Book review: The Hunger

I recently devoured (pun intended) Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, which is a fictional account of the Donner wagon party trying to reach California from Illinois in 1846. For those unfamiliar with the story, the non-fictional party of settlers ran into bad relations, bad decisions and bad weather, which resulted in the unlucky stranded group eventually resorting to cannibalism. A relatively unpleasant piece of history, yet Alma Katsu manages to put an even more horrific spin on the tale.

(Some spoilers ahead).

This is a type of horror novel that I particularly enjoy. First of all, it is slow burn, with increasing levels of tension. It starts small, with a few incidences highlighting the upcoming strife, the unpleasantness of some of the characters, the loneliness of the landscape. There are hints of what is to come, suggesting that the best course of action is to turn back, but these are ignored and dismissed. By the time the party, dogged by urgency at the approaching winter, takes the fateful shortcut that will leave them stranded, the tension is high and there are too many personal stakes in place preventing better decisions to be made. It is utterly believable, with each little step towards the end resting on established human faults much more than bad luck. For me, horror works best if it is slow to start: like the frog in the tepid water, being brought to the boil (although the fable, if useful, has been debunked). Too much pressure too soon, and I will not believe it if the characters do not turn and flee. The gradual, sinister change, however…

This is especially believable when paired with Katsu’s eye for character. Each member of the party carry not only their (more or less) meagre belongings but also the weight of the past. All have a reason to be on the wagon train, and these reasons are optimistic and opportunistic only on the surface. Underneath, there is tragedy, fear, scandal and hate. All of this pulls together to create a stifling, unnerving atmosphere, and leads to mistakes that will cost the group. As a reader you can see it coming – observe the moments where less strained minds might have made a better call – yet the errors seem unavoidable given the history and shortcomings of the characters. Consequently, as the story unfolds, the eventual fate of the wagon train seems almost predetermined. This is a story that is as much about human mistakes, poor leadership and relationships collapsing under increasing pressure as it is about external monsters.

Speaking of monsters: they are cheap. It is easy to have a monster come in from the dark and wreak havoc. It can rise from its Black Lagoon or the Pacific, be a remnant from an ancient civilisation or a bog-standard curse, and it can be perfectly entertaining as-is. However, to me it can never be fully engaging on its own. I like the interaction between the monstrous outside and the monstrous inside – how humanity mirrors the scary things out there. In short, I want my horror stories to be about humans. And Katsu does this terribly well in The Hunger. Every peril on the page echoes with character flaws introduced in detail from the beginning. It is stellar writing. A nod should also be given to Katsu’s eye for historical detail. The facts of the tale are there, as are the facts of the time.

Given the source material, it should come as no surprise that there is a fair element of gore in the novel. Gruesome though it is, it never seems overdone, and the language is precise and almost clinical at times:

“Several unexpected items lay discarded in the snow: a pocket prayer book, a ribbon bookmark fluttering in the breeze.
A scattering of teeth.
What looked like a human vertebra, cleaned of skin.”

“…but by the time they caught up to her, the teenage girl had already killed the baby and was devouring her liver.”

It is highly effective, and it’s there from page one. I’m ambivalent about prologues – sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t – but in The Hunger, it feels right. The prologue sets the stakes, and within a few paragraphs of chapter 1, we have been shown the vastness of the land as well as a first whiff of things to come. Again, it’s excellent writing and the reader can almost smell the disaster looming, long before things even begin to look bad. This is one of the best horror novels I’ve read in a long time. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Book review: The History of Bestiality

I am willing to bet that most people outside of Norway has not heard about Jens Bjørneboe. It is a shame, because Bjørneboe was a fantastic writer. He was controversial and provocative, with a brutal prose that is both delightful and difficult to read. At the core of his production is a staunch defense of the individual and an absolute willingness to address the bleaker side of humanity in often distressing detail.

His main work is a trilogy: The History of Bestiality. In the three novels within, Moment of Freedom, The Powderhouse and The Silence, Bjørneboe discusses evil. The trilogy, which reportedly took 25 years to write, follows from a series of stand-alone works describing, often in harrowing detail, trespasses against both individuals and groups. He discusses medical experiments on prisoners during WW2 in Ere the Cock Crows (written in 1946 and published in 1952) as well as the harsh treatments of suspected collaborators after the war in Under a Harsher Sky (1957). He debates the cruel treatment of both children and prisoners by the “system” in Jonas (1955) and The evil shepherd (1960), respectively; wrote a deliberately provocative erotic novel Without a stitch (1966) which famously is full of euphemisms and very little by way of vulgar language, wrote several plays, poems and essays that were anti-authoritarian, pro-art and at times deeply misanthropic. But it is in the History of Bestiality that he truly bares his teeth.

Moment of Freedom is an unapologetic, bleak view on justice and humanity. The unnamed narrator is a servant of the court, working in a small German principality called Heiligenberg. His job is to witness the proceedings in a court of law, which he refers to as ‘the daily injustice’, where human failings are plentiful and justice is in farcically short supply. We are told his story as he dutifully fulfills his obligations alongside his recollections of his past life and experiences (although this comes back to him in bits only), and, importantly, how he has been chronicling human monstrosities throughout the ages in a massive twelve-volume tome he has titled “The History of Bestiality.” Bjørneboe’s narrator discusses the inability or unwillingness of humans to do anything but what they are told to do, even in the face of gross injustice. The perfidy and cruelty of man are the central themes in the Moment of Freedom, described by the narrator in a distant, almost clinical, manner.

The Powderhouse continues the tale with the narrator – now a janitor in a mental institution called La Poudrière (the powderhouse) – exploring his history of bestiality. In this novel, Bjørneboe debates the human propensity for evil through a series of lectures given by both the staff and the criminally insane inmates at the institute. The lectures are presented as therapeutic, and centers around crimes of Christianity, with notable exceptions being a lecture by an executioner detailing the complexities of his job. The final part of the novel results in a move in favour of anarchism, a political philosophy which Bjørneboe often appeared to defend.

Finally, there is The Silence. Here, the narrator has escaped to northern Africa. The theme here is the horror of (mostly European) imperialism and conquest, with the narrator (now possibly quite mad) having debates with God and a number of historical figures. His great work, the History of Bestiality, will never be completed, as he recognizes that there is no final chapter. Man will continue to commit cruelty, just as man always has. Still, there is a small glimmer of hope at the end of this bleak journey, as the narrator admits that there is also good in humanity and this goodness may yet grow.

It makes for unpleasant and challenging reading, but the intensity and urgency with which the story is chronicled is hard to resist. While not everybody’s cup of tea, it is still a tour de force of literature. It is not genre horror, but horrifying it is nevertheless. The apocalyptic feel of the trilogy is echoed in his final novel, The Sharks (1974), the only one he wrote after completing The History of Bestiality.

Bjørneboe killed himself in 1976, having written a long and impressive list of plays, poems, essays and novels. The anger and urgency in his writing remains compelling to this day, and the themes of his work – the almost habitual cruelty of man towards man, and the suffering of the individual at the hands of the system – is unfortunately as relevant today as it was in the mid 20th century.

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My top 5 horror novels

Horror novels are a mixed bunch, and while I tend to enjoy the majority of the ones I read, sometimes you come across that one book that makes you sleep with the lights on. That book that forces you to cast nervous glances over your shoulder even as you tell yourself that you are an adult and this is only fiction. The book that makes you 10 years old again and afraid of the dark. These are those books for me (in no particular order).

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Dark Matter (Michelle Paver). A tour de force of suspense, Dark Matter is a ghost story set in the arctic in the 1930s. Solitude and darkness ramp up the fright factor, and Paver does a great job of adding unease even in the earlier stages of the book, before we ever get close to our arctic destination. Her descriptions of the horror lurking in the unyielding night are terrifyingly efficient, with just enough detail for the terror to creep under your skin. She also does a wonderful job of painting a plausible post-horror epilogue.

The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty). Adapted into perhaps the best horror film of all time, the book is nevertheless a different beast than the upside-down crawl of Linda Blair. The thing that hit me when reading The Exorcist (which I didn’t get from the film) was the existential angst that seeps through the pages. This is a novel that stares into the abyss and finds nothing reassuring there. When I turned the final page, I felt grimy with bleakness and shaken to the core.

The Woman in Black (Susan Hill). I’ve read the book, seen the film and seen the play, and this story has terrified me each time. This is a book that lurks in between scares, letting your nerves fray with each page of waiting for the inevitable fright. And it doesn’t let up. The great marvel of this story is how it continues to bring on the terror right up until the final page. I love this story, even though it made me jump at even the tiniest creak after bedtime.

Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). Manderley is a place to go mad in this psychological thriller classic. I didn’t know what I was going to when I read that ominous opening “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” for the first time, but for a novel that is arguably as much literary fiction as horror, it certainly left me deeply unsettled. Rebecca is a good example of how some of the best fears are rooted in our own psyche.

The Drugs Don’t Work (Sally Davies). Not a horror novel, but horrific even so. There are dystopian novels out there that highlight what a world without antibiotics looks like, but this is a short non-fiction book by Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, and it is more frightening than any piece of fiction I have come across in recent years.

Book Review: Empire’s End (Star Wars)

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The war is not over… Below is a short goodreads review of Empire’s End, the final book of the official Star Wars Aftermath trilogy by Chuck Wendig. The books are not required reading before seeing the new films, but might be fun to visit for those wanting a better understanding of the Star Wars universe prior to the Force Awakens.


Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath, #3)Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

Empire’s End is, in my opinion, the best book of the Aftermath trilogy. The three books fill in some of the blanks between the events of the Return of the Jedi and the onset of the Force Awakens. We are treated to the birth of the New Republic, the politics and fighting that shaped it, and hints to the origin of the First Order.

The first two books in the Aftermath trilogy revolved around family (arguably, so does a lot of the Star Wars universe), and Empire’s End is no exception. We follow the rag-tag crew of Norra Wexley chasing revenge for the loss of family as much as justice for the fledgling republic, whilst Leia Organa and Han Solo are anticipating the birth of their son, and the antagonists of the piece: Rae Sloane and Gallius Rax, highlight the impact of loss and absent familiar ties.

Indeed, the villains of the series are given ample room to shine in the final installation of the trilogy, and their tales are just as engaging as the heroes. In Empire’s End, we even get a better understanding of Palpatine’s plans and world view, and emerge with a feeling that he is even worse than the films led us to believe.

Aftermath: Empire’s End is primarily character driven. Some of the characters in the trilogy are new to the Star Wars universe; some we know from before (the additional information on Leia and Mon Mothma is particularly gratifying in Empire’s End); and some have moved on from the trilogy to make an appearance in the new films (Snap Wexley, and I’m still holding out hope of seeing Jas and Sinjir on the silver screen).

Overall, Empire’s End is a fast-paced, excellent end to a fun trilogy, worth reading to bridge the gap between the original films and the new ones! (I assume we all agree that the prequels should be quietly forgotten).

View all my reviews


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Review: In the Tall Grass

In the Tall Grass is a short novella published as a two-parter in Esquire, later released as an ebook. It is a collaboration between Stephen King and Joe Hill, both of which know how to spin a scary tale, so my hopes were up for a nice, if short, horror story. I am less familiar with Hill’s work, but have read enough of Stephen King to know that he does not always write flat-out horror. However, in this case, he absolutely does. In the Tall Grass is a simple straight-up horror gore cocktail with a sprinkling of creep on top.

Brief synopsis: The protagonists are Becky and Cal DeMuth, siblings traveling the scenic route through Kansas on their way to arrange for the adoption of Becky’s unborn child. Passing a rest stop by a church, they hear shouts coming from the tall grass by the road: a boy pleading for help and his mother pleading with them to stay out of the grass. They nevertheless enter, only to lose track of one another and the safety of the road within a few, short seconds. [End of synopsis to avoid spoilers]

What comes next is, perhaps predictably, a sequence of escalating horror, moving seamlessly from ‘bad’ to ‘worse’ to ‘outright nasty’, and with a liberal amount of gore along the way. It is visceral and unsettling, and (fair warning) it involves cannibalism. I frequently find blood-and-entrails writing dull, too often added as compensation for lack of tension in the story. Bodily fluids are simply not very effective when the reader works in the medical sciences. Here, however, the gore works, and feels like a natural part of the tale rather than a crutch. It is gruesome and unsettling, and it fits nicely with the parallel tale of Becky’s pregnancy. (On that note, it is fascinating how often and how well pregnancy is used in horror. Alien, anyone? Or Rosemary’s Baby?)

The story does not read like a two-author production. The writing is in a single voice, possibly owing to the similar styles of King and Hill (his son). It is well-written and quick-paced. It is also, as other reviewers have pointed out, very short. Whilst I prefer longer to shorter, I am not certain In the Tall Grass would have benefited from added length. It does feel quite contained despite the meagre word count. Whether it is chunky enough to support a full-length film (directed by Vincenzo Natali of Cube fame) remains to be seen.

As for the ending, the story grows more and more surreal. This is perhaps not too surprising, given that space (and perhaps time) becomes unreliable once the protagonists enter the field. Once surrounded by the grass, voices drift and distances shift, seemingly without neither rhyme nor reason, but always leaving Cal and Becky ever more lost. I was tickled by this, as it left me pondering the possibilities of King and Hill’s nightmarish world. However, there were aspects of the ending that felt thin, including the lack explanations for the big MacGuffin of the piece (which I will not spoil by any further description). In the end, we are left with more questions than answers. Just for this reason, I want to read the novella over again, to determine whether the head and the tail of this tale truly belong to the same beast. Given its short length and undeniable quality of writing, a second reading is not a great sacrifice.

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Book review: At the Mountains of Madness

I have read some of Lovecraft’s work – ‘The Shunned House’ and ‘The Rats in the Walls’ are examples of stories I liked – but I have overall been less convinced by his alien gods and tentacles. At the Mountains of Madness may therefore not be the best choice for me, but as it is considered a classic, I thought I would give it a go.

Summary: The story is written from the point of view of Dyer, a geologist, retrospectively describing an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in the hopes that it may dissuade another, imminent research endeavour in the same region. The purpose of the Dyer expedition was to bore into ancient strata of rock, but this plan was quickly derailed as the biologist on the team, Lake, discovered odd triangular tracks in the rocks. After setting off on their own to explore these tracks further inland, Lake and his small team radioed the main group to report of the discovery of a massive mountain range and the desiccated bodies of ancient alien beings buried in a vast cave, just as a storm was about to hit. After the storm, there was radio silence. When Dyer and the rest of the group caught up to Lake, they made a series of horrific discoveries…

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First of all, I love the concept, like the premise, and have no problem with the (now) historical setting. The vast landscape, the hostile cold weather and the madness that can spring from being so dwarfed and isolated – it all appeals to me in a story. I had hoped that this would be enough to keep me excited, and was therefore disappointed to discover that I did not like the book. Even with so many set pieces being spot on, I was a bit bored with the entire exercise. It was neither particularly entertaining, nor was it frightening.

After an encouraging, relatively tense, beginning, the story stalls when we get to the meat of the events. At this point, dry descriptions of murals, references aplenty to the Necronomicon and Poe, and long lists of technical details, distract from the events. Given that the tale is written as a personal account from a scientist’s perspective, it is not unexpected that the prose strays somewhat into drier territories. However, while a bit of technical realism goes a long way to induce horror, this felt excessive. As Dyer and Danforth (a graduate student, not particularly well fleshed out as a character) investigate the fate of Lake’s team, the details of their scientific pursuits become repetitive. After the umpteenth lamentation that they ran out of film for their camera, there was very little tension left in the tale. I am happy to accept curiosity in the face of fear, but the attention to technical detail here just made the plot seem a trifle banal.

In spite of this, there were elements that I enjoyed. Lovecraft’s prose, although its merit is often debated, works well within his universe of horror in my opinion. It is as archaic as the monsters that he describes. In this book, I particularly liked his attention to the setting, easily evoking a sense of being dwarfed by the landscape.

“Only the incredible, unhuman massiveness of these vast stone towers and ramparts had saved the frightful things from utter annihilation in the hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of years it had brooded there […]”

For a story set in such a vast expanse, this ability to convey age and size is definitely a strength. However, there are places where the prose falls flat. For example, “indescribably awful” as a description of a creature does not work for me. It comes across as lazy rather than too horrendous for words. The vagueness doesn’t fit with the retrospective aspect of the story, in that the main character should have been expected to at least attempt a more precise recollection in the years that he has supposedly had to mull over events. It also jars with the plethora of technical detail that is painstakingly inserted everywhere else in the story. Again, if the tale had been tense, I could have overlooked this, but given that it was already bogged down, the ‘indescribably awful’ sights became just that: not described.

In short, I found the book interesting from the point of view of it being a classic and I had no problems with the alien antagonists per se. I am glad I read it, but I would not pick it up again, nor am I in a particular hurry to recommend it to anyone not already a fan of Lovecraft (who probably would have read it already). As a caveat, I am not (and have never been) a die-hard Lovecraft aficionado. Rather, I am a dilettante and a dabbler in matters Lovecraft, preferring other styles of horror whilst recognising his contribution to the genre. It is quite possible that those who are more invested in his works would enjoy At the Mountain of Madness. It simply was not my cup of tea.

List of dystopian novels

A brief summary of some of the prime examples of the genre.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Encouraging passivity and egotism with a side order of pleasant distractions, Huxley’s dystopia is insidious. A system designed to keep the population compliant and docile is all too believable. It may be orgy porgys rather than lolcatz, but the parallels in Huxley’s cautionary tale are not too hard to find.

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
The book which preceded 1984 and Brave New World, and inspired Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. We describes the One State, ruled by the Benefactor – a society with glass walls and mass surveillance which has abolished free will.

The Trial – Franz Kafka
Faceless opponents, senseless arrests and a realisation of danger that comes far too late is part of Josef K’s nightmare world. Kafka’s masterpiece may be as much absurdist/paranoid fiction, but the fight against an unassailable, relentless authority which does not follow neither custom nor law belongs at least partly in the dystopian genre.

Parable of Talents – Octavia Butler
Demagoguery is the villain of Butler’s second Parable novel. The antagonist is a populist, jingoistic politician, the success of which has catastrophic consequences. This is not an enjoyable tale. The punch that it packs, however, cannot be denied.

Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut
The automation of society comes with a downside in Player Piano, where machines replace the working class, widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Purposeless, ‘useless’ people is the core of Vonnegut’s story. And the societal effects of automation is not the spectre of some distant future – this world has already arrived.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
There are many ways to erase opposing thoughts, but book burning is one of the most egregious. Fahrenheit 451 has certainly been censored and banned enough times to prove its point. The eradication of dissenting ideas, whether it be by book burning or by authoritarian decree, is dangerous territory.

A Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Gilead is an unpleasant, uncomfortable and flat out harrowing place to visit. But revisit it we must, over and over again, until we no longer have to. Atwood’s tale of subjugation and lost agency is sadly still relevant, more than thirty years after its publication.

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
The book that gave us doublespeak and the Ministry of Truth doesn’t need any further introduction.

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore
Telling the story of fascism versus anarchy in the UK, this graphic novel concerns itself with the debate of freedom and resistance. In Alan Moore’s London, freedom does not come for free.

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