What happens when author and former Washington Post Best Science Fiction & Fantasy winner Victor LaValle writes a story that combines horror, science fiction and mystery? The result is his latest novella The Ballad of Black Tom.
The Ballad of Black Tom takes place in 1920s New York. Readers quickly enter the world of Charles Thomas Tester, a 20-year-old African American hustler from Harlem. On the streets of New York, Charles goes by the name of Tommy, and Tommy likes to put on a show. He portrays himself as the “dazzling, down-and-out musician” by wearing a gray flannel suit, an aging seal-brown trooper hat and brown leather brogues with nicked toes and completes the look by toting around a guitar case (once in a while there's an actual guitar inside). Although Tommy has no musical talent, it doesn’t stop his hustle. Yes, he'll play the role of a musician, hum a few sour notes and scam people all for the sake of supporting himself and his ailing father. Things take a turn for the worst when Tommy attracts the attention of a wealthy white man named Robert Suydam. A cop and private detective, who are watching Suydam, now have their eyes on Tommy, after witnessing their first encounter. Suydam offers Tommy a couple hundred bucks to play a few tunes at his upcoming party. Astonish that someone actually likes his non-vocal abilities, but not one to turn down money, Tommy accepts. Suydam introduces him to a realm of crime and magic that sets off a chain of dark events that will forever change Tommy's life. Suydam tells Tommy about awakening a Sleeping King that sleeps at the bottom of an ocean. Once this Sleeping King awakes, he’ll create a new world where a select few will be rewarded. Tommy is intrigued. When he immerses himself into this magical world, he becomes a different person, a monster, who no longer goes by the name of Tommy, but "Black Tom."
If you're looking for a quick entertaining read, I recommend The Ballad of Black Tom. This book is a page-turner and would make for a great film. If you’re interested in more books by Victor LaValle, check out Big Machine and The Devil in Silver.
There are books with racist subtext, and then there are the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Although his books defined the horror genre, Lovecraft was also an unrepentant racist who made xenophobia a major theme of his work. As time goes by, this has become harder for readers to tolerate, and his image was recently removed from the World Fantasy award trophies for this reason. But Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country explores Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos from the perspective of the people Lovecraft deplored, creating a moving story about race and the supernatural in one unforgettable novel.
The book begins in 1950’s Chicago, where Atticus and his Uncle George report for the Safe Negro Travel Guide, a book with real historical roots that guides black travelers through areas of the Jim Crow south where they’re likely to be harassed. The two men also share a mutual love of science fiction that the rest of their family finds hard to understand. But when Atticus’ father Montrose sends him a mysterious letter, they find themselves pulled into a fantasy of their own, a conspiracy of magic and elder gods that reaches far back into their family history.
Never before has a horror book engaged with race in such a thoughtful way, with supernatural evils serving as metaphors for social ones. But none of it would land if Ruff hadn’t crafted characters of such depth and complexity. I could go on about the family’s rich interpersonal relationships, like young Horace who sweetly draws his mother her own comic book series because she wants to read a story about a black woman for once, or the book club discussions between Atticus and George which could’ve filled the entire novel and been perfectly satisfying. These are characters to root for, who never back down from a challenge, whether they’re being chased by a sheriff or a shoggoth (which, believe me, are creepy). Fans of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series will enjoy this similarly pulpy piece of historical fiction.
Imagine urban fantasy. Now, remove the skyscrapers and the taxicabs and the cell phones. Replace them with clapboard buildings, dirt tracks and 10-gallon hats. Add a generous pinch of scary stuff. You might come up with a terrible episode of Gunsmoke — or you might get some idea of Holly Messinger’s first novel The Curse of Jacob Tracy.
Jacob Tracy is a novel, but its chapters are grouped into sections that read like short stories that are knit together by an overall plot arc, much like the setup of a TV series. Trace, himself, is a fascinating individual and an extraordinarily engaging and original character. He is a former seminary student and former Confederate soldier. His best friend/traveling companion, Boz, is an illiterate former slave. Though an odder couple is hard to imagine, both have each other’s best interests at heart as they travel the American western frontier, working as trail guides for city folk who are trying new adventures on for size.
Why Trace and Boz refuse to settle down for long is teased out over the several episodes in this book (hint: Trace sees dead people), but their loyalty to each other is never in question…until Trace meets Miss Fairweather, a recluse, who tricks him into performing a “simple task” during the lull season in trail guiding in order to earn much-needed room and board money. Taking Boz with him, because you never leave a friend behind, Trace is forced to start facing the demons of his past when he crashes into the middle of a long-running battle between the forces of the sane and the forces of the mad. The question is: When his visions start to overwhelm him, and he begins to realize Miss Fairweather might have set him up, who can he trust?
Come for the ghosts and not-so-urban legends. Stay for the pragmatic, yin and yang, stronger-than-family friendship of Boz and Trace.
This is Messinger’s first novel, but fans of the Harry Dresden novels or fans of online zine Beneath Ceaseless Skies (wherein Messinger has published short stories) will certainly approve of this story.
Do you have time in your busy schedule to read a short story? Not just any short story, but a ghost story. Not just any ghost story, but a ghost story by Gillian Flynn. You may have heard of her. She is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Sharp Objects, Dark Places and Gone Girl, one of most talked about novels of 2014 . Flynn’s latest release is a stand-alone copy of her 64-page, Edgar Awarding-winning short story, The Grownup. It made its first appearance in author George R. R. Martin's Rogues anthology.
The Grownup is about an unnamed and “barely thirty” female con artist who works at a sketchy place called Spiritual Palms that provides fortunes and illegal sex services. Viveca, her boss gives her a job promotion, which makes the con artist no longer a sex worker but a fraudulent fortune-teller. A troubled customer by the name of Susan Burke stops in to have her fortune told. The con artist learns that Susan is being terrorized by her 15-year-old stepson,Miles, and that a trickle of blood drips on the wall inside Susan’s renovated Victorian house. The con artist helps Susan by cleansing the inside of her home. During one of her house cleansing visits, the con artist meets Miles, a menacing teen who gives her an ultimatum: stay away or die. However, the con artist ignores his threat and soon finds out that she is the one being swindled. Swindled by who? You’ll just have to read it and find out.
If you are a Gillian Flynn fan or you just want to read an entertaining short story, I encourage you to check out a copy of The Grownup at a BCPL branch near you. And whatever you do, avoid a place called Spiritual Palms.
Vulnerable, shimmering and desirable. Oh, to be a soul in David Mitchell's disturbing and fun new novel Slade House. Here horror meets plain old weirdness in a Faustian-like brew, stirred up by creepy twin siblings, Norah and Jonah Grayer. The two house residents must refuel in order to “live” out their immortal existence. But it's their energy of choice that is the stunner for those who enter their seductive property through their garden’s small iron black door.
Spanning 36 years starting in 1979, the story’s epicenter is the enigmatic haunted mansion that only appears once every nine years. One by one, Mitchell’s five “engifted” narrators are tricked by the twins into visiting the house, allured by a theatrical setting that conjures up images they want to believe in, images that make their lacking lives better. They end up in a precarious situation, trapped and doomed, while the unthinkable happens.
Mitchell, whose previous novels Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks received critical acclaim, started this latest work out of a series of tweets. It is a narrative that hints of larger life questions for which there are no answers. And while Mitchell deftly nods to his heftier previous works and the universe therein, it is not necessary to start there. In fact, Mitchell’s latest effort is a nimble and accessible stand-alone. It may be the perfect introduction to this author’s thought-provoking, imaginatively clever writing whose style blends mind-control and the supernatural with the essence of time, beguiling it might be. Mitchell fans have come to expect nothing less while newcomers will hopefully get what all the fuss is about.
Audrey Niffenegger is mostly known for her bestselling and film adapted novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, but if you know her other work, the gothic novel Her Fearful Symmetry or her dark graphic novels such as Raven Girl, you won’t be surprised to learn she’s had a lifelong fascination with the otherworldly. Ghostly collects her favorite ghost stories, from the classic to the obscure, with illustrations and introductions to each. It’s like receiving a thoughtful mixtape from a friend who wants to unsettle you.
There are perennial classics here such as M.R. James’ “The Mezzotint,” in which a collector is troubled by something in the background of a photo that appears to be moving. There are also modern masterpieces like Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat,” in which a babysitter teaches two girls how to play Dead, which is different from being dead and has its own rules. And there are also very funny pieces like Amy Giacalone’s “Tiny Ghosts,” in which a woman is taking a bath and reading her favorite book when a tiny door opens next to her faucet and a little ghost comes out.
Ghost stories traditionally focus more on mood and atmosphere rather than the jump scares and viscera that are obligatory in other horror genres, and so there’s almost no blood dropped in any of these tales (apart from Poe’s “The Black Cat,” which is terribly gory and ironically the only story here likely to be read in elementary schools.) This means that theoretically you could read some of these stories to the little ones by campfire or by flashlight. Just don’t be surprised if they don’t thank you for it!
For edgier scares, check out the new teen horror anthology Slasher Girls and Monster Boys or for safer horror, the children’s classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
They say "Don't judge a book by its cover," but if you glance at the front cover of Stephen Kings' novel Finders Keepers then you can assume one thing, and that is: There will be blood. Oh, and there will be crime, violence and gore.
Finders Keepers goes back and forth between the past and present to follow the lives of two main characters — Morris Bellamy and Pete Saubers, born decades apart. Morris and Pete eventually meet face to face because they have a great deal in common. For instance, they are both obsessed with the same person, who happens to be dead.
The story kicks off in 1979 and introduces us to Morris Bellamy, a 23-year-old criminal obsessed with a famous American author named John Rothstein and his Jimmy Gold trilogy. Morris and his partners in crime pay Rothstein an unwelcome visit. They rob the author of his bank envelopes stuffed with cash, his Moleskine notebooks filled with unpublished writings...and his life. Paranoia sets in. Morris thinks the cop will track him down. This causes him to hide the stolen goods in a trunk and bury it in the woods behind his house. Although Morris robbed and killed Rothstein, he ends up receiving life in prison for committing a different crime.
Decades later, a teenager named Pete Saubers, who now lives in Morris’ house, discovers Morris’ trunk and takes the cash and notebooks. He behaves like a secret Santa by mailing the cash to his parents, who had fallen on hard times and were on the verge of a divorce. When Pete reads what’s inside the Moleskine notebooks, he becomes a devoted fan of John Rothstein and his Jimmy Gold novels. John Rothstein changes him.
Morris, now nearly 60 years old, gets parole. He only has one thing on his mind, the Moleskine notebooks. After spending 35 years in prison, Morris believes his trunk is still safely buried behind his former home. When Morris finds out that Pete is the new owner of the Moleskine notebooks, it infuriates him. There is a standoff between the old Morris and the young Pete. They both want the Moleskine notebooks. There will be blood, lots of it.
Finders Keepers is a keeper. I definitely recommend this book. The story gets better and better after each turn of the page. If you like this novel, you will certainly like Mr. Mercedes also by Stephen King. While not required, I highly recommend Mr. Mercedes since it provides backstory for important events and characters mentioned in Finders Keepers. To find out more about Stephen King and his upcoming projects visit stephenking.com.
Mark is newly married and expecting his first child. As a demolitions technician, he has largely avoided many of the dangers and moral dilemmas usually associated with blowing things up, working from the safety of a lab and planning his future around his growing family. But his plans are frustrated when his promotion is denied and he is instead relocated to the paradoxically named Eden, Texas. Faced with a future of being cash-strapped in the scrublands, he apprehensively takes an offer from his profligate friend Jason to do contractual work for a secret military organization in Quanlom, an anonymous country in Southeast Asia. The Divine by Asaf and Tomer Hanuka is a visceral story of Mark’s descent into the civil war that is tearing the country apart.
Despite the violence implicit in his arrival, Mark remains a sympathetic protagonist, always trying to do the right thing in the face of many terrible choices. Quanlom’s war is a story of multiple narratives of conflict, with the added mystery of strange forces controlled by the rebelling faction’s child soldiers. What might have been a prosaic guts-n-glory plot is tempered with an instilled acknowledgment of the inherent atrocity of war. The premise of the book came about from the authors’ investigation of Apichart Weerawong’s famous photograph of Johnny and Luther Htoo, Burmese child soldiers, and the dazzling artwork does not neglect to reference the traditional art and design of the Southeast Asian setting. Readers may recognize Asaf Hanuka from his biographical graphic novel The Realist released earlier this year.
Blake Butler’s 300,000,000 is a jungle; readers require courage and a literary machete to traverse this five-part psychological horror story. Told through the mediums of a manifesto left in the wake of a heinous murder spree, a first-hand account of the police investigation into the atrocities, and a disjointed recollection stitching the pieces together with plenty of room for the viscera to seep out, 300,000,000 is filled with rare glimpses of toxic and transcendent ravings.
Gretch Gravey is 300,000,000’s patient zero of homeland terror, supplicating and drugging teenage metal heads in his city to transform them into thralls of murder. He releases his ever-expanding army of brainwashed husks into the suburbs to kidnap people and bring them back to his house to be killed and buried in a sub-basement crypt. Gravey’s ultimate goal is the utter decimation of America by its own pudgy hands, and his successes are unhindered despite his eventual incarceration. Investigating police officer E.N. Flood feels himself being consumed by Gravey’s residual evil and attempts to chronicle his descent into madness in his notes, which are actively redacted by other members of the force who have succumbed to Gravey’s will.
As if Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club and Damned were chewed up and spat out in a bilious, meaty mass, 300,000,000 is disgusting and schizophrenic, yet somehow delicious in its depravity. Readers who enjoy wandering through their pitch-black houses when it’s so late that it’s actually early will be tickled by the way Blake Butler makes them question their sanity.
The Detroit art scene goes horribly awry in Lauren Beukes’ new novel Broken Monsters. When the top half of a boy is found fused to the bottom half of a deer, Detective Gabriella Versado knows that more trouble will be on its way. Versado is a single parent of a teenage daughter named Layla who spends her free time catfishing online predators in hopes of serving them vigilante justice. Added to the mix is the charismatic Jonno, destined to become a YouTube sensation, willing to do almost anything to film a good story. Versado understands that the disturbing tableau created by this killer is only the beginning, and that she is dealing with a madman destined to strike again. What she doesn’t know is that the killer is haunted by dreams that are quickly spinning toward a grim reality.
South African author Beukes sets this story around the burgeoning Detroit art scene, where abandoned buildings are reclaimed and rebuilt into underground galleries. She is good at creating memorable characters, like the scavenger TK who knows the streets of Detroit well and can often sense when danger is lurking nearby. The story involves several main characters whose lives eventually intertwine and race toward an unforgettable ending. She builds suspense slowly, throwing in creepy details that blossom into all-out horror. Her previous novel, The Shining Girls, also features a killer with a paranormal bent, and readers who enjoy this one will want to read her first. Readers who enjoy this novel may want to try novels by Chelsea Cain or Gillian Flynn.