“Penpal” by Dathan Auerbach (2012)

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“When I was younger, I took a job at a deli that had what the owner called an ‘ice cream buffet’.”

I’ve never been involved in Reddit, and to be honest, I still only have a vague idea of how the website functions, but one aspect that has become well known to me is the area of it dedicated to creepy stories. Some of the best are their “two sentence horror stories”. If you’ve never encountered these, then you can find a selection here, but be warned that they’re pretty good at sending a shiver up the spine. I mention this because it turns out that Penpal was inspired by a horror story on Reddit that Dathan Auerbach converted into a full-length novel. And boy does it retain it’s creepy beginnings. Read on with caution.

Our nameless hero is trying to piece together some memories from his childhood. It all began with a school project that went awry. Every five-year-old in the class had to release a helium balloon into the sky with their name and the address of the school attached to begin a “pen pal” relationship with someone in their community. But as the days go on and he gets no reply, our hero wonders if anyone got it at all. Until one day a response comes, but it’s just a single, blurry Polaroid. Then another one arrives. And another. And almost fifty more. So many, in fact, that he stops looking at them. But then one day he decides to take a look again and notices something shocking.

He’s in all of them.

Revealing all to his mother, she sets about protecting him from a potential threat, but there are more memories coming forward now. He remembers waking up in the woods by his house with no memory of how he got there. He remembers his best friend Josh, and the unfortunate distance that grew between them. He remembers the kitten that used to hide in the crawlspace of their house. And he remembers the terrible accident. Finally confronting his mother about it all now he’s an adult, he learns more and soon the memories begin to make sense, but perhaps it would simply have been better to forget…

This book is utterly chilling. The fact that someone is out there taking photos of a small child – and then sending them to him, no less – is terrifying enough, but all the other things that happen just make it so much worse. It’s more polished and much longer than the usual horror stories like this that gather in the cracks online – and, to be fair, some of those are excellently written already – and Auerbach laces with incredible precision a sense of unease throughout. At times you can see where it’s going, but it doesn’t soften the blow, merely makes it worse when the inevitable finally happens. I can’t even get enraged that the children don’t sound like children, because I was so involved that it didn’t matter. It just works.

For anyone who likes horror or a good thriller, this is definitely one to read, but I don’t recommend reading this one at night or in a forest – and if you decide to read it in a forest at night, then I’ve no option but to have you committed. A brilliantly executed piece of tension.

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“Misery” by Stephen King (1987)

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“umber whunnnn”

While hardly the most uplifting novel on my shelf, I found myself drawn to Stephen King. Maybe the title reflected my mood this last week or so, and it certainly hasn’t helped change that. And yet I’m actually not really complaining, because I think even if I’d been the happiest man on the planet, Misery would’ve brought me down a peg or six. When he’s bad, he’s really bad, but when he’s good, there’s no arguing with the fact that King is one of the planet’s finest writers.

Paul Sheldon has been pulled from the wreckage of his car on a lonely, snow-covered mountain road by Annie Wilkes, a woman who lives in an isolated cabin and claims to be his number one fan. She is particularly fond of his Misery series, and the fifth instalment is released while Paul is under her care. However, when she discovers that Paul ended the book by killing Misery off, she’s not happy. In fact, she’s livid.

Paul, however, is reliant on her care, as his legs are broken and it’s clear she hasn’t told anyone else that he’s there. Annie comes up with a plan – Paul must save Misery from the grave and write Annie her very own novel. If he doesn’t, well, Annie will punish him. Soon, Paul learns the truth about Annie’s past, and he realises that he’s in a lot more danger than he first thought. He’s now writing to save his life…

The novel’s real genius comes from the fact that it manages to remain captivating despite having, for the most part, just two characters and a single room as the setting. While not an out-and-out horror, it’s horrifying enough and serves as one of the most interesting thrillers I’ve ever read. Even if you’ve seen the film and think you know what’s going to happen, it’s worth reading because from what I’ve picked up, there are some huge differences. Annie is a stunningly vile creation who appears to have no redeeming features whatsoever, and yet King still ensures you feel some kind of pity for her, or maybe that’s just me being a bit more sociopathic than is normal. Paul’s characterisation flips between him being quite weak and easily cowed, but also determined, and yet it still somehow works. His goal is self-preservation, and he goes about it however he can.

The novel is also in many ways a discussion on the art of writing. Someone wiser than me described it as the book King wrote to stop other people becoming writers, and you can see why. If I was famous to the degree of Paul, I’d definitely be looking over my shoulder for my “number one fans”. There is talk within of the use of deus ex machinas in storytelling, with it all being explained in interesting detail. It’s notable that King has said the book was based around his experiences with drug addiction, with Annie representing his addiction and Paul being himself, struggling with withdrawal and dependence. Many aspects of the novel can be seen as allegorical, such as Annie removed or destroying parts of Paul’s body being a metaphor for writers having to edit their work and cut away bits that they liked.

As I said, maybe this isn’t the right book to read when you’re already not feeling your perkiest, but it’s nonetheless a really good read. Claustrophobic and scary, despite the insanity of the action it somehow remains far too real and none of it actually feels too far fetched, which perhaps makes the whole concept even worse. A fascinating look at mental illness, addiction, and, perhaps oddly, the power that literature has over people. Possibly, despite everything else, I believe that Misery is a love letter to books and writers, although one written in blood on the back of an overdue utility bill.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Breakfast With The Borgias” by D. B. C. Pierre (2014)

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“Technology is the way, the truth and the life.”

I was probably attracted to this book by the title. Although I really don’t know very much about the Borgias, as a family dynasty I find them oddly magnetic, and most of that is due to their bloodthirsty reputation that has passed down through the centuries. A rotten lot; the father bribed his way to become Pope, his son was the real life version of Machiavelli’s Prince, and his daughter was famous as a poisoner. And yet they still all seem to be slightly more pleasant than the characters herein.

Zeva Neely is stood on a train platform in Amsterdam, waiting for the arrival of her teacher and lover, Ariel Panek. When he doesn’t show, and makes no attempt to get in touch with her to explain his lateness, she begins to worry, but has no choice but to make her way to the hotel. Ariel, meanwhile, is stuck in a taxi in Suffolk, on his way to a guesthouse. The fog has enveloped Britain so thickly that planes are all grounded and he’s going to have to spend the night in The Cliffs Hotel, the only place for miles around.

Once there, Ariel is still unable to get any phone signal and has to ask the other residents of the hotel whether he can borrow their phone. But the family present here, the Borders, are there to acknowledge a death in the family, and they make for a very odd bunch. Margot is confined to a wheelchair and has the air of a Hollywood starlet. Leonard is convinced that his plan to turn his pub into a working museum will be a success. Jack is glued to his game console. Olivia is young, beautiful and broken, but seems more sane than anyone else in the building.

But it’s only when Ariel meets Gretchen that he realises something is really wrong about this place. He has to get out, and fast.

Billed as a horror novel as part of the Hammer portfolio of novels to compete with the classic “Hammer horror” films, I’ve first got to say that the book lacks any real sense of what it’s clearly going for. I’ve tagged it appropriately to be kind, but while there are several words I could use to describe it – “creepy”, “claustrophobic”, “commonplace” – I’d never really consider this a horror novel. Actually, truth be told I hadn’t even realised it was until I got to the end.

The twists are signposted so much that when they arrive there’s not so much a sense of shock and release of tense build-up as a shrug which makes you go, “Yeah, obviously.” I wrote a short story myself a couple of years ago (not one that has ever troubled a publisher, mind) which had a weirdly similar premise, involving a man lost in the wilderness and finding himself in the only inhabited place for miles around. Although the endings were starkly different, it wouldn’t have taken much to have given either of these the other ending.

The trouble is that to make a book really ramp up the drama, you have to give a shit about the main characters and feel their jeopardy as you go. As it is, Ariel isn’t an especially engaging protagonist. The first chapter isn’t even from his point of view, and by the end of that I’d already decided I didn’t like him. He’s also partial to declaring what twists are happening, leaving the reader with no chance to work things out for themselves.

It’s an interesting idea, but executed poorly. Sinister environments, creepy characters but lacking any real tension.

“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1818)

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“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

“I’m reading Frankenstein at the moment,” I said over Thursday afternoon cocktails (because that’s the sort of life I have). My friend looked at me from over his Manhattan and said, “Boring, isn’t it?” I sighed. “Yes.”

“Thing is,” he explained. “You have to read it through the lens of Frankenstein’s own hubris. He is melodramatic and you’ve gotta go with that to make it tolerable.” Yes, not only is this history’s first science fiction novel, it’s also probably the first emo committed to paper. Frankenstein spends the vast majority of the book moping, hand-wringing, cursing the universe, sobbing and generally wallowing in despair, leading him to be rather an unpleasant and irritating hero.

Cultural osmosis is such that when people think of Frankenstein, and this includes myself, they tend to picture a spooky castle, a stormy night, the hunchbacked assistant Igor and the birth of the Creature. Turns out that this is entirely becuase of the films. The novel is a different beast altogether. There’s no Igor here, and Frankenstein certainly doesn’t appear to be living in a castle. He’s much younger than I anticipated too, having been not long out of university, not even completing his degree, so any title of “Doctor” is a misnomer too. The actual event of him reanimating the Creature feels almost “blink and you’ll miss it”. In fact, I’m loathe to say, I did. It was only when Frankenstein encounters his creation in the Alps later on that I realised his experiment had been a success. I had to go back and read the pages again and there, buried beneath more pages of crying scientist, is a short section where it’s noted that life was indeed created, but Frankenstein immediately freaked out and hid in his bedroom while the Creature fled.

The action is really three stories, each nested within one another. It opens with Captain Robert Walton sailing a ship to explore the North Pole. He is writing letters to his sister, and details that he and his men saw a large, humanoid figure piloting a dog sled across the ice. Not long after, they take on board the very ill Victor Frankenstein who then tells his story.

Frankenstein tells of his life and his scientific experiments. A lot of time his given over to his family life and history, so the science almost seems to become incidental to the story. His tale is interrupted in the middle when he meets the Creature again. The Creature then tells his story and explains that since he ran away he’s been living in a hovel next to a cottage of some poor people, learning to read and speak, and about the world, from their conversations. He demands of Frankenstein that he make him a wife to love, as he doesn’t want to be the one being in the world who is forbidden from having anyone to love.

The story then goes back to Frankenstein’s exploits and how he becomes haunted by the Creature and his plans to bring to life a bride for his creation. Eventually deciding that he doesn’t want to bring about anymore monsters, the Creature then begins to extract revenge and make his creator’s life a living hell. The story ends with Captain Walton writing to his sister again, telling her Frankenstein’s story.

The thing is, the bits that don’t involve Frankenstein are easily the best bits. The Creature has a wonderful way of speaking and is deeply insightful, but I have so many questions. How is it he has to learn about to read and write and speak all over again, when he was once living before? He knows nothing, which seems a bit bizarre to me, although given the whole nature of the novel, it seems odd to focus on something like that. Frankenstein himself isn’t a likeable man, I felt, and many academics have since claimed that he’s really just written to mock Lord Byron, who Shelley knew well. An overemotional drama queen who dropped out of education because he thought he knew better than everyone else, and hated when things didn’t go his way? Sounds about right.

I’m not sorry I read it, but my brief love affair with the classics has, possibly, come to a natural resting point again. It’s remarkable how little of the original novel has seeped into popular culture, but then I suppose that’s the power of film, and maybe this is one where, to get the real sense of drama and horror, it needs to be more visual.

Of course, in this case there is a version of Frankenstein that is definitely better than the book. Morecambe and Wise did it years ago with guest Ian Carmichael. The usual nonsense occurs, with Ian occasionally slipping into song, Eric convinced that he’s in a pantomime, and Ernie being the least terrifying incarnation of the monster ever. Take it away, boys:

“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

“American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

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american-psycho“Abandon all hope ye who enter here…”

So, first up, let’s just say that anyone who has come here to see a list of the crimes and depraved acts committed by Patrick Bateman in his book can stop reading now, as I’m not going to go into details about any of them. Partly because it would ruin the impact should you read this book, and partly because I don’t think I can bring myself to type the words. However, if you do plan on reading this book, I should let you know that I’m also going to spoil the crap out of this one and discuss a later plot point that I want to talk about. So, continue at your own risk.

This modern classic tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street businessman in his late twenties who on the surface has the perfect life – good friends, a pretty girlfriend, huge amounts of money, a luxury apartment, intelligence, wit and charm – but hides a much darker secret. He is a psychopathic monster who has killed many people in cold blood, subjecting them to the most grostesque tortures before they die. No one else seems to suspect this about him though, and even when he admits it over dinner to people, they don’t listen or don’t believe him.

When he kills a coworker, Paul Owen, he commandeers the man’s apartment to kill more people, mostly women, and slowly becomes more and more deranged, suffering from hallucinations, all the while trying to maintain his appearance as a decent, functional human being. The story is occasionally ambiguous, and appears sometimes more as a series of vignettes, and there is little in the way of a continuing plot.

OK, so where to begin? Bateman is a reprehensible character with apparently no redeeming features but, then again, so is everyone else. Surrounded by wealthy, yuppie friends, his social behaviour is normalised. Every introduction is filled with a complete list of what everyone is wearing and where it’s from, there are pages-long discussions on which fur looks the best, or which brand of bottled water is the nicest. It can come as no surprise to anyone that Bateman seems to worship Donald Trump and longs to be his friend. Brand names fill the pages, and everyone is so obsessed with themselves that no one really pays any attention to anyone else. (In one instance when he admits to a woman he’s into “murders and executions”, she asks if he finds it boring and that she has a friend in “mergers and acquisitions” too.) Frequently people are introduced with the wrong names and never corrected; no one seems to know what any of their friends or colleagues really look like. This is an entirely superficial world.

The acts that Bateman performs on his victims are … well, let’s just say I worry for the mental health of Bret Easton Ellis. As I said, I’m not going into any detail on the foul things he does, but broadly speaking we have torture, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, necrophilia and animal abuse. This is not a book for the faint of heart. You need a strong stomach to get through this stuff, and while I think I’m pretty robust when it comes to the abuses humans perform on one another, I found this a struggle. I’ve not been very happy for much of this week and while there are various reasons for that, this book has certainly done nothing to help matters.

So now to come to what I loathed. Quite late into the book, it becomes ambiguous when it seems that one of the people that Bateman killed is still alive, and merely living in London now. When Bateman goes to the apartment he’s been using that belonged to this man, he finds it tidy and for sale, with an estate agent inside who tells him to leave. This throws up a horrible question – did the murder actually take place? This then sends you spiralling down and down. If this one didn’t happen, did any of them? It would explain why Bateman never gets caught, or why none of his friends believe him. Are they all just the fantasies of a diseased mind? More than anything, I loathe a story that ends “it was all a dream” and while it’s not confirmed that that’s what happened here, it’s suggested. I feel cheated, frustrated and like I just wasted a week of my life on something that built itself up to false promise. I know that, logically, the whole thing is fictional, but if it’s to turn out that these are just the thoughts of a man who wouldn’t act on these desires, it feels like a waste of time. How dare a book subject me to imagining such horrors to then go, “Only joking. Actually, he just thought all this while sitting on his sofa.”

Should you read it? As mentioned above, have a strong stomach. It’s clever, sharp, bitingly satirical and totally scathing about the wealthy. It’s also interesting due to the overlap with his other books. All his stories take place in the same universe, which in some respects adds to the ambiguity, and here we get a scene where Bateman has dinner with his younger brother Sean, who is in turn the main character in The Rules of Attraction. Despite my own personal feelings about the novel’s “twist”, it’s an incredibly interesting read. You just need to be pretty secure and well-balanced to get through it, I think. Good luck.

“Crooked” by Austin Grossman (2015)

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crooked“The Oval Office always smelled of cigarette smoke, of medical disinfectant and a faint undercurrent of sage.”

Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock for the last year, emerging only to get snacks and read my blog (and if my assumption is incorrect, then thanks!) you will undoubtedly have noticed that the Americans are having an election next month. The options are the Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years up against the Second Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years. Evidently, it’s all been going swimmingly. I’ve always been a bit vacant about the specifics of American politics, but this time round we’re all having to pay a bit of attention. Last time there was a president this unpopular, well, that brings us on neatly to the book my searchlight* has fallen upon this week.

(* If you get this reference without looking it up, award yourself a hundred jelly beans.)

Richard Nixon is often considered the worst president the USA ever elected, and yet they still elected him twice. Now most famous for being President when we landed on the moon, the Watergate scandal, his missing tapes, being the only President to resign from office, his rubbery face and insistence that he was not a crook, he has become a cartoon character. In this novel, narrated by Tricky Dick himself, we discover the truth behind his political career; a truth that stretches back to the arrival of the first pilgrim settlers.

Because it turns out that there are bigger threats than communism on the other side of the Cold War. There are monsters, far older than the country they inhabit, and there are wizards, dark magic users, zombies, ghosts and things that Nixon couldn’t even have imagined. This is the story of how Richard Nixon worked as a spy for the Russians before he became President, why Eisenhower chose him as his running mate, and what really happened when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong got to the moon.

Crooked is hard to define with a through plot, as so much of what happens is very vague, but what does should be kept secret until read. It’s broadly a crossover between political satire and Lovecraftian horror, and the book is basically Nixon vs. Cthulhu, although that name is never explicitly given. Even when narrating, Nixon comes across as rather unpleasant. He is a man who will sacrifice everything and stop at nothing to achieve his goals, even if he doesn’t understand what he’s getting himself mixed up in along the way. His journey is littered with other historical figures – Eisenhower, JFK, Henry Kissinger, Alger Hiss – who show themselves to not necessarily be the people that history has left us believing they were. I particularly enjoyed Pat Nixon, Richard’s wife, who publicly stands by him throughout everything, while in private their relationship implodes.

The idea is a great one, and I always love the notion of hidden conspiracy theories, but I found the book rather slow going. It takes a long time to work itself up to anything, and then the references to what’s going on are somewhat oblique, which, true, adds to the chill and suspense of the novel, but I didn’t feel it paid off.

All I know is, that if even one iota of this hidden history turns out to be true, I’d rather have Hillary presiding over it than the other option, which is frankly more terrifying than the idea of Yog-Sothoth roaming the lower 48.

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