Last weekend, whilst visiting my native Long Island, I attended the Horror Writers Association’s Stoker Weekend. Stoker weekend is a semi-self-congratulatory, but fully awesome, writer’s convention and awards ceremony where I got to meet a bunch of people whose work I know and respect. A week later, looking back on the experience, I’ve realized that what I found just as satisfying as meeting those folks that I was familiar with was meeting writers whose work I had never given a chance. What follows are quick reviews of two such books, both of which I burned through in a couple of days (a sign of quality if I ever heard one).
I pride myself on having one finger on the pulse of horror at all times, so how the hell is this the first time I’ve picked up a book by Stephen Graham Jones? While many of the great horror writers seem preoccupied with either distancing themselves from their genre or legitimizing it, Jones jumps into the fray with a one two punch of high-literary sensibility and unapologetic pulp in It Came from Del Rio.
The story concerns a career criminal smuggler, Dodd, who is looking to retire after one last big job. Unfortunately for him the job is a doozey; one that leaves him genetically altered and concerns not only giant mutant rabbits, but radiation-sick chupacabras.
Del Rio is the kind of novel that sounds silly when summarized and puts the reader off guard with its title and lurid cover art (the subtitle is Part 1 of the Bunnyhead Chronicles, just in case the “It Came From” prefix didn’t do it for you), but pays big emotional and artistic dividends. The only corollary for Del Rio that I can think of is the work of Joe Lansdale (and not just because of the Texas connection). In fact, if you place this next to Lansdale’s The Drive-In, you could make a pretty good case that Jones is working in a brave new sub-genre: art-camp.
Both prosaically and structurally interesting (the book is broken down the middle for its two narrators, Dodd and his daughter Laurie) It Came from Del Rio is a quick read that sizzles with originality and genuine affection for the genre it is elevating to the level of high-art. I can’t wait to see what surprises the rest of Jones’ work holds.
I’ve seen both of Gillian Flynn’s books at my local bookstore, so when I was asked by one of the convention organizers if I knew her work I answered: “I’ve heard the name.” Not the best choice of words, because the next thing I know I’m being introduced to Flynn by said organizer as “a fan.” It was a little white lie on his part that was benign enough until Flynn asked me point-blank: “So you’ve read the books?” I can only assume that I turned all kinds of colors before confessing that “He may have overstated that ‘fan’ part a bit.”
It was only once I began reading Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, that I realized my embarrassment had yielded more than a funny story: I was indeed a fan.
A dark, neo-noir crime story that centers on a Chicago reporter’s return to her small hometown to investigate a series of murdered young girls, Sharp Objects is one of the most shocking and intelligent books I’ve read in a long, long time. To summarize is to bastardize, especially in a book where mystery is such an integral element to the work’s effectiveness, so I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.
Our reporter protagonist, Camille Preaker, is a reformed cutter. She compulsively carves words into her skin and throughout the narrative is constantly reminded of her scars and the words they spell. It’s a haunting device that works far better than it would at the hands of a lesser writer. Camille’s scars, unsurprisingly, stem from her childhood. Her past, the death of her beloved little sister and her strained relationship with her mother, are pieces of backstory that don’t strictly serve as characterization, but directly inform the plot in such a way that it takes the text far beyond the typical series of red herrings and reversals usually found in crime fiction.
Flynn excels in creating supporting characters that at once evoke disgust and pity. There are times, especially when the reader is completely unsure who is the killer, where certain characters are either complete sociopaths, or absolute victims of circumstance. These constant subversions of expectation are a neat trick, and one that never outstays its welcome thanks to Flynn’s clean pacing and insightful prose.
During one of the weekend’s panel discussions, Flynn downplayed the feminist overtones of her work, and even cited instances where she was labeled misogynist (the bulk of the books most reprehensible characters are women). It is my opinion that feminism is not a dirty word, and I would even go further and say that this is a great feminist text, precisely because Flynn allows much of the ugliness to be inflicted by women. Sharp Objects is a story where the only ‘sane’ and ‘normal’ character is the one with the most emotional and physical scars. Camille is a woman who has truly felt the hurt that society ladles on women but has reconfigured societal expectation (her mother and sister are perverted into monstrosities by the extremes of this expectation) into fortitude and altruism.
Sorry if I got too pseudo-intellectual for a second, but the bottom line is that this book is excellent.