Tag Archives: Horror Fiction

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

This is my ultimate favorite read for the entirety of 2021. And a lot of great books debuted in 2021.

The Final Girl Support Group explores a world in which the events in our most famous slasher films really took place before being optioned for media production. The survivors of several bloody massacres – the titular “final girls”, per the movie trope of one lone girl surviving a horror story – are left to find their way in a world where everyone knows what they lived through, and though many consider them a strange kind of celebrity, others would just as soon see their killers finish them off. Some of these girls, now women, have managed to capitalize on their fame and dictate the terms of their own lives years after the slaughters they all lived through, owning their strength. Others are barely hanging on, destructive coping mechanisms and constant fear haunting their every step.

Lynnette Tarkington is in the latter group. She lives like a ghost, as off-the-grid as possible, her apartment transformed into a panic room and with only two personal attachments: her houseplant Fine – short for “Final Plant” – and a ragtag therapy group made up of other final girls and the psychiatrist who assembled them all, Dr. Carol. The members are fierce and bitter survivors as likely to devolve into low-blow verbal warfare as to help each other actually heal. They’re in no shape to band together when the heart of their group, Adrienne King, is suddenly found murdered. Like falling dominos, outside threats in the form of leaked secrets, misinformation, and physical attacks begin to target each member of the group at once, stalking and isolating them. Lynnette finds herself fighting to survive once more as she is left to untangle the web of a psychotic mastermind, with few resources and fading credibility in the eyes of the public and the other final girls. Every contingency plan she’s made may not be enough to save her from a bloody fate this time.

Grady Hendrix’s stories are unique, twisted, highly energetic works anchored by characters who have what two-dimensional horror flick protagonists typically lack: emotional depth that grips the reader and renders them unable to put down the books and abandon the characters, because the only thing scarier than what’s stalking them in the dark is the thought of not knowing how it all ends. Within a week of finishing this book I was lucky enough to get my hands on and finish all of his other novels, and I’m now a diehard fan. I don’t normally go in for horror novels and can’t watch scary movies at all, but the premise of The Final Girl Support Group was just self-aware and campy enough that it seriously intrigued me. I won’t lie, there were moments and a handful of scenes throughout that I did find disturbing and scary (so horror-intolerants, beware…) because Hendrix is very good at his genre. But in the end the plot had the addictive elements of a fast-paced thriller and hooked me so hard I had to see it through. In my opinion sleeping with the hallway lights on for a couple of nights was more than worth an incredible story.

I knew that if Hendrix was really faithful to major horror tropes, certain character archetypes nodded to in the story (the single Black character in a group, the one gay character, the prima donna, the jock, the junkie, etc.) were likely doomed to meet a bad and/or gratuitous end, and to some extent he does play off some of those clichés. But he also uses each character’s varied circumstances to explore different themes about death so that for the characters who are killed, it’s the start of their conversation in several ways, not the end, because he puts in the work to flesh out each and every one far beyond the two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs slasher flicks often reduce characters to. When someone dies, in what ways do they live on? Is the strength of one’s legacy enough to triumph over death from beyond the grave? Which is preferable, a sudden, violent death or a slow and wasting one at the natural end of a life, and is there really a difference in the level of horror each invokes?

I wouldn’t host one book discussion group about this novel: I’d have to host a series of them to have enough time to discuss the nuances Hendrix gets down to his elbows in, even places where he could just as easily have left details unexplored or played them off as a gimmick. But this author is an artist when it comes to literary examination of the human experience: it would be obvious in any genre he chose as his canvas, but in my opinion we’re lucky he happens to prefer such a clever and fun one.

Speaking of which, and without revealing any spoilers, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite character in the entire thing, Dani. It’s rare as a queer reader that I encounter portrayals of butch women at all, let alone one that grabbed my heart like Dani, a member of the group who survived a Friday the 13th-style gauntlet of attacks and is just as much, if not more, of a badass as Lynnette. Lynnette mentions in her analysis of Dani that she already knew she was a lesbian when she experienced her attacks, and in a world that often judges LGBTQIA+ kids as inherently sexual and therefore no longer an innocent child, within a genre where only “innocent” girls who follow the rules and remain “pure” in contrast to their peers’ social behaviors tend to survive to the end of the story, I appreciated that little slice of acknowledgement of queer teens’ worth. The novel doesn’t spare Dani’s trauma: it explores every character’s nuances as their pasts are dug up and used to torment them one by one. But it also gives us a glimpse into this fascinating queer character who we see secondhand through Lynnette as a protector of her friends, a relentless warrior, and a clever and wise soul who loves so hard it nearly consumes her. I’ll be honest, I definitely have a crush on this character.

In my opinion, Lynnette is the perfect narrator for this kind of emotionally driven story – if any of the other “final girls” had been the focus, it would have been a very different story of a few days’ events, likely with a radically different conclusion. Lynnette’s decisions are all informed by fear, and from a first-person POV a reader can’t help but get excited and anxious along with her (which may make this book off-putting to readers who don’t like to get sucked into emotion that intense). Lynnette’s adrenaline is always kicked into high gear, focused on survival at every moment. She feels everything acutely, not just panic and suspicion but affection that borders on codependency; grief that almost swallows her up in despair; curiosity that nearly – literally – kills; and anger that powers her through moments where others might succumb.

The same excessive survival instincts that protect Lynnette also blind her in certain ways: readers may pick up on several details she misses, who she should or shouldn’t trust and even whether she’s chasing red herrings at times. Lynnette is incapable of pausing to examine situations without some level of bias (possibly a nod from the author to ways in which it’s been proven that PTSD, intense anxiety and other stressors can impact one’s brain over lengthy periods of time.) It personally pulled me into the mental space of watching a slasher movie, yelling at the characters on the screen (as if they can hear you) not to go into a dark basement, or to watch out behind them for a hidden killer, which in context of this genre was artfully done.

A breakout star in horror, Hendrix has already had several of his most popular works optioned for television with star-studded production teams. I was thrilled to learn that Charlize Theron will be an executive producer on The Final Girl Support Group TV series, since her portfolio of roles featuring battle-hardened women who have lived through various traumas and bashed their way out the other side had me picturing her as Lynnette in my mind throughout the book. Theron will bring a valuable perspective to the project and help it to fully realize its potential, having been inside the minds of multiple characters who could be profiled alongside this book’s blood-soaked heroines. I highly recommend plowing through as many of Hendrix’s novels as possible before the TV content starts dropping, because it’s all going to be extremely worth it to skip the library waiting list when every horror-tolerant person you know starts devouring this and Hendrix’s other works. I personally am glad to have found this powerful book now, both for the experience of a deeply impactful story…and so that when I sit down to watch the series through my fingers, I know exactly where to close my eyes.

The Final Girl Support Group falls in a niche where not every horror fan may find it terrifying enough to suit them and not every reader of tongue-in-cheek genre parody will find it cerebral or humorous enough. I’m personally unfamiliar with many other works that bring emotion and wit to horror the way this one does, except Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw – another clever, self-aware horror novel from this past summer – and of course Grady Hendrix’s other works. I would certainly recommend The Final Girl Support Group to fans of Charlize Theron films like The Old Guard and Mad Max: Fury Road where warrior women have marked character growth and autonomy amid a backdrop of over the top action and violence. If you enjoyed shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and aren’t put off by slasher movie-level gore, or films such as the Alien franchise (but with the ability to laugh at their own genre), I highly recommend making this your first 2022 read.

– Review by SarahMain Library

Seed by Ania Ahlborn

As we approach “spooky season” I start to crave a good horror novel…one that I can read on the couch in the middle of the day with all the windows wide open and the sun shining, of course. It’s not my usual fare but a coworker recommended Seed to me, Anita Ahlborn’s debut novel set in rural Louisiana, and I was intrigued and in the mood for something supernatural and sinister. I got exactly what I wished for.

Jack Winters has been carrying the burden of something evil and hungry all his life – he’s even gotten the snarling grin that chases him tattooed onto his back – but despite years of silence and his attempts to build a life with his wife Aimee and their two daughters, despite rebuilding his terrified psyche from what he saw as a child and struggling financially in the present to make ends meet for his small family, he’s about to learn he hasn’t outrun anything. On a dark highway traveling home the Winters family experiences a freak accident that brings Jack face to face with his monster…and this time his youngest daughter, Charlie, sees it too. And Charlie begins to change almost immediately, following the Young Child in a Horror Story playbook: her health suffers, she starts acting out, she suddenly knows things she shouldn’t and starts sowing discord, and then violence. Aimee knows something is wrong, but not to what extent, as her youngest starts to stalk the household. And Jack is torn between finally telling Aimee everything about his past and losing her and the girls forever, and realizing that by the time it becomes vital, it’s too late…that it was always too late. Because while Jack remembers the demon that haunts him there’s a lot of details about his flight from his own childhood home that he doesn’t remember, and he is forced to start searching for the truth about his family, his parents and a single, similar escalation of terror they all experienced before in order to have a chance at saving Charlie in the present.

I really liked the Winters family and felt terribly for them, even if you logically know that it’s not always wise to get attached to the characters in horror stories.* Jack worked a tough, physical job for the family he adored and played in a band with his buddies on the side, and he genuinely reminded me of some of the boys that lived in my grandparents’ holler growing up, a little wild and extremely into metal bands and WWE but you knew they were good-hearted. I don’t see a lot of people like that reflected in literature, and I loved it, even if in this case they were being seriously terrorized. We experience some of the more terrifying scenes from Aimee’s perspective while alone with the kids, and I really felt for her as well: in addition to being terrified for/terrorized by her own daughters, we the readers know Jack had been trying hard to conceal his past from her, and so it was obvious to us that she was in no way equipped to deal with Charlie’s sudden, dramatic possession. Ahlborn peppers the book with creepiness, sliding brief scenes and horrifying lines from Charlie into the constant narrative of Jack’s mounting dread, and they’re effective. Her progression from normal little girl to a vessel for unspeakable evil is gradual, until the plot crashes into us – and the Winters family – and you realize along with all of them that there will be no return to innocence.

I’ve read reviews of this book after the fact where readers have surmised that it contains a major theme of how family violence gets passed down in families for one generation after another. As far as I can tell the events of the story happen over the course of a couple of weeks – I found myself assuming Jack had so much more time to figure out how to save his family, right up until the climax of the novel suddenly crashed down on him and us. Additionally, one of the factors that makes the possession and sundering of this family so painful to read is because Jack clearly loved his children, and treated them well, and he and Aimee loved each other and were fighting desperately to hold their family together. There wasn’t a history of violence in Jack’s family as far as we can see and even if there had been, experiencing familial abuse as a child isn’t a guarantee that a person will grow up to be abusive.

So in my opinion, this isn’t a story about the enduring nature of family violence. It’s simply a story about the Devil playing a game wherein he wagers that a parent will murder their possessed child to protect themselves, because even when he loses he wins, and he’s been winning like that for a very long time. And now it’s Jack’s turn to play.

I’d recommend this book to horror fans who appreciate a Southern Gothic set dressing, creepy kids and the slow reveal of a thriller, with a moderate amount of gore and a side of existential dread. As it turns out however, Ania Ahlborn is one of the more prolific horror authors in recent history, and the plots of her books run the gamut of horror tropes from cannibalistic hillbillies to haunted houses to unseen monsters lurking in the woods, so if you’re a horror fan who hasn’t yet heard of Ahlborn, it looks like she writes a little something for everybody…as it were.

*As a side note, I try to flag reviews of books I read where animals experience violence, because that can be a major trigger for a lot of folks. It feels silly in a book where so much haunting and harm comes to humans, including kids, which would theoretically take precedence over animals in a lot of our sympathies, but just in case I’ll put it here anyway: be aware, a dog is hurt during the course of this story.

– Review by SarahMain Library

A Tale of Typhoid Mary

hellgate2Step back in time to the early 20th century when typhoid fever ran rampant through the streets of one of the most populous cities in America, New York City.  Mary Mallon had come to America as a fourteen year old girl from Ireland with hopes of finding a position as a housekeeper. It took a bit of doing but Mary worked hard and it wouldn’t be too many years before she became an accomplished cook, much sought after by well to do families. She was content, this move had been a good one.

But what Mary didn’t know was that she would shortly become infamous for something more than cooking. Mary was a carrier of the deadly disease typhoid. Without knowing it she would pass the disease on to others, children and adults alike, some whom would never recover. She would be hunted down, separated from friends, stopped from doing the only job she for which she was equipped and given a name that would follow her the rest of her life. Mary Mallon was Typhoid Mary.

After the authorities, finally caught up with Mary they imprisoned her on North Brother Island. Hell Gate was a place of indescribable misery and horror for the sick, the dying and the condemned. Where, Mary would live her final days in denial of the charges against her.

Now travel to the present and meet Karalee Soper, granddaughter of George A. Soper.  Soper was Mary’s accuser and jailer, the man who consigned Mary to her life sentence on Hell Gate.  Karalee along with a group of friends, known as the Sewer Rats, were studying public health. Seeking a bit of fun, they set sail on a short boat trip searching out abandoned building taking pictures and exploring wreckage. Hell Gate Island had once housed a tuberculosis hospital, now all that is left is ruins and building covered in vines and trees.

Shortly after their arrival, they discover the boat they used to land on the island was severely damaged, soon to sink into the murky depths a.  Now stuck on the island with few food rations, the clothes on their back, Karalee’s new Nikon 35mm camera, and few other tools. Not wanting to be marooned on this eerie island with its over grown dilapidated ruins, they went in search of a means to get back home. Gilligan’s Island it ain’t!staircase

As the night closed in with no way off the island, Karalee sees what appears to be an apparition coming toward them.  As the figure gets closer Karalee realizes it isn’t a specter but a real live, living, breathing person. But, who is it? Surely Mary Mallon was dead after all these years and who could live among the ruins with its smell of death and decay.

Step on to Hell Gate Island and into a tale of horror with enough twists and turns to keep the reader jumping at every little sound, as one by one the Sewer Rats begin disappearing. Will anyone survive The Prisoner of Hell Gate?

This is Dana I. Wolff’s debut novel.

Formats Available: Book

Reviewed by MicahShawnee Branch

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Towards the end of 2015, I discovered the various forms of reading challenges on the Internet from social media sites such as GoodReads to reader’s advisory websites such as NoveList and Book Riot.  For 2016, I along with other library colleagues decided to hold the 2016 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge.  The purpose of the reading challenge is simple, select a book based off one of the category selection and continue reading until all the categories are occupied by a book.

Fortunately, thanks to Book Riot, there is a clause at the bottom of the challenge saying if the reader finds a book that fits one or more categories listed, it can be counted, or simply you can double dip and sometimes even quadruple dip if you are fortunate enough to find the best selection.

ReadHarderChallenge2016_checklist-1

As I perused the list, the first category is Read a Horror Book.  Not having read much horror, I did not have a clue where to start looking but popular authors like the famous Stephen King and Shirley Jackson caught my attention.  However, I visited a site by a library worker (who goes by the nom de plume Calliope Woods) and determined to read their suggestive horror selection, A Headful of Ghosts.  Thus, I would like to feature Calliope Woods’s review on this selection.

If you are interested in reading this piece, you can follow this link to reserve it or visit the author’s website for more information.

Enjoy and Happy Reading!  — MicahShawnee Branch

A Head Full of Ghosts by Calliope Woods, post on 9/24/2015

Web address: http://www.calliopewoods.com/blog/a-head-full-of-ghosts

Everyone can agree that Merry’s sister Marjorie was very disturbed, but was she suffering from schizophrenia, possessed by demons, faking for the eventual attention that her family received, or some mixture of all three?

A Head Full of Ghosts is a story told fifteen years after the events occured, by the younger sister of the girl who was deemed possessed by a priest, the man who subsequently invited a film crew into their home and lives. ​

The distance from the action is exacerbated by Merry’s online blogger persona, analyzing the reality show that starred her family purely as a work of fiction.

It’s not surprising that this book is most commonly compared to House of Leaves, which uses a simlar technique of an academic analysis of a movie to reveal what most consider the main story of the convuluted book. While I do enjoy the mixed-media, twisty-turny approach of House of Leaves, there’s something to be said about the simplicity of Tremblay’s novel when you compare the two. ​Picture

Even though the novel is written through two frames, Merry telling her (sister’s) story to a bestselling novelist intending to write a book from Merry’s perspective, and the literary analysis of Merry’s hyperactive online alter-ego, we’re really only getting the one (admittedly dissociative) narration from Merry.

The framing of the story is what really attracted me to this book. Another book about the possession of a teenage girl by demons? Meh. A book about the writing of a book about the younger sister’s perspective on the reality show that covered her sister’s supposed possession? Sign me up.

This was a fast read; I finished it in a day, but it was an extremely satisfying page turner of a novel. I found it on a list of books that supposedly scared Stephen King, and though I can’t say this book really scared me, I’m not going to say I’m braver than the master of horror– I’m assuming he has an addiction to horror that leaves him as dead inside as I am and simply gave this list as books that gave him a good fix, which A Head Full of Ghosts certainly is.

The Diviners by Libba Bray

thedivinersJust finished The Diviners today and it is definitely a compelling story set in an interesting time period – the Roaring Twenties.  And it is about fascinating (though occasionally disgusting) paranormal events. But I hate to say it, the book just isn’t as good as it should be.

The Diviners’ diminished impact stems primarily from stretches where the research was so good that Libba Bray couldn’t resist putting in all of her discoveries. The result is a novel which clocks in at almost 600 pages, a good number of which are non-essential to moving along an otherwise thrilling tale.

There are also odd descriptive elements – such as an anthropomorphic wind – that are convenient for linking scenes but do not really add much to the tale. Granted, it may be that the wind takes on a much more important role in the second book, Lair of Dreams, as varied dark forces rise across the land, but I doubt it.

Yet that’s not to say that this is a bad book, not at all.

In fact, the overall structure of the book is solid and the tale is a complete one but which also leaves room for further adventures of its ensemble cast. Further, Bray always delivers on witty dialogue and surprisingly complex emotional motivations for characters that would be flat and cookie-cutter in the hands of a lesser writer.

Take the emotional center, the vivacious Evie O’Neill, formerly of Zenith, Ohio, who has come to Manhattan to live with her Uncle Will. She is the quintessential teenager coming of age in the Jazz Age, all brashness and go, go, go attitude. Evie could have easily been a shell of a person, much as Daisy Buchanan was in The Great Gatsby, but ends up being much braver and tender-hearted than the flapper persona she works so hard at creating. Through her lens, this tale of ghosts and murders feels like an adventure closer to the action pulps of the day rather than a horror tale of the Lovecraftian persuasion it could have been.

lairofdreamsAlso, there is a good deal of mystery surrounding Evie’s Uncle Will and his connection to Sister Margaret Walker, industrialist Jake Marlowe, and con-man Sam Lloyd through a mysterious Project Daedalus. Just enough about the Project is leaked along the way by another character, Jericho Jones, so that one ends up naturally anticipating the unfolding backstory of these characters. Rarely does a series of this nature (horror bordering on paranormal fantasy) get a reader excited about the next installment unless the original plot is unfinished or there is a heavy romance angle left unresolved.

 

Bray also has a fun promotional website for this series at NOVL: http://thenovl.com/thedivinersseries