Adam Nevill, Fiction, Horror, J.D. Barker, Ronald Malfi

The Return – Some Short Book Reviews

It’s been a while since I have contributed anything here. Part of that is attributed to a new job and exhaustion. Another part is feeling, in part, as if I had lost my writer’s voice. I’ve been trying to work on fiction, and though I don’t embrace the ready excuse of writer’s block as writing is a learned discipline (given life by whatever inherent talent the writer might have), I have to admit I have been blocked because of lack of discipline. However, I have been trying to recapture the discipline and rekindle the spark that has led to so many new, creative ideas. I have also been inspired by a new acquaintance whose familiar passion for the work is something I hope I might once again emulate.

Currently, I am developing an expansive Lovecraftian sci-fi space opera while also returning to some shorter story ideas I would like to complete for the sake of once again imbuing me with the self-confidence that, of late, seems to have abandoned me.

So, to begin, here are a few short reviews of some of the books I’ve read over the past several months. Thank you for your patience and interest as I try to make my way back.

The Dark – Emma Haughton

Murder in the Antarctic. A young doctor reeling from personal trauma flees to a position as camp physician at a research station in Antarctica. Dr. Kate North accepts a position as an emergency replacement wintering at this UN research station after the previous doctor died in an expeditionary accident. Once there and settling into the winter routine, she and her skeleton crew of colleagues begin to experience a series of mysterious murders. Within the novel, there are distant echoes of Carpenter’s The Thing in that an uneasy distrust descends upon the small crew as the knowledge crystallizes that a murderer lives among them.

The Dark is effective in creating that feeling of isolation one might experience in such a distant and desolate and winter-dark environment. The central flaw, however, is creating a locked-room style mystery where the killer has no real hope of escaping detection. Eventually, when winter ends and the full complement of station crew returns, whoever is left standing will either hold the answer to the slate of murders or will lack any immunity to suspicion. Haughton does do a fairly decent job at making you reconsider your assumptions about the killer’s identity. In the end, however, you will likely find that your initial intuition about that identity will probably prove correct. A derivative novel of modest entertainment value if you can overlook that singular, glaring flaw.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel has crafted a beautifully written, non-linear narrative of intersecting lives before, during, and after a viral outbreak that transforms society, creating a dystopian future where survivors exist within tribe-like communities. Central to the narrative is the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of musicians and actors who put on productions of plays by Shakespeare while moving throughout the Great Lakes region. Station Eleven is more a study in character than a fully realized story. In fact, there isn’t much of a story, per se. The novel is built around character vignettes that weave a tapestry of a story that is, to this reader, reminiscent of an impressionist painting. The author’s writing propels the narrative, but in the end, you might be left wondering what you just read. Station Eleven is a brave experiment in storytelling, but it may not be for everyone. What is most impressive is the author’s careful plotting in weaving together the lives of the central characters in a way that is both explicit and fleeting, while still capturing those intersections of lives that paint a portrait of the characters as they were and as they have become.   

Come with Me – Ronald Malfi

The next two novels really deserve their own independent reviews. Unfortunately, it’s been so long since I read them, the specific details are hazy. The impact of each story, though, has remained. Come with Me might be my choice for the best novel I read in 2021. Its basic plot recalls King’s Bag of Bones and even Lisey’s Story without the overt supernatural overtones that pepper each of those works. Aaron Decker, who works as a translator of Japanese novels, loses his wife to an indiscriminate mall shooting (this central conceit of the novel is based on Malfi’s own similar experience of losing a close friend in a senseless workplace shooting). Decker is, understandably, overcome by grief but as he struggles to move forward with his life, he discovers among his deceased wife’s possessions evidence of a mysterious separate life she seemed to be living. Decker embarks on a journey of discovery as he follows the clues his wife has left behind. He attempts to resolve questions left unanswered with his wife’s untimely death. Malfi explores the raw grief of losing a loved one and the repercussions experienced in discovering that the beloved may not be exactly who she was always believed to be. The novel, written in second person, as if Decker is addressing his dead wife directly, reads as both a love letter encapsulating all she meant to him but tempered by his growing unease about who she was in reality as each clue along the journey takes Decker further away from the woman he thought he knew. Malfi’s writing is direct but powerful and emotive. And the end, though perhaps not satisfying for every reader, left this one near to tears in the wake of its poetic message of hopefulness and affirmation of true and enduring love.

Cunning Folk – Adam Nevill

Adam Nevill is one of my favorite contemporary horror novelists. His stories typically revolve around folk legends prominent in the places he sets his novels. In Cunning Folk, he takes that folk horror and pairs it with something we can all likely empathize with – neighborly conflicts. The protagonists of Cunning Folk have sacrificed their entire financial solvency toward a dream of being homeowners. The house they purchased, though a definite fixer-upper, just barely fell within what they could afford due to the fact the previous owner hanged himself while performing his own renovations. From the outset, it is clear the protagonists’ odd neighbors want nothing to do with the new family next door. Thus begins a series of escalating affronts that quickly reveal to Tom, the husband and father to Fiona and Gracey, that his neighbors, the Moots, are not necessarily the neighbors one expects to encounter in a suburban neighborhood. The brilliance of Nevill’s novel is in its depiction of neighborly conflicts with which we might all be familiar and the discomfort felt by Tom and his family in trying to find tactful, diplomatic resolutions to these conflicts. But on top of these, it becomes apparent quite quickly that the Moots wield a special power – one that the new neighbors are not prepared to confront.  

The Sanitorium – Sarah Pearse

Sarah Pearse gives us a European sanitorium high in the Swiss Alps recently converted into a luxurious resort. The novel is another locked-room-type mystery but works more convincingly than Haughton’s The Dark. Detective Elin Warner is on administrative leave. She doesn’t really want to be at this resort celebrating the engagement of her estranged brother to her close friend, Laure. Elin has believed since childhood that her brother played some role in the death of their younger brother. Thus, he becomes her prime suspect when Laure disappears. When bodies begin to pile up, an attempt is made to evacuate the resort until an avalanche cuts off the escape of the few remaining guests. Guided in part by local law enforcement via radio (as she has no jurisdiction there) Elin sets out reluctantly to unravel the mystery at the heart of this imposing building and the murders being committed within (and without) its walls. It has a dark history Elin is not meant to uncover, at all costs.

Pearse gives us lively prose and some truly lasting imagery – I can still see the killer concealed behind a gas mask described like something H.R. Giger might have dreamed up. The Sanatorium is a satisfying mystery thriller with unmet aspirations of evoking older, similar gothic-style tales. It’s an enjoyable read, but one that probably won’t stay with you for long.

The 4MK Series – J.D. Barker

Barker has crafted an engaging trilogy (I’ve only read the first two books, at this point) reminiscent of David Fincher’s Se7en in the depiction of a seemingly deranged serial killer who delivers to the families of his victims the ears, eyes, and tongues of their loved ones before the final dispatching of his chosen targets. Sam Porter has hunted the Four Monkey Killer for more than five years. The killer is thus named for his (or her) particular modus operandi mirroring the three wise monkeys who embody the proverbial principle to “hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil.” However, there is a fourth monkey that cautions to “do no evil.” So, 4MK’s ritualized abductions always end in the death (and display) of his victims.

At the beginning of the first book of the trilogy, 4MK is struck dead by a bus while crossing the street to deliver to police via mail the first “gift” announcing he has taken a new victim.

Each of the first two novels jump from the characters investigating 4MK to passages from the diary found on 4MK’s body that seems to tell the story of his eventual evolution into a serial killer. It doesn’t take long before Porter and his colleagues discover they are pawns in a larger game, the rules of which are concealed from them and may stretch back to the early days captured in the diary before 4MK came truly to life.

Barker’s characterizations are sharp. He breathes real life into these investigators who seem to be dancing like marionettes on strings somehow manipulated by 4MK. Porter is a conflicted character, having chased unsuccessfully 4MK for five years and then experiencing the death of his wife to cancer, which completely derails him. He is brought back to the 4MK case prematurely after the bus accident. He is the expert on this killer. But he is also somewhat overconfident in his knowledge to the point of being blinded to the larger game at play. So far, a shorthand I have developed for this series describes the first novel to be like Star Wars in that it is its own self-contained story. The second novel, The Fifth to Die, ups the stakes and broadens the story to a merciless cliffhanger. It is The Empire Strikes Back, so far, of the three. My hope is that the final book does not fall to the level of Return of the Jedi in the depth of its story and its telling.

Barker has a number of books under his belt. I definitely plan to explore more of his bibliography.

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