Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin UK for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.
This story, told in two different time frames by Eddie Adams (known as Eddie Munster as a child, because all the friends had nicknames and somehow the Munsters and the Adams became conflated into one…), has all the elements fans of mysteries and thrillers love. Strange characters, plenty of secrets, red herrings and false clues, lies, many suspects, a slightly odd setting, bizarre murders, strange relationships… A murder involving bizarre circumstances (a chopped-up body with a missing head, strange chalk drawings…) took place in a small and picturesque UK city (it sounds small enough to be a town, but as it has a cathedral, it is a city) in 1986 (although there were other strange things that happened at the time too, coincidental or not), and became known as the Chalk-Man murder. Thirty years later someone starts asking questions and stirring things up. Eddie narrates, in the first-person, the events, including his memories of what happened when he was a teenager and also telling us what is happening now. Those of you who read my blog know I have a thing for unreliable narrators, and, well, Eddie is a pretty good one. He is an English high school teacher and seems fairly reliable and factual in his account, and he does a great job of making us feel the emotions and showing us (rather than telling us) the events; although slowly he starts revealing things about himself that make him less standard and boring, and slightly more intriguing. Eddie does not have all the information (it seems that the friends kept plenty of things from each other as children), and sometimes he is unreliable because of the effect of alcohol, and possibly his mental state (his father suffered early dementia and he is concerned that he might be going down the same path). But there are other things at play, although we don’t fully get to know them until the very end.
The story reminded me of Stephen King’s It, most of all because of the two time-frames and of the story of the children’s friendship, although the horror element is not quite as strong (but there are possible ghosts and other mysterious things at play), and the friends and their friendship is more suspect and less open. In some ways, the depiction of the friend’s relationship, and how it changes over time, is more realistic. Of course, here the story is told from Eddie’s point of view, and we share in his likes and dislikes, that are strongly coloured by the events and his personal opinions. The main characters are realistically portrayed (both from a child’s perspective and later from an adult one), complex, and none of them are totally good, or 100% likeable, but they are sympathetic and not intentionally bad or mean (apart from a couple of secondary characters but then… there is a murderer at work). Morality is ambiguous at best, and people do questionable things for reasons that seem fully justified to them at the time, or act without thinking of the consequences with tragic results. I am not sure I felt personally engaged with any of the characters (perhaps because of Eddie’s own doubts), but I liked the dubious nature of the narration, and the fact that there were so many unknowns, so many gaps, and that we follow the process of discovery up-close, although there are things the main character knows that are only revealed very late in the game (although some he seems to have buried and tried hard to forget). The parents, and secondary characters, even when only briefly mentioned, serve the purpose well, add a layer of complexity to the story and are consistent throughout the narration.
The mystery had me engaged, and the pieces fit all together well, even when some of them are not truly part of the puzzle. I can’t say I guessed what had happened, although I was suspicious of everyone and, let’s say I had good reason to be. I liked the ending, not only the resolution of the mystery but what happens to Eddie. If you read it, you’ll know what I mean.
The writing is fluid, it gives the narrator a credible voice, it gets the reader under the character’s skin, and it creates a great sense of place and an eerie atmosphere that will keep readers on alert. The story deals with serious subjects, including child abuse, bullying (and sexual abuse), dementia, and although it is not the most graphically violent story I have read, it does contain vivid descriptions of bodies and crime scenes, and it definitely not a cozy mystery and not for the squeamish reader.
A great new writer, with a very strong voice and great ability to write psychological thrillers, and one I hope to read many more novels by.
Wow! What a collection of stories. This was my first Lansdale, but it certainly won’t be my last.
This is grisly stuff. Blood, guts, sex with corpses. It’s all on full display here; Lansdale’s stories come with sharp edges and a dark, maniacal energy. Published in 1989, this book stands with the best horror of that era.
I must admit, however, there are a couple of stories that didn’t work for me — “The Fat Man and the Elephant” and “Fish Night,” mainly. I don’t think these are bad stories, really, I just found my attention wandering a bit while reading them. As for my favorite? Oh, I can’t choose.
This isn’t much of a review, and I apologize for that. Reviewing story collections is a little challenging, for me. Just pick this up if you’re a horror fan and don’t mind your scares to erring on the sacrilegious and violent side. A warning: the “N-word” is used frequently, though Lansdale does make it clear it is despicable people using that sort of language. And if necrophilia ain’t your thing, you might want to avoid this collection — that very topic is featured heavily in two stories.
Horror not for the faint of heart, these tales combine the emotional depth of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King and the unashamed graphic sensuality of Clive Barker and Poppy Z. Brite. I should have read Joe R. Lansdale long ago.
I’ve had a lot of luck lately — this is yet another 5-star read. Let’s hope that streak continues through the end of the month!
Read for ‘80s Horror’ in Halloween Bingo.
Thanks to NetGalley and to Vintage for offering me an ARC copy of this collection that I voluntarily chose to review.
I read Moshfegh’s novel Eileen (nominated for the Booker Prize, read my review here), admired it (perhaps liking it is not the right way to describe it) and I was curious to read more by the same author. When I saw this book on offer I took the chance.
This collection of short-stories does reinforce some of the thoughts I had about Eileen. Ottessa Moshfegh can write, for sure. If the stories in this collection have anything in common, apart from the quality of the writing, is the type of characters. They all (or most) are lonely, only a few are likeable (they can all be liked, but that’s not what I mean) and easy to relate to, they often have disgusting habits (although I suspect that if our lives were put under a microscope and every last little detail was looked at and written down we might not look very pretty either), and are lost. The characters made me think of Sherwood Anderson and Flannery O’Connor (not the style of writing, though): those people who don’t seem to fit anywhere and are utterly peculiar, although many of the characters in the stories are only peculiar because we get a peep into their brains. One gets the sense that they would appear pretty normal from the outside. A man who lives alone at home, watching telly, and is friendly with the girl living next door. A Maths’ teacher, divorced, who might cheat on the students’ exams. A Yale graduate, who does not know what to do with his life, spends too much money on clothes and gets infatuated with a woman he only met briefly once. A couple of children, twins, telling each other stories. An aspiring actor who can’t get any acting jobs.
Of course, there are other things we discover. The man seems to have a strange interest in the girl next door. The Maths’ teacher drinks so much she keeps a sleeping bag at the school (well, it’s really a room in a church) so she can lie down between classes. The graduate has to sell his clothes in a desperate attempt to get the attention of the woman he is mad about. One of the twins is planning to kill a man. The aspiring actor doesn’t know who Scorsese is (or much about anything) and can’t even kiss a girl on camera. The author digs deep into the characters’ façade and pulls a distorted mirror to them, that like in caricature drawings, emphasises the weirdest characteristics rather than what might make them seem ‘normal’ because normal is a construct after all.
Not many of these stories would fit comfortably into standard definitions of what a short story is supposed to be like. If the author pushes the boundaries with her choice of characters and her descriptions (a lot of them have acne that they squeeze, they are sick or make themselves sick, their bodily functions are described in detail, and some are … well, let’s say ‘alternative’) she does the same with the stories. Quite a few of them seem to be slices of life rather than stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. There are some that have more of a conventional ending (even if it is open ended), but plenty do not and it is up to the reader to decide what, if anything, to make of them. If I had to choose and extract something from the stories (not a lesson as such, but a reflection of sorts) is that perhaps the only characters who end up in a better place or experiencing some sort of happiness (or contentment) are those who don’t try to live up to anybody’s expectations and accept what might appear to be strange alliances and relationships. But perhaps it is just that those are the stories that have stuck more in my head.
Reading the comments, this collection, much like Eileen, is a marmite book. Some people really love it and some hate it with a passion. As I said, the writing is excellent, but you’ll need to have a strong stomach and not mind detailed descriptions of bodily functions and less than flattering individuals (nobody is tall, dark and handsome here, although some characters believe they are). Although many of the stories might feel dispiriting and depressing, this depends on the point of view of the reader and there are very witty lines and funny (but dark) moments.
Here some examples:
‘Oh, okay, there were a few fine times. One day I went to the park and watched a squirrel run up a tree. A cloud flew around the sky.’
‘I had a thing about fat people. It was the same thing I had about skinny people: I hated their guts.’
‘Her face was pinched, as though she’d just smelled someone farting. It was that look of revulsion that awoke something in me. She made me want to be a better man.’
In sum, I wouldn’t dare to recommend this book to everybody, by a long stretch, but if you want to check great writing, have a strong stomach, and don’t mind strange and not always likeable characters and unconventional stories, dare to read on. It will be an utterly unique experience.
Not much I can say about this one: it's a collection of Darwin award winners (and the honourable mentions) and their stories. It's both hilarious and possibly a sad commentary on the advancement, or lack thereof, of common sense.
For anyone who might not be familiar with the Darwin Awards, they are given each year for:
significantly improve the gene pool by eliminating themselves from the human race in an obviously stupid way. They are self-selected examples of the dangers inherent in a lack of common sense, and all human races, cultures, and socioeconomic groups are eligible to compete. Actual winners must meet the following criteria:
Out of the gene pool: dead or sterile.
Astounding misapplication of judgment.
Cause one's own demise.
Capable of sound judgment.
The event must be true.
Always good for a chuckle!