Make Fiction Scare Again: Friday favorites

At the end of our week of Halloween reading recommendations, it’s time to weigh in with our favorites.

After the jump, beyond Iditarods and Fifth Waves (pictured)

Tom Chick: The Imago Sequence, by Laird Barron, or anything by Laird Barron

imago

In The Big Sleep, some dame is trying to seduce Philip Marlowe. He’s Philip Marlowe, so he gives her a dressing down. She responds:

“My God, you big dark handsome brute! I ought to throw a Buick at you.”
I snicked a match on my thumbnail and for once it lit. I puffed smoke into the air and waited.
“I loathe masterful men,” she said. “I simply loathe them.”

Sometimes I’m tempted to say Raymond Chandler’s talent in wasted in pulp. But his talent fits so well. It’s not wasted. It’s just neatly fitted. Tailor made. That’s how I feel about Laird Barron, who is to horror what Cormac McCarthy is to novels and Flannery O’Connor is to short stories. Sometimes I’m tempted to say his talent is wasted in horror.

A lot of horror protagonists are horror writers projecting themselves into their stories. The men who go mad from the Elder Gods tend to be bookish weirdos. That might explain some of Barron’s characters. Barron lives in Alaska. His bios remind you that he raced in the Iditarod. He wears an eyepatch in his photos. He’s probably been in a fight. He’s probably even won a fight. He seems like the sort of guy who would be in one of this stories. His heroes — I’m going to generalize here — are tough men who ought to have Buicks thrown at them because anything smaller wouldn’t make much of an impact. But they’ve walked out of Chandler and found themselves in Lovecraft. And things in Lovecraft are bigger than Buicks.

If you read a little Barron, you might think The Imago Sequence, the titular story from a 2007 collection, is his template. A monied fop is tracking down some mysterious art photos. Imagine if the Necronomicon had been a series of photographs that might be exhibited at an art gallery. These are the Imago Sequence. The monied fop’s family has their own investigator, a guy named Chuck Shepherd. He goes by Shep. He would be the the hero of this story if any other writer had written it. “Hey Shep,” the monied fop would command, “go find those mysterious photos!” But this is a Laird Barron story. The hero is someone tougher — literally a former Olympic wrestler — who understands that Shep isn’t up to the job.

I envisioned the investigator’s soft, pink hands. Banker’s hands. My own were broad and heavy, and hard as marble. Butcher’s hands.

His name is Marvin Cortez. The Imago Sequence is his gruesome undoing. Any old horror could take down Charles Dexter Ward or Randolph Carter or Herbert West. It takes serious horror to take down Marvin. The Men from Porlock, probably my favorite Barron story for various reasons that have less to do with how goddamn good it is and more to do with when and how I discovered it, features some of the toughest, meanest, most rugged, most American pioneer spirit hombres to ever barge into a horror story. What could possibly undo men like them?

The set-up for Imago Sequence is a delicious Maltese Falcon of suspects and patsies aligned around a McGuffin. It’s a rogues gallery with names like Anselm Thornton, Maurice Ammon, Roy Fulcher, Cecil Eaton, Rudolph King, Earl Hutchinson, Stanley Renfro. And, of course, Marvin Cortez.

“Delightful name,” a dame says to Marvin Cortez, although she’s not a dame because this is modern day.

“Are you a ruthless, modern day conqueror? Did you come to ravish my secrets from me?”

“I’m a self-serving sonofabitch if that counts for anything. I don’t even speak Spanish. English will get you by in most places and that’s good enough for me. What secrets?”

It’s Chandleresque patter between the detective and his interrogee. Tough. Stylized. Hard-boiled, with bruised knuckles and roscoes under jackets. Buicks will be thrown. But it’s going to melt into Lovecraftian horror, insanity, and imaginative gore as surely as a stopwatch in a Dali painting. Cortez is a no-nonsense investigator up against a bunch of Lovecraft nonsense, and he won’t take any guff. He would ridicule something with tentacles around its mouth even as it drove him insane, drilled into his head, or devoured him. All the more horrific that a man like this is mad, tortured, and devoured. The skeptics make the best sacrifices.

And although this is sometimes Barron’s unique angle, he’s so much more. The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All includes a haunting description of what time looks like to an Old One. The titular story in The Occulation is a weird-as-fuck story about a couple having sex in a motel room. Barron has even written a James Bond story. Which I confess I haven’t read. My secret hope is that Barron’s James Bond fights Cthulhu. The Daniel Craig James Bond. He would, of course, lose.

But as a place to start, The Imago Sequence is classic Laird Barron: genre writing with a poet’s love for words, pacing, and style. Like Chandler with his detective noir, Barron wears it so well he almost rises out it. This guys is writing horror?

You can get The Imago Sequence on Amazon.

Chris Hornbostel: The Monstrumologist series, by Rick Yancey.
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For my Friday favorite recommendation, Im going to serve you up a quadruple decker Dagwood sandwich of a recommendation, Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series. This isn’t just one book, but rather four. Each book is a fairly self-contained story, but there’s also an overarching story that connects the four books in a narrative progression. Taken as a whole or simply in pieces, they’re not only my four favorite novels in the area of fantastic horrors, they’re also the most perfect evocation of the Halloween season I know of.

If author Rick Yancey’s name rings a bell for you, that’s likely because he’s a well-known author of young adult fiction, perhaps best known for The Fifth Wave, about which the less said on the movie version, the better. The four books in his Monstrumologist series are also classified as young adult, so let me be the first to bring this warning to parents out there considering them for your precocious 10-year old: don’t. The Monstrumologist books are very, very adult. They’re brutally violent, there’s foul language, and even sexy bits. (I mean, if you want to explain Turkish hookah brothels to your kid, be my guest; I’m just sayin’.) The lurid, penny dreadful grotesqueries are so gleefully detailed, I’d be hard-pressed to imagine any movie of these books escaping a very hard R rating. I have no idea how the series got classed as Young Adult at all; it feels like someone slapped a PG rating on a Pascale Laugier film. Maybe Yancey’s publisher wasn’t paying attention, and just rubber stamped a genre to these. The books have never sold particularly well, and are perhaps something of a vanity project.

Although the four books each have a reasonably self-contained story (not the fourth, come to think of it), you’ll still want to start with the first book, The Monstrumologist. In it, we meet our two protagonists across all the books, Dr. Pellinore Warthrop and his young assistant Will Henry. The year is 1888, and young Will is an orphan taken in by Warthrop, although it is instantly clear that the doctor has not a single paternal instinct in his body. Will Henry (always Will Henry, both names, to the doctor) cooks and cleans and performs all upkeep around the spacious mansion occupied by Warthrop, who holds a doctorate in philosophy of aberrent natural history. Because that is a mouthful, the doctor prefers to be simply known as a monstrumologist. He’s a monster hunter for scientific study.

In the first book, Will and Dr. Warthrop investigate a pod of anthropophagi–man-eating mindless underground primates–that has somehow found its way from their native Africa to the town of New Jerusalem where Dr. Warthrop resides. Within the first hundred pages or so, were treated to the spookiest cemetery in fiction, a midnight visit to a sanitarium, grave robbing, and a mysterious lost voyage…and things go from there, including one of the best bits of comic writing in the series when a potentially famous serial killer enters the picture. Warthrop is portrayed as manically bipolar, becoming so enthralled in a new investigation he neither eats nor sleeps…and is exasperated by Will’s insistence on doing those things. The odd, often aloof relationship between the monstrumologist and his ward is fascinating. Warthrop is originally portrayed as cartoonishly, imperiously hyper-intelligent and indifferent, but Yancey eventually exposes the doctor’s human side with a shatteringly emotional reveal. For his part, Will Henry is no angel. He’s stubborn and willful, a 12 year-old on the verge of a rebellious adolescence.

The second book, The Curse of The Wendigo, is my favorite, and I think the best of the series. In it, more of the backstory of Dr. Warthrop is revealed, including a star-crossed romance from his youth that haunts him forevermore. The monster in this book is presumed to be a vampire, although Warthrop is indignant in insisting that as the world’s premier monstrumologist, he can assure anyone interested that such creatures are completely mythological. To catch whatever creature this is, he and Will journey deep into the arctic wilderness of northern Canada, with mixed results at best.

IsleOfBlood

Originally meant to be the final book in the series, the third book (The Isle of Blood) has Will and Dr. Warthrop heading to the mystically exotic island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean to deal with what seems like a zombie problem brought on by contact with pwdre ser (“the rot of stars”) a mysterious substance left behind by an alpha creature called a magnificum. This is a dark and harrowing story that comes closest to feeling deliberately Lovecraftian in nature, with the odd setting on the island and the madness-inducing encounters that result.

The last book in the series, The Final Descent, is even darker, and is the book in the series that isn’t fully self contained. The timeline jumps about here, from Will Henry as a 16 year old teenager to the tortured and difficult relationship grown-up Will has with Dr. Warthrop. There is a monster of course, and perhaps something worse going on here. Yancey provides closure in the book, but not the closure that anyone would expect from a series mistakenly stamped as young adult. The final denouement here has far more to do with Ligotti or Aickman than Rowling.

There are a great many reasons to recommend these books. Dr. Pellinore Warthrop sits alongside Huckleberry Finn, Atticus Finch, and Joe Kavalier as one of my favorite characters in literature. The books are just historic enough to tickle my history fancy, allowing cameos from people like Arthur Conan-Doyle, Jacob Riis, and Bram Stoker. Yancey’s descriptive prose is both beautifully evocative when it needs to be and almost hilariously disgusting when occasion warrants (the descriptions of the fluids that squirt from corpses during post-mortems are almost gleeful).

My greatest fondness for the books however is the incredibly delicate and complex relationship between Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop that develops and changes across all four books. When Warthrop proclaims that Will’s services are “indispensable to me” in the first book, neither of them actually seems to fully believe that. By the second book, we come to understand the truth of the statement, and the third book feels like the beginning of a betrayal of that sentiment. What makes the fourth book particularly unsettling is how it dawns on Will just to what full extent his services are completely indispensable to Warthrop, while realizing that dependence may be the seeds of his own mental destruction.

I realize in this lengthy recommendation that I may have made these books sound heavy and gloomy. They are sometimes, and there’s an undeniable melancholia that often drifts into the tales like a fog. But the books are also a great deal of fun, often and unexpectedly quite funny and utterly delightful. You can dip a toe in on the first book or two for your Halloween scares and escape the real darkness of the latter two stories. I think, though, that once you get to know Will Henry and Pellinore Warthrop, you’ll probably want to see their adventures through to the end.

You can find The Monstrumologist series at Amazon.

Next week: everything else
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