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review 2017-09-16 23:43
Cold Moon Over Babylon
Cold Moon Over Babylon (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) - Michael McDowell,Mike Mignola

He imagined that he had been hypnotized by the moon, thrown into one of those trances that were common enough at night, on lonely stretches of road, to solitary drivers. “That’s it,” he whispered to himself, “I was led astray by the moon. But now the moon’s brought me home safe again . . .”

Holy moonlit blueberry bush! What a ride!

 

Cold Moon over Babylon is a horror story at its finest ... and at its most horrible. It is difficult to tell how much of what happens in the novel can be explained by the psychotic state of mind of the main character but I would like to think that phantoms of his mind were actual physical manifestations of a town that seeks revenge against a sick and twisted individual. 

 

As mentioned before, I am utterly in love with McDowell's writing. It was atmospheric, tense, truly horrific, and yet, utterly addictive. 

 

Now I need to find some hot chocolate and a blanket.

All the tombstones glared suddenly brighter, so bright that for a moment he lost sight of the figure of the girl. He looked behind him. The moon, enormous, featureless, with a staggering incandescence, hovered directly over the cemetery. With anything so bright so close, he felt he should have been burned, but all he felt was a creeping chill across his shoulders, a prickly dampness peeling across his neck.

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review 2017-09-09 21:14
Gilded Needles
Gilded Needles (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) - Christopher Fowler,Michael McDowell,Mike Mignola

“You are falling into inanity,” said Judge Stallworth coldly. “I have told you, the lower classes do not take revenge upon the upper."

My third McDowell and I think I am a little in love with his writing. How else did I just enjoy a work of horror fiction with a blood-curdling and violent revenge plot at the heart of its story?

 

In an earlier update I mentioned that I could see some similarities between Gilded Needles and The Godfather. I still believe this is true. Except that Black Lena Shanks and her daughters are far superior in every aspect to any of the Corleones:

 

1. They seek to grow their business interests openly. 

 

2. They do not pick fights with rivalling families for reasons of business. When they escalate operations, it is for deeply personal reasons. And, yet, they limit extent of their wrath and try to shield the innocents and bystanders.

 

3. They are not afraid to take on "the man" - or in this case, the police, a senior judge, the newspapers, and pretty much all of "polite society".

 

I loved the scene-setting that McDowell uses in the first chapters to give us that panoramic view of the Black Triangle (a district in the underbelly of New York) on New Year's Eve 1881: we get to be drawn right into the crowd and mingle with prostitutes,  opium addicts, drunks, the sick, and all the other destitute characters that make up the society of outcasts. All of whom are outside the law, because the law neglects them, and outside of society because they are not deemed to belong. 

 

Here is another aspect where Gilded Needles compares with The Godfather: I was struck that the society described in The Godfather excluded and dismissed minorities (and women) as valueless disposables. In Gilded Needles, the society is based on an inclusion of minorities - and most of the main characters and acting agents of the plot are women. Granted, most of them were murderous, but still, if McDowell's aim was to create an alternative society that thrived on differences, this worked incredibly well. 

 

Gilded Needles was published in 1980. When reading, I could not help thinking the McDowell was not only writing about 1882, but also about his observations about society at the time of writing. There are descriptions of political scheming that could have easily been set in any modern decade, as could the observation how the legal system may not in fact offer equal protection to all members of society, and let's not even go into the treatment of minorities by society. 

 

Anyway, there was a lot more to this book than a crazed gang of villainous women going on a killing spree to satisfy their feelings of revenge. But of course, one could also enjoy the book just with that plot alone. If not, why do we find The Godfather so gripping? 

 

As I don't generally like horror (readers of my posts may have noticed), I've been trying to figure out what it is about this book that drew me in so much. All I can come up with is that McDowell was an author who really understood the art of writing: His characters are spot on, his scenes are dripping with atmosphere, we get this narration that just shows us everything that is going on without telling us how to feel about it:  

In the drugstore, which was neither larger nor brighter nor appreciably cleaner than Lena Shanks’s pawnshop, three fat, gaudy whores, whose vermilion lay half a dollar deep upon their cheeks, huddled at a small low table, on which stood three large glasses of absinthe. There was a short candle jammed in the mouth of a bottle and its guttering flame shining through the liquid in their glasses cast green shadows onto their pallid, pudgy hands.

Their gossip hushed when Maggie entered and they watched her closely and with evident mistrust. The shop was run by a young man whose hair had fallen out, whose skin was scarred with the smallpox, and whose eyes worked at cross purposes.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said slyly to Maggie, “what can I get for you?”

“Powdered opiate,” replied Maggie. “Three ounces.”

“Twelve dollars,” the druggist replied and, plucking out of a little wooden box his one- and two-ounce weights, dropped them onto one side of his scales. Then from a large jar filled with white powder he measured the opium, slipped it into a pink envelope, and slid it across the counter to Maggie.

“Can’t sleep?” he inquired in an oily voice. “Bad dreams? Pain in the tooth?” Mischievously he had listed the common lies of the addict.

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text 2017-09-09 16:14
Reading progress update: I've read 66%.
Gilded Needles (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) - Christopher Fowler,Michael McDowell,Mike Mignola

The revenge part of the story has begun. It is bloody. BLOODY! And, yet, I am kinda looking forward to it - which makes a change from my usual abhorrence of everything gory.

 

Maybe it is helped by the writing, maybe by the similarities to And Then There Were None in that every "victim" of the revenge plot has received an invite to their own funeral.

"Marian Phair had been shocked and indignant when her husband was returned to Gramercy Park in so disreputable a condition. She considered that victims of crime deserved as little sympathy as the perpetrators; there was something in one’s physiognomy, she contended, that invited victimization; something, she was certain, that all the Stallworths lacked, and that others— Cyrus Butterfield for instance— possessed in large measure.

“What happened, Duncan?” demanded Marian sternly, sitting at her husband’s bedside, just after the physician had left the house.

“I was attacked, Marian, by two women in the hallway of my offices. Just within the front door.”

“Why did they attack you? Did they want money?”

“No,” said Duncan, turning his face, “evidently not.”

“Duncan,” she said, “does this have anything to do with the cards that we received on Sunday? Are you keeping this from me? You and Father? Not telling me that we’re in danger?” Her voice became increasingly shrill."

 

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text 2017-09-09 11:59
Reading progress update: I've read 28%.
Gilded Needles (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) - Christopher Fowler,Michael McDowell,Mike Mignola

With Louisa helping either her mother or her sister as was required, and keeping books— she was a competent forger as well, and often found little ways of exploiting this talent— the Shanks women made just about fifty thousand dollars a year. This would have been a fortune to many New York families living with every trapping of respectability and good breeding. The greater part of these receipts was kept undisturbed in half a dozen banks along Sixth and Seventh avenues and had accumulated a great amount of interest through the years. Lena Shanks considered that avarice was no virtue among criminals, for greed led one into danger, and such hazards might compel one to take rooms in Centre Street— at the Tombs. “Be like Louisa,” cautioned Lena, “always we should be like Louisa, quiet . . . quiet. . . .”

I am so tempted to draw comparisons to The Godfather, except that McDowell's writing is far superior and his portrayal of life in the Black Triangle and his characters are so much more vivid, complex, compelling, and altogether more satisfying than Puzo's.

 

And despite the dark and seedy side of the story, I have not flinched once so far. Absolutely loving this and I hope the book will keep up that level of engagement to the end. :D

 

 

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review 2017-09-07 23:28
Wicked Stepmother
Wicked Stepmother - Michael McDowell,Axel Young,Dennis Schuetz

After another few moments, Cassandra asked, “Did you at least have a good time last night?”

“I think so,” said Verity after a moment of hesitation.

“You don’t know?”

“Well, we did a lot of coke, and then we drank something that— Cassandra, honest to God it was bright green, and I know it wasn’t crème de menthe.” With two fingers she rubbed the skin just beneath her nostrils. “And I’ve got nose-burn from the amyl nitrate.” Cassandra raised her eyebrows and shook her head.

“Are you shocked?” asked Verity, peering at her sister over the top of her dark glasses. “No,” sighed Cassandra. “Just surprised that in the midst of all that, you still had time to think about Father, and Louise, and Atlantic City.”

 

I have heard Wicked Stepmother described as sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll in Boston, and that is exactly what it was. That and a bit of creepy murder.

 

When I first met the Hawkes, I hated all of them. I had a hard time to decide whether the stepmother was wicked or whether the grown-up children were just horrible. As it turns out, they balanced each other quite well. While the "kids" dismiss their stepmother as and over-dressed wanna-be, she seems to be up to something else entirely...

“And what did you find out?” asked Cassandra curiously.

“That Louise was either planning to get high on airplane glue, or else she made a purchase of certain chemicals.”

“In a hobby shop? What kind of chemicals?”

“Little tiny bottles. For teenage chemistry sets. I wasn’t able to figure out what kind she got.”

Cassandra put down the brush. “You think Louise doctored Father’s sleeping pills?”

“I think that’s more likely than that Louise is sniffing airplane glue.”

“Verity, I don’t like this.”

 

I really enjoyed most of the book. The back and forth between the two camps in the family was horrible to watch because all of the characters (apart from Cassandra) were either vile or TSTL, but none deserved what they got - apart from... you know... the end.

Louise left off abruptly. Her movements had become jerks. All three of the Hawkes were watching her, and she forced a semblance of calm over her features.

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