The End of the End of Everything – Dale Bailey

The End of the End of EverythingThe End of the End of Everything by Dale Bailey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Dale Bailey because his prose makes me want to write and when his stories speak to me, they sing.

I only connected with some of the stories in this collection – “The Bluehole,” “A Rumor of Angels,” and “Eating at the End-of-the-World Cafe” – and I’m not wholly certain what differentiates them from the other stories. It might be as simple as my connection to the characters. Once I look past Bailey’s prose, his characters all possess a realness I find compelling. It keeps me reading even when I don’t like them or I’m tired of their type: i.e., Ben Devine in the title story, yet another middle-aged mediocre white-guy writer who has affairs with co-eds and navel gazes about his own mediocrity. I’ve read enough of those stories. I wanted to love “Troop 9,” but I think it would have been an ideal story for me if it was written by a woman, about women (I’m thinking in particular of Ellen Klages, and recalling her story “Woodsmoke”) instead of being about men in the end. I can see and appreciate the things Bailey is doing in these stories, the ways he interrogates the tropes, uses Ben as a lens for the world-goes-to-ruin scenario, uses John Hardesty to explore the effects or war and toxic masculinity on women and a community in a place and a time, but I’d rather read those stories through the gazes of different people, like Tom and Lily (“Rumor of Angels”) or Eleanor (“Eating at the End-of-the-World Cafe”).

But that prose is so smooth and lovely, those ideas and details strange and alluring. Goddamn if I don’t want to grab everything Bailey’s written and gobble it up.

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Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction – Grady Hendrix

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror FictionPaperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw Grady Hendrix on a convention panel, was immediately captivated by the thought of all the things I didn’t know about horror fiction, and then entered (and won) a giveaway for this book. It took me a year and a half to read it, picking it up and putting it down as my desire to study the subject waxed and waned. It’s a lot to take in all at once, but it makes for a great bed- or couch-side read.

The text is tightly-written, witty and smart, devoting time to the subgenres of horror as they rise and fall, the books themselves and their writers, the cover artists so rarely named or lauded for their work, strung along a thread of the boom and bust of the publishing houses putting all these books into the hands of the masses. That anecdotal balancing act kept the book from feeling repetitive (“oh, and then this novel, and then this one, and this one . . .”). It delivered what was promised: a history of the books, their stories, cultural context, and the business and people behind and around them.

You may walk away from this book with a reading list to keep you busy for years. You may, like me, enjoy knowing more about that period of horror fiction and its echoes down the years than feel any great desire to read the greatest hits of decades past. I didn’t get really excited and start looking up authors and books until I got to the last section, about the psychological and genre-crossing horror of the early nineties under Dell’s short-lived Abyss imprint, edited by Jeanne Cavelos. If nothing else about this book appeals to you, it makes a great coffee table book for the wealth of full-color cover images, ranging from stark and iconic to bizarre and lurid.

I recommend this to anyone discovering (or re-discovering) an interest in horror fiction who isn’t quite sure what parts of the horror spectrum appeal to them. This book is also wonderful for anyone who enjoys knowing the history of genres and publishing, or just wants to read clever and sarcastic essay-reviews about older books.

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Steeplejack – AJ Hartley

Steeplejack (Steeplejack #1)Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Well that was underwhelming.

Fantasy thrillers are my jam, but Steeplejack is a disappointment. The worldbuilding relies too heavily on a mish-mash of Victorian and generic colonialist tropes, an unsatisfying shorthand to create a society that feels more like a backdrop for a plot than a real place an intriguing story is happening. Ang is a cardboard cut-out of a Real Girl, her investigation awkwardly interrupted by confusing and inexplicable sexual and romantic attractions to any young man she has a serious conversation with as well as her struggle against a generic patriarchy that feels as empty and pointless to the world and the story as it does to the characters who wish it wasn’t there. I wish it wasn’t there. I want more interesting obstacles for a character in a story like this, not the old stand-by.

The luxorite and the disappearance of the Beacon are a solid foundation for an urban fantasy detective thriller. If this had been a tight and fast novelette or novella—drop the unnecessary patriarchy and the appallingly unrealistic b-plot where Ang takes care of a baby for several days without ever changing its diaper while fighting with a sister that does little for the story that can’t be accomplished through other characters—and it would have packed the punch the author wanted. The only reason the narrative felt fast-paced was because I sped-read my way through, skipping anything that wasn’t dialogue or necessary plot information; everything else was filler.

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In the Night Wood – Dale Bailey

In the Night WoodIn the Night Wood by Dale Bailey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book does everything I want a haunting story to do: echoes and parallels; allusions and mash-ups of ancient sinister figures; the blurring of lines between grief and madness; the uncovering of old family secrets; history recent and ancient repeating itself again and again; shadows and dread and a legacy of darkness.

This is one of the few stories meditating on stories I’ve enjoyed in quite a while, because it focuses on the stories and not the storyteller or the act of telling the story. This focus keeps the story from becoming another self-indulgent meditation on the act of writing, keeps it in the realm of horror as the character realizes he’s just another turn on an inexorable wheel. Such an effective use of the ouroboros motif.

I’ve been equally fascinated and unsettled by the horned king/erl-king/Cernunnos/Herne since I first read about them years ago. Bailey crafts a wonderfully sublime threat from what little we know of these mythic figures.

I didn’t want this book to end, I enjoyed reading it so much.

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Mapping the Interior – Stephen Graham Jones

Mapping the InteriorMapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So much packed into such a small, unsettling space. Jones walks the line so many attempt in stories like this, the ambiguity of is-it-real or is-it-all-in-their-mind. Junior’s child logic keeps us wondering through nail-biting confrontations with the thing that might be the ghost of his father, or might be his own mind’s efforts to impose meaning and logic on meaningless and illogical things. The gritty reality of the story is so grounding, you don’t even realize its true horror until the end, where you see what lies within Junior, that neither Junior nor Dino ever really grow up or truly leave that house, never escape the legacies that made them. The layering of meaning and metaphor in this novella is masterful.

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The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this SO MUCH.

Not only is it delightful to return to the world of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” Clark develops the world further while he tells another story. The conversations underpinning the world about modernity, social change, gender roles, and feminism, carry forward into The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and not only advance in the background but are intrinsic to the plot. The style and technology move from Victorian Steampunk into Art Deco. I could visualize the many geometric patterns and the Art Deco style of the women’s suffrage posers while reading this story, and although it doesn’t quite go full Decopunk, the flirtation in that direction makes my heart happy. Clark turns the second wave of Egyptian Revival from the Art Deco period an actual Egyptian movement instead of a Western fashion trend. The alternate history worldbuilding is so tight and clever, I can’t say enough good about it.

As I’ve come to expect from Clark, he delivers a kick-ass story driven by kick-ass characters. Every encounter is a character study, and every character leaps off the page. Hamed and Fatma gossiping about her case from “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” over tea and cake was the perfect ending note.

More, please.

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