Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Horror (page 1 of 4)

Interview With The Vampire – Anne Rice

Going into Interview With The Vampire, I only really knew Anne Rice by reputation – if at all. I’d heard a lot of women around my age talk about reading her books as a formative experience, sneaking them home from the library and devouring them under the covers, but somehow I missed out on that rite of passage. I’d never even seen the Oscar-winning film adaptation of her most famous book, so I went into it with pretty much a blank slate.

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Interview With The Vampire is a gothic-horror vampire novel (duh), styled as a centuries-old vampire – Louis de Pointe du Lac – telling his life story to a reporter. Rice drops you right into the middle of the conversation, or that’s how it feels anyway. I wondered for a minute whether there was an introductory chapter or two missing, because the action takes off before you know what hits you and doesn’t stop.

Louis was 25 years old, back in 1791, when he became a vampire. He was an indigo plantation owner (ahem, slave-owner, but more on that in a minute) grieving the shocking loss of his pious brother Paul. In the midst of a self-destructive spiral, he is approached and bitten by a vampire, Lestat de Lioncourt. Soon, he’s allergic to the sun and sleeping in a coffin and hungry only for blood hot and fresh from the vein.

Lacking any other options for vampire buddies, Louis and Lestat become frenemies. Louis hopes that Lestat will teach him The Ways of being a vampire, but everything Lestat shows him seems either completely stupid or morally reprehensible. Louis feels stuck with him, though – and the fact that they’re immortal, so this arrangement might have to last forever, adds another layer of conflict and complexity. And, it hardly needs saying but I’ll say it anyway: it’s all deeply homoerotic. There’s no subtlety to it at all.

Even though this all happens very quickly in Interview With The Vampire, you’ll still find yourself working through long, long chapters. Rice is wordy, and she loves an ellipsis, which gives you the feeling of reading extended texts from a baby boomer.

Anyway, Louis and Lestat’s relationship is coming apart at the seams. In desperation, Louis escapes to New Orleans, and finds himself drawn to ‘feed’ (sorry, gross, I know) on a plague-ridden five-year-old girl, whom he finds crying next to her mother’s corpse (double gross, but hold onto your hat, there’s worse to come). Lestat is worried that Louis is going to abandon him, so he has the bright idea of also feeding on the five-year-old and completing the process of turning her into a vampire, too. I guess it’s the old-timey vampire equivalent of a surprise pregnancy in Anne Rice’s world. Louis can’t leave Lestat now – they have a baby.

That might be repellent enough to put a swathe of would-be readers off Interview With A Vampire altogether, but what I read about that particular plot point afterwards changed my feelings about it. Rice began working on the short story that would eventually become Interview With The Vampire shortly after the death of her daughter Michelle, at just six years of age. She’s even said specifically, in interviews and so forth, that the young vampire girl (Claudia, in the book) is directly inspired by her late daughter. Knowing that makes the story less horrifying and more horribly sad, for me anyway. What mother wouldn’t want to give her daughter eternal life, even if it meant turning her into a vampire (or, as it were, a fictional character)?

Whether you can stomach the attack, abuse, manipulation, and corruption of a child, described in yearning and tender prose, is just one deciding factor in whether Interview With The Vampire is the right book for you. There’s also the aforementioned homoeroticism (though that endears me to it more, if anything). One of my favourite critical comments on this point came from Edith Milton, writing for The New Republic: “To pretend that it has any purpose beyond suckling eroticism is rank hypocrisy,”. LOL!

What I really take issue with in Interview With The Vampire is the depiction of slavery, and the inherent racism in the narrative. I suspect you’d need a few years to write a thesis that really gets to the bottom of it, especially now with the newer screen adaptation transforming the story with a Black man in the lead. As I read this one, though, purely on a surface level, you’ve got Lestat feeding on slaves and their families, Louis exploiting their fear, and zero question or concern about their well-being or the systemic problem of race-based slavery.

It’s particularly surprising given that Rice seemed to style herself as a chronicler of the plight of the down-trodden. “I wrote novels about people who are shut out life for various reasons,” she wrote in her memoir. “This became a great theme of my novels — how one suffers as an outcast.”

I suppose Rice did try to nod to social justice when she had Louis refuse to feed on his own slaves (he predominantly drinks the blood of animals, making him the vampire equivalent of a vegetarian, I guess), but I mean… he had no issue enslaving them, so…?! Basically, in Interview With The Vampire, slaves are background characters that occasionally pop their heads up to keep the plot in order, they’re spoken about in denigrating ways and treated as disposable resources, and it all just gave me the ick.

Still, I can see the book’s appeal. What’s particularly interesting is the recasting of the vampire as tragic anti-hero, rather than self-evident villain. I don’t know if that was Rice’s intent in having the vampire narrate his own story in Interview With The Vampire (we’re never the villains in our own story) or just an interesting by-product of taking a different perspective, but either way, it works. That’s probably why it went on to sell ten million-odd copies, and spawn twelve sequels. I probably won’t go out of my way to read any more of them, but I can see why others might.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Interview With The Vampire:

  • “I just read this pile. The main character, Louis, is just incredibly whiny. The book has pages upon pages of whining, but I can never really identify what the character finds so loathsome about his creator. The book is painfully descriptive, yet incredibly vague. Save the time and fall asleep in front of the movie.” – Erik Pearson
  • “The first and the biggest problem is the main character – he is so unlikable and such a pushover for about 95% of the story, you can’t just be annoyed with him ALL THE TIME. Most of the negative events in the book are his fault because he’s such an idiot.” – Kindle Customer
  • “In a word: AWFUL! Ann Rice has taken her love for penning overblown sexual fetishes (both hetero and homo-erotic) and single-handedly ruined the vampire as myth originally described the foul demon. Lestat’s character was so lavishly overblown as to verge on the comical. Each scene in the book was more or less a wishful description of an orgiastic costum party.” – J. Pemberton

Tampa – Alissa Nutting

In all honesty, I was originally drawn to Tampa for its cover art. I know, I know, I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it’s just so eye-catching! An extreme close-up of the button hole on a light pink dress shirt, that at a glance looks like a much dirtier image. I give it 11/10, and I hope the cover designer got a big raise once it went to print.

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Once I drew my eyes away from the front cover, I had a look at the blurbs. They say Tampa has a “remorseless protagonist”, a “female Humbert” – Irvine Welsh called it “a provocative look at a taboo subject”, for crying out loud. Clearly, this book contains something intended to twist our guts.

If the Humbert allusion didn’t tip you off, here’s an early trigger warning (for both Tampa and this review): it’s a book about predatory sexual abuse, grooming, and statutory rape. Please be careful in considering whether to read on.

Why Alissa Nutting chose such a dark and dire subject for her debut novel, I’ll never know. She has said that she was inspired by Debra Lafave, a teacher (“coincidentally” from Tampa, FL) who was charged with raping one of her students in 2013. Nutting actually went to school with her, and seeing her old classmate charged with such a heinous crime got her creative gears rolling.

The story of Tampa doesn’t stray too far from what you’d expect, based on what I’ve told you so far. Celeste Price is a middle-school teacher who obsessively grooms and molests her fourteen-year-old male students. She’s unhappily married to an alcoholic police officer, staying with him for his family’s wealth and the convenient cover for her perversions that the marriage provides.

Celeste isn’t so much a character as she is predatory sexual desire manifest. She is very self-possessed and self-determined. She doesn’t stumble upon a strange state of arousal in the presence of a particular student one day and fall down a lust-filled rabbit hole. She knows, and has always known, exactly what she wants, and she makes detailed and devious plans to get it. She studied teaching and took on the middle-school teaching job with the explicit intention of finding vulnerable fourteen-year-old boys she could exploit.

Yes, fourteen-year-old boys – not thirteen, not fifteen, only fourteen. She is a seduction-preferential hebephile (yes, I had to google the terminology and typology, and yes, I have screwed up my search algorithms and probably put myself on a watch-list somewhere).

In my mind, besides the nature of their paraphilia, Celeste is nothing like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. In Tampa, she doesn’t entreat the reader to understand her or sympathise with her, as Humbert did. She actually has no interest at all in what anyone – real or fictional – thinks of her or knows about her, as long as it doesn’t affect her ability to keep doing what she wants (grooming and abusing boys). Of course, she’ll stop at nothing to keep her desires and crimes a secret, but purely because that’s the only way she can keep indulging in them.

I’d imagine that a lot of readers have abandoned Tampa in the first chapter. Nutting gives you nothing to endear you to Celeste, she doesn’t even give you a chance to warm up to the idea of a hebephile teacher before smacking you in the face with Celeste’s sick fantasies. It’s full throttle, right from the outset.

In fact, some bookstores have declined to stock Tampa due to its explicit depictions of child sexual abuse. I’m not sure keeping it off the shelves is the right way to go, but it definitely should come with some kind of warning for potential readers. It’s very, very uncomfortable reading – especially as it comes to a sickeningly inevitable conclusion.

I struggled to understand the “point” of Tampa, but reading it was an interesting intellectual exercise all the same, analysing my own visceral reactions to it. Proceed with caution. (Of course, if you’re anything like me, such a warning will only make you want to read it more – godspeed, but be careful!)

My favourite Amazon reviews of Tampa:

  • “Imagine thanking your husband in the acknowledgements of this book, lol.” – Sarah M
  • “Why is this trash named after my city? You could literally call it anything else.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Do you have a life? Then don’t bother wasting it on this book. You’ll literally hate the fact you took time out of your life to read this.” – Haven
  • “The author doesn’t seem to have gotten out of bed to write this, let alone explored her subject. She’s not Nabokov, she’s not Nin, she’s not even Judy Blume. Simply contrived rubbish that I wouldn’t spit my gum into. She’s wasted her time, yours, and probably her husband’s with this book… If it doesn’t ruin her career, she can always write for social media where everything is as terse and forgettable as this book.” – Go On Then

The Natural Way Of Things – Charlotte Wood

The Weekend is one of my all-time favourite books, but even I can acknowledge that The Natural Way Of Things is the book for which Charlotte Wood is better known. It was released in 2015 to massive popular and critical acclaim here in Australia, and it won the Stella Prize the following year.

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The Natural Way Of Things is told in three parts, across nine months (Summer, Autumn, and Winter). It begins with Yolanda waking up “in the middle of absolutely fucking nowhere”. She doesn’t realise, at first, that nine other women are in the exact same situation. They’re disoriented, drugged, and shuffled between holding cells. When their gaolers emerge, they shave the women’s heads and dress them in scratchy parochial outfits, complete with perspective-limiting bonnets.

If you’re catching a whiff of The Handmaid’s Tale there, you’re not the only one. I suspect it’s a deliberate homage, as The Natural Way Of Things tackles a lot of the same themes and ideas as Margaret Atwood’s iconic feminist dystopia. It’s different, though, in the sense that Wood doesn’t require us to imagine any kind of societal collapse or fertility crisis to make her scenario a reality. What happens to Yolanda and Verla and co. could be happening in our world, right now (some might argue a version of it is).

These women have been abducted, imprisoned, and abandoned because they were all involved in some kind of sexual scandal. Wood offers just enough to give us the “gist” (the political staffer who had an affair with her boss, the footballer’s girlfriend who was sexually assaulted by his friends, the church girl who was abused by a priest), without any gory exposition of the incidents. They’re almost beside the point: any woman could be these women, their stories are all too familiar. They are being punished for the sin of womanhood.

In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that-Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.

The Natural Way Of Things (Page 69)

As if that isn’t horrifying enough, The Natural Way Of Things is set in a remote and derelict sheep-shearing station, somewhere in the Australian outback. They are completely cut off from the world (no internet, no phones, not even an operational fax machine). They’re kept within the boundary by a giant electrified fence. This is enough to strike fear in the heart of any city rat – I know it made me shudder.

And so, a lot of the punishments these women face are natural ones: the heat, the isolation, the wear and tear of bush life. There are also cruel twists of fate; the one that really fucked me up was the box of tampons that was only discovered in a storage shed after the women had been bleeding through their skirts for months.

At first, the women – and their guards, come to that – hold onto hope that this is a temporary situation. Either they will be “rescued” by their families or their lovers, or they will serve their time and be released, free to return to their “normal” lives. As the months pass, and supplies dwindle, the reality of their dire situation starts to hit home – for the reader, too.

Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.

The Natural Way Of Things (Page 223)

In many respects, The Natural Way Of Things is a level-up on feminist dystopia or psychological thriller – it tips the scales into outright horror. There are scenes and realisations that literally made me recoil as I read them. I found it really hard to “shake” this one, for days after I turned the final page. If there was ever a book that required a palate cleanser right after, this is it.

I couldn’t help but think back to a news story I read years ago, about 5,000 copies of The Natural Way Of Things being distributed to every student and staff member at the University Of Canberra. They call it the “UC Book Of The Year” and it is required reading for every single undergrad. Having read it now, I kind of feel for those students – I can see why the university would want to put the ramifications of sexual violence front of mind, but it feels like a bit of a baptism of fire.

Wood is a masterful writer, at the top of her game in this one, so The Natural Way Of Things is a fantastic read – but it’s also traumatic and difficult and fascinating and provoking and nuanced and scary and gut-wrenching. Make of that what you will!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Natural Way Of Things:

  • “This has to be, without doubt, one of the worst books I have had the misfortune to read in a very long time. I read to the end in the vain hope that it might improve – it didn’t – and felt soiled. There is no plot or characterization, only a series of defilements that leave one astonished at the cesspool of a mind that vomited out such a succession of ugly scenes, with no connection to one another. One star only because a star rating required to submit the review. Avoid this one like the plague.” – Anne Greiner
  • “This has to be the single worst book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s 12:30am right now, but I felt the need to open up my computer and write this before I went to bed. I just finished this book and it was awful. No plot, horrible character development, and 300+ pages of nothing happening. Am I supposed to believe that it’s a moral struggle to eat rabbit when you’re starving? This book went absolutely nowhere and served no purpose. I would recommend any other book over this. Seriously, a dictionary would be a better choice.” – SMITH
  • “Sickeningly believable premise, which I think must lead to the negative reviews.” – S.E. Vhay
  • “Miss Wood can write and win awards but I don’t watch horror films and this was one. Why take the reader into such hideous bestiality? Could she not make her point without a broken jaw causing starvation and suppurating lesions? At that scene I flipped to the back page only to discover that our protagonist escaped on that same last page and may not survive even then. I closed the book. It will not find space on my shelf. I do not willingly jump into the cesspool” – Amazon Customer

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.

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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.

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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
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