me to watch so soon after reading The Curse of the Wendigo by Rick Yancey. The only trait that Charmed‘s version of the monster shares with the one in Yancey’s book is a heart of ice.

In The Curse of the Wendigo, the wendigo is a creature so thin that it’s almost invisible. It ravenously consumes but, unable to sate its hunger, only grows more emaciated. It calls out the names of its victims on the high wind before it attacks, ripping out their hearts and tearing the skin from their bodies.

The Charmed episode provided a good explanation for the organ removal that fit well with Yancey’s story: the wendigo commits this act because it suffers from a broken heart. So it’s all about love, as usual.

I started to wonder: what’s the real folklore of the wendigo? The legend originates from the Algonquian Native American peoples. The heart of ice is a common characteristic, and the creature either feeds on human flesh or possesses someone, turning them into another wendigo.

But there’s also a medical term called “Windigo psychosis,” which describes cannibalism as a result of delusion. It typically affected families in winter — a period of little sunlight — who spent too much time in isolation due to snowfall.

Swift RunnerThe story has roots in Canada and particularly Ontario and Alberta, such as with the Swift Runner case. The wendigo is considered an embodiment of evil, and Swift Runner — who butchered and ate his wife, six children, mother, and brother though he was not malnourished — afterward expressed considerable remorse at his actions, believing them to be the work of a demon.

As for the monster itself, some believe the wendigo to be a relative of the bigfoot. When it claims someone, that person undergoes physical changes, such as lip swelling and a persistently low body temperature.

John Chanler, the character in The Curse of the Wendigo, went through a transformation as well before he became a deranged killer. His behavior appalled him though he was unable to stop. And Piper Halliwell in Charmed became one when a wendigo scratched her (more like a werewolf, see?). She broke out in cold sweats and experienced uncontrollable anger — with lots and lots of swearing.

Besides The Curse of the Wendigo, you can find the monster in Algernon Blackwood’s short story of the same name (available on Project Gutenberg for free), which introduced the wendigo into horror fiction, as well as in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, Jean Zimmerman’s The Orphanmaster, and much more. It’s also appeared in television shows like The X-Files and Supernatural.

Awesome book cover Friday: Irregular Creatures

Happy Friday! Today’s book cover pick is Irregular Creatures by author Chuck Wendig.

I love cats, so … yeah.

The book is 99 cents on Amazon and actually sounds pretty cool:

Contained within are nine stories featuring bizarre beasties, mythological mutants, and overall “irregular creatures” – including flying cats, mermaids, Bigfoot, giant chickens, and mystic hobo hermaphrodites.

It also includes stories about a radioactive monkey (cocktail … which I’m guessing doesn’t end so well for the imbiber) and a zombie that won’t die.

If anyone reads this, let me know how it is! I’m actually quite tempted to buy it, but I have a couple other books that are taking priority at the moment. This is only 45,000 words, though, so I may get it anyway.

Enjoy the weekend!

Revisiting: 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine DoorsVisual novels are a niche genre in the West. Not as many people play them as they do in Japan. That comes back to cultural differences — reading isn’t as valued or encouraged here as it is elsewhere, and many gamers in the U.S. prefer the fast action of headshots — shooting aliens, zombies, and wartime combatants in the face — over the slow pace of character-heavy experiences.

From the few visual novels I’ve played, I’ve found that many are very anime-centric as well. Games like Fate/Extra and Corpse Party: Book of Shadows depend too much on Japanese tropes. Maybe serious anime fans would disagree with me, but I don’t want to see two young girls flirt with each other for a half-hour and then share a bathtub in a lengthy, detailed scene. (And yes, you could make that illustration your background on the PlayStation Portable. Seriously. Don’t rush out to buy it too fast now.)

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (for Nintendo DS, 2010) from North American publisher Aksys Games and Japanese developer Chunsoft is different. Whatever hypersexuality it sneaks in is reduced to a few almost-hidden innuendos that actually feel more Westernized than most content in Japanese games. And as much as I support LGBT relationships, relating to heterosexual characters who are love interests is probably easier for American gamers than trying to follow two tween girls or two androgynous guys who are more than good friends.

That’s anime, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But not everyone cares for those drawn-out, “innocent”/perverted romantic focuses. I like that 999 keeps that stuff to a minimum and actually considers the audience playing it.

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You got vampires in my ghost story: a review of Where the Dead Fear to Tread

“The dead are the past and we cannot escape the past. Without the past there will be no future.”

Where the Dead Fear to Tread by M.R. GottTake a look at the cover for Where the Dead Fear to Tread by M.R. Gott (sequel forthcoming) and you pretty much know what to expect. It looks like it could be an action movie poster, right? Unfortunately, that’s what the book most resembles — a movie. Maybe the author is in the wrong business because as a popcorn movie, this story might work. It doesn’t as a novel.

Where the Dead is about an antihero who punishes child abusers and tangles with ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. That might sound like a sensible, collected premise, but that’s not how the book reads. It wants to be both a detective story and supernatural fiction, and the result is a mangled hybrid between the two. There’s no consistency to its world — you have no idea what to expect next not because the plot is fascinating and unpredictable but because it feels like Gott is making it up as he goes along.

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Awesome book cover Friday: Pet Sematary

This week’s pick is an oldie but a goodie: Pet Sematary by Stephen King, published in 1983.

I love the film version of this one. First up is a British import of the book, which Hodder & Stoughton put out in 2007. The publishing house seems to have replaced it with a newer cover (second one down, dated 2011), which is also pretty neat.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King pink white

Pet Sematary by Stephen King cat

I also really like this other Hodder & Stoughton cover from 1983 although I wasn’t able to find a decent image of it. I’m sure you’ve seen this one and this one — also cool. Here’s a bigger collection of all or most of the designs that were made for the book.

Does anyone know a good online shop where you can purchase vintage books specifically by cover? Amazon isn’t all that dependable — I bought a particular version of Life of Pi and received a different cover than what I wanted. I think Etsy has worked for me in the past, but it doesn’t have the best selection. I’m sure eBay would work, but I don’t know how much is available there, either. Do you ever go hunting for vintage covers? Where do you look for consistent results? I’d like to do some research on this.

[Update: actually doesn’t seem too bad. You can search for rare books — including signed or first editions — or filter results by whether the seller provided a picture, by country, whether it comes with a dust jacket, etc.]

Also: Do you think Stephen King is a good writer? Of course he’s successful, but my boyfriend and I were discussing whether he’s a good writer. He’s obviously a commercial writer — someone who writes frequently and for the common reader, which is why his books are so widely accepted. Literary writers are a different breed. They write with a greater attention to language and conventions like theme — there’s a greater purpose to their writing than just sales and storytelling.

So … thoughts? Is Stephen King a good writer? What are your favorite books by him? And do you have to be a literary writer to be a good writer-writer?

If this were real, it would be awesome: A Joss Whedon Choose Your Own Adventure

The Cabin in the Woods choose your own adventure

Because the sacrifice doesn’t count unless they choose their path for themselves. [via Quantum Mechanix (QMx)]

Here are my thoughts on Cabin in the Woods, the movie.

Did you have a favorite Choose Your Own Adventure? Check out this newspaper interview with Edward Packard, the guy who started the series first with The Cave of Time in 1979 — a book that contains roughly 450 different adventures, according to the article. Crazy.