book review

Book Review: Memorial Day by Harry Shannon

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

Memorial Day by Harry Shannon
Five Star Press, 2004

For those of you who have read Shannon’s previous novels, Night of the Beast and Night of the Werewolf, it will come as no surprise that his latest novel crackles with the same brittle dialogue and muscular prose he’s been honing over the past few years. What might surprise you is that Memorial Day isn’t a horror novel — at least, not in the commercial/marketing sense.

Memorial Day is very much a noir mystery novel, and with only a few minor bumps along the way, Shannon makes the kind of smooth transition between genres that most writers can only dream about. Reading like a cross between Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, the novel tells the story of psychologist/television celebrity Mick Callahan, who, as the novel opens, has hit rock bottom thanks to booze, drugs, women, and his own out of control ego. With nothing left and nowhere to go, he accepts a job hosting a radio talk show in his home town of Dry Wells, Nevada. One of the callers to whom he speaks one night is murdered, and Mick–who made his reputation on television partly by investigative reporting–takes it upon himself to track down the murderer.

Fairly straightforward, traditional mystery elements, yes, but what makes Memorial Day stand apart from the majority of first mystery novels is Shannon’s unflinching, lean, and unsentimental portrayal not only of Callahan, but of all the characters who populate Dry Wells. Not only is Callahan trying to get his life back on track, not only is he dealing with a truckload of guilt carried over from his previous life, not only does he make enemies out of seemingly most of Dry Wells’ population, but he’s also dealing with memories of his own abusive childhood that are being brought to the surface as his investigation uncovers tawdry secret after tawdry secret.

These are a lot of character elements to deal with in a novel; that Shannon not only grapples with these elements but resolves them — and does so in a tight 266 pages — but he also draws fully three-dimensional characterizations for everyone in Dry Wells that Callahan comes into contact with. No easy feat, and one cannot help but applaud Shannon’s craftsmanship.

Which is not to say that everything is on solid ground; there are times when a line of dialogue comes off as self-consciously noir-ish ("You might as well paint a target on your forehead", "This town’s got a lot of dirty little secrets", "You move, you die" etc.), one very important clue is delivered in too-obvious manner, and in the final third of novel, Callahan suffers one brutal beating after another, only to quickly recover and come back for more.

But these are, in the end, minor quibbles that do not adversely affect the overall strength and readability of Memorial Day; at best, they reduce a **** novel to ***1/2.

With Memorial Day, Shannon has made a strong and memorable mystery debut. Mick Callahan has the makings of a fascinating series character in the traditional of Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain or Andrew Vachss’ Burke. Personally, I think it’s high time we had a new series character like Callahan, and a new mystery writer as skillful as Shannon. Even if mystery is not your usual cup of tea, I still highly recommend Memorial Day.

Book Review: 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories by Michael A. Arnzen

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories by Michael A. Arnzen
Raw Dog Screaming Press

Those of you who have visited Arnzen’s web site, or the Raw Dog Screaming Press site, or have already purchased this book, know that I provided a blurb for the cover, so you can safely assume that this is going to be a positive review. I stand by what I said in my blurb, but decided I wanted all of you to know why I said it.

Of all story forms, the short-short (defined as a story clocking in at 1000 words or less) is by far the most difficult, and the one that can often defeat even the most seasoned writer. The short-short requires a poet’s skill at encapsulation of imagery and ideas, as wells as the fiction writer’s ability to employ these same elements in the telling of a cohesive and coherent story — and I emphasize those two words because (more often than not) the short-shorts that appear in the horror field are written by folks who mistakenly assume that those terms are mutually exclusive, which they are most decidedly not.

Even the most surreal of short-shorts must adhere to the structure and internal logic of the short story, regardless of how dreamlike and bizarre the prose might be. The late Donald Barthelme was arguably the master of this particular form of story, but with 100 Jolts, Arnzen, without laying claim to it, emerges as the inheritor of Barthelme’s crown.

Consider the following story, used here in its entirety:

A Worse Mousetrap

As I type, the mouse climbs my shoulder and leaps into my breast pocket. I laugh when his furry gray head pops out. He twitters his whiskers, watching as I finish my apology. I hug him against my heart. Later, I will sign my note as the rat poison makes it way through my system.

Looks easy, doesn’t it?

Trust me, it’s not.

In five sentences–count ’em, five–Arnzen not only employs the poet’s skill at encapsulation and the storyteller’s ability to form a cohesive and coherent narrative, but also manages to leave a great deal of the horror unspoken. This is a complete story in every sense of the word; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; it has a central conflict; and it adheres to the single most important rule of fiction: its central character undergoes a change between the start and the finish. That Arnzen chooses to convey this through subtleties rather than graphic depictions makes it even more effective and affecting, adding a great deal of power to that final line.

Every story in 100 Jolts does this, seemingly effortlessly, time and time again.

One of this collection’s most jaw-dropping achievement comes at the very beginning with the section entitled “Skull Fragments”; it contains 12 separate short-shorts, all of which can stand on their own as disturbing horror stories, but when taken as a whole, tell a 13th and even more deeply nightmarish tale.

I think 100 Jolts is a remarkable achievement, and a book that all serious readers of horror fiction should have in their hands and on their shelves.

Book Review: Ghosts of Yesterday by Jack Cady

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

Ghosts of Yesterday by Jack Cady
Night Shade Books, 2003
ISBN: 1892389487

Ghosts of Yesterday coverEarly in 2003, Night Shade Books released a stellar collection of 12 short stories and essays from the superb (and now deceased, sadly) Jack Cady that any serious readers of fantasy or horror should have on their shelves.

Ghosts of Yesterday is the best single-author collection I’ve read in five years. It’s composed of 30,000 words of entirely new fiction, plus pieces that hadn’t been in collections before.

Ghosts contains one of the best short stories I’ve ever read in any genre, “The Lady With The Blind Dog.” The story — like the collection itself — is by turns thoughtful, sad, frightening, tragic, and, in the end, majestically chilling. You’d also do well to pay close attention to the essay “On Writing The Ghost Story” and the novella “The Time That Time Forgot.”

Cady knows how to do it right, and makes the work produced by most of us look like high-school level attempts at Lit-rah-chure. Get it and read it. Do it now. The man’s memory deserves nothing less from us.

Book Review: Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

nightbird coverI immersed myself in Robert McCammon’s Speaks the Nightbird for days. I first read it in 2002 when it was released in hardback by River City Publishing (Pocket Books put out the paperback version in 2003). It had been over a decade since McCammon last produced a novel; Nightbird reads astonishingly quickly for its near 700-page length, and McCammon’s prose is as smooth, poetic, and unselfconscious as it has ever been.

Writing a period piece like this is never an easy task, but McCammon manages to make the dialogue spoken by the characters ring true in modern-day readers’ ears, and his narrative passages easily rank alongside anything written by the Bronte Sisters or Jane Austen; yes, there’s a certain–and necessary–austere quality to the language, but McCammon never once gets bogged down by the challenges of this particular brand of prose.

His characterization is crystalline; from the major players to even the smallest supporting roles, not one person who populates this book rings a false note–and considering the size of Nightbird ‘s cast (were David Lean still alive, he might well be planning this novel for his next gargantuan production), that is no small feat.

The overriding triumph of this genuinely magnificent novel is the utter believability of its core love story (and it should be noted here that, despite the death, hopelessness, and violence that surrounds the cast, there are several different types of love stories that run through this novel, one that easily takes it place in the classical Romantic tradition of Jane Eyre or Silas Marner).

It would have been easy–and arguably justified–to present the love story between Matthew and Rachel in an overly-passionate, smoldering, Sturm-und-Drang manner, playing its inherently tragic aspects to the hilt in the tradition of Victorian drama or grand opera, but McCammon has a much more subtle and affecting way of playing out the romance between his two central characters. They come together because of a mutual alienation with their fellow human beings, and because each is, at their core, a painfully lonely person who each have come to believe they will exit this life without ever having truly loved or been loved, without touching another person, without moving another human being, and in each the other finds a a hard, gem-like flame of hope amidst the madness and squalor of the times in which they are trapped.

You also cannot help but shake your head in wonder at the staggering amount of research that McCammon put into this novel, and in the way he makes this research necessary to the story’s unfolding–not just as some expositional dump that screams, "Hey, lookit me! I done did all this here research and I’m gonna cram every last bit of it down your throat!" McCammon doesn’t do that here–doesn’t even come close. The historical accuracy present in these pages is not only impressive but vital to the deeper levels of the narrative. Plus it’s all damned interesting, if at times blackly depressing.

Finishing this novel left me saddened–not because of the final outcome of the story, which is both inevitable and moving and therefore as satisfying as you could hope for, given the subject matter; no, it saddened me because, as McCammon has said, this does not signal his return to writing. In an interview I recently read, McCammon stated that one of the reasons he left the horror field was because it had become a literature that (his exact words following) "…celebrates death," and he no longer wishes to be a part of that.

Speaks the Nightbird is filled with death, but ultimately celebrates life and the possibilities offered to even the most despondent soul by love and faith. Finishing this novel made me wish McCammon would consider the contradiction at the center of his reasoning: yes, maybe horror/dark fantasy/whatever in the hell they’re calling it this month…maybe it had been reduced to a literature that celebrated death, but the tide is turning, and now, more than ever, the field needs McCammon’s skill and humanity to become what he himself once referred to as "…the supreme mythic literature of our time."

But let’s face it; as much as we as readers (and myself as a writer for whom McCammon’s craft and skill served as a strong influence) might bemoan the absence of further McCammon books, we are lucky to have this one. And the happiness of no readership–regardless how large or feverishly dedicated that readership may be–is worth any writer’s peace of mind and happiness. Maybe McCammon will return to the field one day, and maybe not: I, for one, thank him regardless, for he has given me so many wonderful tales to remember and to which I can return anytime I choose. Like this one.

Speaks the Nightbird, aside from being probably the best novel you’ll read this year, proves that, in hands like McCammon’s, horror (in all its facets and forms, not just the traditional, boring, pale tropes), could very well fulfill that promise that he himself so eloquently foresaw. It’s just a pity that the field let him down and we lost a man who was easily the most passionate and humane dark fantasist of his time. Speaks the Nightbird will leave you hoping, as it did me, that the much-missed Mr. McCammon will someday come back to us–or, rather, allow us to join back with him.

Book Review: The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

book coverThe Girl in the Basement and Other Stories by Ray Garton
184 pages; Subterranean Press, 2004
ISBN: 1-59606-012-3

Oddly enough, reading Ray Garton’s collection of stories kept reminding me of the original Get Carter starring Michael Caine.

Let me explain: throughout Carter, you see how Caine’s hardened criminal is complex, strictly moral within the boundaries of his own code, and very, very dangerous and scary. Yet at the end of the film, you walk away with the feeling that, as dangerous as he’s shown to be, the character never really even touched upon the depths of the violence of which is capable…and that makes him all the more formidable and frightening when you view the film a second time.

The same can be said of The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories, which now takes its place alongside Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From and Harlan Ellison’s Slippage as one of the few collections that I immediately re-read upon finishing it. And, like the original Get Carter, as good as it is initially, it’s even better the second time, and a lot of that is due to the remarkable restraint that Garton exercises throughout the title novella and four accompanying stories.

If you’ve read any of Garton’s novels, then you know that he can turn on the gory fireworks with the best of them; in fact, his last 2 novels, Sex and Violence in Hollywood and Scissors, are so gloriously over-the-top that Garton has arguably invented a new sub-genre: that of the Grand Guignol Black Comedy. He remains a master of the horrific set-piece, and some writers (like myself) might consider selling our souls to have half his ability at pacing. But what a lot of readers love about Garton’s work are those amazing fireworks.

Potential readers should be warned that The Girl in the Basement contains no such fireworks, yet the collection suffers not a whit from its lack of violence and gore; in fact, it emerges as all the more intense and affecting for its restraint.

All of the stories in The Girl in the Basement are concerned, at their core, with the same thing: corruption; be it moral, physical, spiritual, psychological, or societal, Garton touches upon corruption in all its attendant forms, even those we don’t often recognize on the surface as being such.

Take the opening title novella. Ostensibly a story about a possessed child, one begins to prepare oneself for all of the usual trapping associated with this type of story, secure in the knowledge that Garton-an expert hand at injecting new life and energy into the more traditional horror tropes-will not fall victim to cliché.

The story focuses on 15-year old Ryan, a young man who, at the beginning of the story, is living in a foster home with several other teens, having endured a series of abusive foster parents before arriving at the home of Hank and Marie Preston. Ryan has a job bagging groceries at a local market. He has a budding romance with Lyssa, another teen in the Preston’s care. He has a troubled (at best) relationship with his mother, a drug addict who is trying to get her life back together. He harbors dreams of becoming a writer, dreams that are encouraged by the Preston’s neighbor, Elliot Granger, himself a published horror writer who is currently recovering from painful hip surgery and must rely on Marie Preston and Ryan for help with many of his physical chores.

Already die-hard fans can see several Garton-esque elements in place; the abused kid, the isolated writer, characters struggling with addiction, the internal scars carried by those survivors who’ve seen the uglier side of life but haven’t yet given up. If you hear echoes of other Garton novellas like "Monsters" and "Dr. Krusadian’s Method" early on in "The Girl In The Basement", I suspect it’s because Garton wants you to; after all, the best way to surprise readers’ expectations is to pull a sleight-of-hand by setting them up to expect more of the same and then pulling the rabbit out of your hat.

Which is not to say that "The Girl In The Basement" is an exercise in narrative and structural trickery (even though there is some sly trickery involved on Garton’s part, and it’s both justified and enviable); this novella is very much its own story, but it’s most definitely not the story you’re expecting.

There’s a 9-year-old, mildly retarded girl named Maddy who’s kept in the basement of the Preston house, you see, and sometimes she talks in the deep, gravelly voice of an adult, one who seems able to predict things, one who knows things about you that no one else knows or has ever known…

Think you know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen? Forget it. About the time government agents showed up to "talk" with Maddy in private (something they’ve been doing for quite a while, as it turns out), I had to shake my head in admiration because I had no idea where he was going with this.

What makes this title novella one of the most accomplished pieces of Garton’s career is not just the remarkable restraint he exercises when dealing with the more overtly horrific elements (which at times become almost secondary, and at one point superfluous), but the depth of emotional realism he displays when dealing with the characters. This is hands-down the single most compassionate piece he’s ever written; every character is fully fleshed out, both their strengths and weaknesses, their pettiness and kindness, their courage and cowardice, are on display here, and as horrific as this "possession" of the little girl is, it pales in comparison to the portraits Garton paints of how this horror affects the characters. There is a scene near the end of the story where Ryan has a meal of cookies and juice with his drug-addict mother that is one of the most heartbreaking things you’re likely to read this year, simmering as it is with a palpable sense of desperation, loneliness, terror, and tragic inevitability.

The horrific elements of the story are for the most part kept on the periphery, and while I think this is going to be a turn-off for readers who look to Garton only for fireworks and fury, those readers like myself who look to Garton to always challenge himself as a storyteller and us as readers are going to come away feeling like we’ve just left a feast.

And while "The Girl In The Basement" raises many points and answers many questions about the nature of corruption, it leaves just as many unanswered, and rightly so: if one is powerless to fight against corruption, then is it better to simply turn away and ignore it or use it to your own personal advantage? And does that corrupt you, as well?

I don’t mean to make this sound philosophically heavy or (God forbid) heavy-handed, because it’s a damned entertaining and suspenseful novella, but the depth of emotional maturity and thoughtfulness-as well as the previously-mentioned restraint-elevate this (in my eyes, at least) to the highest form of storytelling that can be found in the horror field; it’s suspenseful, horrifying, emotionally rich, perceptive and wise, and-here’s the kicker-surprisingly intimate. The "possession" of this little girl (once you read it, you’ll understand why I keep putting that term in quotation marks) might be affecting the world and universe at large, but Garton keeps the focus on Ryan and those around him, creating a claustrophobic microcosm that, like all good fiction, mirrors our own everyday lives just enough to make us genuinely uncomfortable enough to question the solidity of the so-called real world surrounding us.

With the exception of the next story, "Cat Lover", all of the stories end with an image of something mudane-a woman crying, a man getting out of his car, someone watching television-that is made darker and more tragic by the context in which it appears; it’s Garton taking snapshots of the everyday and like all good writers making us wonder what’s going on behind these seemingly inconsequential pictures.

"Cat Lover" is an impressive story, made all the more so when, at the end, you realize that you’ve just read a story wherein all that physically happens is that a man has a stroke and spends the rest of the story lying paralyzed on the floor of his home worrying that no one is going to feed his cats. While the shock ending can be seen coming from the second page, "Cat Lover" isn’t about the nightmarish image that closes the story; it’s about loneliness and isolation, and what happens when an individual must suddenly rely on those he/she views as corrupt as their only source of salvation. It’s also one of the most sharply-rendered character studies I’ve read in a long time.

"Reception" is a hard one to talk about without giving away its devastating one-two punch at the end; suffice to say this portrait of a family recovering from the death of one its children manages to achieve in 7 deft pages what I myself strive toward as a writer: to simultaneously chill you to the marrow and hit you square in the heart.

"The Night Clerk" may be my favorite of the shorter pieces contained here-and it’s also the one story in the collection that I think most readers are going to finish and go, "Huh?", if not outright dislike. For starters, it’s not a horror story in the traditional sense-is, in fact, Garton going mainstream. This seeming vignette about a guy who goes to a an all-night convenience store only to meet up with a laid-back yet oddly pompous night clerk reads like a cross between John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Yeah, there’s some violence and tension involved when a masked gunman storms in to rob the place, but this isn’t a story about violence; it’s a tense meditation on the difference between genuine courage and like cowardice…and bear in mind that the courageous character in this piece is not who you initially think it is. Of all the stories in this collection, "The Night Clerk" is the one that might require you to read it a second time in order to pick up on the myriad subtleties of character and foreshadowing that are sprinkled throughout.

The closing story, "Housesitting", brings the overall theme of corruption full circle, as its central character, housesitting for her best friend while she’s on vacation with her husband-uncovers some hidden secrets about her best friend (via some disturbing photographs) that not only forever taint her relationship with her best friend, but corrupt her view of the world around her, as well. The closing scene between the two friends-taking place in a brightly-lighted kitchen on an almost too-ideal suburban afternoon-is Garton writing at the height of his power; as heartbreaking and affecting as this scene is, there is so much more going on beneath the surface, culminating in a single, powerful, beautifully understated final image that will haunt you long after the book is finished-might even, in fact, make you go back to the beginning and start the collection all over again.

The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories is a superb collection, filled with countless surprises, genuine scares, and more than enough emotional depth to satisfy even the most jaded reader.

Horror and Thriller Collection Short Reviews

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Here are some short reviews of collections I’ve enjoyed lately.

Four Octobers by Rick Hautala: The flap copy for this quartet of novellas from Hautala (who some of you may know as A.J. Matthews) would have you believe that the four tales are “…loosely connected…” Well, sure, if all you look at are the physical locales and the element of some characters making peripheral appearances from tale to tale, but look closer and you’ll see that more connects them than just people and places: there is a palpable sense of overwhelming loss that permeates every story, so that “loosely” thing? Not so much. This beautiful edition from CD Publications boasts a gorgeous cover and interior artwork from the redoubtable Glenn Chadbourne, and collects 2 of Hautala’s most accomplished novellas — “Miss Henry’s Bottles” (a personal favorite of mine) and “Cold River” — as well as 2 brand-new works, “Tin Can Telephone” (reminiscent — and deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as many works — of Ray Bradbury) and “Blood Ledge”. The result is one of the year’s finest single-author collections, and further proof that Hautala is much, much more than just “…that other author from Maine.”

Thundershowers at Dusk: Gothic Stories by Christopher Conlon: As with Eyes Everwhere, I have to confess to a certain bias; Chris asked me to read this collection in manuscript form with an eye toward providing a cover blurb. After I finished reading it, I told him, “No, I won’t do a blurb — I want to write the Introduction!” So I did. Conlon is best known as an award-winning poet and anthology editor (the most recent anthology being the excellent Poe’s Lighthouse from CD Publications), but he’s also a stellar writer of fiction — he just doesn’t write it all that often, which is a real loss for readers. Thundershowers at Dusk is a hands-down brilliant collection from first page to last, every story is a winner, and it contains one of the finest novellas I have ever read in any genre, period, “The Unfinished Music”. As rich and rewarding a collection as you’ll ever read. (And I will add here, for any publishers who happed to read this, that Conlon is now shopping around a stunning first novel entitled Midnight on Mourn Street that is going to bring a lot of sales and accolades to whichever publisher is smart enough to snatch it up.) I maintain that Conlon is a better writer now than I could ever hope to be, and Thundershowers at Dusk more than proves it. Hence my deep-rooted resentment of him.

American Morons by Glenn Hirshberg: Paul Miller’s Earthling Publications gets the Hat-Trick Award this year for having published 3 exceptional books in 2006, the first being this collection, Hirshberg’s follow-up to The Two Sams. While I greatly admired the first collection, American Morons surpasses it on several levels, mostly because Hirshberg’s writing has become even more focused and polished; he’s going to be a major force in the field in the next few years, and while his writing has more in common with that of Steven Millhauser than Stephen King, it is nonetheless some of the most nerve-wracking and unapologetically literary work being produced in the field. All of the stories are winners, but the book is worth its price for “Safety Clowns” and “Devil’s Smile”.

The Tenant by Roland Topor: A million thanks to Millipede Press for putting this short novel back into print, along with 4 rarely-seen short stories and Topor’s own artwork (which reminded me of the surreal work of Heinrich Kley). It’s an utterly gorgeous book, boasting an intelligent and articulate Introduction from Thomas Ligotti … but mostly, there is The Tenant, which remains today just as terrifying, eloquent, and compelling as it was when originally released in 1965. The 4 shorts accompanying it are equally impressive, resulting in a genuine must-have collection.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel: Hempel, in case you’ve not read her work, is one of the finest short story writers of the last 25 years, and this omnibus assembles all 4 of her collections, including the hard-to-find At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. With the exception of the jaw-dropping novella “Tumble Home”, most of her stories run less than 10 pages in length, and stand as a testament to what a skilled writer can do in a very limited amount of time. This collection contains one of my all-time favorite short stories, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”. If all so-called “literary” fiction were as exquisite as Hempel’s, the world would be a better place.

The Ocean and All Its Devices by William Browning Spencer: It’s been 10 years since Spencer’s last collection, The Return of Count Electric and Other Stories left readers screaming for more, and Spencer delivers in a big way with this follow-up. For my money, Spencer;s work — be it in short stories or novel form — has always read like a head-on collision between John Cheever and Donald Barthelme; which is to say, it’s rooted both in the humane and the surreal. The title story is both tragic and nightmarish, containing some of the most chilling imagery you’ll encounter. Spencer doesn’t write nearly enough, so grab this superb collection and keep it near to bide your time until he releases his next book.

Peter Straub’s Lost Boy, Lost Girl

Lost Boy, Lost Girl by Peter Straub
Hardcover: 304 pages
Random House (October 7, 2003)
ISBN: 1400060923

Lost Boy, Lost Girl features characters those who have read Peter Straub’s best-sellers Koko (1988), Mystery (1989), and The Throat (1993) will quickly recognize. In this book, horror novelist/Vietnam vet Timothy Underhill must travel home to Millhaven, IL and seek the aid of P.I. Tom Pasmore to solve the mystery of why Underhill’s nephew disappeared after witnessing his mother’s suicide.

While they track a pedophilic serial killer, they realize the lost boy had become obsessed with an abandoned house where he may have fallen under the spell of a ghostly girl.

This is without a doubt the best thing Straub’s written in a decade. I for one thinks it takes a lot of guts and integrity for a writer of his stature to go off in a new direction under the guidance of a new editor and–gulp!–actually grow before our very eyes.

My respect for Straub has tripled since reading this book, and I use every chance I can to tell any dark fantasy fans I meet that they must read Lost Boy, Lost Girl — I think it’s every bit as important a novel in the field now as Ghost Story was when it was released.

One of the goals Straub and his new editor had in mind with this novel is for Straub to reach a wider audience–which is why it’s so short. If you’ve had trouble with his stuff being far too dense in the past, then this is definitely the book for you. It’s the most accessible novel he’s ever written in the genre. It’s beautifully crafted, surprisingly moving, and creepy as hell. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter

The film The Sweet Hereafter is based on the novel of the same name written by Russell Banks. If you enjoyed the film, I encourage you to seek out the book, because it’s wonderful. If you want to be a writer, or if you simply enjoy a good story, the novel has a great deal to offer you.

The book’s central event is a school bus crash that kills many children in the small town of Sam Dent in upstate New York; the rest of the book explores the effect the tragedy has on the town and the novel’s central characters.

The Sweet Hereafter provides the best example I’ve ever encountered of an author alternating between several first person narrators. It’s told from four viewpoints: Dolores Driscoll, the bus driver; Billy Ansel, a grieving, alcoholic father of one of the dead children; Mitchell Stephens, a New York City lawyer who is trying to cope with grief over his own drug-addicted daughter; and Nichole Burnell, a teenager who was crippled in the accident.

Banks establishes such distinct cadences for each character that when all four of them are talking to one another, he goes sometimes for pages without a single “he said,” “she said.”

The book is 257 pages long and was first published in 1991, though parts of it appeared before that date in North American Review and Ontario Review.

Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.