Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Horror (page 1 of 3)

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

Dear Child – Romy Hausmann

I sought out Dear Child by Romy Hausmann after I heard it described on The To Read Podcast as Room meets Gone Girl. Indeed, that’s the description used in its blurb, as well. If you thought Emma Donoghue’s story about a child born in captivity was as sick and twisted as it gets, Dear Child will sweep your legs out from under you. This edition was translated from the original German by Jamie Bulloch.

Dear Child - Romy Hausmann - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Dear Child starts around Room’s mid-point: a woman and child escape a life of captivity, and shocked hospital workers try to piece together their story. It’s alternately narrated by Hannah (the child), Lena (the mother), and Matthias (Lena’s father, who has been searching for his missing daughter for 13 years).

Lena is immediately hospitalised, floating in and out of consciousness, as she was hit by a car in their bid for freedom. That leaves Hannah, who claims to be 13 years old (though her diminutive appearance and childlike mannerisms would cast doubt on that), to explain their circumstances. Unlike Lena, Hannah doesn’t seem glad to have “escaped”; quite the contrary, she seems eager to return “home”.

“Home”, in Dear Child, is a windowless shack in the woods. The windows are covered by insulation panels, the air is pumped in through a “recirculator” that occasionally stops working, every door and every cabinet is locked. Lena, Hannah, and another child Jonathan, live as a “family” according to the strict rules set by their cruel patriarch. Their lives are scheduled to the minute: bathroom visits, study time, meals, sleep, all highly regimented under threat of sadistic violence.

So, why doesn’t Hannah seem particularly traumatised? Why is she so eager to return? And why is she insisting that her “mother” is Lena when Matthias, Lena’s father, insists that woman is not his daughter?

Of course, I can’t reveal any more on that front without spoiling Dear Child for you, but if you think that’s enough of a mystery to build a full and complete plot, Hausmann will one-up you yet again. “Lena” continues to be tormented: by mysterious letters in her mailbox, by unwanted visitors to her door, by her unstable memories of killing her captor, by her slavish devotion to his schedule even after she is “free”.

The narrators and perspectives in Dear Child shift quickly – sometimes too quickly, but it’s an effective way of building suspense and keeping you reading, regardless. I read the whole thing in one night; I couldn’t bring myself to go to bed without getting to the bottom of what was going on. It’s compelling and scary and definitely as twisted as promised (I wouldn’t want to see Hausmann’s search history).

There were a few clunky moments, though. On occasion, the translation didn’t quite scan – though it was difficult to tell whether that was the fault of the translator, or part of Hausmann’s characterisation of Hannah, a particularly strange girl. I’m also not quite sure I bought Hausmann’s explanation of Hannah’s claims that “Lena” took her on trips outside the cabin all the time (to Paris, and to garden parties). And, finally, I didn’t love the supposed “Asperger’s” diagnosis; the way in which it was delivered, and the character about whom it was delivered, when it’s already such an outdated label… it just gave me the ick.

But those hang-ups weren’t enough to stop me charging through Dear Child. It was a gripping, chilling read (and a quick one!) to devour on a dark, stormy night. If you’re in the mood for a charged thriller and you can cope with all the triggers (cruelty, violence against women and children, etc.), this is a good one to try.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dear Child:

  • “I found I kept mixing up the characters in this confusing novel but as I did not care what happened to any of them it did not really matter.” – Joy
  • “I love it when my housework suffers because of a good read.” – robin teets

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

There’s been a lot of nostalgia for the ’90s lately, and to those of you remembering (or wishing you were old enough to remember) those days of yore, let me recommend you read American Psycho. Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel will remind you what a hotbed of toxic masculine Yuppie nonsense much of that decade really was. It’s a fascinating read, but not one for the faint of heart.

American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Ellis chose the perfect quote – from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground – as an epigraph. It begins:

Both the author of these Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons as the composer of these Notes not only exist in our society, but indeed must exist, considering the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed.

American Psycho Epigraph

The first few chapters give off strong Money-era Martin Amis vibes. At first, the protagonist – Patrick Bateman, the titular American psycho (i.e., maniacal investment banker) – mentions his private obsession with sexualised violence only briefly, with nonchalance. Blink and you’ll miss it. (And poor some out for the poor early readers who didn’t know what they were in for…)

Bateman narrates his everyday activities: morning routine, office routine, endless dinner-and-drinks get-togethers with his investment banker buddies and the women they refer to exclusively as “hardbodies”. The characters – including Bateman – are constantly confused for one another, because all of those Wall Street guys are the same. Bateman is strangely obsessed with what people are wearing, Valentino this and Brooks Brothers that. It’s obviously a commentary on the consumerist culture of the era and geography, but it was so frequent and heavy-handed (seriously, about a third of the novel is dedicated to describing the characters’ outfits), that I couldn’t help but wonder if Ellis was just a smidgen obsessed himself.

Oh, and in an eerie stroke of foresight, Bateman is also obsessed with Donald Trump. Ha!

Anyway, American Psycho seems like your bog-standard Yuppie greed novel, until Bateman starts describing his violent impulses and how he acts upon them.

So, that brings us to the trigger warnings. I realise that my triggers (i.e., anything at all that might even present a minor inconvenience to a dog) are not shared by all. However, I feel pretty confident in saying if you have a trigger, it’ll be pulled by American Psycho. Some governments have deemed it so disturbing that it can only be sold to 18+ adults, shrink-wrapped like a smutty magazine.

Personally, for the most part, I found Bateman’s infamous violence almost comedic. It was just so incredibly graphic. The one instance that really stuck with me is when he narrates noticing fat spatters on his blinds and curtains from the breasts of a woman (he electrified them with starter cords until they exploded). That’s a pretty good example of what you can expect.

And, for those of you who share my concern for fictional canine welfare, there is more than one occasion of truly horrible holy-fuck-I’m-going-to-cry-until-I-throw-up violence against dogs. The first, at least, can be seen coming a mile off (when Bateman attacks the owner), so I could skip my eyes over the page. Unfortunately, the later instances are very sudden and truly sickening.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people around Ellis warned him that American Psycho would ruin his career, prior to its publication. Simon & Schuster acquired the manuscript first, but later withdrew due to “aesthetic differences” (i.e., “this is so fucked, we cannot possibly publish it”). Vintage Books then picked it up, and went on to publish it after what they called “a customary editing process”. Ellis received death threats and hate-mail galore when it hit the shelves, and even anyone who positively reviewed the book was subject to criticism. He recalled in an interview that “the one good review [that appeared in] the national press” (the Los Angeles Times) resulted in “a three-page letter section of people canceling their subscriptions”.

Even now – more than 30 years later – American Psycho continues to make waves. Apparently, in Australia, it’s supposed to be sold shrink-wrapped, but that’s news to me; I bought it naked as the day it was born. Governments and wowsers are still banning it, petitioning for it to be banned, hiding it on the top shelf out of reach of the poor impressionable children… don’t they realise by now that the banning a book is the best way to guarantee that people will read it?

Ultimately, I thought American Psycho was just another – quite good, but gimmicky – commentary on Yuppie culture. I didn’t hate it, but books that make the same point(s) without the chainsaw murders are a dime a dozen. If someone’s looking for a Yuppie-critical read, American Psycho wouldn’t be the first (or even probably the third) I’d recommend. If they’re after a horrifying novel to make their stomach churn, sure, they could pick this one up, but personally I found Tender Is The Flesh a lot more unsettling.

My favourite Amazon reviews of American Psycho:

  • “I don’t think I’ve ever read a more boring or uninteresting book. He literally just goes on and on about clothes and other boring stuff” – Amazon Customer
  • “Maybe some men shouldn’t be allowed to read & write.” – Kathryn Harvey
  • “Yes it’s repulsive, but so is a puddle of vomit on a school room floor. How this got out of the trash bin and actually published is an insult to even marginally better writers.” – George Zucco III
  • “If you really want to punish an ex of yours, buy them a copy of this book. They’ll never stop cursing your name.” – Jesse L. Cairns
  • “I will grant the business card scene is fantastic, although it is not enough to make up for the crapfest this book is.” – Ira Jaxon

Misery – Stephen King

Can you imagine a writer so twisted that they write a best-selling book about a writer who is kidnapped, abused, and forced to write a novel by an axe-wielding villain? Such an idea could only come from the mind of the King of Horror, Stephen King! Misery is his 1987 psychological horror novel with that exact premise.

Misery - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The main character, Paul Sheldon, is a 42-year-old author. He has recently published the final installment of his best-selling Victorian romance series, much to his relief; finally, he’ll be able to focus on his more Serious Literary(TM) novels. Unfortunately, Paul also likes a drink, a bit too much. He gets plastered to celebrate his success and winds up totalling his car. He’s pulled from the wreck by Annie Wilkes.

Ah, yes, Annie Wilkes – even if you’ve never read Misery or seen the movie adaptation, you’ve probably heard her name in hushed whispers as one of the most horrifying villains in fiction. She’s a former nurse with a healthy home-stash of medication “samples”, and she’s a big fan of Paul’s romance novels. She’s also very, very unhappy about his decision to kill off his protagonist in the final book.

So, here we have a severely-injured writer, “fortuitously” discovered by his number-one fan who’d do anything to have him continue writing. What’s a girl like Annie Wilkes to do… but take him hostage in her guest room, set his broken legs, get him hooked on painkillers, and plonk a typewriter down in front of him? That’s right, she forces him to write the story she feels Misery (the character for whom King’s novel gets its title) deserves.

When King first had the idea for the story of Misery, he envisaged a 30,000 word manuscript that he would call The Annie Wilkes Edition. In that parallel-universe version, Paul finishes the story Annie forces him to write, and Annie kills him, in order to bind that special, final book in his skin. Ultimately, though, he decided to go with a much longer version (four times as long) and a different ending (which I won’t spoil completely here, but…). When asked why the change, he said:

… it would have made a pretty good story (not such a good novel, however; no one likes to root for a guy over the course of three hundred pages only to discover that between chapters sixteen and seventeen the pig ate him), but that wasn’t the way things eventually went. Paul Sheldon turned out to be a good deal more resourceful than I initially thought.

Stephen King (on Misery)

Misery moves a lot faster than the other Stephen King novel I’ve read (Under The Dome), but that’s not surprising really, given that it’s a third of the length and only has two central characters. Unfortunately, despite having a narrower focus, King really doesn’t flesh out his characters as fully as you’d hope. Maybe I’m jaded from reading too many more recent and more intricate thrillers, but everything in Misery just seemed a bit two-dimensional. Annie Wilkes had no depth, no complexity – she was like a cut-out of a “psychopath”. Paul Sheldon was a mess of convenient realisations and insights; by way of example, he kept having dreams that would point him in the right direction or “reveal” how he truly felt. The “shocking twists” were just small bumps in the road, overcome by Paul thinking really hard about them for a bit. It’s paint-by-numbers intro-to-Psychology “show, don’t tell” stuff, and I honestly expected more from King.

Maybe he was blinded by how deeply personal and autobiographical Misery was for him. It’s not just the emphasis he puts on the importance of dreams (he has said, IRL, that the character of Annie Wilkes came from a dream of his own). King’s personal struggles, and the at-times destructive passion he feels for books and writing, feel encoded into Misery‘s DNA. Firstly, you can see the way King sees his books (and himself, come to that) hinted at in the way he describes his main character:

He was Paul Sheldon, who wrote novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers.

Misery (Page 7)

But the larger, overwhelming metaphor is that of addiction. Misery is like King’s come-to-Jesus moment about his own addiction(s) manifest. Paul Sheldon becomes addicted to the painkillers that Annie Wilkes forces him to take, and his days come to revolve around her dispensing his medication, more than food, water, or his bedpan; even when he contemplates escape, he wonders and worries about cutting off his supply. So, you’ve got a murderous captor holding the writer hostage, getting him high and forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do, until he almost loses himself completely – honestly, if Misery isn’t handed out at AA meetings, it should be. To his credit, King doesn’t deny the connection.

I wrote [Misery] when I was having such a tough time with dope. I knew what I was writing about. There was never any question. Annie was my drug problem, and she was my number-one fan. God, she never wanted to leave.

Stephen King (On Misery)

He stops short, however, of admitting that Paul is some kind of cathartic Mary Sue; he concedes that “certain parts of him are [me]”, but qualifies that “I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you”.

(Maybe he spoke too soon. In a strange twist of life imitating art, King himself was in a serious car crash similar to his character Paul Sheldon’s, in 1999. Luckily, no one took him hostage and forced him to write anything afterwards… as far as we know.)

After publication, Misery won the inaugural Bram Stoker Award for Novel, and critical reception was generally positive, despite disgruntled voices from fans who resented King for steering away from his prior fiction’s supernatural/fantasy elements. Personally, I preferred the realism of Misery, but it still fell a bit short for me in other ways (see above). I might check out the movie adaptation at some point, just to see if the story translates better to the screen (though if they do any cheesy dream sequences, I may actually vomit). All told, Misery is a middle-of-the-road horror novel, made more interesting for its parallels to King’s personal life.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Misery:

  • “I bought it as a present for myself and wasn’t disappointed. Reading Misery on New Year’s Eve was relaxing, soothing, and good. It was like my mind had a vacation on its own.” – Sofia Petrovna
  • “The book was really good I like misery” – bina shrestha
  • “I couldn’t even feel for Paul much. He seemed wimpy. After his legs healed from his accident, he could have escaped, but didn’t.

    King also had too many coincidences in his storyline. It’s enough to make your eyes roll.

    Instead of taking the axe to Paul’s leg, King should have did it to the book instead. This would have saved me the “misery” of reading it!” – MJ
  • “True misery is reading this novel. By the time he’d written this, King had succumbed to the “my every word is golden” delusion, so the thing is much larger than it needed to be. After reading this because I promised a friend I’d do it (oh, what we do for pretty women)I decided that even 180 pages would’ve been too long. The conclusion is unsatisfactory because some of the cast of characters survive.” – James K. Burk
  • “By the time I was halfway through I wanted one of them to die. It didn’t matter which one it was.” – Pharoah 12
  • “I order “misery” by Stephen King and received a diet book. Granted, both are thrillers but I was really looking forward to stimulating my imagination and I really don’t like losing weight” – enobong essien
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