Review of A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris

IMG_1368

A Wilderness of Error:
The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald
by Errol Morris
Penguin, trade pb, 553pp
Copiously illustrated, extensive notes, indexed
$18.99, ISBN:  978-0-14-312369-9

A Review by Gene Stewart

On 17 February 1970 Army Captain Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald’s wife and two children were murdered and he was stabbed.  He was blamed, tried, (in 1979, by the way), and convicted.  He remains in prison to this day.

This book proves conclusively he did not get a fair trial.  Not even close.  It also presents a preponderance of evidence pointing toward his innocence but guilt cannot be apportioned or assigned after all the years, all the obfuscation, and all the layered cover-ups, dodges, and outright lies.

As a consequence, this book, which is so thoroughly detailed, well-organized, and clearly presented as to be a prime example of how to investigate crimes and their aftermaths, ends up being about the so-called justice system.  From the ground up, character flaws, malfeasance, incompetence, and bigotry rule.

We learn that narrative counts more than fact.  Who ever tells the best story first wins.  In law it’s called a theory of the crime, in fiction writing it’s narrative.  Imposed, it’s structure on what are usually chaotic events that leave random, often-misinterpreted evidence.  A given fact marks the spot where people stop asking questions.  It’s shocking to see how fragile our sense of what’s real can be, and how malleable our memories.  History is a lie agreed upon, many cynics have observed.  It needn’t be a lie.  In many cases, it’s a misperception, or a limited angle of view, or just a false conclusion based on false impressions.

“We live in a universe of false leads,” Morris writes at one point.  As if the world seeks to mislead us.  As if anything BUT plain fact insists upon dominating our view of what we call our world.  Whose it is, and what it is, remains up for grabs, as A Wilderness of Error makes clear.

In this particular case, an Army Green Beret medical doctor serving on Ft. Bragg found himself accused of killing his family despite his story of being awakened by a group of what he called hippies attacking him.  An amazing amount of evidence was destroyed right off the bat by incompetent MPs tramping around the place, some actually moving things they came across.

Other evidence was kept carefully out of the case by a prosecution in collusion with a bent judge focused on convicting MacDonald.  It went so far as to exclude the repeated confession of a woman, Helena Stoekley, who kept telling everyone she’d been there and, although she’d been stoned, she remembered vivid details, many of which only a direct witness would or could know.

Maybe.

Blur was applied so thickly, for so many years, with participants literally remaining in office for 40 years in part to stonewall successive appeals, that no clarity is possible even for the sequence of events.  Much evidence has been destroyed by now.  Witnesses and participants have died.  DNA evidence was eventually processed but what usually takes six months took over eight years to make its way through a reluctant system.  Blocks were thrown up at every possible turn, and delays were built in.

Justice, turns out, is maintaining a corrupt status quo, not meting out sentences based on evidence and fair trials.

Like the recent HBO mini-series MAKING A MURDERER, A Wilderness of Error is not so much about an accused man’s guilt or innocence, but about how cops, prosecutors, and judges use the system for their own ends without regard to the ideals supposedly enshrined in a Rule of Law.

Errol Morris is a documentary film maker.  The Fog of War; The Thin Blue Line; Mr. Death; A Brief History of Time; The Unknown Known are all his work, with many others.  He’s won awards and has, in The Thin Blue Line, gotten a wrongfully-convicted man out of prison.

Not so here.  He did not find overwhelming evidence either way, but most of what was excluded without conscience from MacDonald’s trial was exculpatory, and as I’ve said, this book proves without doubt a fair trial was not conducted, not even the appearance of one.

You will also come away from A Wilderness of Error knowing how treacherous and disingenuous author Joe McGinnis was in his book Fatal Vision.  Yes, it’s that case, and in fact that book and subsequent mini-series made sure a false narrative was imposed, removing any chance of a fair trial while convincing most of us at the time that, oh, yes, of course that’s what happened, just another one of those types of things…

Morris, a film-maker, demonstrates in A Wilderness of Error a remarkable ability to sift, organize, and present a baffling array of evidence, claims, and conflicting testimony in a clear, readable way.  This is some of the best reporting I’ve ever come across.  The book’s layout helps, too.  Each chapter has but a single focus.  Quotations and excerpts are well marked.  Morris writes concisely.  He maintains admirable balance amidst dizzying swarms of accusation and dissembling.

If you like true crime, if you like intelligent analysis of criminal law processes and media frenzies, if you are interested in seeing how the muddle of life becomes selected, even cherry-picked history in our minds, or if you like philosophical existentialism presented without preaching using real world examples, this book will compel you.

Strongly recommended for those of us angry at the corruption.

///  ///  ///

Posted in Sample Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Review of A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris

Review of Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

IMG_1366

Bellman & Black
by Diane Setterfield
Emily Bestler Books, Atria, Simon & Schuster
HC, 328pp, $26.99, ISBN:  978-1-4767-1195-9

A Review by Gene Stewart

A memento mori presented as the life of William Bellman, who makes the fatal error as a boy of killing a rook, an act which haunts him ever after.  We see his childhood, his adolescence, and his youth, then watch him apply remarkable ability at analysis to move from working at a fabric mill to running it to, eventually owning and transforming it.

Along the way we witness his hardships and struggles, his challenges, triumphs, and abject failures.  We see how hard life is, even for those we’d otherwise call successful.  We see how tiny influences have huge ramifications and consequences.

William Bellman is inclined to vertical integration.  Black is his color, once his main adult idea flocks to him.  An emporium focused on providing all the needs and wants of those in mourning, he realizes, will thrive because death is always thriving.  He becomes expert in black, aware of more variations of the color, and its absence, than the Inuit know of snow.

At this stage, the book brings to mind Selfridge’s store and success, without the man’s dissipation through gambling.  Bellman is all work, no waste, even as his daughter, terribly afflicted, almost wastes away until, somehow, she changes yet again.

Written crisply, with a focused, elegant, and concise prose both well-paced yet brisk, caring yet astringent, expansive yet telescoping, Bellman & Black rises from eerie mystery to literary soul-searching.  Epic living is presented in only 300 or so pages.  Life in all its circuitous, meandering, whimsical, and perverse layering comes alive for us in William Bellman and those around him.  There is not a false step.  Setterfield grants access to myth, too, and the plain magic of the workday world.  Occasional excursus pages of information about ravens, blackbirds, crows, and other corvids provide counterpoint reminding us of time passing and eternity motionless and watching it all.  The fall of a sparrow comes to mind, as does geological epochs.

The tone is unemotional throughout, often presenting gut-wrenching scenes with an almost placid precision that evokes eerie detachment, as if we’re seeing this all from above.  From, say, a bird’s eye view.

While there is no overt manifestation, the novel is infused with the supernatural.  Dark lurks, shadows influence, and people divert mysteriously into stretches of life or death that cannot easily be explained, yet that seem perfectly natural in the course of things.  Context matters.

Bellman & Black is a joy to read, to savor.   Beautiful sentences, scenes, and chapters are offered like gems on black velvet. Nothing strikes as ill-considered or ad hoc.  Woven tightly, life in Setterfield’s hand and eye is inevitable, even as it is surprising, at times shocking, and always comes with a touch of glossy dark whispery winged magic.

Strongly recommended for those poised for dark flight.

///   ///  ///

Posted in Sample Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Review of Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Review of Helltown by Jeremy Bates

IMG_1240

Helltown / World’s Scariest Places:  Book Three
by Jeremy Bates
Ghillinnein Books, 2015, 1st
ISBN:  978 0997 096 067

A Review by Gene Stewart

A group of kids drive to an isolated town in Ohio to investigate legends of hauntings and other strange goings-on, such as a bridge under which a baby’s ghost wails in the wisps of mist, or the church with the upside-down cross on top.

Their investigation of the bridge proves a let-down but the wild ride that follows, featuring a game of chicken they lose, proves more eventful than any could want.  Their driver swerves away from certain head-on collision, only to lose control, leave the road into the trees, flip, then roll the car, and end up paralyzed.

What the reader knows that they don’t is terrifying:  A group of in-bred hicks with rape and murder on their mind, who refer to the men and women they hunt in their territory as Bucks and Does, wrecked them on purpose and intend on taking them to dungeons and worse.

Factor in a corrupt psychopathic shrink from a local clinic, a pair of anacondas, and the apathetic ignorance and corruption of local officials and things become really grim.

Bates writes focused prose that keeps things moving.  Always engaging, he does not scrimp on character.  Every scene is thought out so it works on many levels at once.  Every sentence works.

He seems to attribute a Downeast accent to some of these Ohio natives, which offers an off-setting note of dissonance to an otherwise-seamless narrative drive, but that’s minor.  Another cavil:  I nearly stopped reading when the hicks were introduced because I thought, Oh no, not that old trope.  The very next chapter redeemed my fear of cliché; he was playing with them more than slavishly following them, and this opened up the book to great effect.

Which clichés?  This book contributes to the legacy of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES and other such gruesome Sawney Bean tales.  Thing is, i’s a worthy addition, one recommended for those who like a wild ride full of twists, turns, surprises, shocks, and terrors presented on what seems to be familiar territory.  You’d be wrong to get too comfortable.

Like the second book in his series, this one is set in an actual place you can visit if you dare, and the events on which he hangs his tale are reported in news stories you can research.  It’s a great conceit for a series and so far he’s also covered Japan’s suicide forest, the Paris catacombs, and the Isle of Dolls in Mexico.

I’ve read Catacombs, the second in this series, and it, too, is recommended, not the least of which for its well-researched tour of the actual catacombs and the depiction of some of the denizens and urban explorers who are found there, sometimes dead and dismembered. The story itself is satisfyingly layered, with a solid resolution, and the characters are memorable.

Jeremy Bates writes better than necessary while delivering base-level shrieking horror at its best.  Can’t ask or hope for more.  Seek out his work and see if you concur.

///  ///  ///

Posted in Sample Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Review of Helltown by Jeremy Bates

Review of nEvermore!

nEvermore!

nEvermore!
Neo-Gothic Fiction Inspired by
the Imagination of Edgar Allan Poe
Tales of Murder, Mystery, & the Macabre

Edited by
Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles

Edge, imprint of Hades Publishing
$15.95, 259pp, Bio section
ISBN 978-177053085-0

A Review by Gene Stewart

The cover shows a raven on a branch silhouetted by a full moon.  Its beak is open.  We know what it’s saying.  Yet here are echoes of the master, not silent evermore but very much alive influencing a wide range of writers and variety of stories.

Poe defined every current modern fiction genre to greater or lesser extent. His systematic approach to sensationalism, his insistence on form, structure, and “one thing happens”, have given literature goals to aim at, as time and again his stories showed how it was properly done, and why that way worked best.

Flaws and excesses haunted his work, yes.  We see in this anthology echoes of those, too.  It becomes an enhancement.

After a somewhat blurry set of remarks by Uwe Sommerlad, with the points of which I largely disagree, we get down to the stories themselves, where quality kicks into high gear.

Some are takes on actual Poe tales.  Some are surreal nods toward a clutch of Poe’s motifs.  Some relate to Poe in tone only, or by having been inspired by stains found in Poe’s shadow.  These tales span past and present, with settings high, low, and bizarre.  We find stand-outs like “Naomi” by Christopher Rice, or “Finding Ulalume” by Lisa Morton, or “Annabel Lee” by Nancy Holder, which appealed to my taste particularly.  We find literary gems and surprises, such as Margaret Atwood’s first attempt at a short story, or an excerpt from a David Morrell novel about the mysterious Opium Eater, who turns out to be Thomas De Quincy himself.

Old pros mingle with relative newcomers.  Each story stands on its own merits but together this anthology presents a persuasive set of strong arguments for continuing our celebration of Edgar Allan Poe’s accomplishments, and to expand his work’s influence so it never ceases to enhance, enrich, and chill us.

///  ///  ///

Posted in Sample Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Review of nEvermore!

Review of The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

IMG_0794

The Colorado Kid
by Stephen King
Hard Case Crime imprint of
Dorchester Books, October 2005
Mass Market Paperback, 184pp
ISBN:  0-8439-5584-8

A Review by Gene Stewart

Written to help inaugurate an imprint of new pulp mysteries, The Colorado Kid is a mystery about the nature of mystery.  It’s meta-fiction, something more literary than most expect from King, a chronically under-rated and misinterpreted writer due to his amazing sales figures and intense popularity among readers.

Fact is, he’s much better than he’s generally credited to be, a mystery in itself until one remembers the howdy-neighbor narrative tone he achieves.  Since he doesn’t come off lofty and cerebral in tone, few pay attention to what he’s really up to, and so they miss how intelligent, well thought-out, and how, yes, literary is much of King’s oeuvre.

He’s like a seamless street illusionist, affable, approachable, and doing so many things you don’t see that you never know what hit you until later, if then.  This book brings that lesson home with a snap of the fingers and the dazzle of flash paper.

The Colorado Kid is a nickname given to a dead body found on a beach on an island off Maine.  We learn about the incident as two old newspapermen discuss it with a young colleague, an intern who is enticed away from grandiose dreams of journalism by the tiny paper and its place in its tiny community.  Along with the story of The Colorado Kid we receive much sidereal education about traditional values, how things really work, and what imposing a narrative means to both storytelling and to reporting.

Many felt cheated or let-down by this book.  They thought it had no resolution.  They resented not having had their hands held as they crossed dangerous thresholds.  They sulked about not having had every little thing explained to them.  They accused King of mystification for its own sake, and of being too lazy to work out a solution to the puzzle he poses.

King does not cheat, though.  It’s all there, right in front of you, clear as day, if you can manage to think.  That’s the true joy of this superb novella, it allows the reader a chance to snap awake to something that goes on all around us all the time.

After reading this, and enjoying it, I went to bed, and it was there that I lay thinking about how King had led me through a discussion of unsolved mysteries and why they appeal to us.  What elements they must have if we’re to return to them again and again.  Every detail of The Colorado Kid I thought back on fit, I realized, with growing admiration.  He’d not only avoided cheating, he’d done sleight-of-mind on me time and again, and had made it look effortless.

What a performance of writerly skills and literary awareness.

Good writing it not just what a writer comes up with but how it’s presented.

In this example, a lesser writer could easily have produced an extruded fiction product mystery novella good for a quick reading and instantly forgotten.  It might be expanded into hundreds of pages.  It could be compressed into a Jack Ritchie zinger or a sliver of Lawrence Block.

A blurb on the back drop the names of Dashiell Hammett and Graham Greene and specifically mention The Maltese Falcon.  At first I thought this was marketer’s razzle-dazzle, chiming on familiar names to sell a product, and sure, some of it is exactly that, but these referents fit well, turns out.  Think sharp irony, dangerously unreliable narration, and obliquely blunt fact that goes unrecognized.  The Human Factor home to roost with a vengeance.

The stuff dreams are made of, indeed.

We had to pay about five times cover price for this copy I read, and it came with a creased front cover, eye tracks, and so on.  If you can find a copy, definitely snag and read it.  Well worth the effort and it will, if you’re a canny sort of reader, elevate your appreciation of Stephen King’s work.

///  ///  ///

Posted in Sample Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Review of The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

Review of BLUE VELVET

blue_velvet
Watched BLUE VELVET again last night and it holds up well, being itself out-of-time and timeless. The whole question I was left with is: How did David Lynch get his actors to trust him that much? They sure let go, the main ones.
 
Supporting players include a wasted-but-welcome Hope Lange, too. One forgets that.
 
Hopper, Rosselini, and MacLachlan are all fearless, though, and their performances are all wildly trusting of such a weird director.
 
Laura Dern is note perfect as the naive cop’s daughter who gets a fairly quick dip into disillusion. “Where is my dream?”
 
The stately pace and beautifully-framed scenes become iconic and the weirdness still raises hackles. Wow that’s intense stuff some of it. Amazing, gritty, and ethereal all at once, a surreal masterpiece. Dreams within dreams, set to Roy Orbison and Bobby Vinton. Yeow.
 
Definitely a classic. “The Hardy Boys Go to Hell,” Lynch famously described it once in an interview. Even when you’ve seen it and know it, you remain terrified for the main characters. You can also spot many a source for Tarrantino’s PULP PLAGIARISM in it but that’s a fillip. Watch it for the deconstruction of wholesomeness and for its wholeness as a work of art.
 
/ geste
roses
Posted in Sample Reviews | Tagged , | Comments Off on Review of BLUE VELVET

Review of Casebook On the Men In Black by Jim Keith

image1

Casebook on the Men In Black
by Jim Keith
Adventures Unlimited Press, 2011 edition
b&w photos, illos, $14.95
ISBN:  978-1-935487-35-7

A Review by Gene Stewart

Men In Black is not just a Will Smith movie franchise.  It’s not just a graphic novel series from which those films drew inspiration.

Men In Black is an umbrella term for men, usually a duo or trio, who show up dressed in black suits, usually old-fashioned, driving out-dated large black cars, often Cadillacs or Lincolns, who show up in the lives, often at the houses, of UFO witnesses, many of whom have not even made their sightings or experiences public.  The goal seems to be to baffle, by bizarre behavior such as moving stiffly, speaking robotically, and swallowing salt and sugar but not knowing how to use a straw.  A more over-riding goal is to intimidate people away from discussing their UFO observation or experience.

Jim Keith is a legendary writer on fringe and conspiracy topics whose work is well-researched, wittily-written, and hard to find.  This book is a 2011 edition of a 1997 book but has lost little of its freshness.  In well-organized, systematic chapters, each with its own bibliography of sources appended, Keith delves into the dark, weird world of the Men In Black phenomena.  Plural, yes.  It’s a spectrum.

It should be noted that Keith adhered, before his mysterious death, to the view that much if not quite all fringe events and experiences can be attributed to human action, specifically to small groups with hidden agendas.  Conspiracy theory is itself a conspiracy theory.

He postulates that MIB may have arisen from the FBI’s practice of suppressing public mention of Japanese Fugo Balloons, incendiary devices launched in Japan that used the Jet Stream to travel across the Pacific Ocean, then come down randomly in the United States, where, upon landing, they would ignite and cause a fire, thus waging a low-level war of nerves, if not terror, during WW II.  The FBI was charged with keeping word of these fire bomb balloons from getting into media, hoping to deny Japan intelligence about where they’d gone, how quickly, and what damage they did, if any.

The official word is, they barely counted as harassment.  Who knows?

Who is to say these Silencers, as they were known, did not continue their suppression of public talk once the modern UFO era kicked off in 1947?  Perhaps many of the UFO flaps covered air craft experiments gone wrong, or exposed the public to crowd control manipulation tests, or masked the official inability to cope with UFOs.

Against this backdrop, Keith examines many disparate cases, some dating back into the Medieval times, others from the year the book was written, 1996.

His chapters are grouped under the headings Black Arts; Black Ops; The Hoaxers; Beyond Reality; and Fade To Black, where he offers his conclusions.   An introduction to the book is offered by Keith’s friend, cohort, and publisher Kenn Thomas.

Ceremonial magick, of the sort practiced by Jack Parsons, L. Ron Hubbard, and others, forms one of the roots for some of the creepy behavior of Men In Black.  So, too, espionage plays its part, along with unsanctioned DARPA shenanigans, hoaxes, and metaphysical possibilities.  The MIB set of manifestations defy rational analysis but Jim Keith gives it a solid try.  If he errs, it’s almost always on the side of empirical skepticism and down-to-earth explanations

Some of the accounts themselves strain credulity, as if some prankster is seeing how far we can be strung along.  Others are offered at face value as simply too strange to be left out of the discussion, in the interests of being inclusive and thorough.  Jim Keith does his best to sort through this mess, and pulls out interesting insights as he finds revealing facets to many stories.  His command of the details is strong and his awareness of participants is sweeping.  He outright warns you that many, perhaps most, of these people can’t be trusted farther than the length of your arm.

Much of the MIB behavior strikes the reader as ludicrous.  Juvenile announcements that We Are Watching You are issued as if they’d accomplish anything.  Dire warnings against talking about or researching UFOs are enforced by mere threats of Or Else, with few incidents as follow-up.

Few, but not no incidents:

There are injuries and deaths reported, too.  Not all MIB encounters are harmless, whimsical weirdness.  Phone calls featuring electronic nosies and beeps are one thing but being run off the road, or being found dead with strange marks on you, quite another.  Houses and offices broken into, documents and photographs stolen, and files trashed are crimes, too.  Being creepy-crawled as you sleep is yet another MIB behavior that would fall under stalking.

He ends up concluding the MIB spectrum of phenomena are likely a mix of the physical and the psychological, with many, if not most, due to human agency for what ever reasons, but with a small percentage maybe, just maybe entering the realm of the inexplicable.

Like UFOs and ghosts, MIBs are real but we don’t know what they are.  This is an interesting companion to The Truth Behind the Men In Black by Jenny Randles and Nick Redfern’s book, The Real Men In Black.  There are, of course, many others in this anteroom of the UFO book cottage industry but Jim Keith’s is the best I’ve seen so far.

Recommended for fringe surfers, Forteans, and fun guys from Yuggoth.

///  ///  ///

Posted in Gene's Art, Sample Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Review of Casebook On the Men In Black by Jim Keith

A Review of The Scribe by Matthew Guinn

The Scribe, Guinn

The Scribe
Matthew Guinn
Norton hc, 292pp
$25.95 US
ISBN:  978-0-393-23929-4

Set in 1881 Atlanta during the early days of the New South, The Scribe delves with depth and subtlety into the many cross-currents flowing at that time and eddying into ours.

When hideous murder threatens the success of the International Cotton Exposition, itself a set-piece that may well determine Atlanta’s survival into post-war changes, a detective banished by a political smear is lured back to the city from a small mountain town to solve the case off the books, as quickly and quietly as possible.

He’s to work with Atlanta’s first black homicide detective, something only he is willing to do, it seems.  Thus we see racial tension at the heart of this novel, which examines dark stains from the Plantation Era that refuse to be expunged.  Even today we cannot erase those indelible crimes, fears, hatreds, and ambitions. Even today politics stirs prejudice to stampede support and votes via scare tactics and unwarranted claims.  In The Scribe we see that none of this is ever new.

Serial murders continue, each seemingly worse, each of-a-piece with something that refuses to die. Letters carved into foreheads are spelling out a slow communication of refusal, denial, and hate.  Who or what ever is doing this strikes them as something new, perhaps spawned by the recently-finished war, maybe created along with the rebuilding of Atlanta, of the South.  As the detectives stalk this creature, we witness political struggles, divisive views, and conflicting emotions at war in the very concept of a New South.  Many cannot give up on the Old South, as remains true today. Others are lost in rubble or confused by unexpected reconstruction.  It is a time of vision trying hard to organize chaos into something better-suited to survive a new era’s demands and imperatives.

The closer the detectives get to the killer, the worse become pressures from above and below them.  Doing the right thing might mean committing crimes.  Upholding the law too assiduously might mean upsetting the entire future of what was once Dixie. Each man must face his own inner conflicts, then match them to those around him.

We see Joel Chandler Harris, General Sherman, and other historical people both in cameo and participating in full scenes. We learn at the end that this novel uses real events and settings, albeit in conflated form, to enhance the unity of the fiction.  Quinn’s choices are savvy and used brilliantly.  He deploys fact into fiction’s ranks with aplomb, never sacrificing one for the other, always enhancing, synergizing, and completing what might, in lesser hands, become fumbled, shattered.

No character rings false and each is human, with admirable qualities and possibly-fatal flaws.  There are heroics, and grand scenes, but all are handled on a human scale, believable and genuine details supporting every word and move.

Masterful, elegant, and concise, the writing remains superb throughout and the material is both compelling on a story level and important on many real world levels.  By cleaving to the human, by adding slight touches of possible supernatural interference, by expatiating in wonderful dialogue intelligent views pro and con, this novel elevates the discussion of politics, race relations, crime, justice, psychology, love, loss, redemption, sorrow, realism, friendship, professionalism, greater goods, lesser evils, immigration, pride, nihilism, narcissism, random plans and planned accidents, and a host of other sober matters that a dram of Jameson’s might lubricate.

By all means, read this book and do yourself some good while having an intensely good time. Strongly recommended.

/ Djinn

Posted in Gene's Art, Sample Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A Review of The Scribe by Matthew Guinn

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, A Review

Head Ghosts Tremblay

A Head Full of Ghosts
by Paul Tremblay
William Morrow, 2015, 1st edition hardcover
284pp, deckled pages
ISBN:  978-0-06-236323-7

A Review by Gene Stewart

A layered, literary mystery/horror novel in a class by itself, likely to be an instant classic, A Head Full of Ghosts is enticing, alluring, compelling, and beautifully written in several voices, on several levels.

We’re being told about an incident, or series of incidents, played out on a television ghost show, by one of the family members, the youngest, Meredith, known as Merry.  She is eight when the events unfold, focusing on her 14 year old sister, Marjorie, who is, it seems, possessed by a demon.  How does an otherwise normal, lower-middle-class family respond to such a thing?

The mother is a skeptic, the father eager to believe, and their opposing energies inform much of the tension in scenes of domestic family life under huge pressure.  Shrinks and drugs don’t work; might prayer?  Exorcism? When money runs out an offer is made to pay the family if cameras are allowed in along with the church.

That this TV connection comes through the sanctimonious local priest who has gathered the father into his fold is of no little importance as the results ripple.  Are such TV shows and movies, so common these days, funded by a church eager to fan the flames of credulity in order to swell their diminishing congregations?  Are these tales of “real life” hauntings mere propaganda exploiting mental illness and superstition for cynical church ends?

We are receiving the story as a best-selling writer interviews Merry about what happened, through Merry’s narrative, and occasionally through a blog Merry writes under an assumed name, one that deconstructs, analyzes, and criticizes the television show her family starred in as if it’s just another piece of horror fiction to be run through the scrutiny mill.  Her insights are trenchant, of course, and often devastating.  She is commenting on the story she is otherwise telling; it is meta-fiction that functions to undermine even as it illuminates what the reader receives, and how it is delivered.

Tremblay displays masterful control of tone, fleshing out the character of mind in both an eight year old girl who is largely fuzzy about the adult details of what happened back then, and the adult, possibly-unreliable narrator she’s become, as bounced off the best-selling writer who is interviewing her.  This choice of Merry to tell the tale is adroitly perfect for a limited omniscience that leaves the reader more informed than any blunt noir might have done.  What is terrifying in this book are the new angles you’ll see when you look at your own life.

Many interesting threads and themes converge toward a startling denouement and a shockingly ambiguous conclusion that unravels worse the more it is contemplated.  This novel comments intelligently on both the nature of experience and of reality itself.  Brilliant in conception and execution, with strong scenes, clear characters, and impeccable prose, A Head Full of Ghosts ends up describing anyone lucky enough to read it.

Remarkable in all ways, this is one of the best books I’ve read in ages.  Strongly recommended.

/ Djinn

Posted in Sample Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, A Review

The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker: A Review

Pinhead

The Scarlet Gospels
Clive Barker
St. Martin’s Press
$29.99 USD / Hardcover
Special Dust Jacket
362pp, ISBN:  978-1-250-05580-4

If you read this book you will go to Hell.

You’ll like such a damnation.

Clive Barker’s return to horror, as it’s touted, is as spectacular and intense as you’d expect, with gorgeous visions of dark corruption and bright flashes of darker salvation.

Hell’s Priest, the Cenobite, Pinhead to us yokels, is back with a vengeance, his ambitions as vaunted as anything Dante ever conceived.

Harry D’Amour is back, too, at his hellacious best, at his toughest, and at his luckiest.  His struggles to confront and defeat the demons and worse that afflict him exceed anything  he’s ever faced before.

Having enjoyed and admired Barker’s literary excursions away from straight horror, notably Coldheart Canyon and the Abarat sequence of books with art, I am glad to see his so-called return to horror is true-to-form and spectacular as always.  A most visual writer, as his paintings attest, his work still throws off lava-bombs.

In The Scarlet Gospels, all his trademark moves are intact and lively.  He’s lost no chops and gained quite a few along the way.  This volume features a special dust jacket, illustrated on the inside with a Barker painting, and the layout of the book itself is evocative and sharp.

Going to Hell has never been so compelling.  Vivid, lush, and intense, its pacing never stops and its scenes engulf the reader.  You can’t read fast enough, yet you’re unable not to stop and admire, and imagine in detail, the visionary sights and harrowing experiences Barker offers.  A couple of his characters have this dichotomy of mad rush and the urge to stop, marvel, and savor passing scenes.

Strongly recommended for anyone who enjoys Barker’s work, or for fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden novels, or for readers of more classical fare such as Dante.  Influences, and ripples, abound.  Wade in.

/ Gene Stewart

Scarlet Gospels

Posted in Sample Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker: A Review