The Haunting of Ashburn House

I just finished Darcy Coates’ The Haunting of Ashburn House and I have thoughts. This is the first book of hers that I have actually read. I have sampled several and each time sort of said, eh, not for me. I am picky.

This one sounded up my alley–sudden inheritance at a perfect time, deep, dark family secrets–and the protagonist Adrienne is sympathetic. I expected to love this book like crazy. In the end, though, not so much.

I loved so many elements here: her great-aunt Edith’s creepy messages to herself carved into the walls, the tables, even her bedframe. I loved that the locals were actually kind! Coates didn’t go for the easy “isolate the heroine by making everyone dislike or distrust her”. I think that worked really well, because it makes the horror feel more powerful if there are allies and they can’t actually help. Coates did a good job of explaining away the usual accoutrements of modern life: no car for Addy, no cell phone–she’s too broke to own them. And not just the usual novel-excuse broke: actual broke. $3.47 in her bank account and a $20 bill in her purse. She’s homeless except for Ashburn House.

My absolute favorite element kicked in early when as twilight descends, the entire forest around her house (because of course Ashburn House is isolated in a forest) goes eerily silent. What’s worse than a forest falling silent all around you? When it erupts with terror–all the wild animals shrieking, her house cat Wolfgang shrieking, her own panic rising. I loved it.

I think this wonderful element, which plays out over three nights, is actually the strongest, most creepy, aspect, and that’s why I didn’t love the rest. Sounds contradictory, but all this amazing terror and the natural world shrieking in panic and outrage, and then…. everything that comes after is just less for me. Oh, it’s an evil ghost/zombie thing. I’ve seen you before.

And once the evil revenant makes the scene, matters narrow down from this enormous world-shaking event to the usual story line of “will the heroine survive?”. At that point, all the carved words that Addy has been ignoring start to feel like an exercise in is this heroine too stupid to live?

A carved message in the kitchen table that says IS IT FRIDAY LIGHT THE CANDLE is understandably ignored when the ominous factor is some unseeable force in the woods. It’s a lot less so when there is an actual evil intruder trying to get inside. Have some common sense, Addy! But no.

There are a couple of issues that really sort of splatted the ending for me. First, that the haunting starts to get more scattershot. The forest erupting in panic is wonderful. The revenant is… horror movie creepy. But then we start getting bleeding paintings and ghosts in the mirrors and it all just sort of becomes horror movie 101. I kept sort of mentally comparing Coates to Kingfisher. I find T. Kingfisher’s horror novels more effective because she really keeps her focus on a specific horror and the way it affects her heroine/the world. There are no distractions from the main thrust of the horror.

The second issue that weakens the ending for me is that Addy–just after the climactic moment–finds the letter her great-aunt left her explaining every single thing in detail. The fact that she didn’t find the letter until late in the game makes sense, but it was just too much explaining all at once: history of the family, the revenant’s identity, the source of its powers, its weaknesses, and so forth. It’s like an entire short story of its own and I really would have loved to see more of it slipped in throughout the book. Coates has Addy research the house and her family, but hit nothing but dead ends. She survives through sheer grit and dumb luck.

So, while I enjoyed reading it; my interest started out stronger than it ended. I turned the pages more eagerly in the beginning than at the climax. Would I read another of her books? Yes. I have my eye on From Below.

Book Review: The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed

Short take: I loved this novella.

Longer take with some small spoilery bits: Despite a rough, muddled blurb and a weird self-deprecating note from the author where she calls her story “drivel*” I bought this ebook.  You have to love samples for that!  The novella was mentioned as a good one on twitter by an author I like and follow, so I figured it was worth sampling.  By the description of the funeral, I was sold.

This is a quiet, heartfelt story about a soldier returning from a war to an alternate Great Britain.  He’s shell-shocked, full of survivor’s guilt, and stymied rage.  As well as haunted by the ghost of his young, disgraced commanding officer who nearly got them all killed.

I do a lot of critiquing, and there are some things I’ve learned that are super hard to do well.  Or at all.  One of them is having a protagonist who is depressed to the point of numbness and apathy.  After all, I tell people over and over, if your character can’t manage to cope, how can we?  It’s hard to just watch a character endure personal suffering without the agency to end it.

Mohamed does this so well.  So amazingly well.  There’s never a doubt in my head that he’s shut down and not coping, just going with the flow because it’s so much easier than trying to express any of the jumble that is his head.  But at the same time, he is utterly compelling.  Why?  Because although his body and brain seem nearly separate from each other, we can see behind the heavy, smothering curtain of his grief and fear and rage to the incisive, observant brain beneath.  Because he has flickers when he’s nearly the man his friends remember him being.  And because Mohamed piles the small obstacles up and up until Braddock finds a scrap of his agency and uses it.

I love the characterization here.  Everyone rings true for this society.  We get such a wonderful look at Braddock, and an equally good one at his friends–a delightful married couple who are supportive and no-nonsense–and Wickersley’s ghost.  We see a lot of society characters, and they’re almost imaginary people–not because Mohamed doesn’t draw them well and distinctly, but because Braddock’s life and experiences are so far from theirs that they might as well be aliens.

There aren’t a lot of significant surprises here.  It’s fairly evident early on what Braddock’s relationship with Wickersley was, but that doesn’t mean watching the secrets unfold on the page isn’t satisfying.

One of the other things that I’m constantly telling people is “use the right details”.  The awesome Kij Johnson gave us (at the CSSF novel writer’s workshop) a speech about setting that changed the way I looked at writing.  Setting is about the character as much as it is about the world around them.  Different characters see different things, have a different perspective.  And that’s all in the details.  You can describe a room from top to bottom but if your character doesn’t care about wallpaper and furnishings, it’s not going to ring true.  Here, all the details that Braddock notices and conveys to the reader feel exactly like the type of thing he would notice.  It’s elegant.

The ending felt ambiguous to me, because this is one of those fantasy novellas that is light on the actual fantasy.  It’s an alternate England.  And there’s a single ghost that only Braddock sees.  And his friends, when hesitantly questioned on the matter of ghosts, are non-believers.  So it’s a fantasy world without magic.  Which then makes me wonder how real is the ghost and how much of it is Braddock’s mind turning against him.  But it’s a pleasant ambiguity, the kind you can argue over with your friends: is the top spinning still, or falling? Is Dom dreaming still, or waking?

All in all, a really enjoyable novella.

*(Jesus, people, don’t do that, it makes me SO ANGRY.  Seriously, the world is full of enough people who will LEAP to tell you that you suck at anything you do.  Why preemptively do it for them?  If you wrote something that you love, and you publish it, don’t undercut it!  More sputtered swearing follows.)

 

 

Book Review: Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

VigilanceRJBVigilance
Robert Jackson Bennett
Tor
190 pages

Why I Chose it:
C’mon.  Robert Jackson Bennett is an autoread for me, and this particular book? As writers, a lot of us struggle with terrible public events, feeling like we should be able to put words on the page to expose the awful truth of things. But most of us just flail in that direction. So when I heard that RJB had written a satirical SF novel about America’s obsession with–and enabling of–mass public shootings, I picked it up.

I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it.  Satire is as often bitter as the truths it exposes.

The Premise:
Robert Jackson Bennett’s Vigilance is a dark science fiction action parable from an America that has permanently surrendered to gun violence.

The United States. 2030. John McDean executive produces “Vigilance,” a reality game show designed to make sure American citizens stay alert to foreign and domestic threats. Shooters are introduced into a “game environment,” and the survivors get a cash prize.

The TV audience is not the only one that’s watching though, and McDean soon finds out what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.

Discussion:
I’m going to avoid spoilers for most of this review, but really there are no surprises here.

The blurb tells us right away that McDean will suffer the same fate as his “contestants”. There are some fiddly little twists, but overall, this book provides what you expect.

And that was… weirdly disappointing.

The book is compulsively readable.  RJB is great at stringing words together and creating vivid characters, even in the shorter form of the novella.

That said, I expected more somehow.  More of an edge. Something more potent than just the USA turning public shootings into a patriotic-tinged game show, which… I’ve seen before and before and before.  So many story-lines go back to the bread and circuses of the Romans–death for sport. It’s not enough to really make me sit back and think. I’ve seen variations on it in Star Trek and Doctor Who and any show that ever declares “fight club to the DEATH!!!”.  It’s trope is what I’m saying. And kind of a tired one to hinge the entire novella on.

(Now if someone wanted to write a satirical novel about the NFL and CTE, that would be interesting, and RJB touches on it a bit here.)

The big problem for me is that I expect a certain level of horror/shock or appalled laughter from my satires—like I did in reading Swift’s A Modest Proposal or Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens.

Or Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, which gave me this:

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.

This is giggle-worthy writing, bleakly true, and best of all, relatable.

In Vigilance, I got that sting only once in the entire book.

McDean’s guts flutter unpleasantly. He does not want to piss off Kruse—but he can’t share the man’s blithe confidence when it comes to subjecting his entire audience to a subliminal AI about which he knows fucking nothing at all. He’s heard Kruse’s people conduct tests on prisoners, and the thought horrifies him: prisoners don’t share the same race and economic backgrounds of any of his primary demographics at all. The population’s all wrong! If that’s his sample, then it’s skewed, utterly fucked! This could decimate his TMAs.
p 69

TMA- Target Market Activations, by the way if you, like me, are not up on marketing terms.

This point stung and resonated, twisted the common expectations of McDean’s horror in an effective way.  We’re poised, after the thought horrifies him, for human rights violations, not poor demographic matches.

McDean is our primary voice, though there is a secondary POV from Delyna, the “Regular girl” who (rightfully) loathes Vigilance. But then, she’s not his target audience at all, being neither white, nor male, nor constantly afraid. She’s feels only tangentially there–much like the comforting commercials McDean airs between scenes of Vigilance–to soothe the reader and keep them turning the pages instead of turning away.

But in the end, Bennett uses Delyna’s POV in a wonderful (horrible) way to make his primary point.

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

The “Vigilance” TV-watching portion of the USA descends into gun-fueled chaos courtesy of the subliminal AI mentioned above.  Chaos and bloodshed everywhere. Everyone turning on everyone else, guns ablazing like any old Western movie. Not a surprise.  We’ve seen the writing on the wall from page one.

Then there are the customers in Delyna’s bar, and what happens when she dares to turn off the TV in the middle of the episode.

Her patrons don’t fall prey to that subliminal AI because she shut the TV down before the AI started its work; their minds are still their own.   And yet… and yet… they still erupt in violence. Because, as Bennett suggests on every page, once you have a gun in your hand and fear in your heart, there’s no backing down.

So even though Bennett put a third party player on the page, he doesn’t let it absolve the citizens from their murderous, destructive spree.  See, Bennett suggests, they (we) would have erupted eventually anyway.

That’s a powerful statement, and sadly, one that lacks an easy rebuttal.

Overall:
I’m glad I read Vigilance. At the same time, I wish it packed more punch.  Maybe it’s that I keep thinking of Vigilance as a satire, and Bennett wrote it as a parable—a lesson for us to learn from.  Maybe it’s the brevity. There was a lot of world-building glossed over or hand-waved away. Maybe it was just that this was such a White America story and I kept wondering where the other citizens were—just keeping their heads down, like Delyna? Trying to keep a low profile? Or fleeing the country for inexplicable welcomes elsewhere. I felt a lot of absence in this book.

I think, looking at the Jingo quote up above, I know what hampered this book the most for me.  For it to be a satire or even a parable, we have to recognize ourselves in the pages.  We have to say oh god, I’ve thought that, felt that, could I become THAT?!? And I never got that feeling here. McDean is a compelling caricature but he’s not relatable.  I was never in danger of thinking, oh a few missteps and I’d be like him….

There was a tiny moment that zipped by, part of the set-up and explanation for how this game show came to be: ads accidentally get linked to violent footage of a public shooting and… the ad revenue soars because people keep watching and watching.  And watching. That’s relatable.  Our appetite for disasters is marketable.  I believe it. Anyone who reads, watches, or otherwise consumes True Crime stories knows how thin the line is between observing a terrible act and glorifying it.  Between analyzing it and mythologizing it.

I think, in the end, though Vigilance is an enjoyable, thoughtful read, and one I definitely recommend, it isn’t the story I wanted to read. Someone, somewhere has written or is writing something scathing about America’s Gun Problem ™ which holds a mirror up to each and every one of us “regular people”. That’s the one I want to read.

Book Review: All But a Bloody Mouth

So I’ve been reading and reading all summer long, but not finding things that really satisfy.  It’s the downside of being voracious and pretty indiscriminate about your reading: you get jaded pretty quickly–been there, seen that, seen it done BETTER, and now you’re bored.  Every now and then, I just hit a run of meh books.

And every now and then, I stumble over something strange and wonderful.

In this case, the online novel All But a Bloody Mouth by Becca De La Rosa

The details:

All But a Bloody Mouth  published on tumblr in 2016 and later assembled into a free download—technically self-pubbed, but not available for sale in stores.  If you find it, it feels … serendipitous.
Written by: Becca De La Rosa
Genre: um…. I’m thinking of it as feminist noir horror? Which is a genre I didn’t know I wanted, but apparently was starving for.
Pages: 259 per pdf
Publisher: self-published, nicely formatted, not available in stores.

Why I chose it: During my podcast resolution over on Spec Chic, I listened to podcast Mabel (not reviewed yet–look for my review in Oct or Nov), and wandered over to the website and found the writer for Mabel had also written this novel. Since I was enjoying Mabel so much, and the premise of this book appealed to me, it seemed only natural to dive right in.

The Premise:
All But the Bloody Mouth. First published on Tumblr in 2016; a novel about murder, mystery cults, and apotheosis.

Eleven days ago Loan Santos came home to discover her boyfriend Jack violently attacking a young woman on the kitchen floor. Following the revelation, Jack admitted to committing the five murders attributed to the Red Deer Valley Slasher; he claimed he killed those five girls, however, for a very particular reason. Now, Loan must piece together the facts of the matter (a girl with a scar on her throat who knows more than she lets on, a monster in the wetlands) to find herself some kind of – meaning, or understanding, or transcendence.

​All But the Bloody Mouth is free to download, read, and share.

Spoilers ahead, but I’m going to try to keep them small, because watching this book unfold is a delight.

Discussion:

I read a lot of serial killer stories. It’s almost inevitable. I love fantasy, but as a child, I cut my teeth on mystery. Nancy Drew, Kay Tracey, Meg, Trixie freaking Belden. And oh, here’s a fantasy twist: The Girl with the Silver Eyes, which was a childhood form of an urban fantasy—young girl with a magical gift learns that there are others like her and enemies out there who want to control them, and she assembles a team to fight back…. Tell me that doesn’t sound urban fantasy-ish.

The point being, after a while, mystery divides itself into cozies and murders. (Not that no one dies in cozies, it’s just that no one seems to care much.) So yeah, serial killers. And I enjoy the genre but it is definitely a genre of dead tortured women, usually with graphic scenes, where the saving grace is that many, many of the serial killer stories are written by women, with women as their active protagonists.

That said, there is a certain sameness to the formula. So, I really enjoy the books that turn the story on its end—the killer caught on the first page!? The story about the recovery of the people affected—yeah, show me that!

And All But a Bloody Mouth begins with Jack, the Red Deer Valley killer caught and jailed before the first page. Because he’s not the focus here. It’s about the two women he left behind—the woman who nearly died, and the woman who loved him, unknowing. But it’s also about pulling back the veil on the lives that women lead.

I said feminist noir and I meant it. Mandy Jane Donovan, the would-be victim is the blonde femme fatale, swanning through the story and helping to open Loan’s eyes to the world she’s always moved through, but always repressed. That Loan surpasses Mandy’s understanding in the end is also noir—Mandy is ephemeral, her importance is to lead Loan in the direction of the truth. Mandy is a vector of sorts, a proselytizer. But unlike classic noir, Mandy has her own successful agenda. She doesn’t come to ruin. She starts there and grows past it.

These truths are about men and women, more than anything else. And they’re not necessarily pleasant truths. Here, each gender is pretty much posed always in opposition to each other.

I also said horror, and I meant it. The horror here is both occasionally gory—though elegantly presented—and social; there’s a scene with Loan and her lawyer that’s just fundamentally upsetting in oh so many ways. Loan starts off quiet and repressed, but it’s definitely the quiet of a banked fire.

There’s real fantasy here also. But it’s a fantasy that is more about mythology than casting spells or having magical abilities doled out. It’s about change. I thought the ending was both surprising and well-led up to, if a little short on the mechanics.

There were small things that bugged me:

I wasn’t sure about Loan’s name. It’s unusual enough to strike the reader as continually odd. It felt more like a symbol than a name. Loan? Like lone? Or Loan, like her life had been on loan…. I don’t know. But it was distracting.*

I adored the ending, but thought it felt a little bit abrupt. A lot of the big moments in this book are a little rushed.

De La Rosa’s writing is full of literary goodness, but occasionally one of her metaphors falls a little flat.

In conclusion:

I’d actually recommend All But the Bloody Mouth to anyone who enjoys Gemma Files—the introspection, the dissection of relationships, the precision in language, and yes, the mythic horror. Elizabeth Hand as well. Try the first few pages; if you like those, you’ll probably enjoy the rest. If you don’t get a tiny little shiver at the end of the first scene, you might not.

 

*ETA and today, Kelly Marie Tran explains that her given name is Loan, and suddenly I have more context for the name.  So, less odd, then.  I have learned something!