Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Horror (page 1 of 3)

The Lottery And Other Stories – Shirley Jackson

The Lottery And Other Stories was the only collection of Shirley Jackson’s stories to be published during her lifetime. The titular story, The Lottery, made a big splash, but most folks skipped past the rest. Jackson only started to garner real respect for her literary chops long after her death.

The Lottery and Other Stories - Shirley Jackson - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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If all you know about Jackson is The Lottery, or her creepy novella We Have Always Lived In The Castle, the other 24 stories in this collection will come as a bit of a surprise. As per the blurb: “The creeping unease of lives squandered and the unspoken terrors of the everyday, suburban life are captured with brilliant clarity and sly humour in these tales by a master of the short story form.”

Yes, most of the stories in The Lottery And Other Stories are just weird, maybe a little unsettling, more so than spooky or scary. Some of them resolve neatly, others are just slice-of-life style and leave the ending open. They’re much quieter than I was expecting, and on occasion a little… well, blah.

I think I see what Jackson was getting at, though. Most of the stories, in some form, are about the subjugation of women and the suburban nightmares into which they were forced throughout the first half of the 20th century. The men are usually cold, withholding, or totally absent; the women are disillusioned, “difficult”, and dreamy. She also interrogates class, and race (most notably in Flower Garden), in ways that were probably quite confronting at the time, but pale a little in the light of contemporary progressive politics.

If you’re going to be scared by anything in The Lottery And Other Stories, it’s probably Jackson’s knack for revealing our own hypocrisies, our own capacity for evil and our overriding self-interest. Less “boo!” and more “boo hoo, humanity is awful”.

I found The Renegade particularly horrible – a story about a woman wondering what to do with her dog who has (allegedly) killed some of the neighbours’ chickens. Nothing actually happens to the dog on the page, but none of the options are good. Seven Types Of Ambiguity is also a particularly cruel story for book lovers, about a wealthy man who is interested in simply amassing a collection of “good” books and buys a beautiful and much-desired volume out from under the nose of a true book-worm.

Not all of The Lottery And Other Stories is miserable, though. The Tooth was a fun read – surreal, almost hallucinogenic. And the title story, The Lottery, is obviously a banger. It’s the last story in the collection, so it really ends on a bang. Apparently, it generated volumes of hate mail after it was initially published in The New Yorker, which seems adorably quaint nowadays – but it was the Cat Person of its day.

Ultimately, I’d say don’t pick up The Lottery And Other Stories if you’re looking for anything spooky or creepy. You might’ve been traumatised by The Lottery in high school, but it’s not really ‘typical’ of Jackson’s oeuvre and the ‘horrors’ of this collection don’t really hold up today. These stories are thinkers, ones that you’ll want to peruse and meditate on for a while – not ones that are going to keep you up at night, listening for ghosts and ghouls.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Lottery And Other Stories:

  • “Well-written rubbish. Makes you feel bad, sad, and hopeless.” – Nancy444
  • “Absolute crap. The most terrifying stories ever? You MUST be kidding. You lot need to get out more.” – Cornelius Brick
  • “It is okay and fun to read because it is set in a time prior to cell phones and computer technology and when everyone smoked cigarettes (my parents generation).” – Judy M Bryan

My Best Friend’s Exorcism – Grady Hendrix

I’m a bit obsessed with Grady Hendrix. The concepts for his books always slap, the design is always gorgeous (shout out Quirk Books, love their work!), and he makes horror every bit as readable as a rom-com. So, naturally, I must ration his books – I only read one a year to stop myself gobbling them all down at once. This year’s Hendrix is My Best Friend’s Exorcism, his 2016 novel about… well, you guessed it, a girl whose best friend needs an exorcism.

My Best Friend's Exorcism - Grady Hendrix - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Let’s set the scene: it’s 1988, and Abby and Gretchen are best friends forever. They formed an alliance as outsiders in their younger years, and it solidified into the close bond that only teenage girls can have. Their circle is completed by Glee and Margaret, and the four of them have a very ’80s adolescence. It’s all going swimmingly until an experiment tripping on acid goes horribly wrong, and Gretchen starts acting differently…

Hendrix is a master of setting the scene. In My Best Friend’s Exorcism, it’s the MUSIC that will take you right there. Every chapter is named after a classic ’80s track or album, and if someone hasn’t already made a Spotify playlist of all the songs Abby and Gretchen listen to, they should.

Gretchen’s possession makes for a fascinating metaphor, and you could read a lot of meanings into it. It’s about coming-of-age, obviously, but also the frustrations of living in a small town, the widening wealth divide between the working and middle classes, and the double standards when it comes to sex and gender.

Plus, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a testament to the power of (naturally) friendship. Abby is the only one who can see what’s happening to her bestie. She’s scoffed at and scolded by every adult she knows, but she just can’t leave it alone. Eventually, she resorts to calling in an inexperienced gym-bro exorcist, in a really intense denouement.

Don’t let the whimsical nostalgic design, or the “horror comedy” categorisation, fool you. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a genuinely unsettling read. Hendrix has a real thing for rancid smells and vermin – they’ve both played prominent roles in all the books of his I’ve read (see: Horrorstor). But in this book, he takes it to the next level.

Here’s the thing: I was dancing through My Best Friend’s Exorcism, thoroughly enjoying it, ready to mash that five-star button as soon as I was finished, and then… Picture a big red alarm labelled TRIGGER WARNING going off in your face right now, with loud sirens and bells ringing. There was a horrible dog death, so horrible that it took the wind out of me. It was enough to make me bite my tongue when thinking of recommending this book to anyone.

Oh, and this is marginally less triggering, but still upsetting for those of us Of A Certain Age: one of the characters actually says the line “when you’re old and dried up and thirty“. Another nail in my grave.

A screen adaptation came out last year, on Prime Video – but it didn’t seem to make much of a splash. I don’t think I’ll be seeking it out, for fear that the horrible, nightmare-fuel dog death scene is included in it.

I still love Grady Hendrix. I still really enjoyed My Best Friend’s Exorcism… except that one bit. I can’t get past that one bit. If horror books are supposed to give you nightmares, he did his job a bit too well.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Best Friend’s Exorcism:

  • “It’s a book. Utter garbage. Belongs in trash” – Dolphin
  • “I love this author but this book blew me away. It was and wasn’t what I was expecting and I left me in tears which was 0% okay.” – Talia Mintz
  • “I saw this book on sale for $2.99 and thought it would be a fun read. A quick word search to check for profanity however showed 17 f-words, about 15 s-words.

    For some people, this will be an endorsement, but for me, I called Amazon and got a refund.” – Alex
  • “It’s got a great cover, and that’s why I bought it. In terms of what’s inside the cover, don’t expect much besides a bunch of lazy 80’s references and an incredibly clichéd “horror” story. “Horror” being in quotation marks because this book is about as scary as an episode of The Rugrats.” – Stuart Nelson

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things – Iain Reid

Iain Reid was already an award-winning nonfiction writer when he decided to turn his hand to fiction. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is his first novel, and despite his past success, he had trouble finding anyone willing to publish it. “Just about everyone in Canada rejected it,” he has said, “until Simon and Schuster made a modest offer.” I bet they’re I-told-you-so-ing all over town, because I’m Thinking Of Ending Things went on to become a New York Times Best Seller, got translated into twenty languages, and scored a Netflix adaptation.

I'm Thinking Of Ending Things - Iain Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is a road trip novel in the psychological thriller/horror fiction vein. My edition – and most editions, I think – comes with no blurb, so you truly go in blind. The story begins with a nameless narrator and her boyfriend, Jake, in a car en route to visit Jake’s parents for the first time. She’s thinking of ending things, but Jake doesn’t know that yet.

That’s not all Jake doesn’t know yet. Our narrator is also being stalked by The Caller, a man who leaves her cryptic voicemails, somehow calling her from her own number.

So, yeah. You’re already drowning in hints that something’s hinky.

The evening with Jake’s parents, on a remote farm in the middle of winter, is creepy as hell. The conversation is awkward, the parents are weird, and the narrator can’t make sense of the weird things she sees – like a photo of herself as a child in Jake’s room. They only met a few months prior at a pub trivia night, so it seems impossible that he could have it, but she’s soon distracted by another unsettling conversation with Jake’s dad and a visit to the harrowing basement.

How do we know when something is menacing? What cues us that something is not innocent? Instinct always trumps reason.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things (Page 17)

On the drive home, Jake wants to stop for ice cream. The narrator thinks she recognises one of the girls behind the counter, and is extra-creeped out when the girl subtly mentions being “worried” for her. When they leave, Jake comes up with a flimsy excuse to detour past the local high-school. And that’s where I’m Thinking Of Ending Things really takes off.

The chapters are interspersed, too, with italicised pages – apparently extracts from a gossipy conversation about some kind of tragedy or scandal. They gradually nudge the reader towards the novel’s horrifying conclusion.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things would be a great spooky read for Halloween. I read it all in one night, because I definitely would have had nightmares if I’d put it down halfway. Mr Keeping Up With The Penguins walked into the room unexpectedly when I was about three-quarters of the way through, and I jumped so high my head just about hit the ceiling.

The ending was a bit murky, though, and it didn’t quite satisfy after such a hair-raising build-up. This might be one where you have to google “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things ending explained” after you finish. Reid has said that he left things open to interpretation on purpose, because he “appreciates books that put some of the onus onto me to decipher and complete the story”. That’s great and everything, but I like my mysteries completely solved – if only so I can still get a good night’s sleep afterwards.

Still, I enjoyed reading I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, and I definitely want to check out the 2020 Netflix adaptation – especially since I realised Toni Collette is in it (one of my faves). Tl;dr? I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is Under The Skin meets Gone Girl meets Fight Club, and it’s definitely not for wimps.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things:

  • “If you’ve been debating getting this story since BookTok recommended it, do yourself a solid and make the purchase. Not only is the story incredible, but the cover has a matte finish that feels amazing in your hands.” – Mv
  • “Thank goodness I downloaded this one from the library and wasted time instead of money.” – cschlingmann
  • “One of the reviews said you will read this in one sitting–you will–but not because it’s good. You will do it to end the pain.” – Michael Blake
  • “It’s Fight Club … in the snow.” – Listener

Horrorstor – Grady Hendrix

Setting aside any regards for its contents, Horrorstor gets five stars for book design, alone. Look at it! It’s formatted to look like an IKEA catalogue, complete with an order form for a copyright page and product descriptions for chapter headers. It’s honestly one of the most beautiful tomes I’ve ever had the privilege of placing on my shelves.

Horrorstor - Grady Hendrix - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Okay, okay, I’ll stop gushing. Horrorstor is a 2014 horror-comedy novel by pop-culture journalist and pulp-fiction enthusiast Grady Hendrix. The concept is enough to make you laugh and shiver at the same time. Basically, it boils down to this: haunted IKEA. Freaky, right?

The story is set in Orsk, a furniture superstore clearly (but not officially, not at all) based on the Swedish conglomerate. Something is up in this shop, let me tell you: broken glass, soiled couches, strange graffiti… all of it appearing overnight, with no culprit in sight.

Amy is a cynical but hardworking Orsk employee, disillusioned by what she sees as a dead-end job but eager not to get herself fired all the same. Her boss, Basil, on the other hand has definitely drunk the Orsk Kool-Aid. He hand-picks Amy, and Ruth Anne (another Orsk employee whose work ethic more closely resembles Basil’s own), to stay with him in the store overnight and see if they can catch the vandals before a big inspection by their corporate overlords.

Trinity and Matt, two other Orsk employees, had the same idea… only they didn’t bother to get it sanctioned by the higher-ups. On one of their patrols, Amy and Ruth Anne discover Trinity and Matt also searching the store, but they’re looking for ghosts. And they’ve got cameras. They think there’s a haunting at Orsk, and if they capture video proof, they reckon they’ll get their own ghost-hunting TV show.

What could go wrong?

Back to the design for just a second: as Horrorstor gets progressively eerie, so too do the product descriptions that lead each chapter. They start out as innocuous pieces of furniture – a chair, a table, whatever – and gradually become more sinister as the Orsk haunting reveals itself. I mean, isn’t that brilliant?

Anyway, Horrorstor is surprisingly scary and gruesome. You’ll never be able to shop at IKEA again without a chill running down your spine (if you ever could before, that is). Hendrix totally nails the tone, the disconcerting sense of disorientation that overtakes us whenever we cross the threshold of one of those places. The discordant orderliness, the stale air… all of it makes for the perfect backdrop of a contemporary ghost story.

It’s silly to try and give trigger warnings for a horror novel, but what I will offer is this: if you’re claustrophobic, or squeamish about rats, sadly you might want to give Horrorstor a miss.

But it’s not all schlocky spooks and jump-scares. This story has hidden depths. Horrorstor mines the mind-fuck of consumerism and late-stage capitalism to fuel your nightmares. Hendrix draws our attention to the ways in which we are manipulated in retail environments, and the sinister truth behind the “daily grind”.

I particularly liked the epilogue. Hendrix doesn’t shy away from the psychological fall-out of a significant trauma like the one Amy experiences in Horrorstor, but he also ends our heroine’s journey on a note of agency and empowerment. It manages to be both truthful and hopeful, a fitting end to a very clever story. If you want a horror read with a well-developed female protagonist – written by a man, no less! – Horrorstor is the money.

In this age of blockbuster action flicks, I’m completely baffled that Horrorstor hasn’t been made into a film as yet. It’s one of the very few movies I’d actually consider paying to see in a cinema, to get the full effect of the superstore setting. Apparently, rights have been optioned by New Republic Pictures, but no word as yet as to when it will be coming to a theater near us.

In the meantime, I immediately want to read Horrorstor again – for the story, for the satirical winks I might’ve missed the first time around, for that brilliant book design that I can’t stop banging on about. I also have an equal and competing compulsion to read everything else Hendrix has ever written. I definitely highly recommend this one, and stay tuned for my thoughts on the others.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Horrorstor:

  • “The scares are good, but the real horror of our millennial/Gen Z job markets in a service economy was why I kept reading. The grind of our corporate jobs paralleled the ghostly villain’s torturous motivations nicely. In short, a delightful read during these soulless times.” – Michelle
  • “This hits me hard in the part of my soul that retail work bruised. The opening act is quite funny, especially if you’ve worked in a hellscape like this.” – Danny
  • “Must have worked at Ikea.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I just anticipated more humorous anxiety and such, and what I received was gore and brutality and ungodly depressing ideas.” – Miri F

Lakewood – Megan Giddings

Here’s yet another book I discovered thanks to The To Read List Podcast: Lakewood, the debut body horror novel by Megan Giddings. If a mix of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks (with Get Out and Black Mirror vibes) appeals to you, you’re going to want to give this one a go.

Lakewood - Megan Giddings - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Lakewood begins with Lena Johnson, a Black millennial woman, mourning the passing of her beloved grandmother and staring into a financial abyss. Lena’s mother is unwell with a series of mysterious symptoms that come and go, and medical treatment in the U.S. is… well, we all know what it is. Plus, amongst Lena’s grandmother’s belongings are a stack of bills that are way past due. Lena is forced to drop out of college, and seek any opportunity to make money – fast.

The answer to Lena’s problems comes in the form of a letter from Lakewood, Michigan. That’s the location of a research program testing new drugs and therapies. They invite Lena to become one of their test subjects, a position that comes with medical insurance for her whole family, free housing, and a generous stipend. Of course, it also means a loss of privacy, great personal risk, and the penalties of a terrifying NDA at stake… but if it saves her mother and gets her family out of debt, it’s worth it, right?

An invitation to participate in a series of research studies about mind, memory, personality, and perception. The Lakewood Project.

Lakewood (page 11)

A job offer that seems too good to be true! Are your spidey senses tingling yet? They should be. Lakewood is about to get fucked up.

It turns out these experiments aren’t anything that would hold up to any kind of ethics review panel. This isn’t filling out a Myers-Briggs or rating the taste of a new coating on a baby aspirin. They give Lena eye-drops that turn her brown irises blue. They feed her with cream capsules that are supposed to replace food and leave her starving. They make her take medication that could be a cure for dementia, but loosens her grip on reality.

All of this is told from a close third-person perspective in the first half of Lakewood. The second half switches to an epistolary style, telling the remainder of the story through a series of letters that Lena writes to her best friend Tanya, describing what is being done to her. The switch to the first-person account makes the whole thing more chilling.

Actually, Lakewood is scary on two different levels. First, there’s the all-too-real commentary on how science has abused and exploited Black bodies. Giddings draws openly on the Tuskegee studies and other such real-life examples. She uses what happens to Lena as a diorama of the trauma underpinning distrust of medicine in minority communities. It’s not subtle, but it doesn’t have to be.

But Giddings – in a masterstroke – manages to scare us another way, as well.

See, the horror isn’t just what’s being done to Lena’s body. The truly fucked-up bit is what they do to her mind. She quickly realises that she can no longer trust her own memories, and she can no longer be sure what is “experiment” and what is “reality”. Did she really spend a night at a bar being told that her newly blue eyes were beautiful, or was that part of the experiment? What about the woman in the bathroom who told her that “Toni Morrison would be ashamed”? Was an observer gauging her reaction to that?

At first, Lakewood feels like a novel grounded in our own reality as readers. But as the experiments go on, and become more surreal, we’re drawn into a speculative world almost without realising. We lose track of what is real and what is not – much the same way as the main character does. In that way, our experience reading Lakewood mirrors Lena’s living it.

So, what I’m saying is that Giddings is very, very clever. The fact that she developed this complex premise right out the gate, for her debut novel, is very, very, impressive. There were a few unanswered questions (like, who was funding these studies?) and the prose didn’t always shine, but on the whole, an amazing effort. I think Giddings is going to have a writing career to watch.

Want to read more? Check out my review of The Women Could Fly, also by Megan Giddings, here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lakewood:

  • “if they came out with a part two i don’t think I’d read it…maybe I would to see if it finally goes somewhere.” – April Edwards
  • “All I can say is read it if you want…..I wish I hadn’t.” – Kindle Customer
  • “End of the day, I’m just glad a Black woman got a book published.” – Cam’s Corner
  • “Sometimes books try to be deep by not going very deep, skipping over the surface of the story and letting the reader create subtext. I’m not the best reader for this. I’m not that deep.” – Kindle Customer
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