Soon by Lois Murphy

The town of Nebulah in western Australia is largely forgotten, a prosperous place in theSoon past that has been in decline for years.  It’s a wonder that any people have remained, but some of them, such as ex-cop Pete McIntosh, have established an exile of sorts in the town.

And now the citizens there are disappearing, due to a mysterious mist that has begun occurring every night for nearly a year.  The mist takes on the shapes and sounds of the deceased, and consumes those reckless enough not to be indoors with doors locked and windows sealed.  The mist also beguiles the living into staying outside that wrong minute or leaving a window cracked.

Night and day are two different existences.  Days are strangely tranquil, except for the lack of bird song or other wild animals.  Night times are nocturnal refuges indoors, the times spent with booze and televisions cranked up loud to drown out the deadly cacophony of the mist.  Its mad song is ever ready to catch an unwary soul, which happens until there are just six people left.

The aforementioned ex-cop Pete, burned out and retired, finds his role of protector a natural one.  He and his friends Milly and Li all become acutely adept at keeping tabs with each other, whether it’s running for supplies or coaxing last gasps out of dying vehicles.

The mist and bad luck have ways of messing with their carefully contrived lifestyle; it doesn’t help that certain outside parties ignorant of the dangers of Nebulah want to visit the town – and Pete scrambles to keep folks out of harm’s way, preferably before sundown.

I read horror fiction from time to time, but don’t indulge unless I really want the scare factor.  Soon is the first horror novel I have read in ages.  The book gripped me from page one, and messed with my head righteously.  The author doesn’t explain everything in the book, but to me, that’s part of good psychological horror.  You’re never completely sure of everything.

As with most horror, there’s some gory scenes, but the author downplays this largely.  Soon is what I would call a literary horror novel – well-written and with enough jolts in the plot to keep one guessing.  There is also a fair amount of Australian lingo here to parse through, and also getting used to them having the winter solstice in June, but I didn’t consider these problems.

I almost messed up my experience by glancing early at the last page and thought, “Ruined it!  Dang!”

NOT.  There was something else close to the end that I didn’t expect.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Inside Out Man by Fred Strydom

A hapless jazz pianist gets a lucrative offer that at first seems too easy and asinside out man time passes, drives him to extreme measures.

Bent has fended for himself since his mother’s death when he was still in his teens.  A gifted musician, he ekes out a half-life playing a few gigs a week.  Bent has no family, no girlfriend – really no connections, other than the handful of establishments that will let him tickle the ivories for the door.

The worldly and mysterious Leonard Fry appears at a club where Bent plays and offers him an insane amount of money to play piano at his country estate for a weekend party.  Bent goes for it – and then with some trepidations, he accepts another offer from Leonard after the party.  The deal?  Bent has to lock Leonard in a room in the mansion for one year and feed him three times a day through a slot in the door.  In return, Bent gets free run of the house and cars and a huge cash settlement at the end of a year’s time.

It sounds simple enough, but Bent quickly gets cabin fever, or as much as one can get in an enormous country house.  His dreams become stranger and more vivid.  He has an unfortunate accident while driving one of Leonard’s cars, emerging unscathed but with a great deal of guilt.  From an uncanny start, he soon meets an assumed ex-lover of Leonard’s, and begins a relationship with her.

From his self-imposed exile, Leonard appears to know way more of Bent’s daily activities than is humanly possible.  He knows about Bent’s accident, and is fully aware of his affair.  Leonard starts to taunt Bent, and Bent gets back at him.

Then Bent gets truly unhinged.

The Inside Out Man tracks one man’s breakdown of sanity and identity as he trades drudgery for luxury and finds out the hard way that it was never worth it.  The book is a page-turner (or page-burner, as a review excerpt puts it on the cover) that ratchets up finely but left me confused at the end.  Who is Bent, exactly?

(William Hicks, Information Services)



Slade House by David Mitchell

slade houseEvery nine years someone disappears inside sinister Slade House, a house no one but its intended victims seem able to find. The quest to solve the riddle of Slade House will lead several innocent characters to their doom, while a final confrontation with the evil that resides there threatens to unleash its malevolent force upon the world…

Slade House is a recent book from David Mitchell, author of such epic, genre-warping works as Cloud Atlas (adapted into a film in 2012) and Black Swan Green. This novel expands upon characters and situations first introduced in his The Bone Clocks, although it is not necessary to have read that work in order to understand this one.  As in his earlier works, Mitchell uses time as a structuring device, with each chapter narrated by a different character in a different time-period.  The author’s careful attention to period-appropriate slang and pop-cultural references in these sections helps plant the reader firmly in each character’s milieu, and the sympathy generated for otherwise unlikable characters through this technique is one of the major achievements of this book.

While Slade House is described and marketed as a “haunted house” tale, it reads more like a straightforward fantasy/speculative fiction novella aimed at a Young Adult audience. The villains of the book are revealed at the end of the first chapter as a set of telepathic twins who have mastered the occult arts and then created Slade House as a sort of immersive mirage to lure victims into their “time-bubble” where their souls can be drained by the psychic vampires. Their efforts eventually run into a snag which, in the interest of keeping this column spoiler-free, the readers will simply have to discover for themselves.

Ultimately, Slade House is a quick, well-written read that touches on the classic theme of good versus evil with a cursory examination of the ethics of revenge thrown into the mix. Those in search of scares, however, might find themselves disappointed.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

head full of ghostsAt the age of fourteen, Marjorie Barrett undergoes a harrowing descent into acute mental illness, witnessed with horror and confusion by her eight-year-old sister Meredith, with whom she is extremely close.  While Marjorie’s mother believes that her daughter’s problems are ultimately psychological in nature and therefore medically treatable, her father – who has increasingly turned to religion to make sense of the world after being laid off from his long-time job – becomes convinced Marjorie is possessed by a demonic entity and enlists the aid of a priest, Father Wanderly.  The involvement of the priest, coupled with the possibility of a real-life exorcism being performed on an American teenager, excites the predatory interest of the producers of a reality TV program.  While being the subjects of a TV show helps the Barretts out financially, the constant presence of the camera crew exacerbates the friction and discord already present in the family.  The resulting TV show, entitled “The Possession”, lasts just six episodes before being cancelled due to a tragedy which occurs during the performance of the exorcism, but the end of the show doesn’t spell the end of the horror for the Barrett family.  Thirteen years later, a now twenty-three-year-old Meredith Barrett agrees to meet with an established writer and tell the truth about what really happened to her family before, during, and after “The Possession”.

In A Head Full of Ghosts, author Paul Tremblay is less concerned with possession as a possibly real supernatural event than he is with the idea that we can never “possess” the truth about our pasts and ourselves free from the influence of the ready-made cultural narratives that surround us.  The scripted aspect of supposedly spontaneous reality TV lends itself as a metaphor quite easily, but Tremblay also dramatizes the notion of possession-by-prior-spirits in the body of the text itself.  References to earlier books and films make frequent “ghost” appearances in the novel, and the author uses the literary device of an internet blog in certain chapters to introduce the figure of a close reader who will notice and point out these subtle allusions in case an ordinary reader were to miss them.  As the overtures to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Vladimir Nabokov’s deception-fueled Despair, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (among others) in these sections attest, it is the reliability of the narrator and the truth of the tales being told that are ultimately at stake here.  A twist at the end of the novel, a veritable “turn of the screw”, casts even more doubt on the veracity of the events that Meredith, our guide, has been relating to us.

Be warned – there are some genuinely creepy moments in the story, but Tremblay is careful to maintain a steady amount of ambiguity, leaving the reader to decide how to interpret the information presented by the narrator.  Tremblay’s exploration of the subjectivity of truth is a particular strength of the book, but readers are free to enjoy it on any of its multiple, unsettling levels.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy

house-of-echoesAfter the major success of his first novel, Ben Tierney’s publisher expects great things from his new book-in-process; unfortunately, it is a stalled venture.  This is bad news, as Ben’s wife Caroline has just lost her high-profile job and they’ve got two young boys – and New York City isn’t cheap.

Ben inherits property in rural upstate New York, and while they are there inspecting things he and Caroline decide to buy a huge decrepit country house with the intent of turning it into an inn.  The price is right, and they also figure it will be a fresh start for their older son Charlie, who has been traumatized by events at his school.

The Crofts, as the house is known in the local community, at first is a refuge to the family.  Charlie is in thrall of its vast grounds and the forest that surrounds it.  Caroline, despite the stress of bipolar disorder, throws herself wholeheartedly into making the old house habitable as a bed and breakfast.  And Ben is getting new ideas for his second novel.

There’s too many uncanny things happening for their stay to be an idyllic retreat.  Some of the locals are welcoming enough; others are not.  Certain behaviors of the community are downright antiquated.  There’s a quiet menace that grows in the surrounding area, and Charlie, an introverted kid, becomes even more withdrawn.

The harshest winter storm of the season tests the Tierney family in more ways than one, and trust is no longer something they have with the natives.  If only they could leave The Crofts…

House of Echoes is a decent page turner that has enough spooky elements and jump moments to make it work.  The book follows in the tradition of The Shining and other books where the house and land themselves become personified and terrifying.

If you like this one, try The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian or A Sudden Light by Garth Stein.

(William Hicks, Information Services)