New-ish Horror in Print April / May

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Well, I had this whole intro about how no matter how late into the month I wait to pick up the lists of what’s coming out in print, there are always stragglers the next time I check in and I wouldn’t want to miss a great title just because the publishing date has expired already.  But now I’m just plain late with this article so what’s the point?  On with the lit list.

Here are the tardy April releases.  The Last Universe, by William Sleator, is actually a paperback reprint edition of a YA novel that came out originally in 2005.  It involves quantum mechanics, time travel, and parallel realities all of which seem to wait within the twists and turns of a hidden garden maze on the family estate where a fourteen-year-old-girl and her wheel-chair-bound older brother live.  The illness seems to be tied to the garden maze phenomenon, and soon the siblings are searching for an alternate reality in which a cure for the brother’s illness has been found.  The steadily mounting tension reportedly pays off with an unexpected twist ending.  It sounds more sci-fi than horror to me but the bizarre details of quantum mechanics are ripe with horror potential.  Might be worth a look-see.  Pandora Drive, by Tim Waggoner, came out April 4th, with an interesting premise.  A woman in a small Ohio town has the ability to bring the dreams, fantasies and fears of her neighbors to life.  Unfortunately, it’s not a power she can control.  Sounds like a wicked variation on The Monkey’s Paw.  April 18th produced High Priestess, by David Skibbins, which is the second in an off-beat series of Tarot themed supernatural mysteries.  The first, Eight of Swords (2005), introduced the series’ unusual protagonist/narrator, a 60's radical hiding from the law under the alias Warren Ritter.  Back in the seventies, “Ritter” was savvy enough to make some good investments in Microsoft that have allowed him to casually ply a hobby trade as a tarot card reader in an outdoor booth on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California.  It’s through this “career” that he winds up tangled in various supernatural mysteries, each of which he’s guided through by his trusty cards.  “Ritter” himself is reportedly an endearing character who is easy to relate to–especially his habit of running at the first sight of danger. 

High Priestess involves some old acquaintances of our hero, who now belong to a Satanic cult that seems to be under attack.  Someone or something is murdering the members one by one, and they want “Warren” to investigate–for old time’s sake...or because they can easily out him to the feds should he decline.  Finally, the end of April gave us a new F. Paul Wilson novel.  Harbingers: A Repairman Jack Novel, is the 10th in this series built around the exploits of the enigmatic Jack–a regular New York guy who just happens to make his living as an urban soldier of fortune.  He regularly does battle with evil in both mundane crime-related and supernatural flavors.  Most of the time he makes a tidy sum in the process, but he’s got a big heart, a hero’s sense of honor, and a soft spot for helping the helpless, all of which often buy him more trouble than he’d like.  Harbingers is ostensibly about Jack’s search for a missing girl.  In the course of this average task, Jack encounters a chain of what seem like coincidental events that will lead him into the darkest days of his life–a period predicted by one of his past foes.  Soon Jack is pushed to the edge and a desperate Repairman Jack is explosively lethal.  Having met Jack before in Wilson’s excellent Tombs I can personally vouch for the series as engaging, reality based adventure that ultimately satisfies every time–and Jack is a wildly compelling character woven out of dark drives and altruistic ideals he can’t seem to shake off.

California Demon: The Secret Life of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom by Julie Kenner appeared on bookshelves in May.  Have to say, loving that title.  Kate Conner is a retired demon hunter who, after devoting 14 years to building a suburban housewife existence, finds herself drawn back into old habits.  Apparently, supernatural evil is no stranger to PTA meetings and cul-de-sac living.  Could be clever Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-meets-Desperate-Housewives fun.  Another quiet neighborhood that harbors evil appears in Eleven O’Clock Fright by Joshua Scribner.  When Dr. Kurt Snaber, haunted by memories of his dead wife and mother, moves to a new town he discovers potential romance with an amiable neighbor gal and something uber-strange that seems to happen each night at the titular time.  The plot description remains vague on just what that something might be but the story is reported to be “a compelling, delightfully creepy tale of supernatural terror.”  It’s a different sort of idyllic house that appears at the hub of Among the Dolls by William Sleator.  Released originally in 1975, this YA horror novel was reprinted in paperback as of May 2006. 

For her birthday, young Vicky receives a rather gloomy doll house instead of the ten-speed bike she’d been hoping for.  Initial disappointment turns to reluctant fascination as she finds respite from her parents troubled marriage and frequent arguments by losing herself in the small shadowy world of the doll house.  The more depressing Vicky’s own life becomes, she begins to take out her frustrations on the dolls.  A practice she’ll instantly regret once she wakes up inside the doll house–trapped among the monsters she’s created.  To round out the theme of wholesome home-life gone-bad, May 2nd brought us the paperback release of An American Haunting: The Bell Witch by Brent Monahan.  The basis for the recent film adaptation that shortened its title to An American Haunting, it tells the a ghost story set in Tennessee that began in 1818.  “Old Kate”, reputedly the spirit of a deceased witch, tormented the Bell family with rapping, gnawing sounds, voices and supernatural acts for years. Based on the records of a local school teacher who witnessed and recorded some of these events along with information provided by members of the Bell family, it’s touted as “the only documented case in U.S. history when a spirit actually caused a man’s death.”

May 2nd also produced a couple of wackier offerings.  Tall Dark and Dead by Tate Hallaway, brings us the story of Garnet Lacey, a “recovering witch” who manages Wisconsin’s premier occult book store.  It’s the perfect place to meet one devastatingly gorgeous and apparently undead gentleman who seems to be the sort of trouble she ought to be avoiding.  I’m guessing the temptation proves too much.  As usual, the prolific Charlaine Harris pops up with one of her Southern Vampire Novels.  May 2nd’s Definitely Dead, 6th in the series, revisits the world of Sookie Stackhouse, the telepathic cocktail waitress.  She’s visiting a pre-Katrina New Orleans to wrap up the estate of a recently deceased cousin–or re-deceased as the dearly departed seems to have been a vampire.  Needless to say there are a few skeletons in this cousin’s closet that Sookie winds up having to sort through with the help of the vampire’s amiable landlady who just happens to be a witch.  More “supernatural spice and whimsical whodunit” from Harris in her deep fried southern style.

In a more traditionally scary vein, May 11th brought the release of Clint Romag’s A Spreading Madness.  A virus is secretly spreading through the woodlands of southwest Washington state.  Communicable to both wildlife and humans, it seems to be a 28-Days-Later kind of bug that rewires the brain cells for maximum carnage and violence.  Caught in the developing disaster are a family of campers and a pair of casual game hunters that suddenly find their vacation plans have been rerouted through Hell.  May 23rd saw the paperback reprint of the original 2004 Stephen King release, Song of Susannah.  Book 6 in the Dark Tower saga is said to be “bracingly strong as it veers toward [the 7th volume’s] Armageddon-like conclusion.”  If you’ve been following this plot you’ll be familiar with this book’s titular focus character: Susannah Dean, the African-American, paraplegic, schizophrenic, civil-rights-activist turned medieval gunslinger and inter-dimensional traveler.  Hijacked in a previous volume by a pregnant demon from a parallel world, Susannah is driven to leave her gunslinger companions behind while she travels from the alternate dimensional country of Callah to the more familiar environs of New York City in the summer of 1999.  Her demon passenger has a specific place in mind for the birth of its child, and the other gunslingers must track her down in the hope of diverting an event that may quicken the destruction of the Dark Tower itself.  Reportedly in this 6th volume, King introduces a fictional version of himself to the Dark Tower proceedings which seems an interesting if not weirdly complicating twist.  More traveler’s nightmares abound in the paperback reprint of Jack Ketchum’s Off Season.  In a plot reminiscent (or perhaps narrowly predating?) The Hills Have Eyes, a group of rustic vacationers find the wilds of rural Maine less than relaxing when confronted by an indigenous tribe of primitive cannibals.  If you’ve read any of Ketchum in the past, you know the sort of hard-core gore and violence to expect from this novel.  I gather it’s the literary equivalent of a seriously un-rated Eli Roth or Alexandre Aja film.  Not for the squeamish or puritanically demure.

Back towards the quirky side of horror lit, Undead and Unreturnable by Mary Janice Davidson hit bookshelves May 30th.  Betsy, Queen of the Vampires, is busy with plans for her wedding, contributing to her “Dear Betsy” column in a new vampire newsletter, babysitting a new little brother, and tending the feral vampire she keeps in her mansion basement.  Still, she finds time to get mixed up in the investigation of a local serial killer who apparently targets women that bear a striking resemblance to Betsy herself.  Released simultaneously but from the other end of the horror lit spectrum entirely, Ramsey Campbell (he of the poetically intellectual terror set) gave us Secret Story.  Perhaps a less vague sort of horror yarn than Campbell often provides, this involves a grisly serial killer by the name of Dudley Smith who immortalizes his murders in stories which he submits regularly to literary magazines.  Far from implicating himself in the crimes, he comes to the attention of oblivious publishers who seem to think Smith is the next big thing in splatter thrillers.  Driven to gorier exploits by the encouragement of the publishing world, Smith spends most of the novel setting up his editor as a spectacular victim.  Needless to say, Campbell uses the inherent opportunities to comment on society’s healthy appetite for exploitation and the strange responsibility an author bears toward his “fictional” characters.

Finally May 31st produced the latest compilation of Robert Kirkman’s “zombie” world graphic novels.  Walking Dead vol. 5: The Best Defense, continues the post-apocalyptic Romero-esque soap opera travails of a small survivors group wandering a “zombie” infested world in search of safe harbor and a chance to rebuild their lives.  Volumes 1 through 4 of the compiled comic books introduced us to Rick, a cop in his pre-“zombie” world days, who winds up leading a rag-tag bunch of average Joes and Janes (some with kids in tow) in search of a new home–preferably “zombie”-free and conveniently located near sources of food and water.  Volume 5 finds the group in what may be it’s new permanent digs, a prison they’ve been working to clear of it’s resident “zombies” and refashion into defensible farming compound.  If you’ve read any of the series you’ll know that the path to the rebirth of civilization is far from smooth.  The Walking Dead books are really about social and interpersonal issues and how the “zombie” plague changes and intensifies the intricate workings of human nature.  That said, there’s plenty of guts and gore to go ‘round, and often the “realistic” plot material works to heighten the scares when they pop up.  It’s rather like following the characters in a Romero film past the credits-crawl into the nuts and bolts of getting by in drastically reshaped world.

OK, now you can take a breath, digest all of this late breaking horror lit news, and brace yourselves for the June horror lit article that should be hot on the heels of this list.  I swear.  In the meantime, check out the upcoming review of Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones by yours-truly...also delayed in the writing but well worth the wait.  What can I tell you?  May through early June kind of clobbered all of my extracurricular activities.  Can’t say it won’t ever happen again but who else is compiling such a comprehensively thorough look at horror lit publishing?  Better late than never.  Right?            

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