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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

October Reads

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons

This 1989 second novel by American writer Dan Simmons is an epic of horror and dark fantasy, which follows a marauding band of “mind vampires” – those who possess “the Ability,” the power to “Use” another person from a distance, infiltrating their minds and forcing them to commit any action or any crime. One such mind vampire is Melanie Fuller, an elderly woman living in Charleston in 1980 whose complete lack of conscience allows her to commit unspeakable atrocities. When Willi Borden, a friend and member of the mind vampire fraternity, is killed in a plane explosion, Melanie suspects Nina Drayton, another malevolent member, who unleashes hell against Melanie, resulting in a fight which kills multiple bystanders, one of which is the father of Natalie Preston, a young college student, who vows to catch the elusive killer who remains at large. With aid from Sheriff Gentry, a burly, brave, and kind-hearted deputy whose demeanor often belies his wits, and Saul Laski, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor whose research into these mind vampires is not just scientific but personal, an investigation ensues which takes the trio up and down the east coast, from Charleston to DC to Philadelphia, before eventually over to the west coast to California. Behind the usual suspects–Melanie and her cruel coterie–hides an even greater group of mind vampires, an oligarchy referred to as the “Island Club” comprised of elite billionaires, Hollywood executives and filmmakers, one of which is Tony Herod, a psychopathic maniac whose narrative runs concurrent to and weaves in and out of the investigation. As the various storylines and sequences of events occur and converge, slowly but surely what unfolds is an absolutely terrifying, at times nauseatingly grisly tale at the heart of which resides an in-depth exploration into the nature of evil, power, and the chaotic tides of time that determine the course of history.

It won the Bram Stoker Award, the Locus Poll Award for Best Horror Novel, the August Derleth Award for Best Novel, and Stephen King, the king of horror himself, has called it “one of the three greatest horror novels of the twentieth century.” At 767 pages, it’s the longest book I’ve read this year, the longest horror novel I’ve ever read, and with its incredibly small print, it took me the better part of four weeks to conquer. But all the while, I remained gripped in its treacherous narrative talons. The scope of this novel cannot be overstated: the sheer amount of detail and description, from the smallest of actions to the biggest of events, from the main cast of characters to the singular minor one whose role, however short-lived, is yet vital to the scene–all these parts and more work to elevate the book into a modern epic of horror fiction. And indeed, it is horrific–some parts of this book left me breathless by their utter depravity, their grotesqueness, their unimaginable violence. At many times, I thought, “how could someone even imagine this?” But even more than the graphic scenes, the growing suspense in certain moments–from the action-packed chase scenes to the one-on-one dialogue between two characters–was what kept me on the edge of my seat most often. Unpredictability, as is Simmons’s trademark narrative style, runs rampant throughout the novel. A line from Gerard Manley Hopkins opens each chapter, the cryptic epigraphs dialing the narrative tone somewhere between mythic and phantasmagorical, propelling an uneasiness that turns to either disgust, despair, derangement, or a combination of the three depending which avenue the chapter takes. And each avenue, too, prompts a new kind of foreboding yet intriguing excavation into the underlying dynamics that determine and define society. The novel inevitably spurs allegorical interpretations, ones that reveal a certain fatalism founded in the relation between the intricate structures of power and the psychology of the masses, in turn inspiring a sort of sociopolitical significance which, I think, rings especially acute today. As horrifying and inventive as it is, the book is also keenly intelligent, insightful, and endlessly intriguing. A few aspects I found somewhat gratuitous at times, but even so, it was the best Simmons horror novel I’ve read to date (though The Terror certainly comes in a close second place), the best vampire novel I’ve read of all time, and the perfect novel to inaugurate this year’s spooky season.

Psycho by Robert Bloch

This 1959 sixth novel by American writer Robert Bloch is the groundbreaking work which inspired one of most influential horror films of the twentieth century: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which came out the year after the novel’s publication. The story follows Norman Bates, a forty-year-old man, clumsy and corpulent, reticent and reserved, timid and tetchy, who lives with his abusively domineering mother who, by guilt, manipulation, and anger, keeps him confined within her clutches. A stone’s throw away from their house stands the Bates Motel, a declining roadside lodge of which Norman is the proprietor. It’s a rainy night when Mary Crane arrives; she’s a beautiful twenty-seven-year-old who, having just stolen thousands of dollars from her employer, is traveling alone, headed toward the town of Fairvale where her new husband Sam Loomis awaits her. But after a wrong turn, she finds herself with Norman Bates who is immediately taken by Mary’s charm, enchanted by her amiable cordiality, yet also wary of his mother’s certain disapproval. Coping with his ambivalence with a bottle of whiskey, Norman goes to sleep, only to wake up and discover that Mary Crane has been brutally murdered in her motel bathroom and his mother is missing. Distraught, discomposed, and determined to save his mother, what ensues is a grand cover up scheme, one which proves no match to an imminent internal investigation led by Sam Loomis, Mary’s sister Lila Crane, and private investigator Milton Arbogast, an investigation which would end in a revelation of unimaginable psychological deviance.

It's become somewhat of a little spooky season tradition of mine: every October, I read at least one of the classic novels which inspired a classic horror film (last year, it was William Blatty’s The Exorcist and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby) and then, once I’ve finished the book, I watch the film. And Psycho had long been on my list, its lasting reputation likely the most renowned and most iconic in the annals of the horror genre of all time, for both film and literature alike. This book changed the trajectory of horror, and I didn’t realize just how prolific the author was. Robert Bloch’s career spanned six decades; he wrote hundreds of short stories and over 30 novels; and, in his younger years, he was a protégé of HP Lovecraft, having kept up a correspondence with Lovecraft during his youth. It’s clear too that Bloch was influenced by true crime stories, as Norman Bates is modeled on Ed Gein, the infamous graverobber and killer from Plainfield, Wisconsin. Those familiar with the Gein case will find a bevy of similarities which extend beyond just mere characterization. But while the characters drive the novel, the narration is what gripped me the most: through continuous free indirect discourse, the narrating voice leaps from perspective to perspective, occupying the mind of one character before jumping into another in the following chapter, all the while stringing the reader along, feeding specific details and withholding others, keeping them simultaneously in the dark and in the light, just as the characters themselves are. It’s totally interactive which, I think, is absolutely vital for a successful horror novel. Moreover, nothing is graphic or gratuitous; the fearsomeness of the novel is founded solely on suspense, the brief instances of violence contained in terse description, often relegated to only a single sentence. That Bloch can enkindle such a grand sense of terror through so few words is a testament to his masterful craft and uncanny ability to invoke fear and capture the emotion in all its confounding facets. This short book is a powerhouse of horror and certainly an essential read for the month of October.

Off Season by Jack Ketchum

This 1981 debut novel by American author Jack Ketchum is the literary equivalent to a classic horror film out of the late seventies or early eighties, one which draws on the specific subgenres of home invasion, slasher, and splatter. The novel focuses on a group of friends who take a vacation in a Maine cabin during the ‘off season.’ Carla, a successful editor living in Manhattan, plans the trip and invites her boyfriend Jim, her friends Nick and Laura, as well as her little sister Marjorie and her boyfriend Dan. The cabin is located close to Dead River but isolated far from society and secluded in the sprawling wilderness. The group plans to stay for a week but unbeknownst to Carla and her friends, a feral family of bloodthirsty cannibals hiding among the rocky crags of the coast only a short distance away has just picked up their scent. Before long, all hell breaks loose as the family descends upon the cabin, seeking to abduct individuals for consumption. As the friends, greatly outnumbered, work to stave off the hungry cannibals using everything at their disposal, the town sheriff, Officer Peters, rounds up his men expecting a full-on war. What ensues is nothing short of a bloodbath, a tale of survival against the most depraved, monstrous, and frightening forces imaginable, a tale with a bloodcurdling ending.

Having seen the name ‘Jack Ketchum’ included in nearly every list of the greatest horror novels, it was only inevitable that I would eventually read him. And this first novel of his was a perfect place to start. Imagine Evil Dead minus the possession trope, plus The Hill Have Eyes but in place of mutated monsters, a wild family of cannibalistic killers not unlike the family in Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Rob Zombie’s famous Firefly family, also with a tinge of Cronenberg’s The Brood, and you’ll have something closely resembling this novel. Based on the Scottish legend of Sawney Bean (about a marauding clan of cannibals in the 16th century), it really does invoke the classic horror films of the eighties and falls right in line with them, having been published at the start of the decade. Ketchum (which is a pseudonym) is an author whose influence, profundity, and position within the ranks of horror history I was an unaware of when I began this one. Just as HP Lovecraft was Robert Bloch’s mentor in his teen years, Robert Bloch was Jack Ketchum’s mentor in his teen years, a direct line of literary descendance most certainly recognizable in his works. Also, at the time Ketchum was working on this first novel, he was briefly the literary agent for novelist Henry Miller–yes, the Henry Miller–which completely blows my mind. But Miller’s influence is less salient than Bloch’s in Ketchum’s work–this novel is in every way the quintessential, blood bathing, high voltage, high octane, no holds barred, brutal horror novel sure to disgust and nauseate with each turn of the page but from which no reader can avert their eyes. In accessible, accelerating prose, Off Season is an endlessly entertaining, cringe-inducing, gut-wrenching must-read for spooky season.

Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

This 2017 debut novel by Argentinian novelist and short story writer Agustina Bazterrica is a violent glimpse into an unthinkable dystopian future where cannibalism is not simply culturally accepted but an everyday part of society. Set in an undisclosed city just after the “Transition,” a government-implemented period of legalizing and normalizing the consumption of “special meat” in the wake of a virus which has contaminated all animal meat, the novel follows Marcos Tejo, a young man facing an imminent divorce, caring for his dementia-addled father, and working a soul-depriving job at the local processing plant where he slaughters the human beings born in captivity and bred for consumption. As a human meat supplier, Marcos grapples with the ethics of his profession, recognizing the immorality of it while being unable to escape. Matters are complicated when Marcos receives, as a gift from his employer, a “female specimen,” a young woman of the consuming variety. Unable to treat her like livestock, Marcos names her Jasmine and begins to care for her. But soon care turns to infatuation which turns to romance, and when Jasmine becomes pregnant–a crime punishable by death–Marcos is suddenly thrust into a new world of fear. What ensues is a moral-twisting narrative nothing short of harrowing, bewildering, and downright disgusting.

The novel, whose original title is Cadáver Exquisito, translated literally Exquisite Corpse, won Bazterrica the prestigious Clarin Novel Award (Premio Clarin Novela) in 2017. It has subsequently been translated into twenty-three languages. I had long heard of the book because of its reigning popularity on social media and notoriety among literary circles: a novel at once disgusting and obsessively readable, “a story of a humanity that eats itself.” But unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to my personal expectations. It’s certainly inventive–the story itself is the impressive product of a depraved imagination and acute vision for the dystopic, both of which allured and excited me from the onset; and it’s thought-provoking the whole way through–the analytical threads weave in and out of subjects such as the meat industry, ethics, capitalism, dehumanization, eugenics, apathy, nihilism, the list goes on and on; and the constant undercurrent of revulsion that ebbs and flows beneath the text, enticing and revolting, was one of my favorite aspects. But though the novel is a work which exemplifies Kristevan abjection, it wasn’t as transgressive as I had imagined it would be. The prose itself felt unable to support the weight of the content, the words too weak to successfully carry the complexity of the ideas at the heart of the narrative. Therefore, the strength of the novel in the end, for me, seemed diminished and unfulfilled. I wasn’t floored the way I had hoped to be, neither by the allegorical aspects and social critique undergirding the text, nor by the horror, shock, and disgust depicted throughout. It’s a novel that I can understand why so many people like and enjoy; as it is, it’s quite a novel. But for me, it just wasn’t what I had expected it to be. I gave it 3/5 stars on Goodreads, and though I may pick it up again in the future, I have a feeling that that rating is not subject to change.

Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite

This 1996 third novel by American author Poppy Z. Brite is a splatterpunk horror novel that may just be the most graphic, violent, and transgressive novel I’ve ever read. Set at the start of the eighties amid the early stages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the story follows four men: Andrew, Jay, Tran, and Lucas. Andrew, in his early thirties, is an exceptionally keen, sadistic serial killer who’s just broken out of the English jail he’d been confined in for the past five years. He makes his way to America, settling in New Orleans’ French Quarter where he meets Jay, also a serial killer, necrophiliac, and cannibal. Discovering each other’s murderous proclivities, the two become friends and embark on a killing spree. But there’s one person impervious to Jay’s sadistic urges: Tran, a young man recently kicked out of his home, and still heartbroken from the sudden breakup with his last boyfriend Lucas. When Andrew meets Jay, he vows to make him his next victim, eventually convincing Jay to join him in his plan. But Lucas, catching wind that Tran’s been kidnapped, sets out to rescue his former love. It is a story of entangled relationships, of bloodlust and depravity, a “serial killer love story that explores the seamy politics of victimhood and disease,” as Brite has written himself, and one sure to disgust and revolt and challenge even the strongest of readers.

The book has an interesting publication history. As a reader might imagine, Brite’s manuscript passed through many hands before being picked up. Publishing houses lambasted the novel, citing the brutal subject matter being “too nihilistic, too extreme, a bloodbath without justification.” But eventually it was taken up and has since garnered somewhat of a cult following. Author Dennis Cooper wrote of the novel, “Exquisite Corpse makes most other so-called transgressive novels du jour seem like romance novels in a bad mood.” The novel is unforgettably gruesome, unforgiving in its violence, and unwavering in its intensity. And yet, the book, despite its persistent onslaught of challenging material, contains thought-provoking excavations into the most taboo of topics. Beneath the depravity lies an insightful social critique, the arms of which dig deep into American politics, and it all stems from Brite’s characterization. While the graphic descriptions of violence and sexual activities can be gratuitous at times, it’s the characters that carry the novel in the end. And in two of whom I couldn’t help but see the real-life analogs I imagine served as their inspiration–serial killers Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer, which only added another dimension of the macabre to an already treacherously macabre work. The book took me longer to read than I had expected, having to take frequent breaks between sections, which I imagine is often the case for the first-time reader. Exquisite Corpse is not for the faint of heart, but for those who enjoy the work of Georges Bataille and the Marquis de Sade, they’re sure to find in Brite’s novel a kindred spirit, one borne of an otherworldly malignance and base imagination.

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

This 1973 third novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy charts the disturbing deeds of a depraved derelict dispossessed of his effects and driven into the outskirts of society. Set in East Tennessee at the edge of Appalachian Mountains during the 1960’s, the novel follows Lester Ballard, a twenty-seven-year-old man with a criminal penchant and sadistic urge. Forced from one house to another, Lester spends most of his days walking the woods, rifle on his shoulder, boots on his feet, sometimes stumbling upon things not meant for him to see. The townsfolk, including Sherriff Fate, have long been suspicious of Lester, so when he’s accused and jailed for a crime he did not commit, they trust justice was done, figuring it only a matter of time. Released after nine days, Ballard, homeless, broke, and at wit’s end, embarks on a series of twisted acts–not the least of which include larceny, arson, and murder–in order to satiate his perverse fantasies. Strewn through the narration of Lester’s bloody ventures are brief anecdotes from the citizens of Sevier County, each an account from an unique voice chiseling away at the troubled man’s turbulent history, and by the novel’s explosive end, what comes into view is a grand mosaic of one of McCarthy’s most sinister inventions.

I’m closing out spooky season with a reread of one my favorite authors. I first read Child of God back in January of 2020, and I remember being unable to put it down. Over two years later (long overdue for a reread) it was the exact same case–I read this book in two days, completely captivated by each of the three acts, each chapter, and even each line. As is to be expected with a McCarthy novel, much more stood out upon a second reading than I had gleaned with the first–more detail that I had forgotten, both plot-wise and prose-wise, and, what I found most intriguing, the exploration into the nature of both evil and humanity. The first time I read it, I remember thinking the novel probed deep into the mind of a psychopath, unraveling the psychological and metaphysical threads in the tapestry of evil. However, with this second reading, I was drawn to a different aspect–the push, the drive, the propulsion into evil by not internal but external forces, mainly those of society. There’s a glimmer of humanity that flickers through the first act, faint as it might be; but that tiny flame is quickly extinguished by the second act, and surely replaced with an uncontested evil by the third, one comprised of sinister vengeance, extreme sexual deviancy, and unmitigated apathy. What happens when someone like Lester Ballard–depraved, remorseless, dangerous–decides to retaliate against the world which has exiled and disparaged him? Against the world which, through his exile and disparagement, helped mold and create the monster he became? The novel’s incredible conclusion raises the question: was Lester Ballard always the man he inevitably came to be? Like a flag centered on a tug-of-war rope, pulling back and forth by the competing ends, so the novel seems to hang suspended between these competing conceptions, evil vs humanity, favoring one before drifting into the other, forcing the reader to interpret for themselves what intricacies reside at the heart of Lester Ballard’s story. Such a range of disparate interpretations, I think, testifies to the lyrical brilliance of McCarthy’s prose–the trademark sparse sentences carved with surgical precision, his syntactical artistry and dictional command edging him out of the circles of his contemporaries and placing him into a rank all his own. Though The Road was the first novel of his that I read, it was this one, Child of God, that stoked something within me as a reader, writer, and genuine logophile, something that has only bloomed in its wake. As disgusting, vile, and disturbing as this short book is, I’ll always have a special place for it, both in my heart and on my shelf.

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