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Saturday, October 31, 2009

What I'm Reading Halloween Edition: The Unseen, Castaways, and Locke and Key

Happy Halloween! To help readers new to horror, I have prepared this report on 3 different horror books I have read in the last few months. One is bloodless but will totally freak you out, one is a solid example of the best of today's paperback horror, and one is a horror graphic novel. These books combined with my Horror 2009 reports represent a snap shot of what readers can expect from the horror genre right now. I hope you had a fun and safe Halloween.


Perennial Bram Stoker winner Alexandra Sokoloff's newest supernatural thriller is called, The Unseen. This book may be "bloodless," but the foreboding, dark, and oppressive atmosphere begins with the first sentence as the protagonist is reliving a horrific premonition. Sokoloff, a master of creating an unsettling atmosphere in all of her books, is at her finest here. She begins dark and uneasy, and although the mood fluctuates throughout the novel, we, the reader, never feel settled.

Sokoloff is very popular at the Berwyn Public Library and when I met Sokoloff at the Sisters in Crime booth at ALA annual she was kind enough to have her agent send me a copy of The Unseen.

Here's the realistically spooky plot: In the 1960s, researchers and students from the Duke University Parapsychology Lab went to study poltergeists in a haunted house. No one returned unscathed. Today, Professor Laurel MacDonald and three others return to the haunted home in the hopes of getting some answers, but are they prepared for what they will find? Are you?

Because the Parapsychology Lab was actually a real part of Duke University, this novel is even freakier. Once they get to the house, I dare you to stop reading. Like all great horror novels, the conflict is resolved, but the ghosts are not even close to being vanquished. Sokoloff's monsters are never seen, but the havoc their wreck is felt by all.

Readalikes: Another new horror book with a similar plot is The House of Lost Souls by F. G. Cottam. I would also suggest The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan, anything by Sarah Langan, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and these nonfiction books that mention Duke's Parapsychology Lab and zener cards. Sokoloff has a nice bibliography, as well as a list of what is true and what is fiction, at the end of the novel.

Now for something a little bloodier, Brian Keene's Castaways. Here is the plot... A television crew and contestants in a Survivor-esque reality show are literally caught in a fight for their lives-- the island they have been left on is populated by an indigenous tribe of bloodthirsty monsters! Castaways is a grisly page-turner.

The reality TV slant in this novel is genius! The contestants are on an uninhabited island and a cyclone is approaching. All but three crew members are evacuated and the contestants are left alone to ride out the storm. That is when the horrors begin. This is a bloody book, but Keene's ability to add humor and his well enough described band of characters makes this novel a good choice for a wide audience. As a warning I should say there are a few brutal rape scenes, but they are necessary to the plot. And even though many, many people die and are torn limb from limb (literally), our main characters make it out alive and live happily ever after. Although, I dare you not to be rooting for the monsters to get a certain Welsh contestant.

Readalikes: Keene is one of the best and most reliable paperback horror writers today. Castaways was written as a tribute to Richard Laymon, so he is a great place to begin readalike suggestions. Although a bit darker, The Ruins by Scott Smith is also very similar to Castaways. Novels by Gary Braunbeck, Robert Dunbar, and Jonathan Maberry's Pine Deep Trilogy are also good suggestions here.

Finally, as I mentioned here, I read the second graphic novel in Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's Locke and Key series, Head Games. Head Games continues the trails of the Locke family as they are stalked by an evil spirit who wants access to the magic keys hidden in their ancestral home. In the first installment, which I wrote about here, the key opened a door which "killed" he who used the key, allowing him or her to float as a ghost above everyone, unseen. After a time, the ghost would return to reanimate his or her body.

As cool as that sounds, the main key discovered in this installment is better; it literally opens your head. The Locke children open each other's heads, cram in homework and remove horrible memories. However, their unknown supernatural stalker is getting closer; in fact, he is in the form of what they think is their best friend. Terrible things continue to happen to the Locke family, and I can't stop turning the pages.

Rodriguez's drawings are both beautiful and unsettling, sometimes at the same time. Joe Hill has written another compelling story and we are even treated to a bit of foreshadowing as to what keys may be found next. This is a clever, original, and unsettling graphic novel. There is blood, violence, and heartbreaking murders here; but the story is compelling and the Locke kids themselves will keep even a more timid reader turning the pages.

Because this is a graphic novel, more squeamish readers should proceed with caution. Reading a horror novel is one thing, looking at the story in an illustrated form is quite another.

Readalikes: The graphic novels of Hill's father's Dark Tower books make for a good suggestion here. Also anything by Neil Gaiman from Sandman to The Graveyard Book (and everything in between) would work for fans of the Lock and Key Series. Also try Alan Moore and Frank Miller in graphic novels, and Bentley Little, Robert McCammon, or Peter Straub in novels.

Remember to check our all of my posts labeled horror to find more hair raising reads.

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