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Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson

Reading slumps aren’t uncommon. Lately, I’ve been starting books, only to return them unfinished. In times like these, I often turn to short stories to help me get back into the groove. Short stories take the pressure off of reading. I don’t have to track characters and plots for hundreds of pages. And this is where author Brian Evenson really shines. In his latest release, he builds worlds and characters in only a few pages.

SONG FOR THE UNRAVELING OF THE WORLD is a fairly short collection of stories at just over 200 pages. However, the collection contains 22 stories. I don’t have the space to review each story, but I’ve picked three that I think best represent this collection as a whole.

In the titular story, a daughter goes missing. Her father, Drago, searches the house but can’t find the little girl. Drago refuses to call the police for reasons the reader doesn’t immediately understand. But, as his search expands to include the surrounding neighborhood, the truth about Drago and his daughter is revealed. He will not call the police because he is living under a false identity. Why? Well, that would spoil the story.

“Room Tone” — Filip wants nothing more than to finish shooting his film. The only problem? The house he’s been using for filming has been sold and the new owner won’t let Filip in to complete the project. Filip isn’t happy with the sound of the film; the background noise is all wrong. He just needs in the house long enough to record a few minutes of silence. How far will he go to finish his film?

“The Hole” — A mission to explore a planet goes horribly wrong for those visiting the new world. Klim and the rest of the crew must search for Rurik, who has gone missing. Kim finds Rurik at the bottom of a large hole. There are only two problems: 1) Klim is also at the bottom of the hole and 2) Rurik is clearly dead, but still moving and talking. Can Klim escape? Even if he does, will he ever be the same?

Don’t go into this collection thinking you’re going to get answers. Much of the effectiveness of Evenson’s writing comes from what isn’t explicitly described in the stories. Evenson focuses in on the world of each story. With short stories, authors don’t have a lot of room for world-building. The challenge then becomes making these brief glimpses into the world fully believable. And this is where Evenson really shines.

Every story in the collection takes place in a distinct setting, each with its own history and set of rules. Even though several stories have similar themes or settings, Evenson made each one distinct. There seem to be nods to classic authors like Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson. (In fact, Everson was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award in 2017.)

Evenson explores several themes throughout the collection. Identity and sense of self are perhaps the two most common themes. Can we change who we are? Is identity more than skin deep? Fair warning for the faint of heart, Evenson explores these ideas in a very literal sense. At times, he even uses a genre known as ‘body horror.’ If you’re not familiar with this genre, think of the movies The Fly and The Thing

Overall, I think this is a solid short story collection. Evenson’s masterful world-building goes a long way in making these stories successful. The stories overlap two of my favorite genres, Sci-Fi and horror, and though there aren’t any happy endings, this collection will make you think about bodies and identity in a whole new way.

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Book review by: Leslie Hayes

I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I’m a horror fan. Well, a lightweight horror fan. I much prefer horror stories I can explain away so I can sleep at night. If I haven’t watched a haunted videotape, the ghost can’t possibly get to me. Right? Right?! So when I heard John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of the vampire novel Let the Right One In, had published a new horror novel called I Am Behind You, I had to give it a read.

On a peaceful morning in the Swedish countryside, four families wake to discover they’ve been transported from their campground to a grassy plain with no landmarks, trees, animals, or cell phone reception. The group, made up of wildly different people, must figure out how to survive long enough to escape. As they try to find a way out, the group discovers that the peaceful countryside they’ve been transported to is full of danger.

Donald is quick-tempered and obsessed with firearms, while his wife Majvor is even-tempered and kind. Will Donald snap and kill someone? Stefan, Carina, and their son Emil appear to be an average family, but Carina’s past haunts her.. Lennart and Olaf are just two guys on a camping trip. They may seem like normal farmers, but there may be more to them than it seems. Finally, Peter, Isabelle, and their daughter Molly certainly seem like the perfect family, but there is something darker underneath. The secrets carried by each group member threaten to destroy everyone.

With no apparent escape available, the group turns to survival. They pool resources and try to explore their surroundings. They begin to encounter strangers in the strange countryside, but you can probably guess that these strangers are dangerous. As with many horror books, it’s difficult to write about the events of the story without spoiling it. The dangers that begin to surface are nothing, however, compared to the dangers the group members pose to each other.

As is also frequently the case, there are questions that simply aren’t answered. Where is the group actually at? How did they get there? What in tarnation is going on?! There’s plenty of content to analyze in any literature course.

Though some aspects of the story didn’t quite hit home, they seemed to stem from cultural differences. For instance, the songs of Peter Himmelstrand feature prominently in this novel. (In fact, the novel’s original title is Himmelstrand.) For whatever reason, the only songs that play on the campers’ radios are songs written by Himmelstrand, who was a popular Swedish songwriter in the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps if I knew more about Himmelstrand and his place in Swedish pop culture, this plot point in the book would make more sense to me.

I still really enjoyed the book. The characters were very well-written; I hated who I was supposed to hate, which is a huge hallmark of effective characterization for me. Perhaps my favorite character is Benny, a beagle. Several portions of the story are told from Benny’s perspective. Lindqvist doesn’t get overly sentimental when writing from the perspective of Benny, which helps make this viewpoint feel more realistic than other fictional animals I’ve read.

A little bit of research revealed that there are two other books that are part of this universe Lindqvist has created. Maybe, if those are translated into English, I’ll get some resolution to the bigger questions I have about what happens throughout the pages of I Am Behind You.

Overall, this was a really good read. I only needed two nights to get through it, which is pretty quick for a book that runs just over 400 pages. If you’re looking for a tense, scary read, I Am Behind You is probably right for you. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for the translations of the two follow-up books in Lindqvist’s series.

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Book review by: Leslie Hayes

Kill Creek by Scott Thomas

Stories about haunted houses have been told for thousands of years. According to my research, one of the first written haunted house stories comes from Pliny the Younger, sometime between 61 and 115 AD. Stories about hauntings have stuck with us for thousands of years, turning the comfort of our homes into entities with minds of their own. This is what Scott Thomas sets out to do in KILL CREEK.

Sam McGarver is a horror writer without a story to tell. He spends his days lecturing students on the craft of writing, but hasn’t published a novel in years. His marriage is falling apart, and he’s constantly haunted by his mysterious but gruesome past. But then, McGarver is approached by a man who calls himself Wainwright.

Wainwright, host of an online show about horror, invites McGarver and three other authors to spend the night in the haunted Finch House and do an interview about their craft. The other authors are Daniel Slaughter, a devout Christian who writes soul-saving horror for teens; Sebastian Cole, elder statesman and the most prolific author; and T. C. Moore, the lone woman of the group.

Drawn together by forces they don’t quite understand, the four authors meet in the supposedly haunted Finch House for the Halloween-night interview. Wainwright’s interview delves into the deeply personal, becoming more of an attack on the authors than a proper interview. As each author retires for the evening, they confront personalized evils, courtesy of the house.

After leaving the house, they find themselves haunted. Slaughter’s daughter dies in an accident, for which he blames himself. Moore is tortured by her abusive past. Cole dreams of a lost lover. And McGarver’s past returns again and again. Each author can only find solace when they write. And, unbeknownst to one another, they’re all writing the same plot. Drawn back to the house by the horrors in their own stories, the authors must face the evil they’ve awoken.

Each of the author-characters in the book depicts a specific genre of horror fiction and are based on big names of horror writing. Touches of R. L. Stine, Clive Barker, H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Billy Martin (published as Poppy Z. Brite), and others shine through in the personalities of the four characters. Because of this, the characters, though perhaps bordering on stereotypes.

During a lecture about horror, McGarver outlines four aspects of a successful horror story: 1) Emanation from a single location, 2) Sense of forbidden history, 3) Atmosphere of decay and ruin, and 4) Corruption of the innocent. These are precisely the four elements Thomas puts his characters through in Kill Creek. However, Thomas seems to depend on readers believing that these elements are in place, never quite making them jump off the page.

What gives horror stories power is repetition. Stories must be repeated and feared in order to have power. Thomas relies on this fear-repetition cycle to keep readers engaged in the story. I wanted to know what fears the characters have, how the house will exploit them, and, ultimately, what forces lurk in Finch House.

But I wasn’t scared for the characters. I didn’t have trouble falling asleep after reading this book, which is one of my top markers of a successful scary story. In my opinion, the best haunted house stories feature the house as one of the main characters. But, for me, this is one area in which Thomas falls flat. The house simply didn’t scare me.

The first half of the book was hard to get through. The writing feels more amateur than the second half. For example, Thomas references Moore’s “black mane of hair” every time she appears on the page. She is repeatedly described in terms of her sex appeal. Naturally, the male characters are never discussed in such a way. Also, the various personality traits and tics of each person are overemphasized. McGarver grabs his scarred and tattooed arm at least a dozen times.

The climactic battle between the authors and the house didn’t feel dangerous and tense. My willingness to suspend disbelief stopped about halfway through. Yes, it’s a horror story with supernatural entities, but I still need it to be believable. Without spoiling too much, hatchets do the sort of damage that can’t just be walked off.

So, if Kill Creek isn’t spectacularly written, what kept me reading? The same thing that forces the authors in the story to show up to the interview in the first place: I wanted to know what was haunting Finch House.

My critique doesn’t fall in line with other reviews out there. In fact, Kill Creek won the award for the American Library Association’s Horror Book of 2017. But this just goes to show that I’m one reviewer with one opinion. Plenty of people out there really enjoyed this book. If haunted house stories are for you, then you should give Kill Creek a try.

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Book review by: Leslie Hayes