4 fearsome novels that resurrect monsters, ghosts and the spirit of classic horror
By Naben Ruthnum
Undertow Publications, 94 pages, $12.99
Naben Ruthnum’s “Helpmeet” is that rare book so utterly of itself that a plot description feels like an external imposition that threatens to dull its rare effects. And yet “Helpmeet” is no hothouse flower in need of protection. There is enough revolting body-horror imagery here to satisfy a David Cronenberg fanatic, while the style and tone owe more to the old masters of the weird tale, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lovecraft, M.R. James, etc. “Helpmeet” is also, in the end, a moving testament to the underappreciated power of marital duty, of love that endures indescribable sickness and ill health. Just read the damn thing.
The Children on the Hill
By Jennifer McMahon
Simon and Schuster, 340 pages, $24.99
Like many horror fans, I’m a sucker for a modern take on a genre classic — so long as the homage is inventive enough to withstand comparison to the original. In “The Children on the Hill,” veteran suspense-horror novelist Jennifer McMahon resurrects the great-grandmother of the modern horror novel, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Violet and Eric are orphaned siblings under the loving care of their grandmother, a brilliant psychiatrist who runs a secluded home for the mentally ill in Vermont. The children’s idyllic childhood begins to unravel when their grandmother asks them to help foster an amnesiac orphan who recently arrived at the clinic. McMahon adroitly maps out several intersecting narratives that culminate in a surprising twist while expanding upon Mary Shelley’s critique of scientific materialism and the perils of playing God.
What Moves the Dead
By T. Kingfisher
Tor Nightfire, 120 pages, $26.99
T. Kingfisher, one of the most consistently innovative voices in horror writing today, has also delivered an homage to a horror classic, this time Poe’s expressionist masterpiece, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Kingfisher wisely avoids an imitation of Poe’s icily ornate prose style and compressed, serpentine narrative technique for a more expansive exploration of the doomed Usher family of the title. A retired officer arrives at the collapsing Gothic manor of his childhood friends, only to find the Usher siblings in a decrepit mental state teetering on the abyss of insanity. The manor grounds are rife with rare poisonous mushrooms and monstrous wildlife, while a small lake on the property seems to be expanding at an unnatural rate. Kingfisher gives her fecund imagination and wit full reign over the story, turning Poe’s original inside out while remaining true to the Master’s mad spirit.
By Ronald Malfi
Titan Books, 440 pages, $21.95
Three estranged friends are summoned home when an evil, possibly supernatural killer they encountered in childhood returns to haunt their hometown. If the plot line — a staple of the horror genre since the 1980s — sounds familiar, author Ronald Malfi intends it. In “Black Mouth,” he channels the nostalgia- and menace-laced summer doorstoppers popularized by Stephen King and throws in some vintage Ray Bradbury to mostly good effect. The contemporary scenes are handled well, as Malfi deftly captures the cynicism and disappointments of his 30-something protagonists, but he is too beholden to the world-weary, smartass narrative voice to fully enter the vulnerable minds of his child characters in the flashback scenes. Luckily, the novel’s human monster captures the allure and seediness of the old-school carnival and bristles with genuine menace.
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