OR: Last Time I Lied

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 11th of July last year:-

Last Time I Lied (Ebury Press tpb, 384pp, £8.99) is the second book from American author Riley Sager (I reviewed his first, Final Girls, back in Black Static #63 – and that review can be found here) and it’s out in paperback today according to Amazon.

Emma Davis is sent away to spend the summer at Camp Nightingale, an exclusive summer camp owned and run by the wealthy Francesca Harris-White, but her late arrival means that she is bunked in a cabin with three older girls, Vivian, Natalie, and Allison. Vivian is undoubtedly the queen bee, the others striving to impress her, and Emma taken under her wing, though not free from occasional bouts of resentment. Then one night the three girls go missing, never to be found again, and naturally some suspicion falls on Emma, who redirects it at others.

Fifteen years later, Emma is well-established as an artist, though all her work is inspired by the three never found girls. Franny plans to reopen Camp Nightingale, and Emma is asked to attend as art tutor, which she agrees to, once again finding herself bunking in a cabin with three girls and meeting all the people she knew so many years ago. She determines to solve the mystery of the disappearance, and perhaps absolve herself of the guilt she feels at lies told all those years ago, following a trail that leads back into the past when the lake at the heart of Camp Nightingale was created by Franny’s father submerging the asylum that stood on the ground. Emma feels she is on the verge of discovering something momentous, but at the same time there are signs somebody has taken an interest in her, and others think she was responsible for what happened to Vivian and her friends.

Like Sager’s previous novel, this book takes a familiar trope or two of the horror genre and mixes them up with mystery/thriller elements to telling effect. The Camp Nightingale setting will be a home away from home for genre fans familiar with Camp Crystal Lake and similar killing grounds, while the presence of a drowned asylum in the grounds adds yet another frisson of fear and familiarity to the mix, as do the references to a curse.

Cutting between past and present, Sager adeptly drip feeds us the clues as to what really happened in the past along with enough red herrings to throw the ‘reasons to feel outraged’ demographic into a furore about the injustice of fishing quotas. Emma’s lack of reliability as a witness is something we at first suspect and then see revealed in all its hideous truth, exposing her own culpability for what took place fifteen years previously.

The setting is beautifully realised, with its juxtaposition of the idyllic and pastoral with human evil, and the characters are finely drawn, especially the two sets of girls who share a cabin with Emma, in both the past and the present. Underlying it all is a keen understanding of human psychology, the things that make us act as we do, and the ways in which obsession can undermine our lives, as happens with Emma, the past coming to totally eclipse the present, so that she becomes trapped in a moment, one that shapes and affirms who she is, as both creative artist and human being.

Last Time I Lied is not a great book, either as horror fiction or mystery/thriller; ultimately the familiarity of much of the material undercuts our need for originality, while at times there is about it a feel of plot diversion into the territory of contrivance, though to be fair I can’t put my finger on any concrete example, only have a nagging sense of doubt about some of the events that occur. However, all that aside, it is a splendidly entertaining and engaging hybrid of overlapping genres, one that holds the attention all the way and keeps the reader guessing with its stream of revelations and constant misdirection. Odds are you’re going to have a good time with it.

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NR: Harbour

HARBOUR (Quercus tpb, 528pp, £9.99) is the second book I’ve read by John Ajvide Lindqvist (after Handling the Undead back in 2010, and you can find my thoughts on that work here) and the first book I read in 2019 (followed by two more by Lindqvist that, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be discussing over on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com next week). I picked up a copy of the book in Poundland.

The setting of the book is the island of Domarö in the Stockholm archipelago. Anders and his wife take their six year old daughter across the frozen sea to the lighthouse, but while they are distracted Maja disappears. Two years later, his life in ruins, an alcoholic and abandoned by his wife, Anders returns to Domarö and is haunted by the idea that his daughter is close by and trying to contact him. This is but one of the many strange things occurring on Domarö, which has a rather chequered history, one that hints at an unnatural relationship between the land, its inhabitants, and the surrounding water. With the help of his stepfather the illusionist Simon, who has certain special abilities, Anders sets out to uncover the mystery of the island and why those taken by the sea are now coming back.

This is an epic novel, one full of both horror and a sense of cosmic awe, but what makes it special is the attention paid to detail, the unhurried nature of the telling, with events revealed each in their own good time, back stories laid out in an almost leisurely manner, past and present interweaving. At its heart is the depiction of a small island community, one that has its secrets kept close to its chest, hidden from the prying eyes of those who come to Domarö as summer visitors, the necessary but resented outsiders. And as ever with Lindqvist, there is a wealth of characterisation to add verisimilitude to the narrative. The people live and breathe on the page, love and laugh together, interact with each other in ways that betoken their longstanding in the community, so that our belief in them is total, laying solid groundwork for what is to come.

The real thrust of the story though lies with the two main characters. Simon is in love with island matriarch Anna-Greta and the possible consummation of their relationship is one of the highlights of the narrative, though to the end each has things they keep back from the other. Simon’s back story is one of a doomed marriage and career that hit both highs and lows, and with hints of the miraculous in his life (well, actually, more than hints). Anders is an idyllically happy character as the book begins and in the flashbacks we have to his earlier life, but the loss of his daughter has come to overshadow everything else, and his belief that she is still present is what drives him to act as he does. To reach any sort of catharsis Anders needs to accept the true nature of his daughter, the reality of Maja as distinct from the saintly child he has enshrined in his memory. Lindqvist does not shirk from giving us heroes with feet of clay.

With historical interludes and aspects of the family saga about it, everything captured in Lindqvist’s lucid prose, the book powers on to its conclusion, deftly unveiling its terrors as we go. Among the minor chills and thrills woven into the main narrative is the idea of a woman who is possessed and through plastic surgery attempting to turn herself into a copy of who she actually is, and the Morrissey quoting ghost brothers who ride about the island on a moped. Each atrocity is painstakingly realised, given a necessary depth and history to make them seem real, and in part to elicit reader sympathy and/or understanding for what they are going through. And with the final sections an almost Lovecraftian horror is revealed, something ancient and monstrous and awe inspiring, an implacable entity that looks down on the humans who presume to share its living space, a creature that can never be understood or reasoned with, only placated on its own terms

This is an excellent novel, with an echo of King’s oeuvre in the telling though Lindqvist remains his own man. It is a book that is both horror story and visionary work, one that juxtaposes the ordinary and everyday with the cosmic, and does so with consummate skill. I loved it.

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2020 Graphic Miscellany #1

Actually I read these three books toward the end of 2019, but we’re living in a post-factual world, so let’s not bother ourselves with that.

Hewligan’s Haircut

Written by Peter Mulligan, illustrated by Jamie Hewlett

Hewligan is incarcerated in a mental hospital because he hear voices and sees big heads, but one totally ridiculous haircut later and after following the advice of a nurse who tells him to pretend to be sane, our hero is set free. At which point the black and white illustrations and satirical tone of the story segue into a full colour and psychedelic extravaganza as, in the company of swinging 60s refugee Scarlet, Hewligan trips through various realities with the forces of law and disorder in full pursuit. Somehow that haircut has become the key to preserving the universe, and there are also Easter Island heads involved. No, it doesn’t make much sense, with the impression that writer Mulligan is just making it up as he goes along, riffing on each and every crazy idea that comes into his head, whether it be plunging his characters into the cubist universe and the Warhol dimension or having them step out on the stage of a West End musical. As Scarlet comments, ‘The world’s going out of tune. Anything can happen.’ And it does, with artist Hewlett digging deep in his bag of painterly tricks to keep pace and produce illustrations as madcap as the ideas that inspire them. I enjoyed it all rather more than not, though have to admit in the end it seemed more like an exercise in pushing the boundaries rather than a story-in-itself (whatever that means). There’s plenty of wit and invention on display, and the feeling of something important being touched on, but ultimately far more style than substance. We get a bonus story from the pages of 2000 A. D. where the writer and artist usually hang their thinking caps – a forgettable six pager in which Judge Dredd dispenses his own brand of justice to the criminals of Mega City One.

Batman: The Black Glove

Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by J. H. Williams III & Tony S. Daniel

According to the front cover this is the prequel to Batman R. I. P., which means nothing to me, and the stories set the stage for a showdown between the caped crusader and sinister criminal mastermind The Black Glove. In “The Island of Mister Mayhem” Batman and a group of masked crime fighters inspired by him are lured to an island where they are murdered one by one, the story playing out like a costumed variation on And Then There Were None, with the heroes needing to get at the truth of past events if they are to survive and capture the predator in their midst. It sounds promising in the abstract, but the reality is a rather contrived scenario and naff costumed characters the reader finds it hard to relate to, given that they are so obviously shreddies. The other stories here have Batman delving back into his past, confronting Bat hybrids created by the Gotham Police Department, and his nemesis Joe Chill, among others, with Bruce Wayne’s love life as collateral damage. There’s some marvellous and atmospheric artwork in these stories, the use of dark and shadows bringing the character to life. Ultimately Batman, at least as portrayed here, owes more to the crime and horror genres than to the superhero comic. I’m not quite so sure about the storytelling though. The individual pieces didn’t feel self-contained, but rather like parts of some greater narrative arc, and to a degree that hampered my ability to enjoy them. It’s Batman and I want to be more positive, but don’t feel that I can. While aesthetically pleasing for the artwork, as a form of story these didn’t quite work for me, didn’t provide the emotional satisfaction and kick that I hope for from something with the Bat logo on the cover. I’m picky.

Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist

Written by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean

I suppose that technically speaking this isn’t a graphic novel so much as a short story with accompanying artwork. Joe Quinn lives alone with his mother, while his father is in gaol, and both of them are fond of making stuff up, so when they claim a poltergeist is in the house, nobody takes them seriously, except for the story’s protagonist Davie, who has reasons of his own for wanting to believe. This is an engrossing story, one of hope and loss, a rite of passage for a young man teetering on the verge of adulthood. It is ripe with pathos and sentimentality of a kind, but with comic interludes that help to keep the narrative pegged to the ground, particularly courtesy of the drunken Irish priest who wanders in and out of the story. It’s about the stories that we tell ourselves simply as a means to get through another day, the narrative devices with which we frame our lives and try to make some sense of it all. The poltergeist itself is almost an irrelevance, nothing more than a catalyst for the emotional journey young Davie is required to make. Dave McKean’s illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to the text, filled with light and life, grounded in the everyday world, radiating a subtle and understated humour. Maybe not a graphic novel, but most definitely the finest of these three works.

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On New Year Day

Happy New Year to anyone who is still reading this blog.

I wish you all the happiness you deserve in 2020, and if you don’t deserve happiness then may your troubles be no greater than you can easily bear.

For the foreseeable future this blog will continue as a ‘once a week’ book review outlet, with most of the reviews being recycled from the annals of The Third Alternative and other publications, both print and digital, plus the occasional new piece as and when I have the time and inclination (at the moment I am short on both). The intention is that eventually Trumpetville will contain an archive of all my published reviews (I haven’t kept count, but I would imagine there are over 2,000 by now).

Looking beyond the next six months, if all goes well I will have sold my house and moved in with my lady love, after which at some point I hope to restore this blog to the level of activity prevalent back when I was a beginner and full of enthusiasm for this blogging lark, but I make no promises as experience has taught me that such pronouncements are unwise. When/if the time comes we’ll shake the tree and see what falls out.

One change I will be making with immediate effect is to dispense with the ‘filler content’ header for blog posts. It was intended as a light-hearted send up of self to indicate that I was copying and pasting old material because I didn’t have time to write anything new, but I’ve seen a couple of people take umbrage, jumping to the conclusion that it was somehow intended as derogatory. In any event, it was getting a bit tired.  In future headers, I will simply preface reprint material with ‘OR’ for ‘old review’ and new material with ‘NR’.

That’s all folks!

 

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Happy Christmas

It’s that time of the year again, when I offer festive greetings and good wishes to anyone who is still reading this blog, be they regulars or passing trade.

I hope you want everything you get and get everything you need.

Granny is right. The old songs are the best.

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Filler content with bedlam

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #26:-

RICHARD DADD IN BEDLAM
Alan Wall
Vintage, £6.99

Alan Wall, to judge by the fifteen stories in this collection, is one of those writers who defy easy categorisation. Take the novella ‘A to Z’ which leads off as an example. A policeman is brought out of semi-retirement to investigate a murder, the first in a series with apocalyptic links. It’s an engrossing story, erudite and compelling, but whether you list it as horror, crime or mainstream is a matter of personal bias. And, just to complicate matters, towards the end Wall reveals that the story is set in the future, a society where they do things differently.

Let’s pass on the name game then and instead look for common concerns and points of reference. There are plenty to be found.

As with ‘A to Z’, the Biblical is always an option. ‘The Eating of the Shadow’ concerns an alternative gospel, while the delightfully mocking ‘The Pig Man of Gadara’ tells the story of Christ’s healing of the Gadarene demoniac from the point of view of the man who owned the pigs into which the unclean spirits were banished. Old age and impending death also feature prominently, most obviously in the title story and ‘Rembrandt Dying’, while the art world itself is another recurring concern, at its best in ‘A Compass in the Dark’, which illuminates artistic preoccupations in the clash of ideas between a failed traditional painter and his friend, a highly successful modernist. Unusual mind sets come to the fore in stories such as ‘Logical Positivists’, about a man who tries to live by Wittgenstein’s principles, the chilling ‘Cult’ which peeps inside the head of a David Koresh type character, and ‘Underneath the Smile’, a wonderfully droll send up of all those self-help manuals and courses.

Wall’s stories then are an eclectic bunch, wide ranging and varied, packed with novel ideas and executed with panache. What they sometimes lack in emotional depth they more than make up for with intelligence and ready wit. Recommended.

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Filler content with magic terror

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #27:-

MAGIC TERROR
Peter Straub
Harper Collins pb, 335pp, £9.99

After the merely average pleasures of The Hellfire Club, this collection, consisting of two superb novellas, ‘Porkpie Hat’ and ‘Mr Clubb and Mr Cuff’ (reviewed in previous issues of TTA, so no need to wax lyrical on their account), plus five long stories, sees Straub back at the top of his form with a showcase volume containing some of the finest writing he’s produced.

‘Ashputtle’ takes the story of Cinderella back to its sinister roots, with a deranged teacher murdering the youngsters left in her charge in a narrative that effortlessly blends dream and reality, madness and sanity. A more realistic note is struck with the ironically titled ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’, a story set in the murky world of espionage, with a veteran intelligence operative on his last assignment and playing the odds to come out on the other side unscathed, all a bit familiar perhaps and certainly the weakest here, but for all that well written and enjoyable. ‘The Haunted Village’ returns to Vietnam pre-Koko, recording an incident that bears witness to the essentially outré quality of that place and time. Straub explores old themes in ‘Bunny is Good Bread’, for my money the best story in the book, a grim and harrowing account of the childhood of a serial killer, one that, with its powerful images of abuse and religious mania, makes the reader care deeply about this poor, tormented child, even as we recoil from the terrible thing that he becomes. Finally there’s ‘Hunger, an Introduction’, a remarkable exercise in tone of voice, the monologue of a whining, self-pitying ghost culminating in a revelation about the true nature of the afterlife.

Those familiar with Straub won’t need convincing. Those new to his work can ask for no better introduction than Magic Terror.

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